The Last of the Boatyards

There is a curious sound that reverberates through the alleys of Beypore. A rhythm that is hard to place. A resonance that is both familiar and strange. You think you know it. And then you think you don't. In the end when you see the source of that pagan beat for yourself, you wonder why it never occurred to you…that this music that had teased and taunted you was the note of wood on wood….

More than a decade ago when I made that first trip to Beypore, I knew nothing about the place except that the Malayalam writer Basheer had chosen to make Beypore his home. And then one day, instead of getting off at the stop that would lead me to a cousin's home, I rode the bus to the terminus and opted to explore rather than sit around a table gossiping and drinking endless cups of tea.

On either side of the road were huge iron anchors lying on its side. A couple of shops displayed model ships. As I found my way through the fishing village, past sheds where shrimp were being shelled, ignoring the curious glances and the stench, a strange music led me on. The music of a 5000-year-old history that had been casually hinted at and then I spotted the tall sheds made of bamboo poles and a thatched roof.

Alongside the Chaliyam river estuary that flowed into the Arabian Sea, several such sheds dotted the bank. And I knew that I had stumbled onto the secret history of Beypore - its boatyard.

In my schooldays every time, I encountered the word Calicut in a history or geography book, a shiver ran down my spine. Calicut: in my mind, it conjured up vivid images. Of the silken sands at Kapaad where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498. Of the rich halwa from Sweet Meat street. Of silvery sardines that turned itself into a crackley glistening brown when deep fried. And of the plump dates that went to make a chutney, a perfect complement to the culinary speciality of the region- the Moplah Biriyani.

Eight kilometres out of Calicut, now Kozhikode, Beypore is just another suburb at first glance. A school, a bank, a housing colony and a market. Which is why the discovery of the real Beypore can be put down to serendipity.

No book or any teacher mentioned Beypore the port. And yet according to Captain Iwata, founder member of the Association of Sumerian ships in Japan, Beypore had direct links with Mesopotamia and was probably a major stop in the maritime silk route. In fact, he believes that Sumerian ships might have been built in Beypore. So when Captain Iwata set out to prove that a maritime trade link did exist between Mesopotamia and other countries, it is to Beypore he came to build his dream ship some years ago. The ship in which he would trace the silk route

Built according to a design recorded in cuneiform Sumerian tablet, preserved at the Louvre museum, the 3000 tonner is made entirely of wood. Its planks are held together by wooden nails and coir yarn. A special glue made of fruit and tree resins are used for additional bonding. The anchor is hewn out of granite. At Beypore while there is some amount of interest around the project, to most of its population the ship Ki-en-gi that in Sumerian means the land of the master of reeds, is just another one of the ships constructed.

What to them seems commonplace is in truth a phenomenon. If you look for Beypore on a map, chances are you will never find it. And yet here, millions of rupees exchange hands as a matter of daily activity. For Beypore is one among the last few places in the world where boats are still being fashioned out of wood. Orders for vessels come in from all parts of the world. Cargo ships, ketches, yachts, barges, and even a ship that was meant to be a floating restaurant. However the most common vessel that comes out of Beypore is the cargo ship modelled on the lines of grain clipper ships of 18th century Europe but with a difference. The ship runs on engine power in spite of its sails.

Though the master artisans use certain Sanskrit shlokas to guide them, none of it is on paper. A closely guarded secret it is handed down from father to son. Only a handful of such master craftsmen are left. Four to be precise.

Bavamoopan is the most famous supervisor in the whole of Beypore. And he has yet another claim to fame. When the ill fated Island Express plunged into the Ashtamudi canal near Quilon, neither modern machinery nor techniques could dredge up the coaches from the waterbed. Bavamoopan and his men pitched in and they used the traditional skills using pulleys and ropes to fork out the compartments, thought to be irretrievable. Overnight Bavamoopan became a celebrity. Subject for the Malayalam dailies. [Some weeks ago when the Madras Mail fell off the Kadalundi Bridge near Kozhikode, the kalasis were roped in again.]

But Bavamoopan is unaffected by fame. "There have always been boats and boat builders in Beypore," he said softly. Maybe it was because of the proximity to Kallai [a trading depot for timber]. Or maybe it was because our ancestors knew nothing else," he said lost in reminiscences of a boyhood spent among masts and keels.

"They call it by different names in different places," Bavamoopan explained on one of my first visits to Beypore. "The Arabs call it a boomb."

"No, they call it a dhow," I said.

"Nonsense," he said emphatically, "The Arabs call it Boomb. The Iraquis call it Sambuk. The kutchis call it kotuga and sometimes it is known as pathemari."

"Is there a difference?" I wonder

"Basically they are the same paya kappal [schooner] but the boomb is narrow and elongated while the sambuk is rotund. But since most of our orders come from Islamic countries, we include a special prayer deck."

I can hear the waves lap. In the distance the motor boats chug chug and the hammers go up and down relentlessly. The ship builders of Beypore are at work.

In one of the many sheds they have begun work on a keel. Each vessel here is worth a fortune. The wood that is used is the very best. Well-seasoned teak or what is referred to as 'vaaga'. A boat with an 85foot keel needs at least a three hundred thousand rupees worth of wood. A vessel of that size takes almost a year to build. Add to that the cost of labour at about Rs 180 per head.

I think of my first time here when guarded by two eagle-eyed constables, the Ki-en-gi was being given finishing touches. I had paused to talk to the men working on the Ki-ene-gi.

"So what do you think of this?" I ask running my palm down the wood.

"Ask him," one of them guffaw."He's going sailing in this ship," he says pointing to a young and dapper Anil Kumar.

"Are you?" I ask. He nods. "I like the thought of sailing on an ancient ship. It's like stepping into history." He pauses and adds, "My family is upset with me."

The other men laugh. "He is crazy," They say. "Do you know he can't even swim and god knows if this will hold together! "

I look around me. Like Bavamoopan, the splendour of Beypore is there if only you wish to seek it. There is no impatient hustle or bustle. Only a quiet peace. I walk on the breakwater that stretches seemingly into the horizon. The mussel gatherers pluck the mussels off the rocks filling baskets.

I am reluctant to leave this seaside haven with its inconspicuous but industrious people and its rowdy breeze. I wait for the surprise Beypore rewards me with each time I visit it. The first time there was the boat yard. Since then there has been the candy-striped lighthouse twinkling from a copse of trees. A ride in a ferry boat. A new ship that's put its anchor down at Beypore. The sight of an 'Edi" [a kind of porpoise cavorting in the waters.

This time I settle for a whiff of the Arabian Sea.

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