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The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History

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Much of human history has played itself out along the rim of the Indian Ocean. In a first-of-its-kind attempt, bestselling author Sanjeev Sanyal tells the history of this significant region, which stretches across East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent to South East Asia and Australia. He narrates a fascinating tale about the earliest human migrations out of Africa and the great cities of Angkor and Vijayanagar; medieval Arab empires and Chinese ‘treasure fleets’; the rivalries of European colonial powers and a new dawn.

Sanjeev explores remote archaeological sites, ancient inscriptions, maritime trading networks and half-forgotten oral histories, to make exciting revelations. In his inimitable style, he draws upon existing and new evidence to challenge well-established claims about famous historical characters and the flow of history. Adventurers, merchants, explorers, monks, swashbuckling pirates, revolutionaries and warrior princesses populate this colourful and multifaceted narrative.

The Ocean of Churn takes the reader on an amazing journey through medieval geopolitics and eyewitness accounts of long-lost cities to the latest genetic discoveries about human origins, bringing alive a region that has defined civilization from the very beginning.

346 pages, Hardcover

First published August 10, 2016

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About the author

Sanjeev Sanyal

15 books432 followers
Sanjeev Sanyal is an economist, urban theorist and writer. He grew up in Sikkim, Kolkata and Delhi before heading off to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He spent the tumultuous summer of 1993 in South Africa as it transitioned from apartheid, and then extensively travelled through Guatemala as it emerged from civil war. These experiences made him a keen observer of rapidly changing societies, an interest that reflects in many of his varied writings.

Sanjeev spent most of his adult life battling international financial markets, a few years in Mumbai and many in Singapore. One day in 2008, mostly on a whim, he decided to move back to India and travel all over the country with his family. This resulted in his hugely popular second book, Land of the Seven Rivers. Then in 2011, again for no particular reason, he went back to finance and took up a role as the global strategist of one of the world’s largest banks. He also spent the next few years exploring the Indian Ocean rim—Oman, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar, Vietnam, Indonesia, and up and down India’s coastline. These travels resulted in The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History.

Currently Sanjeev lives in New Delhi where he serves as the principal economic adviser to the Indian government.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 254 reviews
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
653 reviews6,929 followers
August 26, 2017
A thoroughly enjoyable voyage across the Indian Ocean with Sanjeev Sanyal. Sanyal has clearly gone from strength to strength since his last work and his command over the narrative, and engagement of the reader is admirable now. A challenging task is taken up here, since the sweep of time and geography to be covered in a short book like this is ambitious to say the least. Sanyal pulls it off quite handsomely, it has to be said, even though oversimplification and a few biases color the narrative in many places - but I appreciated the fact that in a few instances where Sanyal gives us an overtly divergent view of events, he admits that he is showing us such a version of history only to make us question the established stories we have accepted to date. That is a interesting way to engage the reader in a history book and I liked how that allows the author to trot out pet theories and still allow himself the guise of a serious historian.

My biggest gripe with the book was the amount of space dedicated to the pre-historic migrations, and the constant references to the aryan invasion theory. However, this can be excused to an extent since Sanyal does use that background to keep pointing us towards how certain patterns in the history of the Indian Ocean rim seem to repeat themselves over millennia... It might be more imagined than real, these patterns, but it gives the book that sense of a grand sweep, and a mystique to the ocean rim itself.

Much of the actual history should be familiar territory for most readers (assuming people who pick up a niche book like this would tend to be history buffs), but the narrative created by Sanyal and the enjoyment of reading a well-narrated, well-researched, and articulate history by a young Indian author more than makes up for it.
Profile Image for Kumar Anshul.
203 reviews30 followers
August 27, 2016
How come the fossil remains of marine animals have been found in Himalayas?

How come we can see oriental faces in the engravings by Pallavas?

Why did Vasco Da Gama worshipped in a Hindu Temple when he set his foot in India for the first time?

How come the Parsi Community of India embraced the local Gujarati culture so effortlessly?

Yeah, you guessed it right- This books has not only answers, but also profound explanations of all the above mentioned (and many more) questions.

History has been prescribed in our curriculum right from the primary school. But if you will ponder a bit, its easy to realize that the entire curriculum is heavily skewed towards "Mainland History". While we discuss Ashoka and Akbar in great lengths, a minuscule space is given to the Cholas, Chalukyas and Pallavas. We talk at lengths about Ashoka and Akbar but conveniently forget Kharavela.

In this groundbreaking, one-of-its-kind book, Sanjeev Sanyal retraces History from the Indian Ocean's and its coastline's perspective. The book start right from the origin of Indian Ocean due to the movement of tectonic plates and ends right at the transformation of Bombay to Mumbai with the reclamation of land over the ocean. The book is full of rich details of all kingdoms that throve around the Indian coastline and islands on Indian ocean and of also those that had cultural and trade ties with these kingdoms. Some of the anecdotes are a delight to read while many others get a bit dragging and prosaic- but it doesn't undermine the fact that the book is an extremely informative account and is a result of an honest and meticulous hard work of author. Some details in this book will challenge your notions and previous knowledge of history with new insights and a different perspective while others will make you go bewildered about the richness and obscurity of our ancient times.

A heartfelt thanks to Penguin Books India for providing The BookTrack team with a review copy of the book. Please buy a copy of this book from Amazon and start a literary ride which will increase your knowledge quotient for sure-http://amzn.to/2bpQwgb

Find out more interesting reviews on The Booktrack- https://thebooktrack.wordpress.com/
Profile Image for Jaya.
428 reviews222 followers
September 30, 2016
I did hope to be impressed which unfortunately I wasn't while reading this one.
I did hope to find some intensive if not extensive history of the diasporic movement around and across the Indian Ocean, what I did get was a quick tour of the region and those beyond it spreading across centuries and civilizations, right from the Prehistoric times to the recent past.
I did hope to read of those unknown sailors, pirates, local merchants, lascars, what I got...well I did not get what the author had hinted in his first chapter. This still appeared to be a narrative from the top not of the subalterns...

