:: Home  



      Infinity Foundation

      Mandala Of Indic Traditions

      Other Links


Sea and Inland Navigation

Pankaj Goyal
Lok Vigyan Kendra, Almora

A large part of India is bordered by the sea. India is surrounded by the sea on the east, south and west and also includes a large number of sheltered harbours situated all along its 5700 km long indented coastline. There are also several big navigable rivers. The ancient scriptures and archeological discoveries throw light on the actual remains of docks, wharfs, jetties and warehouses of ancient times. If we go through a careful examination then various references related to sea journey, navigation, boats, ships, and docks are found in various verses of Vedas, Puranas, Meghmala, Mayurcitraka, Vrhatsam hita, Harivamsa and other texts.

There is an account of a naval expedition sent out by Rsi-king Turga under the command of his son Bhujyu in the Rgveda. However, the ship broke down in a storm, but some of the occupants including King Turga and Ashvins, the twin brothers, who came in their hundred-oared galley, rescued his followers.

This account tells us three different things:

  1. Ships were sent to foreign countries for the purpose of trade;
  2. Multi-oared boats were used in expeditions;
  3. Vedic Aryans had knowledge of sea routes.

Archaeological excavations have revealed that during the Harappa period (2500 BC), there was a prosperous naval trade between Kathiawar and the Persian Gulf countries. The existence of a port city called Lothal, 80 km south­west of Ahmedabad, is a significant evidence in the present context. This port city had docking facilities analogous to modern ports of Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. There were other ports also along the Gujarat Makrau and Konkan-Malabar coasts. There is a reference on early maritime commerce from India in the Bible also. In the days of Solomon items such as ivory, spices and peacocks were available only from India.

For information on navigation during the Mauryan times, we depend mostly on the Jataka stories. Greek writers often agree with the information mentioned therein. Greek writers such as Arrian and Curtius described that shipping was a highly developed industry in India in the 4th century BC and the same made possible the course of Alexander's army of over 100,000 soldiers through the Indus. According to them, Mauryan kings not only encouraged sea trade but also modernised naval administration. Kautilya's Arthasastra (321-297 BC) vividly describes the duties of the head of the naval department and the port officers.   

The author of Periplus who hailed from Alexandria provides the most important source of information regarding seaports of India in those days. He describes various ports on both the western and the eastern coasts in his book.

One of the most important ports that was discovered is at Udyavara (mentioned as Odara in the Oxyhydrinchus papyrus), a small village 6 km south of Udipi. The mound known as Baleragudda marks the citadel of this ancient port city.

The early Tamil works of the 1st century CE mention at length the port establishments of east coast like Poompohar that is, Kaveripoopattinam, the chief port of the Chola kingdom. Arikamedu close to Pondicherry (now identified as Pokduke or Poduca) and Kainapara or Konark in Orissa are some of the other ports that are important from the point of view of trade during the first few centuries of the Christian era.

The Gupta emperors had shown a great interest in the field of navigation and also encouraged inland and overseas navigation for trade. Hamza of Isahan writers (5th century CE) mention that Indian ships used to be moored at Hira near Hufa on the Euphrates river, the major role in the sea trade being played by the merchants from Sindh and Gujarat.  

The Chalukyan and Chola kings encouraged sea navigation with the eastern countries like Burma (now known as Myanmar), Sumatra, Java, Borneo and the island of Bali, when the trade with Rome started to decline. According to I-tsing, a Chinese traveler who visited India (630-44 CE), the Indian navigators and merchants could be seen at all the active ports of the east coast from Myanmar to China and those in the Malayan archipelago.

The period 200 BC to 200 AD saw Indian shipping at its peak. During this period the Indians carried on their colonisation of distant lands as far as Sumatra and Java, of which the latter still cherishes its ancient Indian relationship. Marco Polo (a traveler who visited India in the 13th century) has given a very clear picture of the Indian ships of that period. According to him, he saw ships that carried 10 small boats slung on the sides like present day life-boats with falls and tackles to lower them into water and heave them over the sides, with 60 cabins below the rain deck for passengers. Hence, he provides a very good picture of the Indian ships. 

