Military & Aerospace

History of Shipbuilding in India
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Issue Vol. 36.1, Jan-Mar 2021 | Date : 19 Mar , 2021

The India International Science Festival (IISF) 2020, held in December 2020, dealt with the “Congress of the History of Science in India from Shoonya to Mangalyaan”. The purpose of one of the talks was to briefly highlight shipbuilding in ancient India and as well as the challenges in the 21st century.

Indus Valley Civilization: 3000 BC to 2000 BC

The technology of shipbuilding was a hereditary profession which was passed down from father to son, and was a monopoly of a particular caste. The local builders used their hands, fingers and feet as the units of measurement. Flat bottomed boats were built for berthing and servicing ships both in inland waterways and also for the high seas. These boats could carry about 60 tonne of load. The Harappans also built a tide dock for berthing and servicing ships at port towns. This was the first tide dock in the world and is deemed to be a unique development. Thus, India had a rich shipbuilding culture as early as from 3000 BC to 2000 BC.

The Earlier Vedic Period: 2000 BC to 600 BC

The advancement of the Harappan culture somehow slowed down and there was a Dark Age for shipbuilding in India. The reasons for this cannot be ascertained.

The Later Vedic Period: 600 BC to 200 BC – Mauryan Era

The Rig Veda indicated maritime activity in force. During the Mauryan Era, a Superintendant of Ships was appointed for the building and maintenance of boats. Ocean-going ships capable of accommodating 700 passengers were built. There are records of boats with up to 30 oars having been built in Punjab for Alexander’s fleet implying that the shipbuilding culture had started taking shape during the Mauryan Era.

Post Gupta Period: 200 BC to 0 BC

During this period, vessels with single, double, treble and four masts as also with as many sails, were built. The wood used to build ships was mainly Malabar teak as it was found to be more durable than Oak which was used in other parts of the world to manufacture vessels.


The sail ships completely eclipsed multi-oared vessels. Pushyadeva, the ruler of Sindh thwarted formidable Arab Navy attacks in 756 CE which demonstrated the marine prowess and superior shipbuilding capabilities existing at that time. The historical text Yukti Kalpataru (1100 AD) talks about shipbuilding and elaborately discusses various types of ships built during this period. Boats used for different purposes were called by different names such as Samanya, Madhyawa, Visesha for passenger service, cargo, fishing and ferrying across the river. The ships so constructed rode the sea well, withstood the high swell during cyclones and could sail even at very high wind speed.

The Hindu Period: 1175 AD to 1572 AD

Since the Mauryas, the Hindu kingdom had built ships at Calicut, Cochin, Kaveripattinam, Masulipatnam and Calcutta. Two types of ships were built – the Monoxylon and the Colandiophonto. The Monoxylon, as the name suggests, was cut out of a single log and in order to accommodate about 100 to 150 persons. It was raised with planks athawart the ship in tiers. The Monoxylon were used in coastal traffic. The Colandiophonto, however, were ocean-going vessels and were proportionately larger and sturdier weighing more than 1,000 tonne.

The Medieval Period: 1378 AD to 1797 AD

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 existed even on board Indian ships. With the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498 AD, building of warships in India underwent a change when guns were fitted on board. The Marathas too gave impetus to the Indian shipbuilding industry. In the 17th century, the Marathas developed shipbuilding yards at Vijaydurg, Swarndurg, and Kolaba. The ships built here were noted for their manoeuverability in restricted waters and superb sailing qualities. One of the oldest designs in ship construction was the Baghalah which traversed along the Gujarat coast. The main features of the Baghalah were that is had a length of 74 feet and width of 25 feet. It weighed 150 tonne and had a depth of about 11 feet. The Baghalah was used for about 87 years from 1750 AD to 1837 AD. Thus, we see that Indian has had a long shipbuilding heritage even before the British arrived on the scene.

