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Indian Boat Designs and Forms

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Item Code: NAP669
Author: Prof. B Arunachalam
Publisher: Maritime History of India, Mumbai
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788190810807
Pages: 328 (Throughout Color and B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 10.00 X 7.50 inch
Weight 500 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

Since the days of the Indus Valley Civilization, coastal regions along the Indian coasts have engaged in maritime activities. The early water crafts in use on sea waters included reed boats, a variety of floats and the uniquely distinctive ‘kattmarans’ with logs tied together while, these were wash-afloat, earlyl boats that worked on the principle of air displacement ere dugouts and pseudo-dugouts. Over time, plank built boats came into operation. These were initially keel less, but as they grew in size, sturdy keeled vessels came to be plied in sea waters.

The design and form of these boats varied regionally in different segments of the coast. Initially, the planks were stitched firmly, but they were replaced by nailed boats in the last few hundred years. Sails came to be used early, and to steer the boats, by turning them, when necessary; some of them had outriggers and balance boards. The timber used varied from sea to sea, dependent on its quality, durability and strength for sailing in the saline sea water. Steadily, they also grew in size so that by 1500 A.D. Indian boats reached a size of 1, 000 tons or more. While some of them were double ended, others had a square, rounded or transom stern. Many were open decked, but some had decks and even cabins to accommodate passengers.

The intricacy of their designs and forms varied immensely, depending upon the skills and expertise of the master carpenters. What is more fascinating is the fact that the master builder had no drawn plans of boat architecture and they worked based on inherited wisdom and their own skills. The present book seeks to piece together all this knowledge of boat designs and forms as gathered from field work, and a few earlier writings.

About the Author

Prof. B. Arunachalam is a reputed academician, who retired as Professor and H.O.D of Geography at the University of Mumbai in 1983.

He completed his post-graduation in Geography from Presidency College, Chennai. A brilliant scholar, who stood first in the University on the subject, he turned to Mumbai for professional work. Initially, as a college lecturer and subsequently joined the University of Mumbai as Reader and later as Professor. In the forty years of teaching cum research in building from its inception, a strong Department of Geography at the Mumbai University.

As a teacher of Geography, he specialized in Geomorphology and Mathematical Cartography. His keen interest in celestial navigation and native Indian mapping and charting aided in delving into native Indian charts and traditional sailing technology in Indian waters, many of which are related to the Indian heritage of cartography an navigation. He also organized many international and national level academic conferences and seminars and is also an active member of professional bodies like the National Geographic India, Indian National Cartographic Association, and Society of Indian Ocean Studies etc. As a collaborating editor of the Maharashtra Gazetteers Dept, he has contributed to the district gazetteers of many districts of Maharashtra. He is an active academic patron of maritime studies.

Professor Arunachalam is the author of numerous books, many of which are on inter-disciplinary areas. His books published by the Society are ‘Essays in Maritime Studies Vol I and II (an edited work). ‘Heritage of Indian Sea Navigation’, ‘Chola Navigation Package’, Mumbai by Sea’, and ‘Navigational Hazards, Landmarks and early Charting A Special Study of Konkan and Gujarat’.

He is the Academic Advisor to Maritime History Society, Mumbai.


Indians of the littoral have been competent mariners for thousands of years, first in primitive rafts; made from estuarine rushes, then on logs and planks lashed together, with ropes made from plant fibres, to form the ubiquitous kattumaram still in use by estuarine and offshore fishermen along the southern peninsular coasts. Later, they began building well founded ships, double ended, which had their planks stitched together and then to the ribs by twine of coconut fibre. The forests backing the coasts supplied high quality shipbuilding timber. Iron had been known for some time, certainly since before Ashokan times (circa 300 BCE). However, iron fasteners for ship timbers were taboo, because of a rim, if mistaken belief that the open waters of the seas surrounding India were strewn with magnetic lodestones, which could wreck iron fastened ships. This belief had been indirectly influenced by a treatise on shipbuilding .the book ‘Yuktikalpataru’ was authored by Raja Bhoja in the 12th century. There is no evidence that the author had any direct experience of ships or their building. The book classifies ship building timbers according to the established social order of caste, pronounced some centuries earlier by the savant Manu. It had long been the established order governing Indian society. The author of the book found that his theories on timber ‘castes’ were readily accepted in building of ships. Timber could not be mixed, the book had said. Timbers of high and low ‘castes’ used in constructing a ship would lead to a a flawed structure, unreliable, therefore, to be avoided. The book also writes of unlucky ship and much else which if adopted would lead to poor ship building practices. Fortunately, perhaps, because the shipwrights were either unaware of the theories propounded in the book or more likely, they could not read it, the influence of the treatise was not widespread, in practice. The shipwrights went along their way and built masterpieces, the consequence of generations of shipbuilders who had learnt through trial and error and from feedbacks from mariners. However, the veritable nonsense the treatise speaks of did make Indian ocean going ships unsuited to long and sustained, often stormy, ocean passages. Stitched hulls were believed to make for flexible forms, which would yet be strong enough to be seaworthy. Evidence is lacking whether this was so in actual practice, especially in really bad sea conditions whipped up by tropical storms met with regularly in the North Indian Ocean. It cannot be denied, though, that very large stitched hull ships, often of several hundred tons burthen, manned by Indian crews, did cross the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal with cargoes and passengers to destinations along opposite shores of those seas of the Indian Ocean.

