Navies constitute an important and crucial component of any nations armed forces. It is an indicator of a nation’s sea power and maritime strength. Defence analysts classify navies into three categories which are Blue Water Navy, Brown Water Navy and Green Water Navy.
A Brown Water navy is a naval force that focuses on coastal operations and primarily attested to more of a defensive role. Brown water areas include areas close to the coasts, within the territorial waters of the country. Green Water Navies operated in areas from the outer edge of brown water areas past the continental shelf, islands and in modern naval terminology, 160 km away from the shore (100 miles)
Coming to Blue Water Navy, it is a basically a maritime naval force that is capable of operating beyond its shores, into the deep oceans thereby projecting power.
The three basic constituents of a Blue Water Navy are namely:
• Aircraft Carriers
• Naval Logistics Bases
• Offshore Bases
In the 21st century there are few states in the world that actually possess the tag of Blue Water Navy. The United States of America (USA) is the only superpower and nation to have a dedicated fully operational Blue Water Navy. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is in the race with the United States to achieve this status. The Indian and European navies are the frontrunners in developing Blue Water Force capabilities.
However, it is unknown to the world and the international community that “India” was the first nation that had blue water naval capabilities, far much earlier than the very foundation and birth of the First World and West. The roots of the Indian Blue Water Forces date back centuries ago during the era of Chola Dynasty in Southern India.
Ports, Offshore Bases, Logistics
It was under the rule of Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola that India began its quest for a blue water navy. After defeating rival kingdoms such as Pandyas and Kalingas, Rajaraja Chola, the most prominent king of the dynasty began to look outwards. His first target was Sri Lanka. With an impressive fleet of warships and a skilled navy, the Chola emperor defeated the Mahinda Dynasty and established control over the island and built bases such as “Anuradhapura”
After conquering Sri Lanka, he turned his attention towards Southeast Asia. His military campaigns in regions like Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia led to the establishment of trade outposts. These later became offshore bases of the Chola Empire. He also recognised the strategic importance of maritime supremacy and invested heavily in naval infrastructure by constructing various ports and harbors along the South Indian coastline such as the port city of “Nagapattinam.”, Mamallapuram and Kaveripattanam. He established his empire as a dominant power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)
Under his successor, Rajendra Chola, the great Southern Indian empire subjugated the islands of Maldives. His audacious expeditions established Chola authority further deep into Malaysia, Sumatra and Java along with destroying the powers of local rulers. Examples of offshore bases include Pegu (Myanmar), Ilamuridesam, Kadaram, Pekam, Panai (Indonesia). Chola outposts became strategic centres of trade, economy and political control. Chola emperors also utilised these posts as logistical centres for birthing of ships etc.
Rajendra Chola is best known to have invaded and conquered Srivijaya to gain access to lucrative trade routes and neutralised Srivijaya’s influence over regional kingdoms and also to establish Chola suzerainty, and enhanced the prestige and reputation of the Chola empire as a mighty maritime power.
After his victory over Srivijaya through superior naval prowess, strategic planning, resource management, advanced weaponry, and seafaring tactics, many ports of Srivijaya and territories were conquered. A key factor in this victory was the development and utilisation of several logistical networks that facilitated a quick and decisive victory.
Apart from Southeast Asia, the Cholas also had maritime links with East Africa, Arabian Peninsula and even with China. They were actually the first Indians to have navigated through the South China Sea. They had established Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) with all these regions though mostly for trade rather than for war. Precious metals, spices, textiles were used for trade.
Merchants and traders from Southeast Asia, Arabian Peninsula, East Africa converged on Chola ports. The Cholas, in turn capitalized on their advantageous and strategic location of the ports, established diplomatic relations ans expanded their influence across the seas.
Aircraft Carriers and Shipbuilding
Modern aircraft carriers are gigantic platforms that includes fighter aircraft and helicopters on their deck. It is akin to the dynamics of a mobile, floating airbase. During the Chola era, the aircrafts were replaced by troops on deck. The Chola ships were made by the skilled craftsmen of the South India. The primary material they used for shipbuilding was sturdy timber, teak and jackfruit wood. They were known for their strength, durability and resistance to water. they could withstand the challenge of open seas.
The craftsmen used a unique technique to build huge ships. The technique was called mortise and tenon. It involved creating slots called mortises in one wooden piece and fitting them with protruding parts (tenons) on another piece creating a secure and strong connection. They other characteristic of Chola ships were use of a slight curve in their ships which helped them navigate through rough waters during sea storms.
To make ships more resilient, the craftsmen used caulking techniques. They filed the gaps between wooden planks with materials like coconut fiber and tar, creating a water tight seal preventing water to seep into the ships. Additionally, they were equipped with advanced rigging systems including multiple masts and sails which could be adjusted to harness the winds and propel ships forward. The primary materials used were cotton and silk.
The ships also ha spacious interiors allowing the navy to carry a large number of troops and weapons in addition to goods and food storage items.
Secondary and Tertiary Factors
The Blue Water Capabilities of the Chola Navy were not just restricted to the three basic constituents of a blue water navy. There were auxiliary factors involved too. The first factor that led Chola Navy to project power was the audacious and adventurous spirit of their mariners. The Chola Navy sailors braved the unpredictable seas guided by their knowledge of the winds, stars and currents.
They had knowledge of monsoon winds. Chola Mariners understood that monsoon winds consisted of two primary seasons: the Southwest monsoon and Northeast Monsoon. During the former, Chola mariners took advantage of winds blowing towards the northeast and they set sail from their home ports and embarked on voyages to Southeast Asia and other distant lands. The Southwest Monsoon propelled their ships making their voyages faster and more efficient. During the latter, the winds changed direction and they used these weather conditions to return back to their home ports.
Additionally, they had sound celestial knowledge too. During daytime the sun proved as a valuable reference. By observing the sun’s position in the sky, they determined the direction in which they were moving. If the sun was over head, they were sailing towards the east. If it appeared on the horizon, it indicated a westward movement. At night, they focused attention on stars and constellations such as NorthStar, Orion and Big Dipper. By simple observation they could determine latitude.
With their study ships and skilled navigation techniques they charted new routes. They also had a penchant for exploration, discovery and determination. In pursuit of trade an exploration, the Chola mariners became ambassadors of their empire and their presence not only brought economic prosperity but also strengthened diplomatic ties.
Warships and Naval Strategies
The Chola Navy boasted an impressive array of warships known as Kappal in Tamil. These warships were designed and very well constructed to face the challenges of long-distance travel and naval warfare. They were equipped with advanced navigation systems, weaponry and defensive mechanisms.
As mentioned earlier, skilled mariners with years of expertise allowed the Chola navy to navigate through treacherous waters and engage in naval battles with precision. Rajendra Chola employed a naval strategy involving organisation of his fleet into different squadrons, each with a specific role or objective. They conducted missile and arrow attacks onto enemy ships.
Last but not the least, he developed an extensive network of spies which helped him in accessing information about rival kingdoms, trade routes, enemy information and trade routes. This allowed him to plan his naval campaigns with precision, targeting and exploiting vulnerable areas of the enemy forces.