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Voyage of Legacy: India's Maritime Heritage

  • 05 Apr 2024

The richness of India's maritime heritage is deep and vast, just like its oceans. As we proceed on our time travel, we come across a legacy rich not only in its historical importance but also in the depth of culture and power in the economy. It is located strategically on the map, and, therefore, the Indian subcontinent has been a major power from the point of view of maritime history, from where many global trading routes, cultural exchange, and even technologies have been influenced. Dive into the heart of this oceanic heritage of India, bringing out its varied influence in India and across the globe.

Historical Significance

The maritime history of India has the influence of trade, culture, and diplomacy; it is a very rich tradition that testifies to the early globalization and seafaring abilities of India.

  • Harappan Civilization: The discovery of dockyards at Lothal (Gujarat) is testimony to the maritime technology acquired during the Harappan civilization, through which they could engage in trade with the Mesopotamian civilization. It reflects India's position in one of the earliest known international trading systems.
  • Buddhist Era Trade: Apart from the growth under the Maurya and Gupta Empires, Indian seafarers and merchants had already opened significant maritime trade routes that connected India with Southeast Asia. This provided not only the tendency of trade but also the propagation of Buddhism, epitomizing how the maritime route contributed to cultural transmission.
  • Chola Naval Expeditions: In fact, the naval expeditions of the Chola dynasty in the 11th century highlighted the military dimension of India's maritime history in establishing Indian influence far across the region.
  • Colonial Port Cities: The transition of colonial port cities like Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata), and Madras (Chennai) during British rule to a new era in maritime history changed these cities into huge centers of trade, commerce, and amalgamation of culture.

The coastal tapestry of India is awash with maritime traditions and cultural practices that are entwined richly within the social, economic, and ritual lives of the coast-dwelling communities.

  • Jagannath Rath Yatra: It is observed every year in the beach town of Puri, Odisha. It symbolizes the journey of Lord Jagannath from his temple to his garden palace in the countryside. This outward journey epitomizes the deep spiritual connection with the maritime community.
  • Kerala Boat Festivals: A riot of competition and camaraderie, the snake boat races epitomize the age-old link Kerala shares with its waterways, and this is especially on display at the Nehru Trophy Boat Race in Alleppey.
  • Varuna Worship: The Vedic god Varuna, god of oceans and rivers, is worshiped in all the lengths of coastal India, speaking volumes about the time-honored spiritual bonding to the seas, acknowledging and revering the waters.

Economic Importance

The way of life of the people of India, since time immemorial, has been maritime traders. According to history, the coastline-based city of Lothal and the emporium center of Muziris are the center of buying and selling the most precious spices in the world and the finest quality textiles.

Till today, maritime activities have considerably influenced the economy of India. Being the largest gateway of international trade, ports in the country point out to over 90% contribution of the volume of international trade handled.

  • Ancient Innovations: Ancient Indian shipbuilders had already taken the lead in this line of work and constructed ships like the 'Boitas,' which still enjoy an amazing reputation for durability and efficiency. The technology used in building these ships came to be popularly known as the "sewn boat technology," wherein planks were sewn together by coir ropes, which are very flexible and excellent for the waves of an unpredictable ocean.
  • Astronomical Navigation: Indian mariners have used the stars as a driving factor for navigation right from time immemorial, and this has been mastered much before the compass came to practical use.They knew the latitude and longitude, hence could use instruments like 'Kamal' and 'Astrolabe' in navigation over the high seas. This positioning knowledge made it possible for them to travel such large distances with that pinpointed accuracy.
  • Modern Shipbuilding: Today, Indian shipyards are among the most advanced shipbuilding centers in the world that build most kinds of vessels—from giant container ships to highly modern naval destroyers. Among them are the Cochin Shipyard, which made big strides in building the indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, indicative of self-reliance in defense shipbuilding for India.
  • Maritime Research and Development: There has been substantial investment in maritime research and development by India. This includes fields like marine biotechnology, ocean energy, and underwater robotics. Institutions like the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) lead the development of technologies for deep-sea mining, warning systems against tsunamis, and energy that can be harnessed from the ocean without causing damage to the ecosystem.
  • Digitalization and Automation at Indian Ports: The implementation of modern technologies like digital and automation at Indian ports is improving the operational efficiencies while, at the same time, reducing the turnaround of ships. Implementation of the Port Community System (PCS) and various other digital initiatives under the Sagarmala project is turning Indian ports into world-class facilities.

National Security

The geographical location of India at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean is not a feature of its topography but rather a strategic asset that has wielded powerful influence on the face of its national security policies and posture through the annals of history.

From the valorous naval expeditions of the Chola dynasty to the vigilant patrols of the modern Indian Navy, protection of the Indian Maritime Domain has never received less than paramount attention. Following is a close look at how maritime security has been one of the bedrocks for Indian defense strategies: There was their sea power: between the 9th and 13th centuries, the Chola Dynasty ruled with an incredible naval force through which they made big expeditions to Southeast Asia, influencing and even mostly controlling the commerce and culture of the region.

