Socotra Island: A Haven for Ancient Indian Seafarers



Socotra is as other-worldly as it gets on this planet. It’s a small, crescent-shaped island 340 km south-east of Yemen and east of the Horn of Africa, with an eerie landscape dotted with trees that look like flying saucers that accidentally got snagged on elephant trunks.

But it wasn’t sightseeing that brought Indians to Socotra around 2,000 years ago; it was commerce. Situated close to the mouth of the Red Sea and governed by Yemen today, the island was an important halt on the maritime trading route from India to East Africa and the Middle East. Evidence of Indian seafarers who dropped anchor here is available in abundance in cave inscriptions on the cliffs that overlook the pristine shoreline.

The Hoq Cave is of particular interest, as it contains more than 200 inscriptions in charcoal, chalk and mud, and even scratches with sharp objects, on its walls and on the dramatic limestone stalactites and stalagmites that festoon the cave’s massive interiors. The majority of these inscriptions are in Brahmi, while there are others, in Aksumite, Nabatean, Early Arabic, Palmyrean and Bactrian.

Al Hoq cave
Al Hoq cave|Valerian Guillot - Flickr Commons

India had a strong association with Socotra from the 1st to the 6th century CE, which accounts for these numerous cave inscriptions. We also know of the India connection from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a 1st century CE guide to navigation and trade routes in the Indian Ocean, which mentions Indians being inhabitants of Socotra.

Praying To ‘Socotri Mata’

Some Indians lived here while others stopped by to burn incense in cave shrines on this small and isolated island of Socotra. It was probably the home of one of their most important goddesses, to whom they also built a number of shrines back home in India. They called her Sikotari Mata or Socotri Mata. Her island was a fearful place and sailors would have steered clear of it had it not been the first solid piece of land before they made landfall on the east coast of Africa. Hence, Sikotar Mata was always propitiated and a small toy ship was slipped as a token into the waters towards the island.

The name ‘Socotra’ is believed to have been derived either from the Sanskrit Dvipa Sukhadara (Island of Bliss) or the Greek Dioskorida (island devoted to Castor and Pollux, the divine twins also known as the Dioscurii and who were the protectors of seamen). ‘Dioskorida’ appears to be a contraction of ‘Dvipa Sukhadara’.

But Arab voyager Al-Idrisi of the 9th century CE tells a very different story. He says the island was first conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE, and he wrested it from Indians at the behest of Aristotle, who told him to corner the trade in aloes (fragrant resinous wood used in place of incense). Thus, on his way back from India, Alexander apparently stopped at the island and also admired its unusual natural beauty.

Location of the Socotra Island (in red)
Location of the Socotra Island (in red)

According to the monk and traveller Cosmas Indicopluestes, of the 6th century CE, Socotra had been settled by the Ptolemies. This is a more convincing tale as we know that it was under the Ptolemid dynasty, in the 2nd century BCE, that the first official journeys were made to India from Egypt.

Another Periplus, that of the Red Sea written by Agatharchides of Cnidus, a Ptolemic seafarer of the 2nd century BCE, calls the Socotra archipelago the ‘Fortunate Islands’ and reports the presence of Indians from North-Western India. It says Socotra is large, desolate and sparsely populated, and that its residents were a mix of Arabs, Greeks and Indians. Traders came from Mocha in Yemen and from Bharuch and Lymerike (Southern India) in India with wheat, rice and Indian muslin cloth and female slaves.

It appears that Indian traders and merchants travelled regularly to and from Socotra, and it is interesting to note the shifting from North-Western Indian traders to traders from Gujarat (Bharuch).

Cave Inscriptions

The most interesting evidence of this frenetic trade comes from the Hoq Cave, which can be reached after a gentle, 90-minute trek to the cliff-top. The cave, arguably the largest on the island, is a speleological wonder with a mouth 30 metres high and a belly that extends almost 3 km.

Images of boats amongst the grafitti at al-Hoq cave – after Ingo Strauch
Images of boats amongst the grafitti at al-Hoq cave – after Ingo Strauch

Over the millennia, water has sculpted spectacular stalactites and stalagmites from limestone, whose beauty and scale are breathtaking. It was amid these formations that a team of Belgian speleologists carried out the first systematic study of the cave in 2001.

While exploring this geological wonder, they found hundreds of small/short inscriptions in many different ancient scripts. They roped in Prof Cristin Robin of the Semitic Studies Institute, Paris, and he identified inscriptions in Indic, South Arabian, Ethiopic and Aramaic texts.

More than 43 Indic inscriptions were counted by the team. A number of incense burners were also found in the cave as were vessels that had apparently been used to collect water dripping from the stalactites.

