Dhow men ( Manchukkars) of Malabar,'' Kerala and native ships Urus - 32 engrossing facts

Coastal Kerala state of India.medium.com

Beypore, Kerala traditional handcrafted boat. .gulftoday.ae

Above image: Centuries old Beypore Uru ((Malayalam) or Dhow wooden boat fully handcrafted - is a symbol of Arab-kerala maritime ties...................................

In the dusty yellowish pages of Maritime history of India with special reference to theMalabar coastal area, many fascinating facts, stories  and lives of certain seafarers either lie  hidden to be fully explored or unheard of  for reasons of their poor impact on the modern world.   Any piece of history is to be studied  as best as can be so that one can connect the dots and highlight the ethos and culture of that place . In the state of Kerala, only recently cultural awareness is gaining currency about the Dhow people or seafarers. Often called ''Manchukkars,''  They played no less role than the sea-explorers in the area of bygone sea transportation . Necessity made them become experts in many aspects of seafaring and their duties are not confined to off and on loading of cargos at various ports.

 Forgotten deckhands of Malabar., Kerala. mpositive.in/

Traditional wooden boat called Dhow or Uru  (in Malayalam) is carefully  handcrafted in Beypore town near Kozhikode, Kerala  and the ship building industries have  been around  here for centuries  Made in different designs  in quality teak wood,  the industries attracted   craftsmen from Yemen’s Hadrami tribe and the Omanis from the 15th century. Mastering the intricacies of boat making  requires keen observation, dexterity of hands and determination; the  techniques are handed down to the younger generation from their elders.

Coastal Kerala with groves, etc pload.wikimedia.org

Silk road and spice trade, ancient world. pload.wikimedia.org

The Beypore Dhows, the main form of  sea transport along the spice routes of Malabar and Arabia for centuries  were run by  experienced sailors. This post is about the Dhow men - the accompanying deck hands and cooks who also had to load and offload  cargo in different destinations crisscrossing the Arabian sea or along the destinations on the North west coast of India.


The following are the captivating  facts about the Dhow men of the Malabar region, Kerala: 

01. The maritime history of the Malabar covers many pieces of informations on the olden ship movements, celebrated sailors,  seafarers, etc. Centuries of seafaring trades and  talented carpenters involved in ship building have imparted a unique and distinct culture to this region.

02. The maritime history of this region is incomplete without the  association of deck hands and cooks. But their history and tumultuous lives through centuries remain either unheard of or retold then and there for unknown reasons.

03. This big  vacucam  in their vital role in the Malabar maritime history is primarily unfortunate and is due to lack of documented information on the Manchukkars.  The deckhands and cooks (pandari) never recorded their daily activities on the ship, their long voyages,  down to earth experiences on the high seas, etc. Their risky tempestuous career ended  several decades ago with the advent of modern sea transportation. 

04. Their agonizing and painful sea journeys on the Urus were brought to light by one S.P. Sunil. a photographer and a history buff   who personally and painstakingly  met with elderly, retired deck hands and heard their encyclopedic seafaring adventure.  He captured the faces of 34 deckhands - supposedly unsung heros and in April 2019  he  displayed the rare photos at URU Art Harbour in Kochi. His intention was to create an awareness about the Manchukkar and their hidden poignant life stories.  Their rugged, sun-tanned  skin and myriads of wrinkles on the skin may be due to aging, but they are accentuated by their long  tense journeys through the unpredictable sea and exposure to  scorching Sun. 

05. Financially down and living in abject poverty, the Dhow men of Malabar  have never lost their pride in their chosen profession and  sense of nostalgia  despite their age above 60.  Primarily confined to  coastal places from Ponnani to Kasaragod. some of them vividly recollect their past adventures at high seas as if they had happened recently. Their notable trait is their self-contentment which is quite amazing and has spiritual and philosophical overstones.

06. Taking rest or nap was a tough one while sailing and right from the dawn to dusk,  they were at work with minimum ration of food and potable water.

07. Their preoccupation with possible  nature's fury was just overwhelming. Being  experienced through years of sea travel,  predicting looming harsh weather conditions on high seas was not new to them and  the sailors were dependent on them to prepare the ship to face the cyclone, etc. 

08. The deck hands were good at changing  the masts, etc to stabilize the swaying ship when facing heavy gales,  clearing  sea water accumulated on the deck from the pounding  high  waves and  checking the condition of the hull during this testing time.     

09. Facing risk while  the ship was inching toward the destination at night without modern technology, they relied on the stars, frothing sea and changing wave patterns, color of the sky, etc  to predict the approaching  danger. 

