Humans have social instincts like chimpanzees that enabled our ancestors to form friendships and hierarchies to hunt or fight together. The agricultural revolution about 12000 years back promoted settlements, domestication of animals, and accumulation of property. Rulers and elites sprang up living off the surplus food produced by the peasants. This surplus led to the evolution of barter and trade to acquire different types of food and commodities. The natural urge of humans to become more prosperous, by way of control over economic activities of larger population led to expansion of territories, spread of their own ideas of culture, civilized behaviour and religion, and required building up of connectivity.

From ancient times, geography and climate of a place have largely dictated the connectivity of its population both internally and externally beyond its natural frontiers and manmade borders. Mountains, deserts, forests, rivers and the sea were some of the prominent obstacles to better  connectivity during the ancient civilizations.

Important ports of India during the Mauryan period were Bharukachcha (Baroch), Supara, Kalyana and Muzeris on the western coast and Tamralipti (Bengal) and Arikamedu (Tamil Nadu) on the eastern coast, which were engaged in extensive trade with Romans and countries in South East Asia. Mauryan maritime trade during their reign flourished. In his treatise Arthashastra, Kautilya had emphasized greater use of ‘dakshinpatha’ which was connected to Baroch for sea trade. Bindusara had remained in touch with Alexander’s successors in the Middle East and Ashoka had maintained this practice. Ashoka’s son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra are known to set sail for a mission to Sri Lanka from Tamralipti. By this time big ships were built, which could carry over 500 men anywhere on the high seas.

Need for Connectivity- Ancient India

The physical setting of Indian subcontinent has played a vital role in the progress of trade and connectivity with the other countries and continents because of the great Himalayan ranges in the north extending from Hindukush to Assam. Connectivity to the Eurasian land mass was possible only through various passes in the North West. These passes generally remained open to all weather traffic throughout the year. Contact with Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan goes back to third Millennium BCE. The most regular movements were those of the herders and trading caravans. The direct northern route to Central Asia lay in recently discovered Karakoram highway via Gilgit Chitral and Hunja, which tied into what came to be called the central Asian Silk route.

The geographical position of India also changes the character of Indian Ocean. The land mass juts into ocean for thousands of miles and access to outside world were only possible after the mastery of sea voyages over a period of time. Unlike other oceans its water is warm, free from icebergs and dense fog and mist; provides access throughout the year. Monsoonal winds favoured conditions for sail boats, dhows and ships.

Connectivity during Harappan and Vedic Period

The Harappans and Vedic people had rich maritime traditions, thriving trade networks, advanced ship building and navigation, including use of compass, and seamanship practices. Both merchants and traders travelled extensively, whilst metal smiths and pastoralists had their own circuits. In addition to internal trade, there’s plenty of evidence that the Harappans had strong economic relations with the Middle East.

Harappan cities reflected sophisticated civic planning and organisation, and were known centers for crafted items that were traded both through the land and the sea routes. Contacts with Afghanistan and Iran were maintained through the passes in the Northwest Mountains and particularly through the Bolan Valley. It had trading outposts in Short-tu-ghai along Amudariya in the north and Sutkagen-dor bordering Iran on the Makran coast.

Water transport was preferred for bulk items wherever possible and most rivers were navigable, particularly in their lower regions. River and coastal ports like Lothal and Dholavera therefore played an important role of nodal points. The most commonly used forms of transportations were floats, rafts, coracles, dugouts, basket boats and their alike, which were used for short distances and river crossings.

Coastal crafts were sometimes elaborate dug-outs or else large logs tied together, as mentioned in the famous kattamaran. The crafts at times were planks sewn together. Mid-ocean ships were large and built at special shipyards. A terracotta amulet found in Mohenjo-Daro, depicts a double masted boat, which had two steering rudders in the stern. The navigation of these required good knowledge of winds and currents, the coastal landmarks and, inevitably, the astronomy of observation of stars. The earliest Indian literature, the Vedas (1500 BCE) speak of sea voyage. One well known Mantra of Rig Veda (1.97.8) prays “Do Thou convey us in a ship across the sea for our welfare.” The main races that used the sea at the time were undoubtedly the Hindus, Asiatic Greeks and the inhabitants of the Arabian coastline. The Hindus had already in use a magnetic compass known as Matsyayantra for determining the direction. Invention of this ‘Macha- Yantra’ has also been ascribed to Indian navigators in ancient Egyptian texts.

