The study of our past is of utmost importance as it helps us to discover our growth as a race, as a nation, and as individuals. It helps us learn lessons and pave the path towards progress and also acts as a guide towards development. The study of our past is also very intrinsic in nature, and nowhere is this more evident than in maritime history.

The maritime history of any country gives us a clue to its past, and how it has benefitted (or not) due to its geographical location. The blend of maritime history and archaeology is known as Maritime or Marine Archaeology and deals with the Maritime history of any country. In the Indian context, it is not limited to research carried underwater, but extends to shipwrecks, sites along the coast and trade routes that led the once thriving sea trade in India. 

Ancient Indians were known to utilise the potential of the subcontinent’s 7500-km-long coastline and were equipped for sea faring with immense knowledge of the sea. 

Lands close to the water became sprawling maritime hubs witnessing activities related to the seas. These centres evolved into an integration between civilisation, its various sectors and the sea, resulting in trade, transoceanic relations, community with specific belief systems, a marine economy, and a peculiar polity and administrational setup. 

The Rig Vedic deity Varuna and the Greek god Poseidon were an emblem of assertion of absorption of water, interwoven as beliefs, into the most important aspect of human life and society: religion. India is known to revere not only the seas and the oceans but also rivers which, such as the Ganga and Yamuna are largely perceived to be goddesses. These personified deities have also found shape in the form of art depictions as well as mentions across several works of literature.

The Harappans were known to be Sea Fearers, as is evident from the extensive trade they conducted with civilisations far and wide. India has the first dockyard in the world in the form of Lothal. In Lothal, one can find artefacts such as ship models as well as ship-marked seals belonging to the Harappan era – concrete evidence of maritime activities of ancient India. The Lothal dockyard is a fantastic demonstration of the knowledge that the Harappans possessed in the fields of hydrography, maritime engineering and sea tides.

 This enabled them to use seas and rivers extensively and led to an extensive exchange of not only goods but also of people which led to amalgamation of various cultures. The discovery of Bahraini and Mesopotamian goods on Harappan sites and vice versa is a classic example. Contemporary examples also abound; one such is of fish nets which were introduced by the Chinese when they came to Kerala’s coast to exchange paper and jars with pepper and ginger many centuries ago. These nets are used in Cochin even today. 

On the eastern coast of India, the kingdom of Kalinga (today’s Odisha) played a significant role in maritime trade and was an important port connected across the Bay of Bengal to Southeast Asia and Indochina. 

South India has had a number of important ports that engaged in overseas trade and aided cultural blending. Kerala, or the ancient Muziris, was a very important port which existed around 2000 years ago and was a major centre for trading spices and precious and semi-precious commodities. It maintained trade contacts with the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Assyrians. It was from Kerala that the Christian Faith set foot on the Indian land. 

A major power centre in ancient India was the Chola capital of Kaveripattinam or Poompuhar. Mentioned in the Sangam literature, this port city is now submerged underwater. In its heyday, the kingdom flourished through trade contacts with the Arabs, Romans and other Asian civilisations as evidenced from the artefactual finds such as Roman Amphoraes, coins, precious stones etc. They also exerted dominance in the East Asia through the capture of Srivijaya (Indonesia) and its cities and repeated embassies to China. 

Medieval Indian rulers such as the Mughals did not think of developing a naval fleet for their kingdom, nor did they wish to. In the Medieval period, while the Mughals did not contribute much, the Marathas developed their navy and fought bravely against the intruders from the west. Chhatrapati Shivaji in particular realised the importance of a naval fleet and structured two of them. His navy consisted of Konkani sailors along with mercenaries who were Siddis and Portuguese. This practice was adopted from the army and was a smart way to adapt to new technology and practices. 

An aspect worth pondering about is the superstitions that prevailed regarding maritime travel, especially among the Hindus. Hindus were forbidden to cross the seas in fear of contact with the ‘Mlechha’ or foreigners and becoming impure. This superstition was later exploited by the British in the form of the Kala Pani (literally, black waters) punishment for its prisoners, the severest of them all. The superstition resulted in a major setback; the remaining classes, especially those with little or no education were archaic in their navigational skills and the superstition lead to non-usage of iron nails and woods of certain kinds. Initially, these factors did not hamper the early development of shipbuilding; India was still known for it, especially in the Arab world. However, the Industrial Revolution changed all dynamics and India’s shipbuilding industry went into total decline. 

India was a maritime power for a large part of history, and it is heading towards being one now. India’s rich and vast maritime heritage has, unfortunately, lost importance in the post-Independence period. In India, Marine Archaeology is a neglected discipline due to various reasons ranging from constraints of working underwater and expensive nature of equipment, to lack of experts and educational institutions with related courses. 

Although the genesis of Marine Archaeology has been late globally as well, India lags far behind at that scale as well. There is a need to understand the importance of the subject. It provides us a glimpse of our past and helps us combine it with our present knowledge, in order to proceed towards a better future. It not only supports the economic development of a country but also creates awareness and appreciation for our heritage and stimulates its preservation for future generations. 

Water has acted as a harbinger for many civilisations across the globe and has also been eyes to the decline of many; while it is a boon, it is also nature’s powerful element with a flipside. It is time we re-establish the general sense of awareness and appreciation towards our maritime heritage and rekindle the maritime spirit.

(This was first published in The Tilak Chronicle.)

Tiya Chatterji

Tiya Chatterjee is a Delhi-based Maritime Archaeologist, with a background in History, Archaeology and Museology.


The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.


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