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Shipbuilding at Bombay

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on December 20th, 2008 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Also see a later version: R. Kochhar (2005) Shipbuilding in India: Wadia shipbuilders. In: Encyclopedia of the History of Non-Western science (Ed.: H. Selin) Springer.

Current Science, 66, 965-969, 1994

Shipbuilding at Bombay

R.K. Kochhar

The arrival of the Portuguese by sea in 1498 introduced navy as a new parameter in the Indian

geopolitical equations, placing the Indian rulers at a disadvantage for all times to come. The

Portuguese and the Dutch success in East Indies as brought home by the capture of their ships

brought the British to the Indian shores in 1608. The trade was extremely lucrative despite the

risks. During the third voyage cloves were purchased at Moluccas for £2948, which on return to

England fetched £36,287. The first 11 years of trading with East Indies (including India) ‘gave

clear profits, seldom below one hundred, and often more than two hundred, per cent, on the

capital invested on the voyage1. The Portuguese violently opposed the British presence in what

they considered to be their own zone of influence. The British decided to meet force with force

and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Portuguese on sea in 1612. The chain of events that

culminated in the 1757 battle of P1assey in Bengal had its beginning in this sea skirmish. The

naval prowess and the religious neutrality of the British greatly impressed the Mughal emperors

who though powerful on land like the elephant were helpless on sea which was infested with

European crocodiles. The British were asked to contain the fanatically anti-Muslim Portuguese,

who were particularly severe on the Haj pilgrims. In return the English merchants received

attractive business concessions. (Another factor in favour of the British was the expertise of its

ships’ doctors, which was made available to the Mughal umra, that is nobility.)2

To protect its trade from the Portuguese and the pirates, the English merchants at Surat locally

established, in 1613, east India company’s marine. The small naval service consisted of coastal

boats, known as grabs and gallivats, on which were mounted two to six guns and which were

manned by volunteers from the company’s ships who fought as well as traded. This service

developed first into Bombay marine and finally into Indian navy3 (see Table I). Generally

speaking, marine was meant to protect the coastal area, whereas the navy could cast its net wider.

It is said that at one time when Lord Nelson, ‘the future victor of Nile and Trafalgar was in

embarrassed circumstances, he was a candidate for the appointment of the superintendent of the

Bombay marine’4.

The seaport of Surat was located some 12 miles to the west at a village called Swally. The

British repaired their old ships here and in course of time started building new ones. Surat had a

long tradition of shipbuilding and even the Mughal emperors got their ships built here. (Figure I

shows a traditional boat that was used on the eastern waters.) Once the British shifted from Surat

to Bombay, shipbuilding activity was also transferred. The first Europeans to touch Bombay

were the Portuguese who arrived at Mahim in 1509 and took over the island in 1534. In 1538 (or

1541) Bombay was rented in perpetuity to Garcia d’Orta, a physician and professor of Lisbon

(and said to be a converted Jew). He paid a yearly quit rent of about £85. In 1563 he wrote a

book ‘Dialogues on simples and drugs’ where he mentions the island under the names of

Bombaim and Mombaim. D’Orta lived in India from 1534 to 1572 (ref. 5).


While Portugal and Britain were engaged in bitter rivalry in India, they entered into a royal

marriage contract which had far reaching consequences6. The English king Charles II married

princess Infanta Catherine of the House of Braganza of Portugal. According to the 11th article of

the treaty of marriage,


Table 1. The evolution of Indian navy 1612-1950

1613-1686 East India company’s marine

1686-1830 Bombay marine

1830-1863 Her majesty’s Indian navy

1863-1877 Bombay marine

1877-1892 Her majesty’s Indian marine

1892-1950 Royal Indian navy

1950- Indian navy


dated 23 June 1661, her dowry included ‘the Port and Island of Bombay in the East Indies,

together with all the rights, profits, territories, and appurtenances thereof whatsoever’. The small

island, some eight miles long and three miles wide, no doubt mattered little to the king of

Portugal. But it enclosed a land- locked bay and its natural harbour could shelter a large fleet.