The merchant ships from erstwhile Gujarat made their way along the Makran coast, trading along the way to Oman. Archaeologists digging at Ras-al-Junayz, on the eastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, found that over 20 per cent of objects were of the Harappan origin. Many Harappan seals, pottery and beads have also been found in Bahrain. Further west, Harappan origin artifacts have been found in Mesopotamian cities like Kish, Nippur and Ur. The records of Akkadian king Sargon I (2334-2279 BCE) referred to ships from Dilmun, Magan and Meluha (Bahrain, Oman and Gujarat/Sindh).

Indeed, all the evidences available clearly show that for full thirty centuries India stood at the very heart of the commercial world, cultivating trade relations successively with the Phoenicians, Jews, Assyrians, Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans in ancient times, and Turks, Venetians, Portuguese, Dutch and the English in modern times.

Sea lanes between India and neighboring lands were the usual form of trade for several centuries, and are responsible for the widespread influence of Indian culture on other societies, particularly in the Indian Ocean region. Powerful navies included those of the Maurya, Satavahana, Chola,Vijayanagara, Kalinga, Maratha and Mughal empires. The Cholas excelled in foreign trade and maritime activity, extending their influence overseas to China and Southeast Asia.

In those days India had colonies, in Cambodia (Kambuja in Sanskrit) in Java, (Chavakam or Yava dwipa) in Sumatra, in Borneo, Socotra (Sukhadhara) and even in Japan.

Connectivity from Mauryan to Chola Period

Important ports of India during the Mauryan period were Bharukachcha (Baroch), Supara, Kalyana and Muzeris on the western coast and Tamralipti (Bengal), Arikamedu (Tamil Nadu) on the eastern coast, which were engaged in extensive trade with Romans and South East Asia. Mauryan maritime trade flourished during their reign. In his treatise Arthashastra, Kautilya had emphasized greater use of ‘dakshinpatha’ which was connected to Baroch for sea trade. Bindusara had remained in touch with Alexander’s successors in the Middle East and Ashoka had maintained this practice. Ashoka’s son Mahindra and daughter Sanghamitra are known to set sail for a mission to Sri Lanka from Tamralipti. By this time big ships were built, they could carry over 500 men on the high seas anywhere. The Rajavallia, a Pali work, says that the “ships in which King Sinhaba of Bengal (600 BCE) sent Prince Vijaya, could carry almost 700 passengers; and the ship in which his Pandyan bride was brought over to Lanka had the capacity to carry 800 people.”

The Periplus of Erythrean Sea lists two connectivity routes from Alexandria to Muzeris; one was from Petra in Jordan to the Gulf of Aqaba, the other from Alexandria (had a population of Indians) up the Nile delta to Suez. Options were to sail up the Nile to Captos (Qift) and then undertake a 11 day land journey to the port of Bernice on Egypt’s Red sea coast, down the coast to Adulis (nearest to Aksum, Ethiopian capital), further down to the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb (Gateway of Tears) with contrary winds and strong currents. From the Gulf of Aden, ships headed to Socotra (a leftover of Gondvana supercontinent), name derived ‘Dweepa Sukhdhara’ or the island of bliss. In addition to Arabs and Greeks, it had a large population of Indians. Traditionally, the mariners headed to Socotra from Oman and on crossing the Persian Gulf hugged the Makran coast on to Baraka (Dwarka) and Baryguza (Bharoch) port. Ships headed down south along the coast for Muzeris (Mucheripattnam), which was the primary source of black pepper, an entry point of the much famed ‘Spice Route’. Archaeologists have identified its location near Kochi with artifacts of wine and olive oil amphorae from France, Spain, Egypt and Turkey. According to Greek geographer, Strabo, around 120 ships made the year long trip to India and back in the first century AD. Roman writer Pliny (27-79 AD) wrote ‘Not a year passed in which India did not take 50 million Sesterces away from Rome’. During this period India accumulated a large store of gold and silver, as the profit margins from the Spice Islands to Rome and Venice were of the order of a multiple of 32, 000.

