In medieval times, Mandvi in Gujarat’s Kutch district was a thriving port. Founded by Maharao Khengarji I in 1580, it was a gateway to West Asia and Africa, buzzing with trade, located as it was at the intersection of the spice route and the camel caravan route.
As maritime trade grew, traders—belonging to the seafaring Kharva community of both Hindus and Muslims—developed a new expertise: boat-making and repairing to add to their traditional navigational skills. They became adept at building their own ships, known as dhows , for use in their thriving cargo trade. Today, this almost 400-year-old tradition and craft still endures, but is clearly slowly on its way out.
The dhows are entirely wooden—built of sal wood imported from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Burma, or procured locally from Gujarat’s babool trees. Built by hand by craftsmen who are barely literate and have no training in engineering, the ships come up expertly without so much as a sketch being referred to.
The shipbuilders are mostly from the carpenter community. “It’s an art requiring hard work,” says Ahmed Juneja, a businessman from Mandvi who owns a shipbuilding enterprise. “The traditional skills have been modified over many generations. During my grandfather’s time, we used to make small vessels of 40 tonne capacity. Now, we make vessels with capacity up to 2,000 tonnes, but the process used is more or less the same.”
Large planks and long curves
The long and elaborate process of building a dhow starts with a pathan , a single beam that will form the base of the ship’s hull. This is followed by the making of a frame to support the boat’s shape. Large planks of woods or vakias are chiselled into shape and mounted on the base.
As the long curves of the body emerges, the last layer of patias, which make the outer skin of the boat, are fitted on. The planks of wood are gently bent over fire and fitted together tight and smooth.
The boat-makers handle the wood as if it were clay, bending, curving and twisting the planks into the desired shapes. A layer of mud is first applied on the planks and then they are slowly heated on a fire before being curved gently.
Once the planks are fitted together with hundreds of nuts and bolts, the gaps in between are filled with sealant made of cotton dipped in fish oil to make the vessel watertight. The structure is glued together and sealed again and again before finally being treated to several coats of paint to create a robust vessel that’s safe to sail through the roughest seas and storms.
The process is almost entirely handmade, with hardly any machinery used except for the odd adzes and hand-held drills that have come into vogue in recent years. Hammers, screws, nuts and bolts, and a lot of skill, and at the end of it, you have a 50-metre long, three-storey-high sailing boat.
Interestingly, even the engines that power the vessels are not new marine diesel engines. The boat-makers use old generators discarded from dismantled ships lying in Gujarat’s Alang ship-breaking yard. These are then modified by installing gear boxes in them and converted into boat engines.
Sadly, the indigenous and ingenious boat-making tradition that once thrived here is now well on its way out. These handmade, wooden vessels are just not able to compete with the giant modern ships made of steel and powered by huge engines, says Ahmed Juneja, another businessman, whose family has a fleet of around a dozen vessels, all built by their own craftsmen, to run the import-export business they have going mostly with West Asian nations. “Earlier, the government policy was favourable to operators of wooden vessels, so we used to get a quota of cargo, with items such as like dates imported only in wooden vessels. But now that’s gone.”
These businessmen have now requested the Union Minister of State for shipping, Mansukh Mandaviya, to again fix a quota of cargo for wooden ships.
Banks of boats
The banks of the Rukmavati river that flows into the Gulf of Kutch at Mandvi are lined by boat-making yards.
Once, you could see more than 50 dhows of different sizes being built here by hundreds of craftsmen at a time. Today, there are hardly half a dozen dhows under construction. And the craftsmen are hired mostly to repair older ships.
Mandvi is not the only place in Gujarat for the handmade shipbuilding industry. Along the State’s long coastline are many other centres where the tradition thrives: Veraval, Porbandar and Jam Salaya in Saurashtra, for instance. But the vessels made here are mostly fishing trawlers popular in Gujarat, but also in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
“Of the wooden cargo vessels, there are around 1,000 of them in India, most of them in Gujarat,” says businessmen and vessel owner Isha Sidhik Thaim.
Thaim is the owner of the ill-fated Al Kaushar, which was recently hijacked by Somalian pirates while on its way to Al Mukala port in Yemen from Dubai with 11 crew members on board. The boat was released after the intervention of the government.
Piracy and the war in Syria and Yemen have affected the cargo trade that uses wooden vessels the most. In 2010, the Directorate General of Shipping prohibited smaller cargo boats from entering the pirate-affected waters south of Oman, which is otherwise a lucrative trading destination for mid-sized vessels from Gujarat.
This has effectively blocked trade not only to Somalia but other African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Yemen for these businessmen. And with trade, their ship-building skills too might soon be lost.