India@100: Celebrating Maritime Heritage and Economic Vision

Sub Title : A peep into India’s Maritime heritage and strategy, and its relevance in present times

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 5 Nov – Dec 2023

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja, Former Director, National Maritime Foundation

Page No. : 11

Category : Geostrategy

: November 27, 2023

In 2022, India launched ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’ marking the run-up to its centenary of independence, ‘India@100’, with a vision for a US$ 30 trillion economy. The NITI Aayog is tasked with unifying sectoral visions for ‘Viksit Bharat @2047’. Under this celebration, ‘Dhara: Ode to Indian Knowledge Systems’ focuses on reviving India’s rich knowledge heritage, including ‘Samudramanthan’—a commemoration of India’s maritime legacy. This initiative celebrates India’s historical maritime prowess and its influence on global trade and culture, with a focus on its strategic thought legacy as encapsulated in the ancient text ‘Arthasastra’.

India flagged the year 2022 as ‘Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav’, and the country entered into ‘Amrit Kaal’, the 25-year-long lead up to India@100. The government has a grand vision of a US$ 30 trillion economy. The NITI Aayog is the primary agency tasked to consolidate the visions of 10 sectors into a combined vision for Viksit Bharat@2047.

Another Indian government initiative under the ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ is the ‘Dhara: Ode to Indian Knowledge Systems’, which emphasises on the promotion and revival of multiple domains of Indian Knowledge Systems that have roots in its rich civilizational history. Among the many initiatives under the “Dhara”, “Samudramanthan” which relates to India’s glorious maritime traditions was held in 2022 on the banks of the River Mahanadi to commemorate the departure of sailors of yester centuries to Southeast Asia to far off destinations such as Bali in Indonesia.

India’s distinctive geographical position as a gateway to the East and the West was the raison d’etre for its civilizational eminence. It is not surprising that its history is replete with narratives on trade relations and cultural exchanges with distant lands as far as Rome in the west and China in the east. A burgeoning maritime trading system emerged that contributed to the Indian economy and its civilizational growth. It was also a catalyst for the Chinese, Southeast Asian, Arabs, Persians and the Romans who benefited through trade with India and other maritime states. This led to cross-cultural exchanges as well as sharing the ancient Indian statecraft, concept of Admiralty, and the Indian Maritime Knowledge System.

Maritime Knowledge

From the ancient to the contemporary, there have been several epochs of maritime glory in the Indian history. For over twenty centuries, several dynasties and rulers in India had developed maritime power and engaged in international commerce including wars at sea. Indus Valley civilization and archaeological discoveries at Lothal are the pointers of an Indian maritime trading system in the 16th Century BC.

During ancient times, Indian shipbuilders in India had good knowledge of wood for building different types of ships that was derived from Vriksha-Ayurveda, or the science of Plant Life. Similarly, Yuktikalpataru, a Sanskrit treatise of ancient times, lists important instructions for building riverine, coastal and seagoing vessels, a testimony of the advanced shipbuilding knowledge. There are several references to maritime activity in the Rig-ved too.  The BC period can very well be labelled as the Golden Age of India’s maritime preeminence and demonstration of the ancient maritime power of India.

During the Mauryan period (BC 321-184) under Emperor Chandra Gupta Maurya, India had developed a flourishing maritime enterprise. Megasthenes notes that shipbuilding in India was patronized by the State and there were several shipyards engaged in the activity to meet both domestic and foreign demands. The Emperor established an organisation of the Board of Admiralty and Naval Department as part of the state War Office.

An elaborate account of maritime activities is provided in the most respected and important Sanskrit work of that period titled Arthasastra.  This magnum opus provides insights into the high levels of proficiency in Indian shipping, knowledge of ocean navigation and sea borne trade in the BC period. The Naval Department was headed by the Superintendent of Ships who was responsible for the efficient conduct of maritime activity of the Kingdom including shipbuilding, certification of vessels for seaworthiness, ensuring trained officers and crew, instructions for navigation on the oceans and port management. The process of levy and collection of dues from visiting ships and other users and prosecution of violators of harbour regulations, illegal possession of weapons showcases the sophistication in the conduct of maritime business in India.

According to Vincent Smith, an elaborate regulatory system for conduct of maritime trade provides conclusive evidence that Maurya Empire was engaged in maritime trade with distant states and a large number of traders visited the Capital on business. Under King Ashok the Great, India had trade links with Egypt under King Ptolemy who established a trading Emporia at the city of Alexandria.

During AD 100-300, South Indian rulers established commercial maritime links with Rome under Augustan and Antonine. In AD 47, the discovery of the regularity of the monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean by Hippalus provided a boost to trans-Indian Ocean trade between Egypt and south India with the Malabar Coast experiencing intense maritime activity. On the Coramandal coast, the Tamil heartland, several Roman traders had established outposts for trade, particularly spices, which were traded in gold.

