The net result
.When it comes to promoting tourism, the Chinese nets (Cheena vala) are to Kochi what the painted face of a Kathakali actor is to the state of Kerala. These antique pieces that provide Kochi with its signature style had made their way to Kerala around the 13th century when there was trade between Malabar and China.
Some describe it as the most non-violent form of fishing; anglers expect fish to swim into their immersed net, before they can lift up the catch. The net, hung on spindles from a cantilever and dropped into the estuary/lake, stays submerged till the fishermen are sure that enough fish have landed. Then, the net is lifted, trapping the unsuspecting fish.
The private owners of the nets, which are still being used to catch fish, had been reinforcing them every decade or so, making them stronger and larger. A few now have iron pipes in place of the original teak wood, much to the consternation of heritage buffs.
K.J. Sohan, former mayor of Kochi, agrees that the use of iron pipes has changed the nets’ look and character. “About 165 people in Fort Kochi earn a livelihood with the help of these nets which are also there in Vypeen and Cherai,” says Sohan, who describes the nets as “living monuments”. “When they deepened the channel for the Vallarpadam container terminal, the catch was reduced. Unless steps are taken to preserve the nets and help the fishermen, the tradition may die down.”
Sohan, who is the convenor of INTACH, says that the agency has started a project of documenting the nets and there are plans to publish it as a book. “We also want to establish a fund to preserve them as well as help those involved in the trade by providing insurance, etc.”
Sohan as well as other experts feel that even though the State earns millions from the tourism industry, nothing has been done to preserve the nets, which are a huge tourist attraction. “There are two types of nets — those operated by six people and those operated by four. Their number has come down over the years and unless we take urgent steps, they may lose their character and also their original purpose,” says Sohan.
Dr Rajan Chedambath, who heads the Centre for Heritage, Environment and Development in the Kochi Corporation, says that there is a move by the tourism department to allocate some funds to preserve the nets. “The nets are great symbols of our culture and history. It is the tourism department’s responsibility to preserve them. They are seldom used for fishing as it is not that profitable. We need to help the fishermen to ensure that the tradition continues,” he says. “The nets are in private hands, so I am not sure how we can persuade the owners to retain their original form but the character of the nets is changing with the use of concrete platforms and iron pipes, especially in the Kottapuram area.”