The ''Dhow men of Malabar'', Kerala - deck hands and cooks on the wooden boat ''Uru' '- a brief note


Model of Kerala's traditional handcrafted sailing boat Uru,

Manchukkar – The Seafarers of Malabar, Kerala.

The maritime history of Malabar has been known for centuries and has had close links with silk and spice trades with the Europe and the Middle Eastern countries. The maritime activities off the Malabar coast was on the increase with the arrival of Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese led by Vasco De Gama in 1498-99. The European traders made a bundle out of  export of spices, silk, etc from this region  and there was a spate  of skirmishes and battles  among the Portuguese, Dutch and the English in this region to establish their hegemony.  

The  serene Beypore town at the mouth of the river close to the shore  about 10 km from  Kozhikode city, North Kerala  became the hub of ocean going wooden ship building industries. Fully handcrafted,  using traditional native methods and ordinary carpentry tools, they made strong quality and durable wooden ships.  Consequently, the quality of finishing, long sea life and workmanship gave the ships - Urus  an edge over others and there was a great demand for them,  particularly from the  rich  Arabs in the middle east.  The sturdy wind-dependant Urus or Dhows made in Beypore have given the region a  good reputation and a distinct culture related to seafaring. Presently  efforts are underway to bestow GI tag for the Beypore Urus which are made by artisans  with practical knowledge  handed down by their forefathers for centuries. Presently, about 500 families are dependent on the traditional ship building business in the Beypore area.. 

Are you aware of the the unspoken or implied role being played by the other group of seafarers of Kerala decades ago?   Unfortunately much has not been either written or known about them  whose maritime services were quite indispensable in transporting cargo from the Malabar coast to the destinations in the middle eastern shores across the unpredictable sea or  the north western ports like goa or Mumbai.  The Dhow men of Malabar   were also an integral part of the maritime history of this region and their silent contribution is not yet fully highlighted. 

These intrepid men - deckhands and cooks who, despite various odds,  valiantly sailed off the Malabar coast  across the Arabian sea on the  wooden Urus and on completion of their work assignment abroad, would get back home are mostly settled down in the coast from Ponnani to Kasaragod; but most of them lived in Ponnani itself, in a nearby place called Azheekal.  These multi-lingual seafarers - mostly Muslims living in the predominantly  Hindu community played no less role than the ship operators and the loading and unloading operations on the ship would come to a  halt  without their expertise and toil. 

Unfortunately, in the annals of the maritime history of Malabar region, the memories of these Dhow men  lie either hidden or are relegated to the back stage. Their risk-prone  lives, valuable contributions and innumerable sacrifices,  besides pangs of loneliness away from their loved ones remain not highlighted. Part of the reason is none of their activities have recorded history; no proper documentation is available  with the exception of some photos and interviews given by retired  elderly Dhow men who were active decades ago. Their activities were connected to the old towns and villages of  Kerala  that often were melting parts of different cultures.  

Why are these deck hands or cooks  often referred to as Dhow men. Reason: Dhow is a skillfully made wooden boat  in the shipyards of Beypore. Also called pathemari, vanchi or manchu, until 1980s for a pretty long time these boats were mostly used to transport cargo like timber, bamboo, spices, textiles, etc  to various places in the Arabian sea. 

Only in the recent past their poignant and pathetic history saw the light; Thanks to committed men like K.R. Sunil who recorded their daring risky  adventure on the perilous sea and their hidden pathos.  He came up with a book of photos of old retired deckhands who shared their experience with him.  Till such a time their disquieting and heart-rending adventures on the high seas were either unheard of or  researched. Once out on a long sailing trip,  they were at the mercy of god and vagaries of weather - in particular prevailing  wind with no assurance that they would get back to their home safely. Over a period of time, having gone through bumpy periods and unexpected mishaps, shipwrecks, gales and accidents they had trained their mind to face any eventuality that might endanger their lives. on the high seas. In this respect the became more resolute than ewer before.