One rainy afternoon in July, an insurance assessor, and a dhow buyer arrive in a shipyard in Jam Salaya, and are interested in the same vessel – the Ghous Pak. What ensued on board was as unpredictable as the weather.

Vijay, an insurance agent was nervous. He had just been promoted and moved to the maritime wing of the All India Insurance Company from the life insurance department.  “Finally! Now you will make some big commissions - with importers and exporters, big shipping companies!” His wife had exclaimed even as he grinned upon hearing the news. But rather than working at big container ports, with large multinational corporations, on that afternoon in July, he found himself in a small town on the Gulf of Kachchh. Even as he drove to Jam Salaya he stared enviously at the buildings of the offices of oil magnates such as Essar and Reliance Industries as the rickety taxi he was in drove past them toward the town of Jam Salaya, a densely populated dilapidated town. People had even warned him before coming to Jam Salaya, “You’re going where? Jam Salaya, haha there is nothing there.”He shook his head, glad that he had a packed lunch. There wasn’t even a hotel or restaurant in this town made of swamp and sea.

Where the waters of the Gulf of Kachchh end, and where the town of Jam Salaya begins is difficult to point out, even on a map. The Gulf of Kachchh stretches its arms deep into the town of Jam Salaya. One attempts to count its reach – one, two, three, and four - inlets appearing blue on a map shaded brown and blue, the colors bleeding into each other on this aqueous northern edge of the Kathiawar peninsula. The inlets themselves are not fixed, many of them shifting with the mangroves that surround the shores of the Gulf, the tides making it difficult to distinguish land from water. Like many other parts of Kachchh, land and water merge here, until the many inlets and creeks give way unto the Arabian Sea.  Between this tangle of land, water, and mangroves lies a ship-building yard, in which the tide enters and leaves at different parts of the day, allowing for both, a dry dock, and areas that fill with water so that vessels can float out to the sea.

Vijay stood in a mud flat in the shipyard, before a half-built wooden boat, a vahan, mechanized sailing vessel, country craft, or dhow. Not quite the type of ship his wife or he thought he would be dealing with. Staring at planks of wood stacked in the mud, he was confused. “What is this Ghous Pak?” He asked a boy who was cheerfully handing out tea to the carpenters and others too busy at work to notice this stranger appear on the scene.

“Aaah Ghous Pak! Its on the other end, where vessels are repaired. Come with me”

The boy led him past planks of wood being sawed, and the consistent hammering of nails by carpenters toward an area where already built vahans stood, in one corner of the dry dock. The Ghous Pak was one such vessel. It was this vessel he was to assess, wondering how, as he stood and stared at the 2000 ton wooden vessel before him. It smelt like the sea, as barnacles and molluscks scraped from the bottom of the ship lay piled up in one corner. In another were cans of Jaitun paint, coir, nails, bolts, large cans of vegetable oil, fish oil, the tools of repair.  He wrinkled his nose, not knowing where to begin. He began to call Abdul, the dhow owner to tell him that he had arrived but was interrupted, “Sir, how much you are offering for this launch? I am also trying to buy you know.”

Before him was a woman, surprising as he had not seen a single woman in the shipyard. About to open his mouth to speak, he saw a man in white approaching them both. He sighed. It was Abdul, the owner of the vessel.

“Ahh insurance seller Vijay and vessel buyer Raabiya! Both of you showed up at the same time? Two birds one stone, no they say in English? Good for me!”

The woman, Raabiya laughed. Vijay coughed. He pulled out a sheet of paper from his bag. “Let's begin inspection okay?”

Abdul nodded, “Inspection and tour all in one. Follow me.” As they stood before the Ghous Pak, a 40 meter long boat, the crew of the vessel threw over a ladder, holding it in place. Abdul climbed up the ladder, Raabiya following him, not missing a step. Vijay stared at the ladder precariously held up against the vessel, and gingerly lifted one foot after another, worried about falling into the swamp below. The boy with the chai giggled behind him.

As they stood on deck, the vessel’s wooden bones were laid bare. Vijay followed Abdul who stood on a plank of wood at the edge of the deck. He noticed a similar, larger plank at the center, and then at the other end: the ship’s skeleton. These straight planks of wood framed curved wooden ribs attached to a large, long plank at the bottom, the ship’s hull. The vessel’s cavernous belly was open at the center, revealing the symmetrical wooden squares of the empty cargo hold. Abdul proudly said, “This is the finest vahan ever built here. Even though its 2000 tons and smaller than the 2500 ton carrying capacity now being built, it’s the fastest ship! And made by the finest gaidars, no models, no diagrams. They still rely on the knowledge of our ancestors. The vessel even survived Cyclone Mekunu, even as so many vessels sank in Socotra and Oman! This one came back, got fixed up and is now ready to go again. To Dubai! Shihr, Nishtoon and Socotra and then onward to Bossasso, Mogadishu and even Mombasa and the Comoros!”

