A centuries-old craft keeps massive dhows insulated from the ravages of water, weather and time.
The art of Uru making in Beypore, on the northern coast of Kerala, is as old as the beginnings of India’s maritime trade with Mesopotamia. Arguably the biggest handicraft in the world, the Uru, as the wooden dhow is called, connects this sleepy town on the outskirts of Kozhikode to the heyday of the spice trade. Loud thuds of craftsmen’s tools on timber from the Uru-crafting yards and rather unassuming sheds greet the visitor to the islands dotting the Chaliyar river which have kept the unique tradition alive for over a millennium. The sound, as well as the tradition, endemic to the region, has survived the onslaught of modernity.
As an art passed down through generations, Uru-making is an undocumented practice. There are no build plans, sketches, drawings, or blueprints that the makers refer to. From conception to completion, it is all in the mind of the master carpenter or maistry of a yard, who assigns work to his assistants on a daily basis, so as to keep the secrecy that shrouds the technology intact.
What takes you by surprise is the sheer efficacy of the time-tested technique of hull construction, achieved solely using local carpentry tools. Wood, bound together, makes the keel waterproof. This makes the Uru a marvel in handcrafting. The hull and the frame are made in a building yard while fitment of engine and customisation are done elsewhere. On completion, the Uru is launched on the river by Mopla-Khalasis (after the Arabic word for dockyard workers), who employ the age-old pulley-wheel mechanism to roll the boat on a bed of logs to float it out. At present, six Urus, including the longest dhow (180 metres) ever made in India, are in various stages of construction at the yards on these islands. If the Beypore Uru had, in days of yore, traversed the Indian Ocean shipping spice and silk, it is now built on order for rich Arabs and royalty in the Middle East to function as luxury yachts and floating restaurants. The artisans of Beypore have now pinned their hopes on the Football World Cup of 2022 in Qatar to bring fresh orders for Urus from Kerala’s own ‘Gulf’.