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Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (1/2)

Chinese treasure ship (via Wikipedia)

In 1498, three ships — Sao Gabriel, Sao Rafael, and Sao Miguel — appeared in Calicut heralding a new era in geopolitics and world trade. Vasco da Gama would become immortal for finding a route from Europe to India, avoiding the Muslims who had a monopoly on overland trade. But for the residents of Calicut, this was not a major event. They were used to foreign traders and many foreigners lived in the Malabar coast. Even da Gama’s ships and crew of less than two hundred people was not a jaw dropper since they had seen huge Chinese ships with larger crew in Calicut port.

Much before Europeans became major players in the Indian Ocean, traders routinely sailed from the Malabar coast to the Swahili coast. During that time the Chinese built the biggest ships of the era and under Admiral Zheng He (pronounced Jung Huh) made seven voyages reaching as far as the Swahili coast. With such technology, the Chinese could have dominated trade, instead of the Europeans, but they did not. It is interesting to see why.

Ming and Zheng He

This story begins on September 10, 1368 when Ukhaantu Khan of the Yuan dynasty fled to Inner Mongolia unable to face the rebels under the leadership of Zhu Yuanzhang. These rebels would establish the native Ming dynasty. The third Ming emperor Zhu Di, wanted to improve trade, enhance the empire’s prestige, and encourage a tribute system for which he ordered an armada to be built.

Zhu Di’s admiral for the mission was Zheng He, a six and half feet tall two hundred pound man. This 34 year old Muslim originally named Ma Ho, was captured as a child by the Ming army from the Mongol village of Yunan. Like the Egyptian Mamluks, these slaves had career paths, but only after castration and so Zheng He eventually became the Grand Eunuch.

Even before the Ming dynasty, huge Chinese ships were spotted in Kerala. In 1340, Ibn Battuta, who was in Calicut, saw 13 Chinese junks wintering in the port. Ibn Battuta who had traveled in various type of ships and dhows in his travels from Morocco to India never mentioned much construction details in his accounts, but the Chinese ships impressed him so much that he wrote about three types of ships — the large junks, middle sized zaws, and small kakams. Ibn Battuta also expressed happiness at the privacy offered in their cabins that he could take his slave girls and wives and no one on board would know about it.

In 1330, Jordan Catalani, a Dominican monk saw them in Quilon and wrote that they had over 100 cabins and 10 sails. They were triple keeled and held together not by nails or metal structures, but the thread of some plant. Ibn Battuta wrote that these ships carried thousand men of which four hundred were soldiers.

Zhu Di’s ships, under the command of Zheng He sailed in 1405. There were 317 ships of which 60 were the large junks. These treasure ships held lacquers, porcelain, and silks. They carried a total of 27,000 men which included soldiers, carpenters, physicians, astrologers, cartographers and interpreters. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan or Francis Drake would never command such a fleet nor as many men.

Under his leadership, the fleet made seven voyages trading, transporting ambassadors and establishing Chinese colonies. Three of those were to India, one to the Persian Gulf and three to the Swahili Coast and in the process he visited the Champa kingdom, Cambodia, Sumatra, Nicobar Islands, Ceylon, Maldives. One item which Zheng He took back to China was a giraffe; how the giraffe was transported on a ship passing through a rough ocean is not documented well, but it certainly amused the king. So did zebras which were called celestial

They called Calicut, “a great country” and people as “honest and trustworthy”. They had good opinion of the Zamorin and observed that Calicut had a highly structured society, well trained army and a harsh system of justice. In Calicut they traded using the language of the fingers.

(Read Part 2)

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My op-ed in Mail Today: It's a war on India

(this op-ed was published in Dec 12 edition of Mail Today)

“There are a lot of very, very angry Muslims in India, The economic disparities are startling, and India has been very slow to publicly embrace its rising Muslim problem. You cannot put lipstick on this pig” – That was Christine Fair, senior political scientist and a South Asia expert at the RAND Corporation offering insta-advice on the Mumbai terrorist attacks. This  was printed on Nov 27th in the International Herald Tribune even before the identity of the terrorists were known.

It was not just Christine Fair who had such sound bites. Maria Mishra wrote in the Times, “The extreme poverty of many Muslims in India, whose status, according to a recent report, was below that of the “Untouchable” caste of Hindus, has increased frustration.” This untouchables meme was carried forward by Asra Q. Nomani in an Op-Ed in Los Angeles Times. Appearing on Larry King Deepak Chopra said, “We cannot, if we do not appease and actually recruit the help of this Muslim world, we’re going to have a problem on our hands.”

As per these experts, poverty of Indian Muslims, the institutional discrimination and lack of appeasement caused terrorists belonging to Laskhar-e-Taiba to take a boat from Karachi, land in Mumbai, and shoot indiscriminately at Indians and Westerners in railway stations, five star hotels, and hospitals.

The second category of experts had the Hindu right to blame. If only the Gujarat riots and demolition of Babri Masjid had not happened, such ill fate would not have fallen on India, they claimed. Most prominent among them, Martha Nussbaum, who wrote in an Op-Ed in Los Angeles Times about the Gujarat riots and the attacks on Christian churches skilfully ignoring other violent incidents in India like the rampage of the Congress party on Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination or the Naxalite terrorism rampant in many states.