Indian mariners were surely in touch with their Arab, Persian, Malayan, and Chinese counterparts and had been aware of their shipbuilding practices. There is no evidence, however, that they benefitted from them. Indian shipwrights seem to have continued with the practices enshrined in archaic methods. They only abandoned or modified them after they met with the Europeans in the sixteenth century. The East India Company had entrusted the building of their men of war to the Wadias of Mumbai at the then Bombay Dockyard (now Naval Dockyard). The superiority of Indian teak over English oak as shipbuilding timber was established and acknowledged. This shipbuilding activity was to cause disquiet in Britain. With the coming of iron and steam, the British found an excuse to discontinue warship building in India. It was only a hundred years later that India took steps to become a significant builder of warships. In those early days, many of the Indian built ships became famous in history for their sturdy build and longevity and their service in wars at sea between Britain, France and the newly independent USA.

During 1997-1888, Professor B. Arunachalam and I travelled the Indian coasts from Cuddalore on the Coromandel to Mandvi on the Gulf of Kutch, to see for ourselves the status and health of the Indian timber built shipbuilding industry. Many of the old and famous hull forms were still being built for Indian ,Arab and Gulf owners. There were double-ended Kotias in Cuddalore and Mangalore, on the Rukmavati river in Kutch, the famous Thoni in Tuticorin, transom stem Baggalas in Mandvi and elsewhere in the Gulf of Kutch Machuvas in and around Mumbai waters with the ubiquitous Phatemar between Mangalore and Kutch and several other interesting local forms . Prof. Arunachalam has done great service to the Maritime History Society by recording almost all these regional boat forms in this volume. These regional boat forms are a commentary on the sea conditions, the coastal geography and the available building material along the Indian coast, almost 7,500 kms of it, west and east. Small wonder then that since the advent of the Europeans on our coasts, there should have been innumerable treatises on the wonder and the sheer attraction of Indian boat forms. .Some of these books are authoritative, with very accurate sketches and drawings to scale, something which most of the shipwrights of the period did without, another example, perhaps, of Indian abhorrence for the written word. These boat forms are as varied and diverse as India is which has enhanced their attraction to the overseas observer. I do believe that this work by our Academic Adviser is the first such comprehensive study by an Indian observer of the scene. The Society is grateful to him for his work. The Society is now working on a sister volume which will do justice to the traditional maritime communities of the country found along her coasts, still eking out a living by and off the sea.


Sea-going water-crafts have attracted the attention of scholars all over the world. Floatation modes as well as water displacement techniques have received a deep insight to understand the structure and frame of watercrafts from the primitive to the advanced contrivances. India has a long coastline, peopled by communities well-versed in ways and steering along coastal as well as overseas voyage routes. People with varied cultures, and craft making expertise, dictated by regional environments have evolved their own distinctive methods of construction of water crafts that are sea-worthy, sturdy, and safe to operate under varied weather conditions, and sea-moods. In spite of an immense variety of boat forms and designs, Indian boat forms have a common underlying methodology.

Indian boat forms have not been studied in a totality of the area frame, notwithstanding the fact that since the nineteenth century, individual scholars have contributed much to understand the building techniques, materials of different boat forms in different segments of Indian coasts. Yet, there exists marked gaps in our knowledge. To fill in such gaps, and to appreciate the basics of the craft technology and to examine and explain the spatio-temporal evolution from the boat technology along with the mainland as well as island coasts, the present work on "Indian boat Forms and Designs" has been undertaken, with a munificent aid and sponsorship of the Maritime History Society, Mumbai. The evolution of the Indian sea-crafts since the days of the Indus Valley Civilization and its progressive changes and refinements are the subject matter of this investigation.

The book is presented in three parts: [i] Maritime Heritage of the India Sea-crafts; [ii] Regional Boat Designs and Forms with their distinctive attributes, together with the changes over time under local technological advances and alien influences; and [iii] Boat Auxiliaries. The work is well illustrated with maps, line drawings of plan, vertical views and photo illustrations. The closing chapter talks of the past and the future of the Indian timber boat technologies and their relevance to the nation’s sea-power ambitions.

**Book's Contents and Sample Pages**


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