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TRADITIONAL SEA AND SKY WISDOM OF INDIAN SEAMEN AND THEIR PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS
B. Arunachalam
from Ray, H.P. and Salles, J.
Tradition and Archaeology - Early Maritime Contacts in the Indian Ocean
New Delhi, Ajay Kumar Jain 1996


Abstract
A life-long association with the sea surroundings, and cumulatively inherited craft wisdom through generations have helped the Indian mariners to build and use a package of knowledge, skills and techniques of navigation in monsoon-dominated Indian Ocean. Zealously guarded within the community through oral transmission, those traditions cover a wide area of practical navigational utility: these include knowledge of the topography of the littoral seas and adjoining coasts, sea-circulation including tides, waves and currents, sea-life, sky and weather conditions in different parts of the year, cloud typology, wind, foul weather systems, navigational guide; star recognition in relation to their movement in skies, etc. Repeated empirical observations over time and space have generated methodologies of predictability of natural phenomena and their practical use in open sea-sailing.

The craft wisdom falls into different categories: information base for memory storage for future use; codified axiomatic truths and astrological prescriptions to be implicitly followed for safe steering and voyage: empirical thumb rules of measurement, and notional estimates of time, distance, direction and depths; and, simple ready reckoners of quick field calculations, such as adi kanakku, teppu kanakku, surya gathi preman. Progressively, over time, complex relations of navigational relevance were worked out to evolve concepts and working procedures for coastal and open sea location fix and dead reckoning. Arising out of the evolved empirical procedures, these traditions have led to a methodology of nautical charting, integrating time-distances, stellar azimuths, altitude of select stars including the Pole Star, coastal landmarks and select sea-details.

This paper presents a logical account of the navigational traditions of the Indian master-mariners of sailing crafts, and their practical field application. The field date were compiled during extensive field surveys and observation of living practices in different parts of Indian coasts and collection of written records in local seamen dialects. The paper draws illustrations and examples from many coastal sections.

Traditional navigation - an art
At present navigation is an instrument-guided technology, continuously fed with weather data, precise location fix and shore control; and is relatively free of voyage risks. In antiquity, however. navigation was an art, based on a cumulative package of craft-wisdom, rich sea-experience and a well cultivated sense of environmental perception and judgement.

The magnetic compass, the sextant, the station finder, the nautical chart and modern sounding techniques all came into use one after the other since late medieval times, together with improved versions of sails and central-, axial- and stem-rudders. But maritime navigation is much older and masted sailing ships made of timber plied the oceans, under the power of winds and currents, subject to the mercy of weather conditions. The safety of the voyage solely depended on the stability of the vessel in rough seas and foul weather and the sailor's cognitive perception of the sea environment. The keen observation and understanding of every mood of the sea - fair or foul - was thus an essential prerequisite for every seaman.

The sea inculcates in the seaman a unique terminology, comradeship and a secretiveness that is a sequel to professional rivalries. It is for this reason that written accounts of navigational traditions and skills are scarce to find.

The sources
The present paper is an attempt to pool together and present in a comprehensive manner the package of craft-knowledge and wisdom inherited and conserved as living practices and oral traditions among the tandels and maulims of country-craft. Primary data for this study is drawn from extensive fieldwork all along the Indian coasts and field observations, and discussions with elderly seamen.

A second vital source of information for this study is the compilation and processing of hand-written sailor's manuscripts in vernacular dialects and hybrid languages. Neither a diary nor a log book, much less a manual, these write-ups are actual living experiences, guidelines followed, observations noted and tips for safe voyages of literate, experienced maulims, tandels and nakhodas.

The information covered in these works is of a wide range including data concerning the family such as marriage, etc., house construction, business and trade, apart from navigational inputs such as boat construction and repairs, stellar azimuths and altitudes, ports of call and distances in between, sailing rhumbs, voyage routes and seasons, coastal and weather data, sea conditions and a host of other data. This information is rarely ever organised sequentially; the compilation is merely a collection of sets of ideas, data, prescriptions and calculations. The manuscript is almost a scrap workbook, but immensely valuable as a nautical treasure. A number of manuscripts in Gujarati-Kutchi and Malayalam, handwritten on hand-made paper and notebooks have been traced and scrutinized. Some of the manuscripts have been acquired by the National Museum, Delhi. Considerable data in these manuscripts are of a general nature and indicate possibly a common source of origin. These manuscripts mainly belong to the 17th to the early 20th centuries A.D. Some of them carry a date of copying from an earlier work in regional chronology.

Yet another source of corroboratory data input is the published and unpublished folk documents concerning navigation. These documents include Kappal pattu in Tamil and Malayalam, Kappal sastram, Marakala muhurtham, Salavathu pattu, Kulathurayyan kappal pattu in Tamil, and works like the Periplus in Tamil and Gujarathi, Nauka Nayan in Marathi. A large number of boat songs, ampa-paitu in different coastal dialects, also carry scraps and fragments of technical information concerning navigation. Folk songs, ballads and folk traditions provide fragmentary data of technical value.