Having said that, if you want to know about the whats and whos without being bogged down by conjectures and analysis or theories, then go for this book.

Ohh and I am definitely going to check out the references from which the author has cited a lot of information in the book!
Profile Image for Arun Divakar.
796 reviews368 followers
December 2, 2016
The author of this book, Sanjeev Sanyal makes a credible statement on an obvious shortcoming with a majority of historic narratives. In a planet where 71% are covered by the oceans, our history is almost completely rooted on the land. Sanyal in his book sets out to look at history from the Indian Ocean’s perspective. The Indian Ocean encompasses Africa, Asia and Australasia in its fold what happens against the backdrop of this sea is rich, varied and instrumental to world history. The narrative draws inspiration from the namesake of the ocean itself and is almost fully if not completely India centric.

The course of events that the author chooses is pretty much well-trodden territory starting right from the first large migrations of humanoids across landscapes, the breakup of the super continent, colonization of Australia and so forth down to the rise of sedentary civilizations. The Persians and Greeks are given passing references and the narrative shifts almost completely to India once Alexander departs from the subcontinent. The first pan Indian empire was established following the battle between Chandragupta Maurya (Sandracottus in Greek) and Seleucus Nicator which led to Mauryan domination across the sub-continent. This was followed by a succession of dynasties with the Sungas, Satavahanas, Rashtrakutas and Guptas to the north and the Cholas, Cheras and Pandiyas to the south. This wave was followed by the Islamic sultanates and the Mughals who then left the stage for the rise of the Marathas. The dynasties all wound down with the rise of the English East India Company and the British colonization of India and the rest is pretty famous history. All of these get ample attention from Sanyal and the narrative also features cameos by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the French.

In reality these events stretched out over centuries and yet Sanyal captures it all in a gap of just a few chapters. The hues of the individual stories range from the totally daring ( how the British sneaked away the seedlings for cloves and nutmegs from Dutch control) to the depressing ( the Portuguese arrival and subsequent carnage in Calicut) to the gallant ( Marthanda Varma defeating the Dutch at the battle of Kolachal) and all of which have made significant forks in the highways of history. Sanyal compresses the stories into a quick read and while this is the biggest highlight of the book, it is also the book’s undoing.

Brevity in terms of historical narratives might not always be the best way to treat a reader since a lot of details and explanations are sacrificed for the sake of easy readability and this malady strikes the narrative heavily. To borrow from Stephen King it is as if the flow of events are hurrying by in a rush to get out in a whoosh while stumbling and jostling with each other. There is also the fact that Sanyal’s narrative is prejudiced for a few reasons. At the onset itself, he discounts the fact that there has been an Aryan invasion at all across the sub-continent and without valid proof. All that you get are phrases like ‘we know that’ or ‘as we know’ to substantiate the claims. As to how ‘we know that’ is not explained. The tone is also rather careless at places, let me illustrate with a piece from the book :

The analysis of the DNA extracted from the remains of European hunter-gatherers suggests that lighter skin may have spread among Europeans as recently as 5000 BC (i.e. after the migration) although I suspect some pre-existing north European populations may have become light-skinned much earlier.

Now I understand that Sanyal is an amateur historian but telling us that he suspects something is not ground enough for our solid understanding of a concept. I did come across multiple usages of my guess is or I think here and as fellow readers I don’t have to tell you what that counts for when we talk about history. And much like the Aryan theory there are personalities and groups he discards summarily. For instance while the kingdoms of the coast are all lauded, a king like Ashoka is given a critical eye. Sanyal begins his sub-chapter on Ashoka calling it ‘Ashoka – the not so great ?’. A similar treatment is meted out for Gandhi and the Indian National Congress while Subhash Chandra Bose and the armed revolutionaries are treated with awe. The contributions of all these cannot be discounted and yet it tells a lot on the personal biases from the author’s side. Needless to say a lot of filtering needs to be done before the contents of the book can be consumed.

Recommended for the story but not the history.
Profile Image for Ujjwala Singhania.
198 reviews44 followers
January 9, 2017
Another good book by Sanyal. The best thing about Sanyal's writing style is he does not force feed you his beliefs, like some other history writers. He puts forth the hypothesis, set out facts, give assumptions, deductions, conclusions, and then leave it with readers to explore for more.

The use of fables, folklore and tongue-in-cheek lines have kept the book from becoming a dry commentary.

After reading Savarkar's Six Glourious Epochs of Indian History, this book again brings out the rich history of our sub-continent which has been suppressed for ages. Its only in the last few years that we have started questioning what we have been told for decades about our history. The stories we have been told by our grandparents were forgotten because in most cases it did not match with what we have been taught at school/colleges, but these books give them credence and make us question what we have believed to be true. The truth seems something different shrouded under a thick grey film which needs to be dusted and brought out to light.

The attempt by authors like Sanyal to bring out new perspective on our history is a commendable and it will make us question and explore rather than blindly believing everything we are told.
Profile Image for Pradeep T.
121 reviews19 followers
December 8, 2016
Being a regular reader of the history I was fascinated by this book by the author Sanjeev Sanyal. Having read his previous book "Land of the Seven Rivers" I was all eager to read this new book. In his previous book, he talked about the seven important rivers of India including the mighty Saraswati River. The Land of seven rivers was summed up in one line as “Seven Rivers (Sapth Sindhu), One Country, Five Millennia, Startling History”.

Asian histories have been rendered in a biased manner since time immemorial. As a famous saying that goes, until an animal has its own history, the history of the hunting will always glorify the hunter. If we take any history curriculum in Indian education system, we can read leaps and bounds of Mughul Empire, the British regime, the Sultanates and such similar accounts.

Unfortunately, we won’t be able to read the histories of Cholas, Pandyas, Pallavas in greater detail and their glories have been limited to few pages here and there. This book, one of a kind in its genre, breaks that stupor and gives us a riveting account of how the Indian Ocean has shaped the human history. Indian Ocean is itself a big mystery. It holds many unresolved or undiscovered history that is hidden deep into its core. Author Sanjeev Sanyal tried to uncover this in this vast researched and well articulated book and succeeded in satiating his readers.

