India’s Maritime History

Indian Teakwood ship stitched with coir yarn.

Indians have been competent mariners for over 5 thousand years. They first sailed in primitive rafts, then on Katamarans made with logs or planks bound together with coir yarn. Such rafts are still in use along our coast. Indian maritime history began when inhabitants of Indus Valley initiated maritime trading contact with Mesopotamia and region around Indus river began to show visible increase in length and frequency of maritime voyages. Optimum conditions for viable long-distance voyages existed by 2900 BC. Mesopotamian inscriptions indicate that Indian traders from Indus valley, carrying copper, hardwoods, ivory, pearls, carnelian, and gold, were active during reign of Sargon of Akkad in 2300 BC. Evidence exists that Harappans were bulk shipping timber and special woods plus luxury items such as lapis lazuli, through northern Afghanistan over eastern Iran to Sumeria.  During mature Harrappan period lapis stones were brought overland to Lothal in Gujarat and shipped to Oman, Bahrain and Mesopotamia. This is how Indian Ocean was named Indian Ocean. Only ocean in the world named after a country. Archaeological research in Mesopotamia, Bahrain, and Oman has recovered  artefacts traceable to Indus Valley civilization. Shippers from both regions converged in Persian Gulf ports, especially on island of Bahrain, known as Dilmun, where goods coming from Mesopotamia and Indus area were transshipped. Discoveries at Ur, a major Sumerian city-state on Euphrates, indicate that some Indus Valley merchants and artisans established communities in Mesopotamia.

lawzmagazine.comWorld’s first dock was located at Lothal in Gujrat in 2400 BC. Modern oceanography indicates that Harappans possessed great knowledge of tides plus exemplary hydrography and maritime engineering, to build such a dock, equipped to berth and service ships, on the ever-shifting course of Sabarmati River. Since walls of this dock are of burnt bricks, Lothal engineers studied tidal movements, and their effects on brick-built structures and selected Lothal. Gulf of Khambhat has the highest tidal amplitude and ships can be sluiced through flow tides in the river estuary. They also fitted a lock gate to this dock to preserve depth of water inside at predetermined levels. Ruins of this dock were discovered in 1959-1961 by Archeological Survey of India when they also discovered wreck of a ship built of teak wood, stitched together with coir yarn. Indian cartography located Pole star, and other constellations in their navigational charts and used a simple instrument named KAMAL to observe altitude of pole star . They also made detailed maps describing locations of settlements, sea shores, rivers, and mountains. Periplus Maris Erythraei, mentions a time when sea trade between India and Egypt did not involve direct sailings.  Cargo was shipped to Aden, called Eudaimon, by both sides and was transshipped from there.

In fourth century BC Pharaohs of Egypt built a canal to connect Red Sea with Nile river and Indian commercial connection further improved trade with Greece and Ports of Roman Empire.  Four embassies from Tamil country were received by Augustus Caesar.  In first century AD, Pliny the elder famously mentions expenditure of one million sestertii every year on goods such as pepper, fine cloth and gems from southern coasts of India. He also mentions 10,000 horses shipped to this region each year and adds that there was never a time when there were less than 120 ship in ports of Greece and Roman Empire. Tamil and Sanskrit inscriptions have been found in Luxor in Egypt. In turn Tamil literature from Classical period mentions foreign ships arriving for trade and paying in gold for products. Historically, first attested attempt to organize a navy in India, is attributed to Chandra Gupta Maurya in 322—298 BC, as described by Megasthenes. Emperor Ashoka used it to send massive diplomatic missions to Greece, Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia and Epirus. During Mauryan Empire, various other regions of the world engaged in Indian Ocean maritime voyages. Following nomadic interference in Siberia, a source for India’s bullion, India diverted attention to Malaya which became its new source for gold via a series of maritime trade routes. Roman historian Strabo mentions that trade with India increased  after Rome  annexed Egypt in 30 BC. He has written that this trade, initiated hundred years earlier, kept on increasing.

