doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.215 Published online 3 June 2008
This story is set in an obscure village in Orissa, some 25 kilometre from Chilika Lake, Asia's biggest water lagoon. The village Kanas, an ancient port city, is on the banks of river Nuna which flows into Chilika. Village folks ploughing a paddy field find some peculiar stones — large longish stones with big holes punched into them. They also dig out some more antiquities that look like etched milestones.
A government official on a trip to the village gets wind of the find from the farmers and shares the information with his friend, a marine archaeologist at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa. The archaeologist takes up a thorough exploration of the area and dates these stones back to between 7th and 9th century AD, presumably used to anchor ships at this once busy port1.
"During one of our numerous explorations in Kanas, we found these stone anchors and some hero stones," marine archaeologist Sila Tripati later tells Nature India. Village folks say there are many more buried in the soils around Kanas.
And here's the most exciting bit — hero stones were supposedly erected in remembrance of heroes who lost their lives in naval battles. This leads Tripati and Ashutosh Prasad Patnaik, a former chief of Orissa's information, education and communication centre, to set out on yet another parallel piece of research — was there a battle fought in the waters off the coast of Orissa around 7th to 9th century? Is there any historical evidence to support this find?
"It is complex to date these anchors in the absence of datable evidences. The only way to get around this was to refer to historical records," Tripati says.
They are sure of one thing — that the stone anchors were linked to the hero stones, which in turn were somehow associated with a naval war fought in the past. Frequent battles have been fought along the coast of Orissa during the 7th century AD and the hero stones seem to belong to that period. But which battle are they from? And between whom were these battles fought?
Scouring libraries and many personal records in Orissa, the researchers dig out some interesting reference in the Oriya text Paika Kheda which describes the training of soldiers. In there is a chapter dealing with naval wars. In fact, during their sojourns to the exploration site, the researchers find a hamlet called Nausena, meaning naval force, very close to Chilika Lake. In records of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang, who visited Orissa in 638 AD, they find references to Che-li-ta-lo-Ching, located at Chhatargarh on the banks of Chilika Lake, described as a flourishing port. "The stone anchors were probably in use in the lake during that time."
"From these sources, it appears that the rulers of Orissa in the past might have maintained a naval force," Tripati says.
Interestingly, some historical records say that the Gauda king Sasanka (619-620 AD) attacked and defeated the king of Orissa in the early 7th century AD. "Sasanka was a staunch worshipper of lord Shiva and we think it is of great significance that one of the hero stones we found depicts a human figure worshipping the phallic symbol of lord Shiva," Tripati says. Based on these new findings, the archaeologists are now suggesting that this historical battle was fought close to Kanas.
The find is also different from other stone anchors obtained from across Indian coasts – Goa, Gujarat, Kerala, Lakshadweep, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. The stones in Kanas are the only ones found from stratified layers of the earth and clubbed with other datable antiquities, except in Bet Dwarka and Kannur.
"The Kanas anchors were used for small boats plying inside Chilika Lake, hence these are smaller in size and different in shape," Tripati says. The shape of the holes is also different from other anchors found from Goa, Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Lakshadweep. Anchors in these sites were used by sea going vessels. "Even the raw material differs — Kanas anchors are made of sandstone found in the nearby area, whereas other anchors are made of hard stones such as granite, basalt and hard sandstone."
On the basis of the anchor findings, Tripati is also trying to trace the economic and cultural relationships among people of different regions which had maritime relationship with Chilika, the 64-kilometre brakish-water inshore lake connected to the Bay of Bengal through a narrow mouth. It is not known since when the lake was used for maritime activities but the finding of shark teeth during excavation around the lake some years back indicated that people probably ventured into the lake ever since 2100-1100 BC. The 10th century AD text Bramhanda Purana mentions that ships to Java, Malaya and Ceylon set sail from Chilika Lake.
Tripati, who has earlier gathered geological and historical evidence that chronicle the decline of maritime activities in the Chilika region, says further investigation is needed to shed new light on the origin of these stone anchors.