I had heard much about Beypore and its Uru making tradition. But I had absolutely no idea about the depth of the complexities surrounding its construction and how much an Uru is appreciated outside India; especially in the Arab world. Last week four of us set out on a mission to tour the actual work site of the present day ‘Uru yard’ at Beypore and collect an in-depth account of the history and the construction aspects of the Uru. We had a knowledgeable friend who accompanied us to the Uru making yard. He was able to manage some quality time with the master carpenter named Satyan Edathodi. The time we spent with him was truly insightful, informative and revealing. The following is based on the information compiled during our visit to Beypore and our conversation with Satyan Edathodi, the master ‘Maistry’.
“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.” -John Keats
The small unassuming town of Beypore located on the Northern coast of Kerala has an unmatched historical magnitude in India. This town has been the manufacturing hub for India’s first ‘export quality finished product’ called the ‘Uru’. These giant wooden ships have regularly been exported to the Middle East for the past 1500 years, earning unanimous customer satisfaction all thorough the span of its production history. Due to this, Beypore the quiet coastal town has become a symbol of premium quality hand crafted ship production. Beypore’s significance goes way back to the very beginning of India’s maritime spice trade activities with the Middle East; especially with the ancient affluent city of Mesopotamia. When Arabs first came to the Northern shores of Kerala for trading, they were pleasantly shocked by the unprecedented skill of the local carpenters in Uru making, as well as by the abundance of the highest quality carpenter-friendly teak wood. The traders were also highly impressed by these sea-worthy ships because they proved to be safe, reliable and obdurate against the rough sea during the frequent journeys back and forth from their homes far away. Eventually Beypore Uru making flourished as a result of the secure market from the traders of the Middle East. Dhows or wooden ships popularly known locally as the Uru were crafted along the banks of the river Chaliyar which provided easy entrance for these ships into the ocean after they were completed. Just one look at this sturdy sea craft will fully convince anyone that these are truly functional works of art with astounding technical perfection and a glorious visual elegance.
Built by the traditional shipbuilders of Beypore called the Khalasis, these completely handcrafted wooden vessels are perhaps the largest handicrafts in the world. The longest Uru made here is 180 meters. In the beginning Urus were built by connecting well chiseled and shaped teak planks manually without using any metal or nails. To add further credence to the Khalasis’s mammoth accomplishments, none of the tools available in modern times were used during those times. During medieval times teak wood from the Nilamboor forest considered as the best quality teak in the world, were used. During the early times, constructing an Uru was a laborious task requiring the meticulous craftsmanship and constant dedication of more than forty Khalisis over a period of at least four years. It is an art and unique knowledge passed down through generations.There are no blueprints, drawings, instructions or a drawn master plan. There is not even a simple scribble or sketch. The entire calculations and plan are limited to the imagination of a master carpenter or Maistry from conception to completion. He assigns work to his support staff on a regular basis in bits and pieces to make sure that the technology in its entirety is not ever revealed. To this day no more than three or four Maistrys know the deeply guarded know-how of crafting an Uru
With such information having been fed to us, we were delighted and honored to get an opportunity to see the modern day Urus being made; accompanied by the Maistry(master carpenter) himself.
According to the Maistry, “If we were to watch the process of making the Uru in times of old, we would have been stunned by the technique of hull construction using just the humble indigenous carpentry tools. Wooden planks bound together meticulously with jute ropes made the keel waterproof. Even today, much has not changed in the tools used; and no compromises are made in areas that could possibly affect the long term durability or safety of the vessel”. The Maistry went on to explain “The wood used is still sawed the traditional way using saws requiring muscle power, patience, accuracy and immense expertise. These saws also require frequent sharpening and strict maintenance”. We were also given to understand by the Maistry at the Beypore Uru building site that Kalasis prefer this old, time consuming method of wood sawing for a crucial technical reason. Power saws can make the work very fast and save lots of time. But that over-heats the wood due to the high RPM at which the power saw operates; making the surface of the wooden planks weaker in comparison. Due to the high price of teak wood in Kerala, timber is now being imported from Malaysia. The hull is mostly done with teak. Jackfruit tree and rose wood are used for the interior finishes. Stainless steel and copper nails are used now. The ‘keel’ of the Uru is made first. The next phase of construction is concentrated on the second layer, built from the bottom called the ‘ganel’. Here the metal nails are used to hold the wood parts together. No electric tools or heavy machinery is ever used. Then the gaps are filled with fine cotton thread, which is really time-consuming and tedious. The next part is making of the ‘Chukkan’. Chukkan begins from the keel and its height is equivalent to the actual height of the Uru. Chukkan facilitates the total control of the vessel. Finishing the deck and ‘aruthi’ are the final stages.
We were told that now-a-days fitting the final engine and the interior customization are done at Dubai. Uru is custom made to fit the requirements of its customers. Urus which navigated the Indian Ocean during ancient times loaded with spice and silk are now crafted on special order of wealthy Arabs from the Middle East. Some of them are used as floating restaurants and the royalty use them as luxury yachts. The Uru that is being made now at this yard has metal work being fabricated on the deck as per instructions from the royal family of Qatar. There are a few basic varieties of Uru to meet different functions. There is the flat bottomed ‘Zambuk’, the royal looking ‘Breek’, the ‘Boom’ which is designed to have huge cargo space and the ‘Bahala’ finished with elaborate carvings and beautiful arches. The Breek comes with both Indian and Arabic designs.
While learning about the wonders of Uru making, the most startling factor is the pre calculated waterline marked around the hull by the Maistry in the final moments of its launch into the water. After the launch, the water level matches the pre-mark with amazing precision.
The Launching of an Uru is a festive ceremony witnessed by a huge crowd. Mopla Khalasis or dockyard workers employ the traditional pulley-wheel mechanism to roll the boat on a bed of logs to float it out into the water. The effort is quite physical, using steel ropes, wooden rollers, rounded logs, wooden pulleys and winches. They also recite some poetic shlokas (Arabic verses) while they perform this important procedure.
The Beypore area is home to the ‘Mappila Khalasis’, renowned for their amazing weight shifting skills. When heavy machines and bulldozers fail, the Khalasi teams are employed. There was an instance in Kerala when they were called upon to successfully lift a large aircraft which skidded off the runway and landed in a ditch. They use simple wooden poles as a winch leveraged by hawsers and pulleys to move unbelievably huge masses with apparent ease. They are even called upon to haul heavy wrecks.
There are only few people involved with the Uru making now, as the number of Urus manufactured are comparatively very less. There were times in the past when more than 500 families were directly dependent on the Uru making business at Beypore.
When we bid farewell to the talented craftsmen at the Uru making site, it was both an awe-inspiring and thrilling experience. We all mutually agreed to one fact. As Keralites we felt proud that our state was the first exporting hub in India of a ship that is of exceptional quality and sheer beauty.
My thoughts went farther. While driving back home, I kept thinking about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s present ‘Make in India Initiatives’. Just think! The Khalasis of the tiny village of Beypore practiced that concept with flying colours over 1500 years back with nothing more than a country saw, chisel, wooden hammer, immense determination and unbelievable talent.
If you ever visit Kerala, please don’t miss visiting this unique Uru making village. You will be glad you did!Blog