The matchless maritime tradition of Dhow making
Kozhikode: Khalasis have been the traditional boat builders based in Malabar region for over 5000 years. They form an important link in the rich maritime history of Kerala, which dates back to the colonial period or beyond. The Portuguese traded spices through sea routes in these massive, hand -made country boats called dhows, locally known as ‘uru’. Beypore forms the hub of dhow making and these exceptional boats have attracted international acclaim and attention since time immemorial. The rich tradition has stood the test of time and has continued well into the 21st century.
Beypore town is dotted with umpteen shops that sell model of ships and huge iron anchors lying on either side of the road, which are tell tale signs of this flourishing industry. There are many tall thatched sheds dotting the banks of the River Chaliyar, which feeds the Malabar region before reaching the Arabian Sea. It is in these sheds that these magnificent masterpieces take shape. Ever since Vasco da Gama landed in 1498 in Kappad beach, the Malabar Coast registered its name in the maritime map.
Eight kilometers from Kozhikode (Calicut), Beypore could pass off as just another suburb at first glance; however at a closer look, the rich history of this town would start to unfurl. According to Captain Iwata, founder member of the Association of Sumerian ships in Japan, Sumerian ships might have been built in Beypore. There are evidences to prove that Beypore had direct trade links with Mesopotamia and was a prominent link on the maritime silk route.
Soon, Captain Iwata set out to prove this rich maritime history that existed between Mesopotamia and other countries. He came to Beypore to construct a ship that could retrace the fabled silk route. The design was based on the ancient designs, registered in a cuneiform Sumerian tablet that was stored at the Louvre museum. The 3000-tonner ship made fully in wood was a technical feat indeed. The massive wooden planks were held in place by coir ropes and wooden nails. Special glue made from the traditional formula of fruit and tree resins was used to reinforce the structure. The anchor was carved out of granite. The ship was named Ki-en-gi, which in Sumerian means ‘the land of the master of reeds’. Though this news hogged the limelight all over the world, it was just another ship that rolled out of the keels for the khalasis and Beypore.
The master craftsmen of khalasis use certain Sanskrit shlokas as their guide to ship building; nothing has been documented on paper for posterity. Even today, the formula of dhow making remains a closely guarded secret that is handed over from generations to generation. Today, only four master craftsmen are left behind, with Bavamoopan leading the pack. Khalasis can salvage anything with just the traditional pulleys and ropes. The mettle of this traditional art was proved once again during a train accident when a few bogies of Island express plunged into the Ashtamudi Lake near Quilon. Neither modern machinery nor techniques could pull up the coaches from the waterbed and it was this amazing crew under the stewardship of Bavamoopan pulled out the compartments using just their traditional skills employing pulleys and ropes, much to the disbelief of the onlookers. Hats off to the matchless khalasis who have made every keralite proud!