Sunday, 1 August 2010

The Chinese fishing nets at Kochi

Now and then a question comes up – about the origins of the Cheena Vala or the Chinese fishing net in Cochin. Some opine firmly that they are of ancient Chinese origin, dating to Kublai Khan’s times (mid 13th century); some others say it arrived even before that and others grandly announce they actually date to Zheng He’s arrival (early 15th century). To get to a factual answer, one has to try & search hard and long, possibly fruitlessly, even though the very name of the net signifies that the connection had to be Chinese. My own introduction to the Cheena Vala came by a (non detail) textbook which we studied in school titled so and written by our lecturer CKC Nair (I did not see one though until much later). A wonderful collection of short stories, this specific story detailed the life of a Cheena vala operator in Cochin and I still remember the laborious attempts of his in placing a Petromax gas lamp into position before he retired for the night, near the net, for fishes to get drawn to. Though I had forgotten the story, the net remained in my mind, a majestic but forlorn contraption, which remains operational to this day even after so many hundred years (I am not saying the wooden poles or nets date that long back and I do not know if at all that is the case anyway), now an object of intense tourist scrutiny. These nets can be found only around Cochin and people look at them with much curiosity and awe and walk away consigning them into their notes and diaries written about their fascinating trip to the backwaters, penning in memories of the ‘karimeen’ fish fry, the local ‘kallu’ coconut liquor and the boatmen in the covered house boats as they traversed the backwaters. All this time, these Chinese cantilever fishing nets, suspended like giant webs along the tip of Fort Cochin, silently watched millions pass by.

What are they, where did they come from? We will find out. Are they indeed centuries old? Possibly the only surviving 800 year old machinery, man made? Are they found in China? We had never seen a picture of an installation in china in recent times, mind you - said a friend. Unable to resist the challenge, I donned my research cap (like an ancient Viking with his helmet) and set about into the not so dusty digital annals of history with my trusty weapons, the PC and the mouse, right hand clad in a special glove making it look like a medieval gladiators hand (though it is actually meant to tackle telltale signs of a carpal tunnel issue cropping up) holding a trusty sword. Ah, you can see that I am losing it, must be age catching up..

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