Ancient Ship-Building & Maritime Trade
by D. P. Agrawal & Lalit Tiwari
The beginnings of boat building technology in India go back to the Third
Millennium BC, to the Harappan times. The Harappans (or Indus Civilization)
constructed the first tide dock of the world for berthing and servicing ships
at the port town of Lothal (Rao, 1987). The discovery of the Lothal port and
dock in 1955 highlighted the maritime aspects of the Indus Civilization. At
Lothal a trapezoid reservoir measuring on an average 214 x
36 meters has been excavated, and has been identified as a dockyard. It is
riveted on all four sides with continuous dry masonry burnt-brick walls, 4-
courses wide, which at its greatest extant depth reaches to 3m (but might
have been originally much higher). The structure was stratigraphically connected
to the old riverbed of Sabarmati. Towards the southern end there is a broad
and relatively shallow gap. This has been supposed to be the inlet channel
of the dock. Leading from the southern wall is a narrow brick water passage,
said to have functioned as a spill channel, when fitted with a sluice-gate.
According to S.R.Rao, the dock has been used in two stages, at the first stage
it was designed to allow ships 18-20 meters long and 4-6 meters wide. At least
two ships could simultaneously pass and enter easily. In the second stage,
the inlet channel was narrowed to accommodate large ships but only single
ships with flat bottoms could enter. The terracotta models of a boat from
Lothal and engravings on Indus seals give some idea of ships going to the
sea. Lothal is situated near Saragwala village, about fifty miles southwest
of Ahmedabad. It lies in a level plain between the Bhogava and Sabarmati rivers
and at present is some twelve miles from the Gulf of Cambay coast. The siltation
rate of the Sabarmati delta is known to be rapid, so that in former times
the site may actually have been nearer the sea. Lothal, with its large market
and a busy dock, was a great emporium where goods from neighboring towns and
villages, such as Rangpur, Kath etc. were sold in exchange for imported and
locally manufactured ones. Lothal had developed overseas trade with the West
Coast of India on the one hand and the Mesopotamian cities through the Bahrain
islands on the other. Among the manufacturing industries of Lothal bead making,
ivory and shell working and bronze-smithy were very important. For the land
transport they used bullock carts and pack animals for long distance trade.
For inland waterways, flat-bottomed boats of the type suggested by the terracotta
models were used. In this connection it may be noted that even today flat-bottomed
boats made of reeds are used for carrying men and light goods. Perhaps the
Harappans used similar boats in the lakes and rivers also. Trade on the high
seas and along the coast was possible because the ships were fitted with sails.
Harappans not only built a unique dock but also provided facilities for handling
cargo. There were other smaller ports such as Bhagatrav, Sutkagendor and Sutkakah,
and perhaps a large one at Dholavira, all in Gujarat. An engraving on a seal
from Mohenjodaro represents a sailing ship with a high prow; the stern was
made of reeds. In the center, it had a square cabin. Out of five miniature
clay models of boats one is complete and represents a ship with sail. The
latter has a sharp keel, a pointed prow and a high flat stern. Two blind holes
are also visible. One of them seen near the stern was meant for the mast,
and the other on the edge of the ship may be for steering. In the second model,
which is rather damaged, the stern and the prow were both curved high up as
in the Egyptian boats of the Garzean period. The keel is pointed and the margins
are raised. A hole made a little away from the center was meant for the mast.
In this case, the prow was broken. Three other damaged models found at Lothal
have a flat base and a pointed prow, but the keel is not pointed nor is there
any hole for fixing the mast. Apparently these flat-based craft were used
on rivers and creeks without sail, while the other two types with sail and
sharp keels plied on the high seas and were berthed in the deep waters of
the Gulf. Probably the canoe types of flat-based boats were the only ones,
which could be sluiced at high tide. Another type of boat can be reconstructed
from the paintings on two potsherds. It represents a boat with multiple oars.
The Harappan ship must have been as big as the modern country crafts, which
bring timber from Malabar to Gogha. On this analogy it can be assumed that
a load up to 60 tons could be carried by these ships. The sizes of the anchor
stones found in the Lothal dock also support this view (Rao, 1979, 1985).
