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Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

Research project: Backwater Boats of Kerala - Dormant - Dormant

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An ethnographic study of work, enskilment and the bodily engagements of boat building and boat use in Kerala, south India.

Identity, place and the world of Munruthuruthu

This ethnographic project explored the role boats play in producing person and place in Munruthuruthu, a Keralan backwater village near Kollam, and asked what boats reveal about the world in which they are created. It examines how people, places and things are constituted through everyday work practices and all the other relational, embodied, habitual activities of life.

Refining the sheerlines, after the strakes have been tied together.
1: Building a kettuvallam

Munruthuruthu and its boats

The area around Munruthuruthu is known for boat building and, in particular, for building kettuvallam (Fig.1), planked boats that are tied (or sewn) together using locally-produced coir rope. It is situated on the fringes of an estuarine lake system, with the Kallada River flowing north of it and feeding into the estuary to its west, and with the largest lake, Ashtamudi (after which the estuary is named), between it and the Western Indian Ocean. Munruthuruthu is threaded through with small canals and waterways, and is made up of a small number of sprawling neighbourhoods with somewhat ephemeral boundaries, conglomerations of houses, yards, channels, prawn ponds and small pockets of agricultural land.

Boats are central to life in Munruthuruthu, physically, socio-economically and culturally. Locally, it is said that ‘everyone has one’ and even if, in reality, they do not, everyone has some connection to boats. Kettuvallam are built in and around the village. They are used to collect grass for animals and transport coconuts, coir and livestock, or are built for rent or sale as ferries or for mud collecting and sand mining. They are borrowed from neighbours to go shellfish collecting, check on prawn ponds or visit friends. The village has boat builders, timber agents, two sawmills, and a boat renting agent.

Even those who are not tied to boat building and do not own a boat, are a part of a web of interactions that connect them to boats. There are those who work on boats, the tourist guides and boatmen, the sand miners, mud collectors, and fishermen. There are those who take the ferry across the Kallada River to commute to work, and those who re-use boat timbers as bridges or doors or sell an anjili tree from their yard for boat timber. In the December to March season, boats are pulled up on any spare ground around the village, to dry, be repaired, oiled and set afloat again. People walk and cycle around them, they smell the fish and cashew oils used to preserve them and hear the noises of carpentry everywhere around the village.

In contrast to kettuvallam, kourevallam are carved from single tree trunks.
2: Carving a kourevallam

Boats are integral to Munruthuruthu, and as individual boats they are enmeshed in webs of relations with people, places, other boats and both animate and inanimate things. They also mark social structures and organisations and, in some ways, divisions. For example, a kettuvallam (tied boat) has multiple uses but it is not a fishing boat. Fishing boats are dugouts, or kourevallam (small boat), which are built in a different way, from different wood by different craftsman. Kourevallam are carved from single tree trunks (Fig.2), and the work takes place where the tree grew and was felled, sometimes many kilometres from the home of the vallam paniyuka (boat maker). Only a fishing family would own a kourevallam, and though they may use it for recreation, transport or other purposes, it remains a fishing boat: a kourevallam.

Likewise, no matter how many repairs - using planks tied in place - are made to a kourevallam, it remains a ‘fishing boat’ and is never described as a tied boat or kettuvallam. In contrast, kettuvallam are used for every possible purpose except inland fishing, from transport sand mining. They are built in and around the village, often in the yard of the person who has commissioned them, sometimes only metres from the meistri’s home (boat builder). In Munruthuruthu fishermen are also geographically separated, most live across the Puthanar canal in Singarapally. Yet boats also bind them to the rest of the village area. They move through Munruthuruthu’s channels selling fish and talking to neighbours, and some get repairs made to their kourevallam by local kettuvallam meistri.

The village of Munruthuruthu is shaped by water.
3: Channels run through the village

Boats are also a response to the environment of Munruthuruthu and entwined in the relationships between people and their watery world. Munruthuruthu is shaped by water, by the monsoon rain and occasional floods, the estuarine tides and currents, and the seasonal rise and fall of the water level around the village with the accompanying ebb and flow of land. Boats are part of movement through this world, central to domestic and commercial work. Ashtamudi kayal and the Kallada River connect Munruthuruthu to the city, the sea and Kochi district to the north. While small channels and interconnecting waterways map the village (Fig.3); they are routeways to the agriculture of the prawn ponds (former paddy fields) running beneath and intersecting the network of paths, revetments and bridges. They are more local and a little less part of the public sphere than the few roads, since, unlike the roads, they move through people’s backyards and between family compounds. Women wash at the channel edges and children learn to swim by their back steps.

