On the International Day of the Seafarer it is essential to note that while India has its history dating back to almost 5000 years, India has been a mosaic of customs, rituals, festivals, cultures, artisanal activities, livelihood and wisdom transmitted from generation to generation expressed richly in the maritime dimension. With a vast coastline spanning across its three sides, India has always been a maritime country. The geographical position of India has been advantageous and has enhanced the country’s maritime dominance. Its geographical location within the Indian Ocean has led to its prominence among the nearby countries. India’s location at the centre of this oceanic geography facilitated its rise as the fulcrum of world trade and economy. Evidence found across the world depict the trade link of the subcontinent across the world from as early as the 3300BCE. The overseas trade was only possible through a vast knowledge of the sea and ships have often been the catalysts for securing trade links, exchange of cultures and supporting warfare at sea. Today, the ship-building heritage is experiencing a rapid decline. With a case study of shipbuilding heritage in Mandvi, the article emphasizes the reasons for concern for the fading intangible heritage of Indian technical skill sets beyond traditional craftsmanship. In the contemporary world, there is a need to use heritage to revitalise Indian Shipbuilding in 21st Century construct.
Shipbuilding at Mandvi
Indians were closely related to the maritime medium from as early as the Prehistoric age. Excavations in 1955, symbolizing the existence of a dock at Lothal, Gujarat give us an insight into the sea travel and maritime activities from the Indus Valley Civilization. With this, one can trace back the existence of a water-based craft for travel through sea. The Mohenjo-Daro and Sumerian texts also talk about the existence of reed boats. Rig Veda talks about the knowledge of the sea and navigational practices making several references to ships used to cross the ‘samudra’. Ancient Tamil literature also mentions the Muziris port which was often visited by the Greek and Roman ships for trade purposes. Maritime trade between Muziris and Rome started in the 1st Century BC, when it came to be known that sailing through the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa, led to the Kerala coast. Sangam literature describes Roman ships coming to Muziris laden with gold to be exchanged for pepper.
Writings on the Chola Dynasty (3rd Century AD) also talk of the sea voyages using big vessels. The Cholas are said to have several ships being indigenously built in the South of the Indian Peninsula. The Arab traders who settled on the Western Coast of India from the 7th Century, began acting as trade links between the East and the West and gained control over the sea routes to India. With durable timber available in abundance, a large coastline to suffice the craft, cheap labour and the region being on the key trade routes, the ships began to be constructed in wood. Communities began to be recognized for their physical strength and capability to construct and repair the vessel. The Marathas under the guidance of Shivaji constructed ship building and repair yards strategically at a sufficient distance from the river or creek, beyond the reach of tidal waters. The Bakhars or historical writings of the Marathas talk about the naval fleet and types of ships that were constructed at war. The Gurabs, Galbats and Pals were warships constructed along the Konkan coast while the batela, hodi and machva were some of the small-scale low sea vessels.
When the Portuguese arrived in India, they realized the great quality of timber and high-quality construction which was the reason the Indian ships lasted long. They established various ship building centres and declared wood from India ‘a luxury’. When the British Empire set their foot in India, they appointed the English East India Company to look into its whereabouts. The Company established its base in Surat and later moved to Bombay gradually making it a major ship building hub. Several massive ships were constructed during that time which were cheap and of superior quality than its English counterparts. As merchants started to use Indian-made vessels, European shipbuilders protested against their use. Due to the evolving rules and regulations of sea trade, as well as the ability to provide protection against piracy, Indian and European merchants gradually favoured European-crafted vessels over Indian vessels. The craft was not promoted during the later stages of colonial rule in India which contributed to its decline. They termed Indian goods as inferior to let down the people even while the craft was known to be of superior quality. Further, with the advent of steam and steel, these handcrafted vessels lost their importance and the craft gradually declined. From reed boats to massive vessels, shipbuilding in India has experienced birth pangs and infancy, aggressive growth, sharp decline and roaring successes, through time.
Despite this, places like Mandvi in Gujarat and Beypore in Kerala among others continue to practice the indigenous craft of constructing handmade wooden vessels. Mandvi is a town situated on the Rukamati river in the Kutch district of Gujarat. Historically, because of its position on the trade routes that connect Africa, Gulf & Makran Coast, it has been a town of boat builders, fishermen and traders. Over the years, Mandvi has produced kotias, padaos, navris and batelas which have sailed across the Indian Ocean. The boat is constructed entirely on the silted land along the Rukhmati river coast. There is no special area designated for its construction. Once the boat is completed, the ground underneath it is excavated using minimal machinery. This is generally done just prior to ‘Poornima’ after which the water level rises at sea. The boat is flagged off after the water level has reached the appropriate level.
The knowledge of the craft is passed on from one generation to another. The young craftsman is raised and educated in the workshop and is taught by his father or a senior member. No technical education in the world can compete with the hands-on experience that the previous generation provides the next generation. In the workshop, technique is learnt from the beginning, and in relation to real things and real problems, and primarily by personally working on site. The values of the craft are instilled in the craftsmen, making the craft unique and more valuable. Prior to the start of the construction of the vessel, a detailed study of the requirements is undertaken. A blueprint of the actual vessel design is prepared. Based on this, a miniature model is made at the local factory. The design is so well fit in their heads that they do not necessarily require drawings while construction.
