India has a rich maritime heritage and the earliest reference to maritime activities is contained in the Rig Veda. Indian mythology has numerous episodes pertaining to the ocean, the sea and the rivers, with belief that mankind has benefitted from the wealth of seas and ocean. There is plenty of evidence derived from Indian literature, art, sculptures, painting and archeology to establish existence of Indian maritime traditions.
A study of the country's maritime history reveals that the Indian sub-continent exercised supremacy over the Indian Ocean from very early times up to the 13th century. Indians took to the sea for trade and commerce rather than for political ends. Thus, the period up to about 16th century witnessed peaceful sea-borne commerce, cultural and traditional exchange between countries. The Indian Ocean has always been regarded as an area of great significance and India is central to this Ocean.
The Early Days (3000 – 2000 BC)
The beginning of India's maritime history dates back to 3000 BC. During this time, the inhabitants of Indus Valley Civilisation had maritime trade link with Mesopotamia. The excavation at Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa has revealed ample evidence that maritime activities flourished during this period.
The discovery of a dry-dock at Lothal (about 400 km Southwest of Ahmedabad) gives an insight into the knowledge of tides, winds and other nautical factors that existed during that period. The dry-dock at Lothal dates back to 2400 BC and is regarded as the first such facility, anywhere in the world, equipped to berth and service ships.
Vedic Age (2000 – 500 BC)
Vedic literature has numerous references to boats, ships and sea voyages. The Rig Veda is the oldest evidence on record that refers to Varuna, the Lord of the Sea, and credits him with the knowledge of the ocean routes which were used by ships. The Rig Veda mentions merchants sailing ships across the oceans to foreign countries in quest of trade and wealth. The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata have references to ships and sea travels. Even the Puranas have several stories of sea voyages.
Age of the Nandas and Mauryas (500 – 200 BC)
The age of the Nandas and Mauryas saw an extensive maritime trading activities that brought many nations closer to India. This resulted in spread of India's culture and religious beliefs to other countries. The maritime activities of Mauryas paved the way for Indian immigration to Indonesia and other surrounding islands. During this period, India witnessed an invasion by Alexander. The Greek and Roman literary records give sufficient evidence about maritime trade during days of Nanda and Maurya empires. Megasthenes, the Greek ethnographer and Macedonian ambassador to Chandragupta Maurya, has described the administration of armed forces in Pataliputra during that period, and described the presence of a special group that looked after different aspects of naval war-fighting. The navy of the Magadh kingdom, therefore, is considered to be the first ever recorded instance of a navy, anywhere in the world. It was during this period that Chandragupta's minister, Chanakya, wrote the Arthashastra, which has details of the department of waterways under a Navadhyaksha (Superintendent of the ships). It also has details of an admiralty division established as part of the 'war office', which was responsible for navigation on the oceans, lakes and seas. Details of different types of boats maintained during the Mauryan rule and their purpose have also been included in the book.
During the rule of Ashoka the Great, the Mauryan Empire covered almost the entire Indian subcontinent, and trade relationships existed with Sri Lanka, Egypt, Syria and Macedonia. One of the endearing legacies of Ashoka remains the spread of Buddhism. There is evidence that Ashoka's son, Mahendra, and daughter, Sanghamitra, had sailed from Tamralipti in West Bengal to Ceylon carrying a sapling of the holy Banyan tree as a gift, for spread of Buddhism. Ashoka also sent envoys to various kingdoms in Southeast Asia using the sea route.
Satavahana Dynasty (200 BC-220 AD)
The Satavahanas (200 BC – 220 AD) ruled the Deccan region and their kingdom spread over parts of present day Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Saurashtra in Gujarat. They controlled the East coast of India, along the Bay of Bengal and had healthy trade with the Roman Empire. The Satavahanas were the first native Indian rulers to issue their own coins with inscription of ships. Evidence also exists of spread of culture, language and Hinduism to various parts of Southeast Asia through the sea route.
