Gulf of Khambhat previously known as the Gulf of Cambay had been India’s magnet to pull ideas and resources throughout the history. Situated between the Saurashstra Peninsula and the mainland of Gujarat, it receives drainage from a number of rivers, the prominent ones being Narmada, Tapi and Mahi Sagar and has the highest known tidal range in India.
Gulf of Khambhat – Source: Google Earth
From the rise of Indus Valley Civilisation till the fall of Mughal Empire, the coastline of Gujarat was dotted with ports and cities that were a hub for trading in cotton, silk, spices, timber and many more goods. The trade was done on a global scale with Arab and East Africa in the west and Indonesia in the east and later with European nations.
Dutch Tombs on the bank of Tapi at Surat on Gulf of Khambhat
The Mecca Gate at Khambhat – through this gate pilgrims used to sail to Mecca for Haj in the Medieval Period
The River Sabarmati, before it meets the Gulf
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek historical resource on navigation, written between 1st and 3rd century CE, refers to the Gulf as – Beyond the Gulf of Barca is that of Barygaza and the coast of the country of Ariaea, which is the beginning of the kingdom of Nambanus and of all India. That part of it lying inland and adjoining Scythia is called Abiria, but the coast is called Syrastrene. It is a fertile country, yielding wheat and rice and sesame oil and clarified butter, cotton and the Indian cloths made therefrom, of the coarser sorts. Very many cattle are plastered there, and the men are of great stature and black in colour.
The metropolis of this country is Minnagara, from which much cotton cloth is brought down to Barygaza. In these places there remains even to the present time signs of the expedition of Alexander, such as ancient shrines, walls of forts and great walls. The sailing course along the coast, from Barbaricum to the promontory called Papica, opposite Barygaza and before Astacampra, is of three thousand stadia.
The gulf’s archaeological journey begins at its head in Lothal, the famous Indus Valley port city that flourished between 2500 and 1900 BCE. Lothal was supposed to have been approached by sea. At present Lothal is separated by a distance of 20 km from the head of the gulf.
The Indus Valley site of Lothal
Between 5th and 8th centuries CE, a large part of Gujarat was under the rule of Maitrakas with Vallabhipura as their capital. Today Vallabhi is separated from the Gulf for about 35 km, but according to local legends corroborated by archaeological sources, the capital was once in close proximity to the sea. It was also an important centre of Buddhist and Jain scholarship.
Ghogha, situated on the mid-western bank of the Gulf and about 35 km from Vallabhi, was an ancient port Gundighar. A large number of copper plates found in the Ghogha region suggest that the inhabitants of the area were involved in agriculture, animal husbandry and sea trade.
Ghogha Village on the Gulf
There are interesting stories as to how Ghogha got its name. A type of molluscan shell called ghoghla in the local dialect are found in plenty at the site. According to a popular belief Ghogha was named after this molluscan species. Yet another story goes, sailors of the Ghoghari community used to camp at Ghogha. They had a strong masculine appearance and the local population was scared of these heavy set sailors prompting mothers to sing at night ‘suo suo bava ghoghra avya’…. Sleep soon an old ghoghra has come.
The prosperity ushered in by the Maitrakas attracted traders and merchants to Ghogha from foreign shore, especially the Arabs. They were greeted by the local Hindus, Buddhists and Jains as they bought good business to the region. They were absorbed by the local population who provided them with facilities to settle, acquire lands and openly practice their religion.
At Ghogha, the Arab merchants built a mosque, which according to some historians predates to the time of Prophet Muhammad. The Juni Masjid or Barwada Masjid as it is called is situated on the northern edge of the village. It was, until recently, in a highly dilapidated state. Unfortunately, the mosque is neither protected by the ASI nor State Archaeology Department. To prevent it from further deterioration, the local committee with no knowledge of conservation,is now restoring the entire structure. The Barwada Masjid in Gujarati translates as outsider’s or foreigner’s mosque.
Entering this 15×40 feet structure, I noticed that its Qibla / Mihrab faced Jerusalem instead of Mecca. Between 610 and 623 CE, the first 13 years of Islam, Muslims prayed facing ‘Baitul Muqaddas’ or the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. In 623 CE, while offering namaz in Medina, Prophet Muhammad had a revelation and declared that Muslims were to pray facing the Kaaba in Mecca. Since then, Muslims all over the world stopped facing Jerusalem and the Qibla was changed to face the Kaaba.
At the Barwada Mosque, the Qibla, indicated by the position of Mihrab (a semi-circular niche in the wall facing which prayers are offered), faces Jerusalem, an angle 20 degree north of the Qibla towards Mecca. This speculates to its date of construction before 623 CE. And if so then this is without any doubt the earliest mosque in India. Built in 629 CE in Kodungallur taluka of Thrissur district in the state of Kerala, the Cheraman Juma Mosque is considered to be the oldest mosque built in India.
There are other archaeological evidences that corroborate the presence of Arab traders in Ghogha as early as 7th century CE. A number of stone anchors of Indo-Arabic origin are seen lying in the inter-tidal zone near the light house of Ghogha. Because of the high tidal range here, these anchors lying at a depth of 5-10 m get exposed during the low tide.
Indo-Arabic anchors are typically made from vertical stone blocks, often square in cross-section, with two rectangular or square lower holes, and a circular upper hole. One of the anchors has wide grooves on all four sections and is probably of Chinese origin.
Similar anchor stone have been reported from other sites of Saurashtra coast, such as Dwarka and Beyt Dwarka, but the quantity found at Ghogha is overwhelming. According to archaeologists, Ghogha may have been a manufacturing hub of Indo-Arabic anchor stones. This is assumed because of the discovery of a lone anchor stone without hole.
Ghogha is also the only archaeological site where stone anchors have been found with Islamic glazed pottery. During my visit to Ghogha, I came across a few pottery pieces with blue, green and brown glaze. These were fragments of ring footed base bowls, dishes and storage jars. The discovery of glazed pottery also suggests that this area was used for loading and unloading of cargo by the Arab traders.
These traders from Arab and Persian Gulf introduced Islam in Gujarat. Many of them married local women adopting the local Gujarati language and customs over time. Ghogha continued to be a major port until the rise of Bhavnagar in the 17th century CE. Its importance as a thriving port is also noticed in a local proverb ‘Lanka ni ladi ane Ghoghano var’, which translates to ‘the bride of Lanka (Sri Lanka) and groom of Ghogha’.
However, its prosperity was also a cause for its decline. Ghogha was attacked and conquered several times by rulers such as the Gohil Rajputs and Sultans of the Medieval Period, gradually weakening its economy.
Today, Ghogha is lost in time. It is a village with dusty roads and poverty all around. By looking at its present condition it is hard to believe that once upon a time ships from various nations, especially from Arab, dropped anchor here bringing in new ideas and faiths.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at email@example.com