Ancient Advances In Shipbuilding And Seafaring


“The United States adopted ancient Indian catamaran-making technology to construct fast ships which were used with dramatic effect in the Iraq war,” said a media report in The Hindu. It further stated that, “Among the equipment the Americans used to win the Iraq war were 100-feet catamaran ships to ferry tanks and ammunition from Qatar to Kuwait. The ships, built with technology adapted from ancient Tamil methods to make catamarans, can travel over 2,500 kms in less than 48 hours, twice the speed of the regular cargo ships, and carry enough equipment to support about 5,000 soldiers, the Wall Street Journal reported. Having a shallow draft, the boats can unload in rudimentary ports, allowing troops to land closer to the fight.”

The above text hints at the advanced knowledge of marine navigation as possessed by our ancestors. You will be surprised to know that the term ‘navigation’ itself finds its roots in the Sanskrit words ‘nava’ (ship) and ‘gatih’ (movement/speed).


Owing to its unique geographical positioning, bound on all three sides by seas, the land of Bharat seemed destined very early for a maritime future. Her ships sailed up and down the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and far beyond. Her master-mariners led the way in navigation. Riverine traffic within the country, shipping along the entire length of India’s coastline, and on high seas was brisk until as recently as the days of the East India Company.

The evidence for the knowledge of shipping and shipbuilding in the vedic times can be found in the Rigveda, the oldest text of all times, which contains references to sea voyages by our ancestors. (See box) Manu Smriti lay down laws to govern commercial disputes having reference to sea-borne traffic as well as inland and overland commerce (MS I-XVIII). In Ayodhya Kanda of Ramayana, there is a passage which hints at preparation for a naval fight indicating thorough knowledge and universal use of waterways (RY 2.52). Mahabharata relates how the Pandavas, ingeniously escaping from the ‘house of lac’ by a subterranean passage, came upon the Ganges and got onboard a vessel, which ‘was provided with machinery and all kinds of weapons and was capable of defying storms and waves’:sarvavatasaham navam yantra-yuktam patakinim (Adi Parva, Ch 15).

This verse from Rigveda represents Varuna, the rain God who has full knowledge of all sea routes.

The above quote refers to a voyage undertaken by Vasishtha and Varuna in a ship skillfully fitted out, and their, “undulating happily in the prosperous swing”.

A verse in the first Mandala mentions a naval expedition on which King Tugra sent his son Bhujyu against some of his enemies in the distant islands. Bhujyu, however, is shipwrecked by a storm, with all his followers, on the ocean, “where there is no support, no rest for the foot or the hand”, from which he is rescued by his twin brethren, the Asvins, in their hundred-oared galley.

The best-surviving indigenous record throwing enormous light on shipbuilding is the Yuktikalpataru. Its authorship is attributed to King Bhoja reigning in the eleventh century. The text classifies the ship according to their use as ordinary (samanya) ships that were used in inland waters; and special (visesa) ships meant for sea journeys. The largest of these called ‘Manthara’ measured 120 cubits (1 cubit = 45.72 centimeters) in length, 60 in breadth and 60 cubits in height.

It also describes three classes of ships according to cabins – sarvamandira having cabin extended from end to end and used for the transport of royal treasure, horses and women, madhyamandira with a cabin in the middle suitable for the rainy season and pleasure trips by the king and the agramandira with a cabin in the front, ideal for dry seasons, for long voyages and for naval warfare.

Yuktikalpataru also elaborates the shipbuilding process describing the suitable seasons for shipbuilding, varieties of woods best suited for ship construction, names and measurements of various kinds of ships, paintings and decoration of ships, etc. The text goes into minute details such as how the planks of ships must not be joined with iron as the magnetic iron in sea-water could expose the ship to danger. According to the literature, ships could carry crews numbering between 100 to 600. Out of regard for passenger convenience and comfort the ships were well-furnished and decorated. Gold, silver, copper and compounds of all these substances were generally used for ornamentation and decoration.

The vedic Indians knew of the magnetic compass for navigational purposes which comprised of a fish-shaped metallic piece placed in a cup of oil and was called

the matsya yantra. (Prakash 2008). They had

also developed a vessel that could move in water, air and earth; the Tripura Vimana in Vaimanika Shastra described a hi-tech vessel which could have been used in three natural environments – air, water and land (Josyer 1973).

The seals and coins found at Indus Valley sites boast of the pinnacles of maritime trade achieved by our ancestors and the sea-trade links between India, Sumer and other parts of Western Asia, Egypt and Crete (Behera 1999). At Lothal, a tidal dock, believed to have been built around 2300 BCE, near the present day Mangrol harbour on the Gujarat (west) coast, is another example of early Indian seafaring. According to Rao, the dock was used in two stages: at the first stage it was designed to allow ships 18-20 meters long and 4-6 meters wide, at least two ships could simultaneously pass and enter easily; in the second stage the inlet channel was narrowed to accommodate large ships but only single ships with flat bottoms could enter.

There was a time in the past when Indians were the masters of the seaborne trade of Europe, Asia and Africa (Chanda1977). They built ships, navigated the sea, and held in their hands all the threads of international commerce, whether carried overland or by sea. Indian traders sailed their ships not only on the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, they also ventured into the Red Sea and even into the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea (Vincent 1998). From the very beginning Indian traders had a very fair knowledge of all the ancient oceans and seas of the populated world (Radha 1912).


Behera, K.S., 1999- Maritime Heritage of India

Chanda, M., 1977- Trade and Trade Routes in Ancient India

Josyer, G.R., 1973- Vymaanika Sastra, The University of Michigan.

Mamata Chaudhuri, Ship-Building in the Yuktikalpataru and Samarangana Sutradhara- Mamata Chaudhuri

Prakash, A.A., 2008 – “A Vision of Maritime India 2020”

Radha, K. M., 1912- Indian Shipping – A History of the Sea-Borne Trade and Marine Activity of The Indians From The Earliest Times

Rao, S.R. – Lothal – A Harappan Port Town

  1. Rama Krishna Pisipaty, Literary & Archaeological Evidence of Early Seafaring & Navigation Technologies in India

Vincent, W., 1998- Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients in the Indian Ocean

Tulika Sharma

Tulika Sharma

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