This 15 centuries old boat-building tradition of Beypore in Kerala is not a robust one anymore. But hearteningly, it is still thriving under the expertise and watch of a handful of master craftsmen and work orders from businessmen and emirs of the Middle East.
Like any legendary lot, the Khalasis diss and deplore any attempt that plebeianises a hard-earned reputation. Following the Perumom Tragedy of 1988 when modern cranes and other power tools failed, it was they who lifted sunken train compartments from the depths of the Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam with their age-old pulleys, hawsers and rollers.
E K Nayanar, the then chief minister, had requested them to lend a hand.
“The youngster today has no idea what the Khalasi does or how he does it,” said Suleiman Haji as we walked towards the Chaliyar River. I had just emerged from the towering open air outhouse where two ‘urus’ (wooden yachts) were underway. An assistant ‘mistri’ (craftsman) who took me around with a uniformed security guard introduced me to the haji who had stopped by to check on the progress of the uru. A Khalasi himself, Suleiman says that not many know the Khalasis came into the picture only once the construction of the uru was over. Till then, at the helm are the ‘raj mistris’—or master craftsmen—like Sathian, Narayanan Mistri or Andikutty Mistri with around 50 shipwrights under their command.
“When placing an order, a customer usually specifies just the length,” Sathian says. He showed an uru, a scaled-down model, features replicated to the minutest detail. This one, which takes anywhere up to three months to make and costs a few lakh rupees, is what goes to the client for approvals. Suggested changes, usually design-related, are incorporated into the model before actual work begins. Some publications talk about Khalasis building urus with not even a blueprint to refer to, which would be going overboard with faulty information and hyperbole. The Khalasis do not build boats, and those who do, work to perfect miniatures.
“With the kind of monies involved, it would be insane even to think that we’d build in such an offhand manner,” says Sathian.
On the banks of the Chaliyar River in Beypore, two urus were being constructed. While the smaller one was a 250-tonner costing Rs 3 crore, the bigger one was over 300 tonnes and cost Rs 4 crore. The sweet pungency of freshly sawn timber wafted around. Wood in neatly cut slabs was stacked up everywhere. Because of lack of availability or exorbitant prices or both, the wood comes from Malaysia and Burma. The scaffolding, a grid work of iron railings and wooden platforms, had been erected around the hull, which looked like it was holding it together. Only about 10-15 per cent of work reportedly remained.
Not a superyacht with fantastically clean lines and taut, smooth surfaces, these are dhows in spirit and in design. This writer took the steep stairway that went up the starboard to the expansive deck, the designated social hub, the sun deck. The forecastle was skeletal and a beam was still attached to the bow. I traced my path around the deck from the port side, along the gunwale russet with and smelling of varnish. I twitched my nose.
“You don’t like the smell?” The mistri asked.
“Well, it’s not exactly nice.”
“In the olden days when there was no varnish, fish oil was used,” the mistri said. “Especially along the hull.” Now I squirmed; I used to be force-fed cod liver oil as a kid which used to bring up patricidal thoughts in me.
“It smelled nasty. Then the wood lasted for several centuries.” Now I was caught in a serious dilemma: Fish oil or varnish on my yacht?
The master cabin was sizeable with supersize windows allowing a lot of natural light. There was a smaller deck that opened towards the stern. Stairs went down to the lower deck to the engine room. The cavernous hollow resonated with the steely hum of an old fan—engines would be fitted later in Dubai, as would the rest of the interior works. The owner, an emir from Qatar, wanted it in time for the FIFA World Cup 2022. There was plenty of time for yacht designers from Italy or France to weave their magic; the uru would be ready for its first ride in December.
“Till the ride to Dubai we’ll use a temporary outboard engine.”
“Then you will bring it back?”
“No, it’s usually disposed off to some big fishing company there.” So where does the real launch take place? Beypore in December or later in Dubai?
“We will break coconut and launch it here first, and they will probably break champagne over the bow and do another one there.”
Sathian, Narayanan and other mistris will travel in the uru as far as Gujarat, where it will be handed over to licensed seamen who will be delivering it to Dubai.
Suleiman Haji and I walked towards the Chaliyar River. His eyes wandered over the wooden rollers fashioned out of tree trunks which extended from the yard till the water. “We slide the boats over these. It’s a sight to watch. It’s not all about physical strength, you know,” he said pointing at them.
“Then you can’t really blame the boys also, you see,” he said. I was lost for a moment and looked at him questioningly. “They cannot be just sitting around waiting for urus to be launched, right?”