Parts of the village are remade using lake mud.
4: Collecting mud from the lakebed

People’s experience of, and movement through, the world is shaped by boats and water. Easy shifts are made from boat to path to wading small channels around the village. People call out across rivers, and gather news from fishing boats as they pass. Fishermen eat in their boat at waterside teashops. The backwaters are not so much a land-scape, but a watery world. The physical boundary between land and water is mutable and constantly renegotiated, and this watery between-ness is part of the everyday, deeply embedded in the regular rhythms and pragmatic living of village life. People regularly, and unaffectedly, remake land and water as part of everyday action. The paddy field becomes a coconut grove, as mud is collected and raised up around new palms, simultaneously making land and the channels between. Many of the older generation made the land their houses stand on, collecting mud from the lake and in infilling paddy fields. Mud collecting is still a profitable livelihood (Fig.4). Men cut mud from shallow areas of the lake bed with their feet, dive down and scoop it into their boats to transport it into the village - to coconut groves, fields and revetments. In this way, parts of the village are made from the lake.

Similarly, water itself keeps shifting, constantly re-establishing balance. In areas of reclamation one high tide, even at this distance from the sea, can change land to water. Whilst, at the edges of the village where ponds, channels and coconut groves blend into lake, land dissolves into water and water is absorbed into land. Munruthuruthu is comfortable with the shifting states of land and water within which it sits – they are integral to its past and present – to paddy, prawn pond, fishing and sand mining. Moreover, boats are entangled within this world, entwined in people’s sense of identity and of place, and in their relationships with each other and with their watery world (Fig.5).

The project

There is a considerable distance between the complex, intimate tangle of connections between boats, people and watery place which produce the world of the backwaters, and the prevailing approaches to studying ‘traditional’ boats. The dominantly typo-technological analyses which most studies of ‘traditional’ boats produce are the result of a historically-situated and culturally-specific understanding of human-object-environment relations, rooted in the separation of the social and material world (of mind and matter). In response, this project draws on counter modern discourses in social theory, anthropology and archaeology to present an alternative boat study.

Fieldwork was carried out in Munruthuruthu and the Ashtamudi Estuary between 2007 and 2008. It focused on two boat types from two distinct contexts, a kettuvallam (tied boat) and a kourevallam (dugout canoe or logboat), and the people immediately connected to those boats: the boat builders, owners and users. Thus, study of the construction methods, social relationships involved in making these boats, the daily journeys they make and the work they are involved in, as well as their maintenance and repair, reveals the production and negotiation of identities in Munruthuruthu and discloses perceptions of environment and the constitution of places.

The resultant account of Munruthuruthu demonstrates the value of re-conceiving boat studies as an exploration of the enmeshed relations between people and their world. Moreover, it raises fundamental questions about how we conceive of the inhabitation of watery places, and therefore has the potential to disrupt some of the culturally-specific constructs prevalent in both the fieldwork practice and interpretive frameworks of traditional boat studies and in maritime archaeological discourse.

Support and funding

This project was supported by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Award, with fieldwork funding from the Royal Anthropological Institute through an Emslie Horniman Fund 2007 Sutasoma Award. Additional research and language-training funding was provided by INTACH UK and the Nehru Trust.

In Kerala, the Kerala Council for Historical Research provided institutional support; whilst Renu Henry (now with Kabani) collaborated in all aspects of the fieldwork, providing friendship, support and insight throughout fieldwork. Finally, and most importantly, Mohanan, Nakulan, Babu, Edward and the people of Munruthuruthu were welcoming and generous with their time, offering tireless explanations and endless patience.

All photos: Jesse Ransley
5: Fishing at the village edge

Associated research themes

Maritime Archaeology

Related research groups

Maritime Archaeology

Conference

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