Ships and Sailors in Sacred lore: A Curtain Raiser to

the MP Awati Commemorative Symposium 2021

Dennard H D’souza 

Research Associate

Maritime History Society


“He who knows the path of the birds flying through the air he abiding in the ocean, knows the course of ships”

Rig Veda (


The history of maritime navigation in the Indian subcontinent can be dated back to the early eras of the Indian civilization, the Harappans, or Meluhhan as they were called by the Sumerians. They were the first of the early Indians in recorded history to sail as far as Sumeria and the Persian Gulf, establishing trade links. They also sailed eastward to Ports of South East Asia and China. Evidence of this effect has come to us through incontrovertible material remains from sites in the Persian Gulf and South-East Asia that have been meticulously studied using scientific dating techniques. It is with this interest to know the history of India’s maritime past, one man strived to institutionalise the study of India’s Maritime History. This Man was Vice Admiral Manohar Prahlad Awati and the Institution he founded and fostered till his last breath is Maritime History Society, a pioneering institute for this field of study based in Mumbai.

The Maritime History society will be hosting a one-day symposium on 7th September 2021 to commemorate the birth anniversary of its grand old sire, Vice Admiral Awati. The Symposium is themed on Archaeology and underwater heritage. This article has been written to commemorate India’s maritime legacy from its ancient texts which are complementary to the study of underwater heritage and archaeology.

The Stated Position

Since the early 19th century, scholars have argued for a desideratum in maritime practices in the period between the decline of the Harappan cities and the age of the Buddha. Much of these scholarly extrapolations were based on colonial interpretation of data which had their source in colonial biases. For example, A.L Basham believed that Indian textual references to ships carrying 1000 passengers were mere exaggerations while relying on Pliny the elder’s account of Indian ships. Pliny was a naturalist who’s only understanding of India came from a second-hand perspective that was too riddled with legends and fanciful tales.  Based on these accounts Basham concludes that the Indian mariners were nowhere compared to the Vikings. This was not only the case with Basham, in fact, many scholars mostly Europeans, projected the image that whenever the subcontinent participated in the Indian Ocean affairs, the entire initiative came from the west. If this was the mindset of the colonial historians, definitely this might have reflected in their writing of history also.

However not all the blame should be heaped at the door of the colonial Indologists. The sheer paucity of texts dedicated to maritime practices and coeval traditions of navigation on the Indian subcontinent, coupled with the purity and pollution that barred the crossing of the sea (samudrolanghana), has left us with few indigenous maritime references. Moreover, the concurrent colonial narrative of the superiority of the conqueror may have influenced historians to make lopsided assumptions, thus influencing their writing of India’s maritime history

Although maritime practices in ancient India have been extensively researched by the scholars of yore. They fail to touch upon the contemporary reception and context of ancient Indian traditions mainly because of the scant availability of data. However much of contemporary maritime practices bear resemblance to ancient Indian nautical traditions, which is manifested in the maritime routes and shipbuilding techniques that have remained constant for more than five millennia.

Ancient Geographical Understanding And Maritime Routes That Have A Contemporary Significance    

The Vedas are the earliest literary compositions in the Indian subcontinent that have come to us in the present. Although explicitly a religious text, it contains elements that give vivid descriptions of the Vedic landscape. Mountains, rivers, lakes, forests figure prominently, but more strikingly the Vedas also speak of the Samudra, the phenomenal sea. The Samudra of the Rig Veda is not a metaphorical sea but a geographical entity that is contiguous with the Indian landmass.  This phenomenon is narrated in the Nadi Stuti of the Rig Veda. The Nadi Stuti while mentioning the path of the river Sarasvati flowing from its mountainous abode it emphasizes that the river empties itself into the ocean.  The Shatapatha Brahmana too positions the Indian peninsula as a landmass sandwiched between the eastern and the western sea.

The knowledge of astronomy was also an important element of navigation for the Indian Ocean seafarers until very recently. They relied on the pole star for navigation rather than the magnetic needle. Since the pole star is only visible in the northern Arabian Sea, seafarers had to meticulously position themselves in alignment to the pole star for which a good geographical understanding of hemispheres was a prerequisite.

The knowledge of the monsoonal cycles formed another significant element in ancient navigational practices. Sailors often avoided seafaring in the tumultuous monsoonal weather. The Vedic people had the requisite understanding of monsoonal cycles this is evident from the hymn to Maruts who were known as the wind gods.  Even today the Kolis abstain from seafaring in the rainy season until Narali Pournima from when the sea’s fury begins to subside.

Having had the knowledge of the sea and the geographical dimensions of the subcontinent, the people of the Vedic period employed it to their use. Amongst various vocations, the Vedic people indulged in maritime trade and naval warfare as we shall see in the story of Bhujyu later in this article. The reference to overseas trade comes from the first mandala of the Rig Veda where merchants are depicted as being covetous of gains, resulting in the crowding of the ocean with their vessels.

Besides conducting peaceful trade in the ocean, the Vedic people also carried out naval expeditions. The story of Prince Bhujyu the son of Tugra is a case in point. Having been irked, Tugra sent his son Bhujyu with an armed contingent to a far-off island to wage war against the offenders.  But to undertake a naval expedition or a trading voyage the knowledge of maritime route would have been crucial then as it is now. The knowledge of these sea routes may have also been transmitted from the Harappan to the Vedic people as the same routes were used even during the Buddhist and much later periods to establish trade with the Babylonians and the Gulf Peninsula.

However, the early Buddhist Sutta literature is largely silent on maritime activities especially trade, with the exception of a passage in the Digha Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka that makes an explicit reference to an oceanic passage This sparse reference to seafaring can be explained by stating that the Buddha’s area of operation was the plains of North India which had no direct contact with the sea.

