Friday, August 12, 2022

Ship Building – A Historical Perspective

By Admiral Sunil Lanba (r.)

The beginnings of ship or boat building technology in India go back to the Third Millennium BCE, to the Harappa times. The Harappa’s (or Indus Civilization) constructed the first tide dock of the world for berthing and servicing ships at the port town of Lothal. The discovery of the Lothal port and dock in 1955 highlighted the maritime aspects of the Indus Civilization. The terracotta models of a boat from Lothal and engravings on Indus seals give us some idea of ships going to the sea. For inland waterways, flat-bottomed boats of the type suggested by the terracotta models were used. 

In this connection it may be noted that even today flat-bottomed boats made of reeds are used for carrying men and light goods. Perhaps the Harappa’s used similar boats in the lakes and rivers also. Trade on the high seas and along the coast was possible because the ships were fitted with sails. The Harappa ship must have been as big as the modern day country crafts. 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.

An eleventh-century Sanskrit text, Yukata Kalpataru, classifies watercrafts into river boats and sea-going vessels (samanya or ordinary and vishesh or special) and further subdivides them into those with or without cabins. The ship was built of strong timber with rope joints. Iron nails were not preferred, and the vessels were niloham (without iron). India had an immense variety of designs of in-shore and near-shore fishing craft, ranging from rafts, catamarans, to dug-out canoes and small plank built boats, generally of less than 3 tons. Forms of coasting boats, 10 to 30 tons, like the Toni and Machuva of the west coast and the keel less Masula of the east coast are also known. However, the sea-going craft voyaging across the seas were fewer in type. 

Till about the sixteenth century, the sea-going vessels were small, mostly of a size ranging between 150 and 300 tons, and it is only later that larger boat designs of up to 650 tons came into being. They were mostly undecked, 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. 

To this latter class belong the Kutchi Kotia, the Baggela and the Batel of Mumbai–Gujarat coasts, with strong kinship with the Arab Jahaz, Sambuk, Boom, and Badan. The sea-going vessels of the Arabian Sea were built all along the west coast of India. Notwithstanding the common feature of stitching, there appears to be a wide range of variation in practices of ship building in terms of methods and patterns of stitching, plank fitting and construction methods. 

Though the single masted Arabian Sea vessels around the time of the advent of the Portuguese were small in size, around 150 to 250 tons, Portuguese chroniclers record that these vessels were larger than their own and more spacious. With the arrival in large numbers of the European colonial trading vessels in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a lot of changes crept into the ship-building technology of the Arabian Sea. 

European shipwrights not only came across good boat-building craftsmen on the Indian shores, but they also noted that the vessels made from teak were superior in their seaworthiness and durability. Increasing use of iron nails, bolts and screws in planking, and caulking to make the vessel leak proof, were the positive benefits. The Indian shipwrights started building larger vessels of 600 to 700 tons. Multi-masted and multilevel sails were yet another advance, following the European vessels. Even in the build of the vessels, and their form and appearance, marked changes became visible. 

The sea-going vessels that plied the waters of the Arabian Sea during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, that is, after the advent of the European maritime traders, are better known than those of the earlier times. The vessels of the northern part of the Arabian Sea, especially Kutch, Gujarat and north Konkan had a persisting strong affinity with the Arab, Omani prototypes, though with distinct local characteristics. The Malabar Odam, and its larger version, the Valia Odam built in Beypore, Tanur, Kasargod, or Kollam, was an open-decked vessel with stern and bow platforms, around mast kitchen galley and weather shelter.  In the past, it used to be stitched, but is nailed today. The present day Uru of Beypore is a larger motorised version of a sleek Odam.

Material evidence concerning east coast boat-building techniques and methods is even more scarce and meagre in comparison to the west coast. Practically nothing is known of the medieval east coast building skills. Tamil terminology like Vankam, Mara-kalam and Kappal do not throw any light on the boat designs and forms. Since colonial times, European brigs and cargo lighters have completely wiped off the pre-existing traditions. If Indo–Arab affinities are strong in the boat technology of the northern half of the Arabian Sea, it is the Malaysian and Chinese ‘junk’ traditions that appear to have influenced the Bay of Bengal boat-building traditions. 