Indian ships sailed to Egypt from ports of Barbaricum, Barygaza, Muziris, Korkai, Kaveripattinam and Arikamedu on southern tip of India, which  were main centers of this trade. Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum was involved in Indian Ocean trade network and was influenced by Roman culture and Indian architecture. Traces of Indian influence are visible in Roman works of silver and ivory, or in Egyptian cotton and silk fabrics used for sale in Europe. Indian presence in Alexandria may have influenced its culture. Clement of Alexandria mentions Buddha in his writing. Other Indian religions find mentions in other texts of the period.  Indians were present in Alexandria and Christian and Jew settlers from Rome continued to live in India long after the fall of Roman empire, which resulted in Rome’s loss of Red Sea ports, previously used to secure trade with India by Greco Romans since Ptolemaic dynasty. Textiles from India were in demand in Egypt, East Africa, and Mediterranean between 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Chola dynasty reached its peak from 200 to 1279 AD and Emperors Rajaraja Chola I and II, extended Chola kingdom beyond traditional limits from Sri Lanka in the south to Godavari basin in the north.

Kingdoms along east coast of India up to river Ganges acknowledged Chola suzerainty. Chola navies conquered Srivijaya in Maritime Southeast Asia. Goods and ideas from India played  a major role in its  “southernization.”  Yuktikalpataru, a treatise on Indian shipping written in Emperor Bhoja’s  time, talked about strong and seaworthy stitched hulls of flexible forms. Quilon named Desinganadu, had a flourishing Chinese settlement and a  commercial reputation with Phoenicians and Romans, fed by Chinese trade. In 9th century, merchant Sulaiman of Siraf in Persia, found Quilon to be only port in India, touched by huge Chinese junks. In 14th century, Ibn Battuta wrote of Quilon as  one of five Indian ports he saw during twenty-four years of his travels. Indian rulers exchanged embassies with Chinese rulers.  Indian commercial connection with Southeast Asia was vital to merchants of Arabia and Persia between 7th and 8th centuries AD

Marco Polo, visited Kollam and other towns on west coast of India, as a Chinese mandarin as he was in Chinese service under Emperor Kublai Khan in 1275. The Cholas excelled in foreign maritime trade and extended their influence overseas to China and Southeast Asia through their East and west coast ports in India.  During Pandya reign in 765–790, Chera dynasty had close cultural contacts with Pallavas. From 618 to 907 AD Tang dynasty of China, Srivijaya empire in Southeast Asia under Sailendras, and Abbasid Khalifat at Baghdad were trading partners with extensive maritime and commercial activity.  Indian spice export is mentioned by many authors from 850 to 14th century AD. Huan Tsang mentions town of Puri from where “merchants departed for distant countries.” Hindu and Buddhist religious establishments of Southeast Asia were associated with economic activity and commerce. Buddhism, in particular, travelled alongside maritime trade, promoting coinage, art and literacy. Christian missionaries, such as Saint Francis Xavier, spread  Christianity which competed with Islam to become dominant religion of Maluku Islands. But natives of these “Spice Islands” accommodated aspects of both religions. In 1292, Marco Polo described Indian vessels, “built of fir timber, having a sheath of boards laid over the planking in every part, caulked with oakum and fastened with iron nails”. “Bottoms were smeared with a preparation of quicklime and hemp, pounded together and mixed with oil from a certain tree which is a better material than pith.” 14th and 15th century descriptions of Indian ships with bulkheads indicate that they carried over 100 seamen.

Vasco da Gama rounded Cape of Good Hope in 1497 with four vessels via Malindi on eastern coast of Africa, to sail across Indian Ocean to Calicut. First Dutch expedition left Amsterdam in April 1595 for South East Asia. Another Dutch convoy sailed in 1598 and returned one year later with 600,000 pounds of spices and other Indian products. East India Company forged alliances with producers of cloves and nutmeg. Shivaji Bhonsle maintained a navy under General Kanhoji Angre who checked initial advances of the Portuguese including their threat to traffic and commerce on India’s west coast. British East India Company shipped substantial quantities of spices during early 17th century. In 1830 their ships were designated as Indian navy. But from 1863 Royal Navy took control of Indian Ocean.  On October 2 1934, Royal Indian Navy was organized. Shipbuilding was well-established along Indian coast long before Europeans arrived. European trade initially stimulated Indian shipbuilding. Vessels built in Masulipatam and Surat from Indian hardwoods by local craftsmen were cheaper and tougher than European built ships. Indian rulers were weakened by European power but shipbuilders continued to build ships capable of carrying 800 to 1000 tons.

