Though India had maintained some sort of a contact with the Western world both during the ancient and medieval times, a direct naval contact with the Western world was established only in 1498 when Vasco da Gama sailed round the west coast of, Africa, crossed the Arabian sea and reached Calicut.
The event was a turning point in the history of India and marked the dawn of the modern era. Though the Portuguese did not establish any territorial empire in India and they possessed only some trading ports on the west-coast, they came to dominate trade and commerce with India.
It may be noted that before the advent of the Portuguese the seaborne trade between India and the West was in the hands of the Arabs. The Portuguese not only asserted their naval superiority by overthrowing the Arabs but also conquered large territories in India.
In 1505 they appointed Francisco D’ Almeida as the Governor of these territories in India. During the next few years the Portuguese concentrated their trade activities in Goa and carried on extensive trade with the neighbouring kingdom of Vijayanagar. Next the Portuguese established their foot-hold in Diu and Daman.
The expansion of the Portuguese in India was not all smooth and they had to face at least two rivals. In the first instance the Dutch East India Company put a check on the maritime trade of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. On the main land the rising Marathas stood in the way of the Portuguese expansion.
The Marathas gave a severe blow to the Portuguese empire to the north of Goa by inflicting a defeat on them at Thana and capturing their strong-hold at Bassein. The arrival of the British also served as a check on the expansion of the Portuguese influence. In addition to these factors the Portuguese failed to win the sympathy of the Indian people due to their over-enthusiasm for the cause of Christianity. As a result, ultimately the Portuguese power declined in India.
However, it cannot be denied that the Portuguese exercised tremendous social, economic and cultural influence, specially in the western coasts. The Portuguese greatly enriched the Indian vocabulary and medical science. The first treatise on the medical plants of India was written by a Portuguese scholar Garcia da Orta.
Similarly, the introduction of printing and the establishment of seminaries for the training of the Indian priests were other valuable contributions of the Portuguese. The Portuguese influence is also visible on the ecclesiastical architecture of India, especially in Deccan. The credit for popularising the ornate Manuelesque architecture in the western coast also goes to the Portuguese.
In the economic sphere the Portuguese ensured a good world market for the Indian goods—especially spices and muslin. The Indian trade with the western world expanded on an unprecedented scale. India also imported goods from the European countries and China. The largest trade was carried on with Persia, which supplied horses in large numbers to the kingdom of Vijayanagar.