Gupta Dynasty (320-500 AD) - The Golden Age
The Gupta Empire stretched across northern, central and parts of southern India between 320 to 550 AD. This period has been called the ‘Golden Age of India’. Chandra Gupta I, Samudra Gupta and Chandra Gupta II were the most notable rulers of the Gupta dynasty. Fa-Hien, the Chinese monk, who came to India in 399 CE to study Buddhism at Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Varanasi, had given an eyewitness account of the Gupta Empire. With the expansion of overseas commerce, the Gupta period witnessed an era of general prosperity, economic progress, cultural extension, artistic attainment and architectural advancement. Fa-Hien on his way back to his homeland, in 413 CE, sailed from Tamralipti in Bengal and 14 days later reached Ceylon where he embarked for Java and passed through Nicobars and the Strait of Malacca to reach the Pacific. The oceanic navigation which was well advanced during the earlier centuries of the Christian era is borne out from Fa-Hien's writings. Another Chinese traveller Huein Tsang, who visited India between 633-645 AD had given eyewitness accounts of the vast overseas trade during the Gupta period. Remarkable progress in astronomy was also achieved during this period. Aryabhata and Varahamihira, known in history as great astronomers, belonged to this period. The celestial bodies began to be accurately mapped and the art of oceanic navigation by rough and ready computation of position from known stars was established. During this period, several ports in the east and west were opened which greatly revived maritime trade with European and African countries.
The Southern Dynasties
The Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas were major powers of peninsular India. These rulers had established strong maritime trade links with the local rulers of Sumatra, Java, Malay Peninsula, Thailand and China. The knowledge of the monsoon winds was also developed during sea voyages. During the Chola dynasty (3rd-13thCentury) extensive sea trade existed and new harbours with quarters, warehouses and workshops where established. Ship repair yards, wharfs and light houses where build along the Indian coast to support the powerful navy which protected their merchant ships. Hinduism and Indian culture spread during the 5 to 12 centuries during the Sri Vijaya Empire which extended between India's eastern seaboard and the Far East. The Sri Vijayas' cultural and trading expeditions took them to far-flung areas such as Sumatra, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, Java, Thailand and Indo-China. They attracted Indian, Arab and Chinese merchants to ports where excellent harbour facilities were available. As a result of ‘difference’ between the Cholas, the Tamil kings and the Sri Vijayas, a series of sea battles were fought between their navies towards the end of the 10thCentury AD resulting in the weakening of these empires and opening the way for Arab supremacy in the region. In 1007 AD, the Cholas defeated the Sri Vijayas and then ruled the Malay Peninsula, Java, Sumatra and some neighbouring islands. The Pandya dynasty (6th – 16thCentury) were eminent sailors and sea traders, with links extending from the Roman empire and Egypt in the West to China in the East. They controlled pearl farming that took place along the India's southern coastline, producing some of the finest pearls of those times.
The Cheras (12thCentury) had a flourishing trade with the Greeks and the Romans. They navigated through various rivers which opened into the Arabian Sea. They used monsoon winds to sail their ships directly from the Indian ports of Tyndis (present day Periyapattanum, near Kochi) and Muziris (present day Pattanam, also near Kochi), to ports in Arabia.
The Vijaynagar (1336–1646 AD) empire established strong links with various parts of Southeast Asia, spread India's culture and traditions. This influence is visible even today in Southeast Asia, as names of many places and people are of Indian origin. These kingdoms also helped spread both Hinduism and Buddhism, cultures and architectures in this region.
Between the 13th and the 15th centuries, while most of northern India was dominated by the Delhi sultanate, most parts of southern India were controlled by the Vijaynagar Empire.
Arrival of the Arabs
By the 8thCentury AD, Arabs began to come to India by sea in great numbers as traders. Over the time, many parts of the modern day West Asia became nodal points for business between Europe, Southeast Asia and India. Soon the Arabs began controlling the trade routes, and acted as middlemen between the West and the East. The period from 900 to 1300 AD is considered the Early Age of maritime commerce in Southeast Asia.
