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Essay On Indian Maritime History

Indian maritime history begins during the 3rd millennium BCE when inhabitants of the Indus Valley initiated maritime trading contact with Mesopotamia.[1] The Roman historian Strabo mentions an increase in Roman trade with India following the Roman annexation of Egypt.[2]Strabo reports that during the time when Aelius Gallus was Prefect of Egypt (26-24 BCE), he saw 120 ships ready to leave for India at the Red Sea port of Myos Hormos.[3] As trade between India and the Greco-Roman world increased spices became the main import from India to the Western world,[4] bypassing silk and other commodities.[5] Indians were present in Alexandria[6] while Christian and Jew settlers from Rome continued to live in India long after the fall of the Roman empire,[7] which resulted in Rome's loss of the Red Sea ports,[8] previously used to secure trade with India by the Greco-Roman world since the Ptolemaic dynasty.[9] The Indian commercial connection with South East Asia proved vital to the merchants of Arabia and Persia during the 7th–8th century.[10] A study published in 2013 found that some 11 percent of Aboriginal DNA is of Indian origin and suggests these immigrants arrived about 4,000 years ago, possibly at the same time dingoes first arrived in Australia.[11]

On orders of Manuel I of Portugal, four vessels under the command of navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, continuing to the eastern coast of Africa to Malindi to sail across the Indian Ocean to Calicut.[12] The wealth of the Indies was now open for the Europeans to explore.[12] The Portuguese Empire was the first European empire to grow from spice trade.[12]

The National Maritime Day[edit]

5 April marks the National Maritime Day of India. On this day in 1919 navigation history was created when SS Loyalty, the first ship of The Scindia Steam Navigation Company Ltd., journeyed to the United Kingdom, a crucial step for India shipping history when sea routes were controlled by the British.


Further information: Lothal and Indus Valley Civilisation

The region around the Indus river began to show visible increase in both the length and the frequency of maritime voyages by 3000 BCE.[13] Optimum conditions for viable long-distance voyages existed in this region by 2900 BCE.[14] Mesopotamian inscriptions indicate that Indian traders from the Indus valley—carrying copper, hardwoods, ivory, pearls, carnelian, and gold—were active in Mesopotamia during the reign of Sargon of Akkad (c. 2300 BCE).[1] Gosch & Stearns write on the Indus Valley's pre-modern maritime travel:[15] Evidence exists that Harrappans were bulk-shipping timber and special woods to Sumeria on ships and luxury items such as lapis lazuli. The trade in lapis lazuli was carried out from northern Afghanistan over eastern Iran to Sumeria but during the Mature Harrappan period an Indus colony was established at Shortugai in Central Asia near the Badakshan mines and the lapis stones were brought overland to Lothal in Gujarat and shipped to Oman, Bahrain and Mesopotamia.

Archaeological research at sites in Mesopotamia, Bahrain, and Oman has led to the recovery of artefacts traceable to the Indus Valley civilisation, confirming the information on the inscriptions. Among the most important of these objects are stamp seals carved in soapstone, stone weights, and colourful carnelian beads....Most of the trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley was indirect. Shippers from both regions converged in Persian Gulf ports, especially on the island of Bahrain (known as Dilmun to the Sumerians). Numerous small Indus-style artefacts have been recovered at locations on Bahrain and further down the coast of the Arabian Peninsula in Oman. Stamp seals produced in Bahrain have been found at sites in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, strengthening the likelihood that the island may have acted as a redistribution point for goods coming from Mesopotamia and the Indus area....There are hints from the digs at Ur, a major Sumerian city-state on the Euphrates, that some Indus Valley merchants and artisans (bead makers) may have established communities in Mesopotamia.

