The Gujarati Merchants of the Deep Blue Sea

Like beads in a string… for a thousand years the Darialal (sea) has played a fundamental role in the history of Gujarat.

Gunvantrai Acharya

For us Gujaratis, the sea speaks many stories. The sea is the thread that ties us and our histories together. It is a disordered blur of tidal comings and goings. The waves that came upon our shores. The waves that took us with them to foreign lands. The sea is the pulsating heart of Gujarati commerce.

India’s extensive littoral splendour stretches 7,517 kms from the mouth of the Ganga to the Gulf of Kutch. Coastal Indians have for millennia looked to the sea to provide with them with their livelihood. From salt production, fishing, trade, shipping and even piracy–the sea has been Mother, Father, Grandmother and Grandfather–providing for generations upon generations of the inhabitants of Gujarat.

The inhabitants of coastal India, vis-a-vis their location, have always played a pivotal role in the larger currents of Indian ocean commerce. Over time, they were initiated into the tides of the monsoonal movement which tattooed itself into the collective memory of the people who found themselves buoyed onto its shores. Among all the major coastal zones of India, it is Gujarat that stands out for initiating and participating in an incredibly long history of international exchange.

When these flows and exchanges were interrupted by climate change and geopolitics, they were eventually reshaped by both Indian and foreign forces. Gujarat is blessed with numerous safe harbours, accessible ports and a rich hinterland. The northwestern state was central to the maritime exchange that involved not only goods, but also people and their ideas.

As merchants travelled across the waters of the Indian ocean by the very nature of their seasonal monsoon, they acquired habits and made friends in the ports where they dropped their anchor. This proximity was not always comfortable, but it did, over time, result in a sort of ‘shared intimacy’. People of different cultures and creeds learned to deal and you could even say ‘cope’ with one another, even if they did not always get along.

By allowing the tides to carry them to and fro, the Gujaratis of the deep blue sea emerged as longtime merchants for whom international trade was not just a central economic activity, but also the blood that flowed through their veins.

The Coastline of Singapore

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