Manchukkar – The Seafarers of Malabar

Malabar had been a significant trade link to South India until the 1980s. Centuries of seafaring trade and ship-building (primarily the wind-dependant Urus or Dhows ) have given the region a distinct culture. Yet, while the seafarers and explorers have been celebrated in history the Dhow workers and their lives have gone largely unheard, contained, never to be retold.

There are only a handful of surviving seafarers and ship-builders today. I had the fortune to meet almost all of them. They had endured the love as well as the wrath of sea throughout their lives; their faces had the stories etched on them. From ship-wrecks, uncertain voyages to life-changing courses, their tales are no short of wonder; for the same reason, the series was developed into a combination of photos and text.



Ibrahim Ponnani

Ibrahim grew up hearing stories of the sea from his father who was a deckhand. Ibrahim began his voyages at sixteen as a deckhand to the ports of India and Arabia. He had his adolescence and youth in the sea, one could say. Ibrahim condenses all his experience into one phrase: “sea is an eternally boiling vessel!” Most of the sails were to Bombay. Mates were of assorted characters. Once on land, some would head to a bar to de-stress; some would look for ganja and red streets. Yet another bunch might steer towards dargahs and places of worship. Once they were gone into the sea, their families waited with prayers for their safe return. Most of the sails originated from Kozhikode on motorized dhows and headed towards the ports of Kuwait, Sharjah, Muscat, Oman with cargos of wood planks, coir products, barami sherbet, pickles etc. Along with these, the workers also secretly smuggled things like black halwa, coffee beans, pulses etc without the knowledge of the boat owners. These were sold to the Malayali merchants. On the way back, they collected things like attar, dates, almonds, clothes etc to sell back at home. This enterprise br ought in more money than their regular wages.



T Ibrahim Ponnani

Ibrahim sailed for the first time with his brother who was a boat captain. He started working in one of these dhows at the age of twenty and been to many harbors as a deckhand, ever since. Most of the time he was on the dhow owned by Pareekkutty sahib of Ponnani. With the arrival of motorized dhows, he travelled to several Arabian ports like Kuwait and Muscat many times over. Ibrahim knows many ‘songs of the sail’. Rasakh Haji, who was an essential-oil merchant from Ponnani, had a role in this. While returning from Hajj, Rasakh Haji lost all his money in Bombay and got stuck there. He happened to meet the owner of the boat in which Ibrahim worked and got a lift home. Rasakh Haji who had a talent for making instant songs, composed a song about the dhow. Next three days and nights the Haji sang his songs. On the fourth day, by the time the boat reached Kozhikode, these songs had seeped into Ibrahim too. Once, Ibrahim’s dhow with a cargo of terracotta roofing tiles to Ratnagiri in Maharashtra, got caught in a hurricane. The wet tiles soaked up rain water and made the boat dangerously heavy. The boat started to sink. The crew tried to throw the tiles overboard. But the vessel sank nevertheless. Some of the sailors managed to get away on the small life boat. Ibrahim and four others held on to a piece of wood of the dhow and floated for two days nearing death. On another occasion, on a voyage to Bombay, a friend of Ibrahim’s from Thalasseri climbed onto the mast to change the sail and got blown off by powerful winds. He was never found, and the painful memory of it still haunts Ibrahim. People of this generation often ask Ibrahim to recite stories and songs of his voyages. The small amounts of money his listeners give on such occasions are the only sustenance for this octogenarian sailor of yore.



Hussain Ponnani

Years ago, Ponnani had shipyards where dhows were built. At a young age, Hussain collected carpentry waste from these places for firewood for a living. Later he joined his father who was a deckhand that eventually resulted in twenty-five years of life in the sea. Once, four dhows set sails from Valapattanam near Kannur to Bombay with a cargo of goods. All four boats got caught in a hurricane and only one of them reached the destination. Hussain was in that boat. He later learned that the other three were wrecked in the sea. While the sea only gave him terrifying experiences, poverty gave him no options but work as a deckhand, Hussain says. For a year he freighted roofing tiles to Kuwait on a motorised dhow, called Seva, belonged to Beramin Sahib of Kozhikode.