Maritime India and the Europeans
The Mughal dynasty ruled over most of the northern India from 1526-1707 AD. Having found sufficient revenue from land resources, they did not pay much attention to the affairs of the sea. This enabled the Arabs to establish a monopoly over trade in the Indian Ocean. Hearing about the rich land called 'Hindustan' in the East, many European countries felt the need to find a direct sea route for trade. The Portuguese took the lead and were the first Europeans to arrive on Indian shores.
Arrival of the Portuguese
The 16thCentury is considered as an important landmark. Prior to this century, the calm and peaceful waters of the Indian Ocean were characterised by a brisk and prosperous commercial trade in which most of the coastal and seafaring communities from East Africa toMalaysia and Indonesian Islands participated actively. Vasco da Gama (1460 – 1524) was a Portuguese explorer who discovered an oceanic route from Portugal to India. Sailing from Portugal, he rounded the Cape of Good Hope in Africa to arrive at Calicut in Kerala in May 1498. His arrival began a new chapter in India's maritime history. The calm and peaceful scene of trade was disturbed with the arrival of the Portuguese merchantmen, who set a strategy for control of the entire Indian Ocean.
They set up factories at Calicut, Cochin, Goa, Surat and at other west coast ports. They also took control of all important Ports namely Hormuz, Socotra, Aden and Malacca to effectively seize the Indian Ocean trade flow, thereby displaying the Arab monopoly over trade in the Indian Ocean Region.
The Zamorins, with their capital at Calicut, a major trading port had flourishing trade over land and through seas. On Vasco da Gama’s arrival at Calicut, the Zamorin ruler granted permission to the Portuguese for trade. This was not liked by the large settlements of Arab traders who were already trading with the Zamorins. When asked by the Zamorin king to pay the usual customs tariff, Vasco da Gama refused to pay it and sailed back from Calicut to return to Europe. Thereafter, the Portuguese became friendly with the kings of Kochi and Cannanore and launched multiple assaults on the Zamorin ports. The Zamorins resisted the Portuguese for over a century. During this period of resistance, Kunjali Marakkars, the Naval commanders of that time, proved their tactical acumen and valour on many occasions. Kunjali Marakkar was the title given to the naval chief of the Zamorin king. There were four major Kunjalis who played their part in the Zamorin’s naval wars with the Portuguese between 1502 and 1600. Of the four Marakkars, Kunjali Marakkar II is the most famous. The Kunjali Marakkars are credited with organising the first naval defence of the Indian coast. The word Kunjali is derived from “Kunj – Ali”, which in Malayalam means ‘Dear Ali’. Even though the Kunjali Marakkars lacked the fire power and hardware of the large Portuguese vessels, they prevented the Portuguese from establishing a foothold on the Malabar Coast for more than 90 years.
In 1509, Alfonso de Albuquerque was appointed Portuguese Governor in Kochi. Having failed to defeat the Zamorin, Albuquerque seized Goa and its surrounding areas by defeating the Sultan of Bijapur (present day Karnataka) in 1510. Thereafter, Goa became the headquarters of Portuguese India and the seat of the Portuguese Viceroy.
The Dutch East India Company, established in 1592 in Amsterdam, Netherlands, sailed their first merchant fleet that reached India in 1595. The first Dutch base in the Indian Ocean Region was established at Batavia (present day Jakarta, Indonesia). They did not challenge the Portugese and were given permission to set up a trading facility at Pulicat in 1608 which led to the formation of Dutch Coromandel. Subsequently, Dutch Surat and Dutch Bengal were established in 1616 and 1627 respectively. The Dutch conquered the forts on the Malabar Coast (present day Kerala) around 1661 and established Dutch Malabar to protect Ceylon from Portuguese invasion. Apart from textiles, the Dutch traded precious stones, indigo, silk, opium, cinnamon and pepper.