When the news reached India, the Portuguese circles in India were dismayed and immediately

pointed out the disadvantages of making such a gift. An attempt was made to purchase the island

back from England, but Charles II wanted such 1arge sums ‘that they reach to millions’. The

island of Bombay was finally transferred to England on 8 February 1665, without any trace of

grace or pleasantness that one normally associates with a bride’s dowry. The king’s governor of

Figure 1. ‘Decca Pulwar’, of 17 ton burden, used on the eastern branches and upper channels

of the deltas of Ganga and Brahmaputra. The bottom of the boat resembles the immersed

portion of the nautilus shell. ‘These are well-built boats of hard wood, and use square sails.’

(Henderson A., British Association for the Advancement of Science Report for 1858, p. 272.)

Bombay soon discovered that the island cost more to govern than it yielded as revenue. By a

charter dated 23 March 1668, Charles II granted the port and island of Bombay to the East India

Company ‘to be held to the said Company… in perpetuity and in free and common soccage at a

fee farm rent of £10 payable on the 30th of September yearly at the Custom-house’. The island of

Bombay was formally handed over to the east India company on 23 September 1668,

While opposing the inclusion of Bombay in the dowry, the Portuguese viceroy of Goa [Antonio

de Mellow de Castro] had written7, ‘I foresee that India will be lost the same day on which the

English Nation is settled in Bombay.’ These words were prophetic indeed. The British shifted

their capital from Surat to Bombay in 1686. The little island became the naval fortress from

where Britain went ahead to build a vast overseas colonial empire.


Bombay had taken to shipbuilding in the Portuguese time itself. In 1625 when the English and

the Dutch jointly raided Bombay they found two boats under construction which they promptly

put to flames. As soon as Bombay passed into the British hands, repairs and shipbuilding were

started under the new auspices. The British repaired their merchant ships. In addition they built

new ones to deal with the menace of piracy from Indian and foreign adventures as well as to

meet the threat from their European competitors. There were problems, though. The Portuguese

obstructed the supply of timber, and the Mughal authorities did not permit good carpenters to

leave Surat. Most of the carpenters at Surat were Parsis. A letter from Bombay to Surat dated 10

January 1736 states that ‘We have intention to build a new grab but we are in want of a good

carpenter. We are told that there is one in Surat named Lowjee. If he will come hither he shall

have all fitting encouragement’. Lowjee Nusserwanjee [Wadia] arrived in Bombay from Surat in

March 1736, accompanied by ten other carpenters. The salary demanded by them was pretty

high, but the Bombay government hoped that ‘they would deserve it by their performance’. (The

hope was certainly fulfilled. Lowjee was designated master builder in 1740. The post remained

with his descendants till 1884 when the dockyard was transferred from the Bombay government

to the Indian governments. Figure 2 shows Lowjee or Lowji’s son and successor Maneckji Lowji.

The surname Wadia was not appended in official correspondence.)

This was the time when the British were engaged in a bitter fight against the piracy of the

Angrias, which lasted more than 40 years from about 1707 to 1751. Connajee or Kanhojee

[Kanha-ji] Angria was a common seaman in Shivaji’s fleet, but rose to command a fleet of his

own. ‘Animated by a lust for plunder, there now flocked to his standard numerous adventurers,

including renegade Christians, mostly Dutch and Portuguese, Arabs, Mussulmen and Negroes, a

most daring and desperate band9. (Note the selective use of the adjective renegade.) Kanha-jee:

Angria died in about 1731 and was succeeded by his son Sambhajee. He was finally defeated by

the British in 1751. During the period Bombay built a number of coastal boats apart from

repairing merchant ships. In 1745 two boats were made for the viceroy of Goa for use against his

enemies. This was done as the ‘same will be the means of keeping a number of workmen upon

the Island and be otherwise beneficial’. In addition to meeting its own requirements on the west

coast, Bombay also built ships for Calcutta and Madras. Construction of a dry dock was taken up

in 1749. This first dry dock to be built in India is still in use, now known as the upper old

Bombay dock. Others were built in the following years.