Palmyrian tablet
Palmyrian tablet|Author

The most arresting inscription was a prayer by a Palmyrian ship captain named ‘Abgar, son of Abshammay’. Dated July 258 CE, it was inscribed on a wooden tablet, which said he asked for the blessings of his god. There was a second wooden tablet but the text had long been erased as the tablet had fallen on its face.

A systematic and careful collating of the inscriptions and their translations was done by Ingo Strauch, currently a faculty member at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. More than 215 inscriptions were discovered in the Hoq Cave. Of these, 192 inscriptions were in Brahmi and one, surprisingly, was in Kharosthi, a script used in the north-western parts of the subcontinent and now a part of modern Pakistan.

Most of the inscriptions are extremely short and comprise only names, often with the patronymic. Some of the names bear symbols like a nandipada or a trishul after them, and in a few places, there are line drawings of two-masted ships with steering oars reminiscent of the ones on the coins of Satavahana ruler Gautamiputra Yajna Satakarni from the late 2nd century CE.

Satavahana coin with two masted ship with steering oars
Satavahana coin with two masted ship with steering oars|Wikimedia Commons

Palaeographically, the inscriptions are in typically 1st to 5th century CE style and predominantly in the 2nd to 4th century CE style. This agrees with many other historical and archaeological discoveries, where in the 4th century CE, all the evidence for Indo-Roman trade seems to disappear from the west coast of India and from overseas sites like Aden, Berenike and Myos Hormos (both Red Sea ports of the Romans).

Many of the inscriptions refer to the writers as navikas (sailors) and two are from Bharuch while one is probably from the Port of Hathab near Bhavnagar. The word vani (trader) also finds mention. There is also a beautifully drawn stupa on a stalagmite.

Stupa on a stalagmite at al-Hoq cave – after Ingo Strauch
Stupa on a stalagmite at al-Hoq cave – after Ingo Strauch

We don't know why these sailors climbed all the way up here to scribble their names but they definitely carried out some form of worship and propiatian as seen from the incense burners. What is extremely important, though, is that we have a vibrant record of Indian seafarers and merchants involved in overseas trade as opposed to the belief that the traders and sailors were all from Egypt, Arabia and Rome. We also know that sailors were Shaivaites and Buddhists and along with them were traders and travellers from places as far off as Bactria.

Socotra led a quiet life for the next few centuries. But from the 10th century CE, as an Islamic wave of traders and seafarers swept the Indian Ocean littoral, Socotra once again made the headlines: Al-Masudi, the 10th century CE Arab geographer, calls it a haven for pirates; Al-Yakut, the Arab traveller, writes that there was a Greek village on the island in the 12th-13th century CE; Marco Polo refers to it in the 13th century CE although he didn’t go there; while Ibn Battuta, the last great traveller from the Arab world, speaks about the pirates of Socotra in the 14th century CE.

The Portuguese made landfall in Socotra in 1507 but abandoned it as inhospitable by 1511. St Francis Xavier actually stopped on the island on his way to India in 1541-42, while St Ignatious of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, wrote about it around the same time, probably based on descriptions provided by St Francis Xavier. St Ignatius said there were still Christians on the island but sadly neither priests nor monks.

Gujarati inscription dated 1775 Samvat at Ras Howlef on Socotra Island – after Julian Jansen Van Rensburg
Gujarati inscription dated 1775 Samvat at Ras Howlef on Socotra Island – after Julian Jansen Van Rensburg

Very interestingly we have a number of Gujarati inscriptions at Socotra from the 17th c CE. They look like gravestones made on coral blocks but are actually records of sailing ships coming to Socotra from the port of Gogha in Gujarat and some of these ships were royal ships as the inscriptions mention Emperor Aurangzeb. These inscribed rocks found at Ras Howlef on Socotra tell us about how the journey took 50 days by the sea, how the ships stayed here for four to five months and they also tell us about the crew composition and the merchants on board. The numbers of people on these ships range from 100 to 705 on the ship sponsored by the Mughal emperor. These inscriptions are all dated between 1672 and 1718 CE. Most importantly, these stones are a very compelling testament to the Gujarati sailing traditions for the last 2000 years.

The British made repeated visits in the 17th century CE but found the island too inhospitable to inhabit. They did realise its strategic significance and included it in the treaty wherein they made Aden a protectorate in 1886. This ensured safe passage for ships coming through the Suez Canal on their way to India and the East.

Socotra slips away into quiet anonymity thereafter, and is a part of the Yemen Republic today. But while the world has forgotten all about it, the sailors of Western India remind us of their ancient past when they pray to Sikotari Mata to protect them every time they venture out to sea.

Cover Image: Al Hoq Cave by Valerian Guillot (via Flickr Commons)

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