Shipbuilding and Navigation

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The art of Navigation was born in the river Sindh 6000 years ago. The very word Navigation is derived from the Sanskrit word NAV Gatih.

The word navy is also derived from Sanskrit `Nou'.

The Vedic Age was a period of tremendous wealth and prosperity. The primary sources of knowledge about the Vedic Age is the Rig Veda. It was a cooperating society based on generate wealth. Gold (Hiranya in Sanskrit) was very valuable in this period. The Rig Veda even refers to gifts of gold necklaces reaching down to the chest (Hiranya plural). Gold was smelted from the beds of the rivers Saraswati and Sindhu (Indus).

The Rig Veda not only refer to the Saraswati as Hiranyavartani, or the path of gold (and the Sindhu as Hiranmayi or made of gold), it also makes a direct reference to panned-gold from the Saraswati river bed.

Trade was also a big part of this civilization. There is overwhelming evidence that this civilization traded with the Egyptians (with the Sumerians acting as intermediaries). This directly implies the use of ships.

In fact, the Rig Veda makes several references to ships used to cross the "Samudra."

India was a peninsula cut off from the Northern world by the Himalayas, and from the Eastern and Western, by vast expanses of water, India had to take to shipping, if she wanted to export her immense surplus goods. Literature as well as art expresses the life of a people, and evidences from Indian literature and art prove that in ancient times, India had developed her own shipping.

Sailor dropping anchor at Angkorwat, Cambodia.

"Those who believe the ancient peoples of Asia were incapable of crossing the ocean have completely lost sight of what the literary sources tell us concerning their ships and their navigation."

For more refer to chapter on Greater India: Suvarnabhumi, Pacific and Sacred Angkor.


Sardar Kavalam Madhava Panikkar (1896-1963) Indian historian, in his book A Survey of Indian History, was the most impressive in depicting how South India’s expansion into “further India” was achieved by the very sea power that ten centuries later was to open India to colonization by the West:

"From the first century A.D we witness the strange fact of Hindu or Hinduised kingdoms in Annam , Cochin-China and the islands of the Pacific. The Ramayana knew of Java and Sumatra . Communication by sea between the ports of South India and the islands of the Pacific was well established many centuries before the Christian era."

(source: A Survey of Indian History - By Sardar Kavalam Madhava Panikkar p. 68 - 69).

For more refer to Greater India: Suvarnabhumi, Pacific and Sacred Angkor.

Baron Robert von Heine-Geldern (1885 - 1968) and Gordon F. Ekholm (1909 - 1987) the world's leading anthropologists, have strongly supported the claim that Indian ships went all the way to Mexico and Peru centuries before Columbus.

In the "Civilizations of Ancient America" they state:

"There appears to be little doubt but that ship building and navigation were sufficiently advanced in southern and eastern Asia at the period in question to have made trans-Pacific voyages possible. In the third century, horses were exported from India to the Malay Peninsula and Indo-China, an indication that there must have been ships of considerable size."

(source: India: Mother of us All - Edited by Chaman Lal p. 43-44).

Professor Georg Buehler (1837-1898) the German Orientalist, had said:

"There are passages in ancient Indian works which prove the early existence of a navigation of the Indian Ocean, and the somewhat later occurrence of trading voyages undertaken by Hindu merchants to the shores of the Persian Gulf and its rivers. No commerce can thrive unless fostered by national shipping."

For more refer to chapter on Greater India: Suvarnabhumi and Sacred Angkor.


History of Indian Navy

India's maritime history predates the birth of western civilization. The world's first tidal dock is believed to have been built at Lothal around 2300 BC during the Harappan civilization, near the present day Mangrol harbour on the Gujarat coast.

Ancient Indian ocean-going ship arriving at Java, from a frieze of the Borobodur stupa.

(image source: India: A concise history - By Francis Watson p. 72).

For more refer to chapter on Greater India: Suvarnabhumi, Pacific and Sacred Angkor.


The Rig Veda, written around 2000 BC, credits Varuna with knowledge of the ocean routes commonly used by ships and describes naval expeditions using hundred-oared ships to subdue other kingdoms. There is a reference to Plava, the side wings of a vessel which give stability under storm conditions: perhaps the precursor of modern stabilisers. Similarly, the Atharva Veda mentions boats which were spacious, well constructed and comfortable.

In Indian mythology, Varuna was the exalted deity to whom lesser mortals turned for forgiveness of their sins. It is only later that Indra became known as the King of the Gods, and Varuna was relegated to become the God of Seas and Rivers. The ocean, recognized as the repository of numerous treasures, was churned by the Devas and Danavas, the sons of Kashyapa by queens Aditi and Diti, in order to obtain Amrit, the nectar of immortality. Even today the invocation at the launching ceremony of a warship is addressed to Aditi.

