The maritime history of India is rich with several examples of marine activity dating back hundreds of years. is rich with plenty of evidence of maritime activities from centuries ago. As a peninsular subcontinent with more than 7000 km of coastline, India was ordained to be a maritime nation. Read here to learn about the rich maritime heritage of India.
India has a long history of maritime trade, and the Rig Veda has the oldest mention of nautical operations. There are many stories in Indian mythology about the ocean, the sea, and the rivers, and it is thought that mankind has benefited from the abundance of the seas and ocean.
There is a tonne of proof supporting the presence of Indian maritime traditions that can be found in Indian literature, art, sculpture, painting, and archaeology.
The Indian subcontinent ruled the Indian Ocean from very early times until the 13th century, according to a study of the nation’s maritime history. Instead of doing so for political reasons, Indians went to the sea for trade and commerce.
Hence, from around the 16th century on, there was calm seaborne trade, as well as cultural and traditional contact between countries.
Maritime History: The Early days
The beginning of India’s maritime history dates back to 3000 BCE.
- During this time, the inhabitants of Indus Valley Civilisation had a maritime trade link with Mesopotamia.
- The excavation at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa has revealed ample evidence that maritime activities flourished during this period.
- The discovery of a dry dock at Lothal (about 400 km Southwest of Ahmedabad) gives an insight into the knowledge of tides, winds, and other nautical factors that existed during that period.
- The dry dock at Lothal dates back to 2400 BCE and is regarded as the first such facility, anywhere in the world, equipped to berth and service ships.
- Ships from Lothal traded with China in the far east to both coasts of Africa.
- Trade with Babylon and Mediterranean regions was carried out through the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Modern oceanographers have observed that the Harappans possessed great knowledge of tides, hydrography, and maritime engineering to build a dock on the ever-shifting course of the Sabarmati River.
Iron was NOT used during the Indus valley civilization, hence the ships were made of teak from the region of modern-day Kerala.
- They were made of teak, stitched together using coir yarn usually dipped in fish oil.
- These ships did not have masts, rather they were steered by large oars.
- There are numerous mentions in the Rig Veda about ‘Sataritara’ or the galley with hundred oars.
Vedic literature has numerous references to boats, ships, and sea voyages.
- The Rig Veda is the oldest evidence on record that refers to Varuna, the Lord of the Sea, and credits him with the knowledge of the ocean routes which were used by ships.
- The Rig Veda mentions merchants sailing ships across the oceans to foreign countries in quest of trade and wealth.
- The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata have references to ships and sea travels. Even the Puranas have several stories of sea voyages.
During 1500-1000 BCE, the ancient city of Dwarka was the gateway of Indian ships to the west to trade with Syria and Cyprus.
- Archaeological research in the area has found evidence of iron implements in sea anchors attached to ocean-going ships from the period.
Maritime History of India: Nandas and Mauryas (500-200 BCE)
The age of the Nandas and Mauryas saw extensive maritime trading activities that brought many nations closer to India. This resulted in the spread of India’s culture and religious beliefs to other countries.
- The maritime activities of the Mauryas paved the way for Indian immigration to Indonesia and other surrounding islands.
During this period, India witnessed an invasion by Alexander.
- The Greek and Roman literary records give sufficient evidence about maritime trade during the days of the Nanda and Maurya empires.
- Megasthenes, the Greek ethnographer and Macedonian ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya, has described the administration of armed forces in Pataliputra during that period and described the presence of a special group that looked after different aspects of naval war-fighting.
- The navy of the Magadh kingdom, therefore, is considered to be the first-ever recorded instance of a navy, anywhere in the world.
- It was during this period that Chandragupta’s minister, Chanakya, wrote the Arthashastra, which has details of the department of waterways under a Navadhyaksha (Superintendent of the ships).
- It also has details of an admiralty division established as part of the ‘war office’, which was responsible for navigation on the oceans, lakes, and seas.
- Details of different types of boats maintained during the Mauryan rule and their purpose have also been included in the book.
During the rule of Ashoka the Great, the Mauryan Empire covered almost the entire Indian subcontinent, and trade relationships existed with Sri Lanka, Egypt, Syria, and Macedonia.
- One of the famous legacies of Ashoka remains the spread of Buddhism.
