The Sailing Saga
Organiser   16-Aug-2018
From the Harappan port sites, via Vedic Literature to organised nature of Mauryans, Pandyas, Cholas and Cheras, it is evident that Ancient India had a rich Maritime heritage commencing much before recorded history
Heritage is essentially a result of developments in the social, economic, cultural and political life of people due to their interaction between themselves and the existing natural and physical environment. The maritime heritage of a country can be defined as the overall resources of a nation derived from the oceans around it.
As per the six attributes listed by Admiral Mahan, a renowned American strategic thinker India in every sense has all the ingredients of a great maritime nation, and therefore we are the only country to have an ocean named after it. A look at the geographic location of India has more than 7,500 km of coastline studded with more than 200 primary and minor ports with a rich hinterland. Also, a well endowed EEZ of over 2.1 million sq km and as many as 1200 islands of both the coasts. The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean-bound by land on three sides. Coupled with prevalent currents and seasonal monsoon winds, it has provided suitable conditions for seafaring since ancient times.
Who decides where the first evaluation of history begins? They say it is the victors. After the advent of printing and typing machines, the Western powers have continued to control the research and (re) writing of history. Most of the ancient civilisation’s historical records, artifacts and other materials were destroyed or acquired. The burning of the Library of Alexandria, Mayan records and Nalanda/Taxila universities illustrates this fact.
As it has suited their narrative, almost all works of maritime history from Western sources start with a description of the seafaring tradition of the Mediterranean basin in 2,500-2000 BCE and dwell upon the sea powers of Crete, Phoenicia, Greece, Carthage and Rome. From the 10th century to the mid 20th century, India was under the non-indigenous domination of various degrees and its ancient history was twisted to suit their versions.
Sardar KM Pannikar (1895-1963), India’s first ambassador to China did pioneering work on India’s maritime history in his book India and the Indian Ocean, first published in 1945.
Vedic Sanskrit is said to be the oldest ancient language which has endured to modern times. Vedic people had rich maritime traditions, thriving trade networks, advanced shipbuilding and navigation and seamanship practices. The Rig Veda itself has 150 references to the oceans (Samudra), as well as ocean travel, and crossing rivers.
Ancient Times (3200-500 BCE)
The Vedic Age, primarily based on Vedic texts as the source, followed the Harappan culture. Both the Harappan ruins and Vedic literature speak of the same region and reflect many of the same artefacts and practices (fire altars, swastikas, images of figurines seated in meditation, performing yoga postures). The Rig Vedic people were part of the broader Harappan milieu.

  Boat with King on Bhogamandapa of Jagannatha Mandira, c. 12th Century CE, Puri
The earliest Harappan site is at Bhirana in Haryana on the banks of Ghaggar which has been carbon dated to 7000 BCE. Interestingly, from recent satellite imagery and ground surveys, it has been established that the dry riverbed of Ghaggar is same, as of Saraswati, mighty old river mentioned in the Vedas.
Recent excavations suggest largest of these cities was Rakhigarhi near Kurukshetra, in Haryana which is again located in the Saraswati Ghaggar basin. Raan of Kutch and island of Saurashtra had two most crucial port sites, Lothal and Dholavira, which established the maritime traditions and culture of Harappans.
The Rig Veda, oldest of all, was compiled over several generations by rishis and poet-philosophers. It makes no mention of Aryan invasion/migration and suggests no knowledge of central Asia. Instead, its focus was on Sapta-Sindhu or the land of seven rivers, an area covering modern day Haryana and parts of Punjab and Rajasthan.
  • The first definite mention of a navy occurs in Mahabharata. Historically,
  • The first attempt to organise a navy in Bharat was by Chandragupta Maurya
The Harappans and Vedic people had rich maritime traditions, thriving trade networks, advanced shipbuilding and navigation and seamanship practices. Prakash Charan Prasad in his book, Foreign Trade and Commerce in Ancient India (p 131) mentions “big ships were built; they could carry anywhere upwards of 500 men on the high seas. The Rajavallia says that the “ships in which King Sinhaba of Bengal (600 BCE) sent Prince Vijaya, could carry almost 700 passengers; and the ship in which his Pandyan bride was brought over to Lanka could carry 800 people.”
The first definite mention of a navy occurs in Mahabharata. Historically, the first attempt to organise a navy in India as described by Megasthenes (350-292 BCE) is attributed to Chandragupta Maurya (322-398 BCE). The Mauryan empire (322-185 BCE) navy continued till the time of Emperor Ashoka (273-32 BCE), who used it to send massive diplomatic missions to Greece, Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia and Cyprus.
In Kautilya’s Arthashastra we find information on the complete arrangements of the boats maintained by the Navy and State.