In the first phase of shipbuilding the emphasis had been on repairs and construction of coastal

boats for protection. The things however soon changed. Increasing prosperity of the east India

company meant building of bigger and larger number of ships in England. This and the marine

rivalry in Europe resulted in large scale felling of oak trees in Britain. Accordingly in 1772 the

company was prohibited from building any large ships. They were asked instead to either build

their vessels in India or colonies or to charter vessels built there. Preservation of British oak

forests was one reason. Superiority of teak over oak was another. Oak contains lignic acid ‘which

corrodes and consumes the very metal (iron) which is employed to unite and secure it in the

various forms into which it is converted for the purposes of naval architecture’. In contrast teak

‘abounds with oleaginous particles, the best and certain defence of iron from corrosion by the

action of the acid’. In addition ‘teak was not disposed to splinter to the same extent as oak’ and

thus ‘the effect of shot upon teak is far less dangerous than upon oak10.

The shipbuilders in Britain were not impressed by these arguments. Their main concern was loss

of business. As a sop to them, the British parliament ordered that the crew and the captain of

Indian ships should be Englishmen. The British Indian government chipped in by levying 15%

duty on goods imported into India in India-built ships but only half this amount on goods brought

in British-built ships. In addition, it was stipulated that only British ships could import goods

‘from south and east of the Cape of Good Hope’.

Figure 2. Maneckji Lowji Wadia (1720-92),the second master builder of Bombaydockyards 1774-92 (picture courtesy: Neville N. Wadia).

Ship-building industry in Bombay under the leadership of the Lowjee family now entered its

golden age 11. The frigate ‘Cornwallis’ built for the company in 1800 by Jamsetjee Bomanjee was

found to be so beautifully constructed and of such great strength, that it was purchased by the

admiralty. Jamsetjee took a private revenge for the racial insults that were the order of the day.

On the kelson of this ship, he carved the words ‘this ship was built by a d-d Black Fellow A.D.

1800’. Attention was drawn to this by Jamsetjee himself when the ship, renamed Ackbar by the

admiralty, returned to the Bombay docks many years laterl2.

In 1810, Bombay built a 74 gun vessel ‘Minden’ for the British navy. It was the first line of ship

of the admiralty built outside UK 13. At about the same time ‘a similar vessel was subscribed by

the inhabitants of Calcutta, built at Kidderpore, and presented to the Admiralty’14. The admiralty

however was not impressed and ‘did not oblige by placing a further order for a vessel of that size

with the Calcutta shipwrights’15.

An 18 gun ship ‘Clive’ built at Bombay in 1826 lends itself to a brief mention of the prevalent

slave trade and the patronage it received16. Commander of the ship, John Croft Hawkins, was

asked in 1830 ‘to proceed to the coast of Africa and islands in its vicinity’ and ‘to adopt the best

means of entering for the service as many able-bodied lads as you can, in age from twelve to

eighteen, free from all disease and bodily infirmity, and of that compact symmetry best

calculated for seamen.’ On his return Hawkins was tried for slave trade. It became certain that

there were other secret instructions that were never brought on record. Hawkins in fact did not

permit his lawyer to address the court lest the lawyer compromise for the sake of his client the

navy superintendent or the government. It was implied. that the case was brought to trial not

because of the illegality involved but because the judge of the high court wished to embarrass the

Bombay governor (Sir John Malcolm) and his brother, the navy superintendent (Sir Charles


The court pronounced Hawkins guilty of slave trade and condemned him to ‘be transported to the

east coast of New South Wales for the term of seven years.’ The sentence was however

subverted. Hawkins was put in a navy ship with clear instructions that he be treated as an officer

and a gentleman. When the ship touched Madras, Hawkins and the ship commander ‘were feted

for three days by the community’. At Batavia [Jakarata], the commander decided with a straight

face that his ship could not proceed to Sydney. It must be diverted to England to deliver some

important despatches that had accumulated at Batavia. In London, the president of the company

obtained an interview with the king who pardoned Hawkins and ‘graciously commanded that he

should appear at the next levee.’ ‘Commander Hawkins obeyed the royal mandate, when His

Majesty received him with great kindness, and conversed with him.’ Hawkins was paid his back

wages as well as lawyer’s fees and reappointed to the command of his old ship ‘Clive’. He rose to

become the superintendent of Indian navy.