Raabiya smiled, nodding approvingly. Vijay felt dumbfounded but thought to ask, “What was Cyclone Mekunu?”

Abdul laughed. “You don’t know Cyclone Mekunu? It was the most intense tropical cyclone to hit the Arabian Peninsula in recorded history. It devastated the island of Socotra, Yemen on May 23, 2018. The Ghous Pak was docked in Socotra on that day. It was supposed to load coral and limestone for Dubai but loading was paused because the cyclone was approaching. Although the cyclone was being monitored closely by meteorologists and sailors on weather apps such as StormWatch and Windy.com, its effects were deathly, and unpredictable. In Socotra, the cyclone sank 120 fishing boats, and over five vahans from the Gulf of Kachchh, twenty-four sailors reported missing. The cyclone then moved toward Salalah, Oman, flooding the streets, and sinking seven more Kachchhi vahans.”

Raabiya then added, “Goodness, the wives of sailors here in Jam Salaya must have been so worried!”

Abdul added, “ Yes, the Sufi shrines, dargahs here were full of women praying for their men’s safety. The Ghous Pak, named after Sufi saint Abdul Kadir Gilani was saved! See that flag over there?” He pointed to a green flag on the bow of the vessel.  “That’s from a local shrine, Shah Murad Bukhari’s shrine. This flag leads the way for us, that and praying to God helped save the vessel and the sailors. But this vessel was made strong from day 1. The first nail hammered into it was by our Imam here, who on the day of Nava Naroj, the beginning of the sailing season when we venerate Darya Pir, the saint of the sea. Its an auspicious day.”

Vijay was getting impatient with this long story. He pulled out the sheet of paper for registration and for assessing the insurance and asked Abdul to fill it out. He quickly filled the blank spaces:

“Name of Vessel” Ghous Pak

“Name of owners”: Kadir Maritime Company

“Built at” Jam Salaya

“registration date” July 1, 2015

“Number of registration” 874567

“Port of registration” Bedi. He was about to ask about the

“Length” Breadth” “Depth” “Gross tonnage” “Reductions on account of engine room space” and registered tonnage of the vessel but then was interrupted.

Raabiya jumped in “But is that all you want to know about registering a vahan?! Do you realize what this is?! The English call them Dhows, even though there are many different types of “dhows” depending on by the shape of the stern, stem and hull such as the ocean-going Arab baghala (mule), bum, and sambuk, the Indian kotia and ghanja, or then coastal vessels such as the East African mashua, mtepe, jahazi, Arab jalbut, Indian pattamar and batil. All of these are a result of a shared history between Indian, Arab, Persian, Swahili, Greek, and Portuguese seafarers .<sup>[1]</sup> In the nineteenth century the British called them all dhows even though the term comes from Kiswahili dau which was used to refer to a specific small coastal vessel or could perhaps be traced to the twelfth century when it was used to refer to large ocean-going ships. The term was popularized by the British as they sought to control the slave trade off the East African coast in the nineteenth century…”

Abdul was impressed but interrupted her, “The British tried to decipher the differences based on size, and shape, but ultimately, by the 1940s came to classify all dhows or “native vessels” as those that had the “outward appearance of being of native build” and manned by a crew whose origins were from the Indian Ocean.<sup>[2]</sup> In India, these “dhows” were also referred to as “country crafts” in official parlance, the term gesturing to their association with “natives.” As they came to be mechanized, they became “mechanized sailing vessels” or even launches.”

Raabiya continued, “All of these different vessels were used long before Europeans came to the region. These ships were powered by the monsoon winds, and connected Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They made it the “cradle of globalization.”  Today, dhows run on diesel, but modern mechanized dhows like the Kachchhi vahans – meaning vehicle in Kachchhi and Hindi/Urdu continue this long tradition.”

Abdul: “Sailors and dhow builders across the Indian Ocean had long shared knowledge of shipbuilding and navigation, adapting even the materials they used for construction. The dhow defies any notion of purity. For instance, vahans were adapted from the Kachchhi kotia, outfitted with diesel engines, often second-hand generators once used on container ships. This is however, only one instance of improvisation. Vahans that were once made of teak from India and Burma are now made of cheaper sal wood from Malaysia. Even the form is inherently adaptable. The duraa or the cargo hold is built so that planks may be rearranged to hold different cargoes, whether outfitted with enclosures for cattle, sacks of tea and coffee or even cars. Even the cabin of the vessel might be rebuilt and redesigned in port. It is precisely this flexibility in form and in mobility that have led to the endurance of this vessel amid the rise of rigid steamships and containers. Many now have a crane at the center, making loading and unloading of goods less labor intensive.”

“Does the crane on this vahan even work?” Raabiya asked, suddenly overcome by the concerns of a buyer.

“Yes, see, it was even repaired after damage from the cyclone.”

“What else needed to be repaired?” Raabiya asked.

