Only Eight Chinese Fishing Nets Remain At Fort Kochi

Caught in the net?

Of the 17 Chinese fishing nets (cheenavalas) that dotted the harbour’s mouth at Fort Kochi four decades ago, only eight remain. Four more will have to go in case the proposed Water Metro jetty is built. The net owners have been promised compensation. Three of these nets are the biggest in the world with six fishermen pulling per shift. The other nets towards the beach are operated by five and four fishermen. Thus, Fort Kochi has the biggest number of large fishing nets; smaller versions adorn the opposite bank at Fort Vypeen.

If the Water Metro jetty is built in between the nets, it will be the undoing of all the heritage preservation we, as society, have done in the past three decades. And if this happens, it will symbolise the fading away of so many shared ideals and memories we hold dear.

The Chinese fishing nets are inextricably linked to the history of the region. These nets are the signature of Kochi and have been here long before global architectural icons such as the Taj Mahal, Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Kremlin Palace, Big Ben or the Sydney Opera House were built. Introduced by the Portuguese from Indochina, they form an integral part of Kochi’s landscape. Interestingly, each part of the net is still known by its Portuguese name— Kalasandhi, Bolsa, Othara, Bras, Savaya, Arolla, Arasa and Armusan for example.

Initially they were small, made of bamboo, punna (tree) poles and rope and erected on hardened coconut trunks that were driven into the water. Over time, as the shipping channel deepened, the nets had to be strengthened to withstand the strong currents. Bamboo, punna and rope gave way to teak and wire rope. Their erection and operation however, still remain as it was done centuries ago—by raw human power. Fabrication and assembling—joinery, knotting, hoisting, balancing fastening—of the nets are based on traditional knowledge. The nets on either side of the shipping channel are licensed by the Cochin Port Trust. Small nets operated by a single person are found in hundreds throughout the backwaters in Alappuzha and Ernakulam districts. As in other sectors of fishing, instead of wages, the catch is shared in the proportion of 2:1 between the workers of the net and the owner after sparing a fraction for petty expenses. In most cases, the owners also work. The nets are operated in tune with the rise and ebb of the tide.

Unlike static monuments, their many angles and movements have been inspiration to many a photographic frame. Picturisation in movies has immortalised them. Writer N.S. Madhavan has once equated the building of the boat jetty amid the nets to the demolition of the Taj Mahal to build a railway station.

In the last two decades, due to the high cost of teak poles, many of the nets have been built with steel pipes, which have marred their natural character. Some years ago, when the Chinese Ambassador visited the city, he offered to finance the restoration of the nets. However, the State Government approved ₹1.52 crore for the conservation, based on a detailed proposal made by INTACH. The implementation was given to KITCO and even after five years, the project is in limbo.

The Water Metro jetty can alternatively be built in the old Fort Cochin Ferry Jetty, known as Kamalakadavu, which is not in use presently. It also has easy interface with the bus terminal and auto stand.

Source - The Hindu