Boatbuilding in Ponjikkara

in Module
Published on: 26 November 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’.

Ponjikkara is a thickly populated island, about 6.5 sq. km in area, situated between the city of Kochi (Cochin) and Cochin Port on Vembanad Lake (alias Ernakulam Lake), where Periyar—the longest river in the southern state of Kerala—merges with the Arabian Sea. Until about a decade and a half ago, when this piece of land was linked by the Goshree Bridge with the Kochi mainland, Ponjikkara was surrounded by backwaters. The strategic location of the island on the Arabian Sea coast made Ponjikkara historically important—for over 400 years, from the beginning of 16th century until Indian Independence in 1947, through the successive rule of three European colonial powers—the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English—it served as a crucial centre of colonial administration. From 1500 to 1662, Ponjikkara was controlled by the Portuguese, who used the island as a base for building wooden ships. Today, in Ponjikkara, there are families whose centuries-old oral history speaks of Portuguese ancestors who came to the island to establish the shipbuilding yard, married local women, and settled down there. Traces of this ancestry survive in the Portuguese surnames of the island’s inhabitants, as well as their boatbuilding technology, inherited from their shipbuilding European forebears. The introduction of wooden ships also exposed the people of the island to carpentry and metalwork; today, these skills furnish a means of livelihood for several islanders of Portuguese descent. This module studies the boatbuilders of Ponjikkara to gain valuable insights into the intangible heritage of the islanders and their cultural links with Portugal.