A noteworthy incident that took place in the early 8th century was that under the Arab attack on Persia, a large number of Persians rejected conversion to Islam and left their homeland by sea and sought shelter in the western ports of India. Their offspring are now the Parsis of India. The Parsis played a significant role in Indian shipping by contributing greatly to commercial shipping, shipbuilding and industrial development in the land of their adoption.

A good description of Indian shipping is found in Ibn Batuta's accounts. He mentions the large boats that plied in the Indian rivers. He also described in detail various manufacturing techniques of Indian ships. In the first quarter of the 16th century on the western coast, the Zamorins of Calicut maintained a great naval force. Vasco-da­-Gama has also left a graphic account of the fleet of Calicut. The European travellers in India have also spoken highly of the strength of the Indian boats and ships. According to Nicolo Conti the Indians built some ships larger than theirs with five sails and as many masts.

Advent of Europeans

During the last few years of the 15th century some events that took place played a significant role in navigation and the maritime world. In 1487, Bartholomew Diaz passed the Cape of Good Hope and reached the Indian Ocean. The 'Hope' in 'Good Hope' was the hope of discovery of the sea route to India. An important date in Indian history is  May 27, 1498. On this day Vasco-da-Gama landed at Calicut. Vasco-da-Gama sailed from Portugal on July 8, 1947, and landed at Calicut on May 27, 1948. This was the first time that a ship from Europe arrived in India by an all-sea route.

The Dutch had become the masters of the trade of the eastern archipelago, ousting the Portuguese from the area by the middle of the 17th century. Then they turned their attention towards India. First they drove the Portuguese out of Sri Lanka, and made Colombo their base. From Colombo, they started attacking Portuguese settlements in India. The Cochin establishment was first occupied in 1600 and other smaller establishments were soon under the Dutch control. Now, only Goa, Diu and Daman were left with the Portuguese.

After the Dutch, now it was the turn of the English. The East India Company broke the Dutch monopoly and got a charter from Queen Elizabeth on the last day of the year 1600 granting it the monopoly of the eastern trade. Gradually, the Indians lost control on navigation of sea routes and Indian shipping declined.

After the death of Aurangzeb (1707), the ensuing power struggle gave a good opportunity to the East India Company. This was a great opportunity for the English as a result of which they emerged superior in naval power and hence were able to displace the French and others. Indian naval power under the Marathas put up a brave fight and challenged the supremacy of the European powers. Shivaji, the builder of Maratha power with the help of Tukoji Angray (the head of the Koli community of Ali Bagh) built a formidable fleet that from 1694 to 1758, under the commandership of the Angrays, established complete control of the sea from Malabar to Travancore. The Indian shipbuilders of that time were in such a position that the English as well as the Dutch took their help in building their ships.

When Sirajuddaula was defeated in the battlefield of Plassey (1757) in Bengal and Tipu Sultan was defeated in the battle of Mysore (1799), the English had obtained superiority on land as well as sea. The acquisitiveness of the English in Bengal and elsewhere played a ferocious part in destroying the traditional industries of the country and in the impoverishment of the people. This resulted in the formation of a new state, based on a merciless exploitation of the people. This new state had gained an uncontested mastery of the sea, which allowed it to control the entire coastline of India. 

All this time, the sea borne trade of India had been rapidly growing, but as the control of navigation was now in the hands of the English, Indian merchants and their shipping gradually disappeared. Although, Indian ships still operated in the coastal waters, there were only a few ships in trading in a limited way with the Persian Gulf, the Arabian and the East African ports. The pilgrim traffic to Jeddah that had the state benefaction under the Mughals continued in Indian hands. In spite of heavy setbacks, there were still some Indians who dared to venture into shipping trade and kept the tradition of shipping enterprise alive. Throughout the west coast, there were a large number of shipbuilding yards, where Indians produced excellent ships. According to Balazar Solvyus, a Frenchman, Indian vessels were quite elegant and were models of persistence and fine workmanship. After seeing the strength and low cost of these Indian ships Marquis Wellesley, the British Governor-General (1798-1805), was so impressed that he suggested that ships for the British Navy and British trade should be built in India. As trade increased, Indian ships started to be used in the East India Company's trade. The English considered the Indian ships superior to other ships. One fine example of it is found in the East India Company's records that mention a vessel built in Bhavnagar in 1750 - the 'Daria Daulat' - which was thoroughly sound even after 87 years of continuous service, while ships of the British Navy had to be renewed every 12 years. An account of shipbuilding in the 18th and 19th centuries would not be complete without a mention of the great Parsi family of Wadias. For more than a century and a half (1736 to 1884), the members of this well-known family were master builders at the Bombay dockyard and built more than 350 vessels.