The objective of this paper is to highlight how a host of apparently disconnected and diverse sea environment related information is synthesized by a traditional sailing vessel navigator to formulate a package of nautical wisdom of ground utility for steering a safe course through known and unknown seas. Born out of experience of sailing over generations this knowledge fails into different categories:
(a) Inputs of location-specific information that provide spot guidance to the navigator to avoid dangers, hurdles and risks on the one hand and to take advantage of specific local attributes of the sea, on the other.
(b) Navigationally useful general experiences and knowledge of ground truths: these have axiomatic validity and are safe to follow as an universal order. These prescribe voyage routes, seasons, normally expected route phenomena and weather. Some of them are held as so definite that they are codified as astrological prescriptions for implicit universal acceptance.
(c) Modes and techniques of measurement of sea and sky attributes; calculations based on them for obtaining derivative parameters like port and island positions, positions in open sea of a sailing vessel through deduced reckoning; and practically useful thumb rules and ready reckoner devices.

Measurement of traditional nautical parameters
The basic nautical parameters that need measurement to aid navigation include depth, time, distance and direction; and these include both units and devices. All the units of measurement of the above parameters are notional concepts derived from perception in the cognitive environment. The unit of depth is the distance between the extreme ends of horizontally stretched arms at shoulder height. Equivalent to a fathom, it is known by several terms such as wam, bam tan, etc., in the Indian seamens' dialects.

While in shallow waters, a bamboo or casuarina paddle pole is used as a measure - for example, the Kerala baunsa— the lead line like the mudat or bodad, knotted at specific intervals with distinct identity markers is used in waters of moderate depth.

Time estimates during the day are done with reference to the position of the sun in the skies. The moon is used as an indicator of time at night. The time of rising or setting of the moon in relation to the tithi (day reckoned from full/new moon), and the position of the moon in the skies are reasonably good indicators of time at night under clear skies. Seasoned seamen also use specific star positions in relation to the lunar month to evaluate time. More precise estimates of local time are worked cut in terms of an adi-kanakku, (i.e. shadow length of a vertical pole at deck level like the mizzen mast or stem- or stern-post) as used by the islanders of the Lakshadweep.

Distance cannot be physically measured at sea. It is a relative concept, judged as the normal sailing distance under fair sea and weather conditions during a single watch of three hours. The unit used is a versatile measure called a zam; eight zams constitute a day's sailing. The zam is the same as zama in Sanskrit, yamam in Tamil and dama in Maldivian Dhivehi. Originally used to indicate a unit of time that was a watch of three hours, it became a measure of the distance sailed in three hours. It has also come to be used in the seamen's parlance as a measure of an angular arc that is equal to one-eighth of an isba or viral. In practice, a zam is treated as equivalent to about 20 km. The zam is a common usage among sailors all over the coasts of the North Indian Ocean from Arabia in the west to Indonesia in the east.

Directions in the open sea are even more difficult to determine. Rough direction sectors are judged with reference to the apparent movement of the sun and moon in the skies, but the seamen were aware of the latitudinal shift in the position of the overhead noon sun, day to day in the annual surya gamana (apparent solar motion) between the two tropics. Star positions at the time of rise or setting are fixed for each star, though the time of rise or setting is delayed by four minutes every day. This knowledge was used practically by identifying and using specific sets of stars on the eastern or western horizon during their rising or setting, for recognizing particular direction components. These stellar azimuths or bearings from true north or south thus form the basis of recognition of the eight major cardinal directions or the 32 points of a nautical compass of true bearings. The stars used in the star compasses of Arabia, Persia and the coasts of India are mainly the same, but some are different. The stellar azimuths do not exactly correspond to the rhumbs that they are intended to indicate - they are merely indicative. Though the mariner's compass was known to the seamen of the Northern Indian Ocean since about the 14th century, its usage among Indian seamen is not clear.

Current, drift, tide and wave motions with reference to the direction of sailing of the boat are judged on the spot by throwing a moist ball of coal ash into the sea and observing its motion on the water surface. A lateral spread suggests a relatively calm sea, while flow patterns indicate the direction of flow. The speed of the boat is estimated with the help of a tappu palagai (a heavy wooden plank with metal rims, used as a float) and associated tappu kanakku, (a measuring technique for the float distance), a ready reckoner estimation of speed per hour. There exists a Lakshadweep Malayalam handwritten manuscript of about 80 pages, notebook size, which explains how a tappu palagai is designed and how the tappu kanakku is worked out. There also exists a Tamil work from Jaffna which explains the tappu calculations. It is believed that tappu is a corruption of the Tamil word, meaning float (mitappu).

The viral of the Coromandel, Malabar and Lakshadweep seamen, the isba of the Arab and Omani sailors and the anguli of Gujarati, Kutchi seafarers all refer to a finger unit used as a measure of the spherical arc in a linear manner. The finger unit, isba or viral is the same as anguli. Though it has come to be identified with the angula in later days, equal to an inch (2.54 cms), its correct length is three-fourths of an inch (1.9 cms). Star altitudes, azimuths and interstellar great circle arc lengths are all evaluated in such finger units. A relation between the length of a finger unit and the zam has also been derived. The finger unit is the length between the knuckles of the middle finger equal three-fourths of an inch (1.9 cms). Subunits of this finger unit correct to one-eighth fraction can be measured. One finger unit is equal to eight zam, or one zam is equal to a Great Circle arc of one-eighth of a finger unit. A closed fist is treated as 4 finger units and an open palm of 12. As a linear measure, 24 finger units constitute a cubit. The measurement of stellar parameters also forms the basis for the latitudinal fix of places, longitude departures and deduced dead reckoning. Star altitudes, azimuths and interstellar arc distances are measured in finger units. Traditional latitude measurements are done in finger units of Pole Star altitude or equivalent altitude of other stars like those of Great Bear and Little Bear constellations. It is known as the Kau kanakku in Lakshadweep and Malabar, viral eanakku in Tamilnadu and dhru values in Gujarat.

