The Apocalypse of Indian Ocean

At the end of the twelfth century, the Indian Ocean rim could be divided into two zones of civilizational influence. There was Islamic zone that ran from central Asia to Swahili coast, and an Indic zone that ran from eastern Afghanistan to southern Vietnam. Further east there was the Chinese civilizational zone that ran from the Gobi desert to the Pacific Ocean and included Japan, Korea, and northern Vietnam.

Although the exact borders of these zones shifted back and forth, it would have seemed to a casual observer of that time that a sort of equilibrium had been established. Unfortunately, this was about to unravel and all three civilizational would soon face a major shock. The source of their trouble was same – the steppes of Central Asia.

Invasion into India and Buddhism decline

Turkish Invaders from central Asia pushed out the Hindu Shahi rulers of Kabul and then began to make raids in India. Led by Mahmud of Ghazni, the Turks made as many as seventeen raids between AD 1000 and 1025 and destroyed and pillaged many of the prosperous cities and temple towns of northwestern India. By the year 1192 Muhammad Ghori established himself as Delhi Sultanate and opened up the rest of India to conquest. Over the next two centuries, the Turks lay waste ancient cities, temples and universities in one of the most bloody episodes in human history.

The common practice of Buddhism in India had been in steady decline. But it was still home to several institutions that attracted pilgrims and scholars from abroad. It now collapsed from the systematic destruction of these institutions. The Turks were unbelievably cruel towards Hindus and even fellow Muslims. But they seem to have reserved their worst for the Buddhists. One possible explanation for this is that they themselves had converted to Islam from Buddhism relatively recently. And felt that they had to prove a point.

Mongols Invasion

The Mongols led by Chengiz Khan attacked and devastated the Turkic homelands in Central Asia in 1220-22. They soon conquered Iran and went on to sack Baghdad in 1258. The region would be ruled by Chengiz Khan’s descendants for the next century. The Mongol rulers of Iran were Buddhists or Shamanists. Mongols were generally tolerant of different religions. Despite this, for a while, there was a genuine concern that Islam would not recover from this shock. Interestingly, till they converted to Islam towards the end of their rule.

Even as the Mongols were marching into the Middle-East, they were simultaneously making inroads into China. Chengiz Khan captured the Yanjing(modern Beijing) capital of the northern Jin Kingdom in 1215. However, the conquest of the southern Song Empire would be a long and bloody affair. And it would be completed by Chengiz’s grandson Kublai in 1276.

Impact on Maritime Trade

The reasons for the success of Turks in India are many. But, the systematic destruction of temples did not just hurt intellectual and cultural life but also had a long term paralyzing impact on finance and risk taking. In India, Temples acted as banks and their destruction meant that the Indian merchant networks suddenly lost their financial muscle. Thus, we see a distinct decline in the importance of seafaring Indian merchants in the Indian Ocean rim from this point. The Indian Merchant class became much more shore based while the space they vacated was steadily taken by Arabs & the Chinese.  IN other words, the Arabs & Chinese recovered faster from the Turko-Mongol shock.

In contrast, Indian Hindus imposed on themselves caste rules that discouraged the crossing of the seas. Why did a people with such a strong maritime tradition impose these restrictions on themselves? Was it a loss of civilizational self-confidence?

(The article is based on the book “The ocean of churn” by Sanjeev Sanyal.)

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