If Ports Were Landscapes and Goods Were Beings:

Stories from First-Millennium South Asia

Divya Kumar-Dumas

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar

The term 'port' in early South Asia can refer to at least four types of locations: landing places and marketplaces in texts, findspots of artifacts from across the seas, semi-permanent settlements with foreigners awaiting favorable monsoon winds, and access points for emporia with desirable trade goods including animal products (like ivory), forest tree products (like sap), agricultural products (like cotton), and human-made products (like metal alloys). Therefore, they are complex containers of human experience, often mapped as locations, regardless of their built infrastructure. To understand ports as landscapes is to prioritize human conditions over geographical networks for maritime movement while remaining attentive to them. Goods carried by mariners across the Indian Ocean were similarly complex and associated with a world of plants and cultural ways of being-in-the-world with trees. In this lecture, I will tease out some of this complexity by considering the following questions: How were Southern Asian ports perceived by the Indian merchants and mariners who used them? Can considering ports as places and export products as vibrant matter alter our perspectives on the dynamics of Indo-Roman trade?

Divya Kumar-Dumas is Visiting Research Scholar at ISAW and a historian of art and architecture who specializes in recovering the attestable designed landscapes of first millennium South Asia from archaeology and text. Her work is influenced by methods from studies of word and image, gardens and landscapes, landscape and garden archaeology, cultural and oral history, and folk and traditional arts especially performance and ritual. She treats landscapes as both conceptually driven architectural projects of the past and invitations to experience a place over its long, layered afterlife. She finds this phenomenon of 'place-ness' key to recovering design in the early landscape. She received her PhD (2021) in South Asia Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. Her dissertation, "The Experience of Early Designed Landscape in South Asia," re-considered two well-known archaeological sites as designed landscapes, by reading their visitor records alongside their archaeological traces. She has published focused interpretations of these sites as landscapes as well as general contributions relating to the cultural history of landscapes and plants.

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