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Blue Economy: Challenges & Opportunities                           

A Regional Overview of India’s Maritime Heritage

By Prithwiraj Gupta

In the first of a series of essays, Prithwiraj Gupta provides an introduction to the country’s often ignored maritime heritage

India’s maritime heritage stretches back more than three millennia but is only now being given serious consideration . With the growing prominence of the Indian Ocean region over the last decade or so, knowledge of India’s maritime contribution to the history of the Indian Ocean Region, and consequently to global history, has grown significantly and is being assessed from several different perspectives. The very fact that such a development has only occurred now is testament to the land centric view of our history from at least the colonial period, which has shaped much of the way in which we perceive our own history. India’s maritime heritage is not restricted to the seas but has been equally impacted by our river systems.

“India’s maritime heritage is not restricted to the seas but has been equally impacted by our river systems.”

Figure-1 Situated at the head of the Indian Ocean, India has always enjoyed a prominent position in the Indian Ocean. Since time immemorial, all maritime traffic, whether from west to east or vice versa, has used Indian ports.

Given the nation’s long association with water bodies, it has been witness to significant developments in maritime capability throughout history. They have been products of the specific environments in which they developed – inland, coastal, or oceanic – and hence vary according to regions and their different environments. This essay attempts to provide a brief introduction to the maritime heritage and capabilities of India, from its northwestern coast to the eastern coast, and finally bring into focus the capabilities developed along our riverine systems. It will intentionally not proceed chronologically in order to highlight the roles that each individual region played in the development of historical maritime capabilities. This essay is the first in a series focusing on the capabilities that evolved in each region throughout history.

The Northwestern Coast

Figure-2 The Northwest coast has had a long connect with maritime commerce, with several important ports developing there. The port of Bharuch, for example, was a hub of maritime commerce since ancient times and was known by different names such as Barygaza and Broach at different points in its history.

Let’s begin at the northwest coast, which as Lakshmi Subramanian (Maritime Historian & Author of The Sovereign and The Pirate) mentions, was known as the northward in early colonial records (Lakshmi Subramanian, The Sovereign and The Pirate. Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 2.). This area, from Sindh to Kathiawar, has always been an exceptionally important part of India’s maritime networks. The dockyard at Lothal, which is in this region, is a measure of the major role the northwestern coast of the subcontinent played in connecting India to other regions, by way of the sea, for at least three millennia. This coast saw extensive traffic from western Asia till the monsoon winds came to be widely utilized for sailing across the open seas. This part of India’s coast also saw the development of major ports like Bharuch, Khambhat (Cambay) and Surat, which were mercantile hubs for centuries. An interesting anecdote about the northwestern coast of India is that this was the place the Mughal emperor Akbar saw the ocean for the first time, at Khambhat during his conquest of Gujarat. Pirates were active in the northward from around the 12th century onwards and provide to be a constant menace till the 18th century.

The Konkan

Figure-3 The fort of Vijaydurg was one of the primary fortresses on the Konkan coast while Shivaji developed the Maratha navy. During Kanhoji Angria’s time, the Maratha fleet was extremely effective in the coastal waters of the Konkan and not even the European fleets could wrest control of the region from the Marathas.

Moving further down to the Konkan coast, we have evidence that the Satavahana rulers had some maritime association. This can be discerned from Satavahana coins, which have ships engraved on them; however, no written record has confirmed what the Satavahana maritime capabilities were like. The Konkan coast became more prominent in the 18th century, when the Maratha fleet under the Angrias engaged with the British and Portuguese navies in the Arabian Sea in its quest to dominate the Konkan coastline. The Maratha navy stuck primarily to coastal engagements, utilizing their knowledge of the same as well as an elaborate network of forts for defence and supplies. While the Maratha dominance was short-lived, it proved that indigenous forces could challenge the Europeans with the right strategic awareness and overall capability development. With the consolidation of colonial rule, the Konkan saw the development of the city of Bombay, which became one of the centres of the British Raj and continues to be central to India to this day.

The Malabar and the Coromandel

The Malabar coast was where Europeans landed for the first time after finding the alternative way to India by sailing around southern Africa. Vasco da Gama’s arrival at Calicut, then ruled by the Samoothiri, in 1498 changed the dynamics of the Indian Ocean Region completely. However, European dominance was not achieved without any resistance from indigenous powers. The Samoothiri’s (Zamorin’s) naval forces, under the Kunjali Marakkars, attempted to stop Portuguese hegemony on the waters around the Malabar but, superior European capability on the sea prevailed. Further back in time, the Malabar, through the port of Muziris, was part of a trade network that stretched all the way to the Roman Empire.