A Abubakkar Ponnani

Abubakkar came to work in the dhow at the age of twelve, to help his fisherman father’s struggles to raise him and his six siblings. He started as a cook for the deckhands and suffered bitter treatment at their hands. Later he became a deckhand himself and earned their respect. He worked for twenty odd years across many boats. Mehmoodiya owned by Hassanar of Ponnani and Paththu Salamiya that belonged to Vandikkaran Kunjali of Valapattanam are two of them. Many of his friends from the sailor days are not alive anymore. But they are still regular visitors in Abubakkar’s reminiscences, he says. One of them is Ibrahim, an adolescent boy from Malappuram. Ibrahim came to work in the boat after altercations with his family. He caught typhoid on a voyage and died soon. He was buried in a mosque at the closest port. Ibrahims’s is one among the many tragic faces of his fellow sailors that still haunts Abubakkar’s nights of sleepless old age.



Manchukkoran / Koran the Oracle Kasaragod

Childhood poverty was what brought Manchukkoran to the boat. For a long time, he was in S. Barkathulla, a dhow owned by smuggler Anthukka Haji of Melparampu, Kasaragod. For a time, he was also the captain’s right-hand man. He was particularly skilled in climbing the highest of masts and altering the sails according to the wind directions. Port offices in the harbors along the route used to have boxes that kept letters mailed to the boat crew. Many of the workers were illiterate. The ones who could read would open and read out the letters for others. Mangalore to Bombay was the most travelled route. Boats from many places would lay in waiting for their turn at the Bombay harbor to load and unload, sometimes for eight or ten days, says Manchukkoran. The tide water levels were also a factor in this. He had seen dead bodies floating in waters around the Bombay port several times. He thinks this was the outcome of the smuggler-customs encounters of that period. A squall he got caught in 1967 in Goa is a dreadful memory of coming face to face with death. Three other dhows were blown away and crashed into rocks. With that voyage Manchukkoran bid farewell to this line of work. In northern Kerala a dhow is called a Manchu. The name Manchukkoran comes from that. Manchukkoran also goes as the main oracle in the Theyyam ceremonies in neighboring areas earning him his other name, Koran Velichchppadu meaning Koran the Oracle.



Ummar Srank / Ummar Captain Ponnani

Ummar is past seventy-five and has lost most of his memories. He had been a deckhand since the age of fifteen. He had spent more than thirty years in sea as a deckhand and a captain. It’s his wife Fathima who narrated the old stories. She talked about how once the boat was wrecked in bad weather near Karwar harbour on its way from Bombay with a cargo of salt. She also mentioned the accident in 1967 cyclone. For days there was no news of Ummar Srank and his crew. News of the deaths of some of the neighbours who worked in boats had already reached. She feared the worst and was terrified until she received a telegram from Ummar Srank whose boat had survived the squall and r eached a port safely.



Usman Ponnani

Usman’s father and five brothers were deckhands. Back when the Ponnani port was active, Usman, aged eleven, started working as a help to the people who unloaded goods in small boats from the ships arrived there. Later he worked as a deckhand for two decades and another ten years as a captain. Long years of seafaring got him in touch with many cultures. He also learned the languages Hindi, Marathi and Kannada. At first, there was no weather forecasts and sailing was completely depended on observing nature. In 1962 when Akashvani started broadcasting, a radio was brought in and weather reports became accessible. From the middle of the sea, Usman had heard the news of comrade Imbichi Bava who was also from Ponnani, sworn in as a minister. Radio Ceylon had very good reception in the sea. These journeys have also left some deeply etched memories. Once, while on the way from Karnataka to Beypore with a load of timber, right in front of Usman’s eyes his brother was struck down by a lightning bolt, killing him instantly. Local fishermen in the vicinity were alerted with cries and shouts and they managed to inform the Kozhikode port office next to the sea bridge and finally Usman reached the shore carrying his brother’s dead body.



Moideenkutty Ponnani

Moideenkutty’s father Hassanar was a deckhand in dhow, Duldul. When Moideenkutty was six years old, one day his father went to the sea to work and never returned. The February of 1967 was a cursed month for sailors. The cyclone in the bay destroyed many boats and many sailors went missing. Duldul and Vijayamala, set sail to Bombay from Ponnani and about twenty-five deckhands were on these. Moideen’s father Hassanar was one of them. Many years later, pressing circumstances pushed Moideenkutty also into the same job that killed his father. He started as a cook and became a deckhand for eight years. Moideen’s voice changes when he talks about the winds of February. He reminds himself that this wind has snuffed out a lot of sailor lives including his father’s. That’s why the sailors fearfully call this wind, “the thief of Febru ary.”


Exhibited at Uru Art Harbour Kochi 2018,
Clarinda Carnegie Art Museum, USA, 2021 (34 Images)