India : Unsung Maritime History

India’s vast coastline of roughly 7000kms has always attracted huge amounts of trade. But seldom is India’s contribution to shipbuilding talked about. Today let us address India’s glorious past of in shipbuilding.

India has a very rich maritime history. It is this history that is very seldom talked about when we talk about the glorious past of this magnificent country. India’s prosperity was due to an extensive international trade happening. Trade being facilitated by a fleet of ship.

Even before the recorded history, it is believed that fishermen in Southern India had built boats by tying wooden logs together with coconut coir rope. In Tamil “tied wood” is known as Kattu Maram. Hence these boats came to be known as Kattumaram. Even today these boats are used extensively for fishing. Modern-day terminology Catamaran is coined from the Kattumaram.



As time passed by India grew from strength to strength in shipbuilding. India’s prosperity continued to flourish. During the Indus Valley Civilization i.e way back in 3000 BC, India had the skills required to construct boats & sail ships. These sail ships were constructed at one of the 1st known docks to mankind at Lothal near Gujrat. Ships constructed here would sail as far as Mesopotamia and Persia in the west for trade to China, Burma and the Philippines in the east. Much like the modern day ships their ships too had rudders, anchors and fittings for rigging.

Lothal Indus Valley Civilization
Lothal Indus Valley Civilization

During the Vedic period, fairly large boats were used in the northern part of India above the Vindhyachal. The Vedas

Sail Boats, Vedic Period

written during this period refers to these boats as Large, Spacious, & Comfortable boats which were faultlessly constructed and designed. These ships were capable of riding even over large waves. The Rig Veda mentions ships plying to foreign countries in quest of wealth.


A less known fact about the legendary war between the mighty Alexander and King Porus is, that the return of the mighty Alexander and his troops was facilitated by a huge fleet of approximately 800 ships. These ships were built in Punjab by a tribe known as Ksatri. The fleet which had to travel approximately 1500 miles (2414 km).

India’s contribution has not just been restricted to shipbuilding, India pioneered and established efficient administrative policies to facilitate maritime trade. The Mauryan age is a perfect example of this. This age witnessed huge ship traffic. Such huge amounts of traffic that a ‘Chief Controller of Ports’  was appointed to regulate it. The writings of Megasthenes(an ancient Greek historian) also provides information about the existence of a ‘BOARD OF SHIPPING’  and ‘Navadhyaksha’ i.e. Superintendent of Shipping.

Arthashastra by Kautilya (also known as Chanakya) also talks about boat charges, freight charges, port dues and customs duties. Laws for foreign merchant ships and punishments for various maritime offences. Modern-day concepts such as international water and territorial waters were also established back then.

This reflects the nations strong grasp over the entire spectrum of Shipbuilding and Sea Trade.

But India did not stop here. To know more stay tuned!






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