Credit to Noora Jabir

Building Boats and Heritage: Reflections on Wooden Shipbuilding in Kerala

I had painted a glossy image in my mind of what Keralite shipbuilding looks like — but what I found was an industry struggling to maintain this image in the minds of people like myself, while having to come to terms with changing industry practices.

Dec 12, 2022

When I first entered the Ancient Boat Lab at NYU Abu Dhabi, I did not know what to make of it. It felt like a juxtaposition of multiple worlds — I was simultaneously in Kerala and Abu Dhabi, in a boat yard and a laboratory. I did not think I would ever feel like I was in Kerala on campus, and yet, a few meters away from D2, I was transported to my hometown. Watching the boatbuilders work with their traditional tools, sitting on the floor, weaving rope and speaking Malayalam with a distinct northern accent, it was hard to believe that I was in a university laboratory. Yet, there were glaring reminders of it everywhere — from the test models and bitumen sample swatches to the elaborate documentation process that involved hundreds of daily photographs, photogrammetric models and reports of what was happening at the site.
Over the next few months, I spent a lot of time at the lab and often spoke to the boatbuilders while I was there. I learnt that the boatbuilders at the site are some of the last people in Kerala who know how to build traditional sewn boats — the knowledge of boatbuilding that had been passed down in their families for generations was being replaced with machine based production systems and cheaper materials, such as fiberglass boats.
Credit to Noora Jabir
Boats in the Indian Ocean world have mediated interactions between humans and the sea for millenia, especially when you consider Kerala’s history of Indian Ocean trade and mass migration during the Gulf Boom. Newly equipped with my knowledge of Indian Ocean trading history and Keralite boatbuilding ‘heritage’, I made my way to Kerala for a month last summer. I found a few boat yards close to where I live and decided to go there in hopes of meeting boatbuilders and learning about their work and traditions. I expected my experience to be relatively easy since I had learnt a lot about shipbuilding both at the lab and through the course I took on Indian Ocean shipbuilding last spring.
But it was a messier process than I had imagined it would be. Through boatbuilding, I entered a world of entangled issues of heritage, migration and caste, and I was not equipped to deal with its complexity. Much of this realization occurred even before I got to Kerala — one of the boatbuilders in the Lab, Abdul Salam, told me that the boatbuilding industry in his hometown had completely disappeared. “Most boat workshops have closed… there basically isn’t any work left. In some places, like Beypore in Kozhikode, there is a little bit of work still going on. But even that is for Gulf countries, who keep [them] in museums and use [them] for the tourism industry,” he said.
Credit to Noora Jabir
Abdul Salam was right — finding functioning wooden boat yards was nearly impossible. The first one I went to had the most magnificent wooden shows, but was completely abandoned. I visited a second boatyard that claimed to have wooden urus — except this one built metal boats and covered them with wooden planks in order to create the illusion of heritage. “Metal is much more durable and cheaper in the long run,” the manager of the yard said. This significance of the ‘appearance of heritage’ was intriguing — wood was essential for the boat to ‘look’ traditional, even if it meant disguising a metal boat with it. But it was only when I visited the Ahmed Koya shipyard in Beypore a few weeks later that I saw how much the dominance of heritage narratives had changed boat production.
Credit to Noora Jabir
At the beginning of August, I got the green light to visit Beypore, which had been closed due to monsoons until then. I visited the Ahmed Koya shipyard, known for its massive projects such as the Hashemi II, the largest wooden dhow ever built. Boatyards such as this one survived exclusively on clients from the Gulf.
One of the boats at the yard caught my eye — it was a beautiful sewn boat, with stitches on the inside and grooves on the outside.
“Who is this boat for?” I asked the manager.
“It’s headed to a museum in Qatar for the FIFA tournament,” he said.
The answer did not surprise me, it definitely looked like it was built for display. What did surprise me though was a framed newspaper I saw in the office later that read “Kerala Dhow to Showcase Arab Pride in Qatar ''. What made the dhow Keralite? And how does it showcase someone else’s pride?
I spoke to one of the foremen at the yard, a man by the name of Surendran. “My father was a boat builder, and my father’s father also built urus,” he told me. “Actually, we’re all from Ponnani, and we moved here. My father’s father was from a people that built their own urus.”
Surendran did not stay for long in Beypore — he moved to Dubai, where he worked as a foreman in a boatyard for twenty three years. But difficulties in working abroad brought him back to Beypore. “Work and other things are flowing pretty smoothly here,” he said. “And because they have a good relationship with Qataris, only this company has a good amount of work still happening in this region.”
Credit to Noora Jabir
One newspaper called Beypore “Kerala’s own Gulf.” When I went to the museum accompanying the Ahmad Koya shipyard, this made much more sense. Having built dhows since 1888 for clients across the Indian Ocean littoral, this family business has seen years of transoceanic flows and had the memorabilia to show it. The museum had lots of photographs, letters and keepsakes tracing their history of their trade and connections. But the existence of the museum itself and the display of these collections proved to me just how much the wooden boatbuilding industry has taken on value as a site of heritage — the boats were not as functional as they were aesthetic, even though they were built to be used at sea.
The whole journey, and talking to the variety of boatbuilders I met, had me questioning my frameworks of understanding heritage. When I wrote my funding application for summer research, I asked my question as: ‘How has the intergenerational transmission of Indian Ocean boat-building knowledge changed across the years? And how does this shape our understanding of intangible heritage practices in Kerala and the Western Indian Ocean?’ None of the boatbuilders I spoke to in Kerala saw their tradition as being a ‘heritage practice’ — rather, it was a skill, a body of knowledge, a methodology, that happened to be used to produce an object of immense heritage value.
From my knowledge of Indian Ocean history and shipbuilding, I had painted a glossy image in my mind of what Keralite shipbuilding looks like — but what I found was an industry struggling to maintain this image in the minds of people like myself while having to come to terms with changing industry practices, such as the use of metal and fiberglass for boatbuilding. It comes with the dissonance of using ‘Keralite’ techniques for ‘Arab’ dhows, when there isn’t really a fixed line between the two, and it is further complicated by the existing migrant politics of these places.
Credit to Noora Jabir
But of course, I am not removed from these stories and people — my experience as a ‘Gulf Malayali’ trying to make sense of my own heritage has had me struggling to understand the complex web of people, places, things and meanings that make up boat building in this region. Perhaps, like the elaborate knots and crisscross mats that make up these boats, I will leave the complexities as they are instead of trying to pick each aspect of it apart.
Noora Jabir is a contributing writer. Email her at
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