Indian maritime history

To the northwest of Lothal (2400 BCE) lies the Kutch peninsula. Proximity to the Gulf of Khambhat allowed direct access to sea routes. Lothal's topography and geology reflects its maritime past.

Indian maritime history begins during the 3rd millennium BCE when inhabitants of the Indus Valley initiated maritime trading contact with Mesopotamia.[1] The Roman historian Strabo mentions an increase in Roman trade with India following the Roman annexation of Egypt.[2] By the time of Augustus up to 120 ships were setting sail every year from Myos Hormos to India.[3] As trade between India and the Greco-Roman world increased spices became the main import from India to the Western world,[4] bypassing silk and other commodities.[5] Indians were present in Alexandria[6] while Christian and Jew settlers from Rome continued to live in India long after the fall of the Roman empire,[7] which resulted in Rome's loss of the Red Sea ports,[8] previously used to secure trade with India by the Greco-Roman world since the Ptolemaic dynasty.[9] The Indian commercial connection with South East Asia proved vital to the merchants of Arabia and Persia during the 7th–8th century.[10]

On orders of Manuel I of Portugal, four vessels under the command of navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, continuing to the eastern coast of Africa to Malindi to sail across the Indian Ocean to Calicut.[11] The wealth of the Indies was now open for the Europeans to explore.[11] The Portuguese Empire was one of the early European empires to grow from spice trade.[11]


The National Maritime Day

April 5, 1964 marks the National Maritime Day of India. On this day in 1919 navigation history was created when SS Loyalty, the first ship of The Scindia Steam Navigation Company Ltd., journeyed to the United Kingdom, a crucial step for India shipping history when sea routes were controlled by the British. The National Maritime Day was first celebrated on 5 April 1964.


The region around the Indus river began to show visible increase in both the length and the frequency of maritime voyages by 3000 BCE.[12] Optimum conditions for viable long-distance voyages existed in this region by 2900 BCE.[13] Mesopotamian inscriptions indicate that Indian traders from the Indus valley—carrying copper, hardwoods, ivory, pearls, carnelian, and gold—were active in Mesopotamia during the reign of Sargon of Akkad (c. 2300 BCE).[1] Gosch & Stearns write on the Indus Valley's pre-modern maritime travel:[14] Evidence exists that Harrappans were bulk shipping timber and special woods to Sumeria on ships and luxury items such as lapis lazuli. The trade in lapis lazuli was carried out from northern Afghanistan over eastern Iran to Sumeria but during the Mature Harrappan period an Indus colony was established at Shortugai in Central Asia near the Badakshan mines and the lapis stones were brought overland to Lothal in Gujarat and shipped to Oman, Bahrain and Mesopotamia.

Archaeological research at sites in Mesopotamia, Bahrain, and Oman has led to the recovery of artifacts traceable to the Indus Valley civilization, confirming the information on the inscriptions. Among the most important of these objects are stamp seals carved in soapstone, stone weights, and colorful carnelian beads....Most of the trade between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley was indirect. Shippers from both regions converged in Persian Gulf ports, especially on the island of Bahrain (known as Dilmun to the Sumerians). Numerous small Indus-style artifacts have been recovered at locations on Bahrain and further down the coast of the Arabian Peninsula in Oman. Stamp seals produced in Bahrain have been found at sites in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, strengthening the likelihood that the island may have acted as a redistribution point for goods coming from Mesopotamia and the Indus area....There are hints from the digs at Ur, a major Sumerian city-state on the Euphrates, that some Indus Valley merchants and artisans (bead makers) may have established communities in Mesopotamia.

