OpinionsNew Navy Ensign Triggers Debate On Tamil Naval Feats

New Navy Ensign Triggers Debate On Tamil Naval Feats



While Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur has taunted the (Opposition?) ‘silence' on the Indian Navy's new Ensign, which honours Chhatrapati Shivaji's naval prowess, he seems to be unaware of the social media discourse on Chola sea-power and also on the ‘misplaced' origins of Maritime Day, which should have been ‘rightfully' dedicated to nationalist Tamil Nadu leader, V O Chidambaram Pillai (1872-1936).

Unveiling the new Navy ensign last week alongside commissioning the nation's first indigenous aircraft-carrier INS Vikrant with 76 per cent local content, Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi pointed out how it bore the seal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, whom he said had laid the foundations of a modern navy.

Shivaji's navy gave his enemies sleepless nights, the prime minister said, and this was the reason why the British colonialists decided to break the back of Indian naval enterprise.

But now, the Indian Navy's new flag, the fifth since the nation became a Republic in 1950 and inspired by Shivaji, will fly proudly in the sky and on the seas, the prime minister declared.

Chhatrapati Shivaji laid great emphasis on sea-faring prowess in the 17th century, and the Indian Navy has already acknowledged this by naming a training establishment at Lonavla in Maharashtra INS Shivaji and a shore-based logistics and administrative hub of the Western Naval Command, Mumbai INS Angre after Kanhoji Angre, the Marathas' acclaimed naval commander.

The use of the octagonal design of Shivaji's seal on the new naval Ensign is a formal stamp on the umbilical ties of the Indian Navy with the navy of the Maratha empire, it is said.

According a document of the Indian Navy, ‘The navy under Shivaji was so strong that the Marathas could hold on against the British, Portuguese and Dutch. ‘Shivaji realised the importance of having a secure coastline and protecting the western Konkan coastline from the attacks of Siddis' fleet.'

Shivaji built ships at Kalyan, Bhivandi, and Goa, both for trade and for a fighting navy.

Shivaji ‘also built a number of sea forts and bases for repair, storage and shelter. Shivaji fought many lengthy battles with Siddis of Janjira on the coastline. The fleet grew to reportedly 160 to 700 merchantmen, support and fighting vessels. He started trading with foreigners on his own after possession of eight or nine ports in the Deccan,' the Indian Navy document states. While acknowledging Shivaji's naval contributions, questions are being raised about the inadequate acknowledgement of Chola sea-power in southern Tamil Nadu, which dates back by a few centuries.

This is particularly in the context of Modi's determination to re-tell Indian history as it was, as different from what the British colonial masters and Thomas Babington Macaulay's system had taught us. According to historians, Rajaraja Chola-I (947-1014 CE) and his son Rajendra Chola-I (997-1064 CE) had led naval expeditions to Sri Lanka, and from there to the Maldives, mainly to ‘teach the Sinhala rulers' a lesson for siding with their on-shore Pandya rivals.

Rajendra also sailed all the way up to South-East Asia, including Indonesia, then known as Sri Vijaya, mainly to protect what should now be termed as the larger Indian trade interests, when it came under threat over there. It also meant that Tamil traders had already established themselves in those parts, and needed political/military protection, as happened in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Idi Amin's Uganda and Fiji in the 20th century. But history, including the Chola inscriptions, are sketchy about the details, including the possible existence of a separate naval fleet for the Cholas. One assumption is that merchantmen were used to carry soldiers, cavalry and elephantry, along with supplies lasting years.

Given the nature of warfare in an era before gun-powder in these parts, the naval design would not have required much alternations from a commercial vessel, it is surmised.

The conclusion is that for the rulers could not have diverted all their commercial maritime assets for serving their navies and should have built more ships, which could carry men, war-trained animals and material in such large numbers/quantities and also withstand high tides and low storms.

Traders from the Tamil country had mastered the sea-winds so well that they sent down huge bundles of massive teak trunks into the seas in Burma, now Myanmar, and collect most, if not all of them, nearer home, off the south-central Tamil Nadu coast. This had continued, say, until about 150-200 years. This explains the admirable teak work in their sprawling houses, especially in the Chettinad region.

Yet, for all the Chola exploits in Sri Lanka, which Tamil Nadu historians have described as benevolent, Sinhala chronicles have dubbed them as ‘plunderers' and ‘looters', which is what warfare across the region was all about in those times.

The Sinhala perception of the successive Chola invasions that went up to the 13th century, and weakened through this period, has also shaped the contemporary thought-process, at the political, administrative and societal levels.

This perception remained when sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force in 1987, on the express request of then Sri Lankan president Junius Richard Jayawardene and as flowing from the India-Sri Lanka Accord he signed with then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi.

The perception had begun by seeing the Chola empire as a ‘south Indian empire' and extending it to contemporary times by giving it an all-India character, which was dated by a millennium.