Steam navigation

Although a patent had been obtained as early as 1736 (by Jonathan Hull) for applying steam

engines to propel ships, it was not till the steam engine was perfected by James Watt that steam

navigation could show signs of success. The lead came from USA, which did not have roads but

had large tree-lined rivers. The first steam vessel that was a practical success and remunerated its

owners was a river boat ‘Clermont’ that in 1807 ran the 146 mile distance between New York city


and Albany. It was almost immediately followed by the first sea-going vessel17. In Britain steam

navigation was established in 1817 with a small 3.5 HP steam boat ‘Comet’ on river Clyde. The

first regular sea-going steamer, ‘Bob Ray’, with a 30 HP engine commenced operation in 1815

between Glasgow and Belfast. In 1819, the British navy acquired its first steamer, named


Britain was now an industrial nation, and captive India was the best thing happening to it. In the

year 1793, England sent out cotton goods worth £156 to India. In the year 1802 the figure was

£27,876, while 10 years later it had gone up to £108,824. In 1813, the British parliament

abolished the trade monopoly of the company, so that the British manufacturers and traders were

now free to enter the huge Indian market. During the 16 years after 1813, the company’s annual

trade averaged £ 1 ,882,718 whereas private trade was three times higher at £5,451,452 (ref. 18).

(In 1833 the company ceased to be a trader altogether. It became administrator and ruler of India,

deriving its dividend from the revenues from the country. Control of India passed to the crown in

1858, and the company was wound up in 1874.)

The merchants were keen to introduce steam navigation on three routes: on the placid north

Indian rivers, in the opium- tea trade with China, and for steam communication between Calcutta

and England. Early steam machinery was rather daunting. It used coal voraciously and was

extremely complex for easy maintenance. Merchants neither had the capital nor the patience to

see it through the developmental stages. The company, no longer the monopolist it once was, had

no intention of sinking its money into steam for trade, but it had wars to win. What saw the

steam navigation through was the Burmese war 1824-26 (refs 19, 20).

Captain Charles James Collie Davidson of Bengal engineers and son of a Calcutta merchant

brought an 8 HP engine with an iron boiler and meant for a river boat. It was the first steam

engine in India. It was left to rust till the company bought it in 1822 for use in a dredging boat.

When the Burmese war broke out it was converted into a pedal boat and fitted out as a floating

battery. ‘Though her speed was only 4 knots, much benefit was derived from her in the passage

of troops over creeks and estuaries of that [Arakan] coast’.

Incidentally, the first steam-propelled vessel in India does not belong to the realm of

compulsions of history, but to the romance of history, as exemplified by the idiosyncracies of a

nawab. Displaying a magpie like fascination for novelties and probably as a commemoration of

declaration of ‘independence’ from the titualar emperor of Delhi, nawab Ghazi-ud-Din Haider of

the rich north Indian state of Oudh (correctly Avadh) got a river boat built for himself at

Calcutta, in 1819. It has an 8 HP butterfly engine which gave the boat a speed of 7-8 miles an

hour. The boat was a toy; when the governor- general of India visited Lucknow, the boat was

decked up for inspection. (The nawab, who had a European wife, also built a short-lived modern

observatory at Lucknow.21

The economics of early steam navigation can be seen from Calcutta’s first steamer, ‘Diana’. A

member of the company’s factory at Canton ordered a pair of 16 HP engines with a copper boiler

and the whole frame with a view to getting a river steamer built for service on the Canton river.

