The Shishila Temple fish sanctuary is a unique example of people's effort to protect the ancient and sacred aquatic life in the area. (Rajesh Shetty/EPS)
In Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district, Belthangady Taluk, 32-km from the famed Dharmasthala Temple, nature’s bounty perhaps could not have been greater, with thickly forested mountains bordering on all sides, wisps of clouds dancing across the tree tops and the monsoon-fed Kapila River flowing with all her might. By the side is the ancient Shishileshwara temple. The only blight on this happy picture is a memorial carved in stone that reminds one of a terrible disaster that befell the most lively occupant of the river–the Mahaseer fish.
This fish along with many other perished in thousands when miscreants poisoned the river in 1996. Shaken by the tragedy, residents of Shishila village joined hands to set up the Matsya Samrakshane Vedike (Fish Protection Forum).
Known as the Shishila Temple Fish Sanctuary, it is one of the finest such sanctuaries in the country, with the Mahaseer taking precedence over the other 40 varieties of fish that live in these waters. The fish go back hundreds of years with perhaps only the 700-year-old Shishileshwara Temple upping it in the antiquity stakes. Today, protection of aquatic life rests in the hands of the self-appointed guardians of the sanctuary.
“We set up MSV 15 years ago after the poisoning incident. Our main aim is to protect the fish which are both ancient and sacred,” says Jayaram Nellithaya, MSV’s founder-president. The organisation has around 40-50 members.
Come monsoon and there is no need for worry as the swirling river waters discourage human interaction with the Mahaseer. But the opposite is true in summer. “People like the Mahaseer which is an exhibitionist of sorts, jumping in the air to catch the food crumbs thrown by visitors. But they also like to touch the fish, especially children, and injure it in the process. The injured fish often fall prey to other fishes,” says Nellithaya.
Another issue that has got people up in arms is the Yettinahole Dam project, which is coming up just 15 km away from the sanctuary. “This is a 1,500 crore project and if it comes to fruition, it is sure to upset the ecology of the region and have a direct bearing on the fish sanctuary and other wildlife,” says Nellithaya.
The Forum is not funded in any way. Whenever required, funds are collected. “We need personnel to patrol the place. We have put up sign boards. In 1930, the Madras Government had passed an order that 2 km upstream and downstream the river from the temple, would be a protected area. Later, the Karnataka Government also upheld the order. It now falls upon the fisheries and the police departments to enforce the law strictly. Besides, the fisheries department needs to check on the health of the fishes,” says Nellithaya.
Apart from the Forum, the temple authorities also look after the fish. Temple Committee President Srinivas Mudhithaya says,“It is on account of the fish that the place is known as Matsya Theertha. Offerings made to the temple deity (Lord Shiva, swamyambhu avatar) are later fed to the fish (Matsya —an avatar of Lord Vishnu), while water from the Kapila is used for the Lord’s abhishekha and other purposes,” he says.
He continues, “Also, skin diseases have known to be cured with the fish vow.”
With nature restoring the balance, the fish population has swelled vastly. The place is being opened up for tourism. “Plants favoured by fish need to be planted on the banks. We need a sheltered platform from where the fish can be viewed. If nothing is done to protect our aquatic treasure, we may not see even one fish in the future,” cautions Nellithaya.