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The making of traditional boats and a fascinating slice of history

Rivers and waterways have been an integral part of the socio-economic life of people of eastern India for centuries. Before the railways were introduced by the British, the country’s river-ways were the main means of transport for goods and people. Even today when the monsoon rain creates havoc and railway tracks and roads get submerged, people have to go back to the age-old boats to commute. Ranjita Biswas reports on the West Bengal Government’s plan to revive the boat making industry

Balagarh craftsman at work. Photos: Courtesy Swarup

The role of boats in public life is getting a re-look now as the West Bengal Government is planning a revival plan for the boat making industry in Balagarh in the Hooghly District, around 75 kilometres from state capital, Kolkata.  Ironically, despite the introduction of motorised boats, demand  for the age-old ‘cottage industry’ boats, a continuing tradition from the 16th Century, is increasing as floods have become a regular  and unpredictable feature with global warming affecting rain patterns in many regions in the world, including India.

In West Bengal, mororised boats reportedly cannot enter the interior areas with creeks and gullies at the height of monsoon whereas wooden boats ensure better navigability during floods.

There is also a proposal by government officials to place a plea for Geographical Identification (GI) tag for the Balagarh boat industry before the office of the patents, designs and trademarks in the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion at the Centre.

So what is so special about Balagarh boats to distinguish it from many others in existence? Says Partha Chattopadhyaya, professor, Balagarh Bijoykrishna Mahavidyalay, who has written the book Hooghly Zelar Nou-shilpa (The boat industry of Hooghly District): “Here the builders follow the jor-paddhoti method, that is, the planks to build the skeleton are joined without using any nails. This method of building boats is not witnessed anywhere in Bengal.These are all-purpose boats, not for sea, of course.” 

The Sripur-Balagarh area, surrounded by four rivers, the Bhagirathi, Saraswati, Behula and Kana, was the hub of boat making industry in the 16th Century as fishing was the mainstay of the people. Also, the place is very near to the legendary Saptagram Port. When the Portuguese landed in Bengal looking for trade they entered through Saptagram, a conglomerate of seven grams or villages.

There was demand for skilled men to repair their ships or build new ones. Chattopadhyaya, an avid researcher on local history, talks about Portuguese pirates who also used Balagarh-made boats (between 1795 and 1845 the area was infamous for dacoits and a local, Bishu dakat, created terror in the area). Later, with the Saraswati River drying up, the importance of Saptagram Port declined.

However, the boat industry continued catering to local demands but in the last few decades it has seen hard days. With the cost of making them  getting steeper and the end product not selling at much of a profit, many of the skilled workers have moved to other professions or migrated to other places.

Bengal’s boat-making tradition, however, is not confined to Balagarh alone. The Boat Museum in Kolkata, perhaps the only such in India, has 46 models on display which showcase ‘heritage boats of Bengal’. They were fashioned by craftsmen from Dinajpur District with inputs from Swarup Bhattacharya, visiting fellow, Anthropological Survey of India, who specializes in the subject. 

Each boat has a character of its own with a specific design and purpose. For example, the flat-bottomed kosha boat with its pointed front is suited for the rapid rivers of North Bengal whereas the dinghi is more in use in waters of the Hooghly near Kolkata which flows at a much slower pace. Bhattacharya has an interesting comment on the word dinghi. “In Bengali, we actually call it dingi which resonates with Austric words used by indigenous people like Santhals, Mundas, etc and it proves this land’s history vis-a-vis boat-making could be quite ancient.” 

The flat-bottomed khorokisti was meant for transporting hay (khor) in bulk. In contrast, wood-carrying boat, such as the betnai has a much deeper, V-shaped hull. The big-sized goloiya from the Malda Region is meant for carrying passengers and goods. The slim chhip boat is used for boat racing. 

Bhattacharya rues that though Bengal has had a boat racing tradition, as in Kerala, going back to a century or more, in places like Ghusighata and Malancha in South 24-Parganas District near the Sunderbans, people are hardly aware of it. “All this shows that the boat builders, though not educated with engineering degrees, are sharp observers and problem-solvers. They are well conversant with the local topography, the community’s need, ecology, and the nature of the river. After all, all the rivers are not the same,” he adds.

An interesting feature of boats in Bengal is that it has always been compared to the mocha, the banana flower, for its shape, but also as something relatable to everyday life as it is apopular vegetable used in various curries in Bengal. “For the riverine countryside, a boat is invaluable – to fish, cross rivers, carry merchandise. The loss of a boat means poverty for the family, hence its importance in their daily life.”

The craft of boat-making passes through the guru-shishya parampara, covering generations the hands-on education learnt from the master craftsman. “Boats are connected with human evolution and migration which started much before the wheels took over. As long as there are rivers, there will be boats,” Bhattacharya reiterates.

(The writer is a senor journalist based in Kolkata.)

October – December 2022