The book opens up by a fascinating tale of how the Pallava dynasty has traced an heir to their Kingdom when the erstwhile King, Parameshwara Verman II died in 731 CE. A delegation of Brahmin scholars, which travelled across the Indian Ocean to the far ends of Cambodia, and got back an heir that traced his roots to the Pallava dynasty from five long generations ago!! Thus, the reign of Nandi Verman II has started.

Sanjeev Sanyal views this history as Complex Adaptive System. Given his background in Economics, where he considers multiple factors act upon a system to determine the direction it takes. From Harrappan times, Indians have been trading with the world in many ways. Maritime trading is the major aspect during those times when land routes were hardly discovered. The powerful Chola king, Rajendra Chola made a naval attack on the Sri Vijaya Kingdom of Sumatra by 1025 is one such example. Chola Empire was one of the powerful empires in the entire South Asia region during that time. There were a major geo-political-economic alliances or rivalries between Indians, Chinese and the Sri Vijaya Kingdom.

Kerala being the hub of the maritime trade have witnessed a vast amount of geo-political-economic tradeoffs. As a testimony to those, even today in Kerala, we have the world’s second Mosque and India’s first mosque (Cheraman Perumal Mosque) built by the king Cherman Perumal by the orders of Mohammed the prophet himself in 629 AD. We also get to see the memorial of St. Thomas (doubting Thomas fame), a disciple of Jesus, who visited Kerala via sea route.

Read the full review here
Profile Image for Hrishikesh.
205 reviews260 followers
September 12, 2016
The best thing about this book is the focus on South India. Indian History is far too Delhi-centric, and it is good that an emminental readable and well-studied account of the South is now presented. The author has a knack of combining the studies of Geography and History, and the book does not disappoint one bit. What I particularly enjoyed is the use of anecdotes to stitch together broader historical patterns. The book also does not pull back on punches and focused on key areas such as the cultural interlinkage of the Indian Ocean Region, and the cruelty of colonial rule. My.only complaint is that the book is more "horizontal" than "vertical", in so much as that certain sections of the book lack in depth. That, however, is a function of the author's prerogative and the reader's discretion, and beyond this the book is excellent. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Akash Datta.
21 reviews
April 22, 2022
Book Review: The Ocean of Churn
Author:
Publisher:
Point:7/10
I am going excited by thinking that if our history books of school have been such cool as this book. Without any propaganda, it tells about the glorious past and culture of India.
The book starts with the incident of Nandi Varman 2 being the king of Pallava kingdom. Our history books reacts like that there was no past of our India before the invaders invaded India, that results immense coloniality in the mind of students. But Sanyal explained the history of the Pallavas, Cholas, Pandyas, Cheras and many more Indic dynasties. The book is mainly based on how our Indiawas connected with the World through the Indian ocean for business and exchange of culture. For telling the real history, sometimes Sanyal used folk stories which are dismissed by left historians. Sanyal also tried to give historical relevance to this folk stories. Sanyal also explained how our ancestors used lunar days for sailing in the Indian ocean. Many of Indian festivals that are still being celebrated by the people of coastline areas are based on the dispatch of the sailors of ancient times.
The book explained the history of Indian ocean from when it formed. Then Sanyal explained how the ancient people came to India and inhabited in it. The book completely destroyed the propaganda of Aryan invasion theory and gave explanations of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation.
This book also distorted the “great" image of Ashoka with proves and facts. It also descripted the rise of a great Hindu king Kharvela from Kalinga. Today’s Jai Bhim-Jai mim theory is completely based on the theories of Hindu-Buddhist rivalry. But Sanyal explained how Hindus and Buddhists respected each other and even many of Sinhalese monestaries are having many shrines till nowadays.
The book also describes how invaders came to India to conquer it and how Indic resistances were faced them. Many of our history books are based on the perspective of a person, but this book is based on the perspective from the Indian ocean towards the land.
Profile Image for Aditya Kulkarni.
85 reviews34 followers
March 1, 2018
It is really an outstanding book. A friend of mine recommended Sanjeev Sanyal to me and I started reading his books in the chronological order in which he has written them. I guess that was a good decision from my end because I have liked each book more than the previous one and this is quite easily the best from him so far. Very often than not, when we speak of history, we restrict ourselves to the terrestrial form of history and restrict ourselves to a history of a particular country or land.

In this book, Sanjeev Sanyal writes about the maritime history and how the Indian Ocean was impacted by it and how it impacted the affairs of the world. The book tries to answer a lot of questions such as why is the South East Asian culture so similar to Indian culture. Why is Bali still predominantly a Hindu island despite the rest of Indonesia being home to the largest Muslim population in the world?

The book gives a good idea about the history of all the countries that share links with the Indian Ocean which includes India, Indonesia, Australia, Sri Lanka, and so on. Indian Ocean is the only ocean out of the four which is named after a country and after reading this book, you'll know the answer why is it so. The Indian subcontinent played a vital role in the global trade for a large part of history and a lot of this was possible because of the Indian Ocean.
Profile Image for A Man Called Ove.
898 reviews217 followers
September 30, 2016
2.5/5 For the most part it read like a school textbook, too much information of dates and names cramped into few pages with urgency. More of information than on insights/analysis. Also, felt a lack of continuity and depth.
Profile Image for Vishnu Chevli.
650 reviews558 followers
September 2, 2021
A good book. A good book covering historical importance of Indian Ocean over history of mankind
Profile Image for Abhishek.
74 reviews6 followers
May 23, 2020
There aren’t many books which make you feel thankful that you came across them. The Ocean of Churn, by Sanjeev Sanyal, is definitely one of them. For quite some time I’ve wanted to read a book which would give an accurate and vivid description of how civilization came to be, especially around the Indian subcontinent. Few people could tell the story in such a concise manner as has the author, as we wade through the origin of Homo Sapiens right up to the bustling cosmopolitan 21st century behemoth that the area has now become.