However, in the beginning of the Company's rule the support to Indian shipbuilding had been forcefully opposed in Britain by many of the Company's directors themselves. The opposition against India shipbuilding was so great that the House of Commons quickly took notice of it and ruled that an Indian sailor shall not be deemed a British mariner and that no ship was to enter the Port of London whose master was not a British mariner.

Within India also several measures were taken to discourage Indian shipbuilding. A Calcutta Gazette notification of  January29, 1780, prohibited carpenters, blacksmiths and other artificers from building or even repairing boats of certain descriptions. 

It is important to note that on the one hand Britain was trying to protect her shipping by all manner of protectionist legislation for over two centuries, while on the other they were discouraging Indian shipbuilding. This began in the reign of Richard II. Under Henry VII, import of goods was prohibited unless brought in English vessels manned by Englishmen. It was further strengthened by the famous Act of Navigation of 1651, which prohibited that "no goods whatever of the growth, produce or manufacture of Asia be imported except in ships belonging to English subjects, of which the master and the greater number of the crew were Englishmen".

Coming of Steamships

Meanwhile, a great revolution had taken place in the field of shipping. Now, steam began to be used for propelling ships. With this the advantage completely shifted to those countries which were mechanically advanced and only these countries could now rule the high seas. England made the fullest use of it and this sealed the destiny of Indian shipping for another 100 years. However, it is interesting to note that in the beginning the East India Company was not interested in using steam as the English didn't want to take any risks. Nawab Ghazi-ud-din Haider of Oudh was the first to order a steam vessel in India. Gradually, the steamship began to overcome the sailing vessel. The first steamer to perform a trans­oceanic journey to India was Enterprise, a small ship comparable with the coasters of today, weighing only 479 register tonnes.

The years 1819 and 1919 are the most significant years in the history of modern Indian shipping. In 1819, for the first time, the steamboat appeared in Indian water, while 1919 saw the establishment of the first large Indian steamship company. The hundred years in between are the forgettable period of Indian maritime history because this was the period when the Indian shipping industry was thoroughly and callously eliminated.

Parsi Ship Owners of Sail Days

Before the steamship, there were a large number of difficulties in Indian shipping; still there were several Indian merchants, chiefly among the Parsis of Mumbai, who had ventured into the shipping business. According to W.H. Coates, the Parsis started shipping in 1735 and the period comprising the early part of the 18th and the middle of the 19th century practically constituted their era and the halcyon days of their business trading. Framjee Cowasjee Banajee (1802), a great name among the ship owners attained "Sullimany" and from that time onwards the Parsis began to take great interest in the Indo-Chinese trade in cotton and opium as profits were massive and big fortunes were made.

Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy (1783-1859) had a substantial fleet of cargo boats to carry the merchandise in which he had an extensive business with the Far East, Egypt and the United Kingdom. The China War in 1840 and the failure of the Bombay Back­ Bay Scheme struck at the heart of Parsi ventures as many well-known Parsi ship owners had a monetary stake in this scheme. This was a great blow to  the Parsi ship owners. Besides, these Parsi merchants were noted for their shipping activities. There were some Hindu merchants also who were renowned in the field of shipping. According to K.B. Vaidya, Motichand Amichand of Cambay who later established himself in Mumbai, owned a fleet of about 50 ships, each with a capacity of 600 to 1,000 tonne. He traded with many countries such as Burma, Java, Sumatra and China in the east and Europe, Arabia, Persia, Zanzibar, Mozambique and Madagascar in the west. 

During those sailing days India came into direct contact with the New World whose courageous sailors were already making a name for themselves on the high seas. Due to the efforts of innovative American ship owners, there started a flourishing commerce between India and America in the eighth decade of the 18th century. American traders made their residence at Calcutta and started direct communication with Indian merchants. Ramdeolal Dey who was a Calcutta merchant appeared to have been very popular among the Americans, who presented him with a life-size sketch of President George Washington. 

