Naval Warfare in ancient India


Senior Member
Mar 28, 2009
Naval Warfare in ancient India

By Prithwis Chandra Chakravarti
The Indian Historical Quarterly

India has an extensive sea-board, being bounced on three sides of her borders by the sea. She has a net-work of large and navigable rivers, free from the freezing effects of a severely cold climate. She has also a wealth of forests, abounding in strong timber which might be readily utilised for the construction of ships and boats. These natural advantages--coupled with the steadiness in the direction of the monsoons over the Indian Ocean and China sea--aided the Hindus to acquire that nautical skill and enterprise for which they were justly famous in the ancient world.

The history of Indian shipping and maritime activities goes back probably to the early times of the Rgveda (I, 48, 3 and I, 116, 5). The Jatakas, the Greek and Roman authors, the early Tamil poems as well as a host of archaeological discoveries in India and abroad--all go to prove that long before the birth of Christ the Hindus had acquired a fair knowledge of the art of navigation and that they plied their boats not only on the inland rivers but also on the high seas. There were ports and harbours all along the coast-line, such as Tamralipti,Kaviri-pattanam, Bharukaccha and Surparaka; and it was practicable to attain to any of them starting from up the Ganges, not only from Campa (Bhagalpur)but even from Benares. The Samudda-vanija Jataka (iv.159) relates how a settlement of wood-workers, failing to carry out the orders for which pre-payment had been made, made a 'mighty ship' secretly, and emigrated with their families, shipping down the Ganges, by night, and so out to the sea, till they reached a fertile island. The Mahajanaka Jataka (vi,34) tells us that prince Mahajanaka set out for Suvannabhumi from Campa. And according to the Vinaya(iii, 338) Mahinda travelled by water from Patna to Taimalitti, and to Ceylon. Not only were coasting voyages round India frequent, but distant over-sea journeys were also carried out with equal boldness and alacrity. The Baveru-Jataka indicates "that the Vanijas of Western India undertook trading voyages to the shores of the Persian Gulf and of its rivers in the 5th, perhaps even in the 6th century B.C. just as in our own days." The author of the Periplus of the Erytlhraean Sea saw Hindu merchants settled down in the desert island of Socotra off the coast of Africa.Tacitus refers to "some Indians who sailing from India for the purpose of commerce had been driven by storm into Germany." Euxodus speaks of the famished Hindu sailor who piloted the Greeks across the Arabian sea to the Malabar coast.

There were obvious risks attending sea-voyages.Sanskrit and Pali literature contains inumerable allusions to vessels wrecked on the high seas so much so that we seem to hear across the ages the piteous wailings of souls lost in the ocean. But nothing could daunt the people into passivity. Love of adventure and wealth stimulated them to defy death;and in storm and tempest these early navigators and their comrades learned the art and craft of the sea.They established commercial relations not only with Burma and the islands of the Indian Archipelago on the east but also with Mesopotamia, Arabia, Phoenicia and Egypt on the West. And the same volkerwanderund,which had impelled the primitive Aryans to move out of their original home, found expression in the colonial empire which their descendants built up in southern Asia. Ceylon was colonised before the 3rd century B.C., and Burma and Siam not much later. The colonial movement went on apace, and by the 2nd century A.D. Hindu soverignty and Hindu culture dominated almost all the lands and islands, which constitute the Indian Archipelago.

It is not the purpose of the present writer to attempt anything like a history of the art of navigation in ancient India, nor even of the colonial activities of that distant past--however fascinating such a study might be--but to limit himself to the less ambitious subject of navy, meaning thereby ships and vessels employed for military and police purposes.

Early traces in literature

That the art of employing boats and ships for military purposes was known and practised in very remote days is testified to by the ancient literature of India. The Rgveda retains the echo of a naval expedition, on which Tugra, the Rsi king,commissioned his son Bhujyu. Bhujyu, however, was ship-wrecked on the ocean,"where there is no support,no rest for the foot or the hand," but was rescued by the twin Asvins in their hundred-oared galley (Rv. i. 112, 6;116, 3; 117, 14-15; 119, 4; iv. 27, 4; vi, 62, 6).The Mahabharata relates how the Pandavas, ingeniously escaping from the 'house of lac' by a subterranean passage, came upon the Ganges and got on board a vessel, which 'was provided with machinery and all kinds of weapons and was capable of defying storms and waves': sarvavatasaham navam yantra-yuktam patakinim (Adi Parva, ch. 15). Elsewhere in the same work we read how Sahadeva, the youngest of the Pandava brothers, continued his march of conquest till he reached several islands in the sea (no doubt with the help of ships) and subjugated the mleccha inhabitants thereof.(1) In the Santi Parva there is a verse which specifically refers to the navy as one of the angas of a complete army(2). In the Ramayana we have a picture of the preparations made by a Nisada chief for an impending naval encounter with Bharata.Finding the huge folIowing of Bharata from a distance, the tribal chieftain thus ordered his retinue:

tisthantu sarvadasas ca Gangam anvasrita nadim/
balayukta nadirakasa mamsamulaphalasanah//
navam satanam pancanam kaivartanam satam satam/
sannadhanam tatha yunam tisthatv ity abhyacodayat //(3)

Naval warfare was also well-known in the days of Manu, for he had laid it down that boats should be utilised for military purposes when the theatre of hostilities abounded in water (VII, 192). A very much later work, the Yuktikalpataru, specifies a class of boats called agramandira (because they had their cabins towards their prows) as eminently adapted for naval warfare (rane kale ghanatyate).(4)

1 Sabha Parva, ch. 31, vv. 66-8,

2 Ratha naga hayas caiva padatas caiva Pandava /
Vistir navas cras civa desika iti castanam // Ch.
59. v. 41.

3 Ayodhya Kanda, ch. 84, vv, 7-8,

2 Yuktikalpataru (Calcutta Oriental Series, No. 1),
p. 228.


From the 4th Century B.C. to the 7th Century A.D.

