Defence Industry

Shipbuilding in India
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Issue Vol 22.2 Apr-Jun2007 | Date : 07 Mar , 2011

It was during the Medieval period that a number of Indian Vessels were constructed, for the first time, purely for war at sea. Facilities for launching catapults and incendiary throwers, however, existed even earlier on board Indian ship.

With the coming of the Portuguese in 1498, building of warships in India underwent a change when guns were mounted on board. The practice was first adopted by the Zamorin of Calicut emulating the Portuguese ships.

The ancient shipbuilding in India goes back to the third millennium BC in the Harappan times (Indus Civilisation).  The Harappans built the first tide dock of the world for berthing and servicing ships at the port town of Lothal in about 2500 BC. For inland waterways, flat bottomed boats of the type suggested by the terracotta models were used. An engraving on a seal from mohenjodaro represents a sailing ship with a high prow, the stern was made of reeds. In the centre, it had a square cabin. Out of the five miniature clay models of boats, one is complete and represents a ship with sails. The latter has a sharp keel, a pointed prow and a high flat stern.

In the second model, the stern and the prow were both curved high up as in the Egyptian boats of the Garzean period. The three other models found at Lothal have a flat base and a pointed prow. Apparently these flat based craft were used in rivers and creeks without sails, while the other two types with sails and sharp keels plied on high seas and were berthed in deep water of the gulf. Perhaps the Canoe types of flat-based boats were the only ones, which could be sluiced at high tide. Another type of boat was seen with multiple oars. The Harappan ship may have been as big as the modern craft, which bring timber from Malabar to Gogha. On this analogy, it can be assumed that a load of 60 tons could be carried by these ship. The sizes of the anchor stones found in the Lothal Dock also support this view.

The technology of shipbuilding was a hereditary profession passing from father to son and was a monopoly of a particular caste of people. The local builders used the hand, fingers and feet as the units of measurement. In different places different kinds of boats were built for specific purposes. For construction of ship, the teak (Tectona Grandis) wood is generally employed in India.

The Earlier Vedic Period – (The Dark Age for Shipbuilding – 2000 to 600 BC)

All the advancement of the Harappa culture some how got wiped out and its achievements buried deep, until it was unearthed centuries later. Thus there was a dark age in India’s history. During the earlier Vedic period ( 2000 to 600 BC), there was no evidence of their culture until about 600 to 500 BC.

Later Vedic Period and the Mauryan Era – (600 to 200 BC)

During the later Vedic Period ( 600 to 200 BC), there are references to ocean voyages, description of boats and passages. The earliest reference of maritime activities in India occurs in Rig Veda; “ Do thou whose countenance is turned to all side send off our adversaries, as if in a ship to the opposite shore; do thou convey us in a ship across the sea for our welfare. “ — Rig Veda 1, 97, 7 & 8

For the later period we have a remarkable work, Kautilya Arthasastra, which was written during 321 to 300 BC. During the Maurya period, a Superintendent of ships (Navadyaksa) was appointed for building and maintenance of boats. There are accounts in Pali literature on the size of vessels which could accommodate 700 passengers. We have the Buddhist Jatakas of the 5th/6th century BC, which give us the tales of overseas travel. We know that ocean going ships existed then, but unfortunately the material is meager in the description of vessels in details. During Mauryan epoch, however, we have more information. Boats some of them 30 oared, have been built in the Punjab for Alexander’s fleet.

Post Gupta Era

The Sanskrit work, Yukti Kalpataru of post-Gupta era mentions of vessels with single, double, treble and four masts, and presumably as many sails. From this we gather information on the art of shipbuilding in ancient India. In the use of metals, in ship construction, the work recommends gold, silver and copper or an alloy of two or more of these elements. It strongly forbids the use of iron, particularly for joining sides and bottom, for fear of exposing ships to the influence of magnetic rocks in the sea.

The industrial revolution, however, brought in its wake a number of changes in ship construction. The advent of the paddle steamers relegated Indias shipbuilding techniques based on sail propulsion. In 1836, screw propeller was invented.

Although the technique of joining timbers by nails and rivets was known in the medieval period, the shipbuilders preferred to lash together with ropes. This practice was widely followed in South India, which earned such a boat the nomenclature : “Catamaran”. This preference for tying by rope was due to the fact that such vessels were more resilient to monsoon conditions than the nailed ones. The planks were joined together, tied with ropes and stuffed with oakum and painted over on either side with a concoction of quick lime and oil to make it water proof. To be on the safe side the bottom was double planked.

By about 200 BC, ships were built in larger and larger sizes. Number of bulkheads were increased; some had as many as 13 of these in order to cater for accidents to ships sides. Ships of 200 ton, carrying over 100 persons were reported to have been built. The wood used was mainly of Malabar teak and was found superior in durability than oak used in foreign vessels.

Oars to Sails – (0 to 1100 AD)

In 45 AD , when ‘trade winds’ were discovered, the multi-oared galleys gave place to sail ships. The oars were retained as these were used when wind dropped at sea, and also for maneuvering inside harbours. Eventually, the sail ships completely eclipsed multi-oared galleys, which are now seen only during the annual Kerala boat races! The early sails were lateen or triangular in shape made of coarse cloth, and later with light canvas. Triangular sails were then replaced by square and rectangular sails.

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Vice Adm Rajeshwer Nath

Vice Adm (Retd) Rajeshwer Nath.

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