The Great Maritime Ambitions Of Hindavi Swarajya

The Great Maritime Ambitions Of Hindavi Swarajya

by Chaitanya Giri - Thursday, June 1, 2023 10:30 PM IST
The Great Maritime Ambitions Of Hindavi SwarajyaAn illustration of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj
  • Ramchandra Pant Bavadekar's 'Aadnyapatra' and the unrealised maritime ambitions of Hindavi Swarajya.

In September 2022, during the commissioning of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also unveiled the new insignia of the Indian Navy.

After 75 years, the Indian Navy finally bid farewell to the St George’s Cross, a vestige of the Royal Navy. The same cross has adorned the Flag of England, Savoy, Genoa, and Georgia and finds its origins with the Knights Templar, who fought the Crusades.

The new ensign or the 'Nishaan' of the Indian Navy is inspired by the Maratha Navy and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
The new ensign or the 'Nishaan' of the Indian Navy is inspired by the Maratha Navy and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.

The new insignia of the Indian Navy has an octagon inspired by the royal seal, ‘Rajamudra’, of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, as Maharaj was the central figure in establishing the modern outlay of a Bharatiya naval force.

Propitiously, the Indian Navy now has a symbol that the country can relate to, and Maharaj’s emblematic presence on the flag will surely inspire our sailors daily.

Since the new insignia was unveiled, many have curiously asked why Maharaj’s Rajamudra was chosen, despite Bharat having a rich maritime history that goes much farther in the past.

Many millennia ago, ports like Lothal, Sopara, and Kalyan traded with Egypt, Nubia, Greece, and the Levant. India’s Sadhaba of ancient Odisha travelled on ships called Boita to the eastern extremities of Asia. The great Cholas ventured into the Indonesian archipelago. In modern times, we have seen the tremendous exploits of the Marakkars of Samoothiri. With such a history, why does the Hindavi Swarajya stand out?

The question needs answering as we celebrate the 350th year since Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s coronation, June 2023 onwards.

Ramchandra Gunjikar (1843-1901). Today, only a few know about him. He is the first novelist of the modern Marathi language. While he is known for his historical novel Mochangad, in 1867, he assumed the editorship of a respected magazine called Vividh Vidnyan Vistar, roughly translated as Transdisciplinary Science Volumes.

To give a context, as they now say — aap chronology ko samajhiye: the magazine began a year after Queen Victoria was anointed as the Empress of India. One of the most significant achievements of Vividh Vidnyan Vistar came when it published a series of articles based on the excerpts from Aadnyapatra, a crucial document on the state policy of Hindavi Swarajya written by the Finance Minister (Amatya) of the first five chhatrapatis, Ramchandra Pant Bavadekar (1650-1716).

Ramchandra Pant’s role was prominent after Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s coronation. He was the youngest of Maharaj’s Asthapradhan – look at it as the cabinet of the Hindavi Swarajya.

His tenure spanned the reigns of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj, Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj, Chhatrapati Shivaji II Maharaj and Chhatrapati Sambhaji II Maharaj. What makes his contribution to the Hindavi Swarajya exemplary is that he played a prominent role during the pernicious 27-Year War, which led to the downfall of the Mughal Empire. 

Aadnyapatra was published in November 1716, by Chhatrapati Sambhaji II, of Kolhapur, immediately after Pant left for his heavenly abode. The document is clearly inspired by Kautilya’s Arthashastra. The last section of Aadnyapatra codified the naval policy of Hindavi Swarajya, which is of interest to this article. The section begins with these words, ‘‘loosely-translated’ here:

A navy is an autonomous arm of the state. Just as cavalry gives us control over lands, similarly those with a navy control the oceans.”

What could have been the thought behind these words? Was it only related to the war-fighting navy? Or did these words hint at what we today call a ‘blue economy’, given that Ramchandra Pant was the Finance Minister?

During his lifetime, Ramchandra Pant’s sovereign, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, had closely observed and fought with extraterritorial powers along the Konkan coast.

The Great Maritime Ambitions Of Hindavi Swarajya

When Maharaj was eight years old, hardly 500 kilometres away from where he was, the Dutch and Portuguese were fighting the Battle for Goa (1638). Swarms of Abyssinian, Dutch, French, Italians, Portuguese, British, Danish, Turkish, Egyptian, French and Mughal armadas and privateers looted the wealth generated from India in the Sindhu Sea. 

A hundred years earlier, the Portuguese defeated an alliance of Turkish Ottomans, Venetians, Egyptian Mamluks and Gujarat Sultanate in the Battle of Diu, fought along the Kathiawar coast.

Naturally, if the Hindavi Swarajya had to reclaim its realms from alien forces, geopolitical and geoeconomic stability on the coasts and offshore defence had become a primary goal.

To that end, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj laid an intricate plan to build new forts, control the older Shilahara-era coastal forts, and capture those controlled by extraterritorial powers. The magnificent Shilahara-era fort of Vijaydurg was captured from the Adil Shahi in 1653 and redeveloped by Maharaj.

He greenlit the construction of Sindhudurg in 1664, north of Goa. The same year, he raided the Mughal port city of Surat.

Down south, encircling the Portuguese colony of Goa, Hindavi Swarajya began capturing forts of Ponda and Sadashivgad, the port towns of Basrur, Honnavar, Gangoli, Ankola, and Gokarna that were at the periphery of Portuguese and Adil Shahi regimes.

