Dialogue  July-September  2007, Volume 9  No. 1


India’s Trade-Route Links with its Easter-Neighbours : A Historical Perspective

B.B. Kumar*

India, since the remotest past, was linked to its eastern neighbourhood through land and sea routes. The land routes passed through North-East India. The Silk Route linkages of Central Asia, China and Tibet passed through Western India and Kashmir. Tibet was linked to the North India also through Himalayan passes. The sea route links were through east coast ports—Tamralipti and others – on Bay of Bengal. The sea lanes from the western coast on Arabian Sea passed through Indian Ocean encircling Ceylon. We had not only the hectic trade, but cultural, historic and religious links also. In fact, India, East and South East Asia formed part of the same Cultural Continuum.

Land Routes and Trade through the North-East

The North-East India had trade links with Tibet and Burma through land routes. There was an ancient land route from Peshawar to Parvatipur (now in Bangladesh) passing through Vazirabad, Lahore, Jalandhar, Saharanpur, Lucknow, Tirhut and Katihar. It extended further to Assam1 from Parvatipur2. It mostly passed keeping Ganges to the south. A southern route from Lahore to Bhagalpur, through Raivind, Firozepur, Bhatinda, Delhi, Allahabad, Varanasi, and Patna, branched off to Ganga Sagar (Calcutta) from Patna. The route extended from Bhagalpur to Kajangal in Rajmahal and then to Calcutta.3 In fact, Gangasagar/Calcutta route went to the Bay of Bengal port of Tamralipti, which has numerous mention in our Classical literature. Another route branched off from this southern route to Kamarupa and Chinese traveler, Yauan Chuang met the emperor, Harsha Vardhana at Kajangal4, and they must have used the same route for traveling to that place from the Kamarupa. The two monarchs marched towards Kanauj with their armies from that place. Harsha Vardhana proceeded along the southern route and Bhaskara Varman followed the northern one.5 The route to Kamarupa extended upto the Yunnan province of China.6 Kamarupa formed an important part of this trade route. An alternative trade route from India to China passed through Chumbi valley in Sikkim and Tibet. The ancient silk route passed through the north and the north-west.

A proposal was made in the early part of the last century to open up Patkai trade route.7 That, however, could not materialize due to various reasons. That was, perhaps, to follow the ancient route linking Brahamputra valley to the South-East Asia and Yunnan province of China. One of the reasons of not restoring the ancient trade routes through Brahmaputra Valley towards the east was the higher cost of road construction. The interests of the British owned Steam-Navigation Companies operating in the rivers of Burma were supposed to be adversely affected by such land routes and their opposition certainly played crucial role in the decision.

An attempt was made during Second World war to link India to Burma/Myanmar and China through Brahamputra valley by constructing famous Stillwell Road. In fact, there is a fresh proposal to rebuild the road. The road from Arunachal Pradesh border in India to Myitkyina in Myanmar needs – about 180 kms – rebuilding. The road may be rebuilt and slightly extended to connect the country through North-East region to Kunming, the provincial capital Yunnan of China, through Myitkyina and Lashie in Myanmar. Myitkyna Kunming Road is highly developed. The latter is linked to Hongkong by an express highway. Connectivity of Lashio with South and Central Myanmar provinces bordering Laos, Thailand and Malaysia is Highly developed. The Governments of India and Myanmar have agreed to open Moreh (India) – Tamu (Myanmar), Champhai (Mizoram, India) – Hri (Myanmar) routes and border at Lungwa (in Nagaland, India) for border trade, under former’s ‘Look East Policy’. This will eventually lead to better road connectivity between India and East and South East Asia. Asian Railway project is also expected to be implemented soon bringing the countries nearer.

The Brahmputra valley was linked up with Burma/Myanmar through Manipur also. But, one or two routes linking the valley with Manipur were most difficult.8 This route was not an important one for border trade between Assam and Burma due to difficult terrain.

The human movement between India and Burma through Surma valley and Manipur started in the remote past. According to Sir. A phayre, “The route by which Kahatriya princes arrived (in Burma) is indicated in the traditions as being through Manipur…”9 According to Capt. Dum, “There can be no reasonable doubt that a great Aryan wave of very pure blood passed through Manipur into Burma in pre-historic times.”10 Johnstone has mentioned:

“In the days when the Indian branch of the Aryan race was still in its progressive and colonising stage, this district (Manipur) was repeatedly passed over by one wave after another of invaders intent on penetrating into the remotest part of Burma.”11

It may be mentioned that there were regular routes between Burma and India which were used by the traders, colonisers and the Buddhist Missionaries. D.G.E. Hall mentions about one such road linking Lower Burma and India via the bank of the Irrawady, the bank of the Chindwin and the Manipur.12 K.M. Pannikar has mentioned about another route through these hills to China.13 It is obvious that the existence of such land routes facilitated the trade between North-East India with Tibet and Burma on one hand and Bangladesh on the other. The land routes through Manipur continued to operate upto the present day. There were atleast three routes connecting Surma valley with the Manipur Valley and two connecting the latter with the Kabaw Valley in the Chindwin river valley in the present day Burma.14 There were many minor routes connecting Brahmaputra valley with Tibet which were used for the trade.