- There is evidence that Ashoka’s son, Mahendra, and daughter, Sanghamitra, had sailed from Tamralipti in West Bengal to Ceylon carrying a sapling of the holy Banyan tree as a gift, for the spread of Buddhism.
- Ashoka also sent envoys to various kingdoms in Southeast Asia using the sea route.
Maritime History: Satavahanas (200-220 CE)
The Satavahanas (200 BC – 220 CE) ruled the Deccan region and their kingdom spread over parts of present-day Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Saurashtra in Gujarat.
- They controlled the East coast of India, along the Bay of Bengal, and had healthy trade with the Roman Empire.
- The Satavahanas were the first native Indian rulers to issue their coins with inscriptions of ships.
- Evidence also exists of the spread of culture, language, and Hinduism to various parts of Southeast Asia through the sea route.
The golden age of the Gupta dynasty (320-500 CE)
The Gupta Empire stretched across northern, central, and parts of southern India between 320 to 550 CE.
This period has been called the ‘Golden Age of India’. Chandra Gupta I, Samudra Gupta, and Chandra Gupta II were the most notable rulers of the Gupta dynasty.
Fa-Hien, the Chinese monk, who came to India in 399 CE to study Buddhism at Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Varanasi, had given an eyewitness account of the Gupta Empire.
- With the expansion of overseas commerce, the Gupta period witnessed an era of general prosperity, economic progress, cultural extension, artistic attainment, and architectural advancement.
- Fa-Hien on his way back to his homeland, in 413 CE, sailed from Tamralipti in Bengal and 14 days later reached Ceylon where he embarked for Java and passed through Nicobars and the Strait of Malacca to reach the Pacific.
- The oceanic navigation which was well advanced during the earlier centuries of the Christian era is borne out from Fa-Hien’s writings.
Another Chinese traveler Huein Tsang, who visited India between 633-645 CE had given eyewitness accounts of the vast overseas trade during the Gupta period.
Remarkable progress in astronomy was also achieved during this period.
- Aryabhata and Varahamihira, known in history as great astronomers, belonged to this period.
- The celestial bodies began to be accurately mapped and the art of oceanic navigation by rough and ready computation of position from known stars was established.
- During this period, several ports in the east and west were opened which greatly revived maritime trade with European and African countries.
Maritime History of India: Southern dynasties
The Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas were major powers of peninsular India. These rulers had established strong maritime trade links with the local rulers of Sumatra, Java, the Malay Peninsula, Thailand, and China.
- The knowledge of the monsoon winds was also developed during sea voyages.
- During the Chola dynasty (3rd -13th century) extensive sea trade existed and new harbors with quarters, warehouses, and workshops were established.
- Ship repair yards, wharves, and lighthouses were built along the Indian coast to support the powerful navy which protected their merchant ships.
Hinduism and Indian culture spread during the 5th to 12th centuries during the Sri Vijaya Empire which extended between India’s eastern seaboard and the Far East (based on the island of Sumatra).
- The Sri Vijayas’ cultural and trading expeditions took them to far-flung areas such as Sumatra, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, Java, Thailand, and Indo-China.
- They attracted Indian, Arab, and Chinese merchants to ports where excellent harbor facilities were available.
- As a result of the differences between the Cholas, the Tamil kings, and the Sri Vijayas, a series of sea battles were fought between their navies towards the end of the 10th Century CE resulting in the weakening of these empires and opening the way for Arab supremacy in the region.
- In 1007 CE, the Cholas defeated the Sri Vijayas and then ruled the Malay Peninsula, Java, Sumatra, and some neighboring islands.
The Pandya dynasty (6th-16th Century) was eminent Agniveer and sea traders, with links extending from the Roman empire and Egypt in the West to China in the East.
- They controlled pearl farming that took place along India’s southern coastline, producing some of the finest pearls of those times.
The Cheras (12th Century) had a flourishing trade with the Greeks and the Romans.
- They navigated through various rivers which opened into the Arabian Sea.
- They used monsoon winds to sail their ships directly from the Indian ports of Tyndis (present-day Periyapattanum, near Kochi) and Muziris (present-day Pattanam, also near Kochi), to ports in Arabia.
The Vijaynagar (1336–1646 CE) empire established strong links with various parts of Southeast Asia and spread India’s culture and traditions.
