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At first glance, Beypore, a small township 14 kilometres south of Calicut, is rather an unpretentious sort of a place — just one of the many fishing harbours of Kerala; however, an explorer will soon discover that rural Beypore has perhaps been denied its due share of celebrity status. Calicut, is the famed south Arabian seaport since ancient days that gave ‘calico’ to the world. What makes then this estuarine harbour of Beypore so special and interesting is that most of the old world’s requirements of spices and calico used to be shipped by seafaring Arab tradesmen in dhows — the wooden sailing vessels which are, till today, being designed and crafted in the shipyards of Beypore using ancient techniques. Years ago, while returning from an excursion to the Elephants Caves, I had seen from the motorboat a couple of these graceful country crafts gliding across the tranquil Arabian Sea off the coast of Bombay. Silhouetted against the setting sun with billowing sails they looked fantastic, as if emerging from the fairy-tales. Some one told me that these charming vessels bound for the Gulf countries are actually built at the shipyards near Calicut, in fact, it was then for the first time that I heard the name of Beypore.

On my next visit to Calicut, I made a trip to Beypore. Arriving at the fishing harbour of Beypore, I saw down on the dusty earth nearby were seated two sinewy young men busy at mending a blue nylon fishing net; under a coconut grove a group of people were engrossed at playing cards unperturbed by my appearance. I proceeded along a sandy path fringing the shore, leaving behind the fishing harbour and several beached boats, drying nets and a few seagulls pecking on food in the ever changing tide-line. Finally, I came to a green belt area with large trees, and gardens and some bungalows in the cool shade of coconut palm groves. At a crossroad, where a large number of massive logs of wood had been kept in a pile, I halted; I did not find what I was looking for – the familiar sight of a shipyard with towering giant cranes, gigantic hulls of the shaping up vessels, luminous welding arcs, humming lathes and busy workers scurrying here and there. Instead, what I saw were several long thatched sheds erected on the open ground where a number of people had been working in an orderly manner without creating much of a din. This was the shipyard of the renowned firm of Messrs Haji P.I. Ahmed Koya — leading builders and exporters of dhows — the wooden country crafts, for which Beypore is famous. Within the thatched sheds stood the wooden bodies of growing vessels supported by bamboo scaffoldings, at different stages of construction. In front was the superstructure of a 48 feet long ship that already had risen to 22 feet in height, being built for one rich merchant of Oman. Some men were busy at caulking the seams with oakum, soaked in palm-seed oil and reinforcing the joints by driving specially forged copper nails resistant to corrosion and rusting. A senior partner of the firm, Mohammed Ibrahim, commented that Oman, incidentally happened to be the home port of the legendary sailor and daring adventurer Sindbad of ‘Arabian Nights’ fame. In fact the Sultanate had once financed an expedition — a sea voyage from Oman to the Indian port of Calicut to assess the credibility of Sindbad’s story vis-a-vis the sea-worthiness of a wooden sailing vessel built in his time using the ancient techniques. A dhow constructed in the shipyard of Beypore had successfully passed the test proving that the country craft so built could really withstand the battering of the rough waves in the high seas during this hazardous adventure which even today would take about 45 long days of sailing. However, in actual practice nowadays, seldom a dhow would set its sails to reach faraway destinations; their masters would install high powered diesel engines in the vessels reducing the journey time substantially. According to the dead weight of the dhow, first its size is determined, the keel is then laid to which the central, the first and the last ribs will be fitted next in order; the other ribs are then placed in position, and around all these the body takes its final shape. A group of eight men carrying a heavy elbow-shaped log on shoulder-hung cradles went by huffing and puffing all the way to the carpentry shop. The wood; coming from the hinterland area is mostly teak and sometimes of jackfruit; 1hey are termite proof, weather-resistant and very tough. Sawing is done manually by skilled carpenters under the supervision of the master shipwright. The elbow-shaped logs are specially suitable for carving out the rudder that can survive prolonged onslaught of the monsoon waves.

The office room in a bungalow nearby, was decorated with photographs and sketches of a variety of sailing vessels; they were the replicas of the prestigious ships the firm had built and sold to important customers, like the cargo vessel of an Arab Sheikh of Muscat, the luxury yacht of an Italian business magnate, and a floating restaurant for the Lakshadweep Tourism Department. In the anteroom was a display of several prototypes — miniatrue wooden dhows of different shape and size crafted by the famous model maker Amer Koya of North Beypore. Prospective buyers of dhows like to see these first before making a final selection and placingfirm orders.

The waterfront of the estuary was close by; I could hear the soft lapping sound of the small waves washing the shore. A crowd had gathered there as some vigorous activity was going on, the occasion being the maiden launching of a 200 ton dhow yet unpainted and without the sails. It was to be floated on water for the first time for a trial of its sea-worthiness, in the presence of its buyer Sheikh Daoud Sulaiman, a rich merchant from Kuwait.

A final check was done for fine holes and crevices at the seams and joints which were being sealed meticulously with a filler made of rope fibre and palm-seed oil to make the boat completely watertight. Finally the boat was ready; the men at the heavy wooden winch pulling up all their strength in the shoulder set about turning it with a groaning noise; slowly the boat was hauled down a natural slipway onto the water. It drifted for about 200 yards off the shore, demonstrated steering capability and kept afloat for an hour, when the Arab, nodded approvingly.

The dhow was hauled back to shore and with his grey beard flying in the breeze he boarded for a final inspection of the interior. He is one of those diligent Arabs who still take passage to Beypore in search of a sturdy dhow; soon he will be sailing in his new vessel loaded with coir and spices to his home port, and will be coming back again after replacing the sails with a German diesel engine; he will bring to India a shipload of honey-gold dates from the oasis of the Gulf. Dhow fleets raising lateen sails as in ancient times are no longer seen, but some of them still do ply along the trade route to India sailing with the northeast monson and returning hot months later with the onset of the south-west monsoon.

For thousands of years these daring mariners and tradesmen have been continuing their to and fro voyage across the turbuent sea in the tough country crafts made at the shipyards of Beypore.

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