North-East India produced many items which were marketed outside the region. Mahabharata,15 Harshacharit,16 etc., mention about the products of Kamarupa. Silk clothes, ivory products, etc. from Kamarupa continued to be appreciated outside the region. Many items were imported from China, Tibet Burma through this region and exported outside India from this country. One of the routes of the import of Chinese clothes was through Yunnan and Assam,17 and the same was sent to the Bay of Bengal through Brahmaputra. It may be mentioned here that Brahmaputra was navigable from Gwalando in Bangladesh (the confluence of the Ganges and Brahmaputra) to Dibrugarh, and upto Sadiya during the floods.18 Cinnamon was exported from China, Tibet and Burma. The route of its import and of many other products was through Assam.

There were many minor trade-route linking the region with the foreign countries through which considerable trade was carried. Considerable trade was also carried between the villagers of both sides of the international border. Such trade, though illegal and called smuggling, still continues. The tribes inhabiting Indo-Tibet and Indo-Burma border had trade links with their neighbours across the border. Some of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh used to be expert traders. The Monpas, the Sherdukpens, the Boris, the Ramos, the Bokars, the Pailibos continued to have trade links with the Tibetans. The Boris used to visit Nayi Lube market in Tibet and barter their raw hides, and chillies for rock salt, woolen clothes, raw wool, Tibetan swords, Tibetan vessels, ear-rings and brass bangles. They used to barter salt, iron and utensils brought from Tibet with the other groups of the Adis.”19 The Bokars exchanged their surplus chillies, butter, hides, tamen (a creeper used for dyeing) for the cattle, sheep and goats, swords and woolen goods in the Tibetan markets.20 The Shimongs and Ashings used to carry their clothes to the Tibetan markets and exchanged them for salt, beads, etc.21

It may be pointed out that two principal trade routes, out of the several important ones in the Siang district, pass through the Bori and the Bokar countries to the Tibetan plateau.23 The Tibetans used to come down through the Kepung La Pass to the Ashing area of Arunachal Pradesh and further down upto Pasighat for exchanging the rock-salt, iron, hand-woven clothes, swords, musk, imitation turquoise necklaces, blue porcelain beads, yarn of different colours, snuff, China silver and wooden bowls and metal pots for mithuns, raw hides, deer horns, and white and red rice.24 These trading activities reportedly continued in large scale upto the sixth decade of this country, as reported by Sachin Roy.

Gait has reported about the hectic trade between the Assam and Bengal25 and also between Assam and Tibet.26 According to Gait, Rudra Singh “is said to have received the submission of all the hill tribes, and to have established an extensive trade with Tibet.”27 This clearly indicates that the border trade also depended on the law and order situation of the country concerned. The quantum of trade might have varied from time to time, but it continued uninterrupted on our northern border in the past. Mackenzie has also reported about the border trade with Tibet. He quotes from Hamilton’s description of the trade between Assam and Tibet based on the Pemberton’s Report.

“Tibetan caravans conducted by 20 persons used to come down annually to a mart of Chouna on the Assam border after two months journey from Lassa and conveyed silver bullion to the amount of about one lakh of rupees, and a considerable quantity of rock salt for sale to the Assam merchants at Geegunshur four miles away. The large quantities of rice brought by the merchants at the latter place were purchased and imported into Tibet from Assam by the Tibetan Merchants. Tussa silk cloth, iron and lac found in Assam, skins, buffalo horns, pearls, and corals, first imported from Bengal were traded by the Assamese merchants. The Tibetan merchants brought woolens, gold dust, salt, musk, horses, Chinese silk, etc. The annual fair was temporarily stopped due to Burmese occupation. Attempt was made to revive it in 1833. The fair was started at Udalguri later on.”28\

Marts are regularly held (daily, biweekly, weekly or annual) at the foot-hills-of the Himalayas throughout the country and also at the foot-hills bordering Bangladesh, Burma and Tibet. The border trade of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura was mostly carried through such marts. R.M. Nath has written about the trade of the Garos with Bangladesh:

“The Garos living in the areas bordering Goalpara, Mymensing and Rangpur districts as also the Garos of the interior came down to the plains to sell their cotton and chillies and purchase paddy, salt, cloth and other necessities; and rulers of the states exacted taxes from them. To deal with the Garos, each ruler used to appoint a Laskar¯at every pass of duar. Often times the fraudulent tactics of the merchants and the officers of the states, were retaliated by the Garos by chopping off their head which were sold at high premium in the hills¯the price varying according to the wealth and position of the merchant or the officer.”29

