In the world’s shipbuilding history, India holds a pride of building vessels by stitching wooden planks rather than using nails and they were known for durability and flexibility; this unique culture of ancient days is now given a new lease of life in the country
Have you ever heard of stitched ships? Used by sailors in India as many as 2000 years ago, stitched ships would sail all the way from Odisha to Bali. They played a vital role in trade, cultural exchange, and exploration. According to the Ministry of Culture, these ships constructed by stitching wooden planks together rather than using nails, offered flexibility and durability, making them less susceptible to damage from shoals and sandbars. Though the arrival of European ships led to a shift in shipbuilding techniques, the art of building stitched ships has survived in some of India’s coastal regions, primarily for small local fishing boats. India wants to revive and rejuvenate this fading art and, in this regard, the Ministry of Culture and the Indian Navy have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding on July 18. The key objective behind this project is to leverage the expertise of the remaining traditional shipwrights in the country and showcase their exceptional craftsmanship. By sailing along ancient maritime routes using traditional navigational techniques, the stitched ship project aims to gain insights into the historical interactions across the Indian Ocean, which facilitated the flow of Indian culture, knowledge systems, traditions, technologies, and ideas, the Ministry of Culture said. Why does India stress on stitched shipbuilding culture? Argument given for imparting a thrust to stitched shipbuilding practice of the past is its cultural importance and in explaining to the people about India’s diverse heritage and ancient seafaring traditions. It aims to revive the maritime memory and instill a sense of pride in the country’s rich maritime heritage among the countrymen. It also aims to promote cultural memories among the Indian Ocean littoral states—through documentation and cataloguing of the project. This will be done to ensure that valuable information on stitched shipbuilding is preserved for future reference. Stitched shipbuilding in other parts of world The earliest known example of stitched shipbuilding in the world comes from Egypt in 2500 BC; a more than 40 metres long “Solar Barque” boat is still on show near the Giza pyramid. As per the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), stitched boats known as Zambratija boats were built in the Mediterranean areas between the 12 and 10 centuries BC. The CNRS further said Zambratija boats used to be built in Dalmatia and Istria—the two regions that lie on the coast of Croatia. History of shipbuilding in India India has a rich history of shipbuilding culture. During Indus Valley Civilization (3000 BC to 2000 BC) local shipbuilders used their hands, fingers, and feet as the units of measurement. Harappans used to build flat bottomed boats which could carry around 60 tons of load. They had also built a tide dock for birthing and servicing ships at the port town of Lothal which lies about fifty miles southwest of Ahmedabad. The discovery of the Lothal port and dock in 1955 highlighted the maritime aspects of the Indus Civilization. According to an article by D P Agrawal and Lalit Tiwari, Harappans not only built a unique dock but also provided facilities for handling cargo. There were other smaller ports such as Bhagatrav, Sutkagendor and Sutkakah, and perhaps a large one at Dholavira, all in Gujarat, said these two researchers. The Harappan ship must have been as big as the modern country crafts, which bring timber from Malabar to Gogha. On this analogy it can be assumed that a load up to 60 tons could be carried by these ships. The sizes of the anchor stones found in the Lothal dock also support this view, researchers D P Agrawal and Lalit Tiwari said. In his write up in Indian Defence Review, ex-Vice Admiral Rajeshwer Nath said that during the Mauryan period a superintendent of ships was appointed for the building and maintenance of boats. He further said there are records of boats with up to 30 oars having been built in Punjab for Alexander’s fleet, clearly implying that the shipbuilding culture had taken firm shape during the Mauryan period. Till about the 16th century, vessels made for seafaring purposes were small, mostly of a size ranging between 150 and 300 tons, former Indian Navy Chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba said in his write up in Indian Aerospace and Defence Bulletin. These vessels, he said, were mostly undecked and carried a single mast and sail and probably had no rudders. “In the Arabian Sea, till around A.D. 1500, the vessels of the west coast fell broadly into two classes: a more truly indigenous design of Konkan and Malabar strongly reflected in the Pattemar (or Phattemari) and the Odam; and boat forms of north Konkan, Gujarat, Kathiawad (Saurashtra) and Kutch, with strong affinities both in the form and make, with vessels of the Arab, Omani coasts,” he said. During the Medieval period, a number of vessels were constructed for the first time for sea war. Facilities for launching catapults and incendiary throwers existed even on- board Indian ships. With the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498 AD, building of warships in India underwent a change when guns were fitted on board. The Marathas too gave impetus to the Indian shipbuilding industry. In the 17th century, the Marathas developed shipbuilding yards at Vijaydurg, Suvarnadurg and Colaba, the former Indian Navy Chief said in his write up. In the modern age, SS Jala Usha was the first ship which was built by the Hindustan Shipyard Limited in the 1940s. It was an 8,000-ton steam ship. Conclusion Indian shipbuilding technology and navigational knowledge goes back to the III Millennium BC. Traditional boat builders could make ships, which were fully sea-worthy and could sail to West Asia. However, significance lies in the preservation of a culture and tradition of the past when shipbuilding methods were varied yet unique both in technology and dimension. India had mastered the art of stitched shipbuilding more than 2000 years ago when many seafaring nations were unknown to building strong and robust vessels for sea trade and travel. Keen to show the world that India wants to preserve the tradition and culture of stitched shipbuilding, a renewed focus has been made to revive the method of constructing vessels by adopting stitching technology of the past.