Sail to Steam: 1800 AD

The Industrial Revolution in Europe brought in its wake, a number of changes in shipbuilding. Paddle steamers began to be used in lieu of sail propulsion. In 1836, screw propellers were invented. Between 1840 and 1880, shipbuilders began to use iron to build ships instead of wood and by 1880, ships began to have steel hulls.

Shipbuilding at the turn of the 20th Century

In 1895, the diesel engine began to be used in ships; in 1900, the turbine or rotary engine was introduced and in 1903, the first electric motor vessels were built. The fuel used was wood, coal, oil and finally gas, in that order. Every advancement required change in machinery and equipment for building, operation and maintenance. The technical developments continued through World War I, the cyclic depression of the 1920’s and the 1930’s and World War II, with the introduction of turbine, diesel propulsion, super charging engines, turbo electric propulsion and much higher engine speeds, and longitudinal framing replacing the transverse frames. Towards the beginning of World War II, electric arc welding began to be introduced.

Second Dark Age in Shipbuilding in India

The transition from sail to steam, and from steam to power, also came again at the wrong time for India. The British shipbuilders refused to transfer this technology to India, and added to this, the industrialisation in India lagged way behind the European nations. This resulted in the shipbuilding industry in India being doomed to virtual extinction.

The Wadia Era: 1735 AD – 1884 AD

During the 18th century, and the first half of the 19th century, the shipbuilding activity in India was dominated by one community – the Parsis. Shipbuilding activity at Surat thrived and the Parsis showed absorbing interest. They built ships on order and built boats for sale. After Surat, the shipbuilding moved to Daman, Dhabul, Bassein and Bombay.

From 1736 to 1743, on an average, one or two ships per year were being built at Bombay. Twelve ships of different types were built. The Wadia Frigate – “Salsette” was built in 1807 on order from the Admiralty. This ship came undamaged after a British naval squadron was trapped in ice for nine weeks in the North Baltic Sea. The ships built by the Wadias lasted 30 years against the average lifespan of 12 years of English vessels. From 1810 to 1813, a series of 74 gun ships were built for the Royal Navy. The Wadias also built the “Trincomalee” – a 46-gun ship in 1817. This ship was renamed “Foudroyant” and had the distinction of being the oldest ship afloat. This truly was a wonder of the world.


The evolution of ships and shipbuilding is no doubt a continuous process with advancements in technology. In the period 3000 BC to 2000 BC, India had a rich shipbuilding culture. In the period 2000 BC to 600 BC, India underwent a dark age in shipbuilding. From 600 BC to the end of the 19th century, shipbuilding flourished in India and the nation had a commanding presence in this field. The end of the 19th century to the 20th century was the second Dark Age for shipbuilding in India. Despite industrialisation, British shipbuilders refused to transfer new shipbuilding technology to India.

The 21th century witnessed modernisation of existing shipyards and construction of new shipyards. The shipyard facilities are still not on a par with the shipyards in countries such as Japan and Korea.

The challenges of the 22nd century are many: –

  • The Indian shipbuilding industry needs to take charge and develop equipment, machinery and systems as per emerging technologies. New shipyards as well as modernisation of existing shipyards are needed to match the facilities that are available in successful shipyards in the world. There is a need to build more merchant ships in India. The designers, shipbuilders and the industry have to work together to save time and cost overruns. What is needed is digitisation, cyber safety, and optimisation of digitisation and cyber safety. The concerned Ministry in the government should expand the shipbuilding industry to generate more employment which will benefit the country. The shipbuilding industry and shipyards should be ready to take on foreign orders and consider collaboration with leading shipyards and industry abroad.

The recent collisions at sea between frontline warships and merchant ships, for example, tankers has resulted in concerned navies to change modern touch screen systems with mechanical systems. The drug runners in the world have started making sophisticated electric submersibles/ submariners and using these submarines/submersibles to transport drugs stealthily. The maritime forces and ship designers/shipbuilders/industry need to evolve systems to detect and control such activities.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Vice Adm Rajeshwer Nath

Vice Adm (Retd) Rajeshwer Nath.

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