So far as our information goes, it was in the time of Candragupta Maurya that the first real attempt to build up a royal navy of any magnitude was made. Megasthenes states that Candragupta's war-office was divided into six boards, of which the first was "associated with the Chief Naval Superintendent".

The fact that a committee of five members was appointed to, co-operate with the admiral of the fleet probably indicates that the number of war-boats maintained. by the Maurya emperor was not altogether insignificant. The Arthasastra of Kautalya (Bk. II, ch. 28), in agreement with Megasthenes, speaks of an official called Navadhyaksa or the superintendent of ships.This officer had manifold duties to perform. For instance, he examined "the accounts relating to navigation, not only on oceans and mouths of rivers but also on lakes, natural or artificial, and rivers in the vicinity of sthaniya and other fortified cities". He was required to maintain the customs of commercial ports (panyapattna-caritra) and the regulation of the port superintendent (pattanadhyaksa nibandha); he was also enjoined to show "fatherly consideration"to vessels in distress, and to allow to pass on half toll (sulka),or exempt altogether,merchandise damaged by water.In addition to these functions, he had to provide state ferries for the fording of all rivers in the kingdom, for which a graduated system of tolls was laid down and realised.It has been contended that the Navadhayaksa of Kautalya, whose duties thus appear to be mainly civil and commercial in character, cannot correspond to the "Naval Superintendent" of Megasthenes. In the first place, it is to be clearly understood that the functions assigned by Kautalya to other adhyaksas of this category, such as asvadhyaksa, hastyadhyaksa, rathadhyaksa etc., partake of the same nature; and in fact throughout the whole section on Adhyaksa-pracara Kautalya deals with the duties of officers as they were, or as they should be, in times of internal tranquillity and external peace. In the second place,it may be pointed out that Megasthenes' admiral, like the Navadhyaksa of Kautalya, had certain civil functions to perform-functions relating to the letting out of ships on hire for the transport both of passengers and merchandise (Strabo, XV, 1,46).Lastly, it should be noted that Kautalya does not altogether shut out of sight the military aspect of Navadhyaksa's functions. In one place he says:

"Himsrika nirghatayet, amitra-visayatigah
panyapattanacaritropaghatikas ca.

Himsrikah mean pirate ships, and the Navadhyaksa had to see that they were pursued and destroyed whenever they were found. The same regulation applied to ships and boats of an enemy's country when they crossed its territorial limit(1), and also to vessels which violated the customs and rules enforced in port towns. Now the pursuit and destruction of pirate vessels as also of ships belonging to the enemy's country could only have been adequately affected by war galleys belonging to the state, and as this duty devolved on the Navadhyaksa, it cannot be reasonably held that he was a purely civil official. In fact, like the Asvadhyaksa, Hastyadhyaksa and Rathadhyaksa who were concerned with horses,elephants and chariots used both for war and peace, the Navadhyaksa was as much concerned with armed vessels as with state boats which were used for peaceful traffic.

1 Dr. Shamasastry takes 'amitra-visayatigah' to mean
"vessels which were bound for the country of an
enemy". (Kaut. trans.,

The Maurya navy created by Candragupta probably continued to the end of Asoka's reign. We learn from the XIIIth Rode Edict of Asoka that the emperor maintained diplomatic relations not only with Ceylon (Tamraparni) but with the Hellenistic monarchies of Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia and Epirus. We agree with Dr, V. A. Smith when he states that diplomatic relations with such distant powers presupposes the existence of a "sea going fleet as well as an army".(1)

With the dissolution of the Maurya empire probably fell the great navy which the genius of Candraguta and his successors had reared up. But the naval traditions which the Mauryas had built up were kept alive in at least some of the kingdoms which sprang up on the ruins of their empire. This is evident from certain pieces of Andhra or Satavahana coins, belonging to the reign of Pulumayi and bearing the figure of a two-masted sailing ship.(2)

p. 153). Pandit Ganapati Sastri (vol. I, p. 308)
suggests the same interpretation: amitra-visayatigah
satrudesayayinih". This is probably not quite
correct, for atiga means 'going beyond limits', The
meaning suggested by these learned scholars would
have been all right if we had abhigah instead of

1 Edicts of Asoka, Introd., p.viii.

2 In his article in Z. D. G. (1903, p.613) as well as
in his Early History (4th Ed., p. 223) V, A. Smith
refers these coins with the 'ship' type to the
reign of Yajna Sri. Dr. H. C. Raychaudhuri in his
'Political History of Ancient India' does the same.
But Prof. Rapson, who has made a special study of
Andhra coinage, remarks that on the solitary
specimen on which the traces of the coin-legend
admit of any probable restoration "the inscr.
appears to be intended for Siri-pu (luma) visa (No,
95, p, 22; Pl. V.). This restoration is

These 'ship' coins probably suggest that Pulumayi was accompanied in some of his campaigns by a fleet of war-boats, and they were issued to commemorate a naval victory over the people who inhabited Tondamandala region, in which the coins were found. This nference will be considerably strengthened if we remember the fact that the coast-region in question was inhabited in ancient times by a people who were known to Tamil literature as the Tiraiyar (lit. sea-people).

