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From the site of the Indian Navy




       India's  maritime history predates the birth of Western civilisation. The world's first tidal dock is believed to have been built at Lothal around 2300 BC during the Harappan civilisation, near the present day Mangrol harbour on the Gujarat coast. 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 stabilizers. Similarly, the Atharva Veda mentions boats, which are spacious, well constructed and comfortable.

      In Indian mythology, Varuna was the exalted deity to whom lesser mortals turned to for forgiveness of their sins. It is only later that Indra became the King of the Gods and Varuna was relegated to become the God of Seas and Rivers. The oceans recognized as repository of treasure, was churned by the Devas and Danavs, the sons of Kashyap by queen Aditi and Diti, in order to obtain Amrit, the nectar of immortality. Even today, the invocation at the launching 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 the great, who built a harbour at Patala where the Indus branches into two, just before entering the Arabian sea. His army returned to Mesopotamia in ships built in Sindh. 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 Ocean. Even before Alexander, there were references to India in Greek works and India had a flourishing trade with Rome.  Roman writer Pliny speaks of Indian traders carrying away large quantity of gold  from Rome, in payment for much sought exports such as precious stones, skins, clothes, spices, sandalwood , perfumes, herbs and indigo.

       Trades of this volume could not have been conducted over the countries 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 called Matsyayantra was being used around the fourth or fifth century AD. Between the fifth and tenth centuries AD, the Vijayanagar and Kalinga kingdoms of southern and Eastern India had established their rules over Malaya, Sumatra and Western Java. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands then served as an important midway for trade between the Indian peninsula and these kingdoms, as also with China. The daily revenue from the western regions in the period 844-848 AD was estimated to be 200 maunds (eight tons) of gold. In the period 984-1042AD, the Chola kings dispatched great naval expeditions which occupied parts of Burma, Malaya and Sumatra, while suppressing the piratical activities of the Sumatra 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 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." A fourteenth century description of an Indian ship credits it with a carrying capacity of over 700 people giving a fair idea of both ship building skills and maritime ability of seamen who could successfully man such large vessels.

         Another account of the early fifteenth Century describes Indian ships as being built in compartments so that even if one part was shattered, the next remained intact, thus enabling the ship to complete her voyage. This was perhaps a forerunner of the modern day subdivision of ships into watertight compartments, a concept then totally alien to the Europeans.  

        The decline of Indian maritime power commenced in the Thirteenth century, and Indian sea power had almost disappeared when the Portuguese arrived in India. They later imposed a system of license for trade, and set upon all Asian vessels not holding permits from them.  

        The piratical activities of the Portuguese were challenged by the Zamorins of Calicut when Vasco da Gama, after obtaining permission to trade, refused to pay the customs levy. Two major engagements were fought during this period. First, the battle of Cochin in 1503, clearly revealed the weakness of Indian navies and indicated to the Europeans an opportunity for building a naval empire. The second engagement off Diu in 1509, gave the Portuguese mastery over Indian seas and laid the foundation of European control over Indian waters for the next 400 years. TOP

         Indian maritime interests witnessed a remarkable resurgence in the late seventeenth century, When the Siddhis of Janjira allied with the Moghuls to become a major power on the West Coast. This led the Maratha King Shivaji to create his own fleet, which was commanded by able admirals like Sidhoji Gujar and Kanhoji Angre. The Maratha Fleet along with the legendary Kanhoji Angre held away over the entire Konkan Coast keeping the English, Dutch and Portuguese at bay. The death of Angre in 1729 left a vacuum and resulted in the decline of Maratha sea power. Despite the eclipse of Indian kingdoms with the advent of western domination, Indian shipbuilders continued to hold their own well into the nineteenth century. The Bombay Dock completed in July 1735 is in use even today. Ships displacing 800 to 1000 tons were built of teak at Daman and were superior to their British counterparts both in design and durability. This so agitated British shipbuilders on the River Thames that they protested against use of Indian built ships to carry trade from England. Consequently active measures were adopted to cripple the Indian shipbuilding industries. Nevertheless, many Indian ships were inducted into the Royal Navy, such as HMS Hindostan in 1795, the frigate Cornwallis in 1800, HMS Camel in 181 and HMS Ceylon in 1808. HMS Asia carried the flag of Admiral Codrington at the battle of Navarino in 1827 the last major sea battle to be fought entirely under sail.  

             Two Indian built Ships witnessed history in the making. The Treaty of Nanking, ceding Hong Kong to the British was signed onboard HMS Cornwallis in 1842. The national anthem of USA “Star Spangled Banner", was composed by Francis Scott Key onboard HMS Minden when the Ship was on a visit to Baltimore.  Numerous other ships were also constructed, the most famous being HMS Trincomalee, which was launched on 19 Oct 1817, carrying 86 guns and displacing 1065 tons. This ship was latter renamed  Foudroyant.  

            The period of 4000 years between Lothal and Bombay Dock, therefore, offers tangible evidence of seafaring skills the nation possessed in the days of sail. In the early seventeen century, when British naval ships came to India, they discovered the existence of considerable shipbuilding and repair skills, as well as seafaring people. An ideal combination was thus available for supporting a fighting force in India.



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