The narrow lanes that lead to Beypore are lined with souvenir shops filled with miniature ships of all shapes. This seems like a teaser to the bigger picture that follows
To an undiscerning tourist, Beypore, — a nondescript sea port just south of Calicut, may feel like another speck of beach on the boundless coastal strip of Kerala. But once you set foot on these sandy shores, centuries of historic significance and maritime heritage pervading in the atmosphere of this seaside town takes you to a bygone era.
Long before the Portuguese and the English began to chart the most defining course of India's history, Beypore was one of the pivotal ports that opened its gate for the spice route to Indian bazaars. The Beypore port has been bringing in ships from the Mesopotamian and Sumerian seas way back from the 1st Century, and this accounts for the presence of Tellicherry pepper and Malabar spices in the global markets even today.
My quest is to unravel the mysteries of the unique and time-tested dhow building industry, indigenous to Beypore. These wooden sailing vessels — call them the dhow, uru, machchua or the jalbooth — have been plying on the Arabian Sea and beyond since time immemorial. They have been instrumental in the silk routes, in foreign inquisitions and before air travel became cheap and popular, ferrying fortune-seeking Keralites to the Gulf.
The narrow lanes that lead to Beypore are lined with souvenir shops filled with miniature ships of all shapes, and this seems like a teaser to the bigger picture that follows. The sea makes its presence felt by its distinct smell throughout the town. The blink-and-you-miss boat jetty on the banks of Chaliyar River — with its banks bursting with coconut palms and flocks of white cranes hovering over the water — looks like a picturesque postcard, and I'm lost in poetic reverie.
My thoughts are abruptly interrupted by the shrill foghorn of the Jhangaar ferry. The Jhangaar, the most common means of conveyance in the Beypore backwaters, is best described as a couple of boats appended together at the waist with a wooden plank .While I patiently wait on the rickety wooden pier, the Jhangaar offloads its varied cargo of school children, villagers, cattle, bikes and a few compact MPVs!
Soon my ride arrives — a local canoe fitted with an engine, to ferry me to the dhow-building facility of Haji P.I. Ahamed Koya. These entrepreneurs have been building dhows since 1919, and their clientele includes Qatar sheikhs, Arab billionaires and French hotel chains. These second generation shipbuilders have won awards at both State and National levels for keeping the art and commerce of dhow building alive. The art of dhow building is revered and uncompromised here — to this day, the dhow is intricately crafted into shape by hand.
A five-minute boat ride takes me to the dhow building site on the Chaliyar river banks, where I'm greeted by one of the master craftsmen of old school dhow building, Narayan Maestry. He takes me to the building platform, which belies all my expectations — an inconspicuous thatched roof shack that houses a gigantic skeletal framework of the dhow. Manoeuvring a 20-ft rickety ladder, stacked against the wobbly skeletal ship on high heels, is by no means an easy task, but I achieved it, and gained access into the belly of the great wooden beast! Down here, I feel submerged in the ribcage of a gigantic whale; this is where Narayan Maestry proceeds to share the art and science of dhow building with me.
These skilled craftsmen do not follow blueprints or manuscripts; the scientific and structural formulae are handed down generations through folksy ditties. Earlier, the timber for the ships was logged from the Nilambur forests and floated down the river and hauled inland; now it is offloaded in trucks. The workforce is busily hammering and carving the wooden beams to shape and the clangings resonate across the huge skeleton of the dhow. The entire framework of the dhow is manually built in this shed. The engine and the anchor are fitted elsewhere, with the interiors custom-built to the patron's whims and fancies.
“Look out for those nails,” says Maestry nonchalantly as though he were referring to a few pin tacks strewn about; I look around to see foot-long iron spikes, protruding out of the planks at regular intervals.
An average-sized dhow takes around a year to complete. Upon completion, it is rolled on logs from the docks into the river bed using a giant pulley-wheel mechanism. Around 20 men take turns rotating the wheel, and the whole process of hauling the colossal vessel for about 20 ft takes up to half-day's work. From here, the dhow is towed along the estuary till it meets the Arabian Sea. Currently, the dhows are largely used for recreation — as floating restaurants or heritage yachts.
The dhow having set sail on its course, I set off on mine, to savour another major highlight of Beypore — the Pulimoodu beach. The entrance to the beach bustles with a multitude of food carts selling all kinds of delicacies of the sea and the shore. From local dishes such as mussels fry and crab roast to eternal favourites such as onion pakoras and chilly bajjis, the food complements the bracing sea winds perfectly. An aesthetically designed stone pier extends from the beach a km into the sea, and offers a unique evening stroll experience. At the edge of the pier, I feel as if the Arabian Sea has embraced me from all sides. The setting sun plays a fiery havoc on the horizon, and the sky looks resplendent in pink and orange glory. The occasional sighting of dolphins gliding in the water against this exquisite backdrop provides the perfect finale to a memorable day.