In the succeeding centuries, the Coromandel coast appears to have been converted into a naval base by the Pallavas of southern India, That the Pallavas maintained a naval force may be inferred, firstly,from the 'ship' type coins, which have been attributed, though doubtfully, to them, and secondly,from the Kasakudi Plates, which tell us that king Narasimhavaman of this dynasty conquered Lanka or Ceylon. The conquest of an island situated far into the sea could only have been effected with the help of a fleet of ships.

Naval warfare was not altogether unknown in Gupta India. In the Allahabad Prasasti,Harisena states that Samudragupta's suzerainty was accepted, along with others, "by the people of Simhala and all other dwellers in islands".(1) It is not unlikely that this statement of the royal penegyrist merely makes a covert allusion to the embassy sent by Meghavanna (Meghavarna), the Buddhist king of Ceylon; but if it may be taken more literally, we may well credit Samudragupta with the possession of a naval force.The Aphasad inscr. probably refers to a naval victory won by Mahasena Gupta over the contemporary Kamarupa monarch, Susthitavarman. "The mighty force of Mahasena Gupta", says the epigraph,"marked with the honour of victory in war over the illustrious Susthitavarman, (and) white as a fullblown jasmine-flower or water-lily, or as a pure necklace of pearls pounded into little bits(? ), is still constantly sung on the banks of the river Lohitya,the surfaces of which are (so) cool, by the Siddhas in pairs, when they wake up after sleeping in the shade of the betel plants that are in full bloom".(2)

The Deo Baranark inscription refers to the
"victorious camp" of Jivita Gupta II as "invincible


not altogether satisfactory; but there is no doubt
about the first syllable of the name Pu-, and, as the
next syllable may well be -lu-, it is almost certain
that the coin was struck by Pulumayi" (Catalogue of
the Indian Coins, Introd. ixxxi-ixxxii).

1 C.I.I., vol. III, p.14.
2 C.I.I., vol. III, p.206.

through (its) equipment of great ships and elephants
and horses and foot-soliders".(1)

In the seventh century A.D. king Harsa of Kanauj must have possessed a certain number of war-boats which accompanied him in his distant expeditions. His inscriptions always refer to his victorious camp as "furnished with ships, elephants and horses":
'mahanau- hastya-sva-jaya-skandhavarat'.

At about the same time, the Calukya princes of the South appear to have maintained a considerable naval force. In the Nilgunda Plates of Vikramaditya VI, it is stated that king Mangalisa of the western Calukya dynasty fitted out a grand fleet, which captured the island of Revati. The epigraph runs as follows:

sarva-dvipakramana-mahaso yasya nau-setu-bandhair ullamghy
abdhim vyadhita prtana Revati-dvipa-lopam.(2)

From the Aihole inscription we learn that with a fleet of hundred fighting vessels Pulakesin II attacked Puri, which was the mistress- of the sea,and reduced it to submission.(3) The Kendur Plates of Kirtivarman II tells us that Pulakesin's grandson, Vinayaditya, sailed out to Ceylon, humbled its king and compelled him to pay tribute.(4)



Senior Member
Mar 28, 2009
Navy and naval operations in Bengal

History is oftener than not the creation of geographical environments. And the geography of India has very greatly influenced and modified her naval enterprise. Naval endeavours could be possible only in regions where the sea provides opportunities for harbourage, or in lands which are washed by large and navigable rivers. And accordingly we find that in three widely separated regions of India, viz.,Bengal, the Indus valley, and the extreme south of the Deccan peninsula called Tamilakam or Tamilagam,naval power was developed to a greater extent than elsewhere. It is these regions that shine conspicuously in the naval history of ancient India. We propose to deal with each of these in succession.

1. C. I. I., vol. III, p.217

2. Ep. Ind., X1I, p.151.

3. Sir R.G. Bhandarkar in his Early History of the
Deccan suggests that this Puri was probably the
capital of the Maurya king of Konkan and afterwards
of the Silaharas (3rd ed.), p.88, f.n.

4. Ep, Ind., vol, IX, p. 205,

Skirted by the sea and washed by the Ganges and the Brahmaputra with their many tributaries and distributaries, Bengal appears to have early attained to fame for naval and maritime activities. The Mahavamsa and other Buddhistic works tell us how, as early as 550 B.C., Prince Vijaya of Bengal with his 700 followers. achieved the conquest and colonisation of Ceylon, and gave to the island the name of Simhala after that of his dynasty. In the time of Kalidasa,the people of Bengal appear to have been widely famous for their nautical resources, for in his Raghuvamsa the poet refers to them as follows:

Vangan utkhaya tarasa neta nausadhanodyatan /
nicakhana jayastambhan gangasroto'ntaresu sah//. (1)