It is a recorded fact that Pushyadeva, the ruler of Sindh (now in Pakistan)
pushed back the formidable Arab navy attacks in 756 AD, which only indicates
his marine prowess. The historical text Yuktikalpataru (11th
Century AD) deals with shipbuilding and gives details of various types of
ships. Boats used for different purposes were called by different names such
as Samanya, Madhyama and Visesha
for passenger service, cargo, fishing and ferrying over the river. The earliest
reference to maritime activities in India occurs in Rigveda, "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" (Rigveda, 1, 97, 7 and 8).
The technology of boat building 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 measurements. In
different places different kinds of boats were built for specific purposes.
These boats may bear some similarity in material, techniques or in shape and
size. For the construction of ship, the teak (Tectona grandis)
wood is generally employed in India, though the selection of wood depends
upon the nature and type of craft.
The traditional construction of a boat starts with the laying of a keel (keel
is foundation beam for the boat and ship), a massive piece of wood supported
on a branching stern about a foot above the ground at both ends. This is stepped
to take the stern-post (rearmost part of a ship or boat) and also the stem
post (the pointed front part of a ship or boat), all made of massive pieces
of timber. The keel is laid first and later the planks or ribs are attached.
Usually for the keel and stern one single piece of wood is always preferred.
The planks are then fastened horizontally on either side of the keel. The
planks join is edge to edge. Rudder is a flat broad piece of wood, which is
mainly used for getting a forwards lead to the expected direction and is not
seen in all traditional crafts. In some crafts the rudder is replaced by a
paddle or oars, which function as a rudder. Paddle is a short oar with a broad
blade at one or both ends and oar is a pole with a flat blade used in rowing.
These are necessary for a straight and swift movement of the vessels. Generally
all the ships use the wind power. In the ship the mast is fixed on ribs above
the keel. The mast is made out of a timber tree but the builders prefer a
bamboo piece, because of its suitability to make a mast long, and strong.
Sail is a sheet of canvas spread to catch the wind and move a boat or ship
forwards. It is used in traditional vessels; the shape of sail is triangular
to make it easy to catch the wind. Sails are fixed to the mast with ropes.
The sails are used mainly when the vessels are going to the mid sea, so that
they can make use of the maximum wind energy.
Traditional Boat-building in various states of India
In India, there are various places that have the traditional boats and boat
building technology. The Andhara coast is known for 4 types of traditional
boats constructed for cargo transport, fishing and ferrying purposes, which
are catamarans (teppa), dugout canoe, stitched-planks-built boats and
Nailed-planks-built boats. Generally the types of wood used for boat building
in Andhra Pradesh are grannari karra (Egesa: Acquicia canilotica), arcini karra (Melia dubia), cinntha karra (Albizzia sp.), rai karra, teak, circini karra (Anogeissus
sp.), mamidi karra (Mango: Magnifera
indica), sal (Shorea robusta), Indian laural (Terminalia tormentosa) and maddi (Alianthus malabarica). Teppas are simple floating devices, but are the predominant
traditional sea craft along the Andhra Pradesh. Some keeled planked boats
locally called padavas are also
common vessels along the Andhra coastline. In Andhra these traditional boats
are constructed at Nellare, Prakaram, Godavari and Guntur districts.
Boats in Karnataka region are called by different names depending on their
use. The smallest craft of this region is known as canoe (hudi),
which is scooped out of a singletree trunk. The middle-sized craft is known
as boat (doni) and the biggest craft is known as ship (machchwa). Most ships use wind power. The art of shipbuilding
is a monopoly of a class of people known as mestas or acharis
(carpenter). The type of wood used for shipbuilding is known as kshatriya, which is mentioned in Yuktikalpataru. The common wood used for shipbuilding is matthi, sagouy,
teak, honne, undi and hebbals. Teakwood is used rarely because of its high
Raft, dugout and plank built boats are the main traditional types in the
Kerala coast. Raft is made of a number of roughly shaped logs fastened together
in order to float down a river or to serve as a boat. Dugout
is single log craft, which is scooped out in the middle. It is employed all
over Kerala for catching fish. Planked built boats are further classified
into 2 categories: one is stitched and the second is built with nailed planks.