The East India Company was founded in England on 31 December 1600. A ship of the company, Hector, under the command of Captain William Hawkins arrived at Surat. Captain William Hawkins brought with him a letter for Emperor Jahangir, seeking permission to trade with the Mughal dominions. The emperor granted permission for trade and also promised other trading facilities. At that time, the Portuguese were the dominant European power in India, so they did not appreciate the British arriving in India and affecting their trade.
The French arrived in the Indian Ocean Region in 1740 and established a strong base in Mauritius. Eventually, they also arrived at Surat and Pondicherry where they set up their trading posts. In later years, French establishments came up in Karaikal, Yanaon, Mahe and Chandernagore (present day Chandannagar in Bengal). During the 18th century, the French were the primary challengers to the British supremacy in the Indian Ocean. Between 1744 and 1766, the British and French repeatedly attacked each other to conquer forts and towns along the east coast of South India and Bengal. After a few initial French successes, the British decisively defeated the French in the Battle of Wandiwash in Tamil Nadu (1760).
The British knew the importance of the seas. In addition to taking over provinces over land, they also established a naval force which protected their sea trade and also kept adversaries at bay. Thus, a strong naval force also aided the British in ruling over India.
Maritime Prowess of the Marathas
The Marathas gave the strongest resistance to the British from gaining control along the Indian coasts. The Marathas, who were under constant attacks from the Mughals, initially had no navy. Shivaji was the first to realise the importance of a strong navy. Fighting the Siddis (who had their base at Murud Janjira) and observing the Portuguese naval power along the Konkan coast, Shivaji realised the importance of having an efficient system of ports and strong navy. Shivaji believed in forts and built many coastal forts such as at Vijaydurg, Sindhudurg and many others along the Konkan coast. He ensured sound defence of the forts by constructing them on hillocks overlooking the coast.
The Maratha navy soon became stronger and established strongholds in the forts at Kolaba, Sindhudurg, Vijaydurg and Ratnagiri. For more than 40 years, the Marathas held both the Portuguese and the British at bay single-handedly. Under Shivaji, the Maratha navy developed into a ferocious force with more than 500 ships. But after the death of Shivaji in 1680, the Maratha navy became weak.
The Legend of Kanhoji Angre
Kanhoji Angre took over as the Sarkhel (Admiral) of the Maratha fleet in 1699. Kanhoji initially remained focused on building his fleet from just ten ships to about 50 galbats and 10 ghurabs. These increments made his fleet a sizeable naval force. He recaptured all the forts that had been lost by the Maratha navy to the Siddis. After decisively defeating the Siddis, he turned his attention to the Portuguese.
Kanhoji began to attack and capture Portuguese merchant ships that refused to purchase his passports. The Portuguese retaliated but were outnumbered and defeated by the Marathas. Eventually, the Portuguese signed a peace treaty with the Marathas. Having settled the Portuguese front in his favour, Kanhoji shifted his attention to the British. The British port in Mumbai was very close to Kanhoji's Kolaba fort. The British regarded himas a threat and wooed all his enemies to their side. The British Governor Charles Boone and the legendary Sarkhel Kanhoji fought many battles over a decade and both suffered heavy losses. Finally in 1724, the Sarkhel Kanhoji wrote to the British Governor William Phipps proposing peace. While there was no formal agreement of any kind, both refrained from indulging in any activity that threatened to break the truce. Kanhoji thus remained undefeated at sea. A few years after Kanhoji Angre's death, the British finally captured the Maratha stronghold, Fort Gheriah (Vijaydurg) in 1756, and thus began the decline of the Marathas.
Maritime India under the British Raj
The East India Company came under the British Crown on 01 May 1830 and acquired combatant status. The service was then named the Indian Navy. It was renamed as Her Majesty's Indian Navy in 1858. In 1863, it was reorganised into two branches; one at Bombay and the other at Calcutta, as the Bombay Marine and the Bengal Marine. The protection of Indian waters were then taken over by the Royal Navy.
