In the late 1650s, Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj, recognizing the critical significance of India’s extensive coastline, initiated the development of a formidable naval force. This strategic move came at a time when Indian rulers, following the era of the Cholas, had largely neglected their coastal defences, allowing foreign powers like the Portuguese and British to establish control over key entry points into the Indian mainland.

Understanding the urgency of securing these coastlines, Shivaji embarked on the ambitious task of building a naval fleet virtually from scratch. Drawing insights from the maritime expertise of the Portuguese and Dutch, whose permission was necessary to access the Indian ports and coastline, Shivaji meticulously studied their shipbuilding techniques and navigation strategies.

Historians and subject matter experts underscore Shivaji’s resourcefulness, utilising rudimentary technology and engaging in correspondence with foreign powers to grasp the intricacies of constructing large boats and ships. Under his leadership, the Maratha Navy not only erected sea forts to safeguard the shores but also assembled a fleet of over 50 ships, crewed by thousands of skilled sailors, effectively extending control over the Konkan coast.

Establishing multiple naval bases along the Maharashtra coast, Shivaji’s maritime endeavours primarily constituted a coastal “green water” navy, tailored for operations in close proximity to land. While their ships relied on land and sea breezes, they lacked the capacity for extensive oceanic voyages characteristic of a “blue water” navy.

By the time of his coronation, Shivaji commanded an impressive fleet comprising 57 major warships, excluding smaller vessels, boasting a fighting force exceeding 5,000 men. Within five years, this number increased to 66 major ships, showcasing the rapid expansion of Maratha naval power.

One of Shivaji raje’s significant naval exploits was the expedition to Karwar and Ankola, undertaken with a formidable fleet comprising 85 assorted gallivats and three three-masted ghurabs. This demonstrated the nascent Maratha Navy’s prowess and readiness for maritime operations.

The primary objective of the Karwar expedition was not territorial expansion or plunder, as it prudently avoided confrontation with the Portuguese along the coast. Instead, it served as a crucial trial run for Shivaji’s burgeoning fleet, testing the capabilities of ships, commanders, and crew alike.

As the Maratha Navy began patrolling the coastline with increasing vigour, it challenged the dominance of rival powers including the Portuguese, Dutch, Siddies, and English, facing off against a total of twenty-seven hostile forces. Concurrently, the maharaja launched a systematic campaign to capture forts along the coast and fortify strategic locations.

In his quest for maritime supremacy, Shivaji raje assembled a diverse team of skilled individuals, including engineers, shipwrights, artisans proficient in brass and leadwork, and gunsmiths. This multicultural workforce encompassed Muslims, Portuguese, French, and Dutch nationals, underscoring Shivaji’s inclusive approach to naval development.

The culmination of chattrapati’s naval endeavours was the construction of a formidable seaside fortress on a rocky outcrop near Alibag, situated twenty miles south of Bombay. This stronghold, equipped with numerous freshwater tanks and a self-sufficient shipyard, symbolised Shivaji Raje’s commitment to fortifying India’s coastal defences, ensuring resilience against external threats for extended periods.

Raje’s Excellence In The 21st Century

In the era of Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj, both his land and naval forces remained in a perpetual state of high alert or conflict, with moments of peace often fleeting and deceptive. The resulting strain on soldiers and horses became an accepted aspect of life. In today’s geopolitical landscape, characterised by vast maritime areas of interest, maintaining naval assets in a state of high readiness for extended periods is imperative, despite challenges such as maintenance, weather, and morale. Addressing the leadership and logistical challenges that arise requires a judicious approach.

Shivaji raje astutely utilised geography to his advantage in establishing Swaraj and nurturing the emerging navy, employing swarming tactics with agile Gallivats and Ghurabs. Retreats to familiar shallow waters, protected by cannon fire from sea forts or coastal batteries, proved crucial in Maratha victories, notably evident in the Battle of Khanderi, where both the East India Company and the Siddis of Janjira failed to dislodge the Marathas from the island.