10. Their other assigned task on the ship  was to unload the cargo on the shores of the Middle Eastern countries and prepare the ship for the return journey.  

11. The cargo to be unloaded  aboard included  - teak wood, bamboo, textiles, spices, tapioca, salt, fertilizers, terracotta tiles, etc. Some times, they had to safely smuggle humans who wanted to work in the gulf countries. 

12.  Equally challenging and nerve-wrecking is their return journey home - again  they would face the same unpredictable gale and high waves. The most dreaded time is the SW Monsoon period beginning in June. As much as they could,  they would avoid sailing during the monsoon period. 

13. With no modern gadgets  to predict  thunderstorms or cyclones,  for their  treacherous journey on the wooden boat - Urus, they had to depend on the edit of god for safety. 

14. Upon returning  home they would rather relax with their kids and family members  rather than jotting down their unsafe and precarious  sea journey during their heart-throbbing tempestuous period.  After  a few days'  time they would get ready for another life-threatening  odyssey, relying on the constellations to fix  localities and marking the time of night

15. In the absence of the minutes of their  seafaring journey, no details are available on the professional history of Dhow men whose contribution should have been well written or documented in the pages of maritime growth and history of the Coastal Malabar.  

 16. Their  tales of adventure and struggle  when facing Shipwrecks, pirate attacks, sudden high tidal waves or storms are quite heart-rending and they would tell you  how courageously they had played hide and seek with death in the midst of saving the cargo from damages. 

17. Once out into the ocean, their  safety being at stake, their families take refuge in the mercy of god and intense prayers for their safe return.

18. These people had to divide their  professional life  between total exploitation and insinuation on one side   and  survival in facing nature's fury on the other. 

19. Beginning their life journey on Urus with uncertainty and unpredictable  bleak future, being teen agers, they had faced  disgusting sexual exploitation in their early period. 

20. Once grown up,  they would continue their profession until they reached middle age. At that stage, the money-minded employers, being inhuman and unscrupulous, considered them misfit to continue their profession.   Reason: failing health and age wilted by the heat and long exposure to the merciless sun.  

21. Hence, their retirement after long dedicated services had  resulted in zilch. With no financial gain,  their retired life was writ with disappointment, pangs of pain  and cheating.

22. These deck hands with well-built body and stamina never got into this risky lonely profession out of inspiration or long cherished passion for adventure. If you take many of the surviving families, the elders would say that  it was their childhood poverty, pain and hunger with sunken stomach  made the men -  Manchukkoran join the  crewmen on the boat.

23. On the sides, they, over a period of time, learned the art of climbing the tallest masts and perching atop  would change sails in accordance with wind direction. A wrong move or slip on the poles means  nasty accidents or even death - all in the midst of  heavy gales.

24. Many of the deckhands and cooks were illiterate and had to depend on somebody to read the letters they received from their families.  .

25. Along the Northern part of the west coast of India most of the destinations lie  between Mangalore to Bombay.  Believe it or not, weather playing truant, sometimes making a trip  on a dhow  from Beypore to Bombay along the west coast might take weeks (due to bad weather) instead of four days under normal weather. 

26. At some localities like Mumbai. for unloading they had to wait more than a week for their turn  and it was mainly due to high and low tide situation; key factor is the level of the tidal water. 

27. The deckhands faced all kinds of ordeals one can ever think of.  The most strenuous one was frequent tempests, quick changing of sails on high masts  above - 50 ft in midnight in the midst of violently rolling ship. Apart, they had to brook bouts of starvation.   

28. According to Sunil, an inquisitive person, much of the tales of these Dhow men surfaced through the old men's strange songs, recalling their rough ordeals of the past. Steeped in pathos the unique songs shirred the poignant memories of their line of work and covered the gist of everything associated with mental anguish of fear and expectation of ghastly pain. 

29. The change of seasons also affected the sailors and the hhow men while sailing across the sea. For example when the winter season sets in, they will get mouth ulcer due to cold wind. 

30. Yet another problem being faced by the sail boats was the growth of patches of  barnacles.  The deck hands after  unloading the goods, would appy a mixture of oil, lime and ghee to the boat’s keel to prevent barnacles. The crux of the matter is with no options open, this work had to be done standing in a slush of mud and human excrement  giving out  nasty smell and reek of urine. 

31. To the hard working cooks and deckhands, seeing people die was part of their lives. whether from fatal fall  from the high mast or from disease. To many sending them to the watery grave was the only option. Unmoved, but sympathetic the Dhow men would offer prayer and with heavy heart   bury them at sea ''with a rock tied to his body”

32. To many of the hands,  falling asleep at night was a sort of taboo. The  forehead of the violators would carry white lime paste.