It is a well known fact that the main civilisations of the ancient world of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India (Indus Valley), and China were possible only because of the great river systems around which they grew up. The rivers made these civilisations possible, not simply human invention or any special ethnic type that migrated there.
Ancient India had a massive nexus of numerous great rivers from the Indus in the west to the swamplands of the Gangetic delta in the east. It had both a warm subtropical climate and seasonal abundant rains. This river region included relatively dry regions of the west to the very wet regions of eastern India affording an abundance of crops both in type and quantity. The Indian river system was much larger in size and in arable land, and better in climate than perhaps all the other three river regions put together. No other ecosystem in the world could so easily serve to create an agricultural diversity or the cultural richness that would go with it. Ecologically speaking, north India was the ideal place in the world for the development of a riverine civilisation via agriculture. Bounded by the Himalayas in the north, and lower mountains on the west, east and south, this north Indian river plain is a specific geographical region and ecosystem, whose natural boundaries could easily serve to create and hold together a great civilisation. It was also ideal for producing large populations that depend upon agriculture for their sustenance.
Not surprisingly, the Rigveda, the oldest book of the region, is full of praise for the numerous great rivers of the region, the foremost of which in early ancient times was the Sarasvati, which flowed east of the Yamuna into the Rann of Kachchh, creating an unbroken set of fertile rivers from Punjab to Bengal. This Vedic goddess of speech was a river goddess. The Vedic idea of One Truth but many paths (Rigveda I.164.46) probably reflects this experience of life of many rivers linked to the one sea.
For Trade, Travel and Communication
Since time immemorial, people from different countries from of the world have been using waterways for trade and travel. The Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, French, British and Portugese used sailing ships for trade.
Ancient India had deep trading connections in countries like Cambodia, Java, Sumatra, Borneo and in countries as far as Japan. The transport and communication with these trade centres were maintained mainly through waterways.
Between the 15th and 16th century, sailing vessels helped people in the discovery of new islands. For example, Columbus discovered America with the help of ships named ‘Sonta’, ‘Pinta’ and ‘Nina’.
Water transport in India was in its zenith in the 14th century. The Mughal rulers greatly developed navigation on rivers for trade and passengers. Megasthenes mentioned in the accounts of his travels that he had sailed on an Indian boat. According to his accounts the Ganga and its seventeen tributaries and the Indus with its thirteen tributaries were navigable and were used extensively for transportation.
Before 1800, the river transport in India was a flourishing industry. In carrying internal trade, the role of boats was crucial. For long-distance carriage of bulky goods like food-grains, and salt, water transport enjoyed some advantage in cost terms.
However, the quickest as well as the cheapest mode of transport was country boats. With the introduction of steamships in the mid-19th century, not only travel time declined in respect of the movement of goods and passengers but it also enjoyed enormous cost advantage over country boats.
Decline of Water Transport in India
After a glorious tradition of thousands of years Indian shipping started diminishing in the middle of the 18th century. With the introduction of railways and road transport and after independence, its importance further diminished. What was unique was its gradual decline due to stiff competition with the railways after 1860.
The shipping industry in India has had a chequered carrier. With the advent of the British rule, the Indian shipping industry came under brutal competition from the British ships. It was the sheer discriminatory and unjust practices of the British Government that caused the Indian shipping transport to languish.
A ‘near monopoly’ in the port-to-port traffic in India was established by the British shipping companies that remained the major carriers of Indian cargo during the entire British rule thus leading to a gradual decline in Indian shipping.