Interestingly, the Sinhala chronicles also backdate early ‘Dravidian invasions' by another millennium, to 230 BCE, when the lesser-known Sena-Guttika brothers had invaded and ruled from Sinhala capitals for 22 years. These chronicles also speak of successive invasions by other Tamil Nadu rulers in the 5th and 6th century BCE, going all the way up to the 13th century, when ‘Hindu rulers' belonging to the Chola, Pallava and Pandya dynasties, ruled from Sinhala capitals, for a total of 170 years.

Needless to point out, they were all products of naval expeditions, big or small, long or short.

The Sinhala chroniclers have identified 17 ‘invasions' from India.

Qi Zhenhong, China's current envoy in Colombo, mentioned the figure in a recent statement, but stopped with reference to Sri Lanka's ‘northern neighbour' without
naming it.

Thankfully, Sinhala historians have not included Prince Vijaya (543-505 BCE), the acknowledged founder of the Sinhala race, as a Dravidian/Indian ‘invader', after he married Kuveni, a local.

Banished from Singapura in eastern India, Vijaya had fought his share of wars to establish himself in Sri Lanka.

Likewise, the Sinhala majority in Sri Lanka also celebrates the arrival of Buddhism, by son Mahinda (Mahendra, as known in India) and daughter Sangamitta or Sangamitra, children of Emperor Ashoka (273-232 BCE), and not condemn it as ‘religious and cultural invasion' from the north.

The people of Tamil Nadu do celebrate INS Vikrant and are elated over the possibility of the carrier being berthed at the private sector Kattupalli port, near Chennai, for a few years until a dock and buildings are constructed at the Eastern Naval Command headquarters at Visakhapatnam.

In the meantime, social media is all the same talking both about Chola naval power and also about the contributions of V O Chidambaram Pillai, popularly known as VOC, to the nation's colonial era maritime history.

Instituted in 1964, the National Maritime Day is celebrated on April 5, when the Scindias' steam ship SS Loyalty journeyed to the United Kingdom, in 1920, at the height of the British rule.

While it is true that Loyalty was the first Indian-owned vessel to go inter-continental, VOC's Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company, which was founded 14 years earlier in 1906, had travelled the Thoothukudi-Colombo route, a year later, in 1907.

The Swadeshi company aimed at challenging the monopoly of the British India Steam Navigation Company with two French ships SS Galia and SS Lavo, on the Thoothukudi-Colombo route.

The commercial viability of the route and also the popularity of the nationalist endeavour would be better understood when told that the Galia on its maiden voyage in 1907 took 1,300 passengers and carried 40,000 bags of cargo.

A prosperous and successful Thoothukdi lawyer, VOC acquired the Galia with funds coming mainly from a local zamindar, Pandithurai Thevar, and through public shares.

Other freedom-fighters like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghose helped him acquire his first ship.

The flags of those ships carried the nationalist slogan Vande Mataram.

The British colonial rulers would have none of it, both because the Swadeshi company became a competitor to theirs, and also because of the nationalist principles
that had caused it in the first place.

After troubling him in every which way, leading up to the forced liquidation of the Swadeshi Steam Ship Company in 1911, five years after it was floated with public share-holding, the British also had VOC hauled up for treason. Through the history of the Indian freedom movement, Chidambaram Pillai was the only one to be handed down a 40-year-long jail sentence, which thankfully he did not have to complete. Yet, while housed in Coimbatore prison, VOC was forced to take the place of one of the two bullocks to work a traditional oil-press (chekku in Tamil), to the accompaniment of constant whipping, supposedly to make him work faster.

Out from prison earlier than expected, Pillai and his wife managed to survive by his selling edible oil on head-loads in Triplicane, then Madras, before dying a sick and impoverished life.

As coincidence would have it, 21st century Tamils get to know about VOC and his contemporary freedom-fighters like Subramania Bharati and Subramania Siva,
from the 1961 Tamil film Kappalottia Thamizhan (Tamil Who Steered A Ship), starring thespian ‘Sivaji' Ganesan in the lead role.

The film gets to be shown on one or the other of the multiple Tamil television channels, coinciding mostly with Independence Day or Republic Day or both, though
not necessarily on his birth and death anniversaries.

If that is so for VOC and the Tamils' nationalist maritime history of the previous century, the Cholas are going to get their due, though not exactly about their maritime prowess per se, when the first of the two-part Ponniyin Selvan (Son of the Cauvery), on Rajaraja Chola, with a lot of imaginary characters and episodes from the convincing pen of ‘Kalki' Krishnamurthy.

Helmed by Mani Ratnam, the award-winning master of silver screen social dramas, as a pan-India movie later this month, Ponniyin Selvan is only the second on
the Chola emperor.

Sivaji Ganesan's Rajaraja Cholan (1973) was also about the dynasty, focussed on his statecraft and religiosity, including the construction of the massive temple in Thanjavur. There were only passing references to his naval escapades in Sri Lanka.

But then, in the social media era, pre-launch campaigns for Ponniyin Selvan have already triggered discourses on the history of the relevant period and also the greatness of the Chola military prowess and naval power.

The Indian Navy Ensign has added a new element to the discourse. rediff.com

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist
and author, is a Chennai-based policy
analyst and commentator.

The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.


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