The Khasis and the Jaintiyas used to visit the marts of Bangladesh in the south and that of the Assam in the north. The Khasis used to visit the marts upto the central part of the Nowgong. Iron was manufactured in the hills and exported in the shape of hoes to the Assam valley and in lumps of pig iron to the Surma valley, where it was used for clamps by the boatbuilders. An estimated 20,000 maunds of iron were exported from the hills in 1853.30

The ancient trade routes and the marts played important roles in the internal and border trade in the North-East region. The discussion about them provides insights in the historical perspective. The importance of the trade routes and the marts for the people may be understood from the fact that the British authorities used to close down the trade routes and prevent the marauding tribes from attending the marts to force them to behave. Mackenzie has described such closures and the impacts of the same. He wrote:

“In April 1861 the dwars were closed to Naga traders by order of the Commissioner of Assam, in consequence of the murder of one Tonoo Cachari in the Geleki Dwar, used by the Namsang and the neighbouring clans. In the February following, the Nangota Abor Nagas, who were not known to us to be the guilty tribe, surrendered five of their number as those who had committed the murder. The surrender, it appeared, they made under pressure brought to bear on them by the Boree Nagas of Tabloong, Jaktoong, Kamsang, and Namsang, who being such distressed by the closure of the Dwars threatened to attack the Nangotas if they did not give up the offenders.”31

Mackenzie further observed:

“In November 1867 the Geleki guard-houses was again attacked at night …….. The Dwars were at any rate closed to trade; the out-posts strengthened; and neglected stockades hastily repaired. The stoppage of trade again proved a successful policy. The Tabloong, Namsang, and other Nagas who were carrying on a most profitable traffic with the tea gardens, which they could not afford to loss, speedily combined, and in a few months’ time they succeeded in tracing out the raiders, and arresting by force or strategy two of their leaders, who were delivered over to the British authorities for punishment. These men proved to belong to the Yungia Abor Nagas, a remote clan in the upper hills, who actuated by a love of plunder and a craving for skulls had led a stealthy war party through the trackless jungle to the plains below; and had, as they said attacked the police-station under the notion that it was a settlement of ryots ¯ a mistake not very creditable to the discipline of the post.”32   

The remarks made above underline the importance of trade including the border trade, which for the people of this region. Some points emerging from the above-mentioned facts, which need to be kept in mind, are:

        (i)    The North-East India was not the closed corner of the country; it had wider trade links. The region was linked up across the border through major and minor trade routes.

       (ii)    The region continued to have flourishing trade with the neighbouring countries.

      (iii)    The trade flourshed whenever the law and order situation was sound and suffered at the time of anarchy.

      (iv)    The quantum of illegal border trade now is almost the same as that of the legal trade with its neighbours; the border trade potential is really very high.

The partition of India created unnatural border and the age-old trade ties with the part of Bengal called East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) were snapped. The trade with Tibet received severe jolt after the occupation of Tibet by China, and specially after the Indo-Chinese border conflict in 1962. Situation on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar border remained fluid. The border trade highly decreased after independence of India, and specially after the sixth decade of the 19th century. The situation further aggravated due to the lack of roads and the speedier modes of communication. The costs of bringing in the locally needed items, and that of exporting the local produce became prohibitively high. The production of many agricultural and horticultural items, such as, potato, orange, pineapple, ginger, and other perishable products in the southern border areas of Meghalaya, became non-economic. The people suffered. In this background, the steps envisaged by the Central Government to facilitate trade with Bangladesh and Bhutan generate optimism. The border trade with Tibet and Myanmar should also be encouraged.

The economy of the border areas is always of supplementary and complementary nature and this aspect of economy should always be kept in mind while promoting the border trade. Only such border trade shall make the economy healthy. Appropriate steps should, however, be taken to prevent the flow of narcotics and the arms between the neighbours. The trade of the items produced in the third country, such as, the Korea and Japan, should also be discouraged in this case.

Sea Linkages and the Status of Indian Shipping

Indian cultural, religious, historical and trade links with its neighbours since remotest past through sea-routes is a well-known phenomenon. Navigation, and the related words, such as ‘navigate’, ‘navigator’, naval’, “nautical’, are related to Sanskrita, ‘nava‘, f. RigVedic, ‘nau-’ , and similar words in a large number of Indian languages for boat.33 ‘Navika-‘ (Sanskrit, m.; Pali, ‘navika-’ m.; Prakrita, ‘navia-’, m.; Hindi, Navika) is sailor, helmsman.34 Scrt naus, GK. naus, Lat nav-(em), navos, and old Norse nor for ship are also related words.35 Navya (Rigveda, f.) is navigable stream, stream; in Pali, nava, f., is canal.36 Navvy, abbreviated from navigator, sailor, was the name formerly given to workmen engaged on making canals or ‘navigation’, i.e. of passages that could be navigated.37 According to eminent historian, Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerjee, “that art of navigation was born in river Sindh 6000 years ago. The very word navigation is derived from Sanskrit word Non (Nav-ship) Gaith.38 The ship-building in India was in the advanced state. Sir John Malcolm wrote: “Indian vessels - so admirably adapted to the purpose for which they are required that, notwithstanding their superior science, Europeans were unable during an intercourse with India for two centuries to suggest or to bring into successful practice one improvement.”39

