Bay of Bengal Trade Route – The Origins of Shipping in the Indian Subcontinent

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Odisha, an Indian state, commonly known in ancient times as Kalinga, being situated on the western coast of the Bay of Bengal (on the east coast of India) had close maritime contacts with the countries on the eastern shore of Bay of Bengal and played a conspicuous role in the maritime activities of India.

The seafarers of Odisha had knowledge of the sea pertaining to wind, currents, tides, weather conditions and shipbuilding since the 3rd millennium BC. The geographical setting of the Indian Peninsula supported the development of seaports all along its coastline from early times.

Majority of the rivers of India and their distributaries are suitable for navigation and ports developed along the estuarine mouths. The origin of lagoons, lakes and other sheltered bodies along the Indian coast favoured the development of many ports, provided sheltered anchorages and moreover, facilitated the plying of various types of boats.

Excavations in Odisha have unearthed an old maritime trade route near the hills at the site, which could account for the spread of Buddhism in ancient times along the coast. Harappans, the first mariners of the Indian subcontinent, might have used monsoon winds for maritime trade.

The sailors and navigators from the coast of Odisha, in ancient times, sailed along the coast of Bengal and Burma to reach Thailand. In the absence of scientific technology, sailors primarily had to depend on sails. They were confined to the coasting voyage and with the help of the south-west monsoon winds which blow from June to September, plied to the countries of Southeast Asia including Thailand.

In ancient times, the coastal route or the ‘kulapatha’ was generally preferred as compared to the ‘samyanapatha’ (high sea route). The lack of knowledge of the sea and the absence of a mariner’s compass, fear of pirates, and unsuitability of ships to traverse the deep sea, etc. must have led them to take up a route along the coast.

That ancient Odisha was a nodal trade route has been proved from the recent survey of the trade routes from Balkha and Bamiyan in Afghanistan where the Silk Route met and then continued through the north Indian Ganga valley, connecting the Buddhist establishments.

With the varied physical features of the coastline, the ports of India have been classified as -littoral ports, estuary ports and tidal ports. Most of the ancient ports were located at the mouth of rivers and in the case of lagoons, at the outlets to the sea, where vessels could find refuge.

The excavations along the coast of India have brought to light the remains of docks, wharfs, jetties, warehouses and lighthouses. It seems that every seaport had some kind of a dock and wharf for handling cargo and ships anchorage. Some of them have been located and excavated and others might have been destroyed, submerged or buried.

Early Indo-Thai maritime trade and exchange comprises glass beads, etched agate and carnelian beads, knobbed vessels and bronze artefacts. In maritime trade of the Indian Ocean region, Black Northern Polished ware, Rouletted ware, Knobbed ware, Red Polished ware, Russet Coated Painted ware, Arretine ware and Textile were significant contributors.

Ceramic evidence is the best example to draw the outline of contacts between the people and routes followed by them. Different types of earthen ware were transported in boats and ships for maritime trade. In India, the first evidence of carrying pots on ships comes from Ajanta. Pottery was not only used for transporting water but also used for liquids, solids and a wide variety of other commodities.

Water transport was easier, safer and could carry more than land transport. Besides, the mariners of India were aware of the monsoon winds, which aided them in setting sail to Southeast Asian countries.

The beginnings of boat building technology in India dates back to Third Millennium BC, to the Harappan times. The traditional boat builders of Odisha are called ‘Bindhani’, ‘Barhais’ and ‘Biswakaramas’ (carpenters). Indian mariners not only possessed high skills in navigational knowledge but also built sturdy vessels which were fully sea-worthy and could sail safely up to South East Asia.

With the advent of technology and innovation, modern-day shipping is very advanced and protected from disasters, than the vessels used by our ancestors. But it is undeniable that the ancient discoveries and explorations or trade routes, markets and basic sailing techniques, laid the foundation for the future of the shipping industry.

Sea News Feature, November 15