The subject matter of this article is very intriguing, the heading more unique. The word “uru” isn’t used very often in our lives, maybe even never, because this article talks about Kerala’s esoteric boat making industry. This is not going to be filled with tedious numbers and data that might put you in a deep slumber. Urus mean traditional big wooden boats. Think of the “Black Pearl” from “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Where did they make it ? How did they make it? By whom was it made?
The answer lies in the labor intensive Uru making process followed in Kerala. This ‘God’s Own Country’ is home to such unique uru (boat) yards. Two places are very closely associated with this topic; firstly, a part of Kochi called Ernakulam, which is a center for various business activities including boat making and second; Beypore, Kozhikode which is famous for its old port, vinegar dipped fruits and of course, urus.
Now that the “where” part of it is answered, let’s take a look at the two other questions facing us. Imagine this, in one of these places 30 people are working on a couple of Urus. They start by cutting down approximately 25 trees (for one uru) mainly pine, larch or cedar that too from a trusted supplier. Thank god these worldly wise folks replant all the trees that are cut.
Then they saw the wood and shape a boat for approximately 2- 2 ½ years joining large pieces of wood with plentiful 10 inch nails, tens of kilograms of super glue etc. The end stage involves the uru being carried into the water a humongous slate.
Their clientele is mostly royal families in the Middle East. The boat is sold for approximately 9 crore INR. The boat then further sails off to one of the Gulf countries to get polished and interior designed. The interiors and finishings will take up to another 9 crore INR!
An interesting point to know is that there are no physical blueprints or any such guiding material. It is all in the mind of the master. The main structure of the boat is orally planned out.
Once the main structure of the boat is decided upon, the uru making process starts. First, by carving the wood, but in an intricate manner. The wood is carved in an immaculate manner and isn’t as easy to carve as one might imagine. Perfection to the core with no room for error! Even cutting the wood into different sizes needs a lot of precision which is why this industry requires highly specialized skilled labor with an eye for detail. These are traditional craftsmen working for generations through centuries.
An interesting observation is, if it takes 2 years to build the product, then that is how long their production cycle must be! Even considering an advance payment, this industry requires patience because of its long gestation period with a margin of not more than 15 per cent. This implies that the time taken to get the business to reach a stage where it can start showcasing results is long. It is also crucial to notice that unlike any other businesses Uru makers cannot compromise on quality to reduce costs because that can prove to be detrimental for clients who take their boats deep into the rough tides of the ocean.
This industry has significance thanks in no small part to the foreign exchange it attracts. This intriguing industry from the interiors of Kerala brings in millions of FOREX in terms of Kuwaiti Dinar, UAE Dirham etc. This industry also helps employ a lot of highly skilled laborers that have less chance of survival in most of the other industries due to the increased role of machinery nowadays.
Sadly, the employability of highly skilled laborers is just temporary. As yachts become more popular and manual labor loses its value with increased use of efficient machinery and sustainable materials these handmade urus will slowly fade into history.