Boat building is a very technical and occupational activity for the locals and many of the craftsmen also term it as ‘bada kaam’ (meaning work at a bigger scale then carpentry work). The entire boat is made from wood. The craftsmen start off by laying the keel or the bottommost portion that forms the base of the vessel. A frame is then created using large planks or ‘vakia’ that are gently bent over fire and chiselled into shape and fixed together. All these techniques are indigenous. These wooden pieces are fixed together using nuts and bolts. The boat makers handle wood like clay and mould, bend and twist it as per the design. It is mesmerising to see the craftsmen merrily working with sheer fineness and skill. Horizontal planks are fixed on the frame to create a deck of the boat. As per the demands from the purchasers, cabins are assembled. The ‘patia’ or the third layer and the outer skin of the vessel is then fixed perfectly into the ‘vakia’. The gaps between these wooden planks are then filled with a particular type of sealant made from cotton dipped in palm oil. It is called ‘raal’ or ‘chandrus’ in the local language. The cotton is made in the form of a rope and inserted. The workers at the site mentioned the use of fish oil prior to shifting to palm / vegetable oil. The last layer involves two to three coats of anti-fouling paint to give the external body a magnificent look. The boats built are very steady and can compete with any other boat.
Today, with the rapid evolution in technology and material, the intangible heritage is slowly declining. Globalization poses significant challenges to the survival of traditional forms of ship building practices. While initially around 20 boats used to be built, the number has now reduced to 2-3. The demand is mostly from the Saudi Arabian countries. Rise in water pollution has reduced the life of the vessel that has been a cause of concern for the craftsmen. The wooden nails have been replaced by metal ones that rust easily, increasing the maintenance of the boat. Lack of government initiatives to protect the craft and absence of subsidiaries and schemes for the benefit of the concerned communities involved in the craft is another key concern. The younger generation has moved out, preferring to work in factories or service industries where the work is less demanding and the pay is often higher. Many craft traditions involve ‘trade secrets’ that should not be taught to outsiders but since the next generation or the community members are not interested in learning it, the knowledge is slowly disappearing. The rules and regulations for registration of wooden vessels have changed over the years making it difficult for the purchasers who then opt for alternatives. Many craftsmen have shifted their base from India to Saudi Arabia. Further with the change of demand from wooden boats to boats constructed in steel due to its fast construction and larger capacity, has lessened the demand for these boats.
Ship building heritage is a mix of oral traditions being passed on from generations without documentation and is a part of traditional handicraft. Despite the reasons for concern, the basic materials used in boat construction have not changed and are non-polluting as compared to other industries of comparable size. They are less expensive than their foreign counterparts and give anyone who sees the vessel a royal feel. These ships are massive and the talent of making it by hand is something that needs to be preserved. The craft is well finished and attractive. The tradition has mutually evolved by mutual borrowing of techniques and through self-examination and practice. While it initially began for survival including trade and fishing, the vessels developed to become part of the economic growth and naval warfare and are now considered as a status symbol for many.
Given the high values associated with India’s shipbuilding heritage, it must be preserved in order to be passed on to future generations. A custodial body, responsible for its development will help enhance its present condition. The government can possibly explore options for promoting the industry, thus bringing in more buyers to sustain the industry. These communities have played a crucial role in the upliftment and maintenance of this craft and need to be taken into consideration and consultation towards the enhancement of the heritage. A clear documentation and spread of awareness through workshops, programs, interactive sessions with the craftsmen and setting up of museums can play an important role in preserving the heritage. Various initiatives such as stay facility on the wooden craft, restaurant experience while on board, rented tours in the form of cruises for weddings or events and tours into the craft industry of ship building for tourists will help to sustain the craft financially while giving it visibility on the international front. Tourism provides not just recognition but also opens several job opportunities. Induction of the craft as part of an annual festival will provide livelihood for the community to sustain itself without changing their occupation.
Moreover, India can take initiatives in the field of tourism, culture, and sustainable development among others to her Indian Ocean neighbours and forge collaborations in the multilateral form. Being at the epicentre of the Indian Ocean, India can initiate various projects and fulfil the vision of the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR). Further India is a part of various regional groupings such as Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The country is an observer in the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC). All the three regional multilateral groups cover the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean and have sustainable development, as well as tourism promotion as one of their objectives.
Along with the foreign dimension of shipbuilding, Project Mausam initiated by the Ministry of Culture, India talks about the spread of shared knowledge systems, traditions, technologies and ideas along maritime routes. Furthermore, the Maritime India Vision 2030 has recognised ship building as one of the value additions to the economy, thus, giving it a significant place in the planning and execution. Addition of indigenously made wooden boats will lead to revival of the tradition. In 2015, India launched the ‘Sagarmala’ initiative that aimed at transforming inland waterways through port-led development. The initiative has already created multiple job opportunities, leading to a significant impact on the economy while enabling an intercultural exchange of ideas and skill sets with neighbouring countries. It has also enhanced India’s global stature as a maritime power along with collaborative maritime competence in the region.
Even today, Approximately 95% of India’s merchandise trade passes through seaports. With the ‘Make in India’ and newly introduced ‘Make for the world’ initiative, ship building has tremendous scope. Under the ‘Aatmanirbhar shipping’ initiative the ministry plans to revive ship building yards and the traditional craft. There has been a considerable influence of the neighbouring countries on the trade and ship building heritage of India. Partnering financially as well as intellectually towards reviving ship building hubs across the Indian Ocean region will help create a strong network between these countries. As rightly said, the kings are gone, but it is time for the government and other agencies to come together and join hands to play a crucial role so that such an important part of our culture doesn’t meet an untimely end.
Amruta Talawadekar is a Research Associate at Maritime History Society and part of Team Manthan – A Group of Young maritime scholars