India ’s maritime history predates the birth of western civilisation. The world’s first tidal dock is believed to have been built at Lothal around 2300 BC during Harappan Civilisation, near the present day Mangrol harbour on the Gujarat coast. The Rig Veda, written around 2000 BC, credits Varuna with knowledge of the ocean routes commonly used by ships and describes naval expeditions using hundred-oared ships to subdue other kingdoms. There is a reference to Plava, the side wings of vessel which gives stability under stormy conditions: perhaps the precursor of modern stabilisers. Similarly, the Atharva veda mentions boats which were spacious, well constructed and comfortable.
History records that Indian ships traded with countries as far as Java and Sumatra and available evidence indicates that they were also trading with other countries in the Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Between the fifth and tenth centuries AD, the Vijaynagaram and Kalinga kingdoms of southern and eastern India had established that their rule over Malaya, Sumatra and Western java. The Andaman and Nicobar islands then served as an important midway point for trade between the Indian peninsula and these kingdoms, as also with China.
In 1292 AD, Marco Polo described Indian ships as “...built of fir timber, having a sheath of boards laid over the planking in every part, caulked with oakum and fastened with iron nails. The bottoms were smeared with a preparation of quicklime and hemp, pounded together and mixed with oil from a certain tree which is a better material than pitch.
However, the Indian maritime power started declining in the thirteenth century and declined to a point that it almost disappeared when the Portugese arrived in India.
Indian maritime interests witnessed a remarkable resurgence in the late seventeenth century, when Siddis of Janjira allied with the Moghuls to become a major power on the West coast. This led to the Maratha King Shivaji creating his own fleet, commanded by able admirals like Sidhoji Gujar and later Kanhoji Angre. This Maratha fleet along with the legend of Kanhoji held sway over the entire Konkan coast, keeping the English, the Dutch and the Portuguese at bay. The death of Angre in 1729, left a vaccum in leadership and this resulted in the decline of the Indian sea power once again.
Despite the eclipse of the Indian kingdom with the advent of Western domination, Indian ship builders continued to hold their own well into the nineteenth century. Ships displacing 800 to 1000 tonns were built of teak at Daman, superior to their British counterparts both in design and durability. Many Indian ships were inducted into the Royal navy such as HMS Hindostan in 1795, the frigate Cornwallis in 1800, HMS Camel at 1806.