Tradition Still going by the ancient calculations, the traditional boat makers from Kakinada seem to be stuck in the Time Machine, writes Sumit Bhattacharjee
For the small community of traditional wooden boat makers from the Tallarevu village near Kakinada, ‘time and age' seem have made little progress from the ancient times. They still believe in the ancient calculations and methodology for making ocean and river faring boats of different shapes and sizes. There are minor changes in the technology, craftsmanship, tools and material from the ancient times that dates beyond third millennium BC.
The ancient method of using hand, fingers and feet as the units of measurements have given way to measuring tapes, and the wooden pegs has been substituted with iron nails, the costly teak wood has been replaced by other economically-priced wood like maddi and mamidi karra and probably fiberglass toppings have replaced cotton and jute for filling gaps between the planks to make the boats watertight.
A few members of the community have descended by the shores opposite the Naval Coast Battery to construct medium-sized to large fishing boats for the fishing community here, and they have practically converted the small beach tucked between the fishing harbour and the break water to a ship building yard.
“The technology of boat building has been a hereditary profession and has been passed from one generation to another since time immemorial. We also believe that we are the descendants of Lord Viswakarma. We are not qualified engineers, but we know the technology of boat making like the back of our hand,” says Ranganayakulu, the head carpenter.
The excavations at Lothal reveal that shipping and shipbuilding industries have had an unbroken tradition extending over 6,000 years. The discovery of a naval dock at Lothal in Gujarat, as extensive as 710 feet in length and 120 feet in width, proves that the Harappans were building very large vessels. The description of boat building and related subjects can be found in ancient texts like Yukti Kalpataru, Rig Veda, Samarangana Sutradhara and Arthasastra.
The boats that Ranganayakulu and his men build today find a striking resemblance of the ones that were built in the ancient times. The boats have a sharp keel, a pointed prow and a high flat stern. Though the technology and tools used are still primitive in nature, the boats that they build find a perfect balance once launched into the waters. “It is all hinged on some primitive calculations based on the theory of proportions. The length, width, height and material depend on the desired shapes, purpose and load bearing capacity. For example: An ocean faring vessel should have a sharp keel, whereas a river craft can have a flat bottom. The calculations and designs have percolated down from my father and grandfather and are embedded in my mind. We operate on instincts, and by some reason they always prove to be correct and perfect,” says he.
Like in modern ship building, the laying of the keel is the most complicated task for Ranganayakulu and his team. “The keel and the stern is usually one single piece of timber. The keel is laid first and the ribs are then attached as per the desired shape and curvature. The planks are then nailed to the ribs with cotton to make the compartments water tight. A lot depends on the shape of the ribs. The shape determines the fuel economy, load bearing capacity, the boats' ability to brave storms and speed (unknowingly he speaks of hydrodynamics). Once the planking is over, we fill the gaps between the planks with cotton and jute and top it up with one or two coats of molten fiberglass,” says he.
Each boat is about 40 to 50 feet in length and 30 feet in width and weighs about 20 MT when empty. Each has about 6 to 8 refrigerated holds to store the catch and can carry a load of about 14 MT with ice, water and fuel. The visible difference from the ancient ones and the present ones is the use of glass in the navigating cabin and the use of motor and propeller instead of the oars and the sails. Boat making would have been a profitable and respectable venture in the ancient times, but the present generation is finding it hard to eke out a living. “Our forefathers had built sea-worthy ships that sailed across countries but today even for daily fishing, people prefer synthetic vessels and as a result our tradition and craft has hit an all time low. This coupled with rising prices and inflation has put us in a tight spot,” says the master carpenter. A few traditional fishermen like Ramu and Prasad have come to their rescue. Their ambition to graduate from catamaran owners to proud owners of medium-sized fishing boats, have brought some relief to the boat makers. “Like the boat makers, fishing has been our tradition since ages. It is also a joint family business. We are five brothers and we have pooled our savings to build a boat with some private loans. Each boat costs about Rs.12 lakhs with a second hand engine and a propeller. We cannot afford a modern fishing trawler and a mechanised boat is too small for the family business. And that's the reason we have opted for a home-grown medium-sized boat,” say Ramu and Prasad. The traditional boats will have its share of modernity in the shape of a VHS and a GPS, as per government norms. But modern gadgets are only value addition to their instincts or sixth sense. “Traditionally we believe in navigating by the stars and other celestial bodies. We come to know about incoming storms and rough weather conditions, much before the official bulletins are released, by noticing the changes in wind direction and colour of the oceans. This knowledge has trickled down from our forefathers,” says Ramu.