In the popular Malayalam movie Nadodikattu, Mamukkoya deceives Sreenivasan and Mohanlal by offering them a lift in a ‘uru’ from Kerala to Dubai, but drops them on the Chennai shore. But now if somebody needs a ride from Kerala to Qatar in a uru, they can approach the craftsmen of Beypore in Kozhikode. An uru is a wooden dhow, mainly made of Malabar teak, probably the biggest handicraft in the world.
The Beypore craftsmen send at least one fully handcrafted luxury uru a year to Qatar. Located in the outskirts of Kozhikode, Beypore is a sleepy town until one reaches the banks of the Chaliyar river. Here one can spot partially built structures of these small ships and a number of carpenters busy working on wooden logs.
A little ahead, in Karuvanthuruthy, another uru, Al Rahi, is almost ready to leave for Qatar by the end of April. The luxury passenger dhow was shifted to the water a few weeks ago, with some of the polishing work still to be completed.
Al Rahi was ordered by an industrialist from Qatar for Rs 10 crore. The order was placed in 2015 and 40 craftsmen worked for more than 2 years to build it. The multi-level luxury dhow weighs 275 tonnes, can carry 40 persons, and is 140 ft long and 30 ft wide. It has 20 sleeping berths, a big kitchen, several bathrooms, store rooms and leisure areas with fully furnished interiors. Around Rs 25 lakh will be spent on taking the uru from Kozhikode to Qatar.
“Some polishing works are in progress and it will leave for Qatar within a few days. These dhows are used by the members of the Qatari royal family or by businessmen for their leisure and other private trips. We send at least one uru a year to Qatar,” says Abdul Gafoor, managing director of Binafa Enterprises, one of the two uru manufacturers in Beypore.
Uru making in Beypore is a centuries old tradition that was established since India began its maritime trade with Mesopotamia. There are stories that some traders from Yemen, who had settled in Kerala centuries ago, had practised uru making and passed on the craft to the local carpenters.
“All the earlier generations in my family did the same job. The uru we made before were not so luxurious, now they are very different. Earlier we made cargo dhows also, but these days almost all orders are for passenger ships,” says Puzhakkara Sreedharan, one of the two main maistrys (chief carpenters) in the area.
“The industry flourished from the 12th century. Zamorins, the kings that ruled north Kerala, encouraged this craft a lot and used these dhows to strengthen their navy,” he adds.
Later, during the 1970s, business went down and boatbuilding on the shores of Beypore stopped.
“It was shifted to Mangaluru and Kannur, but was not able to survive,” Sreedharan recalls.
It was in 2011 when the Qatari royal family started commissioning boats that the business picked up once again in this village. Apart from that, the state government sponsored Rs 50 lakh in 2010 to make an uru in Beypore for study purposes.
Since the first order from Qatar, every year at least one uru leaves Beypore port for Qatar.
“In the beginning of 2011, a person named Sathyan Edathodi and even Binafa Enterprises got orders from the Qatari royal family. Sathyan was a craftsman who had been working in the Gulf for years,” says Sreedharan.
These ships are made without any work plan, blueprints or prior sketches. The maistry gives instructions to his workers on a daily basis on how to go about the construction.
Puzhakkara Rameshan, the chief carpenter of Al Rahi says, “The master plan of the ship will be in the mind of the maistry. We use indigenous carpentry tools for this craft, we don’t use heavy tools or machines.”
Observing that Beypore has now returned to its earlier era of prosperity, Gafoor says, “Now many of the craftsmen are back to building uru. Since 2011 our company has worked on 2 or 3 urus simultaneously. In connection with the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar, we have already received a few orders from the country.”
Speciality of Beypore urus
Beypore urus are purely made of wood, without using any modern techniques, and traditional methods are used to launch this ship into the water. The carpenters manually join each piece of wood to build the large boat.
“Even in Mangaluru they make dhows, but they use metal sheets. Those yachts will last only for 25 years and the cost of making them is also less. But the urus we make here will last for three or four generations, so the cost is high as well,” Gafoor explains.
“We use only the best teak wood. Jackfruit tree and rosewood are used in designing the interiors. For Al Rahi we have used more than 15,000 cubic feet of wood,” he added.
Mopla Khalasis are an inevitable part of uru making in Beypore. They are a set of traditional dockyard workers who can even ‘lift mountains’ using their traditional pulley-iron rope.
“Yes, that is what people say about them – that they can lift mountains. They use some materials called thovar (a winch that is operated manually), uruls (round wooden logs), hard wooden logs, pulley and iron rope. They cannot be beaten by any modern machines. They easily lift anything from anywhere using these materials,” says Sreedharan.
“They are the ones who launch these urus into the water, setting them ready for travel. They also help in lifting heavy wooden logs for building the dhows. All the Khalasis here are aged above 60. They are traditional workers,” he adds.
The younger generations of Khalasis are hesitant to take up their traditional occupation, which is a concern for the whole business.
“Without them the industry will be in big trouble,” Gafoor says.
Hundreds of people would assemble on the shores of the Chaliyar at the time of a uru launch, just to witness how easily the Khalasis launch the dhow.