Catamarans are double-hulled boats that use both sails and engines. They evolved from a very ancient and extremely simple design, a raft made by lashing two big logs using planks. The paired hulls provided the kind of stability that was impossible for single-hulled watercraft to achieve. They were deployed by the maritime cultures of the eastern Indian and southern Pacific Oceans. It is believed that the Polynesians were the first to design catamarans (going back to 15th century BCE). By the 5th century CE, the Dravidians of South India were using them extensively for exploration, trade and war. William Dampier, the English navigator who explored Australia and circumnavigated the globe, mentioned catamarans being used on the Malabar coast (of present day Kerala) in his book ‘A New Voyage Round the World’.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word ‘catamaran’ as follows:

a vessel (such as a sailboat) with twin hulls and usually a deck or superstructure connecting the hulls

The first recorded usage of the word in the English language goes back to the year 1673. Like many other words, it too is evidence of the British interaction with South Asia.  ‘Catamaran’ is derived from the Tamil word ‘kaṭṭumaram’, a combination of ‘kaṭṭu’ (to tie) and ‘maram’ (tree, wood). The introduction of this words, as well as of items of trade and commerce associated with the coastal economy of the Indian Ocean littoral (such as coir and cowrie), is proof of the ancient seafaring heritage of the Tamils, a Dravidian people living at the very southern tip of South Asia. They were the great traders and voyagers of their age, sailing to the ports of East Africa, West Asia and South East Asia. Traces of Tamil influence can be found in countries as far apart as Egypt and Philippines.

Image Attribution: The image above was sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows an illustration of natives using a catamaran near a beach in Madras (now Chennai, the capital of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu). This print is attributed to Frederick Fiebig, a German who took some of the earliest photographs of cities such as Calcutta and Madras.

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