Choosing to focus on how the Indian Ocean has been “churning” civilization, is what makes this book stand out. When we read history, we focus a lot on wars and politics happening on land, and tend to overlook the vast role that the oceans play, be it exchange of ideas, maritime trade, or enabling migrations back and forth across centuries, resulting in a cocktail of culture and ecosystems and technological advancements.

It was fascinating to read how humanity overcame a variety of odds, ever since the ice ages and expanded in ways we can scarcely imagine. We learn how migrations out of Africa led to a variety of settlements from Iraq to Australia and India to Indonesia. We read about the rise and fall of the Harappan civilization, Alexander’s conquests which led to rise of the Mauryan empire, the golden age of the Guptas, the rise of Islam, the Turkish invasions, the southern kingdoms of Cheras, Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas and their breadth of influence across East Asia, the reoccupation of Sri Lanka by various Tamil kings and later European colonizers, the colonization process which started with the establishment of Dutch and English trading companies and how we finally achieved Independence and helped other colonies achieve their own independence as well.

Throughout these eras, maritime trade is a constant theme, and has largely impacted how history was shaped in these places. It is what explains the presence of the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, as it does of the voyages of Fa Xien and Vasco da Gama. Easily, reading about the sea faring enterprises was the best part of this book.

I was particularly pleased with the larger perspective that the book emphasizes throughout. People and events in history are judged by different standards, and what shaped their actions then might not be looked at kindly by people from a different era. The converse is also true. Hence, we find out that Ashoka wasn’t as “great” as we think he was, just as we learn Netaji wasn’t as “fascist” as history makes him look for joining hands with the Germans and Japanese. It was also heartening to note the role of various revolutionaries who were as much, if not more responsible for our freedom than Gandhi and Nehru were, and leaves one with a bitter taste when we realize how little we actually learn about them in contemporary history.

Going through so many layers of history leaves one with a sense of awe, disbelief and a certain measure of sadness over the constant pursuit of wealth and the destruction that human greed has caused, but, in spite of that, the very fact that millennia old traditions continue to survive and thrive in this subcontinent is a testament to the lesson which the author concludes with - that time devours the greatest of men and the mightiest of empires.
Profile Image for Saravana Sastha Kumar.
180 reviews3 followers
January 4, 2022
What a fantastic book in about 280 pages that gives a great peek into the history of the Indian Ocean rim. Only a scholar and orientalist like Sanjeev Sanyal could have done such a great job. This book sets up well to explore the massive tome on the topic by great historians like R.C. Majumdar.
17 reviews3 followers
September 15, 2022
A glorious journey across eras, countries and empires, akin to a time machine.
The book clocks a first, in documenting the grand sweep of human history from the locus of the Indian Ocean; the only major water body in the world, named after a country. By the end of the book, the reason for this seems so obvious. India’s influence on the rest of Asia and the Middle East since ancient times, has been significant; whether cultural, economic or religious. Certain civilisational links and practices continue and thrive across the region to this day, and the Indian Ocean was the channel through which this diffusion was possible.

We read of daring adventurers who risked all to settle new lands and make a life, merchant guilds who kept the wheels of trade and industry smoothly turning and ensured India’s supremacy in global manufacturing and GDP until the advent of the colonisers. The coming of the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, French, and English was an onslaught that changed the face of history forever.

Overall, a highly recommended read that forces one to relook the version of history as told from the Western point of view, presented with just the right amount of humour and details; with the grand expanse of the Indian Ocean underlying it all.
Profile Image for Mallika Saharia.
48 reviews83 followers
December 30, 2018
What I loved most about this book was how the entire chronology of the evolution of trade along the Indian Ocean has been discretised into small, palatable stories. Coincidentally, I took this book along with me while travelling to Singapore and Indonesia- that made it even more fascinating for me to trace back observations/ seeming similarities to possible origins in different parts of our country. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this book!
Profile Image for Sahila Kudalkar.
7 reviews8 followers
March 12, 2017

Before you start reading, be aware that this work, perhaps like all of history itself, is subjective. The Ocean of Churn is a well-researched book, but is influenced by Sanyal's own beliefs (especially towards the end with phrases such as 'stifled by the social economist model imposed by Nehru', or his silence on how the Mughals ruled post the brutal raids by Md. Ghori and the like). Some parts of the book seem speculative such as 'It was commonly argued by colonial-era scholars that India was not a country but merely a geographical term...' and one wishes Sanyal had tried to explain how a scattering of kingdoms makes a country.

Despite all these shortcomings, and parts where Sanyal expresses a potential hypothesis on the basis of his feelings alone (could have been phrased better perhaps), this is a wonderful and refreshing narrative of the evolution of the civilisation in the Indian Ocean. Sanyal's work is informed by the latest findings in archaeology in the region and makes a conscious effort to depart from the Euro-centric viewpoint that Indian textbooks propagate. The writing style is simple, focusing on stories and legends to put forth an idea and supporting it with recent findings of archaeological research.

The first chapter of the book is especially informative and debunks the Aryan invasion theory commonly used to explain how humans entered India. Sanyal traces how Indian civilisation evolved, suggests humans adopted agriculture while building stone monuments as recorded in Turkey and Java, wonders if the Harappan civilisation collapsed as a result of climate change affecting river Saraswati, follows trade routes to Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, suggests the Sinhalese descend from Odisha. He focuses on coastal history, as compared to the terrestrial versions we are used to and goes on to explain how matrilineal societies might have evolved on the coast, how human movement between Southeast Asia and India might have affected the fate of the Pallava dynasty, how temples functioned as banks for merchant guilds, and how religion, spices and cultural exchange enriched the region. However, the Turkic invasion and the subsequent Mughal sultanate are given little space, besides to document the brutality of the initial invasions, for example the destruction of Nalanda and Vikramshila universities, and annihilation of Hampi. The European dominion is similarly described in a few pages, but is remarkable for (i) highlighting the brutality of 'civilising natives' e.g. Puputan or The Last Stand by the Balinese against the Dutch (ii) capturing the geopolitical compulsions of the period.

