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Ancient Ship-Building & Maritime Trade

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 SamanyaMadhyama 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 coast.

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 gudda.

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 properties.

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.

Further Reading

Bawan, R.L. 1960. Egypt’s earliest sailing ships. Antiquity 34(134): 117.

Behera, K.S. (Ed.). 1999. Maritime Heritage of India. Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Gaur, Aniruddh Singh. 1993. Belekeri as traditional boat building center in North Kanara Dist. Karnataka, India. Journal of Marine Archaeology 4:  69.

Gill, J. S. 1993. Our heritage of traditional boat building. Journal of Marine Archaeology 4: 74.

Gill, J. S. 1993. Material for modern boat building industry. Journal of Marine Archaeology 4: 76.

Greeshmalatha, A. P. and G. Victor Rajamanickam. 1993. An analysis of different types of traditional coastal vessels along the Kerala Coast. Journal of Marine Archaeology 4:  36.

Hornell, J. 1920. The origin and ethnological significance of Indian boat designs. Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 7(3): 139-287.

Jain, Kirti. 1993. Boat building and the Son Kolis of the Raigad Dist. Maharashtra. Journal of Marine Archaeology 4: 89.

Kunhali, V. 1993. Ship building in Beypore- a study in materials, workers and technology. Journal of Marine Archaeology  4: 56.

Leshnik, S.Lawrence. 1979. The Harappan “Ports” at Lothal : another view. In  Ancient Cities of the Indus (Ed.) Gregory L Possehl. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd.

Rama Sankar and Sila Tripathi. 1993. Boat building technology of Bengal: an overview of literary evidence. Journal of Marine Archaeology 4: 84.

Raman, K.V. 1997. Roads and river transportation. In  History of Technology in India (Ed.) A.K.Bag. New Delhi: Indian  National Science Academy. Pp.592-93.

Rao, S.R.  1979, 1985. Lothal – A Harappan Port Town. 2 vols. New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India. Pp.225- 26, 505.

Rao, S.R. 1987. Progress and Prospects of Marine Archaeology. Goa: NIO.

Rao, S.R. (Ed.). 1991. Recent Advances in Marine Archaeology. Goa: NIO.

Rao, S. R. 1993. Missing links in the history of boat-building technology of India. In Journal of Marine Archaeology 4: 60.

Raut, L. N. and Sila Tripathi. 1993. Traditional boat-building centers around Chilika Lake of Orissa. Journal of Marine Archaeology 4: 51.

Sundaresh. 1993. Traditional boat-building centers of Karnataka coast- a special reference of Honavar, Bhatkal, and Gangolly. Journal of Marine Archaeology  4: 29.

Thivakaran, G. A. and G. Victor Rajamanickam. 1993. Traditional boat-building in Andhra Pradesh. Journal of Marine Archaeology 4: 12.

Tripathi, Alok. 1993. Traditional boats of Lakshadweep. Journal of Marine Archaeology 4: 92.