Pani Ram: Of Dugouts and Ferrymen

You will know that you have strayed from well-traveled routes when you arrive at a riverbank and there is no bridge.  Since ancient times, and especially in rainy backcountry, this is an epic scene: river landings with dugouts drawn up on the strand.  The figure of boat and ferryman is so central to human experience that together they hold a lasting and evocative place in cultural memory.  Indeed, remains have come to light of dugouts more than 8000 years old, whose making required no metal and were fashioned by fire and stone tools from a single, mighty tree.  

It is possible, even today, when traversing the monsoon lands of Asia, the Amazon or Congo basins, inland New Guinea and a host of other places, to find yourself, of necessity, cradled in just such a dugout, with no highway besides the surface of a vast and muddy river.

Step into such a dugout and you know you have crossed into another reality.  Terra firma has fled.  Beneath you is terra incognita, except it’s not even ‘terra’.  Below are slippery depths and darkness unknown.  You have no river legs, and land instincts are of little use.  All is entrusted to a river craft and to one who stands with paddle at its stern.  

We once lived along such an Indian river, revering our village neighbors who fashioned the dugouts from riverside hardwoods, and those who took us onto the currents, bearing us to parts beyond.  Chief among those boatmen was the one we knew as ‘Pani Ram’ (Water God).  He may have had family, but none that we knew, maybe because he was kin to the river.  He had his own rice fields, but he kept them indifferently.  No one thought to employ him since he had a well-known weakness for rice brew, his way of keeping knowledge of the perils and secrets of the river at bay.  When it came time to travel the river though, there was no one who could replace Pani Ram.  He knew what lay unseen in the water’s depths, where the shallows waited, where the current swirled dangerously, where the ‘ghorial’ (river crocodile) lurked.  When, on rounding a bend, we would hear the thrashing of white water, it would have to be Pani Ram at the stern of the dugout, battling the turbulence with his paddle, shouting to the other boatmen, guiding the massive dugout through roiling water.

Few societies are as dependent on traditional dugouts, or ‘pirogues’, as those that live along the Congo.  In the absence of ready infrastructure, the great river and its many tributaries offer passage between river communities to those who have coveted dugouts.  The standing ferryman signals perfect command of himself, his craft and the river situation.  In ancient Greek myth, the ferryman’s name is Charon who conducts the deceased across the river Styx.   
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It’s a timeless figure, this riverboat and Pani Ram. The dugout and the ferryman.  Poets and storytellers have pondered the great crossing to what lies over yonder.  They say a ferryman waits there with his dugout to conduct travelers to the far side.  Some have said he is an exacting boatmaster.  Hence the custom of placing a coin on the lips of the deceased, that the crossing be unhindered, paid in full.  But there is also an old Indian lyric that says of the crossing,

“… wayward or righteous,
pauper or carefree,
whatever the origin,
that life to come  is yours for the desiring.”

8 thoughts on “Pani Ram: Of Dugouts and Ferrymen

  1. A ferry carried me once across the only point in the world where four countries meet. I am sure you know it well. There is a new bridge but that ferry is not forgotten.


    1. Hello, Larry! Such a telling comment! Yes, the Kazangula ‘Freedom Ferry’ as it was once called during the bad old days of apartheid. When Botswana was almost entirely surrounded by racist political systems, that fragile ferry link was its only land connection to the rest of Independent Africa via Zambia. The Zambezi river at that crossing narrows creating a strong current of some depth. Not an easy or placid stretch of water which rushes on toward Mosi wa Thunya (Victoria Falls). As you say, the ferry has been supplanted now by a magnificent bridge which took years to negotiate since four countries had to agree to its construction. Today caravans of heavy trucks stream northward across the bridge into central Africa carrying manufactured goods for a hungry continent. And the ferrymen have had to find other work!


  2. Love this, Jonathan! I remember going up the Subansiri to camp, when going through a gorge there was a cave & the boatmen used to us if you go in it, it goes to China. Boatmen also told stories of crocodiles flipping dug outs & they once ate a whole family of English tea planters. Quite disconcerting for me as a child as we passed crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks of the river. Great writing! Thank you! Caroline



    1. Hello, Caroline! Good of you to write with recollections. The rivers are brimming with yarns. And no one loves telling them more than a boatman. Best heard by the flicker of firelight. It’s what keeps them awake at night, too!


  3. Another great adventure story & it brought back memories of when Don Nelson & I went back to Faith Christian Academy in Manila decades ago to visit his early schooling there when he was a MK! The monsoons were raging so the buses stopped at the low spots in the road & we had to wade across waist deep with our bags to wait on the other side hopefully for another bus! Took almost whole day from the Manila airport to the outskirts where Faith Academy was located! It rained almost 1″ yesterday here in Cambridge, MN but drought not over yet! Thanks for sharing! Blessings, Dan J.


    1. Hello, Melodie! Good of you to check in – and to share the account from Guatemala. The riverside encounter described there belongs to an intriguing annal of interface with our own deep past. Historically, these have been lamentably tragic. A popular telling of such ‘meetings’ appears in Jared Diamond’s book, ‘The World Until Yesterday’. Among the ‘lessons’ he draws: that we would do well to imitate the practices of ‘restorative justice’ found among many of these traditional societies.


  4. A fine tribute to the skill of the boatmen. The picture could be from the crossing on the Kasai River, far south of where it meets the Congo, where I lived and worked for just over 2 years. (except the sun is setting at the wrong angle). We made many such crossings, usually with a 90cc Honda trail bike, or maybe a barrel or two of kerosene or aviation fuel onboardl. Once a pair of visitors came through on a 350cc bike and wanted to cross. That was a bit more worrysome. The skill of these men should not be under estimated. In this same area, two previous volunteers, if I remember the story accurately, decided to try their hand at a crossing. They were swept down river, overturned at a spot where there were crocodiles, and one of them (perhaps both, I’m not sure) did not survive. A tragic story that reminded us to have a deep respect for the river.


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