Little Red clutches the string of beads tightly as he gazes out over the stormy sea, the howling wind stinging his eyes with the white sea foam. A majestic sea eagle spreads its broad wings above his head, gracefully turning in the stiff breeze with its eye also out on the sea, as if to aid Little Red in his vigilant search. He rubs his thumb over each of the round glass charms to summon its magical effect. One-by-one he touches the red-mouthed face…the sunburst face…the white heavenly bird…the all-seeing eye…the peacock-striped and blood-red cylinders, whispering the strange sounding Sanskrit prayer he heard from the shriveled, bearded wanderer from his father’s native land.
“Krishnay Vasudevay Haraye Parmatman Pranatah Kleshnashay Govinday Namo Namah”
He doesn’t know what it means, other than he must repeat it 108 times, calling on Krishna, god of compassion, to protect his father in his travels.
It has already been several months since the summer sun started blazing over the mighty Chinese Han empire in the East Asian landmass, pushing the air upward and drawing the monsoon winds onshore from the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea.
Though he had no idea of the interplay of landmasses and oceans and heat gradients caused by the tropical sun, Little Red had learned of the monsoon cycle over the ten seasons of his life. He knew that in the last season of cool dry months, the winds from the east had taken his Indian father on his annual journey to the strange land beyond the sunset, to a faraway port called Mylarphan, home to half-brothers and sisters he would never know, on the southeast corner of a large and ancient land below unimaginably high mountains where the gods dwelled. As it was every year, he stayed here with his Mon mother and siblings, waiting for the favorable winds that always brought his father back with fascinating treasures from even further lands that bordered the very ends of the earth.
But this season was different. Already two full moons had passed from the time that the Arab, Persian, Malay, and Indian traders started arriving. Little Red knew enough from their sailor tales that the seas and winds became more and more dangerous in this season, and if his father didn’t return soon, it could mean only bad things.
And so now, besides Krishna, he prayed to whatever god of the Hindu pantheon would listen to bring his father back safely—to Brahma the creator; Vishnu the preserver; Shiva the destroyer; Indra the guardian and god of storms; Ganesha the elephant-headed god, remover of obstacles…he even prayed to Parvati, goddess of fertility and Garuda, the winged vehicle of the gods…every figure that he could remember from the adventuresome tales that filled his imagination, recounted to him nightly by his mother.
Little Red’s mother, Jawm Nga, belonged to a family of boat builders in the bustling port of Kuan Lookpad (“Bead Mound”, now called Khlong Thom), so-called because of the glass beads that were made there, renowned not only for their beauty, but for their spiritual power. Most of the family craft was devoted to repairing the local fishing boats that hugged the mangrove-covered shores—small affairs piloted by Austronesian Malays who lived in small settlements along the shore, and more nomadic people, later known as Urak Lawoi, who lived mostly on their boats roaming the coast. The latter were rarely seen in town…they were an ancient, dark-skinned, curly-haired people who were masters at drawing the treasures from the rich waters, and who were occasional pirates that preyed on ships passing by with foreign treasures gathered from east to west, Han China to Rome. These larger crafts, manned by a multiethnic mix of men who shared a lust for travel in their blood, were of a different construction than the local boats, and would pull in to Kuan Lookpad to re-stock supplies, trade for the locally famous beads, or make necessary repairs.
It was twelve years ago on a similar stormy day that a sturdy, dark-skinned captain wrestled just such a ship ashore, its 24-meter frame having run up against sharp coral reefs in a squall. Sembian was lucky that his ship’s gash was above the waterline, and being a man who revered the gods, his first act was to provide the appropriate libations for the Hindu images that protected his battered ship. He recalled the image of the Buddhist goddess Tara, savior from the eight perils that he had visited in a pilgrimage to Odisha, just a few days sail past the great river delta area of present-day Bangladesh. The panel showing shipwrecked sailors pleading to the goddess always stuck in his mind. A kind man, he vowed to find a local temple to donate a portion of his wealth that had been spared.