The world's first dock at Lothal (2400 BCE) was located away from the main current to avoid deposition of silt.[15] Modern oceanographers have observed that the Harappans must have possessed great knowledge relating to tides in order to build such a dock on the ever-shifting course of the Sabarmati, as well as exemplary hydrography and maritime engineering.[15] This was the earliest known dock found in the world, equipped to berth and service ships.[15] It is speculated that Lothal engineers studied tidal movements, and their effects on brick-built structures, since the walls are of kiln-burnt bricks.[16] This knowledge also enabled them to select Lothal's location in the first place, as the Gulf of Khambhat has the highest tidal amplitude and ships can be sluiced through flow tides in the river estuary.[16] The engineers built a trapezoidal structure, with north-south arms of average 21.8 metres (71.5 ft), and east-west arms of 37 metres (121 ft).[16]

Early Kingdoms

Indian cartography locates the Pole star, and other constellations of use in navigational charts.[17] These charts may have been in use by the beginning of the Common Era for purposes of navigation.[17] Detailed maps of considerable length describing the locations of settlements, sea shores, rivers, and mountains were also made.[18] The Periplus Maris Erythraei mentions a time when sea trade between India and Egypt did not involve direct sailings.[19] The cargo under these situations was shipped to Aden:[19]

Roman trade with India according to the Periplus Maris Erythraei (1st century CE).
Eudaimon Arabia was called fortunate, being once a city, when, because ships neither came from India to Egypt nor did those from Egypt dare to go further but only came as far as this place, it received the cargoes from both, just as Alexandria receives goods brought from outside and from Egypt.

It should be mentioned here that Tamil Pandya embassies were received by Augustus Caesar and Roman historians mention a total of four embassies from the Tamil country. Pliny famously mentions the expenditure of one million sestertii every year on goods such pepper, fine cloth and gems from the southern coasts of India. He also mentions 10,000 horses shipped to this region each year. Tamil and southern Sanskrit name inscriptions have been found in Luxor in Egypt. In turn Tamil literature from the Classical period mentions foreign ships arriving for trade and paying in gold for products. The first clear mention of a navy occurs in the mythological epic Mahabharata.[20] Historically, however, the first attested attempt to organize a navy in India, as described by Megasthenes (c. 350—290 BCE), is attributed to Candragupta Maurya (reign 322—298 BCE).[20] The Mauryan empire (322–185 BCE) navy continued till the times of emperor Ashoka (reign 273—32 BCE), who used it to send massive diplomatic missions to Greece, Syria, Egypt, Cyrene, Macedonia and Epirus.[20] Following nomadic interference in Siberia—one of the sources for India's bullion—India diverted its attention to the Malay peninsula, which became its new source for gold and was soon exposed to the world via a series of maritime trade routes.[21] The period under the Mauryan empire also witnessed various other regions of the world engage increasingly in the Indian Ocean martitime voyages.[21]

Muziris, as shown in the Tabula Peutingeriana.

According to the historian Strabo (II.5.12.) the Roman trade with India trade initiated by Eudoxus of Cyzicus in 130 BCE kept increasing.[3] Indian ships sailed to Egypt as the thriving maritime routes of Southern Asia were not under the control of a single power.[22] In India, the ports of Barbaricum (modern Karachi), Barygaza, Muziris, Korkai, Kaveripattinam and Arikamedu on the southern tip of India were the main centers of this trade.[23] The Periplus Maris Erythraei describes Greco-Roman merchants selling in Barbaricum "thin clothing, figured linens, topaz, coral, storax, frankincense, vessels of glass, silver and gold plate, and a little wine" in exchange for "costus, bdellium, lycium, nard, turquoise, lapis lazuli, Seric skins, cotton cloth, silk yarn, and indigo".[23] In Barygaza, they would buy wheat, rice, sesame oil, cotton and cloth.[23]

The Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum was involved in the Indian Ocean trade network and was influenced by Roman culture and Indian architecture.[7] Traces of Indian influences are visible in Roman works of silver and ivory, or in Egyptian cotton and silk fabrics used for sale in Europe.[6] The Indian presence in Alexandria may have influenced the culture but little is known about the manner of this influence.[6] Clement of Alexandria mentions the Buddha in his writings and other Indian religions find mentions in other texts of the period.[6] The Indians were present in Alexandria[6] and the Christian and Jew settlers from Rome continued to live in India long after the fall of the Roman empire,[7] which resulted in Rome's loss of the Red Sea ports,[8] previously used to secure trade with India by the Greco-Roman world since the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty.[9]