The word sampan occurs in Tamil sea folk literature from the fifteenth century onwards, and so too sampan and jong in Bengal. However, persistence of the sewing traditions even today, in the excellent coasting surf riders, the Masulas of the Coromandel and Circars coasts, perhaps holds the key to the boat typology of the east coast. There appear to be only two possibilities to be probed for sea-going vessels of the Bay of Bengal. One is the double-ended straight sterned Padagu of the Coromandel Coast, a forerunner to the modern version of the Tuticorin Dhoni, fully decked with hatches and holds carrying one or two masts and fore and aft sails. 

The foregoing brief review of the sea boat technology confirms the long held notions that the north Indian Ocean has been the arena in the past for the intermingling and fusion of cultures and traditions of Southeast and East Asia, the Arab–Omani traditions, and the indigenous technology of the southern coasts of India, further intruded by European elements in the colonial period. There exists a rich tradition of ship building in India going back millennia.

During the 18th century, and the first half of the 19th century, the shipbuilding activity in India was dominated by the Parses. Shipbuilding activity first thrived at Surat and thereafter shipyards were built in Daman, Dhabul, Bassein and Bombay. The Wadia’s built warships for the Royal Navy at Bombay Dock which is now part of the Naval Dockyards at Mumbai. These warships built with Malabar teak had twice the lifespan of ships built in England of about 30 years. The “Trincomalee” – a 46-gun ship was built by them in1817. She was renamed “Foudroyant ” and is the oldest warship afloat today. The Industrial Revolution brought in a number of changes in shipbuilding like sail to steam, wood to steel etc. and the denial of technology, policies of the British and lack of industrialism led to the virtual demise of Indian ship building.

Post-independence, naval visionaries had the foresight to realize the importance of shipbuilding as a vital sector of national importance. Two significant actions were taken. The Navy in the early 50’s recruited its first Naval Architects and created the Directorate of Naval Construction as a nodal agency for acquisition and induction of all ships from aboard at Naval Headquarters. The Central Design Office was set up in 1964 for carrying out full-fledged design of ships for acquisition through indigenous construction. This laid the foundation for creating a capability to design and build Indian Navy’s own combat platforms. Initial batches of naval architects were trained at UK, later the training was shifted to IIT Kharagpur and finally to the Naval Construction Wing at IIT Delhi. The Central Design Office became the Directorate of Naval Design in 1970. 

The Design organisation made a modest beginning in the early 1960s with design of Seaward Defence Boats, Survey ships and other auxiliary crafts. Major warship construction began with the licence construction of the Leander Class frigates at Mazagaon Dockyard on purchase of the design and with assistance from the UK. The expertise gained from the Leander Class program and the need for a new class of multi role frigate with the same propulsion plant led to the Project 16 or the Godavari Class frigate which were 20% larger in size than the Leander, but achieved higher speed with the same steam propulsion plant. The Godavari class also saw integration of systems from the West, Soviet Union and Indigenous suppliers. The ship was the smallest in size in the world which could operate two heavy weight helicopters.

The Godavari class was followed by the design of Project 26 Corvettes – the Khukri class. The success of the Godavari and Khukri class led to a major leap with the design of Project 15 –the Delhi Class Destroyer, a vessel of 6500 tons. This hull form has led to the follow on Project 15A the Kolkata class and Project 15B – the Visakhapatnam class destroyers. Stealth features have now been incorporated in the design of Project 17, 17A frigates and Kamorta Class ASW corvettes to reduce the radar cross section of the ships.

The most ambitious ship which the Directorate of Design has undertaken is the design and construction of the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier displacing about 40,000 tons. This has placed India in a select list of nations which has the design capability across the entire range of warships. The carrier is now undergoing sea trials prior to her induction and commissioning in the Navy in 2022.

India can now boast of having the capability of designing and building any type of warships. The Nation has come a full circle of design and build capability. There is a great future forward for Naval Designers.

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