Indian Naval Ship INS Gomati under my command, work horse of the Western Fleet which is the Sword Arm of the Indian Navy was dispatched from Mumbai on 04 Sep 2005 by the then Fleet Commander, Rear Admiral Rustom Framroze Contractor AVSM, NM to Sur a small coastal port 150 nautical miles south of Oman’s capital Muscat to support a joint maritime expedition between Oman and India.
Gomati’s mission was to escort a replica of a 4500-year-old reed boat used by traders between Arabia and ancient India. The Magan boat was to sail into Indian waters, escorted by the Sultan’s royal yacht, the Fulk-Al-Salama, and the Indian warship INS Gomati, The Magan was to carry onboard a symbolic cargo of copper ingots, dried fish and the other merchandise of the Bronze Age just like the ancient voyagers did almost 4500 years ago. The names of places have changed over the millennia, Magan (pronounced Majaan) which is now Oman, and Meluhha, the ancient name of the spectacular Indus Valley Civilisation, which is now India.
The Indus Valley Civilisation was understood to have carried on a brisk seaborne trade with Mesopotamia, a fact established by hundreds of Harappan fragments of broken pottery uncovered there. Harappans had contact with Oman and Mesopotamia and the trade was almost entirely dependent on copper mined from the mountains of Oman, which fell midway to Mesopotamia. It is understood that in circa 2000 BC, flimsy boats made from reeds and straw navigated the seas of India and plied the world’s busiest shipping straits in the Arabian Sea where modern day supertankers tread these days.
These boats were known to have carried a cargo of copper ingots, dates and fish oil for the city dwellers of Meluhha. After a week’s shore leave and sampling the pleasures of the city with immaculate streets and baths the traders would return to Sur with a cargo of gold, wood, ebony and ivory. However, there was no proof about the kind of boats or ships they sailed in. Crude representations on seals showed them to be built of reed bound by rope. No boat of the era had ever been found.
Between 1985 and 1994 Italian archaeologists Maurizio Tosi and Serge Cleuzio in a series of excavations at Ras-al-Jinz, an ancient settlement on Oman’s coast, discovered 300 impressions of bitumen slabs dating to 2300-1210 BC. These slabs had the impressions of bound reeds, rope lashings and woven mats on one side and fully-grown barnacles on the opposite side indicating continuous submersion for at least three months. This was the first direct evidence of the actual construction of early bronze-age vessels in the Arabian Sea. An Italian-Omani team began trying to recreate the reed vessel based on the design from these excavations.
The Magan boat was made from sixty-seven reed bundles, each as thick as a human leg which were bound together with rope made from date palm fibre. The fibre was then lashed together with date palm ropes and formed into the shape of the boat. This frame was then covered with mats made from date palm fronds. Fresh bitumen was boiled in bathtub-sized trays and black woolen sails were hand woven with goat hair. The boat had no keel and was flat-bottomed. The absence of a keel in a boat makes it unstable and drift sideways, vulnerable to the vagaries of nature. The boat could spring leaks while at sea, be blown off course or be toppled by a whale.
The crew were to wear long cloaks made from crude fibre and in order to recreate the living condition of ancient times were to carry only dates and water in goat leather satchels. The crew were to use ancient navigation techniques using the sun, moon and stars to guide them and survive on dates, fish, pulses, honey, bread and water, some of which was carried in traditional goat skins. They did not carry any modern instrument for navigation or communication. The boat was to catch the wind in its square woolen sails and head towards Bet Dwarka and Mandvi in Gujarat, India.
This symbolic voyage was to commemorate the golden jubilee of diplomatic relations between Oman, a liberal Islamic Sultanate fiercely proud of its maritime heritage, and India, which was an economic giant in the making. The expedition hoped to recreate the voyages made by traders using the ancient maritime silk route and to disprove the theory that ancient trade between these two countries was not just coastal but by mid-ocean voyages across the Arabian Sea.
The Magan boat was to undertake a ten-day expedition, backed and financed by Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture and India’s Ministry of Culture. The Magan crew was a mixture of scientists, archeologists and seafarers drawn from Oman, Australia, India, the US and Italy led by Tom Vosmer and included Alok Tripathi, head of the Underwater Wing at the Archeological Survey of India at Delhi.
On the request of the Indian Ministry of Defence, Naval Headquarters had tasked Western Fleet to send a warship to escort this expedition along the ancient maritime silk route. Thence, INS Gomati having sailed with dispatch was now anchored off the port of Sur, Oman on the evening of 06 Sep 2005 ready in all respects to undertake the mission. My task was very clearly laid out and that was to escort and render support to the Magan boat in case of any emergency over the next ten days of her voyage.
On 07 Sep 2005, as the Captain of the Indian warship escorting the expedition, I was invited to the small quay at the coastal town of Sur to witness the inauguration and flagging off. From my ship at anchor about a mile offshore, I landed ashore in my Captain’s cutter. I was met by numerous officials from the Omanese government and Navy. On alighting ashore at the venue I met the Ambassador of India to Oman, Mrs. Atri, Defence Attaché of India to Oman, then Captain MD Suresh, other diplomats and dignitaries.