The Royal Indian Marine (RIM) was constituted in 1892. During World War I, RIM was assigned tasks such as marine survey, maintenance of lighthouses and transportation of troops. Soon after the end of the World War I in 1918, the strength of the Royal Indian Marine was reduced by the British government in India. On 02 October 1934, this Service was renamed Royal Indian Navy (RIN), with its headquarters at Bombay.
When World War II began in 1939, the strength of the RIN on 01 October 1939 was 114 officers and 1,732 sailors with only 16 officers manning the Naval Headquarters which was located inside the Naval Dockyard at Bombay. Since New Delhi was the focal point of command and control during the war, a Naval Liaison officer was positioned at New Delhi in October 1939 to reduce the time taken in processing important papers. But, since this also proved unsatisfactory, the Naval Headquarters was transferred from Bombay to New Delhi in March 1941.
During the initial phase of World War II, Royal Indian Navy maintained a sea going squadron of six escort vessels to co-operate with the Royal Navy and undertook the responsibility of local naval defence. Merchant ships were armed and new types of vessels added to the fleet for protection of the Indian ports and the sea routes leading to them. The Eastern Fleet of the Royal Navy was there in the background, but the local naval defence was the responsibility of the RIN. The RIN undertook combat duties and rendered commendable service in the Middle East and the Bay of Bengal. Its vessels operated in the European waters also, both in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Perhaps the most important and earliest combat assignment was in the Red Sea and the Indian ships took an active share in the capture of Massawa from the Italians and fighting the Italian Navy on the coast off Somaliland. They operate with success in the Persian Gulf, where their duties related largely to patrolling the coast and escorting the supply ships. In the period after the entry of Japan into the war, Burmese waters became the primary field of activity of the RIN. It took part in patrolling, and cooperated effectively in combined operations, magnificently displaying bravery and skill.
Maritime India Post Independence
With the partition of India, post-independence, the Royal Indian Navy was divided into the Royal Indian Navy and the Royal Pakistan Navy. On 22 April 1958, Vice Admiral R D Katari, become the first Indian Naval Officer to take over as the Chief of the Naval Staff of Indian Navy. Two-thirds of the Royal Indian Navy's asset remained with India and balance went to Pakistan Navy. On 15 August 1947, Rear Admiral JTS Hall, RIN, was appointed as India's first Flag Officer Commanding Royal Indian Navy.
With India becoming a Republic on 26 January 1950, the prefix 'Royal' was dropped and it was rechristened as the Indian Navy. On 26 January 1950, the Crown of the Royal Indian Navy's Crest was replaced by Ashoka Lion Motif for Indian Navy's Emblem. The invocation to Lord Varuna (The Sea God) in the Vedas was adopted by Indian Navy for its emblem, with the Motto: “Sam no Varunah”, meaning: “Be auspicious unto us Oh Varuna”. The inscription of “Satyamev Jayate” below the State Emblem was included in the Indian Navy's Crest.
In Great Britain, the monarch used to present ‘Colours’ to the Navy, Army and Air Force as well as to the Commanders-in-Chief of the forces. This ‘King's Colour’ was paraded ashore on every special ceremonial occasion. In 1924, King George presented his colours to the British Navy. In 1935, the ‘King's Colours’ was presented to the Royal Indian Navy. India became a Republic on 26 January 1950. One day earlier, on 25 January, all 33 of the King’s Colours which had been presented to the Royal Indian Navy, Royal Indian Army and Royal Indian Air Force and their respective Commands were ‘laid up’ at the Indian Military Academy at Dehradun.
Colours were presented to Indian Navy, by the then President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad on 27 May 1951. On 21 October 1944, Navy Day was celebrated for the first time. This met with considerable success and aroused enthusiasm. Seeing its success, similar functions were organised every year on a larger scale and later in the season when the weather was cooler. Since 1972, Navy Day is being celebrated on 04 December to commemorate the very successful naval actions in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the missile attack on Karachi harbour during the India-Pakistan war of 1971 and to pay homage to all the martyrs of the war. During this time the Indian Naval Ships, aircraft and establishments are open to visitors and school children.