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In search of Berber


Joshi’s hypothesis about Greek origin of the citpavan is based on two premises; we have seen the first: a flourishing trade between the ports on the west coast of India and the island of Socotra. The second premise is a region called Berber or Berbera in North Africa and a region with the same or a similar name on the Komkan coast [Joshi, 2016: Grik Navik Te Pesvai]. The coastal regions of North Africa comprising inter alia of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, northern Mali, northern Niger, and western Egypt, on the southern coast of the Mediterranean, have been referred to as the Berber Coast or Barbary Coast, and their people Berbers. Though the word is often associated with ‘barbarians’ and activities like piracy, there is no intrinsic connection; the term is probably derived from ‘bar’, Arabic for desert.

Surprisingly a part of the Komkan coast has been called Berber or Barbar in the puran and other ancient texts. Sapta Komkan or Parsuramksetr is supposed to have consisted of Keral, Tulamg, Saurastr, Komkan, Karhat, Karnata and Barbar [SHK 2.6.47, SHKD 326]. Keral is the Malabar region, Tulamg is the Tulu region, Saurastr is Kathiyavad, Karnat is the Kannad region. The identity of Karhat is doubtful. Which region does Barbar correspond to? The names not being listed in any particular order, north to south or south to north, it is difficult to locate Karhat and Barbar. Nevertheless let us locate those we know, and then try to get an approximate location of the rest. To the extreme south was Keral, followed by Tulamg, followed by Karnat; to the extreme north was Saurastr; so Karhat and Barbar could have been somewhere between Karnat and Saurastr.

According to Mirat Ahmadi, a Persian text by Ali Mohamed Khan, dated 1762, the ‘Sanskrit writers of early times’ divided the west coast of India from the mouth of Indus to the Dariya Bahadurgarh, an island off the Malpe beach in Udupi taluka, into five parts : Saurastr, Gurjar, Abhir, Komkan and Govrastr. Saurastr was from the Rann of Kutch to the mouth of Narmada; from there to the mouth of Tapti was Gurjar; from there to Devgad in the Sindhudurga district of Maharashtra was Abhir; from there to Sadasivgad on the mouth of Kalinadi was Komkan; and beyond that was Govrastr. Abhir was further divided into: Berber or Marahta from Tapti to Bassein (Vasai); Virat from there to Bankut; and Kirat from there to Devgad [Birds, 1835: The Political And Statistical History of Gujarat Translated From The Persian Of Ali Mohammed Khan, 8]. That is good enough to locate Barbar or Berber; it stretched roughly from Hazira in the Surat district of Gujarat to Vasai to the north of Mumbai, a coast about 200 kilometres long.

To place Berber in a proper perspective, it would help to look at the two segments of the coast to the north of Berber, the Saurastr and the Gurjar. The stretch constituting Saurastr was the coast of the Kathiyavad peninsula or what might have been the Kathiyavad archipelago. We do not know if the channel connecting the gulfs of Kacca and Khambat, consisting of the Little Rann of Kutch and the Nal-Bhal depression existed at that time; in that case Saurastr might have included that too. This was, as we have seen before, a large garland of ports since very long, with flourishing trade across the ocean with Africa and Near East. But the trade importance of the stretch below that, the Gurjar coast from the mouth of Narmada to the mouth of Tapti, is unknown; Berber is further to the south of it. “Beyond this region, … flows the river Sinthus … This river has seven mouths … at which by the shore is the market-town of Barbaricum. … the ships lie at anchor at Barbaricum” writes  the unknown author of Periplus, a merchant mariner of the first century [Schoff, 1912 :The Periplus of the Erythræan Sea, 37]. This Barbaricum is at the mouth of river Indus; too much to the north to be identified with Mirat Ahmadi’s Berber.

The Periplus continues: “Beyond the river Sinthus there is another gulf, not navigable, …; it is called Eirinon; its parts are called separately the small gulf and the great; in both parts the water is shallow, with shifting sandbanks occurring continually … .” Eirinon is the Rann of Kutch; once it must have formed a gulf to the north of what is now the peninsula of Bhuj; this gulf probably went all the way to the Dholavira port, on an island in the Rann. “A promontory stands out from this gulf, curving around from Eirinon toward the East, then South, then West, and enclosing the gulf called Baraca, which contains seven islands.” This is clearly the Bhuj peninsula; probably it was then made up of several islands. The gulf of Baraca is the gulf of Kacca, to the south of the Bhuj peninsula. The word Baraca might have been a corruption of Bahlika, by which name it has been referred to in Mahabharat, Ramayan and Visnu Puran.

“Beyond the gulf of Baraca is that of Barygaza. …  that part of it lying inland is called Abiria, … but the coast is called Syrastrene.” The gulf of Barygaza is the gulf of Khambat; Barygaza probably refers to Bharuch. Abiria is clearly a reference to Abhir, the stretch of the coast on which we have located Berber. Syrastrene is Saurastr. “Beyond this there is another gulf exposed to running up toward the north, … At its innermost part there is a great river called Mais. … Those sailing to Barygaza pass across this gulf, … straight to the mouth of the river of Barygaza; and this river is Nammadus.” Mais is Mahi river; Nammadus is river Narmada.

The description in Periplus matches well that in the Persian text Mirat Ahmadi, except for the fact that places have been moved more to the north in the former. It is difficult to say which is a more accurate description. But allowing for this ambiguity, the location of Berber would lie a little to the north of Kathiyavad peninsula or a little to the south, but not too far from it, within its effective influence; within what we could call as the Greater Kathiyavad.

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