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Cast away in Mandvi

Venkatraman S, Dec 1, 2013 : 19:21 IST

Gujarat coast

Majestic: A ship being built at the ship yard in Mandvi, Gujarat. Photo by author
Igot down from the bus in the middle of the night to be greeted by a chill breeze. The small bus-stand with its flickering tubelights and a few people sleeping and snoring on iron benches looked like a scene from a documentary movie.

Deserted roads with the sodium-vapour lamps greeted me as I walked outside the bus-stand. The deathly silence and the chill breeze were my companions as I walked along what appeared to be a main road in this town, in search of lodging options for the night.

Roaming the streets in the darkness of the night was something that I had taken a liking to during my travels, but I was not prepared to absorb what I was going to witness next. It was a full moon night and as I walked more, silhouettes of some structures with their shadows extending to the road, appeared on my left.

The silhouettes were huge and I couldn’t take my mind off them. Fear was normal under these circumstances and I was no elf to hide it. Faster strides were natural, and I soon stumbled on a board that advertised a hotel. It was locked and I had to bang the door a couple of times before I woke up the caretaker of the hotel who offered me the only vacant room, which I graciously accepted, and retired for the day.

Making of a ship

The morning wake up call came not from the chirping of birds, but from a few people talking loudly outside my room. As I stepped outside the hotel, I saw huge ships on the other side of the road, almost touching the road. I had never seen such a scene in my life. Curiosity had always been my best friend and stumbling on this town by chance was probably the best thing to have happened to me. If not for anything else, I would just watch these ships being built and spend a vacation. A cup of hot chai was perfect to watch the scenery unfold in front of me.

Soft dhokla being sold on a pushcart was an added bonus for breakfast. I gobbled up a few plates and followed it up with one more round of chai. I crossed the road and stood in front of one of these ships. This was the first time I was standing eye to eye in front of a naked ship made of wood. The structure had no decorations or paint, but only planks of wood joined together by what appeared as almost foot-long nails. It was as if this giant pile of wood was commanding me.

I circumambulated it and saw an opening by the side. Few workers were working inside the ship and I requested their permission to get inside. This was a dreamland made in wood. The huge hollow space inside the ship, despite its emptiness, had its own aura. Saws, hammers and nails, the size of which I had never seen before, were being used to construct this practical art in wood.

A ladder was kept in the middle and appeared to connect to a different world. I slowly ascended it and was taken to a different level inside the ship. This level, again, was empty and a ladder alone stood in the middle of this emptiness. I climbed above and was on the deck of the ship. I could almost see the whole ship building yard from here.

To far away seas

Many ships were being constructed, while some were being broken down. Some with a rich layer of algae on it looked abandoned. The half-broken ones looked extremely terrifying, as if lighting from Zeus or the hammer of Thor had broken them into two. I stepped out of this ship and walked along the perimeter of the ship-building yard. I still had not seen any crane or heavy vehicle inside the yard.

A quick chat with a labourer revealed this was an old ship building yard and ships here are primarily constructed out of wood, and almost all the tools were used by hand. Though many ships were being used for domestic purposes like fishing in the deep sea, they had an active export industry and were building ships for many foreign clients.

In the evening, I walked till the end of the yard. A watchman suddenly stopped me and told me that I was entering a restricted area in the port and cautioned me not to take any pictures. I promised him and went till the end of the jetty. Sun was slowly setting along the west coast. There was absolute silence but for the lashing of the waves.

I could see a few small boats and catamarans returning to the shore. I felt like the last man standing at the tip of the Earth, as the orange and red hues covered the western sky. I found another spot along the yard from where I could see the moon rise slowly and illuminate the whole ship-building yard.

I could remember Soren Kierkegaard’s words when he wrote, “People commonly travel the world over to see rivers and mountains, new stars, garish birds, freak fish, grotesque breeds of human; they fall into an animal stupor that gapes at existence and they think they have seen something.” After visiting this town, I am not sure whether I can claim that I had one of the unique experiences ever, but the first sights of the ships casting their shadows in the moonlight was etched into my memory forever.

Did I forget to reveal the town’s name? Well, tucked along the western-most part of India facing the Arabian Sea, lies one of the most beautiful and uncharted spots, often seen missing on the tourist’s map, is the ship building town of Mandvi, in the state of Gujarat.

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