The 500 year old Chinese fishing nets dotting the town of Fort Kochi in Kerala were said to have been brought by the Portuguese settlers from Macau when they first came to India between the 1500-1600’s. Some people believe that the Chinese explorer Zheng He brought them from the Emperor Kublai Khan’s court and introduced them in the 1400’s when he came to Kerala. Though their origin is a bit obscure, they have become a prominent feature in parts of Kerala especially Fort Kochi. They resemble large hammocks gently swaying in the warm sea breeze that blows in and out of this tropical land nestled within the lazy backwaters and the Arabian Sea.
A walk down the cemented path which had once housed the ramparts of the ancient Fort Emmanuel later destroyed by the Dutch, would bring you into view of these giant sized fishing nets that have a peculiar mechanism of their own. It consists of a cantilever of teak and bamboo poles built over a large wooden platform suspended with one end weighed down by ropes with large rocks tied to their ends and the other free end having nets measuring almost 20 meters large drooping over the waters below. The framework of poles resembles the fingers of a hand holding the net below. While observing this massive 10 meter high structure consisting of wooden poles, several ropes attached with different sized rocks holding a net at the other end, one actually begins to wonder what all the fuss is about and how the entire apparatus can be engineered to catch fish which can so easily be done anyway by fishermen taking a boat out into the sea! You need as many as five to six men to work the whole contrivance, each with their own set of skills!
But as I observed these nets being lowered into the water I realized the folly of thinking otherwise. It is an experience to be savored although you may not be able to see much of a catch these days. However, I am certain in the earlier years when there was less of dredging activity in the waters and lesser number of tourists and locals polluting the waters, there would have been a handsome catch each time these Chinese Fishing nets dropped into the waters below. Nowadays they even allow curious tourists to try a hand at it by joining the team on shore to pull the ropes up. This of course is at a charge that you need to bargain before attempting to bring the catch ashore. It varies between Rupees 50-100. So you get one rope to pull and excited first timers put their soul and strength into heaving the net up. But as I said, a good catch depends on your share of luck so brace yourself for disappointments as well!
The mechanism begins with three to four men releasing the ropes on the shore side and one man performing a balancing act by walking along the highest pole, thus lowering it with his weight and letting the net drop down into the water. Once the nets have been in the water for a sufficient time, usually 5-6 minutes, the men on the platform pull on the ropes and the stones come down while the net emerges, rising out of the water to show off the myriad fish and crustaceans that have lost their way into it. The catch is fresh and sold at the tiny fish stalls set up along the shore. But don’t be fooled to believe that all that you see in the fish stalls were caught in the Chinese nets for there is quite an attractive display of fresh red and white snappers, black and white pomfrets, king prawns, tiger prawns and shrimps, live crabs, eels, baby octopus, etc.
The fishermen move out at dusk into the sea and bring in their haul by the crack of dawn, to be set up in a tempting display before the first customers arrive. An early morning auction takes place where the fishermen make whatever they can from the stall owners gathered and the rest is the story of the retailer and wholesaler and the poor customer. But if you are among or accompanied by the locals, you can get a pretty good deal. People travel all the way from Ernakulam city to buy fresh fish especially seafood like crabs and prawns. In the earlier days, there were several stalls lining the shore that offered to cook your freshly purchased seafood in the local spices and you could simply sit and breathe in the delicious flavors and aroma of the spices wafting through the air while they cook and serve it at your table. Some of these local chefs still exist with their stalls although one needs to know and ask around.
The Cheena Valas as they are locally called, are dwindling in number because of the lack of funding that the fishermen get. Having to battle against the odds of heavy maintenance costs and a declining fish population, the fisherman substitute the wooden poles with iron ones which are cheaper but prone to rust and decay in the saline waters. Despite the odds, the few Chinese fishing nets that exist here continue to charm travelers and tourists who come to this quaint little historical town of Fort Kochi that boasts of a culture very different from the main city Ernakulam located 45 minutes away. The Chinese Fishing nets silhouetted against the beautiful sunrise or sunsets here are probably the most clichéd and photographed sight but nonetheless without lacking in charm.