Dr. Robert Heine Geldern and Dr. Gordon F. Ekholm, in the Civilisations of Ancient America (1951) have stated:

“Ships of size that carried Fahien from India to China (through stormy China water) were certainly capable of proceeding all the way to Maxico and Peru by crossing the Pacific. One thousand years before the birth of Columbus Indian ships were far superior to any made in Europe upto the 18 century.”40

He further writes:

“There appears to be little doubt but that ship building and navigation were sufficiently advanced in southern and eastern Asia at the period in question to have made trans-Pacific voyages possible.... In the third century, horses were exported from India to the Malay Peninsula and Indo-China, an indication that there must have been ships of considerable size.... When the Chinese Buddhist scholar Fahien returned from India around A.D. 400 he embarked on a ship which carried more than two hundered sailors and merchants and which therefore must have been larger than the ships of Columbus and early Spanish explorers. This ship sailed directly across the ocean from Ceylon to Java.41 Many European travellers have written about Indian shipping. They include Marco Polo (1254-1324 A.D.), Niccolo dei Conti (1395-1469 A.D.), and Lodovico de Varthema (1470-1510). The latter two were Italians. Niclo dei Conti records that India built some ships ‘larger than ours’. The ships used to have five sails and five masts each capable of containing 2,000 butts. The capacity of some of the ships were about 60,000 cubic feet. The bottom was constructed with three layers of planks to enable them to resist the onslaughts of cyclonic weather, and some ships had compartments built in the such manner that the voyage was possible even after a part was shattered.42 Lodovico de Varthema has described Calicut as a flourishing ship-building centre.43 There were large number of ship-building centres in Bengal.44

There are numerous references of the ships and the voyages in the Vedic texts, epics, and other texts. There is description of a strongly constructed vessel, called plava in RigVeda. It is said to withstand the battering of storms and having wings.45 The wings, according to Sridharan, were perhaps some sort of archaic stabilizers.46 There is mention in a passage that merchants journeyed across the ocean to distant countries in pursuit of wealth.47 In a prayer for prosperity in the lands across the seas to god Agni in the Rig Veda, it is said: ‘O Lord, take us in a ship across the oceans for our well-being.48 God Varuna is credited with the knowledge of the sea-routes followed.49 According to another reference, Varuna and Vasishtha sailed to mid-ocean in a well-rigged ship.50A naval expedition was sent out by the Rishi-King Turga under the command of his son Bhujyu; the ship wrecked in a storm, and King Tugra and some of his followers were riscued by the Ashvini Kumaras in their hundred oared (shataritra) galleys.51 Rig Veda also mentions about the Rishis of the two seas.52 Nau-manda, refered in Satapatha Brahmana, denotes two rudders of a ship.53

Ramayana mentions about five hundred well-built ships with swastika signs, flags, displaying full sails and fitted with large gongs.54 Sugriva instructs his monkeys to go to the islands of the sea55 and in the land of the Koshakaras56 in search of Sita. Koshakaras’ land is interpreted to be China.57 A boat fitted with some mechanical device (yanlra-yuktam} and flags; and strong enough to stand storms and waves (sarva-vata-saham) is mentioned in the Mahabharata.58 Maritime navigation is also refered in the Baudhayana Dharmasutra,59 Deegha Nikaya mentions the use of birds by mariners to ascertain direction of land during sea-voyage.60 Mahabharata also mentions about Sahadeva going to many islands to bring the subjects from there.61 There is a reference with admiration in the Varaha-Purana.62 of the merchants who sailed fast far into the shoreless, deep and fearful waters of ocean in search of valuable pearls Panini, in. Ashtadhyayi, refers to both coastal island cargoes (dvaipya)63 and mid-ocean island cargoes (dvaipa, dvaipaka)64 The ship building activities and looking after ocean navigation and inland river transport was entrusted to the superintendent of ships Navadhyaksha during Maurya period”.65

Yuktikalpataru was written by King Bhoja of Dhar in Malwa. It offers an elaborate and analytical treatise of ship-building in ancient India.66 It gives an account of four kinds of wood according to Vriksha Ayurveda (Botany). Those are light and soft, light and hard, soft and heavy, and hard and heavy. The properties of two different kinds are blended in Dvijati class. The ships made of the second class of wood bring wealth and happiness; it may be safely used for crossing the sea and bring happiness. It cautions against the use of different classes of wood or the use of iron for ship-building. It recommends painting four masted ship white, three masted red, two masted yellow and single masted blue.67 Two categories of ships are grouped as Samanya (ordinary; used for inland river traffic) and Vishesha (special; used for ocean-going). The dimensions and the capacities of the ships vary. The length, breadth and height of each kind of ship is given in ‘cubits.68 Each cubit equals 1.5 feet. Radhakumud Mukerjee has given the dimensions of different kinds of ships in feet.