Early Common Era—High Middle Ages

Textiles of India were in demand in Egypt, East Africa, and the Mediterranean between the 1st-2nd centuries CE.[21] These regions became overseas markets for Indian exports.[21] In Java and Borneo, the introduction of Indian culture created a demand for aromatics.[10] These trading outposts later served the Chinese and Arab markets as well.[10] The Periplus Maris Erythraei names several Indian ports from where large ships sailed towards east to Khruse.[24] Moluccan products shipped across the ports of Arabia to the Near East passed through the ports of India and Sri Lanka.[25] After reaching either the Indian or the Sri Lankan ports were sometimes shipped to East Africa, where they would be used for many purposes, including burial rites.[25]

Chola territories during Rajendra Chola I, c. 1030.
Model of a Chola (200–848 CE) ship's hull, built by the ASI, based on a wreck 19 miles off the coast of Poombuhar, displayed in a Museum in Tirunelveli.

The Chola dynasty (200—1279) was at the peak of its influence and power during the medieval period.[26] Emperors Rajaraja Chola I (985—1014) and Rajendra Chola I (1012—1044) extended the Chola kingdom beyond the traditional limits.[27] At its peak, the Chola Empire stretched from the island of Sri Lanka in the south to the Godavari basin in the north.[28] The kingdoms along the east coast of India up to the river Ganges acknowledged Chola suzerainty.[29] Chola navies invaded and conquered Srivijaya (7th–13th century) in the Malay archipelago.[30]

The Indian commercial connection with South East Asia proved vital to the merchants of Arabia and Persia between 7-8 century CE.[10] The Abbasids used Alexandria, Damietta, Aden and Siraf as entry ports to India and China.[31] Merchants arriving from India in the port city of Aden paid tribute in form of musk, camphor, ambergris and sandalwood to Ibn Ziyad, the sultan of Yemen.[31] The kingdoms of Vijaynagar and Kalinga established foothold over Malaya, Sumatra and Western Java.[32]

The Cholas excelled in foreign trade and maritime activity, extending their influence overseas to China and Southeast Asia.[33] Towards the end of the 9th century, southern India had developed extensive maritime and commercial activity.[34][35] The Cholas, being in possession of parts of both the west and the east coasts of peninsular India, were at the forefront of these ventures.[36][37][38] The Tang dynasty (618 – 907) of China, the Srivijaya empire in the Malayan archipelago under the Sailendras, and the Abbasid Kalifat at Baghdad were the main trading partners.[39]

During the reign of Pandya Parantaka Nedumjadaiyan (765 – 790), the Chera dynasty were a close ally of the Pallavas.[40] Pallavamalla Nadivarman defeated the Pandya Varaguna with the help of a Chera king.[40] Cultural contacts between the Pallava court and the Chera country were common.[40] Indian spice exports find mention in the works of Ibn Khurdadhbeh (850), al-Ghafiqi (1150 CE), Ishak bin Imaran (907) and Al Kalkashandi (14th century).[25] Chinese traveler Hsuan Tsang mentions the town of Puri where "merchants depart for distant countries."[41]

Hindu and Buddhist religious establishments of Southeast Asia came to be associated with economic activity and commerce as patrons entrusted large funds which would later be used to benefit local economy by estate management, craftsmanship and promotion of trading activities.[42] Buddhism, in particular, traveled alongside the maritime trade, promoting coinage, art and literacy.[43]

Late Middle Ages—Modern Period

Indian vessel as shown in the Fra Mauro map (1460).

