The Story in a Sailboat



Think ‘Alleppey’ and you think house boats gliding down estuaries fringed by emerald fields, palm fronds bending their will to a gentle wind, and kingfishers swooping to snag a juicy catch just beneath the glassy surface of what seems like the very definition of serenity – the tranquil backwaters of Kerala.

But there’s something not quite right about this idyllic picture. In a coconut orchard in Kadakkarappally village, in Alappuzha (formerly Alleppy) district, lurks the wreck of a sail boat. Still cradled in its muddy grave, the boat was unearthed in the early 1990s by villagers digging a field for cultivation – a good 1.5 km from the sea.


Alappuzha is famous for its annual boat races

How did it get here? How old was this craft? What stories could it tell?

Kerala is a land of rivers that form a complex network of estuaries, lakes and lagoons, which eventually connect to the Arabian Sea. For centuries, the locals have used these waterways to commute and transport goods and are thus experts on boats used on rivers and in the open sea. Moreover, Alappuzha is famous for its annual boat races, and the villagers who found the medieval boat were quick to realise that what they had found was not a country craft or a pleasure boat; it was a sail boat with a double mast – indicating that it had been used in open waters.

Map marking Kadakkarappally
Map marking Kadakkarappally|Jose Raphael / LHI

Fortunately, a local history enthusiast from the area brought the find to the notice of the State Archaeology Department and the Centre For Heritage Studies, Tripunithura. Archaeological studies on the boat have since opened a window to what this area was like 700 years ago, providing a backdrop – a reason – for the Kadakkarappally sailboat’s presence here.


The spot where the sailboat was formed part of the territory ruled by the Karappuram chieftains

That was a time when Kerala was entering a new era and making contact with seaborne traders from the West, including the Portuguese and the Dutch in the late 15th century. The spot where the sailboat was formed part of the territory ruled by the Karappuram chieftains, whose power later diminished due to the colonial rulers.

There is evidence that, in the past, thanks to its intricate water connectivity, Alappuzha was an important centre of trade and commerce. In fact, before the development of Kochi as the new economic capital of Kerala in the post-Independent era, Alappuzha was a port city with a flourishing trade.

A closeup view of the remains
A closeup view of the remains|Jose Raphael

With its seafaring history going back hundreds of years and the inevitable intermingling of cultures, Alappuzha has many historical monuments like Jain temples, including the famous Jain Shwethambar Temple that has connections with Gujarati traders. Pliny and Ptolemy of the 1st century AD have mentioned places such as Purakkad as ‘Barace’, which is near Alappuzha.

The numerous statues of Buddha made of granite in different parts of Alappuzha, the most famous one being the Karumadikuttan idol, speak to the historical significance of this port city.  The discovery of the sailboat only underlines its commercial past. But the question is, how old was this vessel is? And who made it?


The mystery boat had been made locally

The archaeologists investigating the Kadakkarappally sailboat involved local carpenters to find out more. They were certain that the wood used to make the craft was anjalee (Artocarpus hirsutus), which is still used to make boats in the area.  So the mystery boat had been made locally.

Mast step in the bow of the Boat
Mast step in the bow of the Boat|Jose Raphael

But what puzzled them was its construction – the vessel was unlike anything they had seen before.  Though the wood used in the boat was familiar, the technology used to craft it was not indigenous. Further examination revealed revealed some salient features of the boat that offered vital clues to its origin and purpose.

The boat used many iron nails, mostly clenched and with square cross-sections, as well as wooden nails that exhibit the same cross-section. There is also evidence of caulking, a process of sealing joints, which used a natural sealant that is not common today. In contrast, traditional craft in the area do not use iron nails. Their planks are joined by a system of sewing with ropes. The joints and seams are sealed with an organic caulking material and wooden nails used to make the joints stronger before coating with organic waterproofing materials like fish fat or plant-based materials.


The vessel was unlike anything they had seen before

Closer examination of the inner hull of the sailboat showed that several cleats had been carved out to insert rope. The same can be seen on the floor of the boat. Securing the planks with rope provides additional strength to the craft. A few rope fragments were found with the cleats.

Remains of what looks like a stone anchor
Remains of what looks like a stone anchor|Jose Raphael

The body or hull of the vessel has two layers of planking strakes and the craft was divided into 10 compartments, with wooden planks used to separate the compartments.

The boat also has a flat bottom and a double mast, which is not typical of boat types in this region. The flat bottom suggests that it was not used by seafarers and was clearly a part of the inland water transport system.


Its use of iron nails is not indigenous technology

The boat’s rectangular profile, its lack of keel or stem, or stern post, and the hull being planked with two layers suggest a Chinese or South East Asian influence in its construction. Its use of iron nails is not indigenous technology, either. Its clenched iron nails, where the protruding point of the nail is deformed over a rove to form a second head, are a feature explicitly identified with a Northwest European style of boat-building.

An analysis of the sailboat’s features with contemporary literature offers clues to how old it was and what it was used for. Portuguese historian Gaspar Correa (1496- 1563 AD) mentions in his book Lendas da India or ‘Legends of India’, boats that are found in the ports of Kannur  ‘ …(boats) have the planks nailed with thin nails with broadheads fitted on, and also broad…. Inside, instead of decks, they have chambers and compartments made for merchandise and are flat bottomed.’

The materials found in the boat do not tell us anything about its exact purpose, ie. whether it was a passenger boat or used to ferry cargo. The objects recovered from the boat are remains of shells, and a few bone and pottery fragments, which might have been a post-depositional (intrusion of these materials into the boat after it got abandoned and while getting buried.)


Shipworms have eaten extensively into the craft

The most interesting find was a stone weighing 128 kg, dressed and flattened on all sides, which might have been used as an anchor. But since it does not have a hole or anything that might allow a rope to be fastened to it, this stone remains a mystery.

There is also evidence that the vessel had been repaired, which means it had been used for a long time. Shipworms have eaten extensively into the craft. Since there is evidence of this on both exterior and interior surfaces, the shipworms seem to have appeared after the boat was abandoned.

Radiocarbon dating on the sailboat places the vessel towards the end of the 15th century, a period just around the arrival of the Portuguese. The discovery of the craft also points to the fact that, 700 years ago, the backwaters here extended far more inland at the time – at least 1.5 km more than they are today, to the point where the sailboat was found. No wonder the old traditional houses in the area were on raised platforms, some of which even exist today.


The discovery of the sailboat has offered many clues to the story of the region over 700 years ago

Based on evidence from that era, historians believe that like old Venice, transportation in this area was also mostly done on waterways. This explains why the main entrance of the important religious shrines here, such as the Kandamangalam Shri Rajarajeshwari Temple and the St Mary’s Forane Church, face the waterway.

While we don’t know who owned the boat or why it was abandoned, the discovery of the sailboat has offered many clues to the story of the region over 700 years ago. Given that the site has not yet been fully excavated, we will have to wait for more details that could emerge from this discovery – a true sentinel from a bygone era.

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