The world's first dock at Lothal (2400 BCE) was located away from the main current to avoid deposition of silt.[16] Modern oceanographers have observed that the Harappans must have possessed great knowledge relating to tides in order to build such a dock on the ever-shifting course of the Sabarmati, as well as exemplary hydrography and maritime engineering.[16] This was the earliest known dock found in the world, equipped to berth and service ships.[16] It is speculated that Lothal engineers studied tidal movements, and their effects on brick-built structures, since the walls are of kiln-burnt bricks.[17] This knowledge also enabled them to select Lothal's location in the first place, as the Gulf of Khambhat has the highest tidal amplitude and ships can be sluiced through flow tides in the river estuary.[17] The engineers built a trapezoidal structure, with north-south arms of average 21.8 metres (71.5 ft), and east-west arms of 37 metres (121 ft).[17]

Early kingdoms[edit]

Further information: Roman trade with India and Spice trade

Indian cartography locates the Pole star, and other constellations of use in navigational charts.[18] These charts may have been in use by the beginning of the Common Era for purposes of navigation.[18] Detailed maps of considerable length describing the locations of settlements, sea shores, rivers, and mountains were also made.[19] The Periplus Maris Erythraei mentions a time when sea trade between India and Egypt did not involve direct sailings.[20] The cargo under these situations was shipped to Aden:[20]

Eudaimon Arabia was called fortunate, being once a city, when, because ships neither came from India to Egypt nor did those from Egypt dare to go further but only came as far as this place, it received the cargoes from both, just as Alexandria receives goods brought from outside and from Egypt.

It should be mentioned here that Tamil Pandya embassies were received by Augustus Caesar and Roman historians mention a total of four embassies from the Tamil country. Pliny famously mentions the expenditure of one million sestertii every year on goods such pepper, fine cloth and gems from the southern coasts of India. He also mentions 10,000 horses shipped to this region each year. Tamil and southern Sanskrit name inscriptions have been found in Luxor in Egypt. In turn Tamil literature from the Classical period mentions foreign ships arriving for trade and paying in gold for products.

The first clear mention of a navy occurs in the mythological epic Mahabharata.[21] Historically, however, the first attested attempt to organise a navy in India, as described by Megasthenes (c. 350—290 BCE), is attributed to Chandragupta Maurya (reign 322—298 BCE).[21] The Mauryan empire (322–185 BCE) navy continued till the times of emperor Ashoka (reign 273—32 BCE), who used it to send massive diplomatic missions to Greece, Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia and Epirus.[21] Following nomadic interference in Siberia—one of the sources for India's bullion—India diverted its attention to the Malay peninsula, which became its new source for gold and was soon exposed to the world via a series of maritime trade routes.[22] The period under the Mauryan empire also witnessed various other regions of the world engage increasingly in the Indian Ocean maritime voyages.[22]

According to the historian Strabo (II.5.12.) the Roman trade with India trade initiated by Eudoxus of Cyzicus in 130 BCE kept increasing.[3] Indian ships sailed to Egypt as the thriving maritime routes of Southern Asia were not under the control of a single power.[23] In India, the ports of Barbaricum (modern Karachi), Barygaza, Muziris, Korkai, Kaveripattinam and Arikamedu on the southern tip of India were the main centres of this trade.[24] The Periplus Maris Erythraei describes Greco—Roman merchants selling in Barbaricum "thin clothing, figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine" in exchange for "costus, bdellium, lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo".[24] In Barygaza, they would buy wheat, rice, sesame oil, cotton and cloth.[24]

The Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum was involved in the Indian Ocean trade network and was influenced by Roman culture and Indian architecture.[7] Traces of Indian influences are visible in Roman works of silver and ivory, or in Egyptian cotton and silk fabrics used for sale in Europe.[6] The Indian presence in Alexandria may have influenced the culture but little is known about the manner of this influence.[6]Clement of Alexandria mentions the Buddha in his writings and other Indian religions find mentions in other texts of the period.[6] The Indians were present in Alexandria[6] and the Christian and Jew settlers from Rome continued to live in India long after the fall of the Roman empire,[7] which resulted in Rome's loss of the Red Sea ports,[8] previously used to secure trade with India by the Greco—Roman world since the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty.[9]

Early Common Era—High Middle Ages[edit]

