‘I warn you Devagami, you must return before the sun is overhead or we sail away,’ the captain said contemptuously. To him those bald monks were an unavoidable nuisance and Devagami a willing oarsman to row the longboat ashore to drop them off and the life-size bronze idol of Buddha casted in the holy land.
The province of Andhra was the most civilized part of the island, the town even hosted a temple of Avalokiteswara, but what lay beyond is a thick rain forest infested by headhunting Dayaks. The village had spotted the fleet anchored offshore and a friendly crowd was waiting to help the monks with their things, when he touched the shore. The headman of the village was a generous old man who had piled up the boat with gifts, simple produce of the village, a few fowl and a pig, and some fresh vegetables grown in their fields. The captain will surely be happy, he thought as he bid farewell to the monks.
And, just as he was about to row away, a group of horseman came into view, galloping in from the direction of the town. ‘Take me to your captain, immediately,’ the leader jumped into the boat without preamble and even picked up a paddle and began rowing. He’s certainly a man of some importance. As soon as they broke through the waves he asked, ‘How many ships in your fleet?’
‘Seven in all,’ he said making a quick count.
‘Seven… what?’ he barked, ‘Tell me more you dunghead,’ his manner oozed authority, a man not to be taken too lightly.
‘Three are big, sire,’ he stuttered, ‘Kalamkotas… castles with two masts; and four Sangaras, sleek fighting ships, tribute fleet going to the holy land.’
‘How many men?’
‘The admiral’s ship has the treasure and a hundred fighting men guarding it and archers. Others have no fighting men; one is a slaver with a few overseers guarding the captives, and animals… orangutans, pheasants, parakeets, for the king’s gardens. Third is full of spices, cloves mostly, and cashew.’
‘The frigates… how many men do they have?’
‘Around fifty in each?’ making a quick estimate, ‘and they’re all fighters sire, I saw them practice with swords and bows,’ he said trying to be helpful.
‘That’s good,’ a contented smile appeared on his face.
As soon as the boat touched the broadside of the ship, he went up the ladder with the agility of a mountaineer. And with the nonchalance of a buccaneer, he pulled out a scroll and threw it at the captain surrounded by his cutthroats threatening with their swords drawn.
The message was under the seal of the governor of Suvarna Dwipa, ‘In the name of the Emperor Satakarni, in view of emergent circumstances, the fleet and all its men must immediately be put under the command of the prince, Kumara Vasishtiputra Pulomavi.’
The captain fell at the feet of the stranger, without a word, handing him the sword.
Bintan Island (On Lease to Singapore) – November
‘But, her fleet gets priority. I hope you understand, admiral,’ the captain of the fortress was apologetic.
The Island is called Paithana, after the principal city of the Satavahanas. It’s at the junction of trade routes, off the tip of Malaya Dwipa. Today it looked like a real city. Chandlers were working round the clock arranging supplies for the fleets crowding the bay. The captain was out of his depth trying to make ends meet. ‘My own residence was given up to lodge her, and I’m living in this shanty,’ he moaned.
‘Princess eh?’ Jaya Varma was all ears.
‘Yes, its Lady Gautami, the princess of Kamboja, named after the grand dowager, I’m told that she will be presented as a bride to the prince Pulomavi,’ the captain sighed, ‘she’s so exquisite and delicate, I wonder how she’ll endure a voyage like this.’
‘But what we need is just water and some pickled Danasari hibiscus weed to keep our men in shape,’ Jaya implored him, ‘you know, we’ll pay double.’
‘Uh huh admiral, the going price is more than double, already. But that’s not all; we have a message from the royal base at Manakkavaram, the commander is arriving with his frigates to escort you all. You know, the straits are not entirely safe, there’re instances when ships were caught unawares by headhunters.’
‘We have our own frigates to guard the treasure ships,’ he said as a matter-of-fact, ‘You see captain, my mother is traveling with me and I want to reach the mainland at the soonest.’
‘True sir, but isn’t it safer to go in a convoy? Anyway, our commander will be here later today and you may speak to him. By the way, I’m hosting a small banquet in honor of the princess and it would be my privilege to have the lady your mother and you as my guests. And, the princess, I’m sure, would be pleased to have a lady of her status for company.’
‘Certainly captain, it’s an honor,’ Jaya said contemplating the advantages of knowing the future queen of Andhra Empire.
The fleet of frigates flying the ‘Leonine Marque’ of the Satavahanas entered the bay, when the banquet was in progress. Commander of the fortress of Manakkavaram strode in. ‘Brothers Damila…’ his words echoed as the hall fell into sudden silence. Heads turned towards its source, and it looked worried. Princess Gautami, who had been the center of all the attention until then, found herself ignored the moment the dreaded words were uttered.