The Tamils of the Coramandal coast had maritime trading links in Southeast Asia evidenced by the existence of merchant guilds and Indian settlements in several places in Southeast Asia including Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java, Cambodia and as far as China.

Indian Statecraft

The Indic statecraft finds comprehensive theoretical expressions in the Arthasastra which translates as “science of politics”. AL Basham termed it as ‘treatise on polity” and Heinrich Zimmer has called it “timeless laws of politics, economy, diplomacy and war”. Like the Chinese classic ‘The Art of War” by Sun Tzu, ‘Arthasastra’ provides significant insights into the Indian grand strategic thought that has served as a strategic legacy. In statecraft, the Arthasastra conceptualizes a geo-strategic and a geo-political framework of interests, alliances and strategic conduct termed as the ‘Mandala’. Mandala is construct in international relations that signifies the contiguity of region and defines the interests and relations of the state and in spatial terms Mandala denotes a zone. Schematically Mandala is figurative of concentric circles, which define the relations of a state that lies at the core, with its immediate, intermediate and outer ring of countries. In essence, ‘Arthasastra’ is a treatise in political realism showcasing how the political world works with firm foundations in self-interests, strategic autonomy, and the dynamic nature of alliances. Significantly, Mandala finds reference in Southeast Asian statecraft called as ‘Nagara’.

Nautical Wisdom of the Cholas

The Chola were the pre-eminent power in South India and conquered Kingdoms in Sri Lanka. In the east, Chola kings had established political relations with Srivijaya rulers in Sumatra and Tamil mercantile guilds were setup at several places in Southeast Asia.

Tamil seafarers had developed a good knowledge and understanding of the winds and currents prevalent in the Bay of Bengal, Southeast Asian waters and as far as China. It is plausible that some of this knowledge must have been homegrown as also exchanged among the local seafarers by the foreign seafarers who had frequented Coromandal ports.

It should be pointed out that the ships used by Tamil seafarers were not fitted with a rudder and magnetic compass and had to either do coasting or parallel/great circle sailings. As a result, the seafarers had mastered the prevailing wind conditions and currents in the Bay of Bengal. The western Bay experiences a generous mix of both the westerly monsoon winds and the retreating easterly monsoon. There are also two stormy periods: April to June followed by October to December. There are two most suitable season for easterly voyage: July-August and late December-January because at that time the northeasterly winds and easterly currents are well set and facilitate smooth and quick voyage east.

Tamil seafarers had developed a sophisticated knowledge of heavenly bodies (stars, sun and moon) and also mastered the art of identifying-using these to undertake east-west voyages. We are told that these seafarers had a good knowledge of at least 56 stars seen in the lower latitudes of the northern hemisphere.

It should be borne in mind that the Chola kings did not have a standing navy specially designed for warfare. Merchant vessels such as the Sangara and Colandia may have been assembled to carry troops to Southeast Asia and Kattu-maran (modern day Catamaran) were the basic floatation unit that constituted a mobile expeditionary platform for soldiers to be carried ashore. It can be imagined that the kattu-maran were the amphibious forces, launched from large ocean going platforms, that were capable of negotiating surf, wade in the shallow waters, and were launched from ships.

In the above context, it is important to recall that in 1025 AD, Rajendra Choladeva I dispatched an expeditionary force to Southeast Asia against the Srivijaya Kingdom. There is no credible evidence to determine the cause of the deterioration in relations between Srivijaya and Chola kings, but several plausible reasons such as former’s attempt to strangulate Indian trade with China, the latter’s need for additional resources through plunders, or Chola pattern of expansion could have been instrumental in ordering the naval raid against Srivijaya territories.

In its tactical construct, the naval raid showcased Chola military maritime capability to undertake distant voyages and the ability to build a colossal logistical supply chain to support such a large and expansive naval operation across the seas. The raid resulted in the defeat of the Srivijaya kingdom at several places and showcased the consistent and an aggressive maritime mercantile policy that was marshalled for the naval raid. The naval expedition is mentioned in the inscription of the big temple of Tanjavur.

Finally, from the ancient to the contemporary, there have been several epochs of maritime glory in the Indian history showcasing Indian maritime knowledge system. For over twenty centuries, several dynasties and rulers in India developed maritime power and engaged in international commerce including wars at sea.

Today the Indian Navy is at yet another epoch of history clearly exhibiting a force that serves as a strong naval deterrent as also a force that is ready to deliver public goods at sea as and contribute to the Indian mantra of Security and Growth for All (SAGAR).