Port Infrastructure and Shipping Industry – Sagarmala Project, SDC, CEZ, etc.

Book Review: How India ignored its Aqua-Geography of Histories


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Ancient geographical division of India, ex. Madhyadesa, Udicya, Pracya etc.

Mains level: Maritime Geography and historic references to it



  • India’s coastal geography, often overshadowed in educational curricula, holds profound historical and cultural significance.
  • While India’s connection with its southern seas is acknowledged, the broader implications of its maritime heritage remain underexplored.

Irony of India’s Maritime Geography

  • Distance from the Sea: While some might remember that India is bound by sea all along the south, the connections with the sea do not consciously register — for a great many people even today, the sea is a very distant object.
  • Impact of Natural Events: It may perhaps impinge on the consciousness a little more when there are reports of cyclones or storms (or the tsunami that hit some years ago in 2004), but the expanse of the sea, the links with the oceans, and the historical and geographical connections are typically rather hazy.

Historical Perspectives on Indian Geography

  • School Definition: Moreover, children are mostly taught about only two parts of India — the plains to the north, and the peninsula to the south.
  • Sanskrit Texts: But historically, India was defined slightly differently. In early Indian Sanskrit texts, the subcontinent is seen as divided into five major regions
  1. Madhyadesa (middle country),
  2. Udicya or Uttarapatha (northern India),
  3. Pracya (eastern India),
  4. Dakshinapatha (Deccan) and
  5. Aparanta (western India)
  • Different Interpretations: The term Dakshinapatha came to be used in two ways: the entire peninsula, or more commonly, a more limited area from the Narmada to the Tungabhadra and Krishna rivers. To the south of this lay the Dravidadesa or Tamilakam.
  • Imperial Gazetteer’s Definition: On the other hand, as defined in the Imperial Gazetteer, the ‘Deccan’ has also been understood as referring to the entire landmass south of the Vindhya mountains and the great Gangetic plain, and so it can be taken to mean the entire peninsular region of India.

Geographical Features of the Indian Subcontinent

  • Demarcated Regions: Within the peninsula itself are five clearly demarcated regions — the Western Ghats skirting the Arabian Sea, the northern Deccan plateau, the eastern plateau, the Eastern Ghats towards the Bay of Bengal and the coastal strip between the ghats on either side and the sea itself.
  • Plateau Considerations: While studies have traditionally tended to focus on only the western part of the plateau as the ‘Deccan’, it is to be remembered that the plateau region covers much of the northern peninsula.
  • Extent of Ghats: Furthermore, the ghats bordering it extend almost down to Kanyakumari. The western coastal strip is generally narrow, being indented and segmented by spurs from the Western Ghats or by small rivers flowing to the sea from the hills.
  • Eastern Ghats Description: The Eastern Ghats are less continuous, with a wider and more fertile coastal strip, containing, as it does, the deltaic plains of the two major river systems of the Deccan plateau, the Krishna and Godavari.

Coastal Divisions and Sub-regions

  • Distinct Names for Ghats: On both coasts, the ghats are given different names in various regions. So, for example, the Western Ghats up to Karnataka are also often referred to as the Sahyadri ranges.
  • Plateau Description: What is normally understood as the Deccan plateau proper is a broad quadrangle covering most of the present-day Maharashtra state, with a topography typical of plateau land.
  • Transition to Plains: As it begins to give way to the plains in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka (the south-eastern and southern plateaus), the geography becomes rougher and rockier, and is interspersed with forest land and riverine stretches.
  • Coastal Strip Description: The western coastal strip is a narrow strip of land, very rarely extending more than eighty kilometres inwards from the sea. This strip is particularly narrow from the Tapi river to Goa, after which it widens a little on the Karnataka coast and finally includes all of present-day Kerala, for the ghats here form the demarcation between Kerala and modern Tamil Nadu.

Coastal Features and Subdivisions

[A] Western Coast

  • Technical Divisions: This coast is technically divided into three parts, excluding Gujarat. The northernmost section is called the Konkan, which is further subdivided into two segments — the northern one running approximately from the Tapi to Chaul (modern Revdanda) and the southern from Chaul to Goa.
  • Coastal Divisions: South of Goa is the Canara coast, stretching till Mount Eli (Ezhimala) in modern-day Kerala, known to early travellers as Mount Dilli or Dely. The Malabar coast begins here and extends to Kanyakumari, the tip of the peninsula.
  • Maritime Economic Considerations: However, in maritime economic terms, it is rather difficult to limit oneself only to this western stretch of the coastline, for connections extend northwards into the Gujarat coast and eastwards across the ghats into the plateau region.

[B] Eastern Coast

  • Ease of Access: The Eastern Ghats, as mentioned earlier, are not continuous, which means that access to the interior from the coast (or vice versa) is much easier.
  • Water Bodies: The eastern coastal strip features deltas and various other water bodies, including, in the northernmost part of the region, Chilika Lake in modern-day Odisha; Kolleru Lake between the Krishna and the Godavari deltas, approximately in the centre of the coast; and Pulicat Lake, which lies towards the southern edge of the Deccan region.
  • Historical Significance: All these lakes used to be hubs for trade and fishing, with Pulicat also being the heart of a thriving weaving industry through most of India’s medieval era.

Port Dynamics

  • Abundance of Ports: Both coasts are, of course, marked by innumerable ports. A brief survey of these ports is enough to indicate the ever-present climatic and natural hazards they faced.
  • Western Coast Considerations: The physical geography of the west coast, given its numerous indentations, offers ample natural shelters all along its length, with the two largest natural harbours being Mumbai (Bombay) and Goa.
  • Importance of Smaller Ports: However, throughout the medieval and early modern period (approximately the eighth to eighteenth century), the harbours of ports like Mangalore, Honawar, Bhatkal or Chaul were no less important in terms of the traffic they handled.

Challenges and Hazards on the Coasts

  • Monsoon Challenges: Western ports face closures during the southwest monsoon, with shifting sandbanks and shoals posing dangers to ships.
  • Lack of Natural Harbours: The east coast lacks natural harbors, with ports vulnerable to silting near river deltas.
  • Unstable Delta Mouths: Delta mouths are prone to instability, potentially rendering established channels unusable after monsoon cycles.
  • Cyclone Vulnerability: The Bay of Bengal presents cyclone risks due to its enclosed nature, leading to higher possibilities of circular winds compared to the west coast.
  • Open Roads for Ports: East coast ports operate as open roads, requiring ships to navigate high surf, rolling waters, and random winds while loading and unloading goods.

Trade Routes and Cultural Exchange

  • Port Competitiveness: Ports rely on their immediate interior areas, often shared by multiple ports, for sustenance and trade.
  • Political and Economic Factors: Port prosperity hinges on political stability and economic conditions in their vicinity.
  • Trade Patterns: West coast ports primarily trade with the Arabian Sea littoral, while east coast ports engage in trade across the Bay of Bengal.
  • Cross-Coastal Trading: Merchants from both coasts trade extensively across the Indian Ocean world, transcending geographical boundaries.
  • Established Routes: Trade routes across the Indian Ocean have existed for centuries, with changes in rulership but continuity in trade activities.


  • The multitude of functional ports, diverse trade patterns, and established trade routes highlight the resilience and adaptability of India’s maritime regions.
  • As India continues to navigate its maritime heritage into the future, understanding and appreciating its maritime geography remain crucial for fostering sustainable development and cultural preservation.

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