Epigraphic evidence indicates that harbours and dockyards had come into existence as early as the 6th century A.D.A. copper-plate grant of Dharmaditya(dated 531 A.D.) refers to a navata-kseni or shipbuilding harbour(2) though we do not know where it was located. Another grant of the same monarch (dated c.567 A.D.) speaks of nau-dandaka or(1) ship's mast'. Later on the Palas of Bengal appear to have utilised this nautical aptitude of the people and built up a regular fleet for fighting purposes. In the Khalimpur Copper-plate of Dharmapaladeva, the royal camp at Pataliputra is described as follows:

'Sa khalu Bhagirathi- patha-pravarttamana-nanavidha
-nauva taka-sampadita-setubandha-nihita-saila-sikhara-


1. Raghuvamsa. IV. 36.

2. As Dr. Hoernle suggests, navata-kseni is a
compound of nau ata kseni. Kseni is evidently a
modification of Ksayana,'harbour', with a feminine
termination. Ata means the frame of a door, and
here in conjunction with nau must mean a ship's
frame. "Nau here should be translated by the word
'ship' and not 'boat'. Boat-making in this region
requires very little frame-work and no harbour
(dockyard) for boats are made on the banks of
rivers anywhere. Frames and dockyards are only
necessary for large vessels and ships". Ind. Ant.,
Vol.,XIX, p.198.

3. Ep. Ind., vol. I, p.249; II, 25-26; Cf. also Ep.
Ind., vol., XIV. pp. 326-7, II. 24-6.

"Now this royal camp of victory, pitched at Pataliputra, where the manifold fleets of boats proceeding on the path of the Bhagirathi make it seem as if a series of mountain tops had been sunk to build another causeway (for Rama's passage)'', The terms nau-vata and nau-vataka, which occur in this as well as in many other inscriptions of this period,undoubtedly refer to the war-ships of the Pala kings.The admiral in command of the royal navy was called Naukadhyaksa and his functions were probably akin to those performed by the Navadhyaksa of Kautalya. There is enough evidence to show that the royal navy under the Palas was an efficient instrument of offetsive and defensive warfare. When the Pala empire was being shattered by rebellions and insurrections on every side, it was "with a strong navy" that Vaidyadeva,the minister of Kumarapala (a.c. 1097 A.D.),"restored peace to the whole empire."(1) The Kamauli Grant credits this Vaidyadeva with a naval victory in southern Vanga, near the mouths of the Ganges. Mr.R.D. Banerji suggests that this naval encounter probably took place with Anantavarman, king of Utkala and Kalinga.(2) The Kamauli Grant describes the battle as follows:

Yasy-anuttara-vanga-sangara-jaye n a u v a t a-hihirava-
trastair ddikkaribhis-ca yan-na calitam cen-nasti tad-gamya-bhub /
Kin-c-otpatu kake-nipata-patana-protsarpitaih sikarair-
akase sthirata krta yadi bhavet syan-niskalankah sasi //(3)

The naval power of Bengal long outlived the collapse of the Pala dynasty; and the Candras, the Varmans and the Senas inherited not merely the dominions but also the naval traditions of their predecessors. The Naukadhyaksa was substituted by the Nau-vyaprtaka or Nau-bala-vyaprtaka,(4) but that was all. In all important respects the navy appears to have continued on its old efficient basis, and the Deopara inscription states that king Vijayasena sent it forward on a conquering expedition "up the whole course of the Ganges, "
yasya yavad-Ganga-pravaham anudhavati nau-vitane(5),


1. Ramacarita by Sandhyakara Nandi, Memoirs of the
Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol.III, no.I, p.15.

2. The Palas of Bengal M. A. S. B., vol. V, no. 3,

3. Ep. Ind., vol. II, p.351, v.II.

4. Ibid., vol. XII, p.40 II. 33-4; P.139, I, 20; P.9,

5. Ep. Ind., vol. I, pp.305 ff; Inscriptions of
Bengal, vol.III, by Nanigopal Mazumdar, p.48, v.22,

Bengal's reputation as a naval power continued even during the Muhammadan period.Hussain Shah( 1498-1520), the most prominent of the independent Pathan rulers of Bengal, maintained a powerful fleet,with which he once invaded Assam(1). Pratapaditya is also credited with a fleet of seven hundred fighting vessels, equipped with all the instruments of war(2).Sayesta Khan, the Nawab of Bengal, is stated to have gathered a numerous fleet of armed galleys to check the depradations of the Arakan pirates, both Maugh and Feringi.

While dealing with Bengal, it will not be improper, we hope, to cast a cursory glance at the part played by the neighbouring kingdom of Kamarupa in the naval history of the ancient Hindus. Like Bengal, the territory occupied by this kingdom is intersected by numerous rivers. Nor was there any dearth of material for the creation of a naval force. The forests had abundant hard wood, with which war-boats could be made without difficulty, while the common people, born and bred up in a riparian plain,were naturally adepts in the art of plying boats. We have already seen how the evidence of the Aphasad inscription probably indicates that king Susthitavarman of Kamarupa fought a naval battle with the later Gupta monarch Mahasena Gupta on the waters of the Lohitya (Brahmaputra) river. The Nidhanpur copper-plates state that Bhaskaravarman, king of Kamarupa, was in "possession of splendid ships" in addition to elephants horses and foot-soldiers(3).

