The old notion that the Hindus were essentially a landlocked people, lacking in a spirit of adventure and the heart to brave the seas, is now dispelled. The researches of a generation of scholars have proved that from very early times the people of India were distinguished by nautical skill and enterprise, that they went on trading voyages to distant shores across the seas, and even established settlements and colonies in numerous lands and islands. (please refer to chapter on Suvarnabhumi).
In ancient India, owing to the geographical influence, nautical shill and enterprise seems to have been best developed in three widely separated region of the country. These were Bengal, the valley and delta of the Indus, and the extreme south of the Deccan peninsula, called Tamilagam.
Boat-making and ship-building industries were found in India since ancient times. In the Vedic period, sea was frequently used for trade purposes. The Rig Veda mentions "merchants who crowd the great waters with ships". The Ramayana speaks of merchants who crossed the sea and bought gifts for the king of Ayodhya. Manu legislates for safe carriage and freights by river and sea. In some of the earliest Buddhist literature we read of voyages out of sight of land, some lasting six months or so.
In Kautalya Arthasastra the admiralty figures as a separate department of the War Office; and this is a striking testimony to the importance attached to it from very early times. In the Rg Veda Samhita boats and ships are frequently mentioned. The classical example often quoted by every writer on the subject is the naval expedition of Bhujya who was sent by his father with the ship which had a hundred oars (aritra). Being ship-wrecked he was rescued by the twin Asvins in their boat.
"There was also extensive intercourse of India with foreign countries, including the Mediterranean lands and the African continent, naturally led to piracy on the waters. There then arose the need for the protection of sea-borne trade, and we are told that at the outset the merchant vessels of India carried a small body of trained archers armed with bows and arrows to repulse the attacks of the pirates, but later they employed guns, cannon and other more deadly weapons of warfare with a few wonderful and delusive contrivances.
(source: The Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients In the Indian Ocean - William Vincent pp. 457). These are probably the beginnings of the ancient Indian navy.
In the Shanti Parvan (59, 41) of the Mahabharata it is said that the navy is one of the angas (part)of the complete army. Examples of ships being used for military purposes are not lacking. When Vidura scented danger to Kuntis five sons, he made them escape to the forest with their mother, crossing the Ganges in a boat equipped with weapons having the power of withstanding wind and wave. In the Dig Vijaya portion of the Sabha parva, it is said that Sahadeva crossed the sea and brought many islands under his sway after defeating the Mlecchas and other mixed tribes inhabiting them. If this be an historical fact the inference is irresistible that he could not have effected his conquest without the use of boats and vessels. We read in the Ramayana that Durmukha, a Raksasa, who had been fired bu the impulse of anger at the deeds of Hanuman, offered his services to Ravana even to fight on the sea. This is testimony enough of the use of a fleet for war purposes. There are other references here and there to ships in the Ramayana. When Hanuman was crossing the ocean to Lanka, he is compared to a ship tossed by winds on the high seas. Sugriva speaks of Sumatra, Java and even the Red Sea, when sending forth his monkey hosts in quest of Sita.
The Amarakosa, mentions a number of nautical terms which stand for ship, anchorage (naubandhana), the helm of the ship (naukarana), the helmsman (naukaranadhara). That there were ships-building yards in different parts could be inferred from a significant term navatakseni occurring in a copper plate grant of Dharmaditya dated 531. A.D.
About 517 B.C. according to Herodotus, Darius launched a maritime expedition under Skylax of Caryanda to the Indus Delta, and during Alexanders time, again, we read of the people of the Punjab fitting out a fleet. We have the testimony of Arrian to show that the Xathroi (Kshatri), one of the Punjab tribes, supplied Alexander during his return voyage with thirty oared galleys and transport vessels which were built by them.
(source: India and Its Invasion by Alexander p. 156)
In the Manusamhita (Vii. 192), it is laid down that boats should be employed for military purposes when the theatre of hostilities abounded in water. Kamandaka (XVI, 50) alludes to naval warfare when he says: "By regular practice one becomes an adept in fighting from chariot, horses, elephants and boats, and a past-master in archery." Manavadharmasastra refers to sea fights and attests to the use of boats for naval warfare. The sailor is called naukakarmajiva. Thus in Vedic, Epic and the Dharmasastra literature we find that naval warfare is mentioned as a distinct entity, attesting a continuous naval tradition from the earliest times. Yukti-kalpataru specifies one class of ships called agramandira (because they had their cabins towards the prows), as eminently adapted for naval warfare (rane kale ghanatyaye).
Passing on to other literary evidence, we find in the Raghuvamsa frequent reference to boats and ships. Raghu in the course of his digvijaya conquered Bengal which was protected by a fleet (nausadhanotyatan). In anther place it is mentioned that Raghu marched on Persia through the land route, and not by the sea route, thereby showing that the latter was the more common route.