Decline of Indian Shipping

There were a number of small shipping companies owned by Indians and were registered in the 19th century mainly to carry on coastal trade. But they could not survive for long as they faced stiff competition and lack of sympathy from the British companies. The Bombay Steam Navigation Company (BSN) was the only exception that floated in 1845 in cooperation with some British and Indian businessmen of Mumbai. Despite the daring and heroic labors of some innovative Indians, the Indian shipping industry could not survive against the dominant British interests.

The Suez Canal was opened in 1869 and it brought India into closer political and economic proximity with Europe. As a result of this canal trade increased but at the same time the share of India decreased due to which Indian shipping gradually declined. The British India Steam Navigation Company (BI) and the Peninsular & Oriental Co (P & 0) had managed to remove all their rivals and obtained complete control over the carrier trade in India by the eighth decade of the 19th century.

Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata first tried to fight the P & 0 with the collaboration of two foreign lines, but within a year they deserted him. As a result, Tata decided to form a line of his own to cater mainly to Indian welfare and therefore started discussions with Nippon Yusen Kaisha and finally an agreement was established to float a new line, known as the Tata Line. But this Tata Line failed when the manoeuvres of P & 0 forced Tata to pull down the shutters on his line and his appeal to the Secretary of State for India was also rejected. It was a blow to Tata which also gave a warning to other Indian entrepreneurs planning to enter the shipping industry. But, when the Swadeshi movement started, Chidambaram Pillai, a disciple of Lokmanya Tilak, entered the fight by launching the Swadeshi Shipping Company of Tuticorin in 1906. 

The destiny of such a rebellious patriotic venture was predictable. Disgusting and offensive measures were taken against Pillai and he was arrested and sentenced to a long term of captivity for taking part in a political meeting. Similarly, the Bengal Steamship Company, established in 1907 by Jyotindranath Tagore, brother of Rabindranath Tagore, was suppressed and destroyed by the British.

Progressively, the millennia-old institution and skill disappeared within a few decades from India and British economic imperialism triumphed over India's misfortune. Indian shipping did not die due to natural causes, but it was a deliberate attempt to destroy it by gradual strangulation. The Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal had become a vast burial ground of Swadeshi shipping enterprises when the Scindia Steam Navigation Company was founded in 1919. However, the war period (1914-18) proved to be a bonus for the Indian industries, but during that period too no shipping company could be started for obvious reasons. 

It was India's great misfortune that about 80 shipping companies were registered in India between 1836 and 1918, but by 1946 only the following seven existed, all of them very small:

  • Bombay & Persia Steam Navigation Co., Bombay (1877)
  • Calcutta Steam Navigation Co., Bengal (1882)
  • Calcutta Lading & Shipping Co., Calcutta (1883)
  • Bengal Assam Steamship Co., Calcutta (1895)
  • East Bengal River Steam Service, Bengal (1906)
  • Port Shipping Co., Calcutta (1906)
  • Bangiya Inland Steam Navigation & Trading (1910)


The patriotic fervour of the country had developed into a strong economic fervour. Government of India was very impressed by the generous contribution of the people to the war effort and especially by the bravery of Indian soldiers and started modifying some of its imperialist policy. Although its execution was still far, yet it was no small achievement that the Government had recognised the need to assist the country's industrialisation needs. It provided just the right motivation needed by Indian entrepreneurs.

Scindias took their first step in the Indian maritime scene in 1919. On April 5, 1919, the S.S. Loyalty sailed from Mumbai as an Indian passenger ship bound for Europe and the United Kingdom. It was a historic day in India's maritime annals. It was the day on which Indian shipping was reborn. Appropriately, since 1964, April 5 is celebrated annually as India's National Maritime Day. 

River and Canal Navigation

Rivers have been used for navigation since the earliest times and there are several examples, which show that water transport was the only means of communication between places during the early period. Big rivers like Ganga and Yamuna have always been used widely for navigation particularly in eastern UP, Bihar and Bengal. Literary works of these states, particularly of Bengal, give a description of steamers ferrying goods and passengers. Similarly, we have rivers in the south like Krishna, Kaveri, Godavari, etc. The central Indian rivers have also been used as waterways. Arthur Cotton of Chennai, an engineer of great reputation, put forward the idea of building canals in India that would serve the dual purpose of navigation and irrigation but his idea didn't get much support. He wrote about his schemes, but the authorities did not heed his advice. Some of the early British administrators in India thought that river transport, if improved with the help of canals, could serve the country well. W.P. Andrew was of the view that a combined water and land transport system was desirable in Sind. Sir Charles Napier was in favour of developing Karachi as a port. 

