December 02, 2013

Ship Building Town of Mandvi

(This article was published in the Deccan Herald's supplement Sunday Herald on 1-Dec-2013)

I got down from the bus in the middle of the night to be greeted by a chill breeze. The bus-stand wore a non-descript look in the darkness of the night and there were only 3 passengers along with me who got down from the bus. The small bus-stand with its flickering tubelights and a few people sleeping and snoring on iron benches looked like a scene from a documentary movie. My spine yearned for some rest and I joined the sleeping brigade after I found an empty iron bench. Uncomfortable as it was, getting up was the best thing to do.

Deserted roads with the sodium-vapour lamps greeted me as I walked outside the bus-stand. The deathly silence and the chill breeze were my companions as I walked along what appeared to be a main-road in this town, searching for lodging options for the night. Roaming the streets in the darkness of the night was something that I had taken a liking to during my travels, but I was not prepared to absorb what I was going to witness next. It was a full moon night and as I walked more, silhouettes of some structures with their shadows extending to the road, appeared on my left. The silhouettes were huge and I couldn’t take my mind off them. With not a soul in sight, I wasn‘t sure if I had stepped into Mordor and was to be introduced to the flying Nazguls. Fear was normal under these circumstances and I was no Elf to hide it. Faster strides were automatic, and I soon stumbled on a board that advertised of a hotel. It was locked and I had to bang the door a couple of times before I woke up the caretaker of the hotel who offered me the only vacant room which I graciously accepted and retired.

The morning wake up call came not from the chirping of birds but from a few people talking loudly outside my room. As I stepped outside the hotel, I saw huge ships on the other side of the road, almost touching the road. On the other side, the whole length of the road was littered with huge wooden ships. I had never seen such a scene in my life. Curiosity had always been my best friend and stumbling on this town by chance was probably the best thing that could have happened to me, if not for anything else, I would just watch these ships being built and spend a vacation. A cup of hot chai was perfect to watch the scenery unfold in front of me while the sun slowly rose.

Soft dhokla being sold on a pushcart was an added bonus for breakfast. I gobbled up a few plates, followed it up with one more round of chai as I kept watching this scenery. I crossed the road and stood agape in front of one of these ships. This was the first time I was standing eye to eye in front of a naked ship made of wood. The structure had no decorations or paint, but only planks of wood joined together by what appeared as almost a foot long nails. It was as if this giant pile of wood was commanding me. I circumambulated it and saw an opening by the side. Few workers were working inside the ship and I requested their permission to get inside.

I was transported to a totally different work in here. This was a dreamland made in wood. The huge hollow space inside the ship despite its emptiness had its own aura. Saws, hammers and nails, the size of which I had never seen before, were being used to construct this practical art in wood. A ladder was kept in the middle and appeared to connect to a different world.  I slowly ascended it and was taken to a different level inside the ship. This level, again was completely empty and a ladder alone stood in the middle of this emptiness. I ascended that too and was presented to the deck of the ship. I could almost see the whole ship building yard from here. Many ships were being constructed, while some were being broken down. Some with a rich layer of algae on it looked abandoned. The half-broken ones looked extremely terrifying, as if lighting from Zeus or the hammer of Thor had broken the ship into two.

I stepped out of this ship and walked along the perimeter of the ship-building yard. Small temporary houses next to these ships looked like rats in front of giant monsters. I still had not seen any crane or heavy vehicle inside the ship building yard. A quick chat with a laborer resting there told me that this was a very old ship building yard and primarily ships are constructed out of wood and almost all the tools are used by hands. Despite the outer world using the newer generation of tools, this community was sticking to the age-old tradition of building wooden ships by hand. Though many ships were being used for domestic purposes like fishing in the deep sea, they had an active export industry and were building ships for many foreign clients.

In the evening, I returned and walked till the end of the yard. A watchman suddenly stopped me and told me that I was entering a restricted area in the port and cautioned me not to take any pictures. I promised him and went till the end of the jetty. Sun was slowly setting down along this west coast. There was absolute stillness but for the lashing of the waves on the jetty. I could see a few small boats and catamarans returning back to the shore from here. I felt like the last man standing at the tip of the Earth as the orange and red hues covered the western sky. The watchman signaled me to get back and I found another spot along the yard from where I could see the moon rise slowly and illuminate the whole ship-building yard.

I could remember Soren Kierkegaard’s words when he writes “People commonly travel the world over to see rivers and mountains, new stars, garish birds, freak fish, grotesque breeds of human; they fall into an animal stupor that gapes at existence and they think they have seen something.”  After visiting this town, I am not sure whether I can claim that I had one of the unique experiences ever, but the first sights of the ships casting their shadows in the moonlight was etched into my memories forever.

Did I forget to reveal the town’s name? Well, tucked along the westernmost part of India facing the Arabian Sea, lies one of the most beautiful and uncharted spots, often seen missing on the tourist's map, is the ship building town of Mandvi, in the state of Gujarat.
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