Further information: Chola dynasty, Chera dynasty, Pandya dynasty, Pallava dynasty, and Maritime history of Odisha

Textiles from India were in demand in Egypt, East Africa, and the Mediterranean between the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, and these regions became overseas markets for Indian exports.[22] In Java and Borneo, the introduction of Indian culture created a demand for aromatics, and trading posts here later served Chinese and Arab markets.[10] The Periplus Maris Erythraei names several Indian ports from where large ships sailed in an easterly direction to Khruse.[25] Products from the Maluku Islands that were shipped across the ports of Arabia to the Near East passed through the ports of India and Sri Lanka.[26] After reaching either the Indian or the Sri Lankan ports, products were sometimes shipped to East Africa, where they were used for a variety of purposes including burial rites.[26]

The Chola dynasty (200—1279) reached the peak of its influence and power during the medieval period.[27] Emperors Rajaraja Chola I (reigned 985-1014) and Rajendra Chola I (reigned 1012-1044) extended the Chola kingdom beyond the traditional limits.[28] At its peak, the Chola Empire stretched from the island of Sri Lanka in the south to the Godavari basin in the north.[29] The kingdoms along the east coast of India up to the river Ganges acknowledged Chola suzerainty.[30] Chola navies invaded and conquered Srivijaya in Maritime Southeast Asia.[31] Goods and ideas from India began to play a major role in the "southernization" of the wider world from this period.[32]

Quilon or Kollam in Kerala coast, once called Desinganadu, has had a high commercial reputation since the days of the Phoenicians and Romans.[33] Fed by the Chinese trade, it was mentioned by Ibn Battuta in the 14th century as one of the five Indian ports he had seen in the course of his travels during twenty-four years.[34] The Kollam Port become operational in AD.825.[35] opened Desinganadu's rulers were used to exchange the embassies with Chinese rulers and there was flourishing Chinese settlement at Quilon. The Indian commercial connection with Southeast Asia proved vital to the merchants of Arabia and Persia between the 7th and 8th centuries CE.[10] Merchant Sulaiman of Siraf in Persia (9th Century) found Quilon to be the only port in India, touched by the huge Chinese junks, on his way from Carton of Persian Gulf. Marco Polo, the great Venician traveller, who was in Chinese service under Kublakhan in 1275, visited Kollam and other towns on the west coast, in his capacity as a Chinese mandarin.[36]

The Abbasids used Alexandria, Damietta, Aden and Siraf as entry ports to India and China.[37] Merchants arriving from India in the port city of Aden paid tribute in form of musk, camphor, ambergris and sandalwood to Ibn Ziyad, the sultan of Yemen.[37] The kingdoms of Vijaynagara and Kalinga established footholds in Malaya, Sumatra and Western Java.[38]

The Cholas excelled in foreign trade and maritime activity, extending their influence overseas to China and Southeast Asia.[39] Towards the end of the 9th century, southern India had developed extensive maritime and commercial activity.[40][41] The Cholas, being in possession of parts of both the west and the east coasts of peninsular India, were at the forefront of these ventures.[42][43][44] The Tang dynasty (618–907) of China, the Srivijaya empire in Maritime Southeast Asia under the Sailendras, and the Abbasid Kalifat at Baghdad were the main trading partners.[45]

During the reign of Pandya Parantaka Nedumjadaiyan (765–790), the Chera dynasty were a close ally of the Pallavas.[46] Pallavamalla Nadivarman defeated the Pandya Varaguna with the help of a Chera king.[46] Cultural contacts between the Pallava court and the Chera country were common.[46] Indian spice exports find mention in the works of Ibn Khurdadhbeh (850), al-Ghafiqi (1150 CE), Ishak bin Imaran (907) and Al Kalkashandi (14th century).[26] Chinese traveler Xuanzang mentions the town of Puri where "merchants depart for distant countries."[47]

Hindu and Buddhist religious establishments of Southeast Asia came to be associated with economic activity and commerce as patrons entrusted large funds which would later be used to benefit local economy by estate management, craftsmanship and promotion of trading activities.[48]Buddhism, in particular, travelled alongside the maritime trade, promoting coinage, art and literacy.[49]

Late Middle Ages[edit]

Further information: Shivaji

Further information: Maratha Navy

Ma Huan (1413–51) reached Cochin and noted that Indian coins, known as fanam, were issued in Cochin and weighed a total of one fen and one li according to the Chinese standards.[50] They were of fine quality and could be exchanged in China for 15 silver coins of four-li weight each.[50][unreliable source?]