The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang gives the number of Bhaskaravarman's ships as 30000,and further adds that with this numerous fleet he followed emperor Harsa in his triumphal progress from Kie-shu-ho-ki-lo(Kajughira, modern Kankjol, i.e. Rajmahal, according to Cunningham) to the imperial city of Kanauj(4). In the naval victory that Vaidyadeva won in Southern Bengal, the Kamarupa fleet probably co-operated with that of the Palas, for, according to the Kamauli Grant, Vaidyadeva had, previous to that conflict,defeated Tingyadeva of Assam and had obtained the kingdom for himself(1). Even in the later middle ages, the Hindu chiefs of Kamarupa continued to rely on their navy as an indispensable weapon of defence and offence. The Padishah-namah, a work of the 17th century, highly speaks of the skill and bravery of the Assamese naval troops.

1. Blockman's Koch Bihar Assam, J.A.S.B., 1872, pt.
I. No. I.

2. Sir Jadunath Sarkar's article in the Prabasi,
Asvin, 1326 B.S., P.552.

3. Ep. Ind., vol.XII, p.76.

4. Beal's Life of Hiuen Tsiang, p.172

In the Punjab and Sindh

The Punjab and Sindh, enjoying the same physiographical advantages as Bengal,were destined to play a remarkable part in the naval history of ancient India. Sindh is not only watered by the Indus and her many affluents but is also skirted by the sea. The Punjab is so called because she is washed by five rivers. Moreover, in ancient times extensive timber forests grew in those regions(2)-- forests which enabled Alexander to construct the famous flotilla which sailed down the Indus under the command of Nearchos.Possessed of these natural advantages, the people of the Punjab and Sindh appear to have early acquired a 'knack' for naval and maritime activities. Arrian informs us that the Xathroi (Ksatri), an autonomous tribe living on the Indus, supplied Alexander, during his return voyage, with thirty-oared galleys and transport vessels, which were all built by them.(3)

The Bactrian and Indian coins of Antimachus with their types of 'Poseidon' and 'Victory' probably refer to a naval triumph. "It is difficult to explain the allusion" says Prof. Rapson,"except on the supposition that this king had won a victory on one of the great Indian rivers--the Indus or the Jhelum"(4). This will show that even before the birth of Christ the navy had come to be looked upon as an instrument of warfare in this region.

Even before Alexander's invasion of India, the nautical habits of the people of the Indus basin had led them to the practice of piracy on the high seas.Issuing in their "keels" from their country about the mouth of the Indus, they were sea-wolves, who captured what they could afloat, and carried fire and sword into the countries they visited.

1. Ep. Ind., vol.II, p.351 vv. 13-4.

2. Arrian says: "In the neighbouring mountains was
abundance of timber fit for building ships". India
and its invasion by Alexander, p.216.

3. Ibid., p.156.

4. Cambridge History of India, vol.I, p.547.

They were the 'Vikings' of ancient India, and the great Persian monarchy was the worst sufferer from their depradations. Strabo and Arrian inform us that, in order to protect their cities against piratical attacks, the Persians made the Tigris entirely inaccessible to navigation. The course of the stream was obstructed by masses of stone, which Alexander, on his return journey from India, caused to be removed for the furtherance of commercial intercourse. That the Persians built no city of any note upon the sea-coast was due to this dread of Indian pirates, and not to any religious motive as Robertson supposed.(1)

For many centuries after Alexander's invasion,these hardy seamen of the Indus basin appear to have clung to piracy as a means of livelihood. In the days of Alberuni they were notorious for "their robberies on sea in ships called bira"(2) and the Muhammadan historians tell us that the first Islamic invasion of India in the 8th century: A. D. was brought about by a piratical inroad committed by the Meds and certain other inhabitants of Debal and the Indus mouths, For example, Al-Baladhuri states that when al-Hajjaj was the governor of Iraq, "the king of the island of Rubies (Ceylon) sent to al-Hajjaj some women who were born in his country as Moslems, their fathers, who had been merchants, having died. He wanted to court favour with al-Hajjaj by sending them back. But the ship on which they were sailing was attacked by some
of the Meds of ad-Daibul in barks (bawarij), and was captured with all that was in it". When tidings of this mishap reached al-Hajaj, he sent envoys to Dahir asking him to set the women free. Dahir replied :"Pirates, over whom I have no control, captured''. The reply was not considered satisfactory by the governor of Iraq, and he sent the first Muslim army across the frontiers to punish the Sindhians. The expedition failed, and two Arab generals were successively defeated and killed. But al-Hajjaj was a man of iron resolve, and his first failure merely strengthened his determination to conquer and punish the miscreants. He organised a fresh expedition on a very much larger scale than before and placed it under the command of his nephew, Muhammad bin Qasim.Thus came about the first Islamic invasion of India.(3)

1 Strabo, Geography XVI, I; Arrian VII. 7; Elliot,
History of India, vol. I, pp. 5I2 f.; Robertson's
Disquisition, p. 160.

