Ancient Maritime (Shipping & Navigation) History of Human Civilizations

Ancient history of shipping, trading on oceans date back to many years and evidence of trade between civilizations dates back at least two millennia are found.
Indians and Chinese have the oldest known history of shipping and during 3rd millennium BCE inhabitants of the Indus Valley initiated maritime trading contact with Mesopotamia.
After the Roman annexation of Egypt, roman trade with India increased.
Even in Puranas and Vedas, ships are mentioned. During Krishna’s regime in Dwaraka (more than 5000 years ago), maritime trading between india and mesopotamia existed. Silk and other commodities were traded.
ancient maritime shipping

Greeks were known to have travelled to India through searoute. Indians were present in Alexandria while Christian and Jew settlers from Rome continued to live in India long after the fall of the Roman empire, which resulted in Rome’s loss of the Red Sea ports, previously used to secure trade with India by the Greco-Roman world since the Ptolemaic dynasty.
The Indian commercial connection with South East Asia proved vital to the merchants of Arabia and Persia during the 7th–8th century.

Later, Portugese, under the command of navigator Vasco da Gama started with trade of spices with indians through shipping.
Even Sumerians are known to have done shipping 4 millenia ago.

Ancient Vedic Shipcraft

The art of Navigation was born in the river Sindh more than 6000 years ago. The very word Navigation is derived from the Sanskrit word NAV Gatih.
The word navy is also derived from Sanskrit `Nou‘.
In Rigveda 1.25.7; 7.88.3 and other instances, Samudra (Ocean/Sea) is mentioned together with ships.
In RV 7.89.4 the rishi Vasishta is thirsting in the midst of water. Other verses mention oceanic waves (RV 4.58.1,11; 7.88.3). Some words that are used for ships are Nau, Peru, Dhi and Druma.
A ship with a hundred oars is mentioned in RV 1.116.
There were also ships with three masts or with ten oars.
RV 9.33.6 says: ‘From every side, O Soma, for our profit, pour thou forth four seas filled with a thousand-fold riches.
Rig Veda mentions the two oceans to the east and the west, (Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea) just as they mention ships and maritime trade.

Ships in Mythology

In Ramayana, Guha carries Ram, Sita, Lakshman in his boat while they were in exile. When Ram’s brother Bharat comes later to the same place along with the whole royal household, citizens of Ayodhya and a large army, with the intention of bringing Rama back to Ayodhya from exile, Guha, suspecting Bharata’s intentions, takes precautionary measures by ordering five hundred ships, each manned by one hundred youthful mariners to keep in readiness, should resistance be necessary. Those ships are described to have ‘Swastika’ sign on them.

In Mahabharata, the ship contrived by Vidura for the escape of Pandavas is described as : “the ship strong enough to withstand hurricanes, fitted with machinery and displaying flags“.

Greek Mythology describes war at Troy started with journey on many ships and it ended with Trojan Horse.

Ship building technology of Ancient India

Chandragupta Maurya’s minister, Chanakya alias Kautilya, around 320 BCE devotes a full chapter to waterways under a Navadhyaksha ‘Superintendent of ships’.
His duties included the examination of accounts relating to navigation, not only on oceans and rivers, but also on lakes (natural or artificial).
Fisheries, pearl fisheries, customs on ports, passengers and mercantile shipping, control and safety of ships and similar other affairs all came under his charge.

Jaina scriptures, Buddhist Jatakas and Avadanas, as well as classical Sanskrit literature, abound in references to sea-voyages. They have many interesting details about the sizes and shapes of ships, their furniture, decorations, articles of import and export, names of seaports and islands etc everything connected with navigation.

Yukti Kalpataru and Samarangana Sutradhara are two books written by paramara king bhoja of dhar (early 11th century AD), which described about construction of sailing large vessels which can travel in oceans or big rivers.
Evidence was found of a compass made by iron fish floating in a vessel of oil and pointing north, which was used by mariners of Indus Valley Civilization.
Yukti Kalpataru gives an account of four different kinds of wood.
The first class comprises wood, that is light and soft, and can be joined to any other wood. The second class is light and hard, but cannot be joined to any other class of wood. The third class of wood is soft and heavy.
Lastly the fourth kind is hard and heavy.
According to Bhoja, a ship made out of the second class of wood, brings wealth and happiness. Ships of this type can be safely used for crossing the oceans.
Ships made out of timbers containing different properties are not good, as they rot in water, and split and sink at the slightest shock.
Bhoja says that care should be taken that no iron be used, in joining planks, but they be subjected to the influence of magnetism, but they are to be fitted together with substances other than iron. Bhoja also gives names of the different classes of ships:

  • River-going ships – Samanya
  • Ocean-going ships – Visesa

Italian traveller of 15th century, Nicolo Conti described : “The natives of India build some ships larger than ours, capable of containing 2,000 butts, and with five sails and as many masts. The lower part is constructed with triple planks, in order to withstand the force of the tempests, to which they are much exposed.
But some ships are so built in compartments, that should one part be shattered, the other portion remaining whole may accomplish the journey.

In temple of Jagannath at Puri, a sculpture shows oarsmen paddling with all their strength and water is thrown into waves. The boat is of the Madhyamandira type, as defined by King Bhoja in the “Yukti Kalpataru”.
One of the Ajanta paintings is is of “a sea-going vessel with high stem and stern with three oblong sails attached to as many upright masts. Each masts is surrounded by a truck and there is carried a big sail. The jib is well filled with wind. A sort of bowspirit, projecting from a kind of gallows on deck is indicated with the outflying jib, square in form,” like that of Columbus ships. The ship is of the Agramandira type, as described in the “Yukti kalpataru”.
Another painting is of a royal pleasure boat which is “like the heraldic lymphad, with painted eyes at stem and stern, a pillard canopy amid ships, and an umbrella forward the steersman being accommodated on a sort of ladder, which remotely suggest the steerman’s chair, in the modern Burmese row boats, while a rower is in the bows.” The barge is of the Madhyamandira type.

Temple of Borobudur in Java contains sculptures recalling the colonization of Java by Indians. One of the ships tells more plainly than words, the perils, which the Prince of Gujarat and his companions encountered on the long and difficult voyages from the west coast of India.

The world’s first tidal dock was built in Lothal around 2500 BC during the Harappan civilisation at Lothal near the present day Mangrol harbour on the Gujarat coast.
Ancient Indians were the first to use maritime instruments like Sextants (used to measure angles of elevation above the horizon) and the Mariners compass (known as the Matysa (Maccha) Yantra in Sanskrit).

Historian Strabo says that in the time of Alexander, the River Oxus was so easily navigable that Indian wares were conducted down it, to the Caspian and the Euxine sea, hence to the Mediteranean Sea, and finally to Rome. Greeks and Indians began to meet at the newly established sea ports, and finally all these activities culminated in Indian embassies, being sent to Rome, from several Indian States, for Augustus himself says that Indian embassies came frequently.
Abundant Roman coins from Augustus right down to Nero, have been found in India.

Indian Kingdoms of Kalinga, Vijayanagara, Chola, Pandya, Chera, Pallava etc established maritime trading relations with Islands in Indian and Pacific oceans.

Apart from these, the Greek-Persian wars, Punic wars between Greek and Carthage (Tunisian), and Egyptian navigation have history of maritime since many years.