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Thoni: the Sailing Vessel of Thoothukudi

The history of Tamil navigation is more than two thousand years old and the Thoni was the earliest sailing craft used by the Tamils for their trade with other countries. Korkai on the Pearl fishery coast was the chief port of the Pandyas. Later Korkai lost its importance as the port was silted up by the Thamiraparani. In the sixteenth century, when the Portuguese occupied the Pearl Fishery coast, Vedhalai, Punnaikayal and Manapad became important trading points. But the frequent attacks by the Vadukars forced the Portuguese to abandon Vedhalai and Punnaikayal. Thereafter, Thoothukudi became the most important port for the Portuguese and later for the Dutch and English also. All trade by native rulers and traders and foreign powers was conducted by the Thonis.

A Thoni is a large wooden, three masted sailing vessel. Thonis are found all along the western and eastern coasts of India with variations and modifications to suit local marine conditions and trade requirements. Along the western coast and in the Persian Gulf the Thoni is called ‘dhow’; within Tamilnadu it is called ‘dingy’ in Cuddalore: In Thoothukudi it is called ‘Thoni’.

In Thoothukudi the Thonis are owned and operated predominantly by the Paravas, who are the natives of the Pearl Fishery Coast. K.Rajan’s study attests to the antiquity of the Thoni and its importance during the Sangam Age:

These Paravas were traders, [wooden] vessel owners, captains, sailors and state ambassadors. Their high status in society during the Sangam Age is obvious from the fact they had established exclusive trade guilds for themselves.

Antiquity Sinnappah Arasaratharam in The Politics of Commerce in the Tamil kingdoms of South Asia: 1650-1700 reports that during the Portuguese rule of the Pearl Fishery Coast, the trade between the Pearl Fishery Coast and Srilanka (then Ceylon) was in the hands of the Chetty and the Parava merchants and the goods were carried by sailing vessels that ranged from single masted boats to large three masted Thonis that were capable of carrying up to 100 tonnes. Dr. S. Decla in The Portugese on the Pearl Fishery Coast reports that the Portugese brought elephants in Thonis to the Pearl Fishery Coast and supplied these war animals to Vijaynagar rulers. There are earlier documents that mention the import of horses from Arabia into the Pearl Fishery Coast probably using Thonis.

A Sivasubramanian in his Atchu Thanthai Henriquez Adigalar (Henri Henriquez – the Father of the Tamil Printing Press) reports that in 1600 the body of Henri Henriquez was brought to Thoothukudi from Punnaikayal by Thoni.

Types of Thonis There were two types of Thonis: lighterage and coasting. Of these two, lighterage Thonis are no longer in use and are extinct. Only coasting Thonis are in operation today.

Lighterage Before Thoothukudi became a major port large cargo vessels could not berth in the port due to low draft. So these vessels anchored at mid sea and their cargo was partially offloaded into Thonis and brought to shore. Once the ship was lightened it could sail into the port. Thonis used for unloading cargo in mid sea and lightening the ship were called ‘lighterages’.

Lighterages had a single mast. They were smaller in size and carried up to 100 tonnes. Later four or five lighterages were bound together and pulled by mechanised tugs.

Before diesel and electricity driven rail engines were introduced, trains were pulled by coal driven steam engines. Coal was brought from West Bengal to Thoothukudi by ships. This coal was brought to shore by lighterage Thonis and then moved to other railway stations in the hinterland by coal wagons. There was an exclusive railway line to the Old Port in Thoothukudi for this purpose.

In the 1980s there were forty four lighterage Thonis in Thoothukudi. They were finally phased out in 1995. Most of the obsolete lighterage Thonis were then broken up and sold as fire wood. Some of the lighterages have been left to rot in the sea.

Coasting Thonis that carry cargo from Thoothukudi to Colombo (Srilanka) and along the west coast of India and to other countries are called coasting Thonis.

Coasting Thonis were traditionally 94 feet long, 22 feet broad in the middle and 12 feet high. After mechanisation these dimensions have been increased.

The coasting Thoni had two masts. Later a third mast was added. Vincent Fernando, popularly known as ‘Senthi Parnanthu’, was the first Vessel owner to introduce the third mast in his coasting Thoni ‘Jeya Mary’.

