“Go see the Chinese Fishing Nets” was what almost everyone told me, the minute I said I was going to Cochin! And why not! These nets are seen only in and around Cochin, and are a prime tourist attraction. Even the auto driver we hired to show us the sights was more enthusiastic about them than he was about the museums and art galleries I wanted to visit!
So there we were, near the beach, where a row of depressing looking fishermen sat awaiting the tourists. It was May, and with vacations on, there should have been scores of visitors around, but Fort Kochi apparently isn’t on the bucket list of Indian tourists. It is foreigners who come here, and mostly in winter. Besides, the fishing nets are best seen at dawn and dusk when the sky comes alive with colours, providing a dramatic backdrop to these nets, attracting the photographers. We were there in the evening, on a cloudy day, with rain threatening to rob us of the spectacular sight… no wonder we were the only tourists around!
Our arrival galvanized a few of the fishermen, and I finally saw the nets in action…. I was fascinated by the sight of the huge nets being lowered and raised by a cantilever, a row of rocks tied to one end, and the fishermen walking on the pole to balance the weight on the other end!
There is no doubt that these fishing nets are Chinese in origin, though how they came here is apparently under debate. While some claim that these nets were brought here by Chinese traders during the reign of Kublai Khan (13th century AD), others attribute it to the great Chinese navigator Zheng He (14th century). Meanwhile, there is even an argument that it was the Portuguese who brought it here from China, along with some Chinese who operated these nets for a long time. Whatever the source, these nets have been in Cochin for well over five centuries, and are an inherent part of the landscape. Interestingly, these nets are confined to Cochin and nearby areas, not seen anywhere else, even in Kerala!
These nets must have been quite a profitable source of income at one time (which is probably the reason they have survived this long), but today, for various reasons, the nets are little more than a tourist attraction. The nets look huge, but at a time, they manage to catch just a few fish, and we wondered if it was worth all the men, and the effort it entailed. The catch is not large enough to be sold in the market, and indeed, their primary customers are tourists, who pay to see the sight, and buy fish to be cooked in one of the nearby stalls. Their disappointment was evident when they learnt that we were vegetarians and didn’t want to buy the fish. However, they all had a good laugh when one of them got Samhith to hold a fish in his hand, and he squirmed more than the fish itself!
While this was our first encounter with the Chinese Fishing Nets, we saw them all over the place as we explored, first Fort Kochi, and later, Cherai. Everywhere, the story was the same, and I began to wonder how much longer they would last.
These fishing nets had made their way across the ocean (figuratively of course), and lasted centuries, surviving changes of rule and massive upheavals in every sense. Will they be around, another five centuries from now? Or will they succumb to the tide of modernization and indifference? Time alone will tell!
P.S. Here is a video of Shankar trying his hand with the fishermen at raising and lowering the net.
- Part 1: First Impressions
- Part 3: Indo – Portuguese Museum
- Part 4: St. Francis Church
- Part 5: Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica
- Part 6: Mattanchery Palace
- Part 7: Jew Town and Synagogue
- Part 8 : A Boat Ride
- Part 9: 3 Cafés, Three experiences
- Part 10: Maritime Museum