Adding a touch of colour and a whiff of fragrance ,the flowers of the Wild Gauva and Silk cotton tree top the pile of fallen leaves, as deciduous trees shed their leaves en-masse at the approach of the hot summer days.
The old boat maker, Rajan, was working under a neem tree ,by the Morjim jetty. He was glum and taciturn but worked methodically, day after day. He was making the last dug out canoe of his life, the kind he had made for many decades till his now impending retirement , the kind his son no longer used. Rajan had insisted however , that he would make one final dug out canoe before he downed his tools, as a gift to his son.
He patiently sawed and filed every day , working on the log of mango wood. Initially , he was very impatient about our questions and would hardly grunt a reply ,but as my friend and I kept dropping by daily to check how he was getting along , he slowly unbended.
Later on he would show us details that we did not know enough to notice …that planks would be added to the sides to add to the depth of the boat, that the planks would be attached ,not with nails or rivets that would rapidly rust in the warm tropical waters ,but stitched in place!
He savoured our amazement at the prospect and then sharply corrected our assumption that he would use the ubiquitous coconut rope for the purpose. Coconut rope would hardly do, he snorted, it would soak up the sea water, swell up and then wear down very fast. To stitch the planks together he would use the non absorbent fibre from the silk cotton tree, and the whole planking would be liberally painted with the organic tar from the cashew nut to keep out the shipworms.
Shipworms are a major fact of life for all those who use wood around the tropical seas ,especially in areas near mangrove forests where these bivalves thrive. Pier ,weir gates , jetties and of course boats can all be damaged seriously by the wood-boring bivalves. Thick layers of cashew tar painted all over keeps these molluscs at bay, but gives all the dug out canoes an uniform black colour.
In case you wondered what the silk cotton tree looked like ,here is a pic. The pods burst open in the summer heat releasing 3-4 inch long silky, non water absorbent fibers that are also used to stuff pillows.
Like most specialised skills in India, the art and science of boat making is also a hereditary profession, with each generation passing on their know how to the next. It is not to be assumed though, that the methods remained unchanged through the years. Most notably, the use of Cashew tar for the water proofing must only have come about after the Portugese colonialists introduced the cashew nut tree to India in the 14 th century.The times though are changing and our boat makers son is a fisherman, and he uses fibre glass boats, as do most of his generation.
The traditional methods of boat making are dying out nowadays as hand-made dugouts are being replaced by fiber glass boats that cost a fraction of that of hand-made boats and require very little maintenance. However, apart from the occasional re-stitching and fresh coats of cashew tar, hand-made boats are near indestructible and easily last a fisherman his life time. That is what our boat maker friend, Rajan, is banking on…. with a wicked grin he told us, “Let my son but tether her in the salt water, in time, she will outlast all his fancy fibre glass boats and one day he will come to appreciate his old father’s gift”. Amen to that.
One of the pleasures of living by the sea, is that, at times, I get to take my visitors to the beach and witness their reunion with the sea. Sometimes, we start to take the most magical experiences for granted , just because they are commonplace, but watching someone else savouring the same experience can remind us of how precious that experience is.
I accompanied an old schoolmate to the Vagator beach, and we took a long leisurely stroll along the water’s edge at day break. After some time, I parked myself at the high tide line with our flip-flops and just savoured her enjoyment of the sunrise. She works as a corporate lawyer in Delhi, and was just soaking up the entire experience of space, and open sky , of the rolling waves and just the fun of walking around shoeless on a weekday.
So we walked along the beach and watched the flowers of Goat foot morning-glory (Ipomea pescapra) open as the sun rose. These are hardy creepers that spread in carpets on the beach, however they cannot survive in salt water, so one can see a neat margin where their spread is stopped by the high tide line. Hence in the Marathi language they are also known as ‘Maryada-vel’, the ‘Honour vine’ as it sticks to its parameters. The leaves do resemble the cloven footprints left by goats.
Local fishermen and divers also value the Goat foot morning glory for it’s medicinal properties. A poultice made by boiling the stems is said to be a very effective cure for jellyfish stings ,which unfortunately are quite common in some seasons.
The Goat foot morning-glory is generally found on our tropical beaches in association with another spiny salt resistant grass , the hilariously named Ravana’s-moustache. Ravana was the ten headed demon king , villain of the Indian epic ‘Ramayana’, and the spiny tubular leaves must have suggested a likeness to some ancient botanist as the English moniker is but a translation of its name in several south Indian languages.
These two trailing vines, the Goat- foot morning glory and the Ravana’s moustache hold down the sand dunes by the sea and form part of the natural flora of the beach. The ancient Tamil poets were the first to notice that the Sea turtles would come out of the seas on full moon nights and lay their eggs in shallow sand scrapes, on beaches, where the Goat foot morning-glory and the Ravana’s moustache grew.
The Ravana’s moustache grass produces really spiky balls as seed heads, that detach from the plant when ripe and easily roll across the beaches and even skitter across shallow water to set up new colonies.
These hardy plants are part of the natural ecosystem of the tropical beaches, but they are often destroyed by sand mining from the beaches, planting of salt resistant shade trees or clearing of beaches for a bare, sandy look. Yet they, and the nesting Sea turtles have been around since the age of the dinosaurs and only if we learned to appreciate their odd beauty, will they continue to flourish and nature will hopefully, smile under the spiny moustaches.
Took a short cut,through a winding bylane in the old village of Saligao ,on my way to meet a friend. A few snap shots from the mid afternoon walk.
The Indian Mistletoe (Dendropthae falcata) grows widely as a hemiparasite on trees. like it’s European counterparts it is spread by birds that feed on it’s goey berries and then wipe their beaks on the barks of trees or pass out the undigested seeds in their shit.
The plants are partial parasites and besides gaining some nutrients from the bark also sucks the sap of the tree they are growing on, causing some damage to the host. Naturally, orchard farmers consider them as weeds, especially when they are growing on fruit trees like mango or jujube. One of the major jobs of orchard upkeep around here is the drastic lopping off of branches parasitised by the Dendropthoe , which is done every summer , when the trees shed their leaves.
The Indian mistletoe has some medicinal uses according to the ancient Indian sysytem of medicine Ayurveda. Apart from that , they do not figure in a big way in Indian culture, ritual or folklore. (That is , as far as I know , as of today)
They look pretty though, and bear clusters of flowers in spring. Some varieties have pink flowers, while the one I am seeing in Goa , have white blooms.
Many sunbirds , spidercatchers and other tiny nectar drinking birds relish thier nectar, and a variety of bees and insects are always to be seen hovering about the flowers, collecting pollen as well as nectar no doubt, and they would surely disagree that is strange plant is a ‘weed’.