Steamers on the Ganga

A variety of Indian boats were used on the Ganga and houseboats were very popular among European officers. Boats carrying commodities from Allahabad to Calcutta (a distance of 1300 km), on an average, took about 20 days in the dry season but the journey upstream was very difficult and took almost three to four months. There were many risks also such as cyclones, shoals, swift currents, dacoits and hidden dangers, etc.

The period of early 19th century witnessed the arrival of steam navigation on the Ganga. A boat named "John Shore" was launched at Kidderpore in 1807 and a steamboat in 1819. This steamboat was built by an Englishman, William Trickett for the Nawab of Oudh and was fitted with an 8 HP engine. After four years, a small passenger steamboat weighing about 89 tonnes and named "Diana” began to work on the Hooghly on a commercial basis. In 1828 the "Little Hooghly" made a trial journey from Calcutta to Varanasi and took 24 days to reach Varanasi; however the return journey lasted only for 12 days. Thus it covered a distance of 2600 km at an average speed of 7.2 km per hour in 36 days. In 1834, a regular passenger service started on the Ganga. In April 1934, another passenger boat known as "William Bentick" was launched in Calcutta and in October a ship known as William Bentick's sister “Thames” was launched. There were four steamboats in service in 1836 but they were not able to deal with the increased demand.

The beginning of this new passenger service also aided the facility of moving troops and civilian officers to the different towns on the banks of the Ganga and this proved to be a great help to the government. Now, it had become an important service from the point of view of military tactics. Arrival of steamboat service on the Ganga brought many other advantages. Treasure from various districts lying on the Ganga was conveyed on it. Now, travelling became much easier and cheaper for government officials and soldiers.

River and Canal Navigation in the South

A canal that linked Madras with the Egmore backwaters was completed in 1806. This canal was named after its owner Cochrane. But later on in 1837 the Madras Government took over the management of the canal from Cochrane. In 1876, when a famine struck the region another canal known as Buckingham canal was built. This canal was mainly built for the famine relief measures.

The Godavari, the Krishna and the Kaveri are the large rivers of the Madras Presidency. These rivers attracted the attention of many Madras engineers who favoured large-scale investments for the improvement of irrigation and navigation facilities. In 1844, Arthur Cotton submitted a report concerning the requirement for roads and canals in the Rajahmundry district. Frederic Cotton, brother of Arthur Cotton, also submitted a report to the government regarding the practicality of steam navigation on the Godavari river. But there were three barriers of rocks that were the main obstacles for navigation and if these were removed steamboats could easily operate on the river. Because there was no cheap transport, people had to pay very high prices for commodities like salt and dried fish. The Madras Chamber of Commerce's Chairman wrote a letter to the Board of Revenue and stated that if steamboats were introduced on the Godavari, Berar cotton could be sent to Cocanada instead of Bombay, thereby saving time and money.

After seeing the immense advantages derived from the Ganga Steamers Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General (1846-56), was keen to extend the same facilities to Godavari, Indus and other rivers also. Haig was appointed to do a survey of the Godavari. He submitted his report in 1859 in which he favoured improvement in the Godavari. After the improvement the Godavari became a highway of commerce and travel. In 1864, 980 boats were registered in the Godavari Delta, while in 1865 this figure rose to 1,023 boats.

Similar improvements were effected on the Krishna River. In 1855, nearly 500 km of canals were made in the Krishna delta and these were linked with the Godavari and Buckingham canals. As a result, many districts profited from this network of canals. It was reported that the Cocanada ­Dowlaiswaram Canal (93 km long) had an annual traffic of 180,000 tonnes. These canals also helped in irrigation and increased the affluence of many thousands of square km of land. On the west coast too canals were made. In Malabar the important canals were: from Cochin to Tirur (125 km); from Baypore to Badagara (69 km), and from Balapatom to Canara frontier (35 km).