On the orders of Manuel I of Portugal, four vessels under the command of navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, continuing to Malindi on the eastern coast of Africa, from there to sail across the Indian Ocean to Calicut.[12] Christian missionaries traveling with trade, such as Saint Francis Xavier, were instrumental in the spread of Christianity in the East.[51]

The first Dutch expedition left from Amsterdam (April 1595) for South East Asia.[52] Another Dutch convoy sailed in 1598 and returned one year later with 600,000 pounds of spices and other Indian products.[52] The United East India Company forged alliances with the principal producers of cloves and nutmeg.[52]

Shivaji Bhonsle (reign 1664—1680) maintained a navy under the charge of general Kanhoji Angre (served 1698—1729).[53] The initial advances of the Portuguese were checked by this navy, which also effectively relieved the traffic and commerce in India's west coast of Portuguese threat.[53] The Maratha navy also checked the English East India Company, until the navy itself underwent a decline due to the policies of general Nanasaheb (reign 1740 – 1761).[54]

Baba Makhan Shah Labana, a noted Sikh of the 17th century is known for trade in sea route to Gulf and Mediterranean region.

British Raj – Modern Period[edit]

Further information: British Raj

The British East India Company shipped substantial quantities of spices during the early 17th century.[52] Rajesh Kadian (2006) examines the history of the British navy in as the British Raj was established in India:[55]

In 1830 ships of the British East India Company were designated as the Indian navy. However, in 1863, it was disbanded when Britain's Royal Navy took control of the Indian Ocean. About thirty years later, the few small Indian naval units were called the Royal Indian Marine (RIM). In the wake of World War I, Britain, exhausted in manpower and resources, opted for expansion of the RIM. Consequently, on 2 October 1934, the RIM was reincarnated as the Royal Indian Navy (RIN).

The Indian rulers weakened with the advent of the European powers.[38] Shipbuilders, however, continued to build ships capable of carrying 800 to 1000 tons.[38] The shipbuilders at the Bombay Dockyard built ships like the HMS Hindostan (1795) and HMS Ceylon (1808), inducted into the Royal Navy.[38] The historical ships made by Indian shipbuilders included HMS Asia (1824) (commanded by Edward Codrington during the Battle of Navarino in 1827), the frigate HMS Cornwallis (1813) (onboard which the Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1842), and the HMS Minden (on which The Star Spangled Banner was composed by Francis Scott Key).[38] David Arnold examines the role of Indian shipbuilders during the British Raj:[56]

Shipbuilding was a well-established craft at numerous points along the Indian coastline long before the arrival of the Europeans and was a significant factor in the high level of Indian maritime activity in the Indian Ocean region....As with cotton textiles, European trade was initially a stimulus to Indian shipbuilding: vessels built in ports like Masulipatam and Surat from Indian hardwoods by local craftsmen were cheaper and tougher than their European counterparts.

Between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries Indian shipyards produced a series of vessels incorporating these hybrid features. A large proportion of them were built in Bombay, where the Company had established a small shipyard. In 1736 Parsi carpenters were brought in from Surat to work there and, when their European supervisor died, one of the carpenters, Lowji Nuserwanji Wadia, was appointed Master Builder in his place.

Wadia oversaw the construction of thirty-five ships, twenty-one of them for the Company. Following his death in 1774, his sons took charge of the shipyard and between them built a further thirty ships over the next sixteen years. The Britannia, a ship of 749 tons launched in 1778, so impressed the Court of Directors when it reached Britain that several new ships were commissioned from Bombay, some of which later passed into the hands of the Royal Navy. In all, between 1736 and 1821, 159 ships of over 100 tons were built at Bombay, including 15 of over 1,000 tons. Ships constructed at Bombay in its heyday were said to be ‘vastly superior to anything built anywhere else in the world’.