All in all, this is a great refresher book on Indian history and should be read by anyone who has ever wondered about the complex tangle of social, cultural, language and religious links that connect India and her neighbours.
Profile Image for Pankaj Kumar.
28 reviews3 followers
April 29, 2018
An interesting read about the maritime history surrounding the Indian ocean. The author has done a great job exploring the means how the trade right since the Harappan Era has shaped the civilizations in and around the Indian Ocean. He also challenges with facts the racist belief of the superior race of "Aryans" shaping the history of the world.
The author starts by describing the Harappan civilization in BCE, gradually progressing in the time line to show how the trade in the east coast closely influenced both the economy and politics of SE-Asia. The stories of a prince from Orissa establishing the Sinhalese kingdom, of a prince from the Naga clan in Malay ruling the Cholas are quite interesting and makes one wonder whether globalization is truly a new phenomena? The author then tunnels through time to show the evolution of younger religions of Islam and Christianity and how they influenced the civilizations. Through the stories of war, valor and destruction one may be able to get the essence of the rivalries that exist till date. The author finally moves to modern history describing the rise and fall of European powers ending finally with World War-II.
He also challenges some of the long held norms about empires, religion and kings of old. We consider Turks to be Ancient India's nemesis, but were the Portuguese any less? Was Ashoka really the great? Was Tipu Sultan actually a selfless freedom fighter? Was Indian Independence achieved through the work of one man/party?
Reading through the book makes you see the other side of people that is not shown in the school textbooks we have read our history from and neither in the grand palaces we visit today in memory of so called "great" rulers. At the same time the author talks about many such unsung heroes who did great acts of heroics for the country or dynasty but are now no where in the books we read. For example, how many of us know about the heroic act of the erstwhile CM of Orissa - Shri. Biju Pattnaik that decided the future of Singapore as we know today.
Overall two key takeaways apart from the book apart from the enlightening history were: 1) The world is never black or white, it only has a varying shade of grey, 2) Time is the greatest of all entities, it has both the power to raise and devour the greatest of all empires and emperors.
Profile Image for Renuka Govind.
55 reviews21 followers
November 9, 2018
This book starts with a really promising note but as it moves further, I started seeing multiple glaring issues with it. I really wanted to like this book and I had picked it up with great expectations but sadly I have to leave it in half.
My two main issues with this books are, writer makes multiple assumptions without backing of sufficient historical data. Assumptions are something that are part and parcel of historian's work however it is important to display both sides of the arguments which author fails to do. Sanjeev Sanyal is an economist so it is quite obvious that he looks at history from Marxist point of view but it is methodology of history where he lacks. His presentation of history is outstanding but at certain instances, his ideology and personal biases show through the book clearly.
My first problem with the book was portrayal of Ashoka. I completely agree that we don't have clear picture of history when it comes to Mauryan period however Ashoka in this book has been looked at through Buddhist and Jain sources alone without the context of time and space. There are 500+ Ashokan edicts throughout India and to ridicule all of them by saying Ashoka was praising himself seems stretch of truth. Moreover compared to edicts, Jain and Buddhist sources had something to gain by portraying Ashoka in certain ways. Since Ashoka accepted Buddhism, Buddhist sources wanted to portray him as a monster in early life who became saint due to Buddhist philosophy and same can be said about Jain sources.
Another glaring issue was the whole issue of us vs them. Muslim invaders have been looked at as enemies whereas hindus have been looked at as victims which for me is stark portrayal of current hindutva philosophy. Mention of King Suhaldev was the last straw for me. Because Suhaldev is someone who is brought forward by hindutva historians to portray valour of hindus in front of "them" muslim invaders. But in history, origin of Suhaldev is shady and it is only through oral tradition that people hear his name. Oral history without backing of written history stands on extremely shaky grounds and its authenticity becomes questionable.
Many such instances are present throughout the book due to which I just could not continue.
Profile Image for Harshad Sharma.
43 reviews21 followers
November 21, 2016
This is a fascinating read of how Indian Ocean influenced India History. We forget that the major portion of contemporary Indian history is always a narrative from the inland empirical view. This book flies in the face of that school of thought that the power center of India has always been inland in Delhi or that there India has been a land based land route trading empire..

Moreover and the thing i like the most about this book is the fascinating stories of simple people, simple traders and people long forgotten by Indian Historians who achieved magnificent feats. The Warrior Queens of Ullal who fought and repulsed the Portuguese from India Western Coast. and , Marthanda Varma, the ruler of Travancore who defeated the Dutch in a Navel Battle and ended their dream of colonial empire. The nameless soldiers who fought in from Greco-Persian Wars to the WW2 for other's cause.

This book gives us the missing link in the Indian history, so many people made India what it is, and left their influence on the world, the Southern Kingdoms on India of Cholas and Pandyas, the Chalukyas and vakatakas, the matrilineal customs of South-India passed on to the Majapahit empire and Angkor empires of South-East Asia which was the direct result of oceanic trade between India and the south east Asia which in return is the result of Eastern Asia having so many powerful female leaders while Western coast of Indian Ocean have almost none.

The mid-15th 16th century competition between the European powers to share the immense wealth flowing in Indian Ocean, the opium wars, the brutal massacre in Indonesia by the dutch,the naval mutiny for the Indian independence which is all but forgotten, the modernization of the region and emerging of trade super hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong, Indian Ocean always have been churning and producing fascinating results and is still churning, who knows what the future hold for us.
Profile Image for Pratik Rath.
42 reviews13 followers
November 15, 2021
3.5/5 really. Sanjeev's writing has improved tremendously since his first book which I found pretty poorly written. Nevertheless he is no William Dalrymple or Ram Guha.

This book should be thought of as an amateur historian's attempt at bringing our attention to done extremely interesting and unknown facts. There's no doubt I learned a lot from this book and I wish a lot more about the greatness of India's civilizational impact would be taught in school history. The book does a good job of overviewing the history of a lot of countries connected by the Indian ocean with a maritime perspective on things compared to the typical Delhi centric vision of Indian history. The close connections between India and the countries in southeast Asia as well as the Gulf is fascinating.

