India is reiterating its age-old maritime ties with Qatar, at the ongoing FIFA World Cup 2022, through a handcrafted dhow made by M/S Haji PI Ahmed Koya, a family-run shipbuilding company in Kozhikode. Held under the patronage of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, and organised by The Cultural Village Foundation Katara, the 12th edition of the Katara International Dhow Festival in Doha is one among the many off-field events scheduled by the FIFA World Cup. The festival, held between November 20 and December 18, features dhows — boats with a long and thin hull, and one or two masts for sails, commonly used in southern Asia and eastern Arabia — from nine countries, including India, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Greece, Zanzibar and Turkey.
The Indian pavilion is exhibiting two 20-foot long boats, in addition to displaying boat materials and models, which are for sale.
“My grandfather started this company in 1885, and we have been making boats to order for clients in the Gulf countries for over 130 years. It is a special year for us, because we have built a baghlah dhow for the Qatari government using vintage technology. It showcases our boat-building heritage on an international stage,” says PO Hashim, managing director of the firm, who is in Doha for the handover.
The company also maintains a Dhow Museum of equipment and memorabilia related to the wooden vessels in Kuttichira, Kozhikode.
How to stitch a boat
The baghlah (Arabic for mule), measuring 27 feet, is an example of a sewn boat, where craftsmen thread wooden planks together using special coconut-fibre ropes. The technique predates the era of metal fastenings, and samples of sewn boats can be seen in many ancient civilizations, each using a different methodology.
Good quality timber and skilled shipwrights made Beypore in Kerala a magnet for Arab countries, attracting craftsmen from Yemen’s Hadrami tribe and the Omanis from the 15th century. Known as uru in Malayalam, the Beypore dhow was the main form of transport along the spice routes of Malabar and Arabia.
“We were inspired to make this dhow after seeing a similar model made in Oman decades ago,” says Hashim. The Qatar-commissioned boat being displayed at the festival was manufactured at the company’s Pattermadu dhow-making unit at Chaliyam village in Kozhikode.
Over six to seven months, from November 2021, craftsman Gokul Edathumpadikkal and a team of shipwrights were busy assembling the six-foot deep and seven-foot wide vessel, using teak sourced from Nilambur. Most of the carpentry and detailed carving on the outer planks have been done manually.
A dhow is typically built from the outside hull inwards. Shaped planks of wood are connected at the edges in a clinker style, and the overlapping sections are sewn together with coir to form a flexible structure. Internal framing is provided for additional rigidity.
Hashim says that their dhow is made with 2,300 hand stitches of fibre ropes through 5,000 holes to secure the planks. It was shipped by container and handed over to Ahmed al-Hitmi, director, Katara beach department, in Doha, last week.
“Qatar has been actively promoting the dhow as a symbol of the country’s culture and economy before the oil boom. We have been participating in Qatar’s annual dhow festival for 10 years,” he says.
At one time, there were some 80 types of dhows in the Arabian Gulf and Oman but only about six are still in use today, albeit with engines rather than sails. “There were many types of sailing dhows, ranging from big ocean-going vessels to small inshore fishing boats. They were used for trading from the Arabian Gulf to countries as far away as China, where pearls were exchanged for silk and other luxury items. Each year, fleets of dhows set out for the pearl-fishing grounds in September, returning three months later. The last of the sailing dhows were replaced by engine-powered boats in the 1950s,” says writer Fran Gillespie, who has authored several books on Qatar’s history, culture and archaeology.
Traditionally built dhows, powered with engines, are still in use in the Arabian Gulf for fishing and tourist excursions.
Katara, a sprawling beach promenade in Doha, will be the venue for marine shows, competitions, workshops for children and craftsmen in addition to special performances and operettas by folk troupes through the month as part of the festival.
For the World Cup, flags of the nations of the 32 qualified teams will be put on dhow masts to sail past the Doha Corniche and Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) reaching there by sunset on all days.
“The dhow festival, based on Qatar’s pearl-diving, fishing and maritime history is deeply intertwined with emotion and pride in the hearts of several generations,” says Salem al-Marri, Director of public relations and communications, Katara.