Motcham Fernando from Sippikulam near Thoothukudi introduced a fourth mast to the coasting vessel. He increased the dimensions to 115 feet length, 30 feet width and 16 feet height. In his vessel there were two centre masts with a space of 30 feet between them. However the fourth mast variation did not become popular because mechanisation of Thonis had started.

The first sailing vessel to be mechanized in Thoothukudi was MSV Abood (MSV stands for ‘mechanised sailing vessel). This was done by Suresh Corera of Suresh Constructions in 1982. This vessel was however never in operation in Thoothukudi. It was built for a sailing vessel operator in Dubai. The next vessel to be mechanized was ZK 232 and this was also built by suresh constructions and was sold to an owner on the west coast. Suresh Corera also was awarded a citation in 1983 by the then President of India Giani Zailsingh “for exporting the first mechanised sailing vessel from India”. UbaldRaj Mackena was the first Thoni owner to mechanise and operate a Thoni entirely from Thoothukudi, This was done in 1985.

A coasting Thoni carried up to 450 tonnes of cargo. The smallest coasting Thoni which is still in use carries 150 tonnes of cargo. However there are Thonis called ‘dhows’ along the west coast of India, in Pakistan and in Persian Gulf that carry more than 2000 tonnes of cargo. In the 1980s there were forty coasting Thonis in Thoothukudi. In 2011 there are forty three coasting Thonis.

Crew In the 1980s there are nearly 4000 people who were employed in the Thonis – lighterage and coasting put together. Since 2010 there are 300 sailors; and around 1000 families are directly dependent on the Thoni industry.

Around 12 sailors are employed in lighterage Thonis. In coasting vessels up to 15 sailors are employed. The head of the crew is the captain called ‘Thandal in Tamil. The Thandal is also called ‘master’. Thandals bestowed special care on their vessels as much as the owners did. The Thoni was under the total care of the Thandal.

He tended the Thoni as if it were his offspring. The Thandal had to pay a security deposit to the owner when he took charge of the Thoni. The security deposit was returned if the Thandal left the service of the owner. The security deposit could range from fifty thousand to ninety thousand rupees or even more. Some vessel owners take a token amount of just a few thousand rupees from the Thandal.

Apart from the Thandal, a Thoni had a rudder holder. In the mechanised Thoni he is the first driver. Other sailors are called ‘Laskars’. The cook of the Thoni is ‘Pandari’ and his assistant is ‘Pandari Podiyan’.

Cargo When the Portuguese ruled the Pearl fishery coast, they used Thonis to bring elephants from Srilanka to Thoothukudi for the Vijaynagar rulers. Even earlier the Arabs had used Thonis to bring horses from Arabia to the Pearl Fishery Coast. Francis Xavier, a Spanish missionary on the Pearl Fishery Coast in the 1540s, in his Letters requested his assistant Manscillas to carry food and assistance in Thonis to the natives who had taken shelter in the island near Thoothukudi. (The natives had taken shelter in the islands when they were attacked by the enemies and a local ruler Vettum Perumal.)

H.R.Pate in Tinneveli District Gazetteer mentions that Thonis brought drinking water for the upper class population of Thoothukudi throughout the year. When there was an acute water scarcity in Thoothukudi during the second decade of the twentieth century, Cruz Fernandez, the then chairman of Thoothukudi Municipal Council brought potable water to Thoothukudi from Colombo in coasting Thonis.

Today dry fish, onion, chilly and turmeric exported to Srilanka are carried by the coasting Thonis. Small machines, bicycles, tobacco, potato, sanitaryware and cement are also carried by Thonis to Colombo.

Thonis are used to transport goods to remote Andaman – Nicobar islands and the Lakswadheep islands. These islands which cannot be reached by mechanized ships are served by Thonis. A major share of export cargo to Maldives is carried by Thonis. Thonis that ply along the west coast carry tiles and potatoes to Pakistan and to the Persian Gulf. Some Thonis chartered to the Persian Gulf carry cattle also between the Persian Gulf states.