Contemporary Era (1947–present)[edit]

Further information: Indian navy and Ports in India


In 1947, the Republic of India’s navy consisted of 33 ships, and 538 officers to secure a coastline of more than 4,660 miles (7,500 km) and 1,280 islands.[55] The Indian navy conducted annual Joint Exercises with other Commonwealth navies throughout the 1950s.[55] The navy saw action during various of the country's wars, including Indian integration of Junagadh,[57] the liberation of Goa,[58] the 1965 war, and the 1971 war.[59] Following difficulty in obtaining spare parts from the Soviet Union, India also embarked upon a massive indigenous naval designing and production programme aimed at manufacturing destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and submarines.[55]

India's Coast Guard Act was passed in August 1978.[55] The Indian Coast Guard participated in counter terrorism operations such as Operation Cactus.[55] During contemporary times the Indian navy was commissioned in several United Nations peacekeeping missions.[55] The navy also repatriated Indian nationals from Kuwait during the first Gulf War.[55] Rajesh Kadian (2006) holds that: "During the Kargil War (1999), the aggressive posture adopted by the navy played a role in convincing Islamabad and Washington that a larger conflict loomed unless Pakistan withdrew from the heights.".[55]

As a result of the growing strategic ties with the western world the Indian navy has conducted joint exercises with its western counterparts, including the United States Navy, and has obtained latest naval equipment from its western allies.[55] Better relations with the United States of America and Israel have led to joint patrolling of the Straits of Malacca.[55]


This section needs to be updated. Please update this article to reflect recent events or newly available information.(September 2016)

The following table gives the detailed data about the major ports of India for the financial year 2005–06 and percentage growth over 2004–05 (Source: Indian Ports Association):

NameCargo Handled (06-07) '000 tonnes % Increase (over 05-06)Vessel Traffic (05-06) % Increase (over 04-05)Container Traffic (05-06) '000 TEUs % Increase (over 04-05)
Kolkata(Kolkata Dock System & Haldia Dock Complex)55,0503.59%2,85307.50%31309.06%
New Mangalore Port32,042-06.99%1,08701.87%1011.11%
J.N.P.T, Navi Mumbai44,81818.45%2,39503.06%2,267-04.39%
All Indian Ports463,8439.51%19,79608.64%4,74412.07%