Christians missionaries traveling with trade, such as, Saint Francis Xavier, were instrumental in the spread of Christianity in the East.[44] Christianity competed with Islam to become the dominant religion of the Moluccas.[44] However, the natives of the Spice Islands accommodated aspects of both the religions easily.[45] The European traveler Marco Polo (1292) described Indian vessels:" ...built of fir timber, having a sheath of boards laid over the planking in every part, caulked with oakum and fastened with iron nails. The bottoms were smeared with a preparation of quicklime and hemp, pounded together and mixed with oil from a certain tree which is a better material than pith."[32] Descriptions between the 14th - 15th century indicate that the Indian vessels could carry over 100 seamen and were equipped with bulkhead (partition).[32] Ma Huan (1413–51) reached Cochin and noted that Indian coins, known as fanam, were issued in Cochin and weighed a total of one fen and one li according to the Chinese standards.[46] They were of fine quality and could be exchanged in China for 15 silver coins of four-li weight each.[46]

Image of Calicut, India from Georg Braun and Frans Hogenberg's atlas Civitates orbis terrarum, 1572.
This figure illustrates the path of Vasco da Gama's course to India (black), the first to go around Africa. Voyages of Pêro da Covilhã (orange) and Afonso de Paiva (blue) are also shown with common routes marked in green.

On the orders of Manuel I of Portugal, four vessels under the command of navigator Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope In 1497, continuing to the eastern coast of Africa to Malindi to sail across the Indian Ocean to Calicut.[11] The first Dutch expedition left from Amsterdam (April 1595) for South East Asia.[47] Another Dutch convoy sailed in 1598 and returned one year later with 600, 000 pounds of spices and other Indian products.[47] The United East India Company forged alliance with the principal producers of cloves and nutmeg.[47]

Shivaji Bhonsle (reign 1664—1680) maintained a navy under the charge of general Kanhoji Angre (served 1698—1729).[48] The initial advances of the Portuguese were checked by this navy, which also effectively relieved the traffic and commerce in India's west coast of Portuguese threat.[48] The Maratha navy also checked the English East India Company, until the navy itself underwent a decline due to the policies of general Nanasaheb (reign 1740 - 1761).[49]

The British East India Company shipped substantial quantities of spices during the early 17th century.[47] Rajesh Kadian (2006) examines the history of the British navy in as the British Raj was established in India:[50]

In 1830 ships of the British East India Company were designated as the Indian navy. However, in 1863, it was disbanded when Britain’s Royal Navy took control of the Indian Ocean. About thirty years later, the few small Indian naval units were called the Royal Indian Marine (RIM). In the wake of World War I, Britain, exhausted in manpower and resources, opted for expansion of the RIM. Consequently, on 2 October 1934, the RIM was reincarnated as the Royal Indian Navy (RIN).
The Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1842 onboard HMS Cornwallis (1813), made by shipbuilders at the Bombay Dockyard.[32]

The Indian rulers weakened with the advent of the European powers.[32] Shipbuilders, however, continued to build ships capable of carrying 800 to 1000 tons.[32] The shipbuilders at the Bombay Dockyard built ships like the HMS Hindostan (1795) and HMS Ceylon (1808), inducted into the Royal Navy.[32] The historical ships made by Indian shipbuilders included HMS Asia (1824) (commanded by Edward Codrington during the Battle of Navarino in 1827), the frigate HMS Cornwallis (1813) (onboard which the Treaty of Nanking was signed in 1842), and the HMS Minden (on which The Star Spangled Banner was composed by Francis Scott Key).[32] David Arnold examines the role of Indian shipbuilders during the British Raj:[51]

Shipbuilding was a well-established craft at numerous points along the Indian coastline long before the arrival of the Europeans and was a significant factor in the high level of Indian maritime activity in the Indian Ocean region....As with cotton textiles, European trade was initially a stimulus to Indian shipbuilding: vessels built in ports like Masulipatam and Surat from Indian hardwoods by local craftsmen were cheaper and tougher than their European counterparts.

Between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries Indian shipyards produced a series of vessels incorporating these hybrid features. A large proportion of them were built in Bombay, where the Company had established a small shipyard. In 1736 Parsi carpenters were brought in from Surat to work there and, when their European supervisor died, one of the carpenters, Lowji Nuserwanji Wadia, was appointed Master Builder in his place.