The kamal or ra-p-palagai was devised as an efficient hand tool designed in different prototype forms in different sections of the coasts and islands of the northern Indian Ocean to measure finger distances of stellar parameters (Prinsep, 1836; Tibbetts, 1971; Fatimi in this volume). Such a hand tool in all probability was preceded by an elementary thumb-rule like the use of a closed fist held horizontally at an arm's length. Even at present Coromandel boatmen in the neighbourhood of Cuddalore and Pondicherry make use of such vertically held closed fist units of pidi, kol, thambu (or kayiru) to estimate vertical altitudes of 22 and a half, 45 and 67 and a half degrees; four pidis at a time indicating overhead position.

Nautical wind compass
Sailing without a rudder makes a boat totally dependent on wind and current; the rudder helps in tacking and turning, but not free of the wind. This reliance on the wind makes the seamen develop a strong sense of feel, character and behaviour of the wind, and thus a wind lore of practical value. To the navigator the wind and direction mean the same, and meaningful mnemonics indicate the intimate association between wind, weather, direction and area pointers.

regional octagonal windroses used by seamen from coastal India
Fig. 1
Regional octagonal wind-roses used by seamen. Coastal locations of usage are shown in the map in the centre in respective numbers. No. 15 refers to the Arab coast.


An octagonal wind rose and related compass card making use of the eight principal directions is in use among the seafarers in every coast of the country. Fig. 1 is a synthesis on an area frame of the regionally prevalent wind compasses as compiled from field enquiries. The scrutiny of the figure brings out with the following salient aspects:
(a) conventional names used on land for directions are generally not in vogue in maritime traditions.
(b) A distinct association is noted between prevalent/dominant wind from specific directions and weather as for example varsha katru (rain-bearing wind) as known in Malabar and Lakshadweep for the strong monsoon wind from the southwest, the kondal (meaning cloud) in Tamil Nadu for the cloud bearing easterlies, the cyclonic toofan surya varo (the east wind bringing storms) of Kutch, the seethagalli (cold wind) of Orissa and Andhra.
(c) In the insular realm of Lakshadweep, winds are named after the rising and setting azimuths of specific horizon stars, as for example the sothi katru after the rising Swati or Arctrus, the Arab katru after the setting Arab or Antares, etc.
(d) Some winds are named as area pointers, especially when such areas are intimately associated with intense maritime trade relations, as for example the easterly ela-katru (Ceylon wind) of southern Tamil Nadu, the northwesterly Poysachi vara (Persian wind) of Konkan, the kona (corner) winds of Kathiawad-Kutch, and,
(5) a seasonal and weather association of wind and direction is also recognized. Every wind in Kutchi has a characteristic weather association: as for example toofan varo, samdaal varo, khos varo, etc. The karai katru and pura katru in the Kerala and Coromandel coasts refer to land and sea breezes from opposing directions.

R..N. Mehta (1979) has worked out a 32 point wind compass which can be enhanced to a 54 point compass with the introduction of a nani zani midway between each of the 32 points - based on oral testimony drawn from the seafaring Kharwas of Mandvi (fig. 2 a). A similar interesting Arabi-Tamil 32 point wind compass in use has been traced by the author among the Marakkayars of Kilaarai, Devipattinam, Porto Novo and even Kollam (Quilon) - fig. 2b. Abdul Ghani of Porto Novo and Podikannu master of Quilon explained to the author this 32 point wind compass. It is a ready to use station, pointer on field.

regional 32 point wind compasses used by Gujarati seamen and Tamil moslem Kilakarai fishermen


From a sailing point of view, the boatmen recognise a thondaichi vara or headwind and a patachivara or amaran katru, a tail wind; this feel of the wind in relation to the direction of boat motion aids in moving the lateen sails from one end of the boat to the other to change the direction of sailing.

Knowledge of the waves and the sea
Though Indian sailors have not developed as acute a sense of the feel of the waves as the Pacific islanders do (Lewis, 1975: 72-80), they can distinguish between the regular symmetrical slow lap of the swell waves of the open sea coming steadily from one direction, and the change in the direction of the swell due to refraction of the waves preceding the approach of land, including an island and a shallow shoal or reef even before it is sighted, and the irregular and rising high waves accompanying a gale or a cyclone. A light wind combined with a strong current produces a short swell contrary to the current, and this is well recognized. The approach of the littoral and shallow waters is recognized by the rising breakers and surf zone.

The Konkan seamen talk of a sat-var, i.e. every seventh wave that rises to greater heights than the preceding and succeeding ones. The Malabar seamen distinguish different narrow linear stretches of the sea as successive belts from the shore, dependent on depth and nature of the waves: the kara-kadal, close to the shore, up to three maar depth, the breaker zone; the ada-kadal up to eight maar depth, the surf zone; the padi-kadal, up to twelve maar depth; the vayya-kadal up to thirty maar depth ; and pura-kadal or the outer sea beyond sixteen maar or fathom.

The breakers of the kara-kadal are dangerous for small boats that may readily capsize and with high flood tides, it becomes a yama-kadal (deadly sea). The long waves of the surf zone - the tiramala of kamban kadal (waves of inshore) - develop due to cross flows with opposing wind and currents. A tranquil sea generates small waves. The surge waves following high wind in high seas cause a todappu (swirl) and a whirlpool.