A similar stratagem was employed around the seven islands of Mumbai when Maharaj captured Kalyan and Bhiwandi, towns on the Ulhas River.

Besides, capturing the coastal hill forts of Mahuli, Samrajgad, and Surgad in North Konkan was part of a strategy to encircle the British colony of Bombay.

Hindavi Swarajya fought the famous offshore battle of Khanderi against the British, which took place within a few years of the islands of Mumbai going from Portuguese to British as a marriage dowry from Princess Catherine of Braganza to King Charles II, and he in turn renting it to the British East India Company. The Europeans exchanging Bharatiya lands in dowries must not have gone well with Hindavi Swarajya

Later, Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj was on a continuous offensive with the Siddis at Janjira and down south with the Portuguese, taming them during the rest of his reign.

To keep a check on the British naval movements in Mumbai, he took over the Elephanta (Gharapuri) Island. Like his father, Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj heavily promoted shipbuilding and use of artillery on offshore platforms.

During these years, Sarkhel (admiral) Kanhoji Angre succeeded Sidhoji Gujar, and became a naval force to reckon with while he kept the maritime Hindavi Swarajya goals intact during the 27-Year War when Chhatrapati Rajaram Maharaj was in Jinji, modern-day Tamil Nadu, and Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj was in Mughal captivity.

Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre instilled the wrath of god among alien privateers and East India companies of Europeans who arrived in the Sindhu Sea for looting. By the end of the 1700s, large tracts of the Konkan coast were under the Hindavi Swarajya, barring a few aberrational territories under the Siddi, Portuguese and British control.

By the time the Adnyapatra was published, the Dabhade-Gaekwad combine shattered the Mughal domination over southern Gujarat and took charge of the Khambhat coast.

Those who had worked with Ramchandra Pant perhaps had read the Adnyapatra and likely were following it. Immediately after its publication, the realms of Hindavi Swarajya — during the times of Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath, Peshwa Bajirao I and Peshwa Nanasaheb I — expanded from Kathiawar to Uttar Kanara on the west coast and regions of the Coromandel coast and the coast of Odisha.

One of the most significant naval achievements after Pant’s demise was defeating the Portuguese at Vasai (north of modern-day Mumbai). The victory at Vasai was so monumental that the Hindavi Swarajya ousted Europeans from the largest island of British-Portuguese-controlled Mumbai – Shashti (now suburban Mumbai district).

Important coastal forts of Arnala (near Virar), Dharavi, and Parsik (near Thane), all located on and around Shashti, were swiftly captured. However, as time progressed, Adnyapatra and its content got lost in the labyrinth of increasing geopolitical complexities in Bharatvarsha.  

What was the Adnyapatra trying to communicate, and to whom?

India’s modern history is written mainly with a hyperlocal political pretext. The global geopolitical and geoeconomic insight of those who struggled to expel extraterritorial powers from the Indian lands and seas is seldom discussed or analysed. 

During the rules of Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj and later the Peshwai, Hindavi Swarajya bore the appearance of a confederacy. Almost all confederates directed their defences northwards from Satara — Gwalior, Baroda, Indore, Nagpur, Dhar, Dewas and Vidarbha.

Not a single dedicatedly maritime confederate existed. As time progressed in the 1700s, the British tightened their stranglehold over Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata port cities.

Danish, Portuguese, Dutch and French colonies too were present primarily along the coastlines. Neither the confederates nor other native Bharatiya rulers were able to raise naval capabilities, at par with the advancements offered by the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

Sadly, today when many in the Indian strategic community quote the theoreticians Halford Mackinder or Alfred Thayer Mahan for their geostrategic idioms, we conveniently forget Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Ramchandra Pant for the geostrategic thought they ideated and practised for Bharat.

Today, the original copy of Adnyapatra is untraceable. Nor does any background strategic research and analyses on it exist. Thanks to the thoughtful publication by Ramchandra Gunjikar, we can read the policy document today. But what lacks is the background, which is left to conjecture, as I have attempted to make here.

What was it that made Ramchandra Pant Amatya write it?

Did the Ashtapradhan plan to challenge the 15th century Mare Clausum, supported by the Pope, between the Portuguese and Spanish?

Was the Hindavi Swarjaya preparing to extend its maritime realms to Zanzibar, Aden, Basra, Muttrah, Gwadar, Mombasa and Bander-Abbas?

Was it preparing to earn revenues from naval trade with Europe and West Asia? D

id we think that if Ottomans, Abyssinians and Europeans could reach the Bharatiya shores, we could get them via the Red Sea or Cape of Good Hope?

Why did Gunjikar republish the Adnyapatra, and who encouraged him? 

As we celebrate the momentous 349th anniversary of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s coronation, we must vow to carry out meticulous analyses of our historically strategic missteps.

It is these missteps that have cost our independence dearly and not learning from them may cost us our dear independence again. The emergence of the octagon from Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s Rajamudra on the Indian Navy’s insignia is a positive sign.

Today we can build aircraft carriers. Now is the time to also begin building freight liners. Maritime Bharat is the bulwark of Aatmanirbhar Bharat.

Dr. Chaitanya Giri writes on science, diplomacy, strategy, and techno-economics. Views are personal.
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