2 Vol. I, p, 208.

3 Futuh-al-Buldan, trans. by Clark Murgotten, pp.
215, 216.

The people of the Indus region not only practised piracy, which testifies to their nautical pluck and skill, they also fought--and this is more important from our standpoint--several naval battles with their Muhammadan foes on the Indus or her tributaries. We have it on the authority of Al-Baladhuri that Dahir's son Hullrshah waged a naval war with Al-Junaid at Batihatash-sharki. "Hullishah was taken prisoner,his ship having missed the way".(1) Several centuries later the Indus was the scene of another naval encounter between the Jats and Sultan Mahmud. According to Tabakat-i-Akbari of Nizamuddin Ahmed,the last expedition of Sultan Mhamud was directed against the Jats of the Salt Ranges, "who had molested his army on its return march from Somnath 1025 A.D.). To wreak vengeance on the Jats, Mahmud led a large force towards Multan, "and when he arrived there he ordered fourteen hundred boats to be built, each of which was armed with three firm iron pikes, projecting one from the prow and two from the si des, so that everything which came in contact with them would infallibly be destroyed. In each boat were twenty archers, with bows and arrows, grenades and naphtha; and in this way he proceeded to attack the Jats, who having intelligence of the armament sent their families into the islands and prepared themselves for the conflict. They launched, according to some, four, and according to others, eight thousand boats,manned and armed, ready to engage the Muhammadans. Both fleets met and a desperate conflict ensued. Every boat of the Jats that approached the Muslim fleet was broken and overturned. Thus most of the Jats were drowned, and those who were not destroyed were put to the sword".(2) An inglorious conclusion--a sad epitaph, indeed. In naval tactics,as in many other branches of military science, the Hindus proved themselves unequal to their Muhammadan antagonists, The Jat fleet, though numerically superior, was vastly inferior to that of their rivals in its organisation, in the type of its men-of-war,and probably also in the art and science of maritime warfare.

I Futuh-al-Buldan, trans. by Clark Murgotten, p 226.

2 Elliot, History of India, vol. 11, p. 478; Cf. also
Brigg's, Ferishta, vol. I, pp. 81-2.

In the Tamil land

If Bengal and the Indus valley played an important role in naval affairs, it was in the extreme south of the Deccan Peninsula that naval power reached its climax. The impress that the people of the Tamil states have left on the naval history of the ancient Hindus is the deepest and most indelible. Nature has endowed the southern promontory with greater facilities for maritime activities than either the Gangetic or the Indus delta. Girt by the sea, having dense forests in the interior, with hospitable coast-lines extending for a thousand miles, it was preeminently adapted for the development of seamanship and navigation. And seamanship and navigation developed in these regions probably earlier than anywhere else in India.For centuries before the birth of Christ pearl-diving and sea-fishery constituted an important source of livelihood with the Tamilians. It was most probably from Tamilakam or Taimilagam that during the reign of Solomon (about 1000 B.C.) "once in every three years,the ships of Tarshish came, bringing gold and silver, ivory, apes and peacocks". The names of the last two objects, Kapim and Tukim, as found in the Hebrew Bible, are the same as those used in Tamil,i.e. Kavi and Thoki.(1) In the first century B.C. 'king Pandiod' or the Pandya monarch is recorded to have sent two embassies to Augustus Caesar, desiring to become his friend and ally. One of these reached Augustus when he was at Terracona in the 18th year after the death of Julius Caesar, and another reached him six years later. The early Tamil authors refer to a class of merchants called ma-sattuvanigam,corresponding probably to the sanskrit maha-sartha-vanik and indicating the existence of a class of merchants whose profession it was to trade overseas.

The Periplus records that contemporary Tamil navigators plied two kinds of vessels for sea-borne trade, The first variety, known as the Sangara, including vessels both large and small, were intended for coasting voyages as far as the Damirica.The second kind, called Colandia, were very large in size and were meant for voyages to the Ganges and the Chryse.(2)

1 Tamils 1800 years ago, p. 31.

2 The Periplus, tr. by Schoff, p. 46.


Senior Member
Mar 28, 2009
The author of the Periplus of the Erytlhraean Sea, who made a coastal voyage round India, noticed the prevalence of piracy along the Malabar sea-board."(2) Ptolemy, in his Geography (150A.D.), goes so far as to describe the Konkan coast extending from the neighbourhood of Simylla to an emporium called Nitra, as Ariake Andron Peiraton,i.e. Ariake of the Pirates.(3) Many centuries later the Venetian traveller, Marco Polo, observed Malabar pirates cruising round the coasts and roving the seas, He writes:

"And you must know that from the kingdom of
Melibur, and from another near it called Gozurat,
there go forth every year more than a hundred corsair
vessels on cruize. These pirates take with them their
wives and children, and stay out the whole summer.
heir method is to join in fleet of 20 or 30 of these
pirate vessels together, and then they form what they
call a sea cordon, that is, they drop off till there
is an interval of five or six miles between ship and
ship, so that they cover something like a hundred
miles of sea, and no merchant ship can escape them.
When one corsair sights a vessel, a signal is made by
fire or smoke, and then the whole of them make for
this, and seize (sic) the merchants and plunder them,
After they have plundered them they let them go,
saying 'Go along with you and get more gain, and that
mayhap will fall to us also. But now the merchants
are aware of this, and go so well manned and armed
and with such great ship, that they don't fear the
corsairs. Still mishaps do befall them at times,"(4)


I McCrindle, Ancient India, p. III.

