There is also sufficient evidence of flourishing trade and maritime activities between the Mediterranean and the West Coast of India, nurtured during the Roman period. Thus millenniums before Columbus navigated the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had served as a dynamic thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic for Indian civilisation. Though early navigators of the seas belonged to all races, the inhabitants of mainland India, the Hindus (those who professed the Brahminical religion) had the predominant share, as they began sailing out into the open sea earlier than others. Indian navigators had, in the meantime already sailed across and discovered Socotra (Sukhadhara) long before1st century A.D. Maritime activities in ancient Indian civilisation prestigiously incorporated navigation by the Red Sea and had already began to use a magnetic needle known as 'Matsya Yantra' for determining direction. The work Merchants Treasure written in Cairo by Baylakal Kiljaki mentions the magnetic needle as being in use in the Indian Ocean. Further, Indians had developed enormous skill in building ocean-going ships of great strength and resilience.
Maritime activities, movement by sea under the elite ancient Indian civilisation saw the flowering of long distance trade across the Indian Ocean and exchange of ideas and cultures. During these centuries the Indian subcontinent was at the centre of maritime trade network, linking the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. South Asian mariners and merchants unified the local trade networks of Southeast Asia into a larger Indian Ocean economic world; in the process, the mariners facilitated the selective adoption of South Asian religions, cultural forms and technology by the people of Southeast Asia. Eastward movement of merchants from mainland India and mariners was marked by the dispersal of Indian culture and religion into Southeast Asia. The Bay of Bengal had also been mastered long before 1st century A.D. bears a firm confirmation that maritime activities had thrived in Indian civilisation in those years. The undoubted presence of prosperous Hindu colonies in Malaya, Sumatra, Java, Cambodia and even Annam (present day northern part of Vietnam) in the first century A.D. and the continuous communication with Indonesia which continental India maintained clearly illustrate that fact.
That peninsular India was maritime in its traditions and this fact is borne out by the writings of Fa Hien, a Chinese visitor to India between 400 A.D. and 410 A.D. He recorded that in the ship, which ferried him from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to Sri Vijaya, there were two hundred merchants, all of whom professed the Brahminical religion. The notion that Hindus had some kind of religious hostility to the sea, while it may have been true in respect of the people of north India in later centuries, was never factual in respect of the people of the South. Whatever is the case, maritime activities in ancient Indian civilisation had advanced to matured extents.
From at least the fifth century B.C. to fifth century A.D. naval supremacy in Bay of Bengal rested with the continental powers in India. First the Mauryas and then the Andhras were lords of the Eastern Seas. From the fifth century to the tenth, command of the Malacca Straits was in the hands of a great Indian naval power, based on Sumatra known in history as the Sri Vijaya Empire. This state included much of peninsular Malaya, Sumatra and the Western half of Java besides numerous island principalities. As times progressed, maritime activities in Indian civilisation began to take a rather scientific and conquering stance, paving way for the later significant Empires. Another Chinese traveller, Hiuen Tsang who visited India in 646 A.D. gave eyewitness accounts of the vast overseas trade during the Gupta period.
Till the end of the tenth century, i.e., for a period of almost 500 years, Sri Vijaya kings were the lords of the ocean. But in 1007, the Chola Emperor Rajendra Chola fitted out an authoritative navy and challenged the valour of Sri Vijaya. He not only defeated the opposing navy, but also captured Kedah and established the Chola power on the Malaya Peninsula. Maritime activities in Indian civilisation thus once again took a dramatic turn. Numerous inscriptions bear witness to this fact. Having created a base on the Eastern side of the sea and expanded their rule over the Peninsula, the Cholas carried on the war against the Sri Vijaya Kings in their own home waters. This naval rivalry lasted for practically 100 years. It weakened the Sri Vijaya power and opened the crucial way for Muslim supremacy in Indian waters.
Maritime activities and trade in ancient Indian civilisation was extended up to China, for which the country played a pivotal role being located on the sea routes. With the use of bi-annual monsoons, eastbound shipping from the Red Sea and Persian Gulf was obliged to make a stopover in south India or Sri Lanka.
Indian maritime activities during ancient civilisations curved into a substantial direction, when Vasco da Gama reached India in 1498 with the reported help of an Arab navigator Ahmed Ibn Majid al-Najdi. The significance of Vasco da Gama's entry into the Indian waters lies not in the navigational achievement, but in the policy of the Portuguese kings who looked upon the seas as their possession. It was Vasco da Gama's second voyage to India with twenty heavily armed ships, which harbingered the commencement of a commercial war on a global scale and colonisation of India from sea. It was also witness to the barbarous ness of the Portuguese when they were not given free and preferential trading rights by the Hindu rulers, the Zamorins of Calicut (present day Kozhikode).