The influence of the sea on Indian kingdoms continued to grow with the passage of time. North-west India came under the influence of Alexander, who built a harbor at Patala where the Indus branches into two just before entering the Arabian Sea. His army returned to Mesopotamia in ships built in Sind. Records show that in the period after his conquest, Chandragupta Maurya established an Admiralty Division under a Superintendent of Ships as part of his war office, with a charter including responsibility for navigation on the seas, oceans, lakes and rivers. History records that Indian ships traded with countries as far as Java and Sumatra, and available evidence indicates that they were also trading with other countries in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Even before Alexander there were references to India in Greek works, and India had a flourishing trade with Rome. The Roman writer Pliny speaks of Indian traders carrying away large quantities of gold from Rome, in payment for much-sought exports such as precious stones, skins, clothes, spices, sandalwood, perfumes, herbs and indigo.

Trade of this volume could not have been conducted over the centuries without appropriate navigational skills. Two Indian astronomers of repute, Aryabhatta and Varahamihira, having accurately mapped the positions of celestial bodies, developed a method of computing a ship's position from the stars. A crude forerunner of the modern magnetic compass was being used around the fourth or fifth century AD. Called Matsya Yantra, it comprised an iron fish that floated in a vessel of oil and pointed North.

Between the fifth and tenth centuries AD, the Vijaynagaram and Kalinga kingdoms of southern and eastern India had established their rule over Malaya, Sumatra and Western Java. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands then served as an important midway point for trade between the Indian peninsula and these kingdoms, as also with China. The daily revenue from the eastern regions in the period 844-848 AD was estimated at 200 maunds (eight tons) of gold. In the period 984-1042 AD, the Chola kings dispatched great naval expeditions which occupied parts of Burma, Malaya and Sumatra, while suppressing the piratical activities of the Sumatran warlords. In 1292 AD, Marco Polo described Indian ships as " ...built of fir timber, having a sheath of boards laid over the planking in every part, caulked with oakum and fastened with iron nails. The 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 pitch."


The Rig Veda mentions the two oceans to the east and the west, (Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea) just as they mention ships and maritime trade. Bhujyu, who is one of the main ancestral figures of the Vedic people, is said in the Rig-Veda (1.116.5) to have been brought home safely in a ship with a hundred oars. The idea of a houseboat is implied in several hymns, and so is ocean travel over a period of many days. The Vedic people were well aware that the Indus and Saraswati poured their water into the ocean, that the oceans roars, is ever in motion through its waves, and encircles the land masses.

The picture of the Vedic people as seafaring merchants meshes perfectly with the archaeological evidence of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. Apart from foreign artifacts in the Indus cities and Indus artifacts overseas, there are also steatite seals depicting seaworthy vessels. The seafaring nature of the Hindus is well known from later sources. King Hiram of Tyre (Phoenicia) in 975 B.C. traded with India through the port of Ophir (Supara) near modern Bombay. Harappan seals discovered at several Mesopotamia sites have been dated to about 2400 B.C.

A panel found at Mohenjodaro, depicting a sailing craft. Vessels were of many types. Their construction is vividly described in the Yukti Kalpa Taru an ancient Indian text on Ship-building. There is evidence that a compass made by iron fish floating in a vessel of oil and pointing north was used by mariners. The typical Harappan seals have been found far a field in Oman, Mesopotamia, and the Maldives. These finds bear witness to the enthusiastic initiative of the early Indic peoples as sea faring merchants.

Despite Ancient Concerns about possibly losing caste from crossing the sea, history reveals India was the foremost maritime nation 2,000 years ago (meanwhile Europeans were still figuring out the Mediterranean Sea). It had colonies in Cambodia, Java, Sumatra, Japan, China, Arabia, Egypt and more. Through Persians and Arabs, India traded with the Roman Empire. The Sanskrit text, Yukti Kalpa Taru, explains how to build ships, such as the one depicted in the Ajanta caves. It gives minute details about ship types, sizes and materials, including suitability of different types of wood. The treatise also elaborately explains how to decorate and furnish ships so they're comfortable for passengers.

Yuktikalpataru gives a detailed classification of ships: They were two kinds: ordinary (Samanya) ships comprising those used in inland waters and special (visesa) meant for sea journeys. The largest of these called Manthara measured 120 cubits in length, 60 in breadth and 60 cubits in height. During the days of the composition of Yuktikalpataru, it appears that ship-building was highly advanced. Bhoja has advised the builders of the sea-faring ships not to join the plants with iron, as, in the case, the magnetic iron in sea water could expose the ship to danger. To avoid this risk, he suggests that planks of the bottoms should be held together with the help of substances other than iron.

According to Marco Polo an Indian ship could carry crews between 100 to 300. Out of regard for passenger convenience and comfort, the ships were well furnished and decorated. Gold, silver, copper and compound of all these substances were generally used for ornamentation and decoration.