Ancient Ship Building
He would have to save part of his wealth, however, to hire craftsmen to repair his ship. Planks had to be stitched together through holes drilled near their edges, secured to the boat’s ribs by lashing through eyelets that were a part of the planks. All this was pulled together by rope made from the fibers of the sugar palm. Sembian had added a stabilizing outrigger to his Arab/Indian-style boat from a technique he’d seen in the tropical seas south of Kuan Lookpad…and that appendage had also taken a beating. The two large rectangular sails also needed repair…they had to be woven together from a plant fiber like a mat…or actually several mats, stitched together.
Above figures: Lashing and stitching techniques used by ancient mariners in the Southeast Asian seas. This technique was also used in Nordic boats, which is the example in the lower right. You can see how eyelets are formed in the planks, which are then lashed to a form-making and strengthening rib.
Jawm Nga, whose beauty reflected her Mon name for a delicate, fragrant local flower, was stitching together one of these matted sails when her sweet smile caught Sembian’s eye. It was the habit of wealthy sailors running the monsoon route to take a second family among the charming women of the Malay peninsula, and Jawm Nga was a fine catch. Even though he was a southern Indian Tamil raised in a Brahmin society, as a merchant who experienced the outside world Sembian did not care much for restrictive ideas about caste and hierarchy, or even arranged marriage traditions with bride prices. He took Jawm Nga for his wife because they loved each other, and it made their life together relaxed and pleasant. Her family was delighted to have the special privilege of receiving strange and wonderful gifts from exotic places, and were mesmerized by Sembian’s fantastic tales of sea monsters that could swallow a ship whole, peoples dressed in shimmering clothes and jewels and gold that shined like stars, or pirates who could take out a whole crew with poisoned blow darts.
The Bustling Market
In the precious times when the weather kept Sembian on the Andaman shore, he, Jawm Nga, and Little Red would stroll the Kuan Lookpad market. Most of the passing goods were bound for richer destinations, out of reach of the local people, but the bazaar was still a world of wonder to Little Red that filled all of his senses. His hands would steal a glide over the smooth bolts of silk when the vendor wasn’t looking. Even the finely woven Bengalese muslin felt refreshingly cool. His nostrils drank in the smells of cinnamon, cloves, cassia, sandal wood, and other fragrant spices and woods from thousands of tropical islands. Shops sold aromatic oils and ointments, like spikenard and malabathrum from Bengal, and incense for religious rites. He admired the look of the finished cotton textiles from India, with colorful interwoven designs, and equally intricate carpets that he could imagine sitting on as a feasting prince surrounded by servants. He helped his mother pick out Indian-made ceramic bowls, some with ringed circles and knobs representing Mount Meru. There were rows of merchants trading precious gems, gold, glass beads, pearls, and even delicately carved ivory works. Other shops dealt in Malay-produced tin products, usually bound west for India and beyond. And then there were the sounds of animals on their way to delight royal patrons, or to strengthen the power of warriors. Birds, monkeys, horses that had been herded all the way across India to continue their journey to China…there were even some who dared to send elephants.
Along with the foreign products, entrepreneurs from Kuan Lookpad could add their own locally-produced goods into the mix for extra profit…that is, their famous beads. Beads are the earliest objects that have been discovered to be traded among humans, based on an archeological find in Algeria, Africa of natural beads from 90 to 120,000 years old. Some even speculate that human language arose to support the economic activity of trading beads. Local craftsmen continued that ancient tradition by mastering techniques and creating unique designs that greatly appealed to buyers and believers. Indian traders had shared the method for making the “Red Indian” face, using a mosaic technique arranging white, black, and red glass into a face, eyes, and lips, heated until the glass softened, and then stretched into a long tube. The beads that Little Red depended on for spiritual protection were only a small sample of what could be found in the bustling markets of Kuan Lookpad.
One might hear in the sounds of the market the clanging of coins being minted to support all this heated activity. The local ruler, perhaps a descendant of mixed marriage like Little Red, established a local mint to provide standard weight gold coins for fair trading. He proudly posed in the style of Roman emperors, whose coins traded in large volumes in his native Indian home, and had his patrilineal Indian name stamped in Brahmi script on the back. The local rulers and merchants were careful to test the authenticity of gold coins, which could be verified by expert goldsmiths scratching on touchstones. These honest coins came to be trusted for exchange throughout the region, as far as Oc Eo in present-day Vietnam.