Bengal Waterways

The fishing grounds in the Bengal region are good and the land is very fertile with a high density of population. East Bengal has the characteristic feature of being one of the most water-drained regions of the world. In this region the mighty Brahmaputra meets the Ganga to make the world's largest estuary with the Hooghly, the Padma and many channels in between flowing southwards into the sea. Rivers have been the most important channels of transportation since the earliest times in Bengal. According to Renell (the famous surveyor), there were nearly 30,000 men engaged in the navigation of the rivers in Bengal towards the end of the 18th century. Different kinds of boats like the patella (baggage boat), the aolak, the pulwar, the dinghy and the panswee were very common in this region. Oared galleys were used where speed was of great importance.

The rivers brought down alluvium that made the plains fertile but at the same time it also made the waterways shallow. Therefore, the main problem of the rivers of Bengal was how to maintain the depth of the river. This problem was not of much serious concern till the early years of the 19th century as ships from Europe could reach Calcutta without much difficulty. As a result, not much attention was paid to internal transport but later it became apparent that the Hooghly was silting up in places. Hence, efforts were made to keep the river deep. In 1853, a committee was set up to examine the state of the river Hooghly and it was confirmed the river was becoming shallow and less navigable. 

Later on it was also found that frequent changes in the course of the rivers also affected their navigability. Except, there were also some concealed dangers in most of the rivers and with the introduction of steamboats an attempt was made to remove obstructions like rocks, sunken trees, sunken boats, shoals, etc. All the rivers in Bengal were not navigable throughout the year. Some of the rivers in northern Bengal were only fit for seasonal navigation, which proved to be a great drawback during the crop season when the farmers and merchants had to face difficulty in transporting paddy and other crops.

Some of the large rivers became very risky during the monsoon season. This created the problem of long delays in getting cargos from the upper provinces. In 1819, a superintendent was appointed in charge of the Nadia river to locate the problem and make improvements. He submitted his report in 1848 in which he observed that the improvement of the rivers produced increased revenue.

For the improvement of transport facilities various canals like Tolly's Nullah canal and Circular Canal were built in and around Calcutta. The construction of these canals enabled boats from the Sundarbans and salt-water lakes to reach Hooghly at less cost and more safely. The navigation canals of Hijili and Tamluk were mainly used for the transport of salt but intermittently they had to be cleared and deepened to enable large boats to use them. These canals were of great significance as these can be used during the monsoon when the open sea and the southern portion of the rivers were too rough for boats.

Some important canals that were built in Calcutta are as follows:

  • The Circular Canal which stretched from Chitapore to the junction of Entalle canal, a distance of 5.6 km;
  • The Balliaghatta canal, 2.8 km stretching from the end of the Circular Canal to the salt water lake;
  • The Entalle canal, 1.6 km long, from the Circular Canal to the east end of the Dhurmotollah Street.

These as well as some other canals played a very important part in the field of navigation; however some of these required to be repaired from time to time. Like the rivers, the canals also became shallower. Every year during the rainy season the embankments deteriorated and much mud was deposited in them. Therefore during the dry seasons the mud taken from the canals and embankments was used to repair but it was found that this method was not very effective as mud was no longer suitable for repairs.

Firewood was one of the important items that was conveyed through the canal. There was a great demand for firewood in Calcutta and thousands of tonnes of firewood was sent there from Sunderbans through Tolly's Nullah canal. Therefore, in 1837, the merchants and traders of Calcutta, who wanted to preserve the navigability of Tolly's Nullah's canal, petitioned the government to deepen it.

The Ulubaria canal was another useful canal that extended from the Hooghly to Ulubaria in a western direction to the Damodar at Murreka, and thence to Rupnarayan at Kola Ghat. This canal was 24 km long and used by boats from the Burdwan and Hooghly districts to Calcutta. Coal was one of the important items carried through the canal from the Burdwan collieries to Calcutta but it was not deep enough for larger boats.

The Bengal government was very concerned about building a canal from Rajmahal to Mirzapur, This was an opportunity to link the Hooghly with the Ganga. The government appointed a committee of enquiry and its report also favoured this canal. They also mentioned that the canal could be used for irrigation. The Military Board was also favourable, but the Court of Directors did not support it. 