Ocean currents are regular, steady flows of sea-water in the same direction with a definite velocity and are driven by prevalent winds. Seasonal currents driven by dominant winds like the monsoon stream aid in the fast running of the sailing vessels. The swift Somali current driven by the southwest monsoon aids the sailing vessels from the Horn of East Africa to the west coast of India, and so too the North Equatorial current helps in a quick sail from the Sumatran side towards Sri Lanka at low latitudes.

The voyage routes along the coasts and across the sea both in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal are fixed, so as to make optimum use of the flow direction of currents. Their seasonally in flow patterns decide the seasons for forward and return voyages, and there are well-set dates for leaving specific ports of the northern Indian Ocean in particular directions. The relevance of the current flows is fully appreciated by the seafaring communities of Malabar and Coromandel coasts as is evident from the prevalence of a distinct nomenclature of currents in these coasts (fig. 3).

regional current roses used by seamen of Kerala, Coromandel, Andhra and Nicobar islands


The rising of subsurface waters, subsurface currents or adineer as well as kedu neer (dirty water) accumulation are also recognized phenomena in some coastal stretches, especially in relation to the potential of a fish catch.

Perception of the rise and fall of tides, flood and ebb, spring and neap levels is an elementary observation with which all seafaring communities are familiar all along the Indian coasts. All seamen know that the time of the high tide shifts every day by 48 minutes or two ghatikas (naligai), and a distinct relation exists between the tithi (the day reckoned from the preceding new or full moon) and the height of the tide. High seas in coastal waters are associated with the period ekadasi (11th day) to chaturthi (4th day) through the new or full moon. Boatmen in every tidal inlet and estuary are also aware that there is a definite passage of time between the local occurrence of the high tide and its timing in the open coast.

In spite of general familiarity with the local tidal range and tide flow patterns, seamen of the islands and the open sea coasts of India are not highly sensitive to tides. But they are exceptionally sensitive to tide characteristics in coastal Bengal and Bangladesh, and the Gulfs of Cambay and Kutch. These areas are highly vulnerable for the occurrence of huge tidal ranges, high amplitude surge waves and tidal bores.

In the Gulf of Cambay, the first rush of the spring tide is considered irresistable in force. Ibn Majid, who had an intimate personal knowledge of these Gulf waters compares favourably the flow of the Agulhas Stream along the Central African shores with the tidal flows of the Gulf of Cambay. The gulf of Cambay tidal bores find many references in the Gujarathi sea manuals of 18th and 19th centuries. The tidal bore is observed as a perpendicular wall of rising water a metre or more high extending across the gulf as far as the eye can see and roaring with a thunderous noise. The river navigators in the Sunderbans recognize the approach of the tidal bore on hearing a distant low murmur which grows into a growl, and turns into a human cry, 'ban! ban!' This cry is a signal for all crafts to move mid-river where the bore does not curl over and break.

The colour of the sea is used by some seamen for a crude estimate of the depth of the sea by virtue of the sediment charge and distance from the shore. This estimation however differs from one coastal stretch to another. The discolouration of water observed at some distance from the shore helps a keen eye to recognize river mouths. An interesting description in a pothi of a Gujarati seaman of the 17th century records an estimation of distance from Gujarat shores thus:
'When the sun is overhead, observe the reflection of the solar spectrum on the polished surface of an alloy plate, well-scrubbed with sea-water. If the solar disc appears dark, you are close to the shore; if yellowish the boat is 10 zam out in the sea; if whitish the vessel is 20 zams offshore ; if greenish, the boat is 30 zams offshore ; and if reddish in appearance, the boat is far out at sea.' (Translation from D. Pandya: Periplus (in Gujarathi), Jamnagar, 1964.)

Apparently the sediment charge and plankton production in the sea at the respective distances explains the nature of refraction. Some boatmen of Andhra and Malabar coasts and Bombay neighbourhood have reported a luminous sea surface and at times a milky sea invariably during dark nights following a calm or sultry weather and during overcast monsoon periods.

An oily sea has also been reported, and such a sea surface is believed by seamen to generate a relatively smooth surface ideal for anchoring or drifting during foul weather in rough seas. The mudbanks of Cochin for this reason are treated as safe anchorages during active monsoon times. Hariharan (1956 : 313-20) reports the tradition among sailors in the past to pour oil on the sea to produce a calming effect on rough seas.

Keen observation of aquatic life and birds like kingfishers, seagulls and sea-terns is used not only to work out fish-rich areas but also to recognize the nature of the sea floor topography, coastal neighbourhood and subtle changes in weather. Several references exist in vernacular literature to the use of disa-kaka, sea crows and other homing birds on board a vessel to judge the proximity of land or approach of an insular zone. Sangam and early medieval literature in Tamil talk of the large homing bird sitting on the ship's mast, flying out in search of land and returning to the mast on finding no land in the neighbourhood. Similar references exist in early Sanskrit works as well.

The approach of the Indian coast on the Arabian sea side is recognized by the abundance of sea snakes about 20 zams offshore. Tibbetts in his Arab Navigation makes a specific mention of the recognition of the approaches of Konkan and Gujarat coasts from the sighting of sea snakes. The bunching and intertwining of sea-snakes in the Coromandel coast is considered as symptomatic of an arriving depression. The group flight north to south of the konga (a sea-bird) and karigedu konge (black sea-bird) on the Andhra coast also heralds the arrival of a cyclone.