Wadia oversaw the construction of thirty-five ships, twenty-one of them for the Company. Following his death in 1774, his sons took charge of the shipyard and between them built a further thirty ships over the next sixteen years. The Britannia, a ship of 749 tons launched in 1778, so impressed the Court of Directors when it reached Britain that several new ships were commissioned from Bombay, some of which later passed into the hands of the Royal Navy. In all, between 1736 and 1821, 159 ships of over 100 tons were built at Bombay, including 15 of over 1,000 tons. Ships constructed at Bombay in its heyday were said to be ‘vastly superior to anything built anywhere else in the world’.

Contemporary Era (1947–present)


A Punjabi lascar of the Royal Indian Navy holding twin Lewis Guns, in the Mediterranean (1943), during the Allied invasion of Sicily.

In 1947, the Republic of India’s navy consisted of 33 ships, and 538 officers to secure a coastline of more than 4,660 miles (7,500 km) and 1,280 islands.[50] The Indian navy conducted annual Joint Exercises with other Commonwealth navies throughout the 1950s.[50] The navy saw action during various of the country's wars, including Indian integration of Junagadh,[52] the liberation of Goa,[53] the 1965 war, and the 1971 war.[54] Following difficulty in obtaining spare parts from the Soviet Union, India also embarked upon a massive indigenous naval designing and production programme aimed at manufacturing destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and submarines.[50]

Image of ships participating in the Malabar 2007 naval exercise from the navies of India, United States, Japan, Australia and Singapore in the Bay of Bengal.

India’s Coast Guard Act was passed in August 1978.[50] The Indian Coast Guard participated in counter terrorism operations such as Operation Cactus.[50] During contemporary times the Indian navy was commissioned in several United Nations peacekeeping missions.[50] The navy also repatriated Indian nationals from Kuwait during the first Gulf War.[50] Rajesh Kadian (2006) holds that: "During the Kargil War (1999), the aggressive posture adopted by the navy played a role in convincing Islamabad and Washington that a larger conflict loomed unless Pakistan withdrew from the heights.".[50]

Aircraft carrier INS Viraat with Sea Harriers.

As a result of the growing strategic ties with the western world the Indian navy has conducted joint exercises with its western counterparts, including the United States Navy, and has obtained latest naval equipment from its western allies.[50] Better relations with the United States of America and Israel have led to joint patrolling of the Straits of Malacca.[50]


The following table gives the detailed data about the major ports of India for the financial year 2005-06 and percentage growth over 2004-05 (Source: Indian Ports Association):

Name Cargo Handled (06-07) '000 tonnes  % Increase (over 05-06) Vessel Traffic (05-06)  % Increase (over 04-05) Container Traffic (05-06) '000 TEUs  % Increase (over 04-05)
Kolkata (Kolkata Dock System & Haldia Dock Complex) 55,050 3.59% 2,853 07.50% 313 09.06%
Paradip 38,517 16.33% 1,330 10.01% 3 50.00%
Visakhapatnam 56,386 1.05% 2,109 14.43% 47 04.44%
Chennai 53,798 13.05% 1,857 11.26% 735 19.12%
Tuticorin 18,001 05.03% 1,576 06.56% 321 04.56%
Cochin 15,314 10.28% 1,225 09.38% 203 09.73%
New Mangalore Port 32,042 -06.99% 1,087 01.87% 10 11.11%
Mormugao 34,241 08.06% 642 -03.31% 9 -10.00%
Mumbai 52,364 18.50% 2,153 14.34% 159 -27.40%
J.N.P.T, Navi Mumbai 44,818 18.45% 2,395 03.06% 2,267 -04.39%
Ennore 10,714 16.86% 173 01.17%
Kandla 52,982 15.41% 2,124 09.48% 148 -18.23%
All Indian Ports 463,843 9.51% 19,796 08.64% 4,744 12.07%


