Boatbuilding in Ponjikkara

in Overview
Published on: 05 December 2018

Bony Thomas

A writer, cartoonist and illustrator, Bony Thomas was born and brought up in Ponnarimangalam in Ponjikkara island near Cochin Port, Kerala. One of the founding members of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, organizer of ‘Kochi Muziris Biennale’, Bony is also the author of ‘Kochikkaar’ (Kochites), a book exploring the intangible heritage of the various linguistic communities in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. He has worked as a senior cartoonist in New Delhi and Mumbai with The Economic Times, and has also published his collection of short stories titled ‘Dog space’.


Dona Beatriz was the daughter of King Manuel I (‘the fortunate’) of Portugal (1469–1521). History records that Beatriz received a beautiful gift—a wooden ship named Saint Catherine of the Mount Sinai, which was built in Kochi between 1511–13. European colonial historians have given little importance to this incident but, in fact, it throws light on the magic behind the skill of present-day traditional boat builders of Ponjikkara, an island five and a half kilometres long, located a few kilometres from Kochi Port.


The Saint Catherine of Mount Sinai had a capacity of 800 tonnes. It was built in the Portuguese colonial base in Kochi and then transported to Lisbon for Dona Beatriz. Ample historical proof exists of shipbuilding yards in Kochi and nearby islands, and that ships built in Kochi were well-received in Europe. Warships were also built in Kochi. According to Pius Malekandathil (2001), a ship that was built in Kochi was used in the battle against the Sultan of Aden in 1516. Despite this historical evidence, there is no trace of a shipbuilding yard in present-day Kochi that produces wooden ships.


Introduction to shipbuilding in Kochi


Dr T.R. Raghavan (2016) writes that in 1857, a wooden ship named Shajahan, with a capacity of 1,008 tonnes, was built in Kochi and used for 32 years. Finally, though the Shajahan was in good condition, the emergence of metallic steamships caused wooden ships to become unprofitable, and so its owners broke it up in order to use its wood for other purposes. The Shajahan was the last wooden ship built in Kochi for the English.


The Saint Catherine of Mount Sinai was built under Portuguese rule in the 16th century, and the Shajahan was built in the 19th century, when the English ruled. Another ship built in Kochi was the Phuttel Barry. Other ships built in Kochi were the AllumGhir (1861) and the Lord Castlereagh (1803) (Raghavan 2016:73). Despite ample evidence of wooden shipbuilding in Kochi  for centuries, no trace of it remains today.


Even so, there is a sense of the tangible and intangible importance associated with Kochi’s shipbuilding heritage. Though generally known as Ponjikkara, this island has four different areas—Bolghatty, Ponjikkara, Ponnarimangalam, and Mulavukad, and is officially part of Mulavukad village in Ernakulam. Recently, this piece of land has been connected to the mainland by bridges. About 120 residents of Ponjikkara are presently employed in the boatbuilding trade. For most of these boat builders, their work is a traditional skill that has been passed down to them through generations. 


Simon D’Silva, at 59, is one of the senior-most members of Ponjikkara’s boatbuilding community, and one of the youngest is the 21-year-old Godson D’Souza. Though both Simon and Godson were born and brought up in Ponjikkara, their surnames—D‘Silva and D’Souza—are of Portuguese descent. Godson addresses Simon as mesthri, which is a Portuguese term for ‘master’ or ‘professional’. Majority of the people working in Ponjikkara’s four boatyards are of Portuguese descent. A brief description of the colonial history of Kochi will help to explain this.


Portuguese colonialism and shipbuilding in Kochi


It can be said that European colonialism came to India through Kochi. King Manuel I made a fortunate choice in assigning Vasco da Gama the task of sailing to the Malabar coast to discover the source of spices. Vasco da Gama was equally fortunate, as his success in carrying out his assignment brought him fame as a legendary hero in maritime history. Da Gama was the first to reach Calicut, and upon his return, his successor Pedro Alvaris Cabral sailed to Calicut with a fleet of ships. However, Cabral was not welcomed in Calicut. Da Gama had fought a bloody war with Arab traders there, who had had friendly trade relations for centuries with Samoothiri, the Zamorin (hereditary ruler) of Calicut. From Calicut, Cabral proceeded to Kochi in 1500. The Raja of Kochi was at war with Calicut’s Samoothiri and needed a powerful ally, like the Portuguese. For that reason, Cabral, whose fleet was well equipped with arms, was heartily welcomed in Kochi. 

