thal·as·soc·ra·cy - n., Naval or commercial supremacy on the seas.
Greek thalassokratiā : thalassa, sea + -kratiā, -cracy.
We attempt to present some aspects of the Indic maritime history. This blogger accidentally fell upon some of these extraordinarily interesting information while researching on contemporary naval defense issues. We hope the readers too will find it absorbing. We are not an 'eminent' historian and so we make no guarantees on the veracity of the information nor on its completeness. We have simply compiled the information as per our comprehension in chronological order. Further references and links have been liberally provided for serious history buffs.
Indian Thalassocracy Part I - Ancient Period:
Indic maritime prowess was spread all over the coastal regions: from the Indus valley, the Saurashtras in the Gujarat coast, the Coromandel coast by the Tamil and Andhra kingdoms and in Bengal in the sea and the great rivers of Ganga and Brahmaputra. Long before the birth of Christ, there were several references in Jatakas (ancient Indian folk tales), Greek and Roman accounts, early Tamil poems and Pali texts with some supported by archaeological proof showing the navigation of skills of Indians in the rivers and the high sea. There were ports and harbors all along the Indian coastline such as Tamaralipti, Poompuhar, Bharukaccha and Surparaka.
Obviously there is very little solid archaeological evidence of the ancient period. But there are several references to maritime adventures of kings from sacred texts proving at least that the maritime instincts existed in popular imagination. There seem to be innumerable references in Sanskrit and Pali literature of men lost to the might of the high seas and of wrecked vessels.
The Rig Veda for example talks about King Tugra who commissioned his son Bhujyu on a naval expedition which was ship-wrecked on the ocean, “where there is no support, no rest for the foot or the hand”. He was subsequently rescued by the twin Asvins in their hundred-oared galley. 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.”
Tamaralipti was a large port city in the kingdom of Vanga (Bengal). According to the Buddhist epic Mahavamsa, Prince Vijaya Simha was banished from Vanga and took off from Tamaralipti with a large fleet to land in Sri Lanka in the 5th century B.C. Hence the name Simhala is derived from the Simha dynasty which he created there. An Ajanta painting depicts the scene of the landing of Vijaya in Sri Lanka with his army we see a fleet of large ships with many passengers, elephants and horses.
Indus valley and Initial Greek Contacts:
The port of Bharukaccha is referenced in ancient Pali texts of Jain and Buddhist accounts as part of the historic trade route of Kamboja-Dvaravati between Dwarka and Kamboja Mahajanapada located in north-eastern Afghanistan is supposed to belong to the Indus Valley period.
Even before Alexander's arrival on the banks of Indus, there were accounts about the people of the Indus basin indulging in the practice of piracy on the high seas. Many such accounts were told by the Persians to the Greek envoys to the then Persian Empire. Such accounts tend to freely mix facts with fiction with tales about India consisting of beast-headed human creatures and people living for 200 years. This was skeptically expressed by Strabo, the Greek geographer, who published the earlier accounts in his great compilation in 7 B.C.
The Indus people, per Strabo were the ‘Vikings’ of ancient India, and the great Persian monarchy was the worst sufferer from their depredations. Strabo and Arrian (another Greek historian) add that in order to protect their cities against piratical attacks, the Persians made the Tigris entirely inaccessible to navigation.
Ironically, Strabo also describes India as “the greatest of all nations and the happiest in lot”. One might wonder why would a ‘great’ and ‘happy’ set of people terrorize the Persians. Of course, for the Greeks at that time anything to their East means India, so some of the reference could also have meant also East African or Arabian pirates. We will get a much clearer after the eventual the arrival of Alexander
To be continued in Part II.
References: Prithwis Chandra Chakravarti, “Naval Warfare in Ancient India”, The Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1930, pp. 645-664
O.K. Nambiar, “An Illusrated Maritine History of the Indian Ocean”, Excerpts available from the official Indian Navy website.
Paul Lunde, “The Indian Ocean and Global Trade”, Saudi Aramco World, July/August 2005