Excellence in Ship Building and International Trade in Hindu India

The indigenous ship building industry in pristine India commanded great respect, awe
and admiration across the world. Sea trade in India was not confined to inland use but Indians were masters of the sea borne trade of Europe. Hindu excellence in science, arts and technology and in every branch of civilization is the gift of Varnashram Dharma that leads to the attainment of Chaturbarga.

1. Indian Excellence an Accident–a super-sapient British writer thus unburdens the
load of his stifling and soul-killing wisdom– The world’s first tidal dock was built at
Lothal, in present day Gujarat, around 2300 BC, during the Harappan civilization. Indian-
built ships outclassed their British counterparts even when India was under the rule of Britain. HMS Trincomalee, the 1,065 tonne man-of- war launched on 19 October 1817, was one of 355 vessels constructed by the Wadia master builders between 1736 and 1886, and is reputed to be the oldest ship afloat today, renamed HMS Foudroyant. Besides, the
Bombay Dock, completed in July 1735, is in use even today.

Yukti Kalpataru, a Sanskrit manuscript compilation by Bhoja Narapati, manuscript is now in the Calcutta Sanskrit College Library, is something like a treatise, on the art of shipbuilding in Ancient India.

There was a time, when Indians were the masters of the sea borne trade of Europe, Asia
and Africa. They built ships, navigated the sea, and held in their hands all the threads of
international commerce, whether carried on overland or sea. In the last 5000 years India
was having lot of trade through seas. Ancient Indians were having commercial relations with several countries across the Bay of Bengal like Cambodia, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and even up to China. Similar maritime and trade relations existed with countries across the Arabian Sea like Arabia, Egypt and Persia.

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 (ca. 2300 BCE).

There are many references in the Buddhist literature to show that people of ancient India, were interested in maritime activities, sailing on the ocean continuously for six-months with the direction showing-birds (crow) during the time of Buddha. Theragatha speaks of merchants sailing on the sea with the hope of earning wealth. Sea-farers from Varanasi, Videha and Champa (Bhagalpur) were sailing to foreign lands like Suvannadipa (Sunarnadwipa) and Tamba panni (Tamra parni) perhaps.

A grueling nine-year-long international archaeological expedition in Egypt, has
unearthed the most extensive evidence so far, of vigorous trade between India and the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. The project funded by Dutch and American agencies, at Berenike, on the Sudan-Egypt border along the shores of the Red Sea, has revealed that the location was the southern-most, military sea port of the Roman Empire in the first century A.D. and the key transfer point for a flourishing trade with India.

Duarte Barbosa (Portuguese) writer traveller refers to the ships from Cambay that
he saw in 1514 at Aden: “And these ships of Cambay are so many and so large, and with so much merchandise, that it is a terrible thing to think of so great an expenditure of cotton stuffs as they bring.” In modern times we are not much aware about Cambay and in modern history it is not referred. It seems it has been kept hidden with a purpose of keeping our great economic past concealed from the world. Cambay was one of the biggest and busiest ports of the world till 18th century in Gujarat.

In the reign of Akbar, according to the “Ain-e-Akbari,” 40,000 vessels were engaged in the commerce of the Indus alone.From ancient times to 19th century, India was building heavy-weight /tonnage ships. The British passed an Act curbing the Indians not to build a ship beyond certain tonnage thus killing the “shipbuilding activities” of India. As Barbosa have been quoted earlier Indian ships were great in number and also very big in sizes. Nicolo Conti also wrote in 15th century that Indian ships were of the size of 2000 tones. On the other side the biggest ships of England and Europe were of 500 tons even in the 18th century.

2. Ship building in Ancient India (i) The ancient shipbuilders of India had a good knowledge of the materials as well as the varieties and properties of wood which went
to the making of ships. According to the Vriksha-Ayurveda  or the science of plant life, four different kinds of wood are to be distinguished, namely the Brahman, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya and the Sudra, while there may also be distinguished wood of the mixed classes in which are blended properties of two separate classes. The Yuktikalpataru
quotes Bhoja an earlier authority on ship-building, according to whom, “A ship built of the Kshatriya class of wood – light and hard, but incapable of being joined to other classes – brings wealth and happiness and should be used where passage is difficult owing to the vastness of the water to be crossed.Ships, which are made of timbers of different classes, possessing contrary properties, are neither good nor comfortable. They soon rot in water, do not last for a long time and are liable to split.”

(ii) The Yukti-Kalpataru also gives an elaborate classification of ships based on their
size. The primary division is into two classes :–
Samanya or ships that are used in ordinary river traffic and Visesa comprising only sea going vessels. Ten different kinds of vessels are enumerated under the ordinary class, each differing in length, depth and height. The largest of these is the Manthard
which is 120 cubits long, 60 cubits broad and has a depth or height of 60 cubits.
Of the special for sea going class there are two sub classes :- Dirgha and Unnata .

There are ten varieties of the Dirgha class and five of the Unnata class. The most convenient of the Dirgha class is the Begini  which is 176 cubits long 22 cubits broad, and has a height of nearly 18 cubits. Of the Unnata class the one “which brings much profit to
kings” is the Urdhaba  which is 32 cubits long 16 cubits broad and 16 cubits high.


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