Historian Dr. Vincent A. Smith says that the creation of the Admiralty department was an innovation due to the genius of Chandragupta.
"The Admiralty as a department of the State may have been a creation of Chandragupta but there is evidence to show that the use of ships and boats was known to the people of the Rg Veda. "
(source: Early History of India - By Vincent Smith p 133).
In the following passage we have reference to a vessel with a hundred oats. This exploit you achieved, Asvins in the ocean, where there is nothing to give support, nothing to rest upon, nothing to cling to, that you brought Bhujya, sailing in a hundred oared ship, to his fathers house.
Further on in the Veda, this same vessel is described as a plava which was storm-proof and which presented a pleasing appearance and had wings on its sides. Another reference informs us that Tugra dispatched a fleet of four vessels (Catasro navah) among which was the one referred to above. We may infer from these passages that the Asvins were a great commercial people having their home in a far-off island, and that their ruler Tugra maintained a fleet in the interests of his State. There are also other references in the Rg Veda to show that the ancient Indians were acquainted with the art of navigation. For instance, Varuna is credited with a knowledge of the ocean routes along which vessels sailed.
The Baudhayana Dharmasastra speaks of Samudrasamyanam and interprets it as nava dvipantaragamanam, i. e. Sailing to other lands by ships. This very term occurs in the navadhyaksa section of the Kautaliya Arthasastra.
The Puranas have several references to the use of ships and boats. The Markandeya Purana speaks of vessels tossing about on the sea. The Varahapurana refers to the people who sailed far into the ocean in search of pearls and oysters. The ships floated daily on the shoreless, deep and fearful waters of the ocean. We are on firmer ground when we see in the Andhra period their coins marked with ships. The ship building activities were great on the east coast, and the Coromandel coast in particular. From this period to about 15th century A.D. there was a regular intercourse with the islands of the Archipelago most of which were colonized and also with ancient America right across the Pacific as testified to us by the archaeological finds and inscriptions in those parts.
(please refer to chapters on Pacific, Suvarnabhumi and Seafaring in Ancient India).
The Pali books of Sri Lanka like the Mahavamsa refers to ocean going vessels carrying 700 passengers. Such frequent intercourse and colonization through the ages could not have been effected without a powerful fleet.
But it is in a later work, the Yuktikalpataru of Bhoja, that we have three classes of ships - the Sarvamandira, the Madhyamandira, and Agramandira. The first was called Sarvamandira because it had apartments all around. In the Sarvamandira were carried treasures, animals, and ladies of the court. This was the vessel ordinarily used by kings in times of peace. The Madhyamandira was so called because the living quarters were situated in the middle. It was a sporting vessel and generally used in the rainy season. The vessel of the third kind, the Agramandira, took its name from the circumstance that the living room was located in front or at the top of the vessel. The Agramandira was used for distant and perilous voyages and also sea-fights.
There are also in the Yuktikalpataru other references to vessels. There are 27 types of ships mentioned here, the largest having the measurement 276 ft X 36 ft X 27 ft weighing roughly 2,300 tons. The following passage points to the use of ships in warfare. The line: naukadyam vipadam jneyam makes it clear that naval expeditions were common. Under the heading of yanam or march mention is made of expeditions by land, water and air.
Kautilya remarks: "Pirate ships (himsrika), boats from an enemy's country when they cross its territorial limits, as well as vessels violating the customs and rules enforced in port towns, should be pursued and destroyed." It is obvious that the task set forth above could only be performed by armed vessels belonging to the state.
From this we may conclude that in ancient India ships were employed in warfare at least as early as the Rig Vedic times. It is an incontrovertible fact that there was a naval department in Mauryan times. We have the testimony of Megasthenes that the navy was under a special officer called the Superintendent of Navigation. This official was in turn controlled by the Admiralty department. The officer whom Megasthenes refers to as Superintendent of Navigation is called Navadhyaksa as already seen, in the Arthasastra. The Greek accounts bear testimony to the fact that navigation had attained a very high development at the times of Alexander's invasion, for we are told that the invader was able to secure a fleet from the Punjab at short notice. The Arthasastra lays down some healthy regulations relating to navigation. Vessels which gave trouble or were bound for the enemy's country, or transgressed the regulations of port towns were to be destroyed.
A considerable ship building activity is evident on the west coast of India also as noted in the Sangam works of the Tamils. South India carried on political and commercial activities as far as the Mediterranean in the early centuries of the Christian era and before. The great Ceran Senguttavan had a fleet under him.