- This influence is visible even today in Southeast Asia, as the names of many places and people are of Indian origin.
- These kingdoms also helped spread both Hinduism and Buddhism, cultures, and architecture in this region.
- Between the 13th and the 15th centuries, while most of northern India was dominated by the Delhi sultanate, most parts of southern India were controlled by the Vijaynagar Empire.
Arab advent through maritime trade
By the 8th Century CE, Arabs began to come to India by the sea in great numbers as traders.
- Over time, many parts of modern-day West Asia became nodal points for business between Europe, Southeast Asia, and India.
- Soon the Arabs began controlling the trade routes and acted as middlemen between the West and the East.
- The period from 900 to 1300 CE is considered the Early Age of maritime commerce in Southeast Asia.
Maritime History of India: The Europeans
The Mughal dynasty ruled over most of northern India from 1526-1707 CE. Having found sufficient revenue from land resources, they did not pay much attention to the affairs of the sea.
- This enabled the Arabs to establish a monopoly over trade in the Indian Ocean.
- Hearing about the rich land called ‘Hindustan’ in the East, many European countries felt the need to find a direct sea route for trade.
- The Portuguese took the lead and were the first Europeans to arrive on Indian shores.
The arrival of the Portuguese
Before the 16th century, the calm and peaceful waters of the Indian Ocean were characterized by a brisk and prosperous commercial trade in which most of the coastal and seafaring communities from East Africa to Malaysia and the Indonesian Islands participated actively.
Vasco da Gama (1460 – 1524) was a Portuguese explorer who discovered an oceanic route from Portugal to India.
- Sailing from Portugal, he rounded the Cape of Good Hope in Africa to arrive at Calicut in Kerala in May 1498.
- His arrival began a new chapter in India’s maritime history.
- The calm and peaceful scene of trade was disturbed by the arrival of the Portuguese merchantmen, who set a strategy for control of the entire Indian Ocean.
- They set up factories at Calicut, Cochin, Goa, Surat, and other west coast ports.
- They also took control of all important Ports namely Hormuz, Socotra, Aden, and Malacca to effectively seize the Indian Ocean trade flow, thereby displaying the Arab monopoly over trade in the Indian Ocean Region.
The Zamorins, with their capital at Calicut, a major trading port had flourishing trade over land and through seas.
- On Vasco da Gama’s arrival at Calicut, the Zamorin ruler granted permission to the Portuguese for trade.
- This was not liked by the large settlements of Arab traders who were already trading with the Zamorins.
- When asked by the Zamorin king to pay the customs tariff, Vasco da Gama refused to pay it and sailed back from Calicut to return to Europe.
- Thereafter, the Portuguese became friendly with the kings of Kochi and Cannanore and launched multiple assaults on the Zamorin ports. The Zamorins resisted the Portuguese for over a century.
- During this period of resistance, Kunjali Marakkars, the Naval commanders of that time, proved their tactical acumen and valor on many occasions. Kunjali Marakkar was the title given to the naval chief of the Zamorin king.
- There were four major Kunjalis who played their part in the Zamorin’s naval wars with the Portuguese between 1502 and 1600. Of the four Marakkars, Kunjali Marakkar II is the most famous.
- The Kunjali Marakkars are credited with organizing the first naval defense of the Indian coast and they prevented the Portuguese from establishing a foothold on the Malabar Coast for more than 90 years.
In 1509, Alfonso de Albuquerque was appointed Portuguese Governor in Kochi. Having failed to defeat the Zamorin, Albuquerque seized Goa and its surrounding areas by defeating the Sultan of Bijapur (present-day Karnataka) in 1510. Thereafter, Goa became the headquarters of Portuguese India and the seat of the Portuguese Viceroy.
The Dutch East India Company, established in 1592 in Amsterdam, Netherlands, sailed their first merchant fleet that reached India in 1595. Apart from textiles, the Dutch traded precious stones, indigo, silk, opium, cinnamon, and pepper.
- The first Dutch base in the Indian Ocean Region was established in Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia).
- They did not challenge the Portuguese and were permitted to set up a trading facility at Pulicat in 1608 which led to the formation of the Dutch Coromandel.
- Subsequently, Dutch Surat and Dutch Bengal were established in 1616 and 1627 respectively.