Ten varities of the samanya category of ship are: kshudra (24’x6’x6'); madhyama (36’xl8’xl2'), bhima (60’x30’x3(T), capala (72’x36’x36'), patala (96’x48’x48'), bhaya (108’x54’x54'), dirgha (132’x66’x66'), patraputa (144’x72’x72'), garbhara (168’x84’x84'), and manthara (180’x90’x9CT). Vishesha category of ocean-going ships are classified into dirgha and unnaia. Dirgha class of the ships have ten types: dirghika (48’x6’x4.8'), tarani (72’x9’x7.2'), lola (96’xl2’x9.6'), gatvara (120’xl5’xl2’), gamin(144’x18’x14.1’), tari (168’x21’xl6.8'), janghala (192’x24’xl9.2'), plavini (216’x27’x21.6') dharini (240’x30’x24'), and vegini (264’x33’x26.4'). Five varities of unnata type of ships are urdhva (48’x24’x24;), anurdhva (72’x36’x36'), svarnamukhi (96’x48’x48'), garbhini (120’x60’x60') and manthara (144’x72’x72').69 Bhima, bhaya and garbhara ships of samanya category are unsafe for navigation because their dimensions do not allow them to keep steady and well balanced on water. Dirghika and tarani of dirgha category, likewise, bring good-luck and the others bring ill luck. Likewise, anurdhva, garbhini and manthara ships of the last category bring mis-fortune.70 The deck-housed ships were classified into sarvamandira, madhyamandira and agramandira depending on the construction of cabins.71 The ships of enormous sizes were used in the past, as we find from the literary sources. The ship of prince Vijayasimha carried 700 men. Eight hundred persons of the party of his bride travelled in a ship, as mentioned in the Pali chronicle, Mahavamsa72 As mentioned in the Samudda-vanija-jataka, one thousand carpenters of a village, failing to deliver goods for which they were paid in advanced, built a ship secretly and set sail for an island overseas.73 Janaka_Jataka mentions about a ship-reck of seven hundred passengers.74 In Sankha jataka, there is mention of a huge ship75

Decoration of the Indian vessels with sheets of gold, silver, copper and their alloys was done.76 However, the use of iron was avoided to avoid danger due to magnetic attraction. Jinadatta Suri in his Kalasvarupakulakama mentions the legend of magnetic rock and says that a ship riveted with iron is attracted by loadstone, breaks, sinks and cannot cross the sea. On the contrary, a ship without iron crosses deep sea in strong wind; bring profit and prosperity.77A ship used in successful sea voyage is described being “without iron” (nilloham) in Bhavisyattakaha.78 As iron, though known in India, was not used, planks of the hull were joined by stitching. The tennon and groove system of joining planks horizontally can be seen in the vessels painted at Ajanta.79 Stitching with palm-fibre or with cord of jute or coir dipped in cashew-nut pitch was also done.80 In the fish-joinery technique, wedge-shaped pieces of wood were inserted in the joints of the planks. It can be seen in the scuptural representation of a boat carrying three ascetics on the eastern gateway of Sanchi Stupa No.I.81 Here, It needs mention that the ships are depicted in the paintings elsewhere also, as is found in the Ajanta caves,82 Borobudur,83 Harappan sites,84 Moahnjo-daro85 Bharhut sculptures86 and Andhra coins.87

The stitched hulls, according to some Arab writers, are pliant and resilient, and are less easily broken than nailed ships in case of their striking any reef.88 But the danger of sinking was there due to entry of water through leakage;89 and proper arrangements were made to prevent the same. The chief sailor examined all the joinings and caulked even small holes before starting the journey.90 Acarangsutra mentions about the emergency blocking of the holes.91 More regular practice of caulking is mentioned in Tilakamanjari.92 Sailors were appointed with specific duty to pour out water93 and to plug holes.94

The mariner’s compass was known to the Indians.95 Foreigners also reported the fact.96 The sailers used their knowledge of the areas visited97 and that of the astronomical knowledge.98 Indians had the knowledge of the trade winds. Avashyakacurni99 informs about sixteen types of winds, including the twelve types of the same mentioned in Abu Hanifa Dainuri’s book on nautical science.100