Two sea battles played a key role in the maritime history of India. Maritime activities in Indian civilisation had come face to face with considerable drawbacks. The first was in 1503, off Cochin, when the Zamorin's Fleet (Calicut Navy) got the better of the Portuguese fleet under Vasco da Gama. They were however unable to pursue and destroy the Portuguese ships which drew back into high seas. This was because the Calicut Navy was more suited for coastal waters. The limitations of the local fleets were thus laid bare, to be later exploited by the Portuguese. The second sea battle and what is considered to have the most far-reaching consequences was the one off Diu. The Zamorin had joined hands with the Sultan of Egypt to meet the common threat of the Portuguese. The Sultan despatched a sizeable naval force in 1507 under Mir Hussain, an able Admiral. The Egyptian fleet under Admiral Hussain was joined by the Calicut (present day Kozhikode) fleet in taking on the Portuguese Fleet. There were copious engagements, but there was no decisive outcome. The final engagement took place on 3 February 1509 off Diu. The combined fleets stemmed the advance of the Portuguese fleet. However, when its shore support was cut off by the treachery of the governor of the Sultan of Cambay, the Egyptian fleet pulled back to Egypt. This was the last organised attempt by a naval fleet to vanquish the Portuguese and it left the seas off India and indeed the Indian Ocean open for Portuguese and other European colonisers.
The Calicut (present day Kozhikode) fleet continued to challenge the naval supremacy of the Portuguese in coastal waters for the next eighty years. This feat in relation to the Portuguese control of Indian seas is commanded by a remarkable family of Malabar Muslims who were the hereditary admirals of the Zamorin's fleet. The family of Calicut Admirals is known to history as Ali Marrakkars. Under the leadership of the Ali Marrakkars, Zamorin's fleet played a stupendous role by giving intrepid battle to the Portuguese for almost a century. Maritime activities in ancient Indian civilisation received illustrious historical presence, in the shape of the Marrakkars. During these long years of war with the Portuguese, this family produced a succession of four remarkable sea captains referred to as Kunjali I, II, III and IV. The four captains' prowess, enterprisingness, courage, navigational skill and persistence bear comparison with the great figures of naval warfare. The Portuguese were hugely harassed by Zamorin's fleet, commanded by the Kunjalis. This continued until the Zamorin joined hands with the Portuguese and handed over Kunjali IV to the Portuguese in Goa where he was executed.
Just like in any other historical accounts in Indian history, Mughal dynasty had sufficient to lend in the maritime activities in Indian civilisation, forever altering the course Indian flow of international waters. The early Mughal rulers in Delhi and Agra were aware of the importance of the seas. Emperor Akbar organised an Imperial Navy with the establishment of an office called 'Meer Bahri', which meant Admiralty or Navy Head Quarters (NHQ). Interestingly the functions of Akbar's NHQ were divided under four sections 'Material', 'Personnel', 'Internal Water-ways' and 'Customs'. Akbar used his navy either to destroy piracy or to subjugate rebellious chieftains. The Mughal navy in some form or the other continued more on the Bengal coast. The later Mughals however, did not manifestly appreciate the importance of sea power and concentrated on consolidating their power on land, thus paving the way for European dominance of India by sea. When the Europeans arrived, they interred the remains of local rulers and merchant fleets in a watery grave.
Maritime activities in erstwhile Indian civilisations also had witnessed heightened military seafaring during Shivaji's times. The Maratha navy was a dreaded force. Shivaji had almost 200 fighting ships of various sizes. But ten years after Shivaji's death the navy had shrivelled. His son Sambhaji carried on his father's mission, valiantly crusading the Mughals on land and the Portuguese at sea. After Sambhaji's death in 1690 it was left to Kanhoji Angre an admiral of outstanding ability who took over the Maratha fleet in 1699 to revive Maratha sea power. Angre also had to master the dispute in the naval power of his rivals along the west coast of India for the next thirty years. When Kanhoji Angre took over, he had many foes to contend with. These were the English based at Bombay, Portuguese at Goa, Sidis at Janjira, King Shahu of Satara, Dutch at Vengurla and the Savants of Wadi. Of these the first four were pretty formidable, but under Kanhoji Angre's intimidating presence, it was the English who suffered the most at his hands. The sons carried on after Kanhoji's death in 1729, but were unable to remain united against their rivals. Interestingly, the English earned command of the seas on the west coast one year before the decisive battle of Plassey in 1757, when they defeated the Maratha Navy by capturing their last stronghold of Fort Gheria on 13 February 1756.
At the end of seventeenth century, the Portuguese had hold over Goa and Timor and the Dutch held what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Indonesia, Malaya (now Malaysia) and the Indian ports of Nagapatnam and Cochin (now Kochi). The confirmed conquering of British over India, perhaps permanently altered Indian history in maritime activities and its adjacent civilisation. The British consolidated their hold over northern India and relatively minor ports on the southern shores of India. The French naval presence in the Indian Ocean can be traced back to the seventeenth century through the possessions of the French East India Company (Coompaignie des Indes Orientales) in the Indian Ocean and subcontinent. During the ensuing period, the rivalry between the French and Great Britain raised the importance of this maritime area. Indian Ocean became so closely connected with the European rivalry for predominance, that when European rivalries resulted in the gradual ascendancy of the British Empire, Indian Ocean came to be described as 'British Lake' and Great Britain as the 'colossus of the world'.
In the hands of the colossal and prolonged British domination, Indian administration and outlook had received a fresh and pioneering appearance. Encompassing both their good and bad deeds, British governance cut a new graph in seafaring and maritime activities in Indian civilisation. Modern day facilities and sophistication was what they had brought in, to make India together with Indian Ocean a foremost route in high seas.
(Last Updated on : 15-02-2012)
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