- The Dutch conquered the forts on the Malabar Coast (present-day Kerala) around 1661 and established Dutch Malabar to protect Ceylon from Portuguese invasion.
The East India Company was founded in England on 31 December 1600. A ship of the company, Hector, under the command of Captain William Hawkins, arrived at Surat.
- Captain William Hawkins brought with him a letter for Emperor Jahangir, seeking permission to trade with the Mughal dominions.
- The emperor granted permission for trade and also promised other trading facilities.
- At that time, the Portuguese were the dominant European power in India, so they did not appreciate the British arrival in India which affected their trade.
The French arrived in the Indian Ocean Region in 1740 and established a strong base in Mauritius.
- Eventually, they also arrived at Surat and Pondicherry where they set up their trading posts.
- In later years, French establishments came up in Karaikal, Yanaon, Mahe, and Chandernagore (present-day Chandannagar in Bengal).
- During the 18th century, the French were the primary challengers to British supremacy in the Indian Ocean.
- Between 1744 and 1766, the British and French repeatedly attacked each other to conquer forts and towns along the east coast of South India and Bengal.
- After a few initial French successes, the British decisively defeated the French in the Battle of Wandiwash in Tamil Nadu (1760).
The British knew the importance of the seas. In addition to taking over provinces over land, they also established a naval force that protected their sea trade and also kept adversaries at bay. Thus, a strong naval force also aided the British in ruling over India.
Maritime History of India: The Marathas
The Marathas gave the strongest resistance to the British from gaining control along the Indian coasts.
The Marathas, who were under constant attacks from the Mughals, initially had no navy.
- Shivaji was the first to realize the importance of a strong navy.
- Fighting the Siddis (who had their base at Murud Janjira) and observing the Portuguese naval power along the Konkan coast, Shivaji realized the importance of having an efficient system of ports and a strong navy.
- Shivaji believed in forts and built many coastal forts such as at Vijaydurg, Sindhudurg, and many others along the Konkan coast.
- He ensured sound defense of the forts by constructing them on hillocks overlooking the coast.
- The Maratha navy soon became stronger and established strongholds in the forts at Kolaba, Sindhudurg, Vijaydurg, and Ratnagiri.
- For more than 40 years, the Marathas held both the Portuguese and the British at bay single-handedly.
- Under Shivaji, the Maratha navy developed into a ferocious force with more than 500 ships.
- But after the death of Shivaji in 1680, the Maratha navy became weak.
Maritime India: The British Raj
The East India Company came under the British Crown in 1830 and acquired combatant status. The service was then named the Indian Navy. It was renamed Her Majesty’s Indian Navy in 1858.
- In 1863, it was reorganized into two branches; one in Bombay and the other at Calcutta, as the Bombay Marine and the Bengal Marine.
- The protection of Indian waters was then taken over by the Royal Navy.
- The Royal Indian Marine (RIM) was constituted in 1892.
- During World War I, RIM was assigned tasks such as marine survey, maintenance of lighthouses, and transportation of troops.
- Soon after the end of World War I in 1918, the strength of the Royal Indian Marine was reduced by the British government in India.
- In 1934, this Service was renamed the Royal Indian Navy (RIN), with its headquarters in Bombay.
- During the initial phase of World War II, Royal Indian Navy maintained a sea-going squadron of six escort vessels to cooperate with the Royal Navy and undertook the responsibility of local naval defense.
Maritime History of India: Post-Independence
Post-independence, the Royal Indian Navy was divided into the Royal Indian Navy and the Royal Pakistan Navy.
- In 1958, Vice Admiral R D Katari, become the first Indian Naval Officer to take over as the Chief of the Naval Staff of the Indian Navy.
- Two-thirds of the Royal Indian Navy’s assets remained with India and the balance went to Pakistan Navy.
With India becoming a Republic on 26 January 1950, the prefix ‘Royal’ was dropped and it was rechristened as the Indian Navy.
The maritime history of India as mentioned in this article spanned centuries. Seafaring in India has a long tradition since the late Chalcolithic period and was the major vessel that spread the cultural heritage of the nation globally.
The modern shipping and maritime sector is extremely important for the economic growth of the country. With a coastline of more than 7500 km, maritime trade and security are critical for the nation.
Article written by Swathi Satish