In last couple of years, each time I visited Mandvi, the Kutchi port town; I always felt curiosity towards the town’s history. India had a long maritime tradition with several ports flourished on its long coastline at different periods of time. Yet most of them have become desolate, mostly during the colonial rule. The factors attributed are both the technological changes in maritime craft and navigation, and natural siltation in the harbours. In many places, the age-old boat making tradition had been lost to the most advanced European shipping. Yet Mandvi seemed to be an exception, where the age-old maritime craft has not only survived, but also playing a vital role in the growth of region’s economy.
Any time of the year, from dawn to dusk, when we walk leisurely on the banks of river Rukmavati we are simply dragged into the curious parlour of large shipyards with hundreds of ship builders engaged in ship building…there are captains here and there having myriad interesting stories to share with.
Kutch has a long seafaring tradition. Kutchi merchants and traders, both Hindus and Muslims, are traditionally skilful and daring in long sea voyages. From ancient times, they have fared forth, as they do today, to East Africa, Arabia and the Persian Gulf. The craftsmanship of Kutchi pilots had impressed greatly even to the nautical minded British during the colonial rule. According to the writings of Mrs Postans, the Kutchi pilots had expertise in determining latitude and longitude by dead reckoning. They were also very familiar with nautical tables.
From very ancient times right up to the beginning of the 20th century, the five main ports of Kutch (Mandvi, Mundra, Jakhau, Koteshwar and Lakpath) have had a prosperous history, which is enshrined in their fortified walls and long jetties in hewn stone; in the palace like houses of their merchants; in their numerous votive temples and in shrines commemorating the past prosperity of the pious.
Rao Khengarji I in 1574 had founded Mandvi, the chief among all ports of the historic Kutch. However, the history of Mandvi goes back much earlier time, during the time of Indo-Roman trade, in the early centuries of the Christian era. Nani Rayan, a small hamlet located 3 km upstream of river Rukmavati was a flourishing river port in the early Christian era. Archaeological discoveries from this river port include pieces of Roman amphorae, an iron smelting foundry, walls of houses, brick kilns, pottery with animal figures, and plenty of copper and silver coins.
A popular story in Mandvi explains how and when Nani Rayan became desolate and Mandvi emerged.
Dharamnath was a miracle-working saint, who had come to Kutch in search of a secluded place where he could practice his austerities. He decided to practice penance under a tree at Nani Rayan. At that time Nani Rayan was still a flourishing city. Dharamnath began the 12-year penance that he had set himself. It was Gharibnath, Dharamnath’s disciple, who had to see his wants. But the people of the city had no respect for the saints. Gharibnath could not arrange the daily alms and thereafter to supply his master he was obliged to cut and sell firewood. This fetched him little money to purchase grains needed to keep the saints alive. One poor woman of the city took pity on them; and without payment baked the grain into bread, adding chappaties from her own stove when the firewood money ran short. When Dharamnath finished his penance, he came to know what had happened. He cursed: ‘pattan sub dattan – may all the wealthy be overthrown’. Then after, Nani Rayan became desolate; its buildings fell, and its inhabitants moved to present day Mandvi.
In the early medieval time, Gujarat including Kutch had strongly established maritime trade with East Africa and Arabia. The export from the coast of Gujarat was fine cotton cloths and grains. In 15th century, Gujarat was under the rule of the Muslim Sultanate with Cambay (near modern Ahmedabad) being the commercial heartland. Cambay was divided into ten territorial administrative units called Sarkars; six other Sarkars lay outside of Cambay, one being at Kutch. In about 1500 AD, Cambay was the most important international trading port of Gujarat, but as the result of progressing silting up the bay on which it is located and the dangerous tides there it started declining. The decline of the Sultanate rule in Gujarat to the Mughals and the increasing presence of Portuguese in Diu also led to the fall of Cambay. In Kutch, however, it was the Jadejas, a clan of Rajput, who erstwhile lived in Patan in north Gujarat, established a strong hold.
Mandvi, the chief port of Kutch was established by the Jadejas in the 16th century. The merchants of Kutch included representatives of major trading communities – Muslims of Arab, and the refugees from the Gujarat Sultanate and Sindh, besides Jains and Hindus. Among Hindus, the predominant groups were the Vanias. Traditionally, Hindus were not permitted to cross the ocean. Yet, Vanias had been tolerated by the state despite their religion because of the revenue their business generated. There are several interesting accounts on Vanias and their business practices:
Tome Pires – “These (people) are (like) Italians in their knowledge of and dealings in Merchandise… They are men who understand merchandise; they are so properly steeped in the sound and harmony of it, that the Gujarantees say that any offence connected with merchandise is pardonable. There are Gujarantees settled everywhere. They work for some and others for others. They are diligent, quick men in trade. They do their accounts with figures like ours and with our very writing.”
John Huygen Van Linschoten – “Vanias of Gujarat are the subtilest and politiquest Marchauntes of all India…They are most subtil and expert in casting accounts and writing, so that they do not only surpasse and goe beyond all other Indians and other nations thereabouts, but also the Portingales: an in this respect they have much advantage, for (that) they are very perfect in the trade of merchandise, and very ready to deceive men.”
Jean Baptiste Tavernier – “They accustom their children at an early age to shun slothfulness, and instead of letting them go into the streets to loose their time at play, as we generally allow ours, teach them arithmetic, which they learn perfectly, using for it neither pen nor canters, but the memory alone, so that in a moment they will do a sum, however difficult it may be. They are always with their fathers, who instruct them in a trade, and do nothing without explaining it to them at the same time.”