Unable to go ahead with his scheme, he reshipped the whole thing to Calcutta and offered it to

the government for Rs 65,000, which was however refused. A group of merchants bought it and

spent another Rs 10,000 to replace the original oakwood frame with the sturdier one of teak. The

steamer was launched in 1823. The next year, luckily for the owners, the government bought it

for Rs 80,000 for the Burmese war22. ‘Diana’, unaffected by the south-west monsoons, was the

‘star of the war’. Called ‘fire devil’ by the Burmese, it easily brought about British victory which

secured Assam and added the provinces of Arakan and Tenesserim to the Company’s fold23.

The river steamers were no substitute for steam link between Calcutta and England, for which

both the government and merchants worked. A steam fund of Rs 69,903 was collected at

Calcutta and offered as a prize to anyone whose steamship could make four consecutive voyages

between Bengal and England at an average of 70 days per trip (via the cape of good hope).

Towards this fund Rs 20,000 came from the governor- general, Rs 2,000 from the nawab of

Oudh, and the rest from various businessmen of Calcutta24. The investors in England made a

gallant attempt to rise to the occasion by building Britain’s first sea-going ship propelled by

steam25. Aptly named ‘Enterprize’, it was a ship of 500 ton powered by two 60 HP engines, with

copper boilers extending across the ship, and seven furnaces, each seven feet in length. Carrying

passengers and 30 tons of coal, ‘Enterprize’ left England in August 1825, and took as many as

115 days to reach Calcutta under steam and sail. The performance was declared unsatisfactory by

the mercantile community, because a splendid sailing ship could cover the same distance in 90

days. Steam enthusiasts were disappointed but not the investors. On its arrival at Calcutta,

‘Enterprize’ was purchased by the government for £40,000, and sent to Rangoon. It was put to

use for towing ships between Calcutta and the newly acquired territories.

It was not only Calcutta that was interested in a steam link to England. Bombay was interested

even more. Monsoon winds made it easier for a sailing ship to reach Calcutta than Bombay.

Steam would give Bombay the benefit of shorter distance to Europe. The Bombay governor,

Mounstart Elphinstone, made ‘a distinct official proposition’ in 1823 to the court of directors for

the establishment of steam communication between Bombay and England, via the Red sea. (In

the pre- Suez canal days this involved an overland journey across Egypt to reach the

Mediterranean sea.) The proposal was renewed in 1826, ‘but the Court were unwilling to act

upon the suggestion’. Elphinstone’s successor, Sir John Malcolm, decided to go ahead on his

own. A steamer was built at the Wadia dockyard and ironically named ‘Hugh Lindsay’ after the

sceptical company chairman. ‘Hugh Lindsay’ was a small ship of only 411 tonnes, with two 80

HP engines. It left Bombay in March 1830 on its experimental voyage of 3000 miles, to Suez. It

had to carry sufficient coal to reach Aden, 1641 miles away. Before ‘Hugh Lindsay’ left, a collier

brig, laden with 600 tonnes of coal, was dispatched so that coal could be stored at Aden, Jiddah

and Suez. ‘Hugh Lindsay’ itself carried as much coal as it could, filling with coal more than two

thirds of the space meant for passengers. The voyage was a spectacular success. The ship could

reach Aden in 11 days under steam alone. The journey to Suez took a total of 32 days consisting

of 21 days of actual journey and 11 for stoppages. ‘Hugh Lindsay’ made a total of five voyages to

Suez till 1833, all heavily subsidized. The average expense of coal per voyage was Rs 46,250

while receipts from passengers and letters averaged only Rs 14,225 (ref. 26). Finally in 1834, the

parliamentary committee resolved that ‘it is expedient that measures should be immediately taken

for the regular establishment of steam communication27 with India by the Red sea’, asking at the

same time that ‘the expenses may be materially reduced’.