  1. ^ abGosch & Stearns, 12
  2. ^Young, 20
  3. ^ ab"At any rate, when Gallus was prefect of Egypt, I accompanied him and ascended the Nile as far as Syene and the frontiers of Kingdom of Aksum (Ethiopia), and I learned that as many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing from Myos Hormos to India, whereas formerly, under the Ptolemies, only a very few ventured to undertake the voyage and to carry on traffic in Indian merchandise." —"The Geography of Strabo published in Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1917". 
  4. ^Ball, 131
  5. ^Ball, 137
  6. ^ abcdeLach, 18
  7. ^ abcCurtin, 100
  8. ^ abHoll, 9
  9. ^ abLindsay, 101
  10. ^ abcDonkin, 59
  11. ^"Genomes link aboriginal Australians to Indians""Human evolution: Migration from India to Australia"
  12. ^ abcd"Gama, Vasco da". The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press.
  13. ^Gosch & Stearns, 7
  14. ^Gosch & Stearns, 9
  15. ^Gosch & Stearns, 12–13
  16. ^ abcRao, 27–28
  17. ^ abcRao, 28–29
  18. ^ abSircar, 330
  19. ^Sircar, 327
  20. ^ abYoung, 19
  21. ^ abcChakravarti (1930)
  22. ^ abcShaffer, 309
  23. ^Lach, 13
  24. ^ abcHalsall, Paul. "Ancient History Sourcebook: The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century". Fordham University. 
  25. ^Donkin, 64
  26. ^ abcDonkin, 92
  27. ^Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, 5
  28. ^Kulke & Rothermund, 115
  29. ^Rajendra Chola I completed the conquest of the island of Sri Lanka and captured the Sinhala king Mahinda V. Nilakanta Sastri, The CōĻas pp 194–210.
  30. ^Majumdar, 407
  31. ^The kadaram campaign is first mentioned in Rajendra's inscriptions dating from his 14th year. The name of the Srivijaya king was Sangrama Vijayatungavarman—Nilakanta Sastri, The CōĻas, 211–220.
  32. ^Shaffer, Lynda Noreen (2001). "Southernization". In Adas, Michael. Agricultural and Pastoral Societies in Ancient and Classical History. Critical perspectives on the past. American Historical Association. Temple University Press. p. 308. ISBN 9781566398329. Retrieved 2013-12-24.  
  33. ^Sastri, K. A. Nilakanta (1958) [1935]. History of South India (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. 
  34. ^Kollam - MathrubhumiArchived 9 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  35. ^"Page No.710, International Dictionary of Historic Places: Asia and Oceania". Retrieved 23 November 2016. 
  36. ^Short History of Kollam
  37. ^ abDonkin, 91–92
  38. ^ abcdefEarly History (Indian Navy), National Informatics Center, Government of India.
  39. ^Kulke & Rothermund, 116–117
  40. ^Kulke & Rothermund, 12
  41. ^Kulke & Rothermund, 118
  42. ^Kulke & Rothermund, 124
  43. ^Tripathi, 465
  44. ^Tripathi, 477
  45. ^Nilakanta Sastri, The CōĻas, 604
  46. ^ abcSee A History of South India – pp 146 – 147
  47. ^Donkin, 65
  48. ^Donkin, 67
  49. ^Donkin, 69
  50. ^ abChaudhuri, 223
  51. ^Corn 1999, pp 68-. "If the Portuguese had wrested the spice trade from the Arabs in those distant lands, then why shouldn't a people enslaved by a false doctrine be likewise freed? This rhetorical question became for Xavier his ultimate concern. It was Portugal's supremacy on the seas and in the spice trade that allowed it to flourish."
  52. ^ abcdDonkin, 169
  53. ^ abSardesai, 53–56, Shivaji Bhonsle and Heirs
  54. ^Sardesai, 293–296, Peshwai and Pentarchy
  55. ^ abcdefghijkKadian (2006)
  56. ^Arnold, 101–102
  57. ^The navy was used in national integration by ferrying troops and securing the coast during the Junagadh state operations—Rajesh Kadian (2006).
  58. ^the Indian navy, among other actions, sank the Portuguese frigate Afonso de Albuquerque—Rajesh Kadian (2006).
  59. ^The navy's fortunes were greatly restored in 1971. After East Pakistan (Bangladesh) seceded, leading to civil war between Pakistan's two wings, the Indian navy trained four task forces of riverine guerrillas. Those frogmen sank or damaged over 100,000 tons of shipping in four months and disrupted ports and inland waterways, the lifeline of the country. In December, after the war formally started, an imaginative, daring raid by Osa missile boats on Karachi harbor sank two warships, damaged others, and ignited oil storage facilities. The Indian armed forces conducted amphibious landings for the first time toward the end of the war—Rajesh Kadian (2006).



  • Arnold, David (2004), The New Cambridge History of India: Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-56319-4.
  • Ball, Warwick (2000), Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-11376-8.
  • Chakravarti, P. C. (1930), "Naval Warfare in ancient India", The Indian Historical Quarterly, 4 (4): 645–664.
  • Chaudhuri, K. N. (1985), Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-28542-9.
  • Corn, Charles (1999) [First published 1998], The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade, Kodansha, ISBN
To the northwest of Lothal (2400 BCE) lies the Kutch peninsula. Proximity to the Gulf of Khambhat allowed direct access to sea routes. Lothal's topography and geology reflects its maritime past.
Three-mast sailship, c. 5th century
Roman trade with India according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei (1st century CE).
Indian ship on lead coin of Vasisthiputra Sri Pulamavi, testimony to the naval, seafaring and trading capabilities of the Satavahanas during the 1st–2nd century CE.
Model of a Chola (200—848 CE) ship's hull, built by the ASI, based on a wreck 19 miles off the coast of Poombuhar, displayed in a Museum in Tirunelveli.
This figure illustrates the path of Vasco da Gama's course to India (black), the first to go around Africa. Voyages of Pêro da Covilhã (orange) and Afonso de Paiva (blue) are also shown with common routes marked in green.