The shipyard of Mandvi was established during the time of Rao Godji (1700 – 1778) to anchor and repair a fleet of four hundred vessels. These vessels used to bring bullion, dates, grains, timber, rhinoceros hides, cardamoms, pepper, ginger, silks, and drugs from Malabar, Mocha, Muscat and the African coast, taking in return the cotton, cloth, sugar, oil, butter and alum of Kutch and its hinterland. When the elephant tusks arrived for the skilful ivory carvers of Bhuj and Mandvi, there used to be great sights of bullock carts carrying the tusks in the narrow streets winding between the many storeyed stone houses. The month of May used to be the moment of restlessness for the merchant fleet owners of Mandvi. They would climb up the lofty tower near the lighthouse on the seaward fortification, staking fortunes upon whose ship in the Savali (African) fleet, would first be sighted, laden with eagerly – expected goods from Zanzibar.
Mandvi declined at the beginning of the 20th century due to the changing policy on navigation by the Indian government and the siltation of the harbourage.
Kotia – The Sea Going Vessel of Mandvi
The sea going boats of Mandvi are called Kotias or Kuttias, showing strong parallel to the Arabic dhows – Baghlas and Ghanjas.
Regarding the construction of Kotias, Wilson (1909) provided a detailed account; however in the last century, there have been several innovations and alterations against the technological shifts of navigation. According to Wilson:
In kotias, the keel and two parallel groves cut in its upper face, is to take the garboard strakes. The stem and sternpost however are made with rabbets for the hood-ends of the planking. On the forward face of the sternpost a transom is fitted. Moulds are erected, and the frames are then constructed to fit the shape indicated by the rib bands. First, the frame is constructed – planking…bent to the requisite curves over a fire, is then fitted over the ribs. Before fastening, each plank is drawn tightly to the planking below it by temporary stitches that are tightened by driving wedges under them. The planks are rabbeted on their edges to fit together. Cotton luting and lime putty are put in the seams before the planks are fitted. Fastenings are drawn with threaded bolts and nuts.
The plank on each side of the hull that lies at the transition from lower planking which runs to the underside of the transom – a thick plank in the topside planking kneels, four strakes below the sheer, a wale is fitted. The mast – step is bolted through the floors to the keel. Strings are fitted. Deck-beams are fitted with the ends between frames, notched over the beam-shelf, and fastened with iron strips, which serve as lodging knees.
During my last visit I met a captain, who revealed interesting facets about Mandvi boats and navigation.
At the age of 12, he ventured into the sea for the first time. A very daring and courageous, the captain was roughly 60 years old. He sails mainly to Somalia in eastern Africa – 4 to 5 times a year between the months November to May. The ship that he sails is used to supply cargo – rice, sugar, cloths and light fitting.
According to him, a normal Mandvi ship, which is called vahan, is of 135 ft length, 40 ft width and 26 ft height. When it is in the sea about 20 ft of its height is remained in the water. The logs are imported from Malaysia through the Kandla port. To make a fill fledged vahan, it costs between 2.5 to 3 crores in Indian rupees. The ships are built mainly by the local labourers and a few labourers from Tamil Nadu.
The captain has a good sense of direction in the sea. He can determine the sea surface variation on the basis of the speed of the vessel (it slows down when the depth is less. During storms, he slows down the boat’s speed (sometimes up to 2/3 days).
According to the captain, today there has been significant change in the navigation, which is mostly controlled through satellite. However, in earlier days they depended heavily upon the stars and moon during the nights and reflection of sun in the water during the days.
Shivji Buda Fotindi – A Scion of Yester Years’ Kutchi Seafarers
From the boatyard, I moved to the workshop of yet another interesting person, a 70 year old captain called Shivji Buda Fotindi. However, he is more than a captain, and perhaps one among few in the country, who has excelled in the art of boat model making. Upon I stepped in his workshop, I found him with his hammer knocking a copper nail into the teak hull of an ancient Kotia. Around him had littered scores of miniature boats at different stages of finishing. They all together looked beautiful but none of them would go to sea. These were finely rendered scale models, painstakingly made by the model ship builder.
Fotindi’s career began at the age of 12, when he was recruited in a ship sailing for Muscat and Africa. He was not paid salary, yet paid by kind – cloths and food. On board, the boy kept his wit open and gradually became a skill navigator and later a ship captain. The Kutchi ships while passing the islands of Socotra, off the herm of Africa pray for safe passage to Sukotar Mata, the reigning deity of the place. The ritual takes the form of a ship launch, a crude ship model with a token cargo of rice or grain; offering is floated off in the direction of deity’s abode on the island. Fotindi crafted the models required by the occasion on his entire early voyage to Africa. Back home in India, words were spread about his talent; a wealthy merchant asked him to make a ship model for him. Then a British port officer, impressed with Fotidi’s model making skill, hired him as workshop foreman. Then on there was no looking back, which eventually turned to be his main profession. He has crafted more than one thousand models of varying sizes ranging from a palm sized fishing trawler to dinghy sized 10 – footers. His boats are displayed and bought all over, from the United States to Japan and from Indian naval establishment to Hotel Marina Plaza in Mumbai. Today he is busy training his two teenaged grandchildren Jigar and Chetan to keep alive the craft of boat making.