The handmade boat

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.

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Shaping the log

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.

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Patient labour with chisel and hammer

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!

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the planking stitched together with non absorbent rope

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Neat cross stitches hold together the planks of another sea-going canoe

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.

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The bivalved molluscs (shipworms) bore holes wood exposed to sea water

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.

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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.

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Old fashioned dug out canoes and fibre glass boats all bob at anchor in the bay

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.

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Ravana’s moustache

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.

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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.

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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.

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Jellyfish washed up on the beach

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.

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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.

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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.

Bylanes

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.

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Walking home from the bus stop

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Bouganvilleas spill over the wall

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Village dogs snooze in the shade of the chapel

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Fanciful signage

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Mango tree in flower

The Indian Mistletoe

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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.

2015jan 1009 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.

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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)

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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.

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DSCN4087 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’.

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The Crucifix crab

The other day at the Chapora jetty, I saw this colorful crab with red markings topping the days catch. It seemed familiar, then I remembered seeing photographs of it…it was the Crucifix crab (Charybdis feriata ).

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The Crucifix crab tops the catch

It is in fact, quite a common species of crab that is found in shallow, sandy or rocky coastlines along the tropical water of the Indo-Pacific. From the eastern coast of Africa, all along the Persian gulf, the Indian coast to Java and Sumatra, Crucifix crabs are part of the regular crab catch.

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The crab returns the crucifix to Saint Xavier

What makes them special is the tale that has got woven around their unusual markings, if you look closely you can make out a cross shaped mark, on the carapace. Well, legend goes that the Jesuit missionary, St Francis  Xavier had lost his crucifix,while attempting to calm a stormy sea while on board a ship bound for Indonesia. In the morning , when they had landed safely, a crab marched out of the ocean carrying the lost crucifix  and handed it over to the saint. Since then, the Crucifix crab and it’s descendants have had the cross marked on their carapace, as a mark of the saint’s gratitude .

Sadly for the crab, being considered holy did not excuse it from being a regular part of the diet of people along these coasts, though some devout Catholics do save their carapaces, as good luck charms. I have seen these crab carapaces tied under the eaves in village homes and had wondered if they were put there in remembrance of a particularly good meal, but now I know better.

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Tableaux amidst the paddy fields of Marna- Siolim village

By the way , the tableaux was part of a larger set up, put up in the Siolim village around Christmas.

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The shrine to St Francis Xavier outside the Bom Jesus Basilica in Old Goa

St Francis Xavier’s body,  believed to be ‘incorruptible’, lies in state in the Bom Jesus basilica in Old Goa and this year an Exposition was held when millions of devotees flocked to catch a glimpse of the relics . Hence , the local newspapers and media were full of reports even trivia about St Francis, who is considered ‘Goencho sahib’ or Goa’s patron saint and so I had run into the story of the Holy crab.

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‘Teeth like thunderbolts ‘

The asymmetric flowers of ‘Koranti’ (Barleria prionitis) brighten the hedges of India throughout the winter season. In many places they are garden escapes and fill entire ditches or take over an untended garden,filling it with it’s happy yellow flowers.

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One of the reasons why, it was planted around homesteads is because Barleria contains some phytochemicals that are good for teeth and in Ayurveda, the ancient system of Indian medicine, it is valued as a medicinal plant used for treating gingivitis. Infact, it’s name in Sanskrit is ‘Vajra-danti’ , which means ‘Teeth like thunderbolt’…the ancient herbalists sure knew how to advertise their stuff. Even today there are herbal toothpastes of that name and brands like Vicco- Vajradanti (that has a popular jingle ) also incorporates extracts of Barleria prionitis in their product.

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However, few people, nowadays,  are aware of their medicinal values or associate them with the toothpaste jingle. The plants are often chucked out of gardens to be replaced by more fashionable blooms , when they merrily march out and colonise the ditches and ruins.

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Wild orchids

The Dendrobium ovatum orchid is endemic to the Western Ghat region of Southern India and flowers in winter, from November to February. I was lucky to spot clumps of the epiphytic orchid in flower, growing on several old mango and jackfruit trees in Marna region of Siolim village.

The flowers are pale cream in colour with a greenish centre and have a faint fragrance. The plants are epiphytic and anchor onto old or mature trees but donot parasitise them; instead they absorb moisture and nutrients from the exterior of their host’s barks and also from the atmosphere through their specialised roots.

Though these orchids are not rare in their natural range, the steady felling of old trees for purposes like road widening are causing them to disappear from areas near human habitation. We can always plant new trees but it takes decades to recreate the entire ecosystem that a mature tree supports.

A little clump of Dendrobium ovatum orchids

A little clump of Dendrobium ovatum orchids

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The Old man of the year end

As I was going to work on the last day of the year, I was stopped by a gang of children at the village cross road, the smallest one rattling a collection box made from a shoebox in my face. They all chanted ‘Old man’ ,’Old man’ and no further explanations were forthcoming.

Luckily, I knew from experience what they were up to; they were infact collecting donations to build the effigy of the ‘Old man’ , the sad representative of the dying year, that was to be burnt at the crossroad at midnight. This is a local village tradition in many areas in Goa, where children build an effigy out of village rubbish, to symbolise all the negativity of the passing year and then burn it at the crossroads , after the midnight mass.The children would also go around collecting some handouts of money ,which in the New Year would be divided up to be given to the local old age home and to hold a little picnic for the local children.

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The straw effigy of the old year sits in state at the village crossroad , waiting to be burnt at midnight