The coins above were all found around Kuan Lookpad. They have long been mistaken for genuine Roman coins, but evidence strongly points to them being locally-minted items made in the manner of Roman coins. Some of the coins are housed safely in Bangkok, but apparently a few were stolen in 2007 by thieves coming in through the roof of the Khlong Thom museum.
The Silk Road
Kuan Lookpad could boast such a lively market because it was the in the crossways of an economic system based on balancing out differences across borders… much like it was in the crossways of the monsoon weather system that balanced out heat and cold. The movement of monsoon wind is governed largely by different rates of heating—land over the great mass of Asia heats up faster than ocean water in the summer, cools faster than the ocean in winter, and the temperature and pressure differences create a kind of supply and demand that moves the air.
In the same way, the global trade world of around 200 AD had regional differences in economic activity—different needs and wants which enterprising people in other parts would find ways to supply. The Chinese helped kick start the system with an insatiable demand for horses…especially “blood” horses. The Han Emperor needed the sturdiest steeds to supply his armies, and these were to be found on the high steppes of the Asian plateau. A legendary Han diplomat of the 2ndcentury BC by the name of Zhang Qian found a distinctive breed in Turkmenistan which came to be known as HanXueMa 汗血馬, or “sweats blood horse.” Their strong neck and shoulders had large blood vessels close to the skin and a shiny coat that gave a reddish hue when the horses got worked up. Their strength and agility were greatly prized, and the Chinese were eager to trade the best of their brides, tea, and silk to acquire them.
The Chinese Supply of Silk
It was this last product–the remarkable, nearly magical cloth made from Chinese silk…whose fame would eventually spread across the continent to the marbled halls of Rome. Clothing for most ancients was a rough inconvenience compared to the luxury of silk. Silk has properties of feeling cool in a scorching summer heat, or smoothly warm against the skin as the first layer in a winter garment. It’s exceptionally light and strong, doesn’t crease easily, and can be dyed with striking, shimmering colors and patterns. It comes from the tough fiber of the cocoon of the silkworm, after they feed on an enormous amount of mulberry leaves (to produce one kilogram of silk, 3000 silkworms must eat 104 kilograms of leaves). Here’s an excellent short video of the silk-making process
There is a legend that Lady Si-Ling, the wife of China’s founding emperor Huang Di (Yellow Emperor), discovered the secret of making silk around 4,700 years ago when she accidentally dropped a cocoon into her tea which unraveled the fine, lustrous thread. True or not, the Chinese kept the technique of silk making secret for hundreds, or thousands, of years; and even after the secret was out, they maintained control over the absolute finest species of silkworms. One can see on the molecular level the even, long-chain nature of silk that gives it both strength and smoothness.
These magical properties would capture the interest of the Romans after the use of silk slowly expanded across the far-flung trade routes. Around 97 AD, the Chinese emperor attempted to send an envoy, Gan Ying, to Rome. He made it either to the Black Sea or the Persian Gulf, but crafty sailor merchants of the intervening Parthian Empire, who traded in silk, recognized the threat to their middleman profits, and convinced the would-be diplomat that completing his sea journey would take two years, causing him to turn back. The Romans were surely unaware that a powerful empire was attempting to call, and indeed knew very little about China. In fact, they may have only vaguely known China as Seres, the Kingdom of Silk (which gives our current word “sericulture,” meaning silk farming). A legend says that the Romans were routed by the Persian army of Parthia in the Battle of Carrhae near the Euphrates River in 53 BC partly because they were panicked by the shining silken banners of the Parthians.
The Roman Demand For Silk
It was love of silk, though, not fear, that sparked the explosion in trade that would characterize Little Red’s world of 200 AD. In the 2ndcentury AD, the Romans subdued the Parthians and gained control of the Persian Gulf, opening their way to lands further east. In 166 AD, just over a generation after Gan Ying’s failed attempt, Emperor Marcus Aurelius sent the first Roman enjoy to China, establishing direct contact and removing the veil of ignorance. With two powerful forces at each end of Eurasia, the path where Kuan Lookpad offered respite, replenishment, and colorful beads was set to become a thoroughfare of commerce.