However, archaeological evidence of a block of Indian cedar wood found in the remains of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Birrs Nimrud, dated to the 7 century B.C.E  proves that the kingdoms of north India traded with Mesopotamia. This is due to the fact that cedar in India grows only in the northern sub-alpine forests of the Himalayas. These trade relations between ancient Indian and Babylonia are recorded in the Baveru Jataka. One of the many commodities that were exported to Babylonia was the exotic Indian peacock.  Interestingly in Babylonia, the peacock was considered a royal guardian and was accordingly carved on the thrones of royalty. Therefore, the trade relationship with Babylonia would have been a prestigious affair, wherein the Indian merchants who traded with Babylon may have been an elite and wealthy lot.

Trade between the Indian subcontinent and Babylon was possibly carried out from the ancient ports of Bharukachchha and Supparaka during ancient times.,  even predating the period of Buddha. This is premised on the fact that the Harappans had maritime trade and cultural ties with the Mesopotamians. The Vedic Indians, too like their predecessors, the Harrapans based on data from the Rig Veda may have maintained trade and cultural ties with the Chaldeans and the Babylonians like their predecessors.   Even today, the Indian diaspora forms the largest expatriate population in the Gulf region, this was also the case during Harappan times where the Meluhhans AKA the Harappans had established a settlement in Mesopotamia.

The ancient navigational knowledge of the Indian subcontinent is probably what Aryasura, a fourth-century C.E monk. refers to as the Niryamaka Sutras. Aryasura makes a mention of this in his Sanskrit reproduction of the Jatakas. In his story of the Suppraka Jataka, Suparaga the Jalaniryamaka (pilot of the ship) was supposed to be an expert of the Niryamaka Sutras and piloted the ship with dexterity. However, no text of this name has come to us in the present, but the post of the Niryamaka is mentioned in the Arthasastra, a third-century BCE treatise on statecraft, as the captain of the ship.

Finding Resonance Of Ancient Shipbuilding In Modern Times 

The Vedas make mention of buoyant vessels called the Nava which is generally interpreted to mean a boat or a ship. The text does not provide a detailed description of the boat in terms of its composition but makes a cursory reference to its size. In the prayer to the Asvins, the ship that saved Bhujyu from drowning was said to possess a hundred oars. With this bit of trifling information from the Rig Veda, one is left to imagine a ship similar to the Achaean galleys, which were employed in the siege of Troy by the ancient Greeks, which like Bhujyus rescue ship had multiple oars. It is worth noting that the stories of the Trojan wars were contemporaneous (1250 B.C.E) with those of the period of the Rig Veda. What is even more fascinating is that the largest of the Mycenaean vessels possessed a hundred oars, just like the one that rescued Bhujyu from the ocean.

In contemporary times and placed closer geographically is the Chundan Vallam, the long and slender snake boat from Kerala designed in the 13th century during the reign of Devanarayana of Champakaserry as a naval vessel, the boats now serve a more entertaining purpose. In Commemoration of the erstwhile Prime Minister of India’s grand reception with a snake boat race by the people of Allepy in 1952. The Chundan Vallam is now the racing boat for the Nehru trophy snake boat race.

Naval ships were not the only kind of ships that ancient Indians possessed. Merchant ships, passenger ships, and pleasure boats were often used in ancient India, as they are used today. The Rig Veda speaks of merchants crowding the ocean with ships in the hope of acquiring wealth. So also the Jatakas speak extensively about merchant ships that sailed too far off lands of Suvarnabhumi (South East Asia) and Baveru (Babylon). Some of these merchant ships like the one possessed by the merchant Punna, the devotee of the Buddha was supposed to be so large that it could carry three hundred passengers along with a cargo of timber.

Not far behind the merchant ships were the passenger ships. The Samudda Vanija Jataka tells us about a passenger ship, built by the carpenters of Varanasi from the woods in the forest. The ship built by these carpenters was so large that it carried an entire village of a thousand people on board, which sailed several days on the sea until it reached its destination. The size of ships mentioned in the Jatakas are comparable to modern-day cruise liners and tankers of the ilk of the Queen Mary and the Jahre Viking, but the fact is that much of these dimensions are literary excesses the authors of the jataka has employed to create awe in the minds of the readers. Nonetheless, ships larger than those produced in Europe were built by the Indians in the medieval era this was recorded by the 15th century Italian traveler Nicolo Conti.

Over the centuries, traditional shipbuilding gave way to modern shipbuilding techniques in the subcontinent. However, some of the traditional shipbuilding techniques can still be seen at Chaliyar in Kerala. The Uru is a wooden dhow boat whose planks are stitched together without nails and metallic reinforcements. The Uru is built by the Khalasis of Chaliyam, a clan of traditional shipbuilders, who claim to be descendants of Arab traders married to local women. The Urus were until very recently used to carry commercial cargo to Gulf countries.


The Harappan civilization was the earliest in the recorded history of India to have to establish maritime trade links with Mesopotamia and regions of the Gulf. Subsequent to the decline of the Indus valley civilization, the Vedic people who succeeded them took to maritime trade on the same routes. This indicates that there was some transmission of knowledge from the Harappans to the Vedic Indians who in all probability inherited the knowledge of the climate, the geographical patterns and the skill of navigation. The knowledge of all these sciences couldn’t have been developed in a short span of time. It might have evolved over the ages through the method of trial and error. With this, we can safely prove that India had an ancient and hoary tradition of Maritime venture that has been sustained to the modern times albeit in a modern form.





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30 December 2019, “Foreign travel, abdication, and Pejawar seer” The Hindu