2 The Periplus, p. 44.

3 McCrindle's Ptolemy, p. 45.

4 Yule's Marco Polo (Ind. ed.), vol. II, p. 378, It
may be noted,

The facts cited above will amply testify to the sea-faring and adventurous character of the early people of Tamilakam. It was because of the nautical resources of their people, that the Tamil kings had to face no difficulty in creating a navy for offensive and defensive warfare. The sculptor found excellent granite lying about him, and he shaped it into a solid pillar of strength. We are not sure whether the Pandya kings (whose territory was approximately equivalent to modern Madura and Tinnevelley districts, with part of Trichinopoly and sometimes also Travancore) ever maintained any fighting squadron. Extreme paucity of materials hinders any inference on this point. But that the Ceras and the Colas came to recognise the importance of naval forces, even before the beginning of the Christian era, there is enough evidence to prove, The Tamil poet, Madalan, refers to an unnamed predecessor of the famous Cenkuttuvan as "he who conquered the Kadambu in the middle of the sea."(1) According to early Tamil authors, Cenkuttuvan, who was contemporary more or less to Nedum-celiyan, the Pandya, and Nedmudi Killi Cola, the grandson of Karikala, as well as to Gajabahu I of Ceylon, led an expedition to the Gangetic valley, and in that expedition"the journey from the Cera kingdom to Orissa was performed by sea." At the end of one poem, Cenkuttuvan is praised as the king "who with his army crossed the sea and reached the banks of the Ganges.(2) Another achievement of the Cera navy under Cenkuttuvan was the victory it won over the Yavanas at sea. The Padirruppattu relates that the victory was so complete and overwhelming that Cenkuttuvan was able to capture his enemies, and punish them by tying their hands behind their back, pouring oil or ghee on their heads.(3)There are other allusions to the naval strength of Cenkuttuvan, and,as Dr. Krishnaswami lyanger points out, the one compliment the poets never miss an opportunity as Yule remarks, that it was in this neighbourhood that Ibn Batuta fell into the hands of pirates and was "stripped to the very drawers."

1 Tamils 1800 years ago, p. 95. According to Prof.
Krishnaswami Iyanger this conqueror of Kadambu was no
other than the father of Cenkuttuvan.--Beginnings of
South Indian History, p. 151.

2 Tamils 1800 years ago, p. 95.

3 Some Contributions of South India to Indian

The Malabar coast retained its piratical character up to the days of Clive and Watson. of bestowing upon the Red-cera is that the "Chera fleet sailed on the waters of that littoral with sense of dominion and security."(1) Dr. Aiyangar has also sought to prove that the Cera navy under Cenkuttuvan and his father made a strenuous attempt to check piracy on the western or Konkan coast.(2) After Cenkuttuvan, the power of the Cera kingdom appears to have been eclipsed by that of the Pandyas,and an almost impenetrable veil is cast over Cera
naval operations till we come down to the palmy days of the Cola empire. From epigraphic evidence we learn that in the twelfth year of the reign of Rajaraja I,the Cera fleet fought with the Cola navy in the 'Roads of Kandalur,' but was routed. The Cera navy was no doubt weakened by this defeat. But it survived the shock, and in the time of Rajadhiraja(1042-52A.D.)it again fought its Cola rival at Kandalur-salai, "on the never-decreasing ocean." This second venture was attended with no better fate than the first. The Cera fleet was again defeated and probably destroyed.(3)

1 Beginnings of South Indian History, p. 151.

2 Beginnings of South Indian History, pp. 229-33.
Here we do not quite agree with Dr. Aiyangar in the
interpretation he has put upon Ptolemy's statement.
Ptolemy, as we have already seen, characterises the
Konkan coast as piratical--Ariake Andron Peiraton.
Dr. Aiyangar argues that though Ptolemy describes
the coast as piratical, he does not actually
mention pirates in the neighbourhood; and from this
he concludes that there were no pirates on the
Malabar coast in the time of Ptolemy, i.e. about
150 A.D. We must confess we cannot see eye to eye
with Prof. Aiyangar on this point. It is true
Ptolemy has no mention of pirates on the Konkan
coast, but this is only to be expected, since his
work is almost exclusively geographical, and
"whatever information on points of history we
obtain from it is more from inference than direct
statement." Moreover, if there were no pirates on
the western coast, Ptolemy's characterisation
becomes wholly meaningless.

3 South Indian Inscriptions, vol. II, p.241, n.i;
vol.III, pt, I, pp. 4-6

It was under the Colas that the naval power of the Tamil land attained its culminating point. Very early in their history, the Cola kings appear to have organised a fleet of ships, which enabled their troops to cross over the ocean and invade the neighbouring island Ceylon. According to the Mahavamsa, there were in the first century immediately preceding Christ as many as six Tamil usurpers from the country of 'Soli'(Cola).(1) The first historical or semihistorical Cola monarch Karikala is represented by the early Tamil poets as having invaded Ceylon and carried off three thousand captives to work on the embankments of the Kaveri river, which he constructed.(2) In the fourth decade of the tenth century, Parantaka I repeated the naval expedition to Ceylon and probably won some advantage over its king. It has already been stated that Rajaraja I defeated the Cera navy at Kandalur. Ukkal (Visnu temple) Tamil inscription,belonging to the 29th year of Rajarajadeva, credits this monarch with having subjugated not merely Ceylon, but "twelve thousand ancient islands of the sea".(3) According to Dr. Krishnaswami Aiyangar, the islands referred to "are apparently the islands along the coast in the Arabian sea".(4) Emboldened by these naval triumphs, the Cola fleet under Rajendra Gangaikondacola pushed out on longer and bolder enterprises.


