As one walks through the narrow lanes of Beypore – a sleepy town located on the outskirts of Kozhikode, chances are remote that a first timer would have even vaguely imagined what lies in store ahead. The pathway ends on the banks of the river Chaliyar, where a crew of carpenters is seen occupied, cutting and designing wooden logs.

While at first glance they may appear to be just carpenters, as you draw closer you realise that the work they are engaged in is not any ordinary handicraft, for these are the craftsmen who make the luxury Uru – a large dhow-shaped wooden ship. Dhow (Uru in Malayalam) - making is a long-standing tradition at Beypore and enjoys the status of being one of the largest handicrafts in the world in terms of the scale of work involved.

Beypore’s connection with the Uru dates back to centuries when India began maritime trade with Mesopotamia. It is said that the Yemeni traders who settled in Kerala practiced the art of Uru-making which was gradually passed on, over generations, to the people of Kozhikode.

Dhow-making was a flourishing industry during the Zamorins, the kingdom that ruled the Malabar coast from the 12th to the 18th century AD. The skilled carpenters used to make dhows for the Zamorin’s navy. The business continued to thrive even during the time of independence, but suffered a setback in the 1970s due to frequent hartals and strikes that were a common feature in Kerala.

Speaking to India Together, Raju K Nallur, ‘maistry’ or the master carpenter based in Beypore said that the industry was shifted to Mangalore in the early 1980s as strikes and hartals made it difficult to sustain it in Kozhikode.

But the business did not last long in Mangalore either. As a result, it was shifted to Kannur in Kerala but was eventually closed down. “It was only four years back that the uru-making industry was revived in Beypore, Kerala thanks to Satyan Edathodi, the master craftsman of the ongoing projects,” Raju says.

The reawakening

Explaining the story behind the revival of the once-dead industry, Satyan Edathodi, a busy man now, says that four years ago, when he was working in Qatar, he happened to meet the captain of a luxury ship belonging to the Qatar royal family.

“As I began talking to him about the old uru-making industry at Beypore, he sounded curious. One day, he approached me with an offer on behalf of the royal family to manufacture a dhow for a luxury cruise. Since then, there has been no looking back,” says a visibly happy Edathodi.

As the first order came in, carpenters in this small town took up the assignment by putting their skills to test. “Every year since then, we have been receiving several orders from various sections of the Qatar royal family (considered one of the richest royal families in the world presently), who seem to have developed an admiration for our dhow-making skills,” beams Edathodi.

The making of the uru

The wooden logs for this business, which has now attained considerable volume, are imported from Malaysia through Tuticorin port in Tamil Nadu, unlike in the past when timber from the nearby Nilambur forest was used for construction. While teak wood is largely used for constructing the hull, jackfruit tree and rose wood are used for interiors.

The master carpenter initially prepares a sketch of the uru to meet the expectations of the buyer. It is a Herculean task to design the boat, as various factors have to be considered while designing it such as wind direction, the size and shape of the vessel, the nature of the seas in which the ship will eventually sail, to name a few.

Once the work begins, it takes between a year and two for a band of 40-50 craftsmen to complete the uru, depending on its size. The Khalasis who are trained in lifting and moving the wooden logs, largely contribute to the manufacturing process as well.

The art of ship-building practised by the carpenters offers a mesmerising experience for the onlookers as well. Right from cutting the heavy wooden logs to making intricate carvings on the wood, the carpenters are evidently extremely well-versed in the nitty-gritty of building the cruise.

The complex process of constructing the hulls of the ships is done in the building yard using local carpentry tools, without employing any modern equipment. The carpenters here join each piece of wood manually to make huge vessels for their customers!

A normal uru weighs anywhere between 700 to 1,000 tonnes and the average cost of manufacturing is Rs 4 to 5 crore. Over 200 families depending on the uru-making industry for their livelihood now, as a maximum of four to five urus are made at a time.

After the construction, the uru will skim the waters towards Dubai, where its luxury interiors are made and fitted, and the engine is fixed.

Carpenters in this sleepy town have added a new feather to their cap by manufacturing the largest uru, in December last year. It was almost two and a half years back that the craftsmen began working on it. The Qatar royal family had placed an order for this luxury Uru, to be comprised of six bed rooms, a spacious majari (main hall), a dining hall, kitchen and the captain’s cabin. 

The uru, which was in its final stage of construction when this reporter visited Beypore, weighs about 1,500 tonnes and has been manufactured at an estimated cost of Rs 7 crore. Fitted with a jet engine, it has now sailed across the Arabian Sea to reach its destination – the Middle East.

With Qatar gearing up to host several world championship tourneys, including FIFA 2022, a new ray of hope has shone in for the craftsmen at Beypore. With more international events hosted in the oil-rich country, more orders are expected for luxury cruises, leading to a stable surce of income and livelihood for the gifted men of the region.