terror in delhi 10/29
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
  A Brief History of Indic Thalassocracy - 3/3

thal·as·soc·ra·cy - n., Naval or commercial supremacy on the seas.

Greek thalassokratiā : thalassa, sea + -kratiā, -cracy.

Indian Thalassocracy Part III - Post 5th century A.D.:

Part I here. Part II here.

A golden age of Indic maritime activity (525-650 A.D.) which witnessed the expansion of India and the spread of Indic thought and culture to the farther East Java, Cambodia, Burma, Siam, China and even Japan), was largely a South Indian enterprise in which the Andhras and the Cholas played a key role.

Bengal: 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 sings about harbors 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 ship-building harbor. Kamarupa: The ancient kingdom of Kamarupa consisting of the Brahmaputra river valley and surrounding areas. King Bhaskaravarman (7th century A.D.) was in "possession of splendid ships" fought a naval battle with Mahasena Gupta on the waters of the Lohitya (Brahmaputra). The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang (Xuanzang) who visited Kamarupa estimates that Bhaskaravarman’s fleet was large as 30,000 ships.

Chalukyas: Pulakeshi II (611 A.D. to 639 A.D.) was the most powerful ruler of the Chalukyan dynasty who led his forces in all the directions – land and sea. Pulakeshi’s principal naval expedition was directed against Puri, a great and wealthy city which prospered by its overseas trade and was famous as “the mistress of the Western sea”. The city of Puri has not been properly identified - some consider Puri as the Elephanta Island, others think it is the modern town of Gharpuri on the West coast of Gujarat. The most important fact is that it was the support of sea power which made Pulakeshi the master of the land.

The Peak of Chola Power:

According to Chakravarthi, “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”.

Under the Cholas, Indian naval power attained its culminating point. The great Chola king Rajaraja 1 (985 to 1014 A.D.) tried to take the Chera country under his control and took the key part of Quilon. He is also said to have attacked Maldives Islands and Sri Lanka. His son Rajendra Chola 1 (1014 to 1042 A.D.) knew the great importance of foreign trade and built a powerful navy meant for trade and war. Rajendra prepared a naval expedition against the Srivijaya empire, first taking Andaman and Nicobar Islands to serve as an advance base. The Chola fleet sailed on and took several coastal ports. This attack was only to break Srivijaya's commercial monopoly and not to occupy it permanently. He contained Arab competition by sending a naval expedition against Maldives to stop the Arabs from building and equipping merchant ships there.

His successor Virarajendra continued and strengthened the maritime tradition and made Tamil naval power invincible. Rajendra Chola's naval adventures covered the Nicobar Islands, the Malay peninsular and Sumatra. Under his rule, the Bay of Bengal and the eastern Indian Ocean became a “Chola lake”.


While our posts obviously sing paeans to past Indic maritime achievements, sometime down the lane its power waned and almost became non-existent. While analyzing this decline can be left to serious military historians, it is evident that building and maintaining a strong navy was essential for guarding commercial and strategic interests. It is a lesson from the past which is still applicable to this date and even in the future. In a coming post, we intend to present the technological breakthroughs, strategic alignments and regional threats for the Indian Navy to become one of the big-leaguers and reclaim its historical role as the custodian of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) – from the Sea of Oman to the Straits of Malacca and we daresay even beyond.

-End of series-

References: Prithwis Chandra Chakravarti, “Naval Warfare in Ancient India”, The Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1930, p p. 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

Cynical Nerd,

This was a fascinating post. Here's my feedback.

One key source that you had not referred to was the Mahabharata. You also erroneously refer to the Andhra empire as a Buddhist kingdom. That is incorrect. The Andhra kings described themselves as "upholders of the Varnashrama Dharma" and 'defenders of the twice born" although they did sponsor Buddhism on the side. But Buddhist sponsorship in their kingdom was largely a private affair.

The Indus valley civilization was a maritime civilization that traded with Bahrein. The port cities of Lothal and Sutkagen Dor illustrate brisk sea faring activity. The Rig Veda, as you correctly, had several references to maritime trade and activity. The Sangam literature in Tamil Nadu also had several references to port cities, to clashes at mid sea and to naval traditions. I refer to the Chera kings Senguttuvan and the Chola king Karikalan of the 1st century CE.

The Sangam classics such as the Pattinappalai, Padirrup-pattu, Madurai-kanchi and the Mullaipattu can be dated to the 3rd century AD. They describe the vibrant trading activity in the Coromandel coast, the well stocked ware houses in the southern port cities, the mansions of Yavana merchants and affluent traders who made their living through overseas commerce.

But it was the Cholas in the 10th century CE who fully exploited the importance of a navy to imperial consolidation and used it with good effect to annexe Sri Lanka, the Maldives and the Laccadives, not to mention destroy the maritime federation of SriVijaya in Sumatra. The objective was to ensure free trade access to China.

The Hinduization of Cambodia and Indonesia in the first millenium CE owed itself in large measure to maritime contact with the Indian subcontinent.