It was necessary for a pilot to learn Niryamakasutra for handling ships at Sopara, acording to Jatakamala.101 Practical training was given to the sailors, according to Tilakamanjari102 Tilakamanjari has the story of Taraka, who was made chief of the sailors by Chandraketu. Perhaps he received practical training under the latter. Taraka, very soon, learnt the complete art of shipping (naupracaravidya); knew the duties of helmsman. He repeatedly sailed in deep waters, visited dvipantara, saw even small waterways, carefully observed rough and smooth places, and thus properly practised the works of sailing the ship.103 For becoming successful sailors, the sons of chief navigators received education of nautical sciences.104 The sailors also learnt medicine/chemistry.105 The information about sea voyages is scattered in Indian literature. The manuscript of the work Navashastrama (called Kappala in one case) is found in the library of the old college of Fort St. George (Madras)106 The copy of the Niryamaka sutra however, is not available presently.107

Escavations at Lothal in Gujarat have unearthed the dock, measuring 710' length, 120" width and 23-ffot opening in one side, capable of handling sea and river navigation. It was situated near Arabian sea once. According to S.R. Rao, the skill and technical knowledge displayed in the construction of the dock ‘presupposes a sound knowledge of hydrography and maritime engineering.108 It is reported that Indian coasts were studded with harbours from which merchant vessels sailed to Persia, Arabia, Africa and Red Sea ports.109 Indian navigational links with South-East Asia are well-known. The author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea mentions two kinds of ships; sangara, the coastal vessels, and the colaindia, bulky and strong sea-going vassel, used for trade with Malcca, and perhaps also with China.110 Megasthenes and pliny has written about the ship-building in Maurya period.111 Andhra —Satavahana, Chola-Pandya and Gupta kings also encouraged oversea trade;112 through numerous Indian ports.113 A naval department was maintained during Akbar’s time114 Measures were taken by Shaista Khan, Aurangzeb’s Governor in Bengal to strengthen naval force to quell Arakanese and Portuguese piracy.115 There were about 500 ships in Shivaji’s fleet.116

Indian literature is full of the references of the sea voyages and oversea-trade. Apart from the books refered above, the information about shipping/navigation and the references of the traders and sailors is scattered in the jatakas (such as Bayeru Jataka, Mahajanaka, Sankha Jatakaj, etc). avadanas, Jain texts, Katha Saritasagara, Tamil texts, Paddinappalai and Manimekhalai Simhalavadana, Rajavalliya, Brihatkathashlokasangraha, Samaraiccakaha, Mihndapanho, Upamitibhavaprapancakatha, Brihatkathakosha, Kathakosha, Bhavishyattakaha, Navadhammakaha, etc. Bhavisyattakaha117 and Tilakamanjari118 provide very detailed and graphic description of the sea-voyage. Avadanakalpalata of Kshemendra describes the unlimited zeal of the sailors.119 Varahamihira describers sea and its riches in glowing terms.120

The worship and special ceremonies and rites related to sea voyage are described in many books.121 Among lexicons, Deshinamamala, Ahhdhanaratnamala and Vaijayanti provide important information. We find Deshi terms for the ship in the first one. The second book provides terms related to sea, shore, waves, tide, and acquatic animals.122 Vaijayanti provides terms for different categories of ships, its parts classes of passengers and sailors.123 Terms for varieties of ships and its parts are given in Varnaratnakara.124 Books are also available which provide terms related to shipping/ships in other languages.125

Texts like Tilakamanjari, Nayadhammakaha and Jatakas list the essentials carried during voyages. In case of shipwreck, survivers used to take as much ghee and sugar as was possible to digest and used to cover their bodies and garments with oil for protection. They used to place a flag on the tree-top and burn fire so that to attract attention of the passing ships and get rescued.

It is evident from the above-mentioned write-up that the status of Indian shipping was very high. Scholars like Dr. Robert Heine Geldern, Dr. Ekholm and Chaman Lai firmly believed Indo-American links centuries before Collumbus.126 But there was marked decline during medieval period in this field. The reasons are not difficult to find. Al-Beruni has described the ruinous effects of Mahmood’s raids on India. He looted immense wealth and ruined our heritage. The Indians “became like atoms of dust and their sciences retired far away from the conquered areas to distant Kashmir and Benares other places.” The second holocaust two centuries later initiated the worst process of intellectual, social and economic pauperization. Bakhtiyar Khilji, not only plundered the country and captured political power, but also destroyed our great institutions of learning. Universities like Nalanda, Vikramshila, were attacked and destroyed; our libraries were burnt. India became knowledge-starved and inward-looking. The sea trade became less protected and the piracy increased tremendously. This happened due to increased internal wars and instability. This resulted into tabooing of the sea voyage, and journey in the certain regions. Manu prohibits inviting Brahmins undertaking sea voyages to religious feasts being not fit to carry out religious functions.127 Sea voyage is treated as one of the five reprehensible practices according to Baudhayana Dharmasutra.128 It is a prohibition only during Kali-age (Kalivarjya), according to Hemadri.129 This suggests the prohibition to be of later origin. The taboo was against the Brahmins according to Kane130 and that against dvija according to Vyavaharamayukha.131. Apastamba132 and Vasishtha133 advise avoiding contact with the barbarians.