Stitched-planked built craft is manufactured by using coir and synthetic ropes.
Generally, the types of wood used for shipbuilding in Kerala are alpassi,
mullumurukku or panniclavu (Ceiba pentandra), perumaram/alanta
(Alianthus excelsa), pilivaka (Albizzia
falcatria), malamurukku (Samanea
saman), pilavu (Artocarpus integrifolias),
mavu (Magnifera indica), ayini/annili
(Artocarpus hirsuta), punna
(Callophyllum inophyllum) and
cadacci (Grewia tiliaefolia).
The bending process is purely based on traditional method by applying a kind
of fish oil or cow dung on the planks.
The traditional boat builders of Chilika region in Orisa are called Bindhani,
Barhais and Biswakaramas (carpenters). They build small flat-bottomed boats
known as nauka or danga.
Sal is used for construction of nauka. The knowledge of boat building has
come down as a family tradition. Bamboos are used as mast, locally called
The boat builders and ships have been depicted in the brick temple in the
district of Midnapore, Birbhum and Bankura in Bengal. The vessels are classified
as raft, dugouts and cargo carriers and are used for commercial purpose. Dinghy
is a one-man passenger boat in Bengal. It is unique for its features and movement
in the river. The boatman squats at paddling on the low sharp stem to maneuver
in the zigzag path of the river. A neat cabin with semicircular roof occupies
the space available in the middle of the boats. A tall bamboo mast is generally
used for long distance travel. In Bengal, small boat is never used except
as cargo carriers. The steering paddle is the most remarkable feature of the
cargo carriers (Malbahi nauka).
Now a days, in Bombay there are no boat building yards to be found in or
around, except may be at Varai and Versova. Available wild woods are commonly
used for construction of boats and ships. They are not very expensive. The
main types of wood that are utilized today are sal, babul, ain, bibla, jambul
and punnai, but the teak wood is always the best for ship and boat building
and is preferred in Bombay too. Ain wood is some times used for building a
major portion of the boat. It is a hard wood and very similar to teak in its
In Lakeshadweep, coconut tree is locally available in abundance,
thus coconut wood is still used in local boats, but it is difficult to say
with authority, what made early boat builders to use coconut wood. Coconut
wood is now used for bulwarks, masts, cross stays, sides ribs, etc. and for
cabin removable thatched roofs etc. Mango or breadfruit tree wood is also
used. Boats of Lakeshdweep can broadly be divided into two categories based
on their use: trading vessels and fishing vessels. Bareues, odies, bandodies,
dweep odam or valiya odam are some trading vessels and tharappan, odam, mas
odi, odi jahadhoni, mahadha dhoni, kelukkam dhoni, allam dhoni or dhoni, ara
dhoni are some fishing crafts and jhaha dhoni is a race boat in Lakeshdweep.
Stand odam is the most widely used typical boat of Lakeshdweep. Boats in Lakeshdweep
are not built for sale, but only for the use of islanders.
Indian boat technology and navigational knowledge goes back to the III Millennium
BC. Traditional boat builders could make ships, which were fully sea-worthy
and could sale to West Asia. But now all over India the traditional boat building
technology is in a declining condition due to changes of technology and advancement
in mechanized systems. This is best exemplified in Andhra Pradesh by the use
of catamarans, which are being manufactured from synthetic materials in small-scale
industries. These synthetic catamarans are now a day preferred by traditional
fisher folk because of their longevity, payload, cost, range and easy manoeurability.
Several manufacturing industries have come up in the Srikalulam and Ganjam
districts of Orissa. There are hardly a few places in India such as Kakinada,
Cuddalore, Beypore and Veraval engaged in construction of sea going vessels
at present. Now a days traditional boats are only used for crossng rivers,
coastal transport and fishing. It is however satisfying to note that traditional
boat building technology is being harmoniously combined with modern technology
to produce more efficient vessels.
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