A special thanks to the author for bringing up things about Odisha that I was completely unaware of ranging from the Jain influence and Kharavela's revenge to the origins of the Sinhalese people.

Overall, I think this book is worth reading. It added a lot more compared to the few talks I had listened to from Sanjeev where he emphasizes some of the motifs of this book such as the importance of matrilineal heritage. The writing is a little dry but it certainly has passages that are quite fascinating. More so it shows that the author is a pretty well traveled person with a lot of personal experiences that are sprinkled through the book making it a little more interesting.
Profile Image for Deepanjan Roy.
1 review2 followers
October 9, 2016
Awesome Read


Awesome Read that opens up new vistas of knowledge for anyone interested in how what we are today is a sythesis of what we did yesterday
Profile Image for Abhijeet Borkar.
57 reviews39 followers
January 9, 2023
3 - 3.5 stars.

It's a better book than his first, "Land of the Seven Rivers". Better written and covers more regions. But it suffers from similar issues. The writing feels like a few shallow articles cobbled together to make a book. The details are quite shallow. It feels more of a "here's what extremely India-centric history that happened around the Indian Ocean" book, rather than a book about showing a thesis of how the Indian Ocean was crucial for human/world history.

Might be a good book for novices to sink their teeth into, but there are much better books around if you want a history of regions around the Indian Ocean.
Profile Image for Anonymous.
146 reviews12 followers
June 24, 2021
Concise proved, unproved legacies around the Indian Ocean Region.

Wherever the Indians went they settled and rather than trying to impose their culture and convert the native forcefully, they influenced unlike European colonisers. I wonder how much aware the contemporary European population is of the brutalities enacted by their predecessors.

Long long ago when sea level was down allowing 150kms of coastal access than present borders, our ancestors got stoned and planned for world tour. They were the ones who actually lived the saying “When in Rome do as the Romans do” by mating with native beings like Neanderthals, Denisovans et. al. They were the original colonisers.

Me* gloating that India dominated the erstwhile world for several millennia. And we have original population in many regions be it SE Asia or Middle east.
Ethiopian: Fool! We’re the original human beings.
(Silence)
Me: The joke is on you coz most groups emigrated. And remaining would have succumbed to invading genes in later period.
Ethiopian: Even you Indians aren’t Indians. They’re us.
Me: -_-!


Merchants of Meluha
Agriculture and crop introduction from different regions such as barley, wheat, rice; Domestication of cattle; Appearance of horse dating back to stone age.
Polarisation and political affiliations.
Rise and fall of civilisations: Arid-ification and loss of evidences.
Indus Saraswati Valley: The one and only USA of copper age without any Chinese competition. Except for the fact that it was actually India (and Pakistan as of recently), and Indian diaspora is much older than you think. Those were the golden days when you didn’t require Visa. The Great Depression around 2000BCE affected Mesopotamia, Egypt, Jiroft, Indus-Saras civilisations.
South India became Wakanda with their version of vibranium ie. Iron as early as 2400BCE. But times change, what’s iron today!
Indians weren’t satisfied with their population in the subcontinent so around 4th millennium BP they decided to migrate, they went as far as Australia and mated with the locals resulting in Austronesian and Austroasiatic groups. Aah! now we know India’s original population. Since, there was much of male migration, the females were generally rooted which resulted to matrilineal kinship in SE Asia, NE India.

Kharavela’s Revenge
Ports between Chilika lake to Ganga delta dating back to 2nd millennium BCE suggest that Indians were the authentic wanderlusts.
Well the tale tell of cinnamon extraction in The Histories by Herodotus is actually a fact. It was a method among many for diamond extraction in Golconda region in 13th century as mentioned by Marco Polo.
Author describes Ashoka as a fundamentalist and his inscriptions mere political propaganda. Later around 185BCE Kharavela king avenges the Kalinga war of 262BCE following which declares himself chakravarti defeating Satvahanas and Pandyas.

Kaundinya’s Wedding
2nd century BCE: Monsoon played a crucial role in ancient maritime trade. The cycle of trade used to start with the retreating monsoon from the ports of Bengal-Odisha in mid-November. From Sri Lanka the ships headed towards Sumatra/Swarnadwipa then to Java/Yavadwipa, Borneo, Vietnam through strait of malacca. They returned in mid-march through counter ocean currents to Sri Lanka and back north with SW Monsoon in May.
These economic exchanges paved way for cultural ones. Did you know paan is originally from SE Asia?
Who says India has a history of not invading in the past 10,000 years? We didn’t plunder them, we just settled there with them gradually dominating them.
Did you know that Kerala, India is home to one of the earliest Jewish refugees dating back to 70AD?
And we learn that European colonisation was but a revenge of economic exploits by Indian traders some millennium ago.

Arabian Knights
Golden age of Classical India under the Guptas.
Fa Xian’s exploration.
The shift of dominant Indian cultural influence on SE Asia from Odia to Tamil as Pallava influence grew in the region through Indianised kingdoms around 6th century CE.
The birth and rise of Islam.
India was globalised way before the west even coined the word.
Did you know that probably the Damascus sword was made with Indian steel tech.?

Merchants, Temples and Rice
Chronicles of Indianised kingdoms in SE Asia ie. Khmer, Champa, Singasari, Sri Vijaya etc.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, Angkor was the largest urban agglomeration in the world.
Matrilineal SE Asia diffused to modern day NE Indian states.
Chola king Rajendra marches against Sri Vijaya empire in Malaysia in 1025. Meanwhile, Mahmud of Ghazni invaded India 17 times between 1000-1025.
One of the earliest MNCs is established in Aihole, Karnataka named The five hundred - guild of merchants.
Temples emerged as centre of social and cultural life. Temples evolved in architecture, and developed relations with local merchant guilds and artisans. With accumulated wealth temples emerged as banking systems which lend money to guilds and municipals for 12-15% of interest rate.
Division of Indian Ocean into Islamic and Indic zones.
With the destruction of temples by the Turks of Delhi sultanate, temples lost their status as banks and merchant guilts lost their investment leading to decline in maritime dominance which was filled in by Arabs and Chinese. Indian Hindus impose caste based restrictions on crossing of the seas.
In The Travels, Polo observes the dominance of Chinese in sea, disintegration of Sri Vijaya empire, penetration of Islam into SE Asia, diamond extraction, superstitions of India.
In 1311 Pandyas succumb to Delhi Sultanate.
Ibn Battuta also observes the devastation caused by the Delhi Sultanate.

