India : Unsung Maritime History Part II

Taking things forward from our previous post.

As we move ahead in time in the era after Christ from 4th to 6th century  i.e. during the Gupta Empire under the leadership of Samudragupta Maurya and Vikramaditya, several seaports were constructed on the eastern and western coasts. Trade with Europe until then was monopolized by  Southern India but not anymore! The new ports enabled Northern India to trade with Europe with much ease.

The famous astronomers like Aryabhatta and Varahamihira accurately mapped the position of celestial bodies and developed a method of computing a ship’s position wrt stars. ‘Matsya Yantra’ a crude forerunner of the modern magnetic compass was invented during this period.

Matsya Yantra
Matsya Yantra


A Sanskrit book on Shipbuilding “Yuktikalpataru” (Naval Architects can think of this book as PNA of those days) was published, which gives technical exposition about shipbuilding materials and provide details about the various types of ships and their sizes.



During the Pandya Dynasty (13th to 15th century AD) India had a rich heritage and understanding of international maritime commerce. The ship’s built during this era was a reflection India’s deep knowledge of metallurgy. The bolts used in shipbuilding were of Muntz Alloy (60% Copper & 40% Zinc). The workers were also skilful in working with other copper alloys such as brass and bronze.

As per Abdul Razaq (not the Pakistani cricketer!) a Persian who visited the kingdom of Vijayanagra during 1442 AD, according to him the rulers of the kingdom had a fleet of ships and had good knowledge of shipbuilding. Shipbuilding was a flourishing industry and they built ships in India and Maldives islands, then part of the Vijayanagara kingdom. The empire had around 300 ports with an efficient port organization to enable massive volumes of international trade.

During the 15th Century an Italian Traveler Nicolo Conti stated that:

The natives of India build some large ships larger than our capable of containing 2000 butts and with five sails and as many masts. The lower part is constructed with triple planks in order to withstand the force of tempests to which they are much exposed. Some ships are built in compartments that, should one part be shattered the other portion remaining entire may accomplish the voyage

Even as the power slipped into the hands of Mughals, shipbuilding thrived especially during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Akbar had established a strong navy and its naval headquarters in Surat was called as “Meer Bahri”, which was divided into 4 departments Material, Personnel, Internal Waterways and Customs. Vessels up to 1200 tons were being built for the Mughal Navy and Siddis. These vessels were much larger than the vessels being constructed anywhere in Europe.

Surat Harbor


Such was the allure of Surat’s yard that soon even the British merchant ships started relying on Surat for their refits and repairs. As time passed by and the British Empire jumped into the struggle of power, prevalent back then in India, their dependency on Surat yard increased.

The yard at Surat built supreme vessels using teak, unlike the European Ships which were built of oak. These teak built ships outmatched the European oak built ships in their size, strength and design. By then the European Yards were highly envious of the Surat Yard.

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