Boatbuilding in Ponjikkara: In Conversation with Antony and Xavier Biju

Boatbuilding in Ponjikkara: In Conversation with Antony and Xavier Biju

in Interview
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 ‘Dog space’.

Boatbuilder Antony describes in detail the various stages of building a boat. Xavier Biju, another boatbuilder from Ponjikkara Island, explains how his boatbuilding skills have been inherited; Kochi, 2017.


Interview with Antony (Boatbuilder)


I studied only till 8th standard. My father and grandfather were boatbuilders. My elder brother is also a boatbuilder. Though my father suggested that I choose some other field for a living, I was interested in this field since my childhood. I started to learn this work from my father. He worked at a boatbuilding yard in Mattancherry for some time and I used to go with him to learn the work. My interest in the work escalated with time. Initially, I used to work from dawn till dusk. In those days (the 1980s) boats were made of wood. There were no fibre boats. Building of fibre boats was introduced to our place (Ponjikkara) for the first time by my elder brother who owns Aiswarya Marine Boat Building Company. Wooden boats are prone to a problem called vellakkedu (gradual seepage of water into the boat). Every morning, the workers in the boat have to take out the water that has seeped into it. My elder brother wanted to find a remedy for this problem. His friend introduced him to fibre technology and he found that fibre technology can be the solution to vellakkedu.


I learned to work on wood for boatbuilding from my father and fibre work from my elder brother. I worked in Lakshadweep for some time. After coming back from there, I joined my younger brother in boatbuilding, right here. Nowadays, we build or repair only tourist boats. Passenger boats have less demand and their numbers are less.


Boatbuilding has many stages. The first stage is eravu vayppu. Kuthukatta vayppu, epram vayppu, mattom idal, body palaka idal, thattu paniyal, covering board paniyal, valoose paniyal, cabin paniyal, engine vaikkal, and fibre work are the stages that follow.


Building a boat is a combination of different types of work like carpentry, fibre technology, mechanical engineering, painting and electrical engineering. Our place (Ponjikkara) has experts for each and every aspect of boatbuilding. My understanding is that at least 120 people in our village are working in different areas of boatbuilding.


In general, people who work in this sector do not have much formal education. Only a few of them have studied till 10th standard in school. Knowledge on boatbuilding comes to us from our forefathers. It is god-given. Our forefathers guided and taught us. Now we guide the younger generation. Whenever they make mistakes, we correct them.


If we don't build the palla (side part) of the boat perfectly, that boat will tilt to one side. Certain definite measurements have to be perfectly followed. Apart from a good design, measurements for the boat should be just as our forefathers taught us. Measurements of the body of a boat moving in the backwaters and measurements of a boat going into the sea for fishing are different. Our forefathers have advised us about these measurements and we have to follow that strictly. It is an art; and not just a business.


Boat building is a good field. A worker in this field and his family will never have to starve. A worker gets a payment of Rs 900/- per day. I have built eight fishing boats so far. I am more into boat repairing. I have built 12 boats in total.


In our place, many Anglo-Indians (Portuguese descendants) are into the boatbuilding field and the majority of the workers in this field are Christians. There are Hindu and Muslim workers also in the boatbuilding field, though their numbers are less.


Interview with Xavier Biju (Boatbuilder)


My name is Xavier Biju. I entered into boatbuilding work at the age of 13. Now I am 45. My father and grandfather were both boatbuilders. My grandfather's name was Showrie Antony and father's name was K.X. Antony. We have been boatbuilders for generations. Initially, we used to build kettuvalloms (traditional sewn plank boats of Kerala). In those days we used copper and aluminum in the boatbuilding process. Now we are into fibre technology.


Fibre technology gives the boat more durability. Copper and aluminum lasts for three years, whereas fibre has a durability of 12 years. Fibre technology was introduced here in our place (Ponjikkara) in 1982. This technology was there in the Gulf countries even before that. We were scared of using it here as it involves a chemical which badly affects the health of the person who handles it. Basically, fibre is glass and it is potentially hazardous enough to reduce the life span of the person who handles it. But it affects only those who handle it at the time of working with it.


My elder brother, Johnson, who owns Aiswarya Marine Company introduced fibre technology to our place (Ponjikkara) for the first time. I learned this technology from him. He is a person with lot of ideas. He introduced new designs for boats. He is one of the well-known boat builders in Kerala. He always comes out with new inventions and has introduced new designs for boats.


Our boatbuilding skills are our inheritance. It has not come from any formal education. An educated person may come out with an idea. But he will not be able to execute the idea. But we can. Whenever an investor approaches us to build a boat, we make a design of the boat for him. After the presentation of the design and discussions on different aspects of the boat, we build the boat which suits the budget of the investor.


Kanmattom, is the ‘vision of the eye’, which gives a boat builder a good understanding about the perfection in measurements while making a boat. Kanmattom cannot be taught. A boatbuilder's eyes are experienced towards measurements. Vision is design. It comes, not from the heart, but from the eyes. A boatbuilder makes an estimate of corrections through his eyes. Our eyes immediately catch defects.


Our skills, our heritage, are passed on from our forefathers. We perform because of the blessings of our parents. Our parents and forefathers were good souls doing good deeds and were good workers. They were sincere to their work. Our skills are their blessings.


In boatbuilding, in the old days the work was manual. Now everything is mechanized and we cannot work if electricity is off. Years ago, when we wanted to make a hole on the wood we would use birma, a tool which is operated manually. Birma may break sometime. Then we had to run to the blacksmith to repair it. Those days are over.


I have three children. The eldest one is 17, the second one is 12 and third one is four years in age. I am happy to bring all of them into boatbuilding. It is a good profession which gives a lot of happiness. My children are studying now. Education is needed for fruitful communication and interaction. After completion of their studies, I want to see my children joining me in the profession of boatbuilding. It is my dream!