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Writer and merchant marine enthusiast Joe D’Cruz says that the glorious maritime trade conducted from Korkai in ancient times has important lessons for today’s commercial shipping in India. The recent state budget has allocated funds for the underwater exploration of Korkai. D’Cruz says ships were owned and built by Indians then, but today few Indians own oceangoing merchant ships.

After almost five decades, the archeologists are back to Korkai – the ancient port city of Pandyas. Korkai is now a small village in Srivaikundam taluk of Tuticorin district. For all its fame as an ancient sea port, Korkai is not near the sea now. The coastline is more than five kilometers away and the place as of now is three kilometers north of Tamirabarani.

The booming port of Early Pandyas was once situated at the banks of River Tamirabarani converging with Bay of Bengal. Pearls, spices and commodities were shipped to many ports across the world from here. The river has changed its course and the port became heavily silted. As a result, the port moved to Pazhayakayal after 5th century. The state budget announced allocation for funds for underwater exploration of the area around Korkai.

In an interview to, Joe D’Cruz, author of the novel Korkai that narrates the lives of coastal people, shares his thoughts. The book, Korkai won the Sahitya Akademi award for the year 2013. Hailing from the community, D’Cruz has been studying the landscape for decades. He has nearly four decades of experience in commercial shipping.

Inmathi: Archaeologists are planning to do deep exploration of Korkai. As an author of the book on the same title, what are your thoughts?
Joe D’Cruz: Korkai means to me the efficient administration of our early Tamil kings and their understanding of maritime trade. Periplous of Erythrean Sea written in the first century talks about ports including Korkai called as Colkhi in the book. The book says Musiris – the thriving sea port in Pandya kingdom – was very well maintained. The book talks in volumes about the commodities traded from the ports of Pandyas. It details how the cargo traveled from Mediterranean Sea to Red Sea ports and the forward journey from Mosylon port of Eritrea that is Horn of Africa towards the Indian ports on Western Coast starting from Gujarat to southern Tamil Nadu. The ancient kingdoms knew the importance of maritime trade which is evident from Periplous.

While our ancient rulers knew the importance of vessel ownership, I don’t think we have such understanding now.

Inmathi: You speak about the efficient administration of maritime trade of ancient Korkai. How do you define this efficiency?
Joe D’Cruz: The early rulers aligned port management, ownership of the vessels, sailors and traders at a single point. The coastal people knew the sea had a crucial role to play in this alignment. Having understood the dynamics of sea currents and trade winds, they owned vessels and navigated them. The rulers administered the port and facilitated business. The multimode transport we talk about these days existed even then as the cargo travelled on road by horse or camel back, river transport and sea route. The cargo traversed many kingdoms. And, the kingdoms recognized the agreements of multimodal transport undertaken by the traders. Trade flourished. Even with better facilities, I don’t think we have such alignment at present.

Inmathi: Why do you say there is no such alignment?
Joe D’Cruz: The centre recently recognized the importance of administering the ports better and undertook an ambitious project called Sagarmala. New ports were constructed but the existing old ports, especially minor ports, were ignored. We should have ideally undertaken SWOT on big and small ports. While the central government was so keen on developing ports, I am not sure how much they understand the importance of vessel ownership and navigation of such vessels.

Inmathi: Can you explain to us the ownership and navigation?
Joe D’Cruz: According to statistics, India has just one percent of shipowners in the world. Indian vessels carry only seven percent of entire cargo ferried to and from from the country. Foreign vessels are catering to maritime trade in India. By developing the ports into world class facilities, we are throwing a banquet for these foreign ship owners. While our ancient rulers knew the importance of vessel ownership, I don’t think we have such understanding now. Forget about the ancient navigators, they are reduced to mere fishermen at present. So, most of our skilled mariners from coastal regions are now working for international maritime companies.

Inmathi: So what should our governments do at this juncture?
Joe D’Cruz: The international freight market is booming post Covid19. Singapore was charging zero freight charges some years ago due to the demand for containers. Now, the charge of freight per container to Singapore ranges from 500 to 600 US dollars. It is not enough to develop just the ports. We should develop vessel ownership among our Indian entrepreneurs. We should be able to utilize the manpower of mariners going abroad. Once upon a time, India and China collectively controlled world trade and were equal powers. We are nowhere near China in world trade now. If we don’t arrest this drain of foreign exchange on freight, we may end up in an economic catastrophe over the course of time.

Inmathi: Do you think the governments are keen on these reforms?
Joe D’Cruz: When the Cholas established their supremacy after 10th century, Rajendra Chola invaded Kadaram – present day Malaysia – to help traders. During the expeditions of trade guilds, the Chola princes’ flagships sailed ahead of the convoy. The maritime vessel owners and exim traders were given due importance in Chola kings’ courts. Sadly, the present rulers are not looking at Korkai or its civilization. They are keen to discover Saraswati River civilization – apparently it never existed. Would they learn the lessons Korkai has to offer? I have my doubts.

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