An old Lakshadweep sea manual in Malayalam recognizes the sighting of the Cora Dweep coral banks by the presence of huge yellow skin reptiles, cowries and conches and the plentiful abundance of 'white parrots (sea-terns), suganda nandu (sweet crabs), sravu (shark), parunthu (kite) and garuda (kite) in a playful mood.'
(This reference is an extract from the Malayalam manuscript on kau nila believed to be taken down from an original in Arabic-Tamil. It is a part of the description of the coast and offshore between locations 5 and a half and 5 and five eighth virals of kayu value, i.e. between Murdeshwar and Honavar on the Karnataka coast and its west.)

Weather observations
Weather is perceived through cognition of change in wind direction and speed, nature and extent of cloud cover. In many sections of the Indian coast, specific winds are associated with particular weather types - for example the Malayala minnal (lightning of Malabar coast) and ela minnal (lightning of the Tamil coast), the violent kachhan of the Andhra coast. Foul weather and heavy rains are expected with overcast skies, dark clouds and rising wind. Shadow circles around the moon and the sun are diagnostic of showers; so too, rainbows and drizzles.

Cyclonic weather is forecast almost 48 hours in advance with rising high winds, squall, rising high amplitude waves, water spouts and poor fish catch. Experienced seamen observe keenly the swell waves during times of rapidly changing wind and weather. There also exists astrological lores associating the day's nakshatra (asterism), with cloud, rain and bad weather.

Though the monsoon was not known by name, literary references in early Sanskrit and Tamil clearly demonstrate the knowledge of the seasonal reversal of winds at least since the beginning of the Christian era.

Celestial navigation
Star watching is for most Indian seamen a keen pastime of practical utility. In every season they recognize a handful of star groups but not constellations - spread over a sizeable sector of the sky. Identification is by analogy of appearance, invariably familiar to them in the marine environment. The nomenclature has a distinct regional maritime flavour; for example, the Ursa Major - the Sapt Rishi - is known as kappal velli (ship star) in the Tamil coast, palang chor (plank thief) and galbat tara (boat star) in North Konkan. Similarly the Pollux is called the sravu (shark) in Lakshadweep, the oda-kol (oar pole) along the Tamil coast; the Orion and Taurus group in combination is the mageram (path guide) of Lakshadweep, the kalapurush (time-keeper) of Bengal and the bail mara (bull hunter) of Konkan. The Southern Cross is the chaukon (square); the Pleiades is the katya (corruption of kruttika) of west coast and arankottai (six star fort) of the Tamil coast, and Scorpio is kagdo (crau) of Gujarat.

Star observation is done by seamen with different objectives and hence in different ways. A select choice of stars, low in the horizon, and about to rise or set are used to determine their azimuths that are constant over the year. These azimuths are used as bearings from true north or south and hence become useful as rhumb indicators. Their choice is to indicate specific rhumbs of horizon sectors. Apart from the Polaris used to indicate north, a set of 16 stars are used in their rising and setting azimuths to identify the 32 points of the compass. Since every star rises or sets four minutes later than on the previous day, a horizon star is used for about two months only to indicate a particular rhumb; for the rest of the year some other star rising in the same azimuth is used though with a different name. Also an azimuthal star is used barely for an hour after rise, since the azimuth will change as the star goes up in the sky.

Every coastal area and every voyage season has an associated assemblage of stars. For example, in Bengal and Orissa coasts a wide use of the kalapurush (Orion) is made for east-west sailing. Gujarat seamen make a wide use of chitra (Spica Virginis), kagdo (Delta Corvi); the Malabaris of the kootu nakshatram (Orion), mageram (Al Tair), sothi (Arctrus), the kabila meen and the palli meen (part of Ursa Major and part of Canopus); the Tamils of agastya (Canopus), araan kottai (Pleiades), etc. The kabilameen appear in the northeast horizon and the pallimeen in the southeast. The most northerly of these stars, the munna-kabila kodi is used to sail north by keeping the prow of the vessel pointing to it. These stars are used to sail in vrischik to makaram (November to January). The onnamayakaran is best seen in thulam and kanni (October to November). The rendamayakaran rises about the time onnamayakaran sets, and is visible for about three hours. The moonamayakaran rises when the rendamayakaran is about to set. These stars between themselves can guide for about eight hours.

This usage of a select list of stars as rhumb indicators has over centuries led to the evolution of a stellar azimuthal compass rose in many coasts of the Arabian Sea. It has not been possible to trace a complete azimuthal wind rose on the Bay of Bengal coasts, though individual stellar rhumbs are used in practice. Fig. 4 depicts four such azimuthal compass roses in vogue in different parts of the Arabian Sea coasts.