Steam navigation had far-reaching consequences. First, Bombay became gateway to India. It has

continued since then as the business capital of India. Secondly, the Red sea and the Persian gulf

area was scientifically surveyed. Finally, all the countries en route lost their independence28. To

provide ‘Hugh Lindsay’ with fuel, the small island of Socotra, off the horn of Africa, was needed

as a coaling station. Accordingly it was taken over by the British in 1835. Soon, it was realized

that Aden was a better choice; it was taken by force in 1839. The only bottleneck in the Red sea

route was the 10-day long arduous journey across Egypt. Suez canal was dug in 1869. Ironically,

it was dug with French capital, even though the biggest beneficiaries were the British interests.

The first ship to pay the toll on the Suez canal was British. Egypt was added to the British

colonial empire in 1882.

Introduction of steam navigation did not mean immediate end of sailing ships. Early steamships

were so unprofitable that they had to depend on government subsidies. The commercial viability

of steam came only when engines were greatly improved and ships were made of iron and then

of steel. This effectively brought teak-ship building at Bombay to a close, bringing to an end a

chapter in the colonial history. From 1736 to 1884, the Wadias built a total of 334 vessels for a

variety of owners: East India company, private merchants, Nizam of Hyderabad, Imam of

Muscat, and the British navy. Out of these 334, 39 were either specifically built or subsequently

acquired by the British navy during the period 1777- 1849. A frigate Trincomalee built in 1817

for the British navy is still afloat under the name ‘Foudroyant’. The Wadia vessels were put to a

wide variety of use, from carrying coal to the Bombay governor himself. For completeness it

may be added that from 1885 to 1936 another 46 vessels were built at the Bombay dockyards29.

Britain owed its colonial empire to its sea power. The Bombay dockyard under the Wadias was

an important, though small, contributor towards efficient and low-cost maintenance of that


a detailed account of events 1613- 1863.]

2. A ship’s doctor [Gabriel Boughton] visited Shah Jahan’s court at Agra in

1645 and later served as a surgeon to the emperor’s son Shah Shuja who was

the viceroy of Bengal. Then in 1716, the company’s embassy to Delhi included a surgeon

[William Hamilton] who cured the emperor of a painful disease that had delayed his marriage. In

both cases, medical services were reciprocated with handsome gifts and trading concessions.

See Crawford, D. G., A History of the Indian Medical Service, 1914, vol. I, pp. 51, 113.

3.”Wadia, R. A., The Bombay Dockyard and the Wadia Master Builders, Bombay, 1957 (Reprint

1983), 2nd edn, see p. 20.

4. Ref. I, p. 525.

5. Douglas, James, Glimpses of Old Bombay and Western India, 1893, vol. I, p. 249.

6. Ref. I, p. 54.

7. da Cunha, Garson, Origin of Bombay, pp. 247, 258; cited in ref. 3, p. 9.

8. The Wadias received three grants of Inam land in Bombay; they were the only ones ever

granted. The first was in 1783, the second was in two instalments in 1821 and 1849, whereas the

third was in 1884 on the retirement of the last master builder (ref. 3, pp. 167, 251, 319). In

addition, there were a number of presents of medals, rulers and shawls. The prestige earned by

the shipbuilding Wadias helped other branches of the clan in establishing themselves in various

lines of business.

9. Ref. I, p. 97.

10. Ref. 3, ch. 6.


II. This ended the golden age of the Malabar-teak forests. Finally, in 1847

when iron was replacing teak as the material for building ships, a conservator of forests [Dr

Alexander Gibson] was appointed at Bombay.

12. Ref. 3;p. 191.

13. The national anthem of USA, ‘star- spangled banner’, was composed by Francis Kay on board

the ‘Minden’ when it was in Baltimore. Ref. 3, p.208.

