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99 Yatra
The last boat
25 April 2017

Mandvi's 400-year-old dhow-making tradition is just no match for the modern, giant ships of steel

In medieval times, Mandvi in Gujarat's Kutch district was a thriving port. Founded by Maharao Khengarji I in 1580, it was a gateway to West Asia and Africa, buzzing with trade, located as it was at the intersection of the spice route and the camel caravan route.

As maritime trade grew, traders belonging to the seafaring Kharva community of both Hindus and Muslims developed a new expertise: boat-making and repairing to add to their traditional navigational skills. They became adept at building their own ships, known as dhows, for use in their thriving cargo trade. Today, this almost 400-year-old tradition and craft still endures, but is clearly slowly on its way out.

The dhows are entirely wooden built of sal wood imported from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Burma, or procured locally from Gujarat's babool trees. Built by hand by craftsmen who are barely literate and have no training in engineering, the ships come up expertly without so much as a sketch being referred to.

The shipbuilders are mostly from the carpenter community an art requiring hard work,says Ahmed Juneja, a businessman from Mandvi who owns a shipbuilding enterprise.The traditional skills have been modified over many generations. During my grandfather's time,we used to make small vessels of 40 tonne capacity. Now, we make vessels with capacity up to 2,000 tonnes, but the process used is more or less the same.

Large planks and long curves

The long and elaborate process of building a dhow starts with a pathan, a single beam that will form the base of the ship's hull. This is followed by the making of a frame to support the boats shape. Large planks of woods or vakias are chiselled into shape and mounted on the base.

As the long curves of the body emerges, the last layer of which make the outer skin of the boat, are fitted on. The planks of wood are gently bent over fire and fitted together tight and smooth.

The boat-makers handle the wood as if it were clay, bending, curving and twisting the planks into the desired shapes. A layer of mud is first applied on the planks and then they are slowly heated on a fire before being curved gently.

Once the planks are fitted together with hundreds of nuts and bolts, the gaps in between are filled with sealant made of cotton dipped in fish oil to make the vessel watertight. The structure is glued together and sealed again and again before finally being treated to several coats of paint to create a robust vessel that's safe to sail through the roughest seas and storms.

The process is almost entirely handmade, with hardly any machinery used except for the odd adzes and hand-held drills that have come into vogue in recent years. Hammers, screws, nuts and bolts, and a lot of skill, and at the end of it, you have a 50-metre long, three-storey-high sailing boat. kutchhis globally , from Mumbai

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