Gradually, the Portuguese established themselves in Kochi. In 1503, the Portuguese were allowed to build Fort Immanuel, India’s first European fort. They went on to found the city of Santacruz, the first European enclave in India. The Portuguese presence was strong in the Fort Kochi area until 1662. Their customs and culture prevailed and Portuguese was the language of administration in the parts of Kochi that they controlled. The Portuguese were allowed to marry local women, and the Portuguese men who did so and settled in Kochi were called casados, as described by Charles Dias (2013). After 1509, when Alfonso de Albuquerque became governor of the Portuguese possessions in India, many pragmatic reforms were carried out, including permitting Portuguese soldiers to marry local women. Politica dos Casamentos was an official policy, which permitted this:


Albuquerque with an intention to lay a solid foundation to the Portuguese edifice had decided to allow his willing soldiers to marry indigenous women…. He would convert these women to Christianity and marry them off to his soldiers and thereby settle them in Portuguese enclaves to look after Portuguese interests. Every married soldier was exempted from military service and was permitted to take up the vocation he liked. (Dias 2013:72)  


As the Portuguese administration had wished, a Portuguese-Kochi ‘mixed’ generation was born, and Portuguese culture expanded in Kochi. According to Pius Malekandathil (2001), in 1542, there were a total of 15,000 Christians in the Kochi area, of whom more than 300 were casados, married and settled in Santacruz. By 1546, there were 570 Portuguese residents in Kochi, out of whom 343 were married settlers. The number of married Portuguese settlers rose to 500 by 1551 (Malekandathil 2001:78).


Casados were involved in the spice trade, and many became wealthy, even owning their own ships. Portuguese shipbuilding yards were constructed in Kochi and the nearby islands for the purpose of building and repairing wooden ships for use in the trade between Lisbon and other places with which Portugal had trade relations.


The Portuguese king, on the basis of information from his then viceroy, Matias de Albuquerque, regarding the easy availability of teak and anjili wood in Kochi area, decided that Kochi was the ideal location for a shipbuilding centre to supply wooden ships for his navy. In 1596, the Portuguese king, Filipe II, ordered that at least two large vessels be built in Kochi every year. In 1602, he directed Aires de Saldanha, who was viceroy at that time, to do everything possible to encourage the Kochi shipbuilding industry. In 1630, the Portuguese authorities contracted with the Raja of Kochi to construct vessels large enough to carry 60 pieces of artillery. The Kochi Regional Archives are a rich source of historical documentation on the subject of the Kochi shipbuilding trade during the Portuguese period.


Portuguese casados in Ponjikkara


In an interview with Simon D’Silva at his boatbuilding yard in Ponjikkara, he said, ‘Ours is a traditional trade which began during Vasco da Gama’s time’. Simon D’Silva left school and started his boatbuilding career at the age of 12. He said that he has helped build more than 300 boats. Apart from working in boatbuilding yards in Ponjikkara, he travels to different parts of India with his crew to build or repair boats. D’Silva’s family has lived in Ponjikkara for generations, and has made their livelihood in the boatbuilding trade. Like Simon, his father and grandfather were boatbuilders, as was his elder brother for some time.


D’Silva claims that his family members have been building and repairing boats since Vasco da Gama’s time, though it is probably more accurate to say that they began working in the trade during the Portuguese colonial period (for Simon D’Silva and others, ‘Vasco da Gama’ represents the Portuguese period). It is a mark of pride, and is central to many family legends—sometimes even families who are no longer in shipbuilding—that their forefathers either learned the trade of shipbuilding and repairing from their Portuguese mesthris centuries before, or were themselves casados.