Turning to the history of South India, we have evidence to show that the country had trade and culture contacts with foreign countries like Rome in the west and Malay Archipelago and South east Asia in the east. Yavana ships laden with articles of merchandise visited the west coast frequently. There was active foreign trade between Tamil Indian and the outer world at least from the time of Soloman, ie. about 1000 B.C. Roman historians refer to the commercial intercourse that existed between Rome and South India. In the first century before Christ we hear of a Pandyan embassy to Augustus Caesar. (refer to Periplus translated by Schoff p. 46).
The Sangam classics point to the profession of pearl-diving and sea-fisheries on a large scale. We hear of shipwrecks of the early Tamils saved now and then by Manimekhalai, the goddess of the sea.
(Note: ancient Tamil tradition traces its origins to a submerged island or continent, Kumari Kandam, situated to the south of India. The Tamil epics Shilappadikaram and Manimekhalai provide glorious descriptions of the legendary city and port of Puhar, which the second text says was swallowed by the sea. As in the case of Dwaraka, (please refer to chapter on Dwaraka and Aryan Invasion Theory), initial findings at and off Poompuhar, at the mouth of the Cauvery, show that there may well be a historical basis to this legend: apart from several structures excavated near the shore, such as brick walls, water reservoirs, even a wharf (all dated 200-300 B.C.), a few years ago a structure tantalizingly described as a "U-shaped stone structure" was found five kilometers offshore, at a depth of twenty-three meters; it is about forty meters long and twenty wide, and fishermen traditionally believed that a submerged temple existed at that exact spot. If the structure is confirmed to be man-made (and not a natural formation), its great depth would certainly push back the antiquity of Puhar. Only more systematic explorations along Tamil Nadu's coast, especially at Poompuhar, Mahabalipuram, and around Kanyakumari (where fishermen have long reported submerged structures too) can throw more light on the lost cities, and on the traditions of Kumari Kandam, which some have sought to identify with the mythical Lemuria).
We have the account of a Cera King conquering the Kadamba in the midst of sea waters. The Cera King Senguttuvan had a fleet with which he defeated the Yavanas who were punished with their hands being tied behind their backs and the pouring of oil on their heads. The Cholas also maintained a strong fleet with which they not only invaded and subjugated Lanka but also undertook overseas expeditions. Among the conquests of Rajaraja, Lanka was one, and his invasion of that island finds expression in the Tiruvalangadu plates, where it is described as follows:
"Rama built, with the aid of the monkeys, a causeway over the sea and then slew with great difficulty the king of Lanka by means of sharp-edged arrows. But Rama was excelled by this (king) whose powerful army crossed the ocean in ships and burnt the king of Lanka."
Rajaraja also sent an expedition against the Twelve Thousand Islands, obviously a reference to the Laccadives and Maldives. Friendly embassies were also sent by the Chola king to China.
From the evidence of the Mahvamsa as well as from a few inscriptions we are able to gather some information regarding the diplomatic relations that existed between India and Sri Lanka. We have the story of Vijaya and his followers occupying the island about 543 B.C. Vijaya was a prince of North India who was banished from the kingdom by his father. Passing through the southern Magadha country he sailed to Sri Lanka, according to the Rajavali, in a fleet carrying more than 700 soliders, defeated the Yaksas inhabiting it, and settled there permanently. This story is illustrated in the Ajanta frescoes.
Numerous ships carried the troops of Rajendra to Sri Vijaya and its dependencies which he conquered. Among the places conquered were Pannai (Pani or Panei on the east coast of Sumatra), Malaiyur (at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula), Mappappalam ( a place in the Talaing country of Lower Burma), Mudammalingam (a place facing the gulf of Siam), Nakkavaram (the Nicobar islands. Besides, active trade was carried on between South India and China during this period.
At the end of the 10th century the Chinese emperor sent a mission to the Chola king with credentials under the imperial seal and provisions of gold and piece-goods to induce the foreign traders of the South Sea and those who went to foreign lands beyond the sea for trade to come to China.
The facts clearly show that the Cholas maintained supremacy over the sea and kept a strong and powerful navy which was useful not only for carrying on extensive commerce with foreign countries but also for conducting military expeditions. During the days of the Kakatiyas of Warangal, Motupalle (Guntur District) was the chief port, on the east coast. Ganapatideva, the Kakatiya ruler, extirpated piracy on the sea and made the sea safe for commerce with foreign countries like China and Zanzibar. This policy was pursued by Rudramba, his daughter.
Vijayanagar kingdom also claimed supremacy over the sea. Since the days of Harihara I the rulers of Vijayanagar took the title of the Lord of the Eastern, Western and Southern oceans; and there were 300 ports in the empire. The activities of the Vijayanagar fleet on the west coast are also referred to by the Portuguese in 1506.
The Vijayanagar kings sent friendly embassies to foreign courts. 'Bukka I sent an embassy through his chief explainer to the court of Taitsu, the King Emperor of China, with tributes and large presents, among which was a stone which was valuable in neutralizing poison.