32 point azimuthal star compasses used in the Arabian Sea

A station-based stellar half compass card for the northern half of the celestial sphere traced from a Gujarati pothi of the 18th century has been expertly devised as a navigational rhumb indicator and location pointer to the ports of the north Indian Ocean (fig. 5). Its practical utility has been enhanced by adding on the periphery of the individual rhumbs the normal sailing distances in zams. This half compass station is based on the pothi of Haji Abdulla Bhatti. The station on which it is based is Socotra. The regional ocean covered is between Aden in the west and Honavar to Mangalore in the east, roughly the seas north of 13 degrees N. It has an inverted format as in a prismatic compass. It literally gives the polar co-ordinates of 16 port locations keeping Socotra as origin.

gujarati nautical station-based 16 point half compass

The second objective in star observation achieved by the seamen is to track the path of the star in the skies in its apparent east to west motion and estimation of its highest altitude while in transit. The altitude is measured in finger units. The Pole Star which is never far away from the zenith is observed for altitude in the Arab, Persian and Gujarat shores. Further south in peninsular India, direct observation of the Pole Star declines because of its low altitude and difficulty of recognition. The Pole Star observation is substituted by the observation of the Guards in the Ursa Minor group and the stars of the Ursa Major (sapt rishi) like arundhati near Megrez and subsequently other select stars. The measurement of altitude of stars was ultimately for the purpose of fixing locations of places.

The third objective of star observation was for the purpose of interstellar arc distances and also as a finger measure. It was realized by the seamen that stars in their motion in the celestial sphere always maintain their inter-positional distances constant. Therefore through a measurement of interstellar distances between specific stars like those of the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, it is possible to find the altitude of the Pole Star through the measurement of the transit altitudes of other stars whose distance from the Pole Star is known by prior measurement. Thus stellar altitudes became useful for deriving meaningful locational parameters like latitude.

Observation of transit altitude of the overhead sun and relating it to the setting of the sun to determine the latitude of a place on land or sea appears to have been a relatively later technique in the north Indian Ocean, possibly after the advent of the colonial voyager. Manuscripts of Lakshadweep and Gujarati seamen explain methods of calculation used locally to find the latitude with the help of solar declination and zenith distance. The Lakshadweep texts mention five alternative possibilities, (these five possibilities are given by the relations l=d+z; l=d-z; l=z-d; l=d; l=z, where l, d, z represent latitude, sun's declination and zenith distance. The sun's transit altitude is measured by a kamaan or wooden sextant), while the Kutchi seamen visually describe eight alternative positions: Manubhai Pandhi: Kutchnu vahnu vatu (in Gujarathi). The eight alternatives resolve into four astronomical situations.

gujarati seaman's visual - showing midday sun overhead sun observations with different solar declination positions

Thus latitude is determined by the navigators of the Indian Ocean either with the aid of stellar altitudes or with solar transit altitudes.

Coastal topography and landmarks
Indian seamen have also developed a keen sense of observation of underwater topography at shallow depths, coastal configuration and features to aid them in reaching and leaving ports. The nature of the sea floor at shallow depths - sand, mud, gravel, or rock - submerged banks, bars and reefs and their position were constantly judged through lead line sounding to avoid getting grounded or beached.

Shore features like beach and spit, marshes and mangroves, inlets, lagoons and estuaries, shifting bars and anchorage sites are all carefully noted so that the entry and exit from port sites are negotiated without any danger. There exists in the Kutchi-Gujarati manuscripts records of seamen of earlier generations which discuss in elaborate detail shore locations of places and landmarks, almost every curve of the shore including the sequential ground-arrangement of bays, creeks, inlets, river mouths, tidal stretches, islands. beaches, bars and spits, dangers like submerged banks, rocky shoals and reefs, anchor sites and docking approaches. At times these descriptions carry the latitude and longitude added later and their stellar bearings etc.

Yet another nautical aid systematically observed and recorded by seamen for the benefit of later generations is the identification of significant physical and cultural landmarks by which the individual port entries are located as observed from the sea. Sharp turns in the coast that demand changes in the sailing rhumbs are particularly noted as for example Madwad and Gopnath Points, Ezhimala (Mt. Dilly), Manappadu, Kodikarai, Godavari Point, Palmyra Point, etc. Fig. 7 gives the traditionally used landmarks on the Indian coasts by seafarers, which include isolated hills, peaks, offshore rocks, prominent sand mounds, temple spires, churches and mosques, shoreside forts, and even high placed buildings.

landmarks used by seamen on Indian coasts to identify specific ports

Some enterprising maulims have even attempted visual depiction of such landmarks either as identities of individual locations or as silhouette profiles of limited shore-lengths as seen from the sea. Such silhouette profiles are common in Kutchi manuscripts and drawings. They have been noted in the A.D. 1665 manual as well as a Mandvi manual of late 18th century.

Guidelines for practical navigation
However valuable per se the immense variety of marine environmental data input they have however got to be integrated and synthesized into practically useful navigational guidelines to meet specific voyage route requirements. Examples of such nautical instructions at local and regional levels can be drawn from empirical experiences of the past generations of seamen obtained through oral testimony or from written records. Local environmental guidance is of great relevance to all the boatmen sailing in the area.

As for example, using this reference is from a sailor's manual in use among Jaffna seamen dated to the beginning of the 20th century, the Kilakarai neighbourhood marakkayar boatmen set mujra (bearing) from Rameswaram to nedun-theevu (Delft Island) by taking into consideration the coral reefs that lie just offshore to the northeast; they steer in the kondal (east wind) for about 3 kms (2 naligai) to avoid the rocks and then tack in javana 1/2 thundu (right side) to vaadai-kondal (bit) - N.E.1/2 E. To sail from nedun-theevu to Devipatnam, the mujra is set in javana 1/2 thundu to kachhan (W. 1/2 N.) - see fig. 2b.