These two theories fail to convincingly explain the Mumbai attacks: why did the terrorists murder Americans, Britons, and Israelis.? They also ignore the elephant in the room – the stated goals of Lashkar-e-Taiba. There is, hence, a need to balance these by certain obvious points which have been left out during the sound bite generation.


The image, presented by these both these categories of commentators, is of an India resembling the Europe of the crusades while it so far from the truth. The great Indian middle class is approximately 300 million, which means that about 700 million Indians are not doing so well. The entire Muslim population in India is around 150 million and so the oft repeated claim that Muslims alone are not getting the share of India’s prosperity does not stand.

India, the land of  contradictions, mocks generalizations. It is the country where Azim Premji can be one of the richest people, Shah Rukh Khan, one of the highest paid actors, and A. R. Rahman, the most sought after music composer. It also the country where Dr. A. P. J Abdul Kalam, who was responsible for India’s missile program and the 1998 nuclear tests can become the President of India. These people are never mentioned because it upsets pet theories.

The coalition government that is in power in Delhi currently consists of two Muslim parties – the Indian Union Muslim League, a party formed “with an object of achieving the constitutional rights of Muslims, other backward and minority people of India. ” and All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen which means All India Council of United Muslims.

Muslims sensitivities have played an important role in Indian foreign policy since independence to the Iraq war. A profound example is the relationship with Israel. In 1947 Albert Einstein, who had declined an offer to be Israel’s President, wrote a letter to Prime Minister designate of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, asking for support in establishing a Jewish state. Nehru wrote back saying that he was aware of the Jewish suffering, but did not like the idea of building a nation on Palestinian land. He also wrote that due to the large Muslims minority and the support required from Arab and Muslim states in the fight against Pakistan, he could not support Israel.

Since the start of the Iraq war, there was pressure on India to send troops. The war, which was unpopular in India, was unanimously deplored by the Lok Sabha. Still President Bush spoke to Prime Minister Vajpayee about how much he would “love to have Indian troops in Iraq.” The nation, as well as the ruling NDA administration, was divided on this issue but after the Cabinet Committee on Security meeting in July 2003, India rejected the American request. In his statement India’s Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha mentioned “our concern for the people of Iraq, our long-standing ties with the gulf region as a whole” for staying away. In short, India did not want to be seen as an occupational force among Muslim nations.


As the dead bodies were being cleared from the Taj, Nariman House and CST, it became evident that supporting the Palestinian cause, showering Yasser Arafat with various Nehru/Gandhi awards, and keeping away from Iraq did not differentiate us from the Americans, British, and Israelis. Also, as terrorist sprayed bullets at CST and Metro Cinema, they did not exclude Muslims for whose cause they claimed they were fighting.

In an interview with a TV station, two Mumbai terrorists mentioned Gujarat and Babri Masjid, among a list of other events against which they were reacting. Though they were trying to sound like Indians, these terrorists were not desperate Indian Muslims, but members of a Pakistani terrorist group banned by India and United States. In a letter sent to the media, the terrorists stated they they were avenging the atrocities committed by Hindus against the Muslims since 1947, much before Babri Masjid and Gujarat, and would stop only after each incident has been accounted for.


To understand why any future Deepak Chopra style appeasement will fail against such terrorists, one has to look at “The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups”, written by Husain Haqqani, the current Pakistani Ambassador to United States.The section on Laskar-e-Taiba lists United States, Israel and India as enemies of Islam and their goal for jihad is to “to eliminate evil and facilitate conversion to and practice of Islam.” They would like to wrest control of not just a small part of India, but “All of India, including Kashmir, Hyderabad, Assam, Nepal, Burma, Bihar and Junagadh”, since they were all part of the Muslim empire.

While India is not involved in Iraq, it is actively involved in Afghanistan, not as an occupier, but as a partner financing irrigation projects in Northwest Afghanistan, power projects in Herat and Kabul and building roads like the one connecting Delaram on the Kandahar-Herat highway to Zaranj near the Iranian border. The name of an intelligence service which would be upset by the loss of strategic depth in Afghanistan due to Indian presence is left as an exercise to the reader.

This is a war against India by a brutal enemy with a nefarious goal – one which Christine Fair, Maria Mishra, Asra Q. Nomani and Martha Nussbaum have not emphasized in their articles. As for Deepak Chopra, we only hope that he writes a book thicker than “Why Is God Laughing?” so that we can use it to deflect bullets during the next terrorist attack.

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Bible's Buried Secrets (2/2)

Read Part 1

3. Monotheism did not happen instantly. (contd.)

Still the Israelites practiced polytheism,worshiping not just Yahweh, but also the fertility goddess Asherah and the Canaanite God Baal, though they were not supposed to. Whenever a major calamity fell on the Israelites, like the Assyrian invasion in 722 B.C.E and the Babylonian invasion followed by the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E it was blamed on polytheism.