(source: India Through The Ages: History, Art Culture and Religion - By G. Kuppuram p. 527-531). For more information, refer to chapters on Seafaring in Ancient India and War in Ancient India).

For more refer to chapter on Greater India: Suvarnabhumi and Sacred Angkor

Recently, an Indian scholar, B. C. Chhabra, in his "Vestiges of Indian Culture in Hawaii", has noticed certain resemblances between the symbols found in the petroglyohs from the Hawaiian Islands and those on the Harappan seals. Some of the symbols in the petroglyphs are described as akin to early Brahmi script.

Will Durant, eminent American historian, in his book The Story of civilizations - Our Oriental Heritage described India as the most ancient civilization on earth and he offered many examples of Indian culture throughout the world. He demonstrated that as early as the ninth century B.C. E. Indians were exploring the sea routes, reaching out and extending their cultural influences to Mesopotamia, Arabia, and Egypt.

The art of shipbuilding and navigation in India and China at the time was sufficiently advanced for oceanic crossings. Indian ships operating between Indian and South-east Asian ports were large and well equipped to sail cross the Bay of Bengal. When the Chinese Buddhist scholar, Fa-hsien, returned from India, his ship carried a crew of more than two hundred persons and did not sail along the coasts but directly across the ocean. Such ships were larger than those Columbus used to negotiate the Atlantic a thousand years later.

Trade linkages existed between Philippines and with the powerful Hindu empires in Java and Sumatra. These linkages were venues for exchanges with Indian culture, including the adoption of syllabic scripts which are still used by indigenous groups in Palawan and Mindoro.

According to the work of mediaeval times, Yukti Kalpataru, which gives a fund of information about shipbuilding, India built large vessels from 200 B.C. to the close of the sixteenth century. A Chinese chronicler mentions ships of Southern Asia that could carry as many as one thousand persons, and were manned mainly by Malayan crews. They used western winds and currents in the North Pacific to reach California, sailed south along the coast, and then returned to Asia with the help of the trade winds, taking a more southerly route, without however, touching the Polynesian islands. The New Zealand pre historian, S. Percy Smith, tries to show in his Hawaiki - the Original home of the Maori that the ancient Polynesian wanderers left India as far back as the fourth century B.C. and were daring mariners who made, more often than not, adventurous voyages with the definite object of new settlements. A people who reached as far east as Easter Island could not have missed the great continent ahead of them.

It was probably gold, which initially attracted Indian adventurers and merchants to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia was a region broadly referred to by ancient Indians as Suvarnabhumi (Land of Gold) or Suvarnadvipa (the Island of Gold). Arab writer Al Biruni testify that Indians called the whole Southeast region Suwarndib. Hellenistic geographers knew the area as the Golden Chersonese. The Chinese called it Kin-Lin; kin means gold. The mariners were probably looking for gold or were prospecting for precious metals, stones and pearls to cope with the demand in the centers of ancient civilizations.

"Ships of size that carried Fahien from India to China (through stormy China water) were certainly capable of proceeding all the way to Mexico and Peru by crossing the Pacific. One thousand years before the birth of Columbus Indian ships were far superior to any made in Europe upto the 18th century."

(source: The Civilizations of Ancient America: The Selected Papers of the XXIXth International Congress of Americanists - edited Sol Tax 1951).

(Please refer to the chapters Suvarnabhumi: Greater India, War in Ancient India and Seafaring in Ancient India for more information about Indian culture in Southeast Asia.)

He has also further noted that Bombay-built ships are at least one-fourth cheaper than those built in the docks of England. F. Balazar Solvyns, a Frenchman, wrote a book titled "Les Hindous" in 1811.

His remarks are, "In ancient times, the Indians excelled in the art of constructing vessels, and the present Hindus can in this respect still offer models to Europe-so much so that the English, attentive to everything which relates to naval architecture, have borrowed from the Hindus many improvement which they have adopted with success to their own shipping.... The Indian vessels unite elegance and utility and are models of patience and fine workmanship."


In ancient times the Indians excelled in shipbuilding and even the English, who were attentive to everything which related to naval architecture, found early Indian models worth copying. The Indian vessels united elegance and utility, and were models of fine workmanship.

Sir John Malcolm (1769 - 1833) was a Scottish soldier, statesman, and historian entered the service of the East India Company wrote about Indian vessels that they:

"Indian vessels "are so admirably adapted to the purpose for which they are required that, not withstanding their superior science, Europeans were unable, during an intercourse with India for two centuries, to suggest or at least to bring into successful practice one improvement. "

(source: Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. I and India and World Civilization - By D P Singhal part II p. 76 - 77).