Figure-4 Calicut as depicted in the Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572. Approximately a century earlier, Vasco da Gama had landed here, opening the way to India, and its riches, for the Europeans states.

The Coromandel coast was at the centre of the Chola naval dominance in the 11th century.The two Chola rulers, Rajaraja I and Rajendra Chola, launched naval expeditions, first to Sri Lanka and then to South-east Asia in order to assert their political dominance. Fort St. George, which developed into modern day Chennai, became one of the most important ports along this coast from the 17th century onwards, not only for its maritime traffic but also for its role in the establishment of British rule in India.

Figure-5 The Chola Empire was at its height under Rajendra Chola in 1050. Rajendra Chola and his father, Rajaraja I, were extremely adept conquerors, strategists and rulers who led the Chola Empire to the pinnacle of its glory by bringing overseas territories under their suzerainty.

Kalinga and Bengal

Figure-6 Bengal has had a long maritime tradition and has a variety of boat types, from riverine to sea going. The story of Prince Vijaya’s conquest of Sri Lanka as well as the depictions of boats on the walls of temples prove that the Bengal delta has been an important source and destination for maritime commerce.

Further north, along the coast of present-day Orissa, the Kalinga kings seem to have had a maritime presence. The ancient port of Tamralipti, one of the most important in ancient India, with links to the Maurya Empire, is believed by scholars to lie either along the coast of Orissa or Bengal, although its location has not yet been proven beyond doubt. The deltaic coast of undivided Bengal (present day West Bengal and Bangladesh) has long had maritime linkages to South-east Asia. The Arakkan pirates were active along this coast and have been mentioned in early colonial records as beiNg a menace to both indigenous and foreign vessels. Bengal’s maritime legacy can be traced back much further. It is considered that Prince Vijaya, who invaded Sri Lanka and became its first ruler, was from Bengal and sailed with a fleet for the conquest of Sri Lanka. With the establishment of British rule, Calcutta (present day Kolkata) became the hub of all maritime activity coming from the east (a role like Bombay’s, which was the port of call for all traffic from the west).

Northeastern India

Figure-6 The Battle of Saraighat was a naval battle fought on the Brahmaputra and pitted Ahom forces against the might of the Mughals. Led by Lachit Borphukan, Ahom forces emerged victorious from this engagement, ending Mughal attempts to bring Assam into their empire.

Bengal also served as a gateway to the mighty rivers of eastern India, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, which connected the north-east Indian region to the mainland. The North-east, especially Assam, had a major role to play in India’s naval history as it was here that Ahom forces led by Lachit Borphukan defeated Mughal forces at the battle of Saraighat in 1671. Unfortunately, not much research has been done on the maritime history of this region, despite it lying in a location of strategic and geographic importance. Till they arrive in the Assam plains, the rivers of North-east India flow over hilly tracts; tracing the role of the rivers and riverine traffic in the tribal societies of the area may provide us with deeper insights into the culture of the people as well as the possible historical networks of the region.

The Historical Role of the Rivers of India

“From the mighty rivers of the north-west, which Alexander had to cross to invade India, and those of the east to the rivulets and streams of the Konkan, these waterways have been important to the development of India’s maritime culture; however, they have been much-overlooked in the study of India’s maritime history.”

Prior to the development of proper road networks, the rivers of India were an important medium of transport. Both the Sindh coast and the Bengal coast served as gateways to the three major rivers systems of India – the Indus, the Ganga, and the Brahmaputra. These, apart from many other river systems, were important in India’s social, economic, and political history both as connectors and dividers. From the mighty rivers of the north-west, which Alexander had to cross to invade India, and those of the east to the rivulets and streams of the Konkan, these waterways have been important to the development of India’s maritime culture; however, they have been much-overlooked in the study of India’s maritime history.

India’s maritime connect is no longer in doubt today. It is extremely important to know one’s history in order to situate oneself in the world. However, it is also important to impartially look at historical successes and failings in order to strengthen oneself. Over the next few essays, I will make an attempt to trace the capability developments that took place in these regions or environments of India, from the perspective of both history and policy. These essays will not only attempt to shed light on India’s maritime heritage but also attempt to see if and how such capabilities have relevance in today’s world, with specific focus on India’s historical and present-day role and position in the IOR.

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About The Author

Prithwiraj Gupta

Mr. Prithwiraj Gupta currently works with Sahapedia as a Junior Project Coordinator and has been associated with the Maritime Research Center, Pune since 2019. He is interested in researching the naval and maritime history of South Asia and situating it within the broader maritime history of the Indo-Pacific. Apart from this, his other research interests include military history, geopolitics and international relations.