In 1957, the first democratically elected Communist government took office in Kerala. By 1960, the people of Kerala were willing to do anything, including voyages across the open ocean in dhows to get away from the state and find employment. A recent Malayalam movie, Pathemari (Dhow), is the story of one such man, Narayanan, who takes such a voyage from Kerala to Khor Fakkan in the United Arab Emirates. Unlike the African slave trade, these men willingly took a journey to an unknown land to become indentured servants. The movie is a realistic portrayal of the life of the early Gulf Malayalis and one of the best performances by Mammootty (who is also a board member of the Communist party-run Kairali TV)
Spices were transported from the East, both by camel caravans and dhows crossing the ocean. The dhows would take the goods to Basra, Jiddah, Muscat or Aqaba and from there camel caravans took them to Alexandria and Levant. These traders did not movie goods just to the West, they went as far as China and Indonesia. In the movie, a young Narayanan boards a dhow owned by a person called ‘Launch Velayudhan’, (based on a real-life person, who died few years back) who is in the business of transporting goods to the Middle East, as well as people who want to escape poverty.
The dhows reached their destination due to the clockwork predictability of the monsoon. From May to August, the summer monsoons blows out from the southwest and fades away by September. From November to March, the winter monsoons blew from the northeast bringing traders and religious fanatics to India. This switch of direction across a large body of water is unique.
But the Arab, Persian, and Indian dhows* could well manage this, with their huge lateen rigs lying as close as 55 to 60 degrees in the direction of the soft northeast headwind—sailing right into it, in other words.† This is almost as good as a modern yacht and a considerable technical achievement. The importance of it was that India’s southwestern Malabar coast could be reached from southern Arabia by sailing a straight-line course, even if it did involve the discomfort of what seamen call “sailing to weather.”
Despite the occasional ferocity of the southwest wind, the discovery of the monsoonal system, which so easily favored trip planning, nevertheless liberated navigators from sailing too often against the elements.1 So the Indian Ocean did not—at least to the same degree as other large bodies of water—have to wait until the age of steam to unite it. [Monsoon]
This, in fact, helped develop the trading hubs of the old world.