For more refer to chapter on Greater India: Suvarnabhumi, Pacific and Sacred Angkor

Kavalam Madhava Panikkar in his book Asia and Western Dominance ASIN: B00005VGEZ published by George Allen, London. 1959 says:

"It should be remembered that the Indian Ocean, including the entire coast of Africa, had been explored centuries ago by Indian navigators. Indian ships frequented the East African ports and certainly knew of Madagascar. Vasco da Gama's journey across the Indian Ocean was guided by an Indian pilot whom the King of Milindi had placed at his disposal. Fra Mauro preserves the tradition of two voyages from India past the south end of Africa. He marks the southern cape with the name of Diab and says that an Indian ship in about 1420 was storm-driven to this point and sailed westward to 2,000 miles in forty days, without touching land. Fra Mauro had also spoken himself with a person worthy of confidence who said he had sailed from India, past Sofala to a place called Garbin on the west coast of Africa. The Indian Ocean was therefore a charted sea whose routes were known, and as a navigation achievement long before de Gama."

The Indian Ocean had from time immemorial been the scene of intense commercial trade. Indian ships had from the beginning of history sailed across the Arabian Sea up to the Red Sea ports and maintained intimate cultural and commercial connections with Egypt, Israel and other countries of the Near East. Long before Hippalus disclosed the secret of the monsoon to the Romans, Indian navigators had made use of these winds and sailed to the Bab-el-Mandeb. To the east, Indian mariners had gone as far as Borneo and flourishing Indian colonies had existed for over 1,200 years in Malaya, the islands of Indonesia, in Cambodia and Champa and other areas of the coast. Indian ships from Quilon, made regular journeys to the South China coast. A long tradition of maritime life was part of the history of the Peninsular India. The supremacy of India in the waters that washed her coast was unchallenged till the rise of Arab shipping under the early khalifs. But the Arabs and Hindus competed openly, and the idea of 'sovereignty over the sea' except in the narrow straits was unknown to Asian conception. Naval fights on any large scale, in the manner of the wars between Carthage and Rome, seem to have been unknown in India before the arrival of the Portuguese."

(source: Asia and Western Dominance ASIN: B00005VGEZ published by George Allen, London. 1959 p. 28-30). For more on Shipbuilding in Ancient India, please refer to chapter Seafaring In Ancient India).

For more refer to chapter on Greater India: Suvarnabhumi and Sacred Angkor

Sir Aurel Stein (1862-1943) a Hungarian and author of several books including Ra`jatarangini: a chronicle of the kings of Kashmir and Innermost Asia : detailed report of explorations in Central Asia, Kan-su, and Eastern Iran carried out and described under the orders of H.M. Indian Government, whose valuable researches have added greatly to our knowledge of Greater India, remarks:

"The vast extent of Indian cultural influences, from Central Asia in the North to tropical Indonesia in the South, and from the Borderlands of Persia to China and Japan, has shown that ancient India was a radiating center of a civilization, which by its religious thought, its art and literature, was destined to leave its deep mark on the races wholly diverse and scattered over the greater part of Asia."

(source: The Vision of India - By Sisir Kumar Mitra p. 178 and Main Currents of Indian Culture - By S. Natarajan p. 50).

" Indian naval pilot, named Kanha, was hired by Vasco da Gama to take him to India. Contrary to European portrayals that Indians knew only coastal navigation, deep-sea shipping had existed in India. Indian ships had been sailing to islands such as the Andamans, Lakshdweep and Maldives, around 2,000 years ago. Kautiliya's shastras describe the times that are good and bad for seafaring. In the medieval period, Arab sailors purchased their boats in India. The Portuguese also continued to get their boats from India, and not from Europe. Shipbuilding and exporting was a major Indian industry, until the British banned it. There is extensive archival material on the Indian Ocean trade in Greek, Roman, and Southeast Asian sources."

(source: History of Indian Science & Technology).

Skilled Seafaring Men

Catamaran (from Tamil kattu "to tie" and maram "wood, tree") is a type of boat or ship consisting of two hulls joined by a frame. Catamarans were used by the ancient Tamil Chola dynasty as early as the 5th century AD for moving their fleets to conquer such Southeast Asian regions as Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia and Malaysia) to cross from Polynesia to South America even at the present time, and the ancient Asians were skilled and enterprising seafaring men.

(Note: US Government recently adopted the ancient Indian catamaran-making technology to construct fast ships. The ships, built with technology adapted from ancient Tamil methods to make catamarans, can travel over 2,500 kms in less than 48 hours, twice the speed of the regular cargo ships, and carry enough equipment to support about 5,000 soldiers, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday).

(source: U.S. adopts Indian Catamaran technology - and

For more on Shipbuilding in Ancient India, please refer to chapter Seafaring In Ancient India). For more refer to chapter on Greater India: Suvarnabhumi, Pacific and Sacred Angkor.












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