From 1736 a Parsi carpenters and Master builder from Surat named Lowji Nuserwanji Wadia, oversaw construction of thirty-five ships out of which twenty-one were for the British. Following his death in 1774, his sons took charge of the shipyard and between them built further thirty ships over next sixteen years. This Dockyard built ships like HMS Hindostan in 1795,  HMS Ceylon in 1808 and HMS Asia in 1824. HMS Cornwallis was built in 1813, onboard which Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1842. American National Anthem, Star Spangled Banner was composed by Francis Scott Key on  HMS Minden also built in Bombay.

Treaty of Nanking 1842

The Britannia, a ship of 749 tons launched in 1778, so impressed the British that several new ships were commissioned from Bombay and some went to Royal Navy. Between 1736 and 1821, 159 ships of over 100 tons were built at Bombay, including 15 of over 1,000 tons. These ships were said to be ‘vastly superior to anything built anywhere else in the world’.

In 1947 Indian navy had only 33 ships, and 538 officers to secure a coastline of more than 7,500 km plus 1,280 islands. Today, as a result of the growing strategic ties with western world, Indian navy has conducted joint exercises with its western counterparts, including US Navy, and has obtained latest naval equipment from its western allies. Better relations with USA and Israel led to joint patrolling of Straits of Malacca.


1891: Darmanathan Purushanthi, started Purushanthi Steam Nav. Co. in Puducherry for two ships to ply through Mekong River from Phnom Penh in Cambodia to Hatien in S. Vietnam. The French closed it down in 1900. They  also prevented him to ply his ships from Saigon to Bangkok.

1894: P & O forced Tata Line to close trading from Bombay to China/Japan.

1905: Jayotindra Nath Tagore, brother of Poet Tagore, started Bengal Steamship Company. British India Steam Navigation Co. carried free passengers and even gave each passenger a silk handkerchief as a gift, to bankrupt Tagore’s Company within three years.

1906: V.O.Chidambaram Pillai started Swadeshi Shipping Co. in Tuticorin.

1919 Scindia Steam Navigation Company was founded. On April 5, their passenger ship S.S. Loyalty, sailed for U.K. This heralded the birth of modern Indian Shipping. April 5 is now observed as National Maritime day.

1923: Scindis Directyors refised P&O offer to buy Scindia to get rid of Indian competition. To avenge it, Govt restricted Scindia tonnage to 70000 tons.

1927: Training ship Dufferin was established. A British member in  viceroy’s council said,” Indians can not even make good officers much less captains.”

1947 Indian tonnage was just over 192000 tons GRT on Independence day.

  1. Indian tonnage crossed 6 million GRT.
  1. Indian shipping tonnage was 9.71 million GRT with 1006 ships.

As against about 5 Indian captains and a hand full of Indian officers and engineers in 1947, over 32,000 duly certified Masters, Officers and Engineers, sail on world’s Merchant Ships earning valuable foreign exchange for our country. “Jahre Viking,” the largest ship in the world has been commanded by an Indian. Largest Bulk Carrier “Berg Stahl,” has also been commanded by two Indians in turn. Our MAJOR Ports alone handled 530,350,000 MT of cargo in 2008-9, whereas, thanks to our British rulers, all Indian ports handled only 109813 tons in 1900. This means a minimum progress of over 4829 times in 108-9 years. Till as late as mid 1960’s, Indian Merchant ships were commanded by British Captains. British Merchant  Shipping Act had to be amended in 1995 to enable non British Master mariners to command British ship.  Today our Indian Masters are commanding ships of many nationalities including British Mechants ships.

Capt. A K Bansal,

L.L.B. (Hons) London,

Master Mariner, Bar at Law

2 thoughts on “India’s Maritime History”

  1. Yatin says:

    India RULEZ

  2. lucky says:


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