14. This was ‘Hastings’, the 74 gun, solitary, line-of-war ship built at Kidderpore near Calcutta in

1818. The dockyard was established in 1780 by Henry Watson (1737-86) of Bengal engineers,

on a piece of land obtained as a grant from the government. In 1781 he launched the 36 gun

frigate ‘Nonsuch’. In 1788 he launched another frigate, the ‘Surprize’, of 32 guns. ‘But his

resources were by this time exhausted; after having sunk ten lakh rupees in his dockyard, he was

obliged to relinquish it’. The major activity at Kidderpore was in the hands of the two Kyd

brothers James (1786-1836) and Robert (d. 1825) sons of Lt. Gen. Alexander Kyd, the surveyor

general of Bengal 1788-94. The two brothers were trained in shipbuilding in England. Returning

to Calcutta in 1800, they were apprenticed to Waddell, the company’s master builder. On his

retirement in 1807, they purchased the Kidderpore dockyard, with James Kyd becoming master

builder to the company. A total

of 25 ships were built at his dockyard including Hastings. ‘Diana’ the first

steamer on river Hughli, was built in

1823. On James Kyd’s death in 1836, the dockyard was purchased by the

government. See Buckland, C. E.,

Dictionary of Indian Biography, 1906, pp. 442, 239; Phillimore, R. H.,

Historical Records of the Survey of India, 1945, vol. 1, p. 394.

15. Ref.3,p.212.

16. Ref. 1, p. 505.

17. Since Robert Fulton, the owner of ‘Clermont’, had obtained the exclusive right of navigating

the waters of the state of New York, John Cox Stevens boldly conveyed his ship from New York

city to Delaware by sea. ‘. Samuelson, Martin, Q. J. Sci., 1864, 1, 239.

18. Dutt, Romesh, The Economic History of India, 1906, 2nd edn, vol. 1, pp. 183. 209.

19. Ref. 1, pp. 520-532; Ref. 3, ch. 12.

20. Headrick, D. R., The Tools of Empire, Oxford Univ. Press, 1981. ch. 1.

21. Kochhar, R. K., Vistas in Astronomy. 1991,34,69.

22. Ref. 3, p. 288.

23. Ref. 20, p. 21; also see ref. 19.

24. Ref. 20, p. 134.

25. Ref. 19,20.

26. Ref. 1, p. 532.


27. Much to its humiliation, Indian navy was asked to run a steam service for post and

passengers from 1838 to 1854 when the service was handed over to the private Peninsular and

Oriental Steam Navigation Co. See ref. 20, p. 138.

28. Ref. 20, pp. 136, 156.

29. Ref. 3, App. B & C.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. I thank Mr Neville N. Wadia for his help in collecting material for

this article.

R. K. Kochhar is in the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Koramangala, Bangalore 560 034,


World of tech-savvy Ganesha

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6 April 2007

World of tech-savvy Ganesha
Smriti Sharma
In Rajesh Kochhar’s house, Lord Ganesha reads a book and has a telephonic conversation

Lord Ganesha operating the computer!
Lord Ganesha operating the computer!

It’s a collector’s world. Everything right from the tiniest pin to the biggest art piece, they all find a place under the sun. Among such collectors, stands out Dr Rajesh Kochhar, Professor of Pharmaceutical Heritage, NIPER (National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research), Mohali.

He has a unique collection of about 200 dhokra brass craft items from East India that include animal figurines like elephants, bulls, birds to old diya stands, gods and goddesses.

What catches our fancy is Lord Ganesha in various forms. Though in total, there are only 32 permitted forms of Ganesha, but our man has Lord Ganesha reading a book, sitting in front of a computer and even talking on the phone. Out of the total 200 items, 75 are of Ganeshas.

So how did it all start, we ask him. “It all began in 1999 when we were working on a rural development programme to focus on rural technology and to help the dhokra shilpis in West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkand. So my professional interests expanded to personal interests and I started looking for these items in emporiums, shops, villages or wherever I travelled,” says the former director of NISTADS, New Delhi.

For those uninitiated, dhokra is a century-old craft of metal casting by the lost-wax technique. “Interestingly, India represents an unbroken tradition that goes back to 3000 BC,” adds Dr Kochar, who initially studied the art and crafts as part of his official duties and then started building a collection.

