Magazine article Geographical

Pushing the Boats Out: The Boat Builders of Salaya on the Coast of Gujarat, India, Have Been Shifting Cargo around the Arabian Sea for Centuries. and Business Is Booming: These Wooden Vessels Are Being Built Bigger, in Greater Numbers and at Higher Costs Than in Any Time in Living Memory

Magazine article Geographical

Pushing the Boats Out: The Boat Builders of Salaya on the Coast of Gujarat, India, Have Been Shifting Cargo around the Arabian Sea for Centuries. and Business Is Booming: These Wooden Vessels Are Being Built Bigger, in Greater Numbers and at Higher Costs Than in Any Time in Living Memory

Article excerpt

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Just a few hours after leaving the shelter of the Iranian coast, Haroon Sanghar, captain, or tindal, of the Faize Makdumi, gives the order to hoist the sail. 'Fare ha kar,' he yells and squints forward, watching the triangle of white cotton unfurl until he feels some of the strain come off the boat's engine.

After ten gruelling and isolated months shipping livestock on the lawless Somalia coast, Haroon and his 15 crew are now only days from home. A clean-shaven man in his mid-20s, Haroon is the youngest tindal from the Sanghar family--one of the most prominent of the clans who build and operate Gujarat's traditional wooden dhows, known as vahans.

For centuries, these boats have plied the Arabian Sea from the island of Zanzibar to the coasts of Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. 'We think we are the lucky people,' says Haroon's older brother Hussain. 'We go everywhere: we go to Dubai, we go to Iraq. We are free.'

But Faize Makdumi and the Sanghar family's way of life are no relics from the past, soon to be swept away in India's tide of modernisation. In Salaya, the capital of Gujarat's traditional boat-building industry, vahans are currently being built bigger and in greater numbers than at any time in living memory.

BIG BUSINESS

Propped up on his scooter on the muddy shoreline, Haroon is enjoying a well-earned month of shore leave. 'It's great,' he says. 'After a long time, we come back to play with our families, joking with them and sitting with them.'

But behind him rises the hulking wooden hull of the largest boat the village has ever built--a giant vahan capable of carrying more than 1,000 tonnes of cargo, and twice as large as was standard a few years ago. It stands improbably high against the lush coastal wetlands behind, its deck swarming with carpenters, labourers and errand boys making the finishing touches.

This is a cargo vessel on the same scale as the East Indiamen--the ships that the European merchants used to transport cotton, opium and spices from this same coast almost 300 years ago. 'It's like competition,' says Hussain, explaining the growth of vahans. 'When I came into this business, there were only 300- and 500-tonne boats--not more than that. But then in Pakistan, they started making 600 and 700 tonnes. If we didn't start making them, we would have lost business.'

Hussain's friend Adam Bhaiya, who heads the Salaya Sailing Vessel Owners Association, says that today, the village has 25 boats under construction, whereas just a few years ago, there would have been only two or three--and few of them are smaller than 700 tonnes.

The ship's an impressive sight and I'm keen to meet the man behind it--Salemamad, the gaider or ship's architect. 'He is a very busy man.' Hussain says apologetically after we've waited the best part of a day for him to arrive. 'He is the most talented gaider. He has four boats under construction.'

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But just as we are leaving, Hussain pulls his van to an abrupt halt. 'There,' he says, pointing. 'That is Salemamad: It would be difficult to conceive of a less likely naval engineer. Salemamad's mouth bulges with tobacco and betel nut, the red juice from which stains both his teeth and his sun-cracked lips. A dirty tunic covers his swollen gut.

For Salemamad, the launch fulfilled an ambition. 'I was glad to make this launch,' he says. 'I was wishing to make a very big launch for some time, but there was no owner who wanted to go to 1,000 tonnes.' That they did shows tremendous faith. Salemamad had no written plan to show them before he laid down the first plank, and yet the family, distant relatives of Hussain, invested more than 15 million rupees (350,000 [pounds sterling]) in the project--a huge sum for rural India.

When you ask him where the measurements were, Salemamad just smiles and taps his head. 'He is not having any kind of degree or studies,' says Hussain. …

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