Treasure and Spice
In 14th century, Java emerged as political centre in SE Asia. Majapahit empire.
15th century- Conflicts with Chinese. Chinese send Treasure fleet to India, with it’s success the Chinese gain confidence in manipulating the geo-politics of Indian Ocean. Chinese withdraw to isolation for half a millennium due to internal conflicts. Hindu kingdoms succumb to Chinese and Islam kingdoms paired with climatic extremities.
Portuguese enter the maritime league. European desperation against growing Islam. Vasco da gama sets for India in 1497. Docking at Calicut in May 1498. Portuguese capture most ports in the Indian ocean through warfare. Captured Goa from Sultan of Bijapur in 1510. Francis Xavier a jesuit missionary arrives in India in 1542 bringing with him the inquisition. After Spanish and Portuguese, Goan inquisition occurred in 1560s.
Vijayanagara empire resists foreigners and Islam attacks. Abdul Razzaq, Domingo Paes, Fernao Nuniz and such foreigners claim it to be the largest city in the world at that time. Krishnadeva Raya being the most influential ruler. Battle of Tallikota in 1565 marks the end of the empire.

Nutmegs and Cloves
English enter maritime league in the Indian Ocean with trade in Malacca. In 1600 by the charter of of Elizabeth I The Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies ie. British East India Company was established. Dutch also start trading in the Indian Ocean with United East India Company or VOC. First colonies of EIC were islands of Pulau Ai and Pulau Run.
Due to lack of English goods in Asia, EIC planned to profit through intra-Asian trade. The demand of Indian goods esp. cotton textile in England and other regions led to Indian colonisation. EIC set up warehouses in Machilipatnam, Hugli and Surat before building fort St. George in Chennai. Later in 1668, EIC leased Bombay from the King Charles II who had acquired it as dowry from the Portuguese.
17th century witnessed a decline in Portuguese power in Indian Ocean. Likewise Dutch attempts on India was also thwarted by Marthanda Varma of Travancore. British EIC emerged as dominant through strategic political policies as they played crucial role in inter-Indian kingdom conflicts. In Battle of Plassey 1757 The EIC overpowered Nawab of Bengal Siraj ud Daulah despite of larger army numerically because of traitor such as Mir Jafar who did not participate in the battle. EIC played a crucial role with the alliance against a usurper and bully Tipu Sultan of Mysore and so on which endowed it of distinctive power. However, Marathas challenged them till 3rd Anglo-Maratha war in 1817-18.

Diamonds and Opium
In late 18th century, system ofTriangular trade was devised by British EIC to counter silver expenditure for Chinese goods. The company imported raw cotton from India produced textile through machinery and sold the cheap textile in India for poppies which they sold in China for goods. This destroyed Chinese mass who had gotten addicted to opium and Indian economy as the artisans couldn’t compete with cheap machine made textile and they were forced to grow poppies and indigo instead of food crops.
Neopleon captured Holland and systematically the British EIC took over the Dutch posts in Indian Ocean, by 1799 the Dutch VOC had vanished. Later by 1811 the EIC took control over Jakarta and Java. In 1819 the British declared Singapore as a free trading port which attracted other traders. Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 gave the British the rights over Singapore and Malay peninsula. In 1839-42, 1856-60 the British fought two wars with China known as the opium wars using Indian soldiers. After the sepoy rebellion of 1857-8 the company was taken over by the crown leading to emergency of new companies and EIC losing its monopoly. In India Parsis emerged as entrepreneurs, Bombay came to be the hub leading to population explosion from 47,170 in 1780 to 566,119 in 1849.
Technology took over navy with the hybrid steam powered armoured HMS Warrior which changed the notion of war in Indian Ocean. The Suez Canal 1869 onwards changed the game of maritime trade. Victorian era with hill station and other cultures of Europe brought the system of indentured workers which got Indians to Mauritius, Fiji, Caribbean etc. but all of the Indians were not labourers, some went in search of economic opportunities as well.
19th century brought Africa into light too, as foreigners settled and moved in lands, much of minerals were discovered especially diamond which led to a mad rush. The European colonisers devoured the whole of Africa as willed among themselves declaring the land as Terra Nullius with no history or culture. In 20th century, all of the coasts of Indian Ocean were under the Europeans. The British controlled the Indian subcontinent, Burma, Malaya, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Australia and large sections of the east African coast. The French had established themselves in Indo-China (now Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). Germany had managed to colonize East Africa and in the north-eastern quarter of New Guinea.

From Dusk to a New Dawn
Changing status quo started with the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905. The world war I got the colonisers into conflicts which involved their respective colonies. The war was not only fought in the European mainland but also around the world in the colonial waters.
Indian revolutionaries were sentenced to prison in Port Blair known as Kala Pani. Irish freedom inspired the formation of Hindustan Republican Army. During world war II the Japs occupy Singapore in 1942. Unlike the WWI in WWII the Indians chose to not cooperate with British and launched Quit India movement. Meanwhile, Indian National Army had gained support and Subhash Ch. Bose was handed the command on 4th july 1943 in Singapore to fight alongside Japs. After the Japs surrendered, the Dutch attempted to gain control over Indonesia but was faced with Republicans, PM Nehru pressured UN security council to take action against the Dutch. Indonesia finally gained independence with Sukarno as prez. in Dec 1949. Indian independence started a chain of independence in the Indian ocean region. The Egyptian nationalisation of Suez canal leading to Suez crisis in 1956 marked the reduced status of British as world power. After colonial powers, the internal war for power led to more gore in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, East Pakistan, Yemen etc.