During the Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Srilanka from 1987 to 1990, Thonis were chartered to carry provisions and supplies to the IPKF stationed in Srilanka.

Coasting Thonis were used to carry relief supplies to the Andaman-Nicobar islands when the Tsunami hit the islands in 2004.

On their return, Thonis from Colombo brought dry coconuts (for coconut oil industries in Thoothukudi), cardamom and other spices. During the civil war in Srilanka import cargo was not available and Thonis brought waste paper and scrap iron only. Today most of the Thonis return with no cargo on board.

Revival A Thoni can be operated from Thoothukudi under three conditions :
  • The Vessel Owner must be from Thoothukudi
  • The Crew must be from Thoothukudi and
  • The Vessel must be registered at Thoothukudi.
Thoni services from Thoothukudi to Colombo were suspended in 2008 due to limited berthing facilities in Colombo port. The Srilankan Government also cited security reasons for the suspension of this service. The service resumed on 12 February 2011. However the service has been again suspended due to high competition from container service, pilferage at various points of delivery and high loading and unloading charges.

Yet there seems to be a revival of the Thoni industry in Thoothukudi. In 2007, three new Thonis were built in Thoothukudi. In 2011 one new Thoni is under construction. Moreover, three Thonis that were badly damaged several years ago are being repaired.

With these positive signs, there are suggestions for further Modernisation. Mackena Ubaldraj, Vice President of Federation of All India Sailing Vessel Industry Association says that if the wooden hulls are converted to steel hulls, Thonis can ply throughtout the year and to distant ports. At present Thonis do not operate between Thoothukudi and Srilanka during the South West Monsoon and the North East Monsoon. He also tells that if steel hulls replace wooden hulls, larger Thonis- with 2000 tonne capacity –could be built and can sail up to Malaysia. But Suresh Corera whose family had owned and operated Thonis for four generations disagrees. If steel hulls are incorporated, Thonis would no longer be Thonis; they would lose their uniqueness and would become small fully mechanized ships. Moreover the fuel efficiency would be lost because masts would be removed”. At present a Thoni that is mechanised and is supported by sails uses up to 2000 litres of diesel for its two way voyage. C.Princeton Fernando, President, Coastal Sailing Vessel Owners’ Association, Thoothukudi has a different perspective. “If steel hulls are introduced then ‘mechanised sailing vessel’ would become ‘mechanised vessel. Thereafter the Thandal would exit. With him the traditional sailing skill would be lost. A mechanised vessel would need a fully qualified captain, a chief engineer, a radio operator and other such crew. They would be paid a monthly salary and the present method of profit sharing would become obsolete.”

The Thoni industry needs other support also.
  • Old Port or Zone B where the Thonis now berth could be commanded only for these vessels.
  • As the Thonis have become larger and mechanised, they need dry docking facilities at Thoothukudi. At present Thonis are tugged to Mangalore for repairs and this is expensive.
  • There is a need for a slip-way to launch or pull up the Thoni. Princeton Fernando says that fifty per cent of some cargo could be earmarked for Thoni because Thonis can serve small traders who export in small quantities and need not hire containers.
  • Suresh Corera opines that Zone B i.e. the Old port has to be improved and developed to serve Thonis better. He also suggests that the draft of Zone B has been reduced to less than ten metres due to silting and needs to be dredged.
  • Lasington Fernando, a vessel owner regrets the reluctance of nationalized banks to finance the Thoni industry. “The construction of a 300 tonne capacity Thoni costs more than one crore. In Kerala the government provides subsidies for building sailing vessels. If this facility is provided here also the Thoni industry would flourish” he concluded.

Thoothukudi was declared a Minor Port in 1868. On 11 July 1974 it was declared a Major Port. The Thoni and its sailors played an important role in this upgradation and development. However this traditional industry and indigenous navigational skill have been neglected. The Thoni is a integral part of the history and culture of Thoothukudi. It was once the pride and backbone of the Pearl Fishery Coast . Therefore it needs to be nurtured and supported for posterity.

A.Sivasubramanian, Folklorist, Thoothukudi. &
J. Ragu Antony, Department of English, V.O.C. college, Thoothukudi.

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