April 5 is celebrated as the National Maritime Day in India every year. This day is celebrated to remember the contribution of seafarers, mariners, navy & coast guard in nation-building. India is not the only country that commemorates such a day. In the United States, National Maritime Day is a day to recognise the maritime industry. It is observed on May 22, the date in 1819 that the American steamship Savannah set sail from Savannah, Georgia on the first ever transoceanic voyage under steam power.
On April 5, 1919 (99 years ago), India’s navigation history set sail with SS Loyalty, the first ship of the Scindia Steam Navigation Company Ltd., that started for the United Kingdom from Bombay (now Mumbai). It marked a red letter day in the maritime history of India, a country known for its seafaring abilities since ancient days. Indian maritime activities have a long history covering a period of about five millennia from the very dawn of the Indus Valley civilisation.
On the occasion, PM Narendra Modi said, “The maritime sector in India, with its rich history, has the potential to power our nation’s transformation. On National Maritime Day, we affirm our commitment to harness our maritime strengths for the nation’s prosperity.
Our efforts for a vibrant maritime sector are inspired by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. It was Babasaheb who gave topmost importance to Jal Shakti (strength of water), waterways, irrigation, canal networks and ports. His work in this sector augured extremely well for the people of India.”
In 2018, the theme of the occasion is ‘Indian Shipping – An Ocean of opportunity’. On this day, awareness in supporting safe and environmentally sound commerce between continents across the world is stressed upon. An award called Varuna is conferred to those who have made an outstanding contribution to the Indian maritime sector. Besides this, those who have made distinguished achievements or made contributions to education and training in the sector are also awarded on this day.
India has had a rich maritime tradition since pre modern times. Stephen Knapp notes:
Prakash Charan Prasad explains in his book, Foreign Trade and Commerce in Ancient India (p. 131), “Big ships were built. They could carry anywhere upwards from 500 men on the high seas. The Yuktialpataru classifies ships according to their sizes and shapes. The Rajavalliya says that the ship in which King Sinhaba of Bengal (ca. sixth century BCE] sent Prince Vijaya, accommodated full 700 passengers, and the ship in which Vijaya’s Pandyan bride was brought over to Lanka carried 800 passengers on board. The ship in which the Buddha in the Supparaka Bodhisat incarnation made his voyages from Bharukachha (Broach) to the ‘sea of the seven gems’ [Sri Lanka], carried 700 merchants besides himself. The Samuddha Vanija Jakarta mentions a ship that accommodated one thousand carpenters.”
Marco Polo also related how, “An Indian ship could carry crews between 100 and 300. Out of regard for passenger convenience and comfort, the ships were well furnished and decorated in gold, silver, copper, and compounds of all these substances were generally used for ornamentation and decoration.”
Because of the Vedic civilisation’s great reach, Aurel Stein (1862-1943), a Hungarian researcher also related, “The vast extent of Indian cultural influences, from Central Asia in the North to tropical Indonesia in the South, and from the borderlands of Persia to China and Japan, has shown that ancient India was a radiating center of a civilisation, which by its religious thought, its art and literature, was destined to leave its deep mark on the races wholly diverse and scattered over the greater part of Asia.”
In this regard, Philip Rawson, in The Art of Southeast Asia (1993, p. 7), further praises India’s gift of its civilising affect on all other cultures. “The culture of India has been one of the world’s most powerful civilising forces. Countries of the Far East, including China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, and Mongolia owe much of what is best in their own cultures to the inspiration of ideas imported from India. The West, too, has its own debts… No conquest or invasion, nor forced conversion [was ever] imposed.” And this is the basis for the mystery of the widespread nature of the ancient Vedic empire, which in many ways still exists today. It was this subtle spiritual dimension that spread all over the world.
The maritime tradition is deeply embedded in Indian culture and this has had an impact on the rest of the world too. India continues to excel in the field, with many new developments taking place everyday, not to mention, the growing number of people joining the maritime sector.
Sea News Feature, April 5