Along similar lines, the 17th-century Maratha Empire developed a strong naval power that leaders like Kanhoji Angre had a tag for: being excellent in guerrilla warfare at sea. Instances of history like these underline strategic importance with regards to naval power as part of the defense strategy for India.

  • Modern Naval Capabilities: Today, the Indian Navy is a blue-water force with credible power projection and comprehensive multi-dimensional capability to secure its maritime interest across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).The navy is backed by an entire range of platforms that includes, among others, aircraft carriers, modern destroyers, frigates, and an advanced submarine force besides amphibious warfare ships. Further, the induction of nuclear-powered submarines has added a strategic dimension to its capabilities and has enhanced its deterrent posture.
  • Maritime Security Strategy: The aim of the maritime security strategy of India is to secure the waters under its territorial command, the resources present over the oceans, and safely keep the lines of communications (SLOCs) of the sea, which are critically important for trade and energy security.
  • Anti-Piracy Operations: The Indian Navy has remained a great contributor to anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia by escorting Indian and international merchant vessels through pirate-infested waters. These operations have greatly contributed to maintaining the security of the critical maritime routes and, in the process, have shown India's commitment to international maritime security.
  • International Cooperation: Realizing the fact that the maritime threats are transnational in nature, India has looked for strong linkages with other countries and regional organizations. In addition, the joint naval exercises and maritime security dialogues have been buttressed by agreements on white shipping information exchange, in consonance with India's policy of emphasizing collective maritime security for all littoral states so that they would be able to have a peaceful and stable maritime environment in the IOR.
  • Coastal Security Network: Post-Mumbai attack, 2008, the development of a 'Coastal Security Network' was included through a network-centric combination of the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Police.This includes the establishment of the National Command Control Communication and Intelligence Network (NC3I Network), improvement in surveillance, and quick response capabilities.
  • Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA): India has further invested in accomplishing a comprehensive MDA from space and air through surveillance platforms, Automated Identification Systems (AIS), radar chains, and electro-optical sensors. It helps get instantaneous and continuous updates on maritime traffic and threats, staying preemptive against maritime security.

Maritime Tourism

The huge and diversified coastline of India, which has plenty of beautiful islands and embellished with historical ports, is a paradise for maritime tourism. Here's a closer look at what makes maritime tourism in India a unique and enriching experience:

  • Beach Destinations: From the quiet shores of Goa to the unpolluted, uncluttered sands of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and from the surfs of Kovalam, the coastline of India leaves some of the best beaches in the world. Each beach destination offers a distinct vibe, ranging from peaceful retreats to vibrant party spots.
  • Historical and Cultural Sites: India's coastline is dotted with a series of historical footprints and cultural spots that pride themselves on telling the tales of India's maritime past.The ancient port city, Djsona, located in Gujarat, has been assumed to be the kingdom of Lord Krishna, and today, it lies submerged, offering an interesting site for underwater exploration. The Portuguese influences in Kochi and the Dutch, along with the French legacies in Pondicherry, actually make both these places really a compelling cultural exploration.
  • Backwater Cruises: The backwaters of Kerala offer an experience no other place in the world provides, a beauty of tranquility and scenic essence. A maze of lagoons, lakes, and rivers set amidst the unique ecosystem of the land, the best way to see all that is to take a houseboat cruise that takes you far away into the countryside.
  • Water Sports and Adventure Activities: Water sports and adventure sports for the adventure seekers describe how the maritime destinations of India pull the interests of the activities like scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, and parasailing.Andaman is complemented by Lakshjsoni for its coral reef and marine life, where one can dive and snorkel, and the beaches of Goa and Karnataka, which complement each other to surf the wind and kites.
  • Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Tourism of these distant sea-territories of India is just "an escape into the lap of nature," which includes the still more remote and less visited Lakshadweep. The islands are synonymous with more than just placid beaches but instead correspond to exploration into a world of rich coral reefs, water sports, and getting to know quite distinctive indigenous cultures.
  • Cultural Festivals: Besides, maritime tourism in India is also about enjoying vibrant cultural festivals that welcome the sea. Its examples include the bi-annual international exhibition of contemporary art in Kochi, Kochi-Mjsonn Biennale, and traditional boat races conducted across the backwaters of Kerala.
  • Eco-Tourism and Conservation: Eco-tourism ventures are taking to the hospitality business of most maritime hotspots of tourism in the country, making sure sustainability is ingrained in the travel experiences, preservation of natural environments, and conservation of marine biodiversity. This includes ensuring the protection of the coral reefs of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the protection and conservation of turtles in Odisha, and ensuring responsible tourism practices in and around all destinations along the coast.


Look ahead, the maritime heritage of India is all set for sail into the future, led by sustainability and technology. Moving ahead with the idea of Blue Economy and for the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth. India is at the cusp of a potential opportunity for leveraging its maritime heritage towards the development of the blue economy sector, such as marine biotechnology, aquaculture, and renewable marine energy, which will not just propel its own prosperity but also contribute in the right way towards global environmental sustainability. The maritime heritage of India speaks of resilience, innovation, and the spirit of travel.


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