     1.   Dr. Motichandra, Sarthavaha, p. 12; Patna, 1953.

     2.   Ibid.

     3.   Ibid.

     4.   Vasu, N.N., Social History of Kamarupa, vol. I, p.151.

     5.   Ibid.

     6.   Motichandra, op. cit., p. 127.

     7.   Mackenzie, A., The North-East Frontier of India, Reprint, Delhi, 1981, p. 64.

     8.   Singh, R.K. Jhaljit, A Short History of Manipur, Imphal, 1965; p. 3.

     9.   Phayre, A. Histroy of Burma, p. 3.

   10.   Dun, Gazetteer of Manipur, p. 6, foot-note.

   11.   Johnstone, James, My Experience in Manipur and Naga Hills, p. 280.

   12.   Hall, D.G.E., History of South-East Asia, p. 121.

   13.   Panikar, K.M., India and China, p. 17.

   14.   Singh, R.K. Jhaljit, op. cit., p. 3.

   15.   Maha.

   16.   Agarwal, Dr. Vasudevasharn, Harsh Charit: Ek Samskritik Adhyayan, pp. 170-72.

   17.   Motichandra, op. cit., p. 127.

   18.   Ibid., p. 12.

   19.   Ibid., p. 127.

   20.   Roy, Sachin, Aspects of Padam Minyong Culture, p. 32.

   21.   Ibid., pp.32-33.

   22.   Ibid., p.33.

   23.   Ibid., p.32.

   24.   Ibid., p.33.

   25.   Gait, Edward, A History of Assam, Reprint, Guwahati, 1994, p. 285.

   26.   Ibid., p.171.

   27.   Ibid.

   28.   Mackenzie, op. cit., p. 15.

   29.   Nath, R.M., The Background of Assamese Culture, p. 111.

   30.   Gurdon, P.R.T., The Khasis, Reprint, Delhi, 1990, p. 58.

   31.   Mackenzie, op. cit., p. 97.

   32.   Ibid., pp. 97-98.

   33.   Turner, R.L., A Comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages] London, O.U.P., 1973; entry no. 7081 on p. 406.

   34.   Ibid, entry no. 7082, p. 406.

   35.   Wyld, Henry Cecil, Universal English Dictionary, p. 765.

   36.   Turner, op. cit. P. 406.

   37.   Wyld, op. cit., p. 765.

   38.   Chaman Lai, India Mother of Us All, P. 48.

   39.   Chaman Lai, op. cit., p. 48; quoted from Journal of Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. I.

   40.   Ibid, p.49.

   41.   Ibid.

   42.   Mamta Chaudhury, Ship Building in Ancient and Medieval India in The Cultural Heritage of India, Calcutta, The Ramakrishna Mission, 1991, p. 203; quoted from R.H. Major: India in the Fifteenth Century, II (Hakluyt Society, London), pp. 10, 21 and 27.

   43.   11. Ibid, quoted from Travels of Varthema, ed. G.P. Badger (Hekluyt Society, London), pp. 152ff.

   44.   The Cultural Heritage of India, p. 203.

   45.   13. Rig Veda, 1.24, 35-36.

   46.   Sridharan, K., A Maritime History of India, Government of India, Publication Division, Delhi, 1965; p. 10.

   47.   Rig Veda, 1.48.3,

   48.   Ibid, 1.97.8.

   49.   Ibid, 1.25.7

   50.   Ibid, VII.88.3-4.

   51.   Ibid, 1.116.3.

   52.   Ibid x. 136.5.

   53.   Satapatha Brahmana, II.3.3.15.

   54.   Valmiki’s Ramayana, 11.89; 11.16.

   55.   Ibid, IV.40.25.

   56.   Ibid, IV.40.23.

   57.   Mukerjee, Radha Kumud, Indian Shipping, Longman’s Green & Co. Bombay, 1919; p. 55-56; quoted in Cultural Heritage of India, p. 198.

   58.   Mahabharatai 1.143.5-7,

   59.   Baudhayana Dharmasutra, 1.2.4; II.2.2.

   60.   Deegha Nikaya, 1.222.

   61.   Mahabharata, II..28.44, 46.

   62.   Lallanji Gopal, Indian Shipping in Early Mediaeval Period, quoted in India’s Contribution to World Thought and Culture, Dr. Lokesh Chandra & others (ed.); p. 115.