India lost its maritime tradition in large measure only in medieval times when it retreated into its own shell when faced with the onslaught of external invasions. While the Arabs gradually took over the Indian Ocean trade in the 14th century until their eventual displacement by the Portuguese, India liked Ming dynasty China and Japan unfortunately turned insular. The later lawmakers forbade travel across the seas in all three lands. Decline was inevitable in such a stifling environment.

And yet, the naval tradition never died out.

Gujarati Hindu merchants continued to trade with Yemen and East Africa. The Zamorin (or Samudri) of Calicut continued to maintain an ocean going fleet while Jaffna remained a sea faring principality that traded with the Gulf.

I would like to end with reference to the medieval principality of Jaffna. Established in the 1200s AD, this was initially a kingdom on the northern edge of Sri Lanka based on sea-faring trade. Ibn Batuta visited the Jaffna principality in the 14th century. He described the pearl fisheries there and the 100 ships of varying sizes that he had seen off the coast of Malabar which belonged to its king, some about to embark to Yemen. He explained that the king seized the goods of foreign ships in the Palk Straits that refused to pay the royal tax, and derived the income from ship wrecks. Ibn Batuta represented the King as fluent in Persian given trade links with the Near East. Contemporary Sinhalese records indicate that the King of Jaffna briefly extended his control to large parts of the island in the 1300s. Tamil records refer to him as Sethu kavalar (guardian of the Sethu samudram i.e. the Palk Straits)

It is time therefore that India reclaims its maritime inheritance as befits a nation of its standing and historical inheritance.

Thanks and I know you would respond and fill in the holes in my post! Writing this post itself has been very educative.

Yes, I should have included Mahabaratha. I did mention Cenkuttuvan in Part II and I did wanted to refer to Karila Cholan - but I could'nt nail the right date (wikipedia helps only so much!)

I do seem vaugely to remember Pattinapaalai.

I think the maritine adventures of the Cholas can itself constitute several posts.

One thing of interest as to why it decline is perhaps while the Cholas and Srivijayas were battling in Andamans and Sumatra, the Arabs made inroads in the western part. I think there was an epic naval war between an Arab army and a Jat and the latter lost.

Eventually the last Srivijaya king converted to Islam and this completed the picture.

But, it did'nt completely disappear like you say. In addition, I think the Travncore king had a big fleet and defeated the Dutch in 17th century. Also Indian ship-building continue to make ships for the Royal Navy.


It was the feared Zamorin of Calicut, and not the Maharajah of Travancore, who had defeated the Dutch navy in the 17th century.

The Arab control of trade routes in the Indian Ocean lasted barely 100 years. The Portuguese arrival prevented the consolidation of Arab maritime power. In so doing, the Portuguese unintentionally safeguarded Buddhism in Sri Lanka from Islam.

I also forgot to mention that archeological excavations had unearthed the remains of a city that had been submerged off the coast of Dwarka several centuries ago. This city has been tentatively dated to the Indus valley era and is further testimony to that civilization having been a maritime one.

The references to sea going trade in the Rig Veda are also interesting.

The Silappadikaram, the 5th century Tamil classic, is another source. In that Kovalan is depicted as the son of a naval admiral.

Yup, in fact I intended to write about Dwarka, but it got slipped.

You are right about Silappadikaaram, I remember one or more of the principal charactars are from Poompuhar before they moved to Madurai. I shamefully don't remember the details.

jaffna: would you be interested in doing further posts on this subject. One can start with the most prominent the Cholas! I would certainly interested in knowing how far it spread at its peak? Some say upto Japan in the East, Africa, Mediterranien and Southern europe. in the West.
i was utterly shocked to see no referance to andhra people while talking about indian maritime history.how can u forget to mention about the people who established indian empires as far as 2000 years back in southeast asia,who spread hinduism and mahayana buddism to whole of southeast asia ,china and japan,how can u forget to mention about the satavahana emperors who issued coins having ships on them, and the most powerful emperors of india at that time with the most powerful navy in entire asia.for ur reference the tamil countries paid tribute to satavahana emperors.the whole of indian coast line was under thier control,their extensive trade with rome is a proof for this.the influence of andhra people on asia dates back to 2000 years,with out a powerful navy how can it be possible.the extensive sanscrit literature available in southeast asia and china and the similarities of all the southeast asian language scripts including srilanka is a testimony to their dominance on asia.today every indian feels very proud to see the indian religion and culture practiced in southeast asia,china japan and korea.it is all because of andhra people.how can they go to such far places and establish our culture with out great navy.as u mentioned that the golden time of indian maritime activity started with the chola expansion to southeast asia,i completely disagre with u.because they did not achieve any cultural or religious or linguistic achievement in that part of the world.that was just a successful naval expedition.chola achievement is great but andhra peoples achievement is far far great when compared to it.andhra people r the best sailors and there is no second thought about it.andhras established funan kingdom in combodia in 1 century AD.during the time of chalukyan rule and kakatiya rule they continuously had influence over those parts.
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