Disaster at Sea: SS Vaitarna - India’s Forgotten ‘Titanic’

The poignant story of the sinking of the ship, Titanic, is etched in our minds thanks to the Oscar-winning film James Cameron made in 1997. But did you know that twenty years before the Titanic sank, a massive Indian ship sank off the coast of Gujarat killing an estimated 1000 people on board! Few know of the Indian Titanic and sadly there are fewer records of the people who lost their lives in that tragic accident. But here is what we do know.

Little is known about the many people who lost their lives when the S S Vaitarna sank. Bards on the coast still sing songs about the tragedy.

On the 8th November 1888, the Indian steamship Vijli, also known as the SS Vaitarna, left the port of Dwarka in Gujarat, for Bombay and was never seen again. No one knows how many people perished in that disaster. Estimates are that there could have been more than a 1000 people who lost their lives when the ship sank.

The SS Vaitarna was one of the earliest steamships operating on the Western coast of India. It was built by Grangemouth Dockyard Co. Ltd, in Scotland and named after the Vaitarna river which flows to the north of Bombay. The owner of the ship was Haji Kasam, the Zamindar (khot) of Dahisar near Mumbai and he owned a number of ships.

The ship started sailing in 1885 and was used mainly for carrying cargo and passengers between the Mandvi port in Kutch and Bombay. The ship was far from the luxury liner that the Titanic was, but it did boast of having electricity - so great a novelty at that time, that locals and passengers dubbed the ship Vijli; a colloquial term for electricity or light.

It is believed that more than 1000 people were on board, when the Vijli sank after it sailed into a severe storm.

Records suggest that on the fateful Thursday, the 8th of November, 1888, at noon, Vijli docked on the port of Mandvi, Kutch. Some 520 passengers boarded the ship, and more got in at the next port, Dwarka. Though the official number of passengers on board was 703, the actual number of passengers could have been as high as 1200-1300, as it was a common practice for ships to fill far beyond their normal capacity. Onboard were travellers from Kutch and Saurashtra, 13 wedding groups as well as a large number of students heading to Bombay for their matriculation exams. The ship never reached Bombay.

The SS Vaitarna had sailed out from Dwarka to Porbandar, in Gujarat, around noon. But due to bad weather, it was forced to head directly to Bombay. Sadly for it, there was a terrible storm that night and the ship (and everyone on board) perished just off Mangrol, on the Junagadh coast.

The Committee appointed by the Bombay Presidency, to investigate the sinking of the SS Vaitarna concluded that ‘The ship had been overwhelmed by the severe storm and sank.’ While this disaster faded in public memory, it lives on in local village folklore along the coast of Gujarat. The most famous is the folk song ‘Haji Kasam, Tari Vijli Re Madhdariye Veran Thai’ (Oh Haji Kasam, your Vijli has sunk to the bottom of the sea).