“See, we usually repair the vessel everytime its docked in port. The sailors – captain, makhwa and the crew, khalaasis are constantly washing, painting, cleaning and repairing. Sometimes when waiting for cargo, they even build additional things, like change the design of the cabin and such. When the bottom of the ship needs to be cleaned, atleast once a year and repairs made to wood that’s coming loose, or waterproofing and painting the bottom of the ship, they go to a dry dock. Either Jaddaf, in Dubai or then they come back to India. When the cyclone hit in Socotra, the Ghous Pak needed major repairs - planks of wood had come loose and water was seeping in to the vessel. So after the cyclone we brought it back to India. Each loose plank had to replaced. See the gaidars over there? They measure each loose plank precisely, and then replace it. We then waterproof it by stuffing coir/cotton in the gaps, sealing it. The coir has been treated in oil so that no water seeps through. We also fixed the sukhan, the wheel of the ship. These vessels can keep going for a hundred years. One just needs to build and then repair, and repair…”

Vijay looked down at the sheet of paper before him and then stared at the vahan in front of him. Here the weather, wind, wars, and even time itself stood suspended, in a state of constant repair.

Country Port Import Export
Somalia Mogadishu Electronics, oil, household goods, tea, coffee, food aid Livestock, charcoal (banned 2011)
Kismayu Electronics, oil, household goods, tea, coffee, food aid Livestock, charcoal (banned 2011)
Bossaso Electronics, oil, household goods, tea, coffee, food aid Livestock, charcoal (banned 2011)
Kenya Mombasa Dried fish Household goods, tea, coffee, food aid
Tanzania Zanzibar Household goods, tea, coffee, food aid Spices
Yemen Shihr Used cars, washing machines, refrigerators, household goods -
Nishtoon Used cars, washing machines, refrigerators, household goods -
Socotra Used cars, washing machines, refrigerators, household goods Coral and limestone
UAE Sharjah Livestock, charcoal (banned 2011) Used cars, washing machines, macaroni, shoes, clothing, fish nets, ceramics, shampoo, refrigerators, household goods, oil
Dubai Livestock, charcoal (banned 2011) Used cars, washing machines, refrigerators, household goods, oil
Iran Bandar Abbas Used cars, washing machines, refrigerators, household goods Oil, dates
Bahrain Bahrain Livestock, charcoal (banned 2011) Dates
Qatar Al Ruwais Livestock, charcoal (banned 2011) Dates
Pakistan Karachi Dates, washing machines, refrigerators, household goods Rice, onions, fruits, wheat
India Tuna Goats (banned 2018)
Mundra Used tires Rice, onions, wheat
Iraq Basra Used cars, washing machines, refrigerators, household goods Dates, oil
Oman Khasab Livestock Livestock,Household goods, electronics
Salalah Livestock Livestock, Household goods, electronics



Registration of Native Vessels Ordinance

Colony of Aden

Registration of dhows or “native vessels” understood to be “outward appearance of native build” and manned by a crew who belong to the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden, Red Sea or Persian Gulf.

All different types of dhows were now under this category and required to register with British authorities.


World War II

Expansion of dhow trade across Indian Ocean as they became feeders and important connectors across ports


Independence for India and Pakistan


Sailing Vessels Committee formed.

Indian Government undertakes research for one year to understand to assess how dhows could be utilized to “sustain and develop the Economy of the country”


Sailing Vessel Committee report published by the Ministry of Commerce, India. Importation of wet and dry dates was exclusively restricted to dhows or as they were known “country crafts,” rather than steam or containerized ships

Ports of Mundra, Mandvi, Jangi, Jakhau, Koteshwar, and Lakhpat to be developed for “country crafts” to act as feeders for major port at Kandla

The ministry sought to encourage the local shipbuilding industry, which they saw as an artisanal form of trade. For example, they cite Mandvi as having a long tradition of ship building that needs to be encouraged.


Registration of Indian dhows in Muscat and Muttrah and issuance of Seaman’s Identity Cards by The Ministry of External Affairs India and Indian Consulate, Muscat.

The Ministry records that 50% of trade between India and Muscat takes place on dhows, emphasizing the potential of these dhows for international trade. Dhow captains must report to Indian Consulate.


Ministry of Shipping and Transport, India issues loans to encourage building of mechanized sailing vessels


Revolution in Iran


The Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm)

U.S., Iraq, Kuwait


Fall of Siad Barre and central Government in Somalia


Economic Liberalization in India due pressure from the WTO and IMF.

Reservation of cargo for country crafts ends.


Piracy in Somalia and the Indian Ocean


Mumbai ports closed for vahans by the Indian government. Vahans can now ply only through ports in Gujarat.


Ban on charcoal trade from Somalia by Kenya, AMISOM, United Nations.


War in Yemen Yemen


Export of goats banned from India by the Indian government. Port of Tuna closes.


COVID-19 Pandemic Worldwide