There was a time in the past not too distant when those words were the most feared in the southern sea. Brothers Damila ruled the sea lanes on both sides of Tamraparni. Their base Yampa was a fortress, rich beyond imagination, notorious for its misbegotten wealth. Abduction for ransom was their business. Stories of the towns sacked and the fleets ravaged were still fresh in their minds.
‘But… aren’t they gone?’
‘Yes Admiral Jaya, our navies have cast them out, it had taken three campaigns for ten years and a hundred frigates, personally led by the emperor Gautamiputra Satakarni himself, to drive the pirates out of our seas.’
‘So … Why worry then? We haven’t heard of them or any organized piracy in the eastern seas in a longtime. A few rare incidents of some hungry savages attacking a helpless boat are all that we know of, and we are more than prepared for them.’
As the conversation picked up, a few more men crowded around them, merchants who tagged their ships with the royal fleets, and seamen. ‘We’ve stopped plying the southern route,’ a merchant from Yavadwipa volunteered, ‘there are some rumors that the pirate brothers have taken refuge in the Suvarna Dwipa.’
‘Not just rumors,’ a merchant of Kaccha, the town at the northern tip of that island butted in, ‘we have reliable information that those bastards are recruiting, mostly local scum outlawed by their tribes.’
‘But they have no ships.’
‘Truth is… it doesn’t matter,’ someone said, ‘all they need to do is cross the hills on foot and they will be all over us at the narrowest part of the straits.’
‘But will they dare?’
‘There’s no telling, desperate men are difficult to predict.’
The words had a visible effect on Jaya Varma. He was suddenly agitated and turned to look at where his mother was sitting earlier, now deep in conversation with the princess. To him those two women were more precious than any treasure. He left the group and approached them.
‘Do we avoid the straits and go north… for an overland crossing?’ the princess asked.
‘No lady, the emperor’s edict is clear,’ he said, ‘all traffic of eastern sea must pass through the straits,’ his face betraying his unease.
‘Don’t we have enough men to fight our way through?’
‘Together we have a couple of hundred good men and the imperial troops probably a few more, enough if we can sail in a proper broad formation, but…’ he paused, ‘the straits are too narrow and we’ll be strung one behind the other, exposed to attacks from the shores.’
‘Can’t we have shore parties escorting the ships? Of course it may be slow and ponderous,’ his mother asked, who had been a silent spectator until then.
‘Normally lady, it would be the right thing to do,’ the commander of the imperial troops joined the conversation, bowing to the ladies with a flourish. ‘But the shore is cut into deep coves and that makes our enemy almost invisible.’
‘Hmm… surprise gives them advantage,’ said the old lady, thinking aloud, ‘then… you must have a decoy, my son, to draw them out in the open.’
‘That idea is worthy of an admiral, mother,’ Jaya Varma’s laughed aloud patting his own forehead, ‘why didn’t I think of it?’
A strategy began to take shape in his mind.
To be continued…
Two different coins of Vasiṣṭhīputra Pulomavi tell us a simple story but of profound importance in understanding the maritime accomplishments of Andhra Imperial dynasty in the lands across the eastern seas. One has his name in an ancient form of Telugu.
Here the letter ‘KU’ denotes the suffix of Ṣaṣṭhi Vibhakti and is unique to Telugu language. Therefore, these words represent the earliest form of written Telugu and the coin predates all other South Indian languages including Tamil by a few centuries. This is proof enough to say that a large part of the Śātavāhana Empire spoke Telugu. The other coin is made of lead. It has the representation of a ship. Probably he was the earliest king of Asia to have minted a coin with the picture of a ship.
The Roman accounts give us a clearer picture of the trade during the Śātavāhana period. The Indian ships on Arabian Sea appear to be smaller coastal ferries namely Tappagas and Cotymbas, which can be interpreted as Teppakaṭṭa and Kaṭṭamāru of the later days. Pliny says that the Roman ships visiting Callienapolis and Suppala are forcibly diverted to Barygaza, at least until Nahapana was defeated by Gautamīputra Śātakarṇi. It is proof enough to say that the preferred destinations of Roman oceangoing vessels were in the Andhra kingdom.
Whereas… on the east coast, two kinds of Indian Ocean vessels Colandifontia and Sangara carried on the trade. The descriptions of Sangara make it a compact single-mast vessel that carried hundred fighting men and probably used as a frigate to escort the cargo vessels. Colandifontus is a large cargo vessel with a mid-ship castle and twin masts. A thousand years later, Marco Polo called such Indian vessels as Collam-Coti.
‘Kalam’ means ship in Telugu and ‘Koṭa’ the fortress. So the first ever image of a ship represented on an Indian coin was made at the shipyards of Andhra Pradesh with a Telugu name, and they had dominated the Indian Ocean for over a thousand years.