The Periplus of the Erythrean (Arabic sea) written by an Alexandrian in 1st century CE describes seagoing traditions between the coast of Africa and up to the east coast of India. It mentions two-masted ships with dual rudders mounted on the sides. Chinese chronicles of the same era describe seven-masted Hindu vessels 160 feet in length carrying more than 700 passengers and 1000 tons of merchandise.
Vedic Astronomy and Navigation
The astronomical knowledge of Vedic people was highly developed and used for navigation purposes. Navigation has roots in ‘nav’, a Sanskrit word. The observations of various planetary alignments (Yuga) were recorded in ancient Indian literature. Rig Veda verse ( says “ earth is not only revolving around the sun but also rotates on its own axis like a wheel of] chariot turning on its keel and at the same time moving on the road.” All four Vedas in different verses also say that the moon, satellite of earth, revolves around its mother planet and follows it in its revolution around the self-luminous planet, i.e. the Sun or the father planet”. Mayasura, from the Indian subcontinent, was a great mathematician and astronomer. His treatise is called Surya Sidhanta. It mentions Bhoomi (earth), Surya (Sun) Mandakini’s (Milky way) madhyarekhas (celestial equator) and their alignment. Extensive knowledge not only about the planet signs and houses but 27 lunar constellations (nakshatras) is evident. Orion constellation known as Kaal- Purush was used as the reference point for calendars and navigation.

 It is believed that Vasco da Gama, who is credited with discovering the sea route to India, actually sailed with Kanji Malam, a Gujarati trader from Kutch, to reach the shores of Bharat
Ancient Indian navigators knew the zenith stars of different latitudes and could tell what latitude they were in by observing which star was directly overhead at night. An instrument called Varuta-Sangha-Bhaga was purportedly used as a crude sextant. Indian cartography locates the pole star and other constellations of use in navigational charts. These charts may have been in use by the beginning of the Common Era for purposes of navigation.
Mr J.L Reid, member of the Institute of Naval Architects and Shipbuilders in England, in his Bombay Gazetteer, Vol. XIII had said that “Hindu astrologers are said to have used the magnet in fixing the north and east, in laying foundations, and other religious ceremonies. The Hindu compass was an iron fish that floated in a vessel of oil and pointed to the north. The fact of this old Hindu compass seems placed beyond doubt by Sanskrit word ‘macha yantra’ or fish machine”.
Essential ports of India during this period were Bharukachcha (Baroch), Supara, Kalyana and Muzeris on the western coast and Tamralipti (Bengal), Arikamedu (Tamil Nadu) on the eastern coast, which was engaged in extensive trade with Romans and South East Asia. An interesting 2nd-century document called the Vienna Papyrus records an agreement regarding transportation of goods between two merchants based in Alexandria and Muzeris.
Mauryan maritime trade during their reign flourished. In his treatise Arthashastra, Kautilya had emphasised more significant use of ‘dakshinpatha’ which was connected to Baroch for sea trade. Bindusara had remained in touch with Alexander’s successors in the Middle East, and Ashoka had maintained this practice. His 13th edict mentions “the conquest of Dharma has been won here, on the borders, and even six hundred yojanas (5400-9600 km) away, where the Greek king Antiochus rules, beyond there where the four kings named Ptolemy, Antigonus, Magas and Alexander rule, likewise in the south among the Cholas, the Pandyas and as far as Tamraparni (Sri Lanka).” It is suggested that Ashoka’s son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra set sail for a mission to Sri Lanka from Tamralipti.
Pandyas of Tamil territory were also actively engaged with Romans and South East Asia. As per Roman inscriptions, 4x Tamil Pandya embassies were received by Augustus Caesar. Pliny famously mentions expenditure of 1 million sestertii every year on goods such as pepper, fine cloth and gems from southern India. He also mentions 10 thousand horses shipped to this particular region per year. Tamil and Sanskrit name inscriptions have been found in Luxor in Egypt, in turn, Sanhgam Tamil literature describes foreign ships arriving for trade and paying in gold for products.
Cholas maintained an efficient navy. In 2nd century BCE, Chola king Ellara had conquered Sri Lanka and ruled it for 50 years. Chola king Karikala founded the port city of Kaveripattnam which was a high centre of trade and commerce and had a large dock.
Right from the details about the Harappan port sites, via Vedic Literature to organised nature of Mauryans, Pandyas, Cholas and Cheras have revealed that the coastal populace had very well developed traditions and had well established maritime trade links with their contemporary civilisations in West Asia.
It can be concluded with a fair degree of certainty that ancient India had a rich Maritime heritage commencing much before recorded history. How our coastal communities carried these skills of Ship-building and maritime commerce and trade and how it can be revitalised is the real challenge. This is not possible without understanding our maritime tradition with Indian prism.
(The writer is Retd. Naval officer and Director of Kanhoji Angre Maritime Institute, Nasik)