Israelites were reminded that they had broke the covenant with God and hence were incurring his wrath. Still this was not taken seriously till the time the Babylonians exiled the Caananites. It was during this exile that one of the scribes of that era, known as “P”, took all the previous revisions and created the present version of the Bible. The documentary suggests that the Abraham story was created then, by this scribe, to enforce the concept of the covenant. The scribe lived in Babylon and Abraham was placed in the nearby Ur; Abraham’s goal was to reach the promised land, so was the dream of the exiles.

It was also during the exile that the observances like sabbath were emphasized. Israelites learned to pray in groups and to worship without a temple, king or priests. This was the formation of modern Judaism.

4. Archaeology disproves other events as well

Following the Exodus, as per the Bible, Joshua takes the Israelites into Canaan through a military conquest. Archaeology has found evidence of destruction in various settlements which seem to agree with the Bible. But on dating the sites, it was found to happen much before Exodus and among the 31 sites listed by the Bible, just a few showed signs of war.

Similarly there is no evidence of the First Temple as well which made Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian Authority official leading all peace talks with Israel to provocatively say that it was a Jewish invention. The problem is that the First temple lies below the third holiest site in Islam which makes archaeology impossible. The Bible has a detailed description of the temple and in fact there is a temple which matches this description at Ain Dara, in modern-day Syria.

Sometimes there is a kernel of truth in myths. But as we go back in time it becomes difficult to find even this kernel. The documentary says that, “Genesis is, for the most part, a compilation of myths, creation stories, things like that, and to find a historical core there is very difficult.”

5. Archaeology vs Scripture

While the documentary suggests that the concept of one God was evolved during the Babylonian exile, in fact for a brief period in Egypt, the Pharaoh Akhenaten had this concept of One God and he ruled before the time frame suggested for the Exodus? Is it possible that the small number of people who fled Egypt carried with them the seeds of this story? This possibility was not raised in the documentary.

While archaeology disproved many Biblical narratives, there are a few places where the text agrees, like in the case of the House of David. There was scepticism about King David, but on a victory stele dedicated by the king of Damascus, the words, “I slew mighty kings who harnessed thousands of chariots and thousands of horsemen. I killed the king of the House of David.” were found which makes David, the earliest Biblical figure to be confirmed by archaeology. He lived around 1000 B.C.E, as a petty warlord of a small chiefdom with few settlements.

Archaeology also shuts up the sceptics who claim that the entire Bible was an invention. A silver scroll with a Priestly Benediction earlier then the Dead Sea Scrolls by 400 years have been found. And those scrolls contain the word – Yahweh.

While this program enraged certain believers – for using government funding to prove there was no God – there is consensus, with some quibbles, that this program was a fairly accurate summary of a century of Biblical Studies.


Was the Bible, a book of faith, meant to be investigated like this as a historical document? According to William Dever, Professor Emeritus of the University of Arizona

We want to make the Bible history. Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That’s a modern discipline. They were telling stories. They wanted you to know what these purported events mean.

And Carol Meyers, an archaeologist and professor of religion at Duke University

Too often in modern western thinking we see things in terms of black and white, history or fiction, with nothing in between. But there are
other ways of understanding how people have recorded events of their past. There’s something called mnemohistory, or memory history, that I find particularly useful in thinking about biblical materials. It’s not like the history that individuals may have of their own families, which tends to survive only a generation or two. Rather, it’s a kind of collective cultural memory.

Postscript: The website for this program is a treasure trove of information. The entire documentary as well as the transcript is available online. Besides this there are interviews with the scholars who talk about the writers of the Bible, foundation of Judaism, Archeology of the Hebrew Bible, Moses and the Exodus, The Palace of David and the Origins of the Written Bible. There is also an interactive timeline and a whole bunch of video extras.

Update (Dec 9): DIY Scholar has a list of online resources which will enhance the understanding of this period.

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Pirates of the Mediterranean

Since Indian Navy is hunting pirates near Somalia, this would be a good time to listen to a pirate story.

Sometime in 75 B.C.E, Cilician pirates in the Mediterranean sea captured a young Roman orator. The pirates asked for a ransom of twenty talents to which the Roman laughed. He said he was worth a lot more and promised fifty. While his followers went to collect money, the Roman spent thirty eight days as a hostage.

During that time he acted as if he was the master. When he wanted to sleep, he ordered the pirates to be quiet. He played any sport he liked, wrote poetry and made speeches, while the pirates silently suffered. When the pirates showed no appreciation of his talent, he called them illiterate savages. He also jokingly said that he would hang all of them at the opportune moment.

The ransom soon arrived, much to the delight of the pirates, and the hostage was set free. The Roman followed the pirates, captured them, and put them in prison. When he asked the governor of the land to punish the pirates, the governor seemed not to be interested. The Roman then took matters into his hands, went to the prison, and hung all the pirates on a cross as he had promised.

This is why in Tortuga, when a pirate baby cries, the mother says,  beta, so jaa, nahi toh Julius Caesar aa jaayega. (via)

(image via Wikipedia)

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