    63   Ashtadhyayi,4.3.10

   64.   Ibid, VI 3.58.

   65.   Kautilya’s Artha Shastra, II.28.

   66.   The manuscript was available in Calcutta Sanskrit College Library.

   67.   Yuktikalpataru, Pandita Ishvara Chandra Sastri (ed.), Calcutta, 1917; quoted in Cultural Heritage of India on p. 201.

   68.   Ibid.

   69.   Radhakumud Mukerjee, op. cit., pp. 22-24.

   70.   Ibid.

   71.   Chaman Lai, op. cit., p. 52.

   72.   Cultural Heritage of India, p. 200.

   73.   Ibid.

   74.   Chaman Lai, op. cit., p. 53.

   75.   Ibid.

   76.   Mamata Chaudhury, op. cit., p. 201.

   77.   Lallanji Gopal, op. cit., p. 109.

   78.   Ibid,

   79.   S.R. Rao, Shipping in Ancient India, in India’s Contribution to World Thought and Culture, p. 97.

   80.   Ibid, p. 97-98.

   81.   Ibid, p. 98.

   82.   Three masted ships are seen in Ajanta murals.

   83.   In Borobudur sculptures multi-masted ships are seen.

   84.   Ship engraved on a postherd was found at Dhulia.

   85.   Seal engravings and terracotta amulet from Mohenjodaro have ships with cabins.

   86.   Steering oars of the ships depicted in Bharhut sculptures might have served as rudders.

   87.   Andhra coins are found to have depiction of steering oars of the ships.

   88.   G.P. Hourani, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in the Ancient and Early Medieval times; p. 90.

   89.   Dohakosh, XIV. 87.

   90.   Lallanji Gopal, op. cit., p. 109.

   91.   II.

   92.   Lallanji Gopal, op. cit., p. 109.

   92.   Ibid.

   94.   Ibid.

   95.   Moti Chandra, Sarthavaha, Patna, 1953, pp. 147, 209; R.K. Mookerjee, op. cit, pp. 47-48.

   96.   Vide Jacques de Vitry, History of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, quoted by Lallanji Gopal, op. cit., p. 112.

   97.   Lallanji Gopal, op. cit., p. 112

   98.   Ibid. p. 116.

   99.   Ibid, p. 111.

100.   Ibid.

101.   The manuscript of the book is not available.

102.   Tilakamanjari, pp. 129-30.

103.   Ibid, p. 144.

104.   Lallanji Gopal, op. cit., p. 116.

105.   Bhavisyatakaha, VII. 1.84-85.

106.   Vide ‘A Catelogue Raisonee of Oriental MSS in the Library of the Late College of Fort St. George, Madrass.

107.   India lost a vast treasure of books during post-Bakhtiyar Muslim invasion.

108.   S.R. Rao, Further Escavations in Lothal, Lalit Kala, No. II, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, April 1962, p. 17.

109.   Periplus of the Erithrean Sea; Wilfred H. Schoff, Calcutta, 1912; p. 46.

110.   Ibid, p. 243.

111.   Mookerjee R.K., Op. cit., pp. 102-3.

112.   S.R. Rao, Shipping in Ancient India, in India’s Contribution to World Thought and Culture,

113.   Ibid, pp. 92-97.

114.   Ain-i-Akbari

115.   Mamata Chaudhury, op. cit., p. 203.

116.   Ibid, p. 204.

117.   Quoted by Lallanji Gopal, op. cit., p. 115.

118.   Ibid.

119.   Avadanakalpalata, IV. 2.

120.   Varahamihira, Brihatsmahita, Agastyacara, XII. 2-6.

121.   Tilakamanjari describes the worship of God Ratnakara (ocean) before undertaking the voyage. Bhavisyattakaha informs about the rites performed while floating a ship. The merchants, before boarding the ship used to offer homage to the ocean, bow down to the gods and elders and give alms to the poor, as mentioned in Samaraiccakaha. Brihatkathakosha and Upamitibhavaprapancapatha inform about auspicious rites performed and preparations made before sailing. The start of the journey, after puja, blessings of the family members and the relatives, and the blessings of the sooth-sayer, used to be the most joyous occasion for all including the crew and the passengers, according to Nayadhammakaha.

122.   Adhidhanaratnamala, III. 625-660.

123.   Vaijayanti, II. 29-39.

124.   Lallanji Gopal, op. cit., p. 115.

125.   Terms used in early Bengali literature are given in T. Dasgupta’s Aspects of Bengali Society, p. 17.

126.   Chaman Lal, op. cit., pp. 75-92.

127.   Manu Smriti, III. 158.

128.   Baudhayana Dharmasutra, II. 1.51.

129.   Quoted by Lallanji Gopal, op. cit., p. 114.

130.   Ibid.

131.   Quoted by Kane; History of Dharma Shastra, III, p. 936.

132.   Apastamba, I. 32.

133.   Vasishtha Smriti, VI. 41.


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