In the southern part of India, Pandyas, Satavahanas, Pallavas, Chalukayas, Kalingas, Cholas and Cheras had very strong maritime trade going on with the Romans. The lucrative profit margin with the Romans had encouraged them to intensify their spice trade with South East Asia and silk trade with China. This network was facilitated by merchant guilds and temple finances. They sent their merchant fleets to sail for Suvarna Dweepa (Sumatra) and Yava Dweepa (java) further up to South Vietnam. A Chinese text makes the special mention of the Hindu Kingdom of Funan that flourished in the Mekong Delta in the Second century AD. The capital of Funan was Vyadhapura, now the Cambodian Village of Banam and its port was Oc-Eo. Hindu Buddhist kingdoms of Angkor in Cambodia, Champa in Vietnam, Srivijaya kingdom of Sumatra and succession of Hindu kingdoms in Java had a strong legacy of Hindu cultural influence in the Southeast and East Asia region. The influence of Ancient India is apparent even today with the names of people and places as well as large number of Sanskrit based words used in the languages of these countries. Malaysia and Indonesia call their language ‘Bahasa’ derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Bhasha’. The festival of ‘Kartik Purnima’ in Odisha- called ‘Bali Yatra’ is celebrated even today, which marks the day when Sadhaba merchants set sail for Southeast Asia.

By this time the connectivity both by land and sea was well established. A Chinese scholar Fa Hien came to India by land route, in 5th century through Central Asia. After spending several years studying Buddhism, he travelled back to China by sea starting his journey from Tamralipti and going via Sri Lanka and Java. India was at the peak of its prosperity during this period called ‘The Golden Age’. From the 5th century BC to 6th century AD, the naval supremacy in the Indian Ocean rested with the continental powers in India. The Pandyas, the Zamorins of Calicut, Cholas and others maintained powerful navies and exercised sway over the seas. After the downfall of Srivijaya and the disappearance of the Chola the stage of Indian History, the oceanic trade in the Indian seas passed almost exclusively to the Muslim traders. The period of Hindu supremacy in the Indian Ocean was of complete freedom of trade and navigation.

The Europeans took control of this trade starting with Portuguese from early 16th century followed by the Dutch, the French and the English, which lasted up to 1941. The Indians had lost complete control of the seas by 1749 after the defeat of Maratha Navy at the hands of the British, in a deceitful manner.

Recent Initiatives-Revival of India’s Past Glory

India’s share of world economy was 27 percent in 1700 AD. By the time British left, it had dropped to 3 percent. Commentator Jonathan Foreman had said “the Congress party misruled India for more than six decades, all the time becoming increasingly arrogant and corrupt, and seeming as insulated from the ordinary Indians as their British predecessors had been.” History has shown that connectivity of two societies or states is paramount for facilitating trade and commerce which determines the well being and economic prosperity. In this, sea routes have been more important than land routes because they carry more goods more economically. It is also seen that when India’s maritime trade was at its peak, it commanded a lion’s share of world economy. However, as per World Bank data, it is 2.83per cent for 2017, of which the marine trade component is about 40%.

As per 2016 UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the ease of transport of goods is considered a crucial factor for the effective realisation of 8 out of 17 goals. Supporting maritime sector is no longer a choice and therefore, policy makers need to take into account that the port and shipping business is a key enabler of country’s foreign trade. A country’s traders should have internal as well as external connectivity for fast, reliable and cost effective port and shipping services.

In consonance with the above, the present government has taken a strategic view and initiated a slew of connectivity projects with other countries to elevate India’s share in the global economy and enhance its own well being of its people. The major ones include PM’s SAGAR vision for the Indo-Pacific, Sagar Mala and Mausam Projects, International North South Project, Chabahar Project; Asia Africa Growth Corridor, BIMSTEC and BRICS initiatives, in keeping with our ancient heritage and traditions of the ‘Monsoon’ based ‘Spice Trade Routes’. Shri Narendra Modi, Hon’ble Prime Minister had alluded this fact by stating that “Maritime sector has a vital role in India’s progress and the government is strengthening the sector through innovative initiatives”.

Sylvain Levi French art Historian has shown how references in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Mahaniddesa and Brihat-Katha that the products of Burma and Malaya Peninsula were known to Indian merchants and sailors and also some of its ports such as Suvarnakudya, Suvarnabhumi, Takkolam, Tamlin and Javam since at least first century A.D.

That Indian traders and settlers repeatedly undertook journeys to Southeast Asia, despite the hazards and perils involved, speaks well for their physical prowess, courage, and determination, even if allowance for the pull of profit is made. (Source: CrystalLinks & Wikipedia,)

Sagar Mala Project. This is a strategic US$120 billion investment initiative of the Government of India entailing setting up of more than six mega ports, modernisation of several dozen more ports, development of more than 14 Coastal Economic Zones and at least 29 Coastal Economic Units, development of mines, industrial corridors, rail, road and airport linkages with these water ports, resulting in US$110 billion export revenue growth, generation of 150,000 direct jobs and several times more indirect jobs. It also aims at transforming the existing ports into modern world class ports and integrate the development of the ports, the industrial clusters and hinterland and efficient evacuation systems through road, rail, inland and coastal waterways resulting in the ports becoming the drivers of economic activity by connecting to the outside world.