Some of the rare antique items have also found places in his collection, including two unique diya stands with a bird and elephant strung with it from Orissa, an idol of Varalaxmi from Bardwan district in West Bengal, a Bankura horse from Bankura in West Bengal and even a panchdhatu Ganesh from Swamimalai down South.

A look at his collection is quite an eye-opener as each item comes with relevant information regarding a particular piece is documented and catalogued and even maintains a stock register which include minutest details like the date and day of procurement, the name of the artist and the place of origin.

“I will not mind parting with my collection for research’s sake and that’s why I take utmost care even to clean them myself,” he insists.

While we get ready to leave, he reveals his wish and that is, “My collection should grow and stay undamaged. But for anyone doing research, they are welcome!” [email protected]

International Year of Astronomy

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The Tribune, chandigarh, Friday,  2008 January 4

Rajesh Kochhar



THE United Nations has declared the year 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy (IYA 2009) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the astronomical use of telescope by Galileo Galilei. The proposal was  formally submitted by Italy, Galileo’s home country. UNESCO has been designated the lead agency for IYA2009.

International Astronomical Union, an organisation that brings together about 1000 astronomers from all over the world, will act as the facilitating body.  

Contrary to common public perception, Galileo is not the inventor of the telescope. The invention was accidentally made in 1608 by a Dutch spectacle maker, Hans Lippershey, who by chance combined a convex lens and a concave lens and noticed the magnification of the image of an object.

It should, however, be noted that Lippershey’s claim for a patent was turned down on the ground that the invention was in the air.  

The invention of the telescope belongs to the realm of romance of history. It would certainly make a good topic for a quiz contest. But it was its astronomical use the next year that constitutes a benchmark in the world history. As soon as the news of the chance discovery reached Galileo, at the time mathematics professor at the University of Padova, he worked out the scientific principles and made the world’s first designer telescope. Interestingly, Galileo did not immediately turn his sight on the heavens. He brought his telescope to the capital city of Venice; showed  to the Senators how with its help enemy ships could be sighted hours before they became visible to the naked eye; presented it to them;  and got a reward and a raise in pay.

It is only then that he made use of it in astronomy The astronomical telescope initiated a revolution the impact of which has gone beyond astronomy and science. 

The 400th anniversary of the event provides us with an opportunity to renew interest in and enthusiasm for astronomy, which is truly a world science. So far, 99 nations and 14 organisations have signed up to participate in IYA2009.The event will  highlight global cooperation for peaceful purposes and  aims to convey to the citizens of the world , especially the youth, the excitement of personal discovery and the merits of the scientific method. 

Countries like India, with a long and well-respected astronomical tradition, should make a special effort to celebrate the  year of astronomy . From Aryabhata’s time till that of Kepler, for about a thousand years  Indian astronomers were probably the only ones anywhere in the world who could predict lunar and solar eclipses  with an accuracy of a few hours that was remarkable for the time. The tradition was alive in Kerala as recently as 200 years ago.

Sawai Jai Singh’s  early 18th century masonry observatories in Delhi and Jaipur, commonly but wrongly dubbed Jantar Mantar,  were inspired by  Ulugh Beg’s Samarqand observatory, though they contain some original features also.

These observatories were, however, never really used. The  world’s first modern astronomical observatory outside Europe was set up in Madras in 1786. Meghnad Saha showed theoretically in 1920 that  the spectra of light from far-off stars could be understood  using the laws of nature as formulated on the earth, by postulating  extreme physical conditions in stellar atmospheres,  This work transformed the  cosmos into a  laboratory. 

Today, astronomy is a child of high technology , but as a cumulus, it represents the joint civilisational heritage of the humankind. It is hoped that the UN-sponsored Year of Astronomy will further the cause of science as well as of international cooperation.

Dr Rajesh Kochhar is  the Organising Secretary of the International Astronomical Union’s Commission on History of Astronomy.