The Veliath family is one such family where this legend holds true. Until land reforms were implemented in Kerala, the Veliath family was one of the biggest landowners in Ponjikkara. M.D. Veliath, who retired from military service, recorded the Veliath family history in the book titled Down Memory Lane (2008); he has gathered oral histories and legends passed down through the generations, and compiled them as stories. Veliath notes that his family was established through the marriage of a casado named de Pores to a local Hindu Nair lady. 


Legends about casados in Ponjikkara have become part of a well-known Malayalam novel titled Oro Pra Nobis by eminent writer Ponjikkara Raphy (1981). Raphy was born and raised in Ponjikkara and adopted the name of his native place as his pen name. The focal point of the novel is a Portuguese family, with the surname ‘Aswaras’, that owns ships and shipbuilding yards on an island near Kochi.


Although legends and stories are not history, they contain traces of it; this may certainly be said of the tales about the casados who came to Ponjikkara to build ships.


Ponjikkara and its colonial history


Bolghatty Palace in Ponjikkara was built in 1744 by the Dutch, and is one of the oldest existing Dutch palaces outside of Holland. Officials used it as their residence, but were eventually succeeded by English officials who lived there until Indian Independence in 1947. Ponjikkara is located on Vembanad Lake (also known as Ernakulam Lake), where the Periyar River and the Arabian Sea merge. Because of Ponjikkara’s geographical proximity to the Arabian Sea, the Periyar River, Vembanad Lake, and to the port of Kochi—all of which were important in the transport of spices from the Kerala hinterland and the Western Ghats—colonial officials found the area useful for carrying out their trading activity. Trade also drew shipbuilders of that time to the area.


At the end of 1662, a war was fought between the Portuguese and the Dutch in Kochi. The Dutch were the victors, marking the end of Portuguese rule in Kochi. The Dutch destroyed the Portuguese fort, and residents of Santacruz fled for their lives. People of Portuguese lineage escaped to nearby islands like Ponjikkara, and their descendants still live there today. K.L. Bernard, a local historian from Kochi, has written about this war in his book Calvathiyude Katha, later published by Department of Cultural Publication, Kerala Government, as Cochin Calvathy River – A Historic Drama, in 2000.


Boatbuilders in Ponjikkara and their Portuguese lineage


Simon D’Silva revealed in an interview that 60 per cent of the people working in the boatbuilding trade in Ponjikkara, including himself, are of Portuguese descent, a statement confirmed by K.A. Johnson. Johnson and his brothers, K.A. Biju and K.A. Antony, all of whom work in the boatbuilding trade, are of Portuguese descent, through their mother Philomina Miranda. So is Anson D’Souza, another boatbuilder. Simon D’Silva, K.A. Johnson, K.A. Biju, K.A. Antony, and Anson D’Souza are some of the best-known boatbuilders in Ponjikkara.

Simon D’Silva’s mother, Plamena D’Silva, who passed away a decade ago, used to wear a dress called a kabaya (or kavaya, as it is known locally). This was a garment worn only by women in Ponjikkara who were descendants of the Portuguese—and is still worn only by a small number of elderly women. Charles Dias (2013) writes this about the kabaya in his book in so many words: ‘This Melakan dress was introduced by women brought by Afonso de Albuquerque on his return from Melaka expedition in 1512 and afterwards whenever Portuguese vessels returned to India from Melaka carrying Melakan women.’ Thus, it may be said that even the traditional dress of people from boatbuilding families in Ponjikkara carry a mark of the region's colonial history.


Food habits of the islanders also reveal historical and cultural influences. At Simon D’Silva’s residence, stew (or, ishtoo, as it’s locally known) and vindaloo (a curry dish, locally known minthaloo) are usually served as part of a meal. Both of these are Portuguese delicacies. Befada (locally called pafath), sow linge (or sowleenju as locally known), and pente frito (or penthipiriyath as locally known) are other dishes which trace their origins to Kerala’s Portuguese heritage.


From shipbuilding to boatbuilding


Like ‘mesthri’, many words used in the boatbuilding industry are derived from Portuguese. Othaar, avess, aarya, birma, srank, and thalutham are some examples of this. The use of these words in the shipbuilding trade recalls the history of the Portuguese casado mesthris, and of Portuguese colonial history in general.