Project Mausam. This project was launched by India in June, 2014 at Doha, in partnership with member states, to enable exploring the multi-faceted Indian Ocean ‘world’ collating archaeological and historical research. It also aims to document the diversity of cultural, commercial and religious interactions in the Indian Ocean extending from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent and Sri Lanka to the Southeast Asian archipelago.

Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing the Public Meeting after the dedication to Nation of the Dhola-Sadia Bridge, across River Brahmaputra, in Assam on May 26, 2017.

BIMSTEC is a connectivity project aimed towards strengthening cooperation amongst member states of Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The old routes that connected these countries are being revived. India is taking a lead role towards connecting the sub region both at bilateral and multilateral level. A coastal shipping service has already been started between India and Bangladesh in early 2016. In June 2017, India handed over six cargo vessels worth over USD 81.29 millions to Myanmar in Sittwe under the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project. Other initiatives include building of 109 km road connecting Paletwa river terminal to Zorinpuri in Mizoram and widening of 65 km of the Imphal-Moreh highway in Manipur. India is laying a railway line between Raxual and Kathmandu. The various connectivity projects in the BIMSTEC sub region will help integrate with the wider network connecting of ASEAN nations. As Act East initiative of Modi government, ASEAN-India connectivity-sea route along the Mekong-India Economic corridor and land route along the trilateral highway will depend on early completion of BIMSTEC connectivity. .

International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC)

The International North–South Transport Corridor is a 7,200-km-long multi-mode network of ship, rail, and road route for moving freight between India, Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia and Europe. The objective of the corridor is to increase trade connectivity between major cities such as Mumbai, Moscow, Tehran, Baku, Bandar Abbas, Astrakhan, Bandar Anzali, etc. The recent entry of India in the Songhai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) will give further impetus to connectivity with Central Asia and China. INSTC is likely to be activated within a few months.

India-Iran Chabahar Project

This project was envisaged by Vajpayee government and revived by the present one because of its immense strategic significance. It is the only Iranian port which has direct access to the Indian Ocean. Being close to Afghanistan and the Central Asian countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan etc, it has been termed as the “Golden Gate” to these land-locked countries. From Chabahar, the existing Iranian road network can link up to Zaranj in Afghanistan, about 883 kms from the port. The Zaranj-Delaram road constructed by India in 2009 can gives access to Afghanistan’s Garland Highway, setting up road access to four major cities in Afghanistan — Herat, Kandahar, Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif. In August 2017, Indian Union Minister of Ports, Nitin Gadkari, announced completion, and on October 29, 2017, the first shipment through the port was sent from India en route to Afghanistan.

Asia-Africa Growth Corridor

The vision document for AAGC was launched by India on May 25, 2017. It is an economic cooperation agreement between the governments of India, Japan and several African countries and aims for Indo-Japanese collaboration to develop quality infrastructure in Africa. AAGC will essentially be a sea corridor linking Africa with India and other countries of South-East Asia and Oceania by rediscovering ancient sea-routes and creating new sea corridors.


Connectivity is the basic need for a society to develop and prosper by way of exchange of ideas, culture and most importantly trade. India from Harappan times was well connected to Central Asia, Iran and Middle East both by land and sea routes. Indus-Saraswati Valley civilization was spread over a large area; the cities reflected very sophisticated civic planning, organisation and development. India as a nation had reached high levels of prosperity during the Mauryan period, which continued up to the Guptas and Cholas regimes. Because of the flourishing maritime trade during that period, our culture, tradition and religion had spread far and wide up to Mediterranean in the West and Southeast Asia, China and Japan in the East. However, post domination of the Indian Ocean region and control over its trade routes by the Europeans, India’s prosperity declined continuously and was at its nadir at the time of our independence. The country failed to integrate with the world economy, up to 1990s, under the Congress rule.

The present government realised that India, thus far a regional power, has an opportunity to rise as a responsible and influential world power. It therefore, reoriented its strategic vision from land based thinking to ocean centric thinking and has adopted the concept of Indo-Pacific architecture with primacy and centrality of Indian Ocean in economic affairs of the world. The underlying philosophy of all the projects and initiatives, to enhance the internal and international connectivity of India, remains Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). India considers Indo-Pacific nations as civilizations to be brought on same grid for peace prosperity and progress.

– Cmde RS Dhankhar (Retd)

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