The induction of INS Tarangini, INS Sudarshini and vessels of the Indian Navy’s Ocean Sailing Node into the naval fleet resuscitated the dying art of wind-sailing in India.


In the world of mega tankers, seldom do we sight a sail-rigged boat majestically ploughing through the surging waves of the oceans. Seeing INS Tarangini and Sudarshini scoot between the leviathan carriers and breaking the monotony of modern floating vessels gives us a whiff of history. In the bygone days of sailing, sailors cruised through uncharted waters only with the aid of the capricious winds and their steadfast sails.
India has a long and illustrious history of sailing, truly befitting its long seaboard stretching 7,516 kilometres, coast to coast. Beginning with the Harappans, the Indians sailed into waters beyond their territorial confines. The Harappan ships traded with the chalcolithic Mesopotamians of ziggurat fame, in materials like carnelian, lapis lazuli, red hounds and livestock. These were the high-end products of their day, fancied by the rich and affluent, from the cities that lay between the Tigris and the Euphrates. With such valuable merchandise on board, one would expect the seagoing craft to be fabricated out of the most resilient material. However, it is interesting to note that the Harappans built their vessels from the humble dry reeds fitted with sails. This, in one sense, was an engineering achievement given that the waters of the Arabian Sea were populated by reefs which would prove detrimental to vessels made from denser material. The trade between the Harrapans and the Mesopotamians was so intense that the first batch of Indian ex-pats to ever leave the subcontinent and settle abroad were the Harappans of Guabba, who became an integral part of the local temple economy.

INSV Mhadei

Following in the footsteps of the Harrapans, the post Vedic Indians kept steady trade ties with Mesopotamia. The Indian sailing experience never withered away even after the second century BC, when Manu introduced a taboo against trans-oceanic navigation. In fact, Indians taught the Romans and the Greeks before them to sail in the Indian Ocean with the help of “trade winds” that commenced with the onset of monsoon. Even though at present traditional histories credit Hippalus with the discovery of monsoon winds for mid-ocean crossing, this direct route to India was common knowledge to the Indian and Arab sailors even before Hippalus could discover it. In this regard, it should come as no surprise that the Greek geographer Posidonius (ca 135-51 BCE) credits an Indian sailor for guiding Eudoxus of Cyzicus on the use of monsoon winds to sail to India. Eudoxus was the earliest Greek navigator to ever sail in the waters of the Indian Ocean. The monsoon route to India before Eudoxus was a top-secret, jealously guarded by the Arab and Indian seafarers. Not only did an Indian guide the Greco-Roman sailors to the Indian coast but a millennium and a half later in the 15th century, a Gujarati sailor showed up on the proscenium and chaperoned Vasco da Gama from Malindi on the African coast to Calicut. This helping hand would prove to be ominous to the pre-colonial Indian shipping industry. The Portuguese and the other colonial powers, following them, dominated the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean and outflanked the traditional players of this region. Despite this debilitating stature, indigenous seafarers of Gujarat and Kerala continued to rig their sails until the introduction of the steam propulsion system that tapered their profits.
With the advent of the steam propulsion system in the early 19th century, sails were permanently lowered on sail ships. Fitted with this new technology, ships could now traverse long distances at a reduced commutation time. It also meant that ships would no longer need favourable winds to charter the course of their journey because all they needed was a steady supply of coal that would keep their boilers chuffing and the ships moving. Owing to the reliability of this technology, the shipping industry rapidly shifted towards steam and steel contraptions. After this transition, there was no going back to sail. By the turn of the 20th century, the mechanisation of ships achieved a state of refinement and mega ships replaced the smaller vessels. This led to the complete extinction of the use of sail ships in the conventional shipping industry in India. However, the induction of INS Tarangini, INS Sudarshini and vessels of the Indian Navy’s Ocean Sailing Node including INSV Mhadei and INSV Tarini into the naval fleet resuscitated the dying art of wind-sailing in India.

INSV Tarini

The Indian Navy commissioned sail training ship, INS Tarangini to rekindle India’s rich maritime heritage and also promote seamanship, camaraderie, endurance and esprit-de-corps amongst the budding naval officers. She became the first Indian sail ship to circumnavigate the globe by cruising 33,000 nautical miles in 2003-04. In 2008, she also undertook a three-month expedition to Southeast Asia, replicating the Chola voyage to Srivijaya. Keeping in tandem with the position of the constellations used during the Chola voyage, she weighed anchor in January from Nagapattinam, a port town from where the Cholas kickstarted their expedition to conquer Srivijaya. This expedition undertaken by INS Tarangini was organised by the Maritime History Society, a research institute based in Mumbai dedicated to the study of India’s maritime legacy. Besides this, INS Tarangini has participated in multiple “Lokayan” expeditions and tall ship races. This year-round she embarked on a 14-nation and seven-month-long voyage called the Lokayan-22. She visited the ports of Porto, Malta and Port Said among others.
Her sister ship, INS Sudarshini has a history of being deployed to the Gulf and the ASEAN region, both places strategically important for India’s maritime sovereignty. Sudarshini was flagged off for her first ASEAN expedition in September 2012, a collaborative venture between Ministry of Defence, Indian Navy and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The expedition was undertaken with the aim of commemorating 20 years of dialogue and partnership and 10 years of summit level partnership with ASEAN. Very recently, INS Sudarshini was deployed in the Gulf region as part of Indian Navy’s endeavour to enhance maritime cooperation with the friendly navies in the region. In this leg of her voyage, she made professional interactions with Royal Oman Navy (RNO), UAE Navy and Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) Navy.
INSV Tarini is another example of how the Indian Navy transcended gender stereotypes in the world of sailing. A six-member all women’s team comprising naval officers was selected to sail onboard INSV Tarini in the Navika Sagar Parikrama, an expedition envisaged with the aim to circumnavigate the globe. The crew trained for three years assiduously until they sailed on 10 September 2017 and became the first women-led circumnavigation expedition in the history of India.
Safeguarding the 3,000-year-old legacy of sailing, Indian Navy is at the forefront of reviving and promoting the art of wind sailing through various expeditions. The expeditions have proven to be much more than a mere project of skill development. It has contributed to the promotion of India’s soft power in the neighbourhood and has enhanced India’s outreach and presence in the Indian Ocean Region.
Dennard H. D’Souza is Senior Research Associate, Maritime History Society, Mumbai.