Beypore: Glorious tradition of boat building

Beypore: Glorious tradition of boat building

Dhow Art

Sturdy wooden barges that plied the Suez Canal during the reign of Cleopatra are said to have been made at Beypore. And the flagship of the British admiral Lord Horatio Nelson who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was made in Beypore too, not to mention numerous other vessels of his celebrated fleet.

Distinguished antiquity such as this has earned Beypore a strong foothold in Indian maritime history.

Known variously as dhow or Uru in Arabic and Paikappal in Malayalam, these indigenous vessels have a striking feature that sets them apart from other sail ships: These legendary crafts are made exclusively of wood, and built without the use of any machines or power tools — only hand tools and indigenous devices are ever used. From sawing the wood to cutting and shaping to assembly and finishing, all operations are done manually, and what’s more, this expertise and skill is handed down the generations only through practical apprenticeship and tutelage.

But hold on. Here’s the shocker: No formal plan, designs, sketches or illustrations are ever made to make even a huge vessel. All computations and reckoning to finalise the physical characteristics of the finished vessels are always at the fingertips of the foreman and generally carried in a verse form, each stanza denoting a detailed description of a part of the ship.

A mid-sized vessel would require 500 Cft of teak alone and 7500 Cft of other woods like Anjili and Thambakam. Two tons of long, galvanised nails to hold it all together, 100 kg of brass fittings to embellish the vessel and bales of caulking cord, cashew resins and other native ingredients constitute the hardware. And how long would it take to build a vessel designed to carry more than 600 tons of cargo? Carpenters, blacksmiths, caulkers, painters and numerous other labourers toil for up to two years under makeshift roofs. Yet every vessel built here carries a guarantee of at least 75 years.

Once complete, launching of these vessels is another study in native ingenuity and resourcefulness. The legendary Khalasis of Malabar have for long carved a niche for themselves in this fine art of launching a completed ship — using nothing more than wooden keel rails and circular blocks of wood. Ropes, pulleys, dextrous arms and sheer brawn do the jobs of cranes and barges and launch a vessel skilfully with nary a mishap.
Derived from the Arabic word Khalas meaning release, the word Khalasi is now used both in Malayalam and in Hindi, to refer to anyone who releases a ship or boat into the water.

The Khalasis of Malabar engaged in boat building and boat repair use simple but cleverly designed equipments and devices put together by ancestors that leverage muscular strength quite amazingly. Though education is hardly their strength, what they have in abundance is a natural wisdom and simple commonsense. Deceptively simple wooden winches called davars and long wooden handles called kazhas work wonders as winches, and a network of steel wires and thick coir ropes transmit torque and rotation as smoothly as any high-end machinery.

Traditionally the domain of Moplah Muslims, Hindus and even Christians have since joined the cadres of this exclusive band of muscular, energetic men who trace their lineage a long way into the past.

Be that as it may, Beypore has nevertheless lost its premier position as a shipbuilding centre. Today, only a few boatyards remain — sitting on the banks of the Chaliyar River estuary churning out an occasional vessel for an Arab Sheikh with nostalgia for days gone by.

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