Pius Malekandathil (2001:82) notes, ‘Moreover, the Portuguese acquired a lot of expertise and technical cooperation from the local people. Indian cooperation was essential and decisive at all stages, because although the master shipwrights were Portuguese, the ordinary shipwrights, carpenters, and dockyard workers were nearly all Indians.’ 


Shipbuilding in Kochi and in Ponjikkara was taught by the mesthris. The Portuguese mesthris taught the locals, and gradually, after gaining enough experience, local workers graduated to the level of mesthris themselves. The same system prevails in the boatbuilding trade in Ponjikkara today. Every boatbuilder in Ponjikkara learns the work from a mesthri.


There are many similarities to traditional wooden shipbuilding methods in the modern shipbuilding techniques used today in Ponjikkara’s thriving industry. When building ships from wood became obsolete, the shipbuilders of Ponjikkara turned to building boats with modern materials, but retained the skills and techniques that they had learned while building wooden ships. 


The changing types of boatbuilding


Simon D’Silva and K.A. Johnson are two mesthris in the boatbuilding trade in Ponjikkara, but they are involved with two very different types of boatbuilding. D’Silva, with 48 years of experience in boatbuilding, is a much sought-after expert in building and repairing wooden boats, and represents the traditional wooden boatbuilding age. Johnson has 34 years of experience as a boatbuilder, but is an expert in making fiberglass boats. Johnson claims credit for introducing fibreglass technology in boatbuilding in Kochi during the early 1980s. The high cost of wood and its scarcity inspired him to make boats out of fibreglass. Johnson started his career with traditional wooden boatbuilding, which he learned from his father, Antony Mesthri, but realised the need to change with the times. He gained expertise in fibreglass technology through trial and error. Johnson’s brothers, Xavier and Biju, in an interview, revealed that they learned traditional wooden boatbuilding from their father and fibreglass boatbuilding from their elder brother. 


Present-day boatbuilders remember their mesthris with much respect. With awe, they say that in the olden days, mesthris never drew designs of boats in advance—the designs were in their imaginations, and they instructed others based on the designs in their heads.

Boats need to be perfectly proportioned and balanced so that they can safely carry large numbers of people and goods. Boatbuilding must be scientific, and its engineering perfect; however, no mesthri in Ponjikkara ever had a degree in engineering. According to K.A. Antony, the highest level of education among Ponjikkara shipbuilders is Class 10. Practical knowledge of science, engineering, and technology is learned from a mesthri on the job. K.A. Biju refers to this kind of knowledge as kanmattom; in Malayalam, kannu means eye and mattom means measurement. During the interview, Biju describes kanmattom as the kind of knowledge that emerges ‘not from the heart but from the vision of the eye’. With enough experience, a mesthri can tell just by looking at it, whether the measurements of a boat are correct.


Kanmattom made Anson D’Souza, along with his mechanical engineer son, Godson, experiment with making a lightweight boat in the form of an aeroplane, resulting in a thing of beauty. Anson D’Souza is from a family of blacksmiths, who worked closely with the boatbuilding industry in Ponjikkara. Historically, carpentry and blacksmithing were integral to the traditional boatbuilding trade, but the emergence of fibreglass technology and new machines resulted in the loss of their role in boatbuilding. D’Souza’s father Benny D’Souza was a well-known and busy blacksmith in Ponjikkara three decades ago. Now, Anson D’Souza is attracting attention as a boatbuilder with his new invention. His new boat is made of aluminium composite panel (ACP) sheets, which is a lightweight and inexpensive building material. D’Souza’s invention has been welcomed by the tourism industry in Kochi, and interest from the tourism sector has inspired the boatbuilding mesthris of Ponjikkara to work on other inventions. 



Dias, Charles. 2013. The Portuguese in Malabar: A Social History of Luso Indians. New Delhi: Manohar.


Malekandathil, Pius. 2001. Portuguese Cochin and the Maritime Trade of India, 1500–1663. New Delhi: Manohar.


Raghavan, T.R. 2016. Indian Kappalottathinte Charithram. Kozhikode: Kerala Bhasha Institute.