Written by C. Uday Bhaskar | Published: November 12, 2016 12:59 am



Author – (Edited by) Anit Mukherjee & C Raja Mohan

Publisher – Routledge

Pages – 260

Price – 759

Professor Geoffrey Till is a widely respected scholar of sea-power and the deft hand of the academic tiller is evident in the Cass series on Naval Policy and History of which he is the series editor. This is the 56th volume of the series and is a comprehensive collection of essays by well-known security analysts and academics with an abiding interest in India and the Indian Ocean region. The 12-chapter volume is a judicious mix of Indian and foreign authors that seeks to contextualise India’s naval strategy against the backdrop of Asia’s regional security environment.

Editors Mukherjee and Mohan envision a promising opportunity for the silent service of the Indian military and opine on the “rare strategic moment at hand for the Indian Navy” and add: “We point to the navy’s potential to acquire, simultaneously, a greater salience in Delhi’s national security calculus and become a principal instrument of India’s new ability to shape the balance of power in Asia and its waters.”

This is a heady prescription for a nation that has been often described as being sea-blind or tenaciously indifferent to its considerable maritime potential, given its distinctive peninsular geography. Naval strategy is a subset of a country’s overall grand, national strategy and the related comprehensive military strategy. Each nation and its navy have their distinctive historical experience, which is a complex and contested outcome deeply linked with the strategic culture and maritime affinity — or lack thereof — of the governing elite of the nation in question and the prevailing international power dynamic.

Sea power has an inherently long lead time capability. A 500-year period offers a reasonable temporal span to review naval strategy and the gold standard remains elusive. Yes, colonial power was enabled by an astute understanding of maritime power in its entirety — namely the trade, economic, military and technological imperatives and, in this cluster led by the Iberian powers, Great Britain emerged as the relatively smaller island power that could maximise its maritime affinity and empathy in the most abiding manner.

The colony, in this case the Indian sub-continent, acquired political autonomy in August 1947, but the inherited military tradition was skewed in favour of the land forces — the Indian army. Consequently, a naval strategy for an independent India was nascent and tentative.

As the editors point out, an intellectual formulation about India and sea power was evident in the writings of KM Pannikar (1945) and Keshav Vaidya but a comprehensive, affordable and effective naval strategy evolved unevenly. It was shaped within the matrix of resource allocation, the technology and manufacturing index, professional perspicacity — and, above all, the national will to acquire tangible sea power.

The individual chapters detail the different constraints and institutional obstacles that a credible and sustainable Indian naval strategy has to surmount and many illuminating insights punctuate the book. Some chapters are more rewarding and these include a commendable survey of the operational challenges faced by the Indian navy (Iskander Rehman), projecting India’s naval power (Abhijit Singh), the Andaman and Nicobar conundrum (Mukherjee) and the possibilities of harnessing naval diplomacy (Mohan).

The perspective of the external interlocutor includes a review of the likely Sino-Indian maritime security dilemma (Koh SL Collin) and the hesitant engagement with the USA (Tim Hoyt) and Japan (Tomoko Kiyota). An Australian and Indonesian view complement the regional scan of the Indian naval blue-print and the challenges that lie ahead.

It is encouraging that there is a gradual appreciation of India’s maritime/naval resurgence and the fact that the Indian navy could formulate and release its doctrinal document is illustrative of this orientation. But, as the editors of this very useful volume caution — “implementation and internal political contestation” remain India’s intractable vulnerability.

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