After learning of the wonders of Chinese silk, Roman elite began to crave the product to make into luxurious togas and other products. The silk craze was seen by some to represent the decadent decline of Rome. The short-lived Roman Emperor Heliogabalus (AD 218-222) was infamous for throwing debaucherous orgies in which he draped himself in marvelous silks, painted his face, and cavorted with his male lovers. It was said that he wore nothing but silk! Between the breaking of sexual taboos and his attempt to replace the worship of Jupiter with his namesake god, Elagabulus, the Praetorian Guard had enough, and allowed him to be assassinated at 18-years-old.
The Global Trading Network of 200 AD
Nonetheless, silk remained popular, its use spreading to the middle classes who tired of wearing the more common wool, linen, or hemp. Eventually, silk would be worth its weight in gold, and later emperors would unsuccessfully try to suppress the drain of gold coin leaving the realm to acquire it. For ambitious traders, silk travelled well, was easily packed, and thus was well worth the effort to get it from the plains of Changsha (capital of the Han in modern day Xi’An) to the hills of Rome. The relative stability of empires across the Eurasian continent allowed trade to flourish.
It was rare for a single person or ship to make the entire journey as that Roman envoy had done. Whether by the northern land route above the Himalayan range, or by the southern maritime route, trade goods usually travelled in stages, being handed off between local experts who could negotiate the local languages, tariffs, and political rivalries. The maritime system could be divided into three major areas: The Arabian Sea, The Indian Ocean, and The South China Sea. Kuan Lookpad stood in the nexus between the Andaman Sea, part of the Indian Ocean system, and the Strait of Malacca that led into the shallow waters of the Sunda Shelf and on to the South China Sea system. It was thus a transfer point, giving it a strategic position.
The narrow waters around the Malacca Strait posed several problems for ancient sailors, though. The first was a technical problem, for this area lay “below the winds.” Close to the equator, the trade winds died out, and the more primitive sailboats could be aimlessly adrift for weeks. This made them even more vulnerable to the second problem—pirates. For millennia, even to present day, brigands have found it easy sport to hide out in the endless estuaries of mangrove-covered coast, biding their time in oared boats that would be manned by a team of armed raiders. Historical annals are replete with stories of plundering pirates who took no prisoners.
The Cross-Peninsular Trek
One alternative to avoid disaster was to offload cargo and have it transported by elephant or buffalo across the Kra Isthmus region…the narrow neck of land separating the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand by as little as 44 km (27 mi) at its shortest point. From the eastern coast, the goods could be traded with Chinese-connected merchants. In Little Red’s time, that eastern coast was controlled by the Funan Kingdom, which spread its Indian-rooted civilization influence over all of the present-day Mekong River basin and central Thailand. The ancient city of Chaiya, now a sleepy village north of Surat Thani, was the central destination on the Bay of Bandon for land-carried goods across the isthmus for hundreds of years. (There may have been other Gulf coast centers, but archeological evidence is scarce).
Kuan Lookpad became one of the disembarkation points for that trans-peninsular trade; even though it was not the narrowest section (its bead-producing rival port to the north, Tapua Ka, was closer), it had the advantage of having fewer mountainous obstacles in the diagonal northeast path up to Chaiya, and access to other coastal areas, such as the area that would become Nakhon Si Thammarat.
And so Kuan Lookpad was blessed by geography to become a prosperous link in a global network, where races and creeds, tastes and tongues all intermixed. And this is why Little Red stood waiting and praying for his foreign father on the windswept beach. By late afternoon, it appeared the strength of Surya the sun god was finally winning over his temperamental wife, Saranyu, goddess of the clouds. His deep orange face shone over the towering islands, and Little Red rubbed his eyes to see more clearly. When he squinted, he could just make out two rectangular sails, full of the power of Vayu the god of wind. Could this be papa? Little Red’s heart raced with excitement. Yes! It must be. Little Red raced to the protected inlet where the cargo-laden ship would reveal its precious contents.