There was an entertainment program arranged for the visitors followed by a visit to the Magan boat. I couldn’t contain my bewilderment when I actually saw the boat made from reeds, straw and ropes with woolen sails having no metallic nails or rivets and wondered to myself as to how the ancient mariners had the courage to sail in similar crafts making mid-ocean voyages. During this visit, I really felt the weight of the responsibility that rested on my shoulders, as the lives of this brave crew was in my hands.
After the flag off ceremony, I quickly rushed back to my ship at anchor to commence my mission. The Magan boat was only capable of doing 5 knots speed at its best and keeping the minimum speed of my warship of 15 knots in mind I had thought that I would maintain a respectable distance of about 3 to 5 miles from the boat moving up and down along its intended path always keeping it in sight during the day and would keep circling it at a distance of about 2 miles at night. On that particular day, there was absolutely no wind at all and by evening around 1700 hours after being at sea for nearly 7 hours the boat had just moved about 6 nautical miles from the coast of Sur.
Sitting on my Captain’s chair on the Bridge immersed in my thoughts sipping an evil cup of coffee made from thick condensed milk and a generous amount of coffee powder lovingly prepared specially for me by the head chef, listening to the lookouts reporting moving objects within our safety perimeter unconsciously, I was jolted out of my reverie when I heard the crisp and loud report by my lookout designated to keep watch on the Magan boat. “Bridge, Lookout, Magan boat appears to be reducing in height”.
Since there was no method of communicating with the Magan, I immediately ordered Gomati to close the boat to about a mile. In the meantime, the ship was ordered to “Action Stations” and the crew was brought to their stations ready to render any assistance. I was carrying a Chetak helicopter onboard which was brought to immediate standby for launch in case of an emergency in a Search and Rescue configuration. The life boat was launched the moment we reached the vicinity, which was within minutes. By this time it was evident that the Magan boat was taking in water and sinking. The ship’s lifeboat communicated on walkie-talkie after establishing contact with the Magan crew that since the Magan boat was sinking the crew would be required to abandon their boat.
It was then I realized to my horror that in their enthusiasm of recreating the exact circumstances of an ancient voyage, there were no life jackets on the Magan. By this time the ship’s lifeboat had already thrown two life buoys tethered with ropes and had most of the Magan crew holding on. Already four of the members had been taken into our lifeboat and the other four were still rummaging inside the Magan holding on to our lifeboat from outside but still in the water. Since sunset was fast approaching, I decided to launch my helicopter for rescue operations and the helicopter which was on hot standby by this time got airborne swiftly. In a matter of minutes all the survivors were brought onboard both by the helicopter and the lifeboat. The crew of the Magan boat were immensely grateful to my men for having saved their lives in such quick time. As I was talking to a visibly wet Tom Vosmer, the leader of the expedition on Gomati’s Bridge, the Magan sank silently with the sunset.
Having rescued all the members of the expedition safely, I radioed Western Naval Command and Western Fleet Headquarters asking for instructions about disembarking the survivors. Gomati was promptly ordered to enter Muscat on the morning of 08 Sep 2005.
The morning of 08 Sep 2005 had even more surprises in store for me. I was met by the Indian Defence Attaché and Omanese dignitaries on the jetty in Muscat harbor and was informed that the government of Oman was extremely grateful for the prompt actions taken to rescue the crew of the Magan boat. However, I was also told in uncomfortable hushed tones that I had incurred the displeasure of the ruler of the country for launching my helicopter within his airspace without obtaining his permission. On being promptly reminded by me that this being my sole responsibility to safeguard the lives of the Magan crew, I had acted in good faith having exercised my sound judgement of launching my helicopter to save lives expeditiously. No other words were exchanged after that. Gomati was refueled and stored with exotic food and provisions as a gesture of gratitude by the Omanese authorities and by nightfall Gomati sailed from Muscat for Mumbai having successfully completed her mission of escorting and rendering assistance to the Magan boat.
The Omani government had spent 135,000 Riyals (about Dh1.28 million) to build the Magan boat similar to those ancient ones that sailed between Oman and India’s west coast. I am given to understand that there were other attempts made. Abdul Hamid Bin Yarub Al Busaidi, Undersecretary for Ministry of Heritage, Oman told a press conference on 10 Sep 2005, “there’s no doubt that we will continue our research and attempt to sail in a replica of a bronze-age boat”. Hassan Al Lawati, Director General for Heritage and Museums had said, “We will learn from the first attempt and plan accordingly for the second voyage”. Thus ended the expedition of the first voyage of Magan that never really took off.
Upon entering Mumbai harbour, INS Gomati was commended for the exceptional professionalism displayed for saving the lives of a multi-national crew of the Magan boat and for undertaking the mission assigned with such focus and dedication.
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