“Millennia before Columbus sailed the Atlantic and Magellan crossed the Pacific, the Indian Ocean had become a thoroughfare of commercial and cultural traffic between the west coast of India and Babylon, as well as the East”
—KM Panikkar in ‘India and the Indian Ocean’
Kutch, Kathiawad and Peninsular Gujarat boast of a resplendent maritime heritage of over five millenia vintage. It was the location of the Harappan – Saraswati civilisation and had maritime contacts with the Sumerians and Mesopotamia. It also developed, arguably, the world’s first dock at Lothal. After a decline of this ancient civilisation maritime trade revived centuries later with Sumer, Phoenicia, Egypt, Rome and Greece, through Egypt, East Africa and Sri Lanka. Traders from the region emigrated in large numbers to areas in Southwest Asia and East Africa, establishing trading colonies.
Historical information about the ports of Gujarat is found in the Mahabharata, the Harivansh Purana, and the Matsya Purana. It is mentioned in the Harivansh Purana that the prosperity of the Yadavas was due to sea–trade. Kautilya has mentioned in his Arthashastra that the main occupation of people living along the coastline was navigation. The discovery of port ruins at Dholavira, Surkotda, Kuntasi, and Lothal belonging to different phases of the Indus Valley Period is a striking piece of evidence of maritime linkages of this area. The ancient Greek and Roman classics refers to the names of many ports of Gujarat, like Barygaza (modern day Bharuch), which was renowed for its trade during that period. Maritime trade also flourished during the rule of Kshatrapa and Gupta Kings. This area was the ‘Gateway of maritime commerce’ leading to the North Indian Plains and Central India as far as Pataliputra (modern Patna).
An early mention of the country of Jurz (Gujarat) was made by Suleiman, a merchant of Barsa in 851 AD. Other Arab travelers like AI Ishtakhri, Ibn Majid, AI Beruni, Ibn Haukal, Ibn Batuta and AI Idrisi have all made laudatory references to the sea trade of Gujarat. Post 9th century, with Islam spreading all over the western parts of North India and ruling dynasties becoming Islamic, the Haj pilgrimage assumed significance, demanding sea travel from one or the other port of Gujarat in view of its proximity to North India. The colonial period saw the Dutch, the French, the Portuguese and the British pursuing their trade interests vigorously. During this period Surat, Diu and Daman rose to prominence. Surat had a glorious time till the British shifted their maritime headquarters to Bombay. Daman and Diu continued to be important Portuguese ports of Gujarat.
A long period of close association with the sea has helped local seafaring communities like Kharawas, Memons and Kolis develop unique skills and seafaring wisdom in addition to indigenous navigational techniques. These were, in the early days transmitted orally from generation to generation within the communities with seafaring as their hereditary occupation. It is only around the 15th Century that the wisdom was translated into handwritten seamen manuals called ‘pothis’ and diaries or ‘roznamas’ of individual voyages.
In the post–Independence period, ports like Kandla gave Gujarat a fair chance of regaining its old glory and fame in navigation. An important pioneer company, Scindia Steam and Navigation Company Ltd., established in 1919 with the efforts of Seth Walchand Hirachand and Narotam Morarjee, had put Gujarat on the trade and navigation map. The company had to struggle against many odds including the noncooperation of foreign companies and their tough competition in trade and business. Today, Gujarat, once again with its long coastline, its strategic position on important and international trade routes, a pro-business government, with a record of announcing landmark port facilities, sound infrastructure, a sea-trade minded people with rich maritime traditions, is well placed to further the country’s maritime ambitions. Developments such as the thriving ports of Mundra, Kandla and Pipavav, the shipyards at Hazira and Alang and more companies showing interest in setting up medium to large shipbuilding yards/ ports along the State’s coast, and estuaries, particularly in South Gujarat have given further boost to the State’s maritime ambitions.
The critical importance of the security of the State of Gujarat for the socioeconomic and strategic well-being of the nation is in contemporary importance. Considering the strategic importance of the state, the first Naval Officer-in- Charge of Gujarat Area, designated as NOIC (Kathiawar) was appointed in 1966. On 26 November 1972, Indian Naval Ship (INS) Dwarka was commissioned at Okha, a geographically strategic port guarding the entrance to the Gulf of Kutch. On 07 July 1983, NOIC (Kathiawar) was re-designated as NOIC (Saurashtra) and less than two years later, on 01 Mar 1985, he shifted his operations to a new Forward operating Base (FOB) at Porbandar christened ‘Dwarka – II’. The naval presence both in the state and off its coast continued to increase over the years and plans for its defence by naval forces were meticulously refined and exercised as they are done to this day. Thereafter, on 01 July 1997, NOIC (Saurashtra) was re-designated as NOIC (Gujarat).
In 1999, the Indian Navy undertook a speedy and effective response to the transgression in Kargil by Pakistan, which included a near blockade of Karachi. The seamless logistical support provided by the naval infrastructure in the state of Gujarat under the aegis of NOIC (Gujarat) to the Indian Navy’s massive and unprecedented deployment in the northern Arabian Sea during this conflict bears testimony to the effectiveness of the evolution of these naval forces in Gujarat over the years. Post ’26/11′ attacks on Mumbai Gujarat found itself at the forefront of the coastal security calculus. Deployments of naval ships and aircraft including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance, intelligence gathering and deterrence have increased exponentially. Plans for further expansion of the naval force deployments are also nearing fruction with additional naval jetties, air bases and associated infrastructure coming up at different locations in Gujarat.
On 09 May 2015, Dwarka-II at Porbandar was commissioned as INS Sardar Patel by the Honourable Chief Minister of Gujarat, Smt Anandiben Patel. The long-awaited commissioning of this unit marks an important milestone for the navy since it accords significant manpower, administrative and operational advantages critical for the future naval expansion in the state. Simultaneously, considering the need for a dedicated Flag Officer for naval command of the state, RAdm MS Pawar, VSM was appointed as the first Flag Officer Commanding Gujarat Naval Area (FOGNA) on 21 October 2015. These important milestones are harbingers of future naval expansion.
The rich maritime history of Gujarat, inclusive of Kathiawad and Kutch, deserves the ‘pride-of-place’ in the long enduring and illustrious maritime heritage of India. This heritage not merely includes artefacts, tools and crafts but also the enormous sea skills and wisdom that has been transmitted initially by word of the mouth and later through writings of sailors. Today, Gujarat is perfectly poised to herald a new era of development and prosperity in the country, a role it is destined to fulfil considering its rich maritime heritage of more than 4500 years. The Indian Navy is fully seized of its responsibilities in ensuring that the state and its people are provided effective maritime security so that they can contribute wholeheartedly in the nation’s march towards progress and prosperity.