Sembian was in an exuberant mood. He had traveled further south than usual from his home in Mylarphan before heading on his way back east, because he had picked up some special religious treasures he hoped could be traded on the island of Ceylon and beyond. Those treasures came from stone artisans of the Parashurameshwara temple, in an area of many holy sites. These artisans made holy replicas that could carry the power and prestige associated with this area to other Hindu sites. It was a gamble for Sembian…it meant taking an open-ocean route from Ceylon to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands with which he wasn’t very familiar. In fact, the winds and currents from the southwest blew him further north than he had expected, so he had to take a circuitous route down the coast once he hit Irrawaddy River delta.
But all was well now as he wrapped Jawm Nga, Little Red, and all his other children in his arms. He carefully oversaw the unloading of the last holy statue replica that he had saved to set up a Hindu shrine in Kuan Lookpad. Modern-day children might have giggled as the anatomically accurate lingam emerged from the packing, but this was an item to be revered. It would stand as a community offering place, where anxious mothers and children would adorn it daily with flowers, pouring offerings of water and milk over it, and light it up with oil lamps and incense at night. On festival days there would be music and bells and fragrant powders and bright costumes and plays of the Ramayana. The temple would be a center of community worship of a people who depended on the gods to favorably control the elements that controlled the livelihoods of their loved ones.
The religion, beliefs, and livelihoods of that community would change over the centuries. Many historical forces would blow back and forth with the monsoon winds. The Roman and Han Empires crumbled, which brought disruptive economic storms that left bustling, cosmopolitan Kuan Lookpad a neglected hinterland. There would be other periods of stability and calm, though, and Kuan Loodpad’s story would be reborn in another era. And the customs Little Red knew, the strong reverent belief that he inherited from his parents, and the welcoming connection with the world through the sea, would all endure.
Author’s Note. While the story of Little Red, Sembian, and Jawm Nga is dramatized, the details of the story are as closely based on historical research as possible.
The Bangkok Post reports that ancient beads are being plundered and sold on sites like Amazon and Ebay. “Necklaces made of ancient beads can be seen on the necks of local politicians and influential people in Thailand as they are believed to attract luck and prestige.” Like most countries in the world, historical cultural artifacts are considered state property, and should be registered with the Fine Art Department if found.
The Andaman Cultural Center has a display of beads and their history in Thailand, with explanations available in Thai and English. It is worth a visit for both the historical knowledge, and for the public art displays. Don’t let the Tyrannosaurus Rex out front scare you away!
Sources and Further Reading (in no particular order).
Michel Jacq-Hergoualc’h, “Archeological Research in the Malay Peninsula,” Journal of the Siam SocietyVol. 85.
Brigitte Borell, “Gold Coins from Khlong Tom,” Journal of the Siam SocietyVol. 105, 2017.
Colin Mackay, A History of Phuket and the Surrounding Region, Bangkok: White Lotus Co., 2013.
Ancient Maritime Cross-Cultural Exchanges: Archeological Research in Thailand,produced by the Fine Arts Department, Ministry of Culture, Thailand, 2019.
A. M. Chowdury, “Bengal and Southeast Asia: Trade and Cultural Contacts in Ancient Period,” presented at the Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue Conference, 21-22 January 1991, Bangkok, Thailand.
Sila Tripati, “Seafaring Archaeology of the East Coast of India and Southeast Asia during the Early Historical Period,” retrieved from https://www.ancient-asia-journal.com/articles/10.5334/aa.118/(Note. I find some claims of this article dubious, given that the author apparently reverses the seasons in which Indian traders would sail to Southeast Asia).
Syamsul Rizal, “General circulation in the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea: A numerical model study,” retrieved fromhttps://www.researchgate.net/publication/280294379_General_circulation_in_the_Malacca_Strait_and_Andaman_Sea_A_numerical_model_study
Baibhav Mishra, “From Bay of Bengal Trade Route – The Origins of Shipping in the Indian Subcontinent”, retrieved from https://seanews.co.uk/features/bay-of-bengal-trade-route-the-origins-of-shipping-in-the-indian-subcontinent/