Every year in late-May, the Indian subcontinent eagerly awaits the arrival of the Southwest monsoon. There’s even a tourist industry built around watching the arrival of the monsoon winds and rainfall in Kerala. The wind that brings a fresh lease of life to Kerala and all of the subcontinent is named after a Greek navigator and explorer - who is credited with using the winds to travel from the Red Sea to southern India - Hippalus.
Little is known of this man who lived in Alexandria, the great Egyptian city that was under Greek rule in the Hellenistic Period. Some historians claim he lived in 1st Century BCE, while others say he was born around the same time as Jesus Christ.
It’s a known fact that Kerala’s spices, teakwood, rosewood and ivory were coveted in West Asia and North Africa for hundreds of years before the Christian era. In A History of Trade and Commerce in Travancore, K K Kusumum writes, “Arabs were in the vanguard of spice traders of Kerala.” Arab traders sold spices from Kerala to Jewish traders in Aden. It was from there that they made their way to Ptolemaic Egypt.
“A landmark in the history of foreign trade of South India was the discovery about 45 AD by an Alexandrian merchant named Hippalus, probably from Arab sailors, of the existence of the seasonal winds,” Kusumum wrote. “Hippalus’ discovery of the Southwest monsoon could have helped the author of The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea to start his voyage in the first century AD to Muziris.”
Other historians, including whoever wrote the text for the highly informative Kerala Tourism website, believe that the course of the south-western wind on the sea route was kept a secret by Arab traders.
Until the Greek mariner’s “discovery,” Arabs had a virtual monopoly on trade from southern India to West Asia and beyond. The Kerala Tourism website says Hippalus was able to reach modern-day Kodungalloor from Galla Bay in 40 days on the sea route. “Detection of the course of monsoon winds revolutionised sea journey and the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Arabs, and Persians joined the distant trade,” according to the website.
Before Hippalus’ “discovery” the Greeks believed the Indian coast extended from west to east. It was after the mariner tracked the monsoon winds that the Western world understood that India’s coastline stretched from north to south as well.
Roman naturalist and author Pliny the Elder wrote, “If the wind called Hippalus is blowing it is possible to arrive in 40 days at Muziris.... Travellers set sail from Muziris on their return to Europe, at the beginning of the Egyptian month of Tibia, which is our December, or at all events before the sixth day of the Egyptian month Mechir, the same as our Ides of January; if they do this they can go and return the same year."
While there’s little doubt that Hippalus was responsible for vastly changing the dynamics of trade between Ancient India and the West, it is difficult to believe that Indians were not aware of the concept of monsoon winds before the Greek mariner or the Arabs. Sila Tripati, an archaeologist at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, has undertaken meticulous research to establish that Indian seafarers knew of and used the monsoon winds as far back as the second century BCE. They used the winds to venture to Southeast Asia, which was largely under Indian influence for several centuries.
It is, however, a mystery as to why Indian mariners and traders did not feel the need to go West, the way they did to go East. To know the answer to this, one would require a much deeper understanding of the the dynamics between the ancestors of modern Malayalis and the Persians, Jews, Greeks and particularly the Arabs, who had monopolised the trade route. It is very difficult to believe that the ancient Tamil or Oriya of the east coast was more of an adventurer than the ancient Malayali of the west coast. Or was there some sort of implicit agreement with the Arabs, who have had bonds with Keralites that go back thousands of years?
There could also be a hitherto unknown relationship between ancient South Indians and the West. Nonetheless, the story of an ancient Greek mariner being a trailblazer and enhancing the link between two ancient civilisations is worth celebrating. Hippalus is a name and legacy that is an integral part of the Indian monsoon and something that connects Kerala with both Greece and Egypt.