The forgotten Maritime History of India

From Indus Valley Civilisation to mentions in Vedic and Epic texts, India truly holds one of the oldest maritime heritages of the world.

India has a landmark history when it comes to its Maritime heritage. From Indus Valley Civilisation to mentions in Vedic and Epic texts, India truly holds one of the oldest maritime heritages of the world. The maritime history of our country not only makes us understand the supremacy of India over the Indian Ocean, but it also indicates how the country managed to move towards the status of great power.

Maritime History linked with Indus Valley Civilisation

Indian maritime activities have a long history with its presence even during the Indus Valley civilisation. Various research and explorations have revealed the link of maritime activities with the inhabitants of Indus Valley Civilisation. The excavation of Lothal is one of the greatest evidences of the maritime activities of the Indus people.

The dock at Gogha
Unfortunately, no remains of actual boats have been found, but the shape and other details of the boats are inferred from the clay models. Also, about three different types five terracotta models of boats were found at Lothal.

Early Vedic texts and records of naval expeditions and travel

Ancient Vedic texts, such as the Rig Veda, Shatapatha Brahmana, and others have written records of naval expeditions and travel to distant places via sea routes. Other than this, epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata also have instances of ships and sea travel, while the Puranas also had stories of sea voyages.

It is also believed that ancient Indians used to travel to various parts of the world not only for purposes of trade but to also propagate their culture and this is how the Vedic influence spread around the world.

Kingdoms

The Mauryas

The starting efforts to organise Navy in India is credited to Chandragupta Maurya. Kautilya in his Arthashastra has even mentioned the protection of the kingdom’s shipping and destruction of those threatening it.

The Guptas

There were about five arms of the Gupta military: Infantry, cavalry, chariot, elephants and ships. It is also believed that ship building industry also developed during the Gupta period that helped in the enhancement of trade and colonisation. The writings of Fa-Hien and Huein Tsang also give accounts of oceanic navigation and naval trade during the Gupta period.

The Cholas

The Cholas were also considered as ancient India’s leading naval power. Ruling the Southern and the south-eastern coast of the country, Cholas are also known for conquering islands such as Lakshadweep (part of India) and the Maldives. The Chola Empire also had a well-developed Navy and is even believed to send overseas expeditions to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia at that time.

The Chola Dynasty Map

Other Kingdoms/dynasties that had well-developed navies:

  • Pallavas
  • Cheras
  • Chalukyas of Vatapi
  • Palas

Europeans and Maritime of India

Britishers were not the only Europeans who came and settled in India. But the Portuguese with their developments in navigation were the first ones to found the sea route to India.

Vasco da Gama was the first Portuguese explorer to discover the oceanic route from Portugal to India. Sailing from Portugal, Vasco de Gama rounded Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to arrive at Calicut in Kerala in May 1498. Gama’s voyage was significant and paved the way for the Portuguese to establish a long-lasting colonial empire in Asia.

After the Portuguese, it was the Dutch who sailed their first merchant fleet that reached India in 1595. In fact, the Dutch East India Company, or the United East India Company was also formed in 1602 to protect that state’s trade in the Indian Ocean. Soon the Dutch became the dominant players in trade in the Indian sub-continent.

Interestingly, the Dutch made two attempts to defeat the Portuguese, in 1604 and 1639, but both its attempts turned into failure and the Malabar coast remained with the Portuguese.

The Britishers

After the sea route connecting Europe to India was discovered by Vasco de Gama, India became the centre of attraction for the European countries as they started to see their trading opportunities. Even though the primary motive behind visiting India was trade, slowly, the European powers started to get more interested in acquiring the Indian territory. The same happened with the Britishers as well.

Britishers first landed in the Indian subcontinent in 1608, at the port of Surat. It was then 1613, when Mughal Emperor Jahangir granted a farman to Captain William Hawkins permitting the English to erect a factory at Surat in 1613. Soon realising the politics and condition of the country, the East India Company started to transform itself from a trading company to a ruling one.

The Maratha Navy

Maratha Navy basically refers to the naval wing of the armed forces of the Maratha Empire that existed from around the mid-17th century to the mid-18th century in India. The founder of Maratha Empire Shivaji is also considered the Father of the Indian Navy.

The Maratha Navy consisted of the native Konkani sailors, some Siddis and Portuguese mercenaries. By the middle of the 17th century, the Maratha naval fleet had around 20 warships. Shivaji even employed a number of Portuguese naval officers to command their own fleet.

After the death of Admiral Kanhoji Angre in 1729, the Maratha Navy was left with a vacuum which resulted in the decline of Maratha sea power.

The Royal Indian Navy in the British era

The Britisher took the power from the East India Company in 1830 and started ruling the country. The Maritime service of the country was then named as Indian Navy, which was later renamed as Her Majesty’s Indian Navy in 1858. This Navy under the rule of Britishers was divided into two branches: Bombay and Calcutta. Later, the charge of the protection of Indian waters was handed over to the Royal Navy.

Navy Post-Independence

On attaining Independence, the Royal Indian Navy was divided into the Royal Navies of India and Pakistan. This division of the navy not only led to the division of assets but also led to the division of staff between the two countries.

Since then, the Indian Navy has been actively participating in various capacities – be it the 1961’s annexation of Goa, where during Operation Vijay, the Indian Navy supported the Indian Army’s troops and her fleet ensured the win for India by sinking Portuguese patrol boats and frigate (NRP Afonso de Albuquerque); or, be it during the daring operations of 1971’s moral war, a war solely aimed at bringing an end to the sufferings of Bengalis of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). In fact, the navy’s operations in this war are filled with stories of valour, leadership, sacrifice, patriotism, respect, humanity, and most of all moral and ethical values and to this day these stories serve as a source of inspiration for all.

In the past few years, the Indian Navy has been maintaining an unprecedented operational tempo in fulfilment of its increasing roles, missions and responsibilities.

 

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