“..the attempts to ‘civilize’ others and impose utopias have been the source of much human misery…”
Profile Image for Omkar Inamdar.
55 reviews13 followers
February 21, 2021
Brilliant work by Sanjeev sir. The entire content in the book shows the amount of research done by author with the help of research done by others or personally visiting places. Right from the 12 th century till the recent , how trades and travelling in the Indian ocean rim by Europeans, Arabs, Asians, Africans and Persians shaped the world as it is today, how even small event changed the course of events that unfolded later, author has explained everything in the book. To include the events of this long timespan is great achievement. True historians should be unbiased and present the facts dispassionately and Sanjeev Sanyal is one of them. Great book!
February 2, 2021
Sanjeev sanyal is such a brilliant author and this book, like his older masterpiece ( Land of the seven rivers) is a must read for anyone interested in learning history in a joyful manner. The author while narrating the history of place, person or culture and seamlessly correlates it with the present. I wish the textbooks of history & geography were even half of this much interesting!! This is the book that got me interested in finding out the Indic roots of south east asian countries. The book covers important points of history of the Indian ocean from the formation of continents to the formation of an Independent India and afterwards.. The best point is the information is updated and based on facts and researches that have been going on in recent years. I was so sad to see that so many great rulers and kingdoms of our country have found so less or no reference at all in our textbooks.. But Mr Sanyal has carved many places in his book for such forgotten kings and kingdoms..

Read this book to get an idea of how the Indian ocean has evolved over time; how India, a world leading country in many disciplines evolved over time, spreading its roots in the neighbouring countries.

A book worth reading !!
Profile Image for Sneha.
18 reviews5 followers
May 16, 2020


I have taken my own sweet time to finish this, reading 3 other books meanwhile. Not because it is bad and boring but it has so much information and trivia packed in around 260 pages that I wanted to retain and relish it all. The book as the title suggests narrates the history in the Indian ocean area right from the permian era (230 million years ago) till present times. It also in turn makes the Indian ocean itself a character in this story. The best thing I like about this book is it made me curious to know about the not so famous rulers or events in Asian and African geopolitics. There are too many to cite but I will give you few examples
That there was a group of hindu mercenaries from Punjab (mohyal Brahmins) who also fought by Ali in the battle of Karbala and join the Shias till date in the mourning during Muharram
Or that this whole post would have been in Dutch and not English if not for a Nair king called Marthanda Verma who defeated the Dutch east india company in 1729. An Asian victory over an European power much before the supposed Japanese defeating the Russians in 1905 which we all memorised in school!
Or the practice of applying sindoor by mother in laws in Assamese weddings a day before the wedding symbolises the women folk accepting a new member, before the husband does. A matriarchal reminiscent of a distant past.
There are many such delightful discoveries to be made in almost every page of this book. A word of caution though, the writer caries certain inherent biases of his own and one must be able to try to look above them and take in all that he has to offer. Pick it up because the writing is simple and not at allacademic. Pick it up because I assure you you will come across really interesting anecdotes. Pick it up as the writer very beautifully says " ..history is written in a way that systematically emphasizes a continental viewpoint over the coastal perspective. It is as if political power is naturally centred in some inland city like delhi or Patliputra and the rest of india must exist as mere provinces"
Profile Image for Susmita Kundu.
9 reviews1 follower
March 10, 2018
Maritime history is often overlooked in discussions on Indian history. Come to think of it, many turning point in Indian history has happened through maritime events
e.g. 1) Both Islam and Christianity arrived in India through sea route in present day Kerala.
2) Vasco da Gama's arrival in Calicut and subsequent opening of sea route to India from Europe.

Mainstream texts often make us believe that maritime activities in the Indian Ocean began with the European colonial powers like the Portuguese and the Spaniards trying to discover routes to India. In reality, Indian and Arab merchants have been trading their fares long before the Europeans came to the scene. In fact, India had formidable kingdoms of the Cholas, Cheras, Pandyas , Pallavas , Palas etc. that were involved in socio-cultural-political exchanges with the Kingdoms of Srivijaya, Champa, Majapahit, Angkor in present day areas of Java, Sumatra, Bali, Vietnam etc. using ocean routes. The book covers these exchanges in much detail with delightful anecdotes in between. The book then discusses the colonial activities of the Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish and the British from the 15th century till the mid 20th century when the colonial rule ended in the Indian Ocean area. It also offers a commentary on how different independent countries fared in post colonial times. E.g. South Africa in the West Indian Ocean and India & Singapore in the East Indian Ocean.

Although it is a well written book, the narrative is a bit loosely bound. Individual chapters form interesting reads however, don't expect the narrative arc to develop as the book progresses.
Great read for anyone interested in History. The book is well researched and easy to read. Looking forward to read Sanyal's other books as well.
Profile Image for Rosun Rajkumar.
100 reviews
September 4, 2020
Genre: non-fiction
My rating: 4/5

I started The Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal for a book club and it turned out to be such a happy accident. Sanjeev's book talks about how civilizations have formed, survived and evolved with the Indian Ocean rim at the center of it. This would mean history of the Indian subcontinent, South East Asia, Australia, East Africa and the Middle East. A lot of it which we already know and which reads like a quick refresher; also a lot of tall and interesting claims which I didn't know of.

I'm a huge sucker for non-fiction although it means more commitment than reading fiction in terms of reading time. While historians/writers tend to take themselves too seriously, Sanjeev is refreshingly witty. One has to appreciate his sense of humour. He tries to stick to a neutral tone as against taking sides. Which is not to say he is not assertive when he needs to. I enjoyed reading about the rise and fall of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Also, the little uncovering that he does on popular historical heroes like Emperor Ashoka and Tipu Sultan is smart and interesting. He has dwelt on the power of the matrilineal system which is prevalent in South East Asian and Indian history and it's fascinating. I learnt, for instance, about queen warrior Rani Abbakka; didn't know her at all prior to this.

Sanjeev does take few generous liberties with some of his theories (or extrapolation of known/oral histories) but I can take that with a pinch of salt because it helps the larger narrative. It didn't feel like manipulation to me.

All in all, this is a fun historical non-fiction read. He breaks down long, complex histories into easy, digestible bits for lay-readers like us. Recommended!
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