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Indian Heritage & Culture

India's Maritime History

  • 26 Sep 2023
  • 5 min read

For Prelims: Tankai method, Project Mausam, Lothal, Jataka Tales, Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, Maritime Vision 2030.

For Mains: India's History of Maritime Trade, Current Status of Maritime Transport in India.

Source: IE

Why in News?

A 21-meter-long ship, constructed using ancient stitched shipbuilding method (Tankai method) is set to embark on a voyage from Odisha to Bali in Indonesia in November 2025.

  • Manned by a crew from the Indian Navy, this project not only showcases India's maritime tradition but also sheds light on its seafaring history.
  • This initiative is also in harmony with the Ministry of Culture's Project Mausam, which seeks to reestablish maritime cultural ties and foster cultural understanding among the 39 countries bordering the Indian Ocean.

What is India's History of Maritime Trade?

  • Early Evidence of Maritime Trade:
    • Indus Valley and Mesopotamia: The earliest known instances of people from the Indian subcontinent engaging in sea trade date back to around 3300-1300 BCE.
      • The dock at Lothal (in present-day Gujarat), shows the civilisation’s deep understanding of the workings of tides and winds.
    • Vedic and Buddhist References: The Vedas, composed between 1500-500 BCE, contain vivid tales of seafaring.
      • Additionally, the Jataka Tales and Tamil Sangam literature, spanning from 300 BCE to 400 CE, offer further insights into ancient Indian seafaring activities.
  • Intensification of Maritime Activity: By the 1st century BCE, movement through the deep seas intensified, partly driven by the Roman Empire's demand for Eastern commodities.
    • Harnessing the power of monsoon winds became crucial for completing long journeys, and Roman commerce played a significant role in promoting such voyages.
    • Romans acquired products from the Coromandel Coast – such as horses, pearls, and spices.
  • Diverse Boat-Building Traditions: Ancient Indian boat-building traditions were diverse and included the coir-sewn tradition of the Arabian Sea, the jong tradition of Southeast Asia, and the Austronesian tradition of outrigger boats.
    • These traditions often employed stitching instead of nails for construction.
    • Different types of wood were used for shipbuilding, with mangrove wood being ideal for dowels and teak for planks, keels, stem, and stern posts.
      • Evidence of these wood usages can be found in coastal communities and archaeological sites across the Indian Ocean.
  • India as the Center of Trade: By the Common Era, the Indian Ocean had become a vibrant "trade lake," with India at its heart:
    • Western Trade Route: India connected to Europe through the Middle East and Africa, with ports like Bharuch and Muziris serving as vital trade hubs.
    • Eastern Trade Route: Evidence of Indian artifacts in Hepu, China, dating back to the 3rd century BCE, suggests a maritime route linking India to China and Malaysia.
      • Tamralipti in Bengal played a significant role in this trade.
    • These maritime networks facilitated the movement of people from various backgrounds, fostering cultural exchanges.
      • Artifacts of Indian origin have been discovered as far as Berenike in Egypt, including Hindu gods' representations and inscriptions in Sanskrit.

What is the Current Status of Maritime Transport in India?

  • India is the 16th largest maritime country in the world. Currently, Maritime transport in India handles 95% of the trade by volume and 68% by value.
    • India is one of the world's top 5 ship recycling countries and holds 30% share in the global ship recycling market.
    • India also owns over 30% global market share in the ship-breaking industry and is home to the largest ship-breaking facility in the world at Alang, Gujarat.
  • As of December 2021, India had a fleet strength with a Gross tonnage (GT) of 13,011 thousand. However, the Indian fleet is just 1.2% of the world's fleet in terms of capacity and carries only 7.8% (for 2018-19) of India’s EXIM trade (Economic Survey 2021-2022).
  • In 2017, the government launched the ambitious Sagar Mala Program with the vision of port-led development and growth of logistics-intensive industries.
    • India has currently 12 major and 200 non-major/intermediate ports (under state government administration).
    • Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust is the largest major port in India, while Mudra is the largest private port.
  • The Maritime India Vision 2030 has identified over 150 initiatives to boost the Indian maritime sector.
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