Historically India has connected to the outer world mainly through sea routes. North of India was dominated by the greater Himalayas and difficult terrain of Sindh, Balochistan and Afghanistan, which diminished prospectus of smooth travel. But peninsular India was bestowed with long sea cost on the East, West and South sides. The only available sailing facility in the vast Indian Ocean and connecting waters was a small or medium size ship called dhow. They were typical ships made of the wooden hull and one or more masts. The word dhow is Arabic but there is no certainty as to who invented these dhows- Indians or Arabs. But it is no more important as far as the word and ship have played an important role in connecting Indians with various parts of the world for millennia. Indians and Arabs fondly narrate their historic ties through the reference of dhows which were constructed in Beypore, Kerala mainly by Yemeni settlers known as ‘baramis’.
There is ample evidence to show that India had trade relations with Arab and African countries in the pre-christ era. Indians reached out to Gulf, Africa, countries of South Asian today known as Maldives, Indonesia, Malaysia and also much farther to Mauritius, Seychelles etc. Different types of dhows used to sail between India and these regions carrying fresh water, dates, cotton, spices, animals, sandalwood, precious stones and many other items. As the technology and trade improved, the ships became larger and more modern but in common parlance, they were still known as dhows. Based on the size and shape, they are called Baghlah, Baqarah, Barijah, Battil, Badan, Ghanjah, Jahazi, Sambuk, Boum or any other name.
Their importance is not lost in history. Many Indians settled in East Africa had travelled through ships which were more akin to dhows. Those Indians who were taken by the British might have a different story but others who travelled to Africa and the Arab world on their own had relied on the buoyancy of wood and power of mast for propulsion. Sometimes the wind would not support the sail and dhow would take rounds in the mid sea for days or weeks before reaching the destination. Seasickness would take the toil of travellers and few might even die.
But with these sailing vessels, Indians have reached far ends of the world, for trade and settlement. Their journeys were lifetime experiences and they all have a unique story. No wonder if an old Indian living in London too has a story to narrate about a dhow journey from India. In this way, dhow has become a living – sailing – bridge for Indians, connecting them with many other cultures.
(Expressed opinions are personal.)
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