The Great Flood was imminent. To save man and animal kind, the Mesopotamian God Enki gave detailed instructions to Atra-hasis to build a gigantic ark. Contrary to our expectations, that ark wasn’t a wooden ship with prow and stern like Noah’s, but a round coracle (‘Prototype of Noah’s Ark was round’ Jan 27, 2014).
While modern-day Iraq (Mesopotamia in ancient times) is said to have had coracles until the 1970s, we continue to use these simple boats to navigate the boulder-strewn, fast-flowing rivers of south India.
Our coracles are buoyant, bowl-shaped, buffalo-hide vessels supported by a bamboo basket framework, and waterproofed with bitumen. In recent years, hides have been replaced by tarpaulin or nylon bags that once held fertilizer. Only one paddle is needed to ply them. They are the ideal crafts to use, as wooden boats would be smashed to smithereens on the rocks.
Rom conducted a lot of his crocodile surveys on coracles. Without these crafts, he would have had to leg it. On the Moyar River, Tamil Nadu, Kaliappan, his field assistant, manoeuvred the craft over eddies and away from sharp boulders. As the current swept them around a bend, they saw a herd of elephants slowly crossing the river ahead of them. Some leisurely drank, some sprayed water on their backs, while calves struggled to keep their trunk tips above the water.
Kaliappan tried to paddle toward the bank, but they were travelling too fast and the current was too strong. He tried to snag his paddle on rocks, but the smooth wood slipped. The men yelled to hurry up the animals, but the noise of water crashing over boulders drowned their voices. When it looked like the coracle was going to collide into this elephant phalanx, Rom grabbed an overhanging branch. Before the craft slipped away from under Rom, Kaliappan grabbed him and the branch. With the strong current tugging the coracle, the men barely managed to hang on until the last of the elephants clambered up the bank.
Rom would often lay low in a coracle, and stealthily approach crocodiles without spooking them. One basking croc suddenly woke up to find a human almost nose to nose, taking its picture. When it dove under the coracle, the pointy scales on its back rubbed rat-a-tat against the bamboo ribs.
Coracles are versatile field vessels. At Sathanur Dam, Rom and his team were crossing the reservoir at night. When they were in the middle of the vast artificial lake, a cold wind whipped up huge waves that swamped the craft. The driver paddled hard and reached the bank before a heavy downpour started. The men flipped the coracle over on the beach, propped it up with the paddle, and sheltered underneath, emerging dry the next morning.
Paddling this simple craft looks deceptively easy. For many winters, Rom went fishing for mahseer on the River Kaveri. We’d set out in a coracle with a gillie before dawn, and spend the day on the river. When I grew bored of watching Rom fish, I wanted to try my hand at steering the coracle. But that stretch of the river was notorious for whirlpools and rapids. If I landed the coracle on one of the numerous rocks jutting out of the water, it could get punctured. Or worse, I could overturn it and land us all in the dangerous waters. Rom said he hadn’t heard of a coracle flipping over; they are incredibly stable.
When I got my chance to steer one in calmer waters, I realized technique was crucial. With no keel or rudder, the boat spun around, and when I dug the paddle into the water, it spun the other way.
I wondered how Atra-hasis steered his 38,750 square-foot coracle. The 20-feet-high walls would have been too high for an average man. Then I realized he didn’t have to go anywhere. The coracle had to merely bob on the water with its precious cargo of animals and humans until the floodwaters receded: a job it was well-designed to perform.