In spite of the decline of river and canal navigation, the multipurpose project organisation of Damodar Valley Corporation considered navigation as one of the prime objectives. Damodar Valley Corporation is the first major river valley development project in India after Independence. The only other navigable route that has been developed in West Bengal after Independence is the natural Haldia river channel from its outfall with Hooghly estuary upto Haldia port point. The newly constructed Haldia port will be able to handle containers of 90,000 tonnes, which Calcutta port cannot handle due to deterioration of the Hooghly river.

North Region

The Ganga, the Ghaghra, the Yamuna, the Gomti, the Sharda and the Rapti were the most important navigable rivers in the Northwestern provinces and Oudh. Apart from in the foothills of the Himalayas where most of the streams were simply fast-moving water throughout the greater part of the year and not navigable when flowing rapidly, most of the rivers with steadier currents had boats on them. Many items of trade such as timber, food grains, sugar, indigo, cottonseed, poppy seed, and mustard seed were sent through the boats. April, May and June were the most suitable months and were a busy trading period. Different kinds of cargo boats were used on the Ganga, the smaller ones were known as palwars, while the larger ones were known as katris. After the construction of the Eastern Yamuna, the Upper and Lower Ganga and the Agra canals, private boats and barges also moved on these canals, but were taxed by the canal department.

In the latter half of the 19th century when the railways came into existence, the significance of waterways as inland trade routes declined, as the railways were faster and safer. With the exception of eastern parts of Bengal where abundance of water in the natural network of channels sustained and continued to provide a suitable mode of transport of goods and people, the railways had almost entirely replaced the waterways as commu­nication lines throughout the country by the end of the 19th century.


Varshney, R.S. 2001. Sea and Inland Navigation. In History of Technology in India, K.V. Mital (Ed). New Delhi: The Indian National Science Academy, pp. 232-247.


  1. Ain-i-Akbari I. 285.
  2. Bal Krishna. Commercial Relations between India and England.
  3. Bengal Railway Proceedings, Range 163, Vol. 15, No.2 of 3 September 1845.
  4. Bombay City Gazette ii .283. Campbell Bombay Town and Island Historical Materials II 194 sq.  CF LOW. Indian Navy I, 174
  5. Cautley P.T., Report on the Ganges Canal Works, Vol. I Smith Elder and Co., 65 Cornhill, London, 1860.
  6. Dosabhai, Framji Karaka, History of Parsis, Vol. II.
  7. Durga Prasad, Some Aspects of Indian Foreign Trade.
  8. Dutta, R.C., The Economic History of India under Early British Rule, London, 1950.
  9. Fostor, W., Early Travels in India. London. 1921.
  10. Hariharan, K.V., Journal of the University of Bombay Vol. XXV, Part 4, January 1957.
  11. Hunter, Sir William, A Statistical Account of Bengal. 1875.
  12. Jaggi, O.P., Dawn of Indian Technology, Vol. I, Atma Ram and Sons, Delhi, 1969.
  13. Jog, N.G., Saga of Scindia, Scindia House, Bombay, 1969.
  14. Kuppuram G. and K. Knmidrani (Ed.), History of Science and Technology in India, 5th Vol., Sandeep Prakashan, Delhi, 1990.
  15. Lindsay, W.S., History of Merchant Shipping and World Commerce, Vol. IV.
  16. Marine Records Miscellaneous 562, Memorandum by Peacock on the application of India, 10th November 1829.
  17. Mookerji, Radha Kumud, A History of Indian Shipping, Allahabad, 1962.
  18. National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, Hydrology in Ancient India, September 1990.                  
  19. Piggot, Stuart, Prehistoric India to 1000 BC, London, 1950.
  20. Prinsep, G.A., An Account of the Steam Vessels and of Proceedings Connected with Steam Navigation in British India, Calcutta, 1830.
  21. Sanjeeva Rao, T.S., A Short History of Modern Indian Shipping, Popular Prakashan, Bombay, 1965.
  22. Watch, G.I.A., The Engineering Works of Godavari Delta, Vol. I,
  23. Varshney, R.S., Engineering Hydrology 3rd Ed. M/s Nem Chand & Bros., Roorkee, 1986.
  24. Verghese, K.E., The Development and Significance of Transport in India, 1834-1882, N.V. Publications, New Delhi, 1976.