National

Maritime Mandvi

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Some 15 to 20 workers are hard at work shaping magnificent dhows out of wood by the Arabian Sea at Mandvi in Gujarat. Centuries ago, the port here was a beacon for cargo ships and dhows plying as far as Africa, carrying foodgrains and other goods to Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Mombasa, Tanzania, Uganda and other remote corners of the world. In its heyday, dhow-makers in the port used to roll out 30 vessels a year. Now, the order book runs to just four or five.

The seafaring Kharva community, comprising Hindus and Muslims, dropped anchor here after migrating from Rajasthan some 400 years ago. They slowly emerged as entrepreneurs, trying their hand at making dhows made from the wood of the babool, or gum Arabic, trees grown locally. With India gaining Independence, the government decided to develop the Kandla port and Mandvi got sidelined. The introduction of big cargo vessels dealt another blow to the port. Vadilal Doshi, president of the Mandvi Chamber of Commerce, says some 30 dhows of 1,500- to 1,800-tonne capacity used to be built a year at Mandvi even five or six years ago. The dhow-making business supported 300 to 400 resident families. Mr. Doshi makes a strong pitch for subsidising the activity, which, he says, is 100% “Make in India”. But with Kandla getting access to railway lines and medium-size ships from Porbandar and Veraval doing brisk business, Mandvi appears to have lost the race.

I. Sreenivas, a labourer from Andhra Pradesh, recalls how 400 to 450 men from south India used to work as dhow craftsmen here. All that has come to an end with the labourers moving out for better job opportunities. Just 15 to 20 south Indian workers now remain at the port.

Text and images by Vijay Soneji

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