History of Indian Ships

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History of Indian Ships

By Shibu Dutta


In India, I think, there is not much attention given to water transport before Indus Valley era.  And even after that not much is known about any sea-venture in early periods.  One Japanese professor, while giving a talk on present politics of India said that India was, and still is, the monarch of the oceans. (Perhaps because Indian Ocean is named after it)



Collin Davies mentioned that there are no positive proofs of any Indian sea-venture before 700 BC.  But this is sure that Solomon received his ivory, gem-stones, peacocks, monkeys etc. from India.  It is said that some of the Jews either intentionally stayed back in South India or they were left behind to carry on the trade.  Tarshish was probably the merchant who brought these.


In 500 BC, according to Indian records as well Maha Vansha Chronicle of Sri Lanka, Aryan contact was made by one prince from Bengal called Vijayo.  He sailed from the port of Tamralipti, perhaps on the River Roopnarayan.  It is claimed in the chronicles that he named the newly discovered land as Tamba-Pani (copper hands) because of their hands turning to copper colour due to red sand.  In Roman Times Sri Lanka was known as Taprobane.


Roopnarayan has now silted up but is still a tidal river, a tributary of Hoogly (Ganga)  There are many fables about merchants (Chand Saudagar in Bengali) sailing on ships and driven off course and how one of the gods came to their rescue. 


These tales (kathas) are all over India connected with different gods, related to different regions.  But the Swedish Marine scholar, Bjorn Landstrom mentions of an incident in the Red Sea as recorded by Poseidonius (coming through Strabo) – that an Indian sailor was found on Red Sea  coast after a ship wreck.  He was sent to learn Greek by Euergetes the Second (146-117 BC).  After they could communicate he told them that he comes from India and no one believed him.  So he promised to take them to India.  He was familiar with the Monsoon Route.  The king sent Eudoxus to test this.  Hippalus was the pilot on board for Eudoxus, although the Indian was guiding them.  Europeans named the wind as Hippalus Wind.  Eudoxus returned ‘with a cargo of perfumes and precious stones but the king took the entire cargo’.


After the death of Euergetes, his wife Cleopatra sent him again on another expedition.


But it is Sir Mortimer Wheeler who definitely writes that as far back as in Indus Valley Era India used to export all sorts of goods, including timber, to Babylonia.  You might have heard that timber for the second temple of Solomon was form India.


I have some papers those talks about ships from Indus Valley.  Some scholars even mention that boats of Sindh still follow the same design as they used to have during the time of Alexander.  Dhaka has a museum showing the design of the Bengali boats, but they do not go back to 2000 BC. In a much later reference Ibn-e-Batuta also mentions about Indian Ship buildings saying that they used a resin from a tree that is a much better sealing agent than Tar.