Passages: Malabar Coast

The Fishermen of Cochin, India, 1999


Nestled between the Arabian Sea and the Cardamom Hills, on the South-Western shores of the Indian Subcontinent lies the Malabar Coast. This is an ancient place, steeped in history, fabled for its spices and tea and a centre for merchants, adventurers and settlers throughout the centuries. At its heart lies Cochin where still today, spice merchants trade in cardamom, cinnamon and pepper and where the walls of the city still whisper with the voices from the past. Beyond the shores stretches a meandering network of canals, rivers and shallow lagoons, surrounded by lush fields, groves of slender palms and tranquil villages.

Along the northern shoreline of Cochin are a string of fishing nets locally known as Cheena Vala. It is believed they were introduced by Chinese traders in the 15th century and have been in operation ever since. These structures are built out of bamboo and teak, with large cantilevered poles counterbalanced by rocks tied to ropes. The nets are horizontally suspended over the sea and operated by four to six fishermen. However, poor catches and rising maintenance costs leave an uncertain future of this traditional way of fishing.

When I visited the area in March 1999 I was impressed by the graceful appearance of the nets, the strong lines, angles and shapes that would evolve and dissipate during the operation of those devices. I loved to lose myself in the narrow streets of the old town of Cochin, full with the heavy fragrance of exotic spices and the bustling noise of busy traders. In contrast, the stillness of the land beyond the shores was palpable where life seemed to flow in rhythm with the tranquil rivers on their way to the sea.