Slow network 

TNIE spends a day with a Chinese fishing net crew in Fort Kochi, where a restoration project is moving at a snail’s pace  
Slow network 

KOCHI:  Think of a Kochi postcard. One sure-shot imagery that strikes is of the Chinese fishing nets dotting stretches of the city’s coastline. Called ‘cheena-vala’, these picture-perfect vestiges of yore hold immense historical significance, way beyond their aesthetic touristy appeal.  

The sandy shores of Fort Kochi are believed to have inherited these nets from diverse historical influences. Some say traders from the court of Mongolian general Kublai Khan introduced these nets between AD 1350 and 1450. Others argue that it was Chinese naval explorer Zheng He who brought the unique fishing tradition to the Queen of the Arabian Sea. 

Another theory traces the nets’ history to Kochi’s Portuguese past. Some believe the nets were transported from a Portuguese colony in Macau during the time of Vasco da Gama. Though their origin is contested, the Kerala government has often recognised the cultural significance of the Chinese fishing nets. However, conservation efforts have been wanting. 

Cranes have a hearty fill as ‘Srank’ Frankiln tugs up the net 
Cranes have a hearty fill as ‘Srank’ Frankiln tugs up the net 

Recently, however, there were reports on a government initiative to restore 11 defunct nets by the shore of Fort Kochi. A heritage project to conserve was initiated in 2021, though the plan was mooted first in 2014. “As of now, one unit has been revived,” says a District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC) official. “Five are under construction, and the rest are slated to be completed in a few months.”

Another official says the renovation could have been completed at a faster pace had the administrative hang-ups been dutifully addressed. “The total budget of the project comes up to `2.44 crore. Coconut, ‘anjili’, teak, etc., are used for renovating the pole, pulley, and platform,” he adds. “There is some lag in payments and allocation of funds.” 

To see a net in action, I embark on a journey to Vasco da Gama Square in Fort Kochi, where a team of four to five fishermen oversees each fishing net. They gently immerse the net in the water for a short time and deftly hoist it up by tugging the ropes. The synchronised effort required to manipulate the net is enchanting, and the process attracts a host of observers every time. 

The vivacious men warn me that they would have me arrested if I didn’t return with their pictures in the paper! At the ropes were Abhilash, Anwar, and Hamsa, led by their veteran ‘srank’, Franklin. ‘Srank’, though 80, climbs on poles with the dexterity of a cat to tug the catch in. Seemingly disappointed, he says “the weather is not right”.

“Probably due to the weak monsoons, there are not many fish in the area like there used to be,” he sighs.  Meanwhile, voracious cranes perching nearby eagerly await the opportunity to peck at the tiddlers ensnared in the net. They, apparently, know the entire drill. 

Franklin lets them have their fill. “This catch is not enough for us to even feed our families, let alone sell it for profit,” he says. “Although this technique helps us save on diesel and manpower as compared with fishing vessels, it is not sustaining us.” The crew members add they often depend on the generosity of tourists, who tip them for the ‘fishing show’.

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