To counter the Portuguese, Siddis, and English at strategic coastal locations like Goa, Janjira, and Mumbai, Shivaji constructed new sea forts such as Sindhudurg, Padmadrug, and Khanderi. Similarly, today, leveraging India’s unique peninsular geography calls for prioritising military infrastructure development in the Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep & Minicoy archipelagos. China’s illegal advancements in the South China Sea underscore the urgency for India to emulate Shivaji’s approach to cost-effective, high-quality infrastructure and shipbuilding projects.

The construction of the sea fort on Khanderi Island, amidst challenging monsoon conditions and opposition from the English East India Company and Siddis, stands as a testament to the exceptional leadership, tactics, and strategy displayed by Admirals Maynaik Bhandari and Daulat Khan of the Maratha Navy. Their resilience mirrored Shivaji’s own resolve throughout his life. Notably, during the peak campaign against the Siddis in 1675, the daring act of Laya Patil and his team, placing ladders from boats at sea, showcased the ingenuity and bravery inherent in Maratha naval operations.

Shivaji’s utilisation of funds from the raid on Surat in 1664 to construct the sea fort of Sindhudurg exemplifies his commitment to the greater good over personal gain—a departure from the self-aggrandisement typical of rulers of his time. Despite setbacks like conflict with the Mughals and treachery leading to his confinement in Agra, Shivaji’s dedication to Swarajya (self-rule) remained unwavering. This steadfastness was mirrored by patriots like Hiroji Indalkar, who, driven by patriotic fervour, continued construction work on Sindhudurg despite dwindling resources.

In navigating the complexities of modern governance and national security, ethical leadership emerges as a cornerstone of success. Promoting meritocracy and prioritising national interests at every level can determine India’s trajectory in fulfilling its destiny.

The Maharaja’s approach to shipbuilding, leveraging the expertise of Portuguese and European designers while fostering indigenous knowledge, holds relevance in the context of contemporary calls for self-reliance. Despite his efforts to procure superior cannons and ordnance, Shivaji faced challenges from unscrupulous vendors, highlighting the importance of vigilance and accountability in defence procurement. While striving for self-sufficiency through initiatives like Atmanirbhar Bharat, it’s crucial to balance immediate warfighting needs with long-term indigenization efforts.

Shivaji’s inclusive ethos transcended religious divides, evident in his employment of individuals from diverse faiths in key positions of his navy. His respect for religious diversity, exemplified by his concern for Sikh Guru Teg Bahadur Singh’s execution, serves as a timeless example of tolerance and compassion. Even his adversaries acknowledge Shivaji’s reverence for women and symbols of various religions, underscoring his commitment to pluralism and social harmony.

Shivaji’s pragmatic approach to maritime policy resonates strongly in today’s geopolitical landscape, serving as a guiding light for India’s interactions on the global stage.

His astuteness in discerning the true intentions of European powers, recognizing that their interests extended beyond mere trade, underscores the importance of realism in diplomacy. Shivaji’s cautionary stance against granting European companies footholds on the coast, as articulated in the Adnyapatra, remains pertinent in contemporary times. In an era marked by shifting alliances and hidden agendas, the adage of “trust, but verify” rings true, emphasising the need for vigilance in safeguarding national interests.

In today’s world, characterised by perennially hostile adversaries and a multitude of security threats, Shivaji’s example offers invaluable lessons in strategic foresight and resilience. As India navigates the complexities of the maritime domain, his legacy serves as a reliable compass for charting a course that prioritises national security and the well-being of its people.

By drawing inspiration from Shivaji’s pragmatic leadership, India and its naval forces can navigate the turbulent waters ahead with confidence, ensuring the protection of its maritime interests and upholding its sovereignty in an ever-evolving geopolitical landscape.

Vaibhav Agrawal is a Senior Defence Journalist and Editor at Business Upturn. He covers complex issues surrounding subjects like Space, Defence & Geopolitics


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