THE VANISHING SEA

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I looked around for the flamingoes, but they were nowhere to be seen.

I.

After having read Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s ‘Travels with a Tangerine’ I was inspired to go exploring in the coastal town of Cambay (now Khambhat) to perhaps look for remnants of the glorious port city that the 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta had documented during his passage through India. I was particularly interested in understanding the phenomenon of how a port, once a major stop-over for merchants on the silk route and having been compared to flourishing cities of the Middle East and north Africa, could now be reduced to a stagnant economy with only a few large dilapidated bungalows that stand as an unsure testimony to its beautiful past. The sea was of course what brought Ibn Battuta to Cambay and I wanted to see how it had changed over the past few centuries.

I was informed that it was a delicate and risky exercise to attempt to get to the edge of the sea since the large variation in the tides has created a unique landscape that is understood only by the local fishermen. The silting gulf has pushed the water beyond easy accessibility and in between it formed a haven for flamingoes. A fisherman who accompanied me stopped every now and then to examine the further course of our path lest we get stuck in a quicksand-like situation. The noise of the Cambay bazaar was long replaced by deafening silence that enveloped us. There wasn’t a breeze; everything seemed muted as if I had gone deaf.

It was a world where sizes didn’t seem proportionate. Camels looked like pegs on a board game; patches of wild grass seemed taller than the herdsmen. Fishermen returning back after work, hauling their half empty nets were dwarfed to a mere spec in the horizon. I strained my eyes to see the pink flamingoes skimming the shallow waters in a mechanically routine. I looked back to reassure myself that I wasn’t too far from civilisation but Cambay was lost behind a veil of shimmering mirage. In the silence there was nothing much I could do.

I imagined ships approaching us, wooden boats awaiting them and many more docked at the jetty. I saw people with weary skin wearing turbans which were yellowed with age and some studded with emeralds, stepping out only to vanish among the sea of merchants and vendors crowding the water front. There were tangles of rope, sound of noisy footsteps as they fell on wooden floors and the occasional whiff of a perfume that was completely foreign. The sea, I noticed, was very much alive with crests of wave crashing the rocky embankment to the distant sound of adhan from the Jama Masjid.

I looked around for the flamingoes, but they were nowhere to be seen.

II.

‘The fair city of Cambay stood on the northern shore of the Mahi River estuary where it flows into the head of the gulf. Walking among the bazaars and imposing stone houses of the port, Ibn Battuta found himself for the first time in a decade in the familiar cultural world of the Arabian Sea. The sultanate had ruled Cambay since the early part of the century, but the soul of the city was more kindred to Muscat, Aden, or Mogadishu than to Daulatabad or Delhi. It was indeed one of the great emporia of the Indian Ocean. “Cambay is one of the most beautiful cities as regards the artistic architecture of its houses and the construction of its mosques,” Ibn Battuta recalls. “The reason is that the majority of its inhabitants are foreign merchants, who continually build there beautiful houses and wonderful mosques- an achievement in which they endeavour to surpass each other.” Many of these “foreign merchants” were transient visitors, men of South Arabian and Persian Gulf ports, who migrated in and out of Cambay with the rhythm of the monsoons. But others were men with Arab and Persian patronyms whose families had settled in the town generations, even centuries, earlier, intermarrying with Gujarati women and assimilating everyday customs of the Hindu hinterland. Ibn Battuta visited Cambay just at a time when these dark-skinned, white-shirted Gujarati traders were venturing abroad in increasing numbers, founding mercantile colonies as far away as Indonesia and creating a diaspora of commercial association that would continue on the ascendancy in the Indian Ocean until the time of the Portuguese.’

(Excerpt from: The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century, by Ross E. Dunn)

 
 

The Vanishing Sea series was featured in the Tasveer Journal, November 2012.