According to the Kutchi sailors, if the kotia is steering around dhru 11 (Pole Star transit altitude of 11 fingers) and sounding depth is taken and found to be around 60 wams, 'you will touch a muddy floor... If you are intelligent, sail for a zam in the same rhumb and take sounding again. If the depth of the water is around 14 to 15 wam or less, understand that the boat is head on track to Jagat.' (From D. Pandya's Periplus (in Gujarathi), pp 56-57. Jagat is Dwaraka in Saurashtra.)

On approach to the port of Surat, the advice is:
'If water ahead in the ebb is 12 to 13 wam, don't be scared. It will be like this till you cross three such sand bars and reach a depth of 3 wam, striking mud on the floor. Proceed till the boat strikes fresh water at 12 to 13 wam; bring down the sail on sighting land. After sunset, keep floating. If fresh wind comes from the north, keep the dhru (Polaris) on the dhar (entrance), sail ahead as water ebbs, but keep sailing towards dhru. Don't get scared; ahead there is no more danger; more fresh water will flow but depth will come down from 10 to 7 wam. Keep dhru on track, and when you reach 6 wam, lay nangar. That is the place to anchor for Surat.' (English translation from a Gujarathi manuscript 1665 A.D.)

In another nautical tip, you are told to set sail to Madwad from Daman by moving out in the setting of ardra (Alpha Orionis) and then steering towards the setting of chitra (Spica Virginis); the rhumb balance will be the difference between the two azimuths. (English translation from a Gujarathi manuscript 1780 A.D.. It also carries a visual to explain
the text.)

Sailing into or out of the Gulf of Khambhat is subject to tidal channels and high tidal ranges. In sailing from Diu to Gogha and Khambhai. the tandel is instructed to steer from Diu in the direction of the rising chitra in water 14 wam deep till reaching Jhanzmeer:
'Sail out in high tide in rising kartik and keep to waters 15 to 20 wam deep till you reach Gogha. Better to leave Gogha early in the morning and stick to waters 15 to 20 wams deep on full or new moon days to proceed to Khambhat. In the ebb, or as the tide commences to rise, drop the gos sail, steer towards the rise of poush, sailing with the head wind.' (Translation in English from an old undated sailor's pothi as written in a modern Gujarathi translation by Shamsinhji Rathod of Bhuj.)

Such sailing instructions for difficult stretches of the Indian shores occur in many seamen's writings, often such records being carried over from earlier works at times with additions or modifications arising out of later sea experience.

In contrast to these specific details of port approaches and short coastal voyages, guidelines for overseas voyages all find expression in some works. Months and dates for the commencement of voyages from specific coasts/ports to particular coastal destinations have been prescribed. In addition, the danger or risk in delayed departure at later times is also indicated. Being superstitious as they are, they generally follow astrological prescriptions of auspicious muhurtas (designated good time) listen to birds and omens. Fig. 8 depicts two such visuals drawn from the texts and used as ready reckoners.

gujarati yogini chart 1664 A.D.  seaman's manuscript manual, and a gujarati direction chart showing directions inauspicious for voyages on specific days of the week - source, 18th century manual


Sea routes and charts
Long distance overseas sailing voyages in the north Indian Ocean generally follow the 'parallel sailing route' or the rhumb line route. Great Circle routes are not known because of the difficulty in their determination. However, specially close to the equator and the low latitudes, parallel sailing routes are as good as the Great Circle routes without much difference in length. Parallel sailing or running down the latitude is done during the day with the help of the noon sun and during the night with the help of specific stars rising almost due east and setting almost due west.

Sravan (Alpha Aquila), magh (Regulus), ardra (Betelguese), mrig (Alpha Orionis) are some of the stars commonly used for such parallel sailing, though kruttika (Pleiades) and rohini (Debaran) are also additionally used. Old seamen have worked out parallel sailing route distances in zams between specific destinations lying on the same parallel but on different coasts of the north Indian Ocean. One such parallel sailing route tabulation was copied down in 1925 A.D. from an older manuscript which covers the ports of the north Indian Ocean north of 20 degrees S. The tabulation gives the two connected ports, their Pole Star latitudes (or Great Bear or Little Bear values), and the sailing distances in zams along the parallel. For example:
Dhru 10 Masiro to Madhwad at dhru 10 - zam 44.
Dhru 10 Puri Jagannath to Rakhag (Akyab) - zam 32.
Dhru 10 Madwad to Valsad at dhru 10 - zam 12.
Dhru 12 Munaro (Oman) to Chinnacochi (Cochin China) at dhru 12 - zam 261.

So also rhumb line routes between particular routes and the sailing distances in between in a direct voyage have been worked out giving their rhumbs as well. Many tabulations in Gujarathi as well as Malayalam are available giving such rhumb routes. Some of them have been mapped by the author on the basis of the data. For example:
From Durgarajapatan at dhru 4 1/4 in the direction of the rising chitra Burmapatan at dhru 7 3/4 Dhru - zam 76.
From Marachi (Jaffna) at dhru 3 due north Andhrapatan (Nizampatnam) at dhru 5 - zam 15.

parallel sailing and rhumb routes of the north Indian Ocean - source, gujarati and lakshadweep manuscripts, figures give voyage distances in zam

Using the solar-altitude, stellar-altitude and azimuth measurements, these seamen have worked out a range of calculations for location fix and dead reckoning, apart from longitude departures along each latitude in east-west sailing, and also conversion measures for transforming finger values, zams and mujras into normal daily use distances and bearings. The kau kanakku or the viral kanakku and the anaivetti kanakku of the seamen of the southern parts of India are of this nature. The kau or dhru values can be systematically mapped to show the port locations. Such values are more plentiful for the Arabian Sea rather than for the Bay of Bengal. The values vary in precision from manual to manual. For example, Gujarathi manuals are more precise for the coast of the Arabian Sea, north of Ratnagiri, while the southern kau kanakku is more precise for the southern coast, Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean Islands. There is considerable confusion on the Bengal coast and Malaysia.