1 Uppam, Mahavamsa, vol. I, p.218.

2 E, H. I. (4th ed.), p.481

3 Kielhorn's List, no. 719.

4 Journal of Indian History, vol. II, p. 319.
The large Leyden Grant of the year 1006 A.D. mentions
Maravijayottungavarman, son of Cudamanivarman, king
of Kataha or Kidaram, as a vassal of Rajaraja (South
Indian Inscr., vol. II, pt. i, p. 106). Whether this
adhipati of Sri Vijaya, ruling over Kataha, actually
paid homage to the Cola monarch or merely maintained
a sort of alliance with him, is not apparent. The
latter alternative seems probable.

From inscription No.84 of Cannapatna in the Bangalore District, it appears that by the thirteenth year of his reign,Rajendra equipped and floated a grand armada, which sailing "across the middle of the sea lashing with waves", conquered extensive districts in the Far East. These over-sea conquests of Rajendra have been recorded in many of his inscriptions. For instance,an epigraph inscribed on the Rajarajesvara Temple at Tanjavur and belonging to the nineteenth year of his reign, states that he "despatched many ships in the midst of the rolling sea" against Samgramavijayottungavarman, the king of Kadaram,captured him with all his fighting elephants, and took away from him his huge treasures, He then took possession of Sri Vijaya in the midst of which was set the 'vidyadhara-torana', the triumphal arch with its great doors set with jewels and trap-doors;Pannai, 'watered by the river'; Malai-yur of ancient fame having for its ramparts many hills;Mayirudingam,surrounded by the deep sea as a moat;Ilanga-sogam, undaunted in fierce battles;Mappappalam,surrounded by deep waters let in for defence; Mevilimbangam with well defended fortress walls; Valaippanduru, possessing both cultivated land and jungle; Talaittakkolam, praised by greatmen versed in the sciences; Madammalingam, firm in great and fierce battles;Ilamuridesam, defended by a strong fleet of ships; Manakkavaram, whose flower-gardens resembled the girdle of the nymph of the southern ocean; and Kadaram,defended in great strength by the sea which touches it.

The identification of place-names mentioned in the above list is beset with great difficulties,and,moreover, may not be quite relevent in the present paper. We would only refer to a valuable contribution on the subject which appeared in the pages of the Bulletin de l'Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient as far back as 1918. The writer of the article is M. Coedes. His conclusions, based on a close and intimate acquaintance with the history of the Far East, stand generally on a surer foundation than those arrived at by Indian scholars. It appears from his article that the countries referred to as having been subjugated by Rajendracola covered the Nikobar Islands, the isthmus of Kra, Malay Peninsula and Sumatra. This was the climax of Cola naval achievement. It gave Rajendra one of the great strategic keys of the world.

The Bay of Bengal was, so to say, converted into a Cola lake, and a strong impetus was given to that movement of colonisation which had been ushered in many centuries earlier.

The naval supremacy of the Colas continued under the immediate successors of Rajendra.Rajadhiraja, as stated above, not only defeated and destroyed the Cera fleet at Kandalur but sent out his squadrons on an expedition against Ceylon. The evidence of the Kalingattuparani indicates that Kulottungacoladeva(1070-1118 A.D.) repeated the naval venture of Rajendra and reconquered Kadaram.(1)

1 The evidence of the Kalingattuparani is
corroborated by the small Leyden Grant, in which an
unnamed king of Kadaram is referred to as a vassal of
Kulottunga; South Ind. Inscr., vol. II, pt. 106, fn.;
Dr. Burgess's Archaeological Survey of Southern
India, vol. IV, p. 224, text lines 5f., and p.225,
text line 10.

It was probably the eastern or Coromandel coast that formed the chief vantage-ground of Cola naval power.

The western or Konkan coast, though it did not witness an equal development of naval power in ancient times, can yet boast of a somewhat chequered naval history of its own, We cannot agree with Dr. S.N. Sen when he states that 'no evidence can be found to support the view that any attempt had been made in the past to establish a naval power" on the Konkan coast.(1)As we have already seen, this region formed the naval base of the Ceras, Epigraphic evidence goes to show that the Rastrakutas maintained some sort of a fleet in Konkan waters. The Kadaba plates of Saka 735 refer to Maharajadhiraja Dharavarsa as having sent "lines of his prancing horsemen" "in boats'' to an unspecified island and vanquished the hostile kings."(2) A few centuries later the Kadambas appear to have established a naval power near about Goa.

An inscription from Narendra (a village in the Dharwar taluka of the Dharwar district,(Bombay) describes Mahamandalesvara Cattayadeva (Sasthadeva I) and his successors Jayakesin and Permadideva as `lords of the ocean';and further adds that Cattayadeva "built a bridge with lines of ships reaching as far as Lanka and claimed tribute among grim barbarians", and,again "duly proceeded on his ships over the sea in sport, along with (the whole population of) Gove,with great pomp as far as the land of Surastra."(3)

1 Military System of the Marathas, p. 173.

2 Ind. Ant., XII, p.18.

3 Ep. Ind,, XIII, pp. 309f.

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