  1. ^ a b Gosch & Stearns, 12
  2. ^ Young, 20
  3. ^ a b "At any rate, when Gallus was prefect of Egypt, I accompanied him and ascended the Nile as far as Syene and the frontiers of Kingdom of Aksum (Ethiopia), and I learned that as many as one hundred and twenty vessels were sailing from Myos Hormos to India, whereas formerly, under the Ptolemies, only a very few ventured to undertake the voyage and to carry on traffic in Indian merchandise." —"The Geography of Strabo published in Vol. I of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1917".*.html. 
  4. ^ Ball, 131
  5. ^ Ball, 137
  6. ^ a b c d e Lach, 18
  7. ^ a b c Curtin, 100
  8. ^ a b Holl, 9
  9. ^ a b Lindsay, 101
  10. ^ a b c d Donkin, 59
  11. ^ a b c d "Gama, Vasco da". The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press.
  12. ^ Gosch & Stearns, 7
  13. ^ Gosch & Stearns, 9
  14. ^ Gosch & Stearns, 12-13
  15. ^ a b c Rao, 27–28
  16. ^ a b c Rao, 28–29
  17. ^ a b Sircar, 330
  18. ^ Sircar, 327
  19. ^ a b Young, 19
  20. ^ a b c Chakravarti (1930)
  21. ^ a b c d Shaffer (2001)
  22. ^ Lach, 13
  23. ^ a b c Halsall, Paul. "Ancient History Sourcebook: The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century". Fordham University. 
  24. ^ Donkin, 64
  25. ^ a b c Donkin, 92
  26. ^ Nilakanta Sastri, A History of South India, 5
  27. ^ Kulke & Rothermund, 115
  28. ^ Rajendra Chola I completed the conquest of the island of Sri Lanka and captured the Sinhala king Mahinda V prisoner. Nilakanta Sastri, The Colas pp 194–210.
  29. ^ Majumdar, 407
  30. ^ The kadaram campaign is first mentioned in Rajendra's inscriptions dating from his 14th year. The name of the Srivijaya king was Sangrama Vijayatungavarman—Nilakanta Sastri, The CōĻas, 211–220.
  31. ^ a b Donkin, 91-92
  32. ^ a b c d e f g h Early History (Indian Navy), National Informatics Center, Government of India.
  33. ^ Kulke & Rothermund, 116-117
  34. ^ Kulke & Rothermund, 12
  35. ^ Kulke & Rothermund, 118
  36. ^ Kulke & Rothermund, 124
  37. ^ Tripathi, 465
  38. ^ Tripathi, 477
  39. ^ Nilakanta Sastri, The CōĻas, 604
  40. ^ a b c See A History of South India – pp 146 – 147
  41. ^ Donkin, 65
  42. ^ Donkin, 67
  43. ^ Donkin, 69
  44. ^ a b Corn & Glasserman 1999
  45. ^ Corn & Glasserman, 105
  46. ^ a b Chaudhuri, 223
  47. ^ a b c d Donkin, 169
  48. ^ a b Sardesai, 53-56, Shivaji Bhonsle and Heirs
  49. ^ Sardesai, 293-296, Peshwai and Pentarchy
  50. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Kadian (2006)
  51. ^ Arnold, 101-102
  52. ^ The navy was used in national integration by ferrying troops and securing the coast during the Junagadh state operations—Rajesh Kadian (2006).
  53. ^ the Indian navy, among other actions, sank the Portuguese frigate Afonso de Albuquerque—Rajesh Kadian (2006).
  54. ^ The navy’s fortunes were greatly restored in 1971. After East Pakistan (Bangladesh) seceded, leading to civil war between Pakistan’s two wings, the Indian navy trained four task forces of riverine guerrillas. Those frogmen sank or damaged over 100,000 tons of shipping in four months and disrupted ports and inland waterways, the lifeline of the country. In December, after the war formally started, an imaginative, daring raid by Osa missile boats on Karachi harbor sank two warships, damaged others, and ignited oil storage facilities. The Indian armed forces conducted amphibious landings for the first time toward the end of the war—Rajesh Kadian (2006).


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