Systematic observation of details of coastal configuration, location fix in terms of the Pole Star altitude (or equivalent star transits), landmarks easily identifiable from the sea at a distance, bearings in terms of horizon star azimuths and depth of water and underwater floor features were combined by the late mediaeval period to develop indigenous nautical charts comparable to the Portuguese portolanos.

In view of the very limited availabilty of such charts of dateable nature, it is difficult to determine when such charts came into use for the first time. But a large number of references indicate that such charts were already in use in the north Indian Ocean when the first European vessels entered the Indian Ocean. Vasco da Gama, Tom Pires, Francois de Laval and others talk of these charts in use on the coasts of Africa, Maldives and Sumatra-Java. Alexander Burnes has traced one from Kutch. For details see Arunachalam, Delhi, 1987: 191-221. Physical evidence of the presence of such charts has now been found among the Kutchi seamen. A number of the hand-drawn charts of the south coast of India and Sri Lanka were located in the 1665 A.D. manual in Kutchi. These have been interpreted by the author in a number of publications. Refer Arunachalam, 1988: 93-106.

These charts are line drawings of limited coastal stretches, often combining silhouette profiles of coastal landscapes as observed from the sea. All conspicuous, navigationally relevant and useful positions and features are marked and identified either symbolically or by name. The latitudinal positions of important locations are shown as 'dhru' values and these include landmarks as well. Such values are given in integers and their decimal fractions, at times correct to one-sixteenth. However no rectilinear coordinates like latitude-longitude graticule is used. Nor can one recognize compass roses as in portolanos.

Directions or bearings are given with the help of rhumb lines between specific map locations in terms of rising and setting azimuths of stars, signified at both ends of the rhumb line and by symbols, which are well recognized by seamen. Distances are discretely indicated as normal sailing time distances in zam units. These are invariably along the rhumb lines and not along the coast. The azimuth bearing and the distance together constitute the polar coordinates of a location. Coastal curvatures are ignored in the line drawing except for coastal breaks like inlets and estuaries. The drawing is made as in chain survey bookings. Offshore island locations are indicated but all are not named. Individual landmark silhouettes and a more continuous backdrop skyline profile are generally shown in such charts. The drawings are hand-coloured with earth pigments. The top in most of these charts is east. The charting for want of precise linear and angular measurements is in topological format as a mental construct and at times telescopes the distant view. However, they serve the objectives of the user seamen quite well.

Viewed as a whole, the empirical practices and skills employed by the traditional seamen along the Indian coasts were generated out of an immense experience of centuries of sailing in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean characterized by strong seasonal reversal of wind and current systems. Local wisdom and inherited craft skills have played useful roles in building a navigational package for safe voyages, either coastal or overseas. Traditional sailing voyages were not rigorously bound by the time factor but were quite conscious of sure and certain risk-free passages. These well-traversed tracks have ultimately guided the navigation routes of steam vessels, even though the latter were regulated by a range of instruments and radio signals.



Bibliographical references
ARUNACHALAM, B., 1987, The Haven Finding Art in the Indian Navigational Traditions and Cartography in The Indian Ocean, S. Chandra, ed., Delhi: 191-221.
ARUNACHALAM, B., 1988, Traditions and Problems of Indian Nautical Cartography, in History of Traditional Navigation, V. Rajamanickam & Y. Subbarayalu, eds., Tamil University, Thanjavur: 93-106.
HARIHARAN, K.V., 1956, Sea-dangers in Early Indian Shipping, Journal of Indian History, XXXIV: 313-320.
LEWIS, D., 1975, We the Navigators, Canberra.
Manubhai Pandhi: Kutchnu vahnu vatu (in Gujarathi) in S.K. Bhowmik, ed., Special Bulletin of Kutch Museum, Bhuj, 26, 1976-77: 141-163.
MATHUR, P.R.G., 1977, The Mappila Fisherfolk of Kerala, Trivandrum.
MEHTA, R.N., 1979, A Note on Some Indian Navigational Terms, Indica, XVI: 208-211.
PRINSEP, J., 1836, Note on the Nautical Instruments of the Arabs, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay, V: 784-798.
TIBBETTS, G.R., 1971, Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean before the coming of the Portuguese, London.
VILLIERS, A., 1952, The Indian Ocean, London.


Acknowledgements

The research findings presented in this paper are the outcome of an ongoing research project on Indigenous Traditions of Indian Navigation (ITlN) funded by the CSIR (EMR) of the Government of India. The author acknowledges cooperation from the following: - Periodic reports and publications of the Research Investigation teams working on the FTIN Project at Thanjavur, Madras, Bangalore, Bombay, Bhubaneshwar and Calcutta for data input. - Principal investigators and field researchers of the research teams mentioned above for their field help and discussions on the theme. - Numerous local officials and elders of the seafaring communities all over the Indian coast for their guidance and help in organising interviews with boatmen and in tracking written manuscript records. - Miss R. Karani and Mr P. Gogate for cartographic assistance.














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