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LIFESTYLE AND ECOLOGY

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The Mukkuv¡r...

A Fishing Community

G. John Samuel

 
SEASONS

Human life is dependent on the changing seasons. Sunshine, rainfall, and other climatic factors contribute to the co-existence and interdependence of human beings and other living organisms. The coastal climate in the Puthur area is mainly attributable to equatorial currents, westerly winds, and the relatively large amount of sunshine. There is a considerable difference between diurnal and nocturnal temperatures. The rainfall regimen is subject to local deflections, although rain is mostly contributed by the south-west monsoon. All these have a direct bearing on the life of the Mukkuv¡r. Dependent on fish, the Mukkuv¡r classify the climatic seasons mostly with reference to the catches they get.

Kanyakumari District is marked by four seasons: dry period; summer; south-west monsoon; and post-monsoon period. December to February is a dry period. Kanyakumari District gets very little rain during the north-east monsoon. Due to low humidity, these months are generally dry. Nights are cold from November to February, but dry winds blow during the day. The temperature is unsteady, which contributes to sickness. The ratio of sea breeze to land breeze is not very constant, with dry, cold winds making the people lethargic.

From March to May is summer, when rain becomes scarce and insolation is high. There is often an epidemic of chicken pox, due to the sweltering heat, during these months. The atmosphere is generally surcharged and rarefied.

The south-west monsoon sets in June, and there is a heavy downpour until September. Sometimes this season begins at the end of May. Usually August sees the greatest rainfall, which gradually decreases in September.

The post-monsoon period commences in October, when there is no rain at all. By the end of October the north-east wind sets in, which brings some rain up to December.

The fishing folk of Puthur classify the seasons into three, according to their catches of fish: mel¡ m¢º K¡lam; k¢la  m¢º  K¡lam; and paµca K¡lam. The distinctions are based on the availability of fish and the condition of the wind. During mel¡ m¢º K¡lam (April to August), the wind blows from the west and there is a heavy catch of fish. In k¢la  m¢º  K¡lam (August to November) the wind blows from the east. High tides form in August, a furlong into the sea, reaching the shore as small waves. This is called ne¶av¡´kal. The fishing folk do not venture beyond this tide and the catch is therefore very small. ne¶av¡´kal usually lasts for 15 days, and after it the sea becomes very calm.

Paµca k¡lam lasts from December to April. January to March is considered the peak of this season, when getting a catch is impossible. The people suffer a lot as they are unable to get their daily bread. The wind blows from both north and south.

OCEAN CURRENTS

Coursing through the layers of the sea are fast currents, some of them hundreds of miles long and up to a hundred miles wide. These currents are the veins and arteries of the living Earth, intriguing, unsolved mysteries. Part of the planet’s system of heat exchange, they bring vast amounts of warmth from the tropics into the colder latitudes, which would be almost uninhabitable without them. Along with the winds, by which they are largely driven, the currents maintain the balanced temperatures we experience. Without them the tropics would grow gradually hotter, and the higher latitudes more and more frozen.

The movement of currents, by which the oceans ‘plough’ themselves, is caused by three main forces: prevailing winds, the Earth’s rotation, and differences in the sea’s density. Winds drive immense bodies of water before them, forming surface currents. The Earth’s rotation, which deflects moving things to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere, causes these surface currents to move clockwise or anticlockwise.

Where currents meet or diverge, where cold or salty water sinks beneath water that is less dense, or where coastal winds blow the surface water seawards, a circulation is set up which may reach to the ocean’s bottom. Surface water is then replaced by upwelling water rich in nutrient salts which stimulates new growths of marine plants. The herbivorous plankton thrive and the sea becomes fertile for fish. It is understandable that many of the world’s great fisheries are found along the paths of ocean currents. The Mukkuv¡r are by no means students of oceanography or marine biology in the formal sense, but their profound understanding of these physical phenomena and their sensitivity to them has made them what they are. They describe and divide the currents in their own way, which is not far from the scientific approach. The currents of the ocean are determined by the seasons. The fishing folk of Puthur refer to eight types of current:

 

  1. C°¸u v¡¶¶u is when the water flows from west to east and plenty of fish is available.

  2. In C°¸u v¡¶¶ukkaravalu the water flows from south-west to north-east and availability of fish is very low.

  3. In C°¸u v¡¶¶u umma¼incavalu  the flow is from north-west to south-east. It is also called "unna etuttavalu". The availability of fish is average. K°½iy¡ meral va½ai, va½i va½ai and gangoos va½ai are the nets used.

  4. V¡¸u v¡¶¶u is when the flow is from east to west. Nets like vva½i va½ai , kacc¡ va½ai t¡ttuva½ai and c¡½a  va½ai  are used for an average catch.

  5. In V¡¸u v¡¶¶ukkaravalu the flow is from south-east to north-west and the nets used in v¡¸u v¡¶u are employed. The catch is very little.

  6. V¡¸uv¡¶¶u umma¤incavalu. The flow here is from north-east to south-west and the same nets are used as in v¡¸u v¡¶u. The catch is average.

  7. In Nerekariya¶¶ivalu the flow is from south to north. Almost all kinds of nets are used without any restriction, but the catch is very little.

  8. In  N®r® umma¤incavalu the flow is from north to south. All kinds of nets are used, again for a very small catch.

 

The use of certain nets is not determined by the current alone. The availability of different kinds of fish plays a major role in the chain of nets. When there is a criss-cross current fishing becomes impossible, and the fishing folk must return home empty-handed. Such a current is called valu takar¡ru.

WINDS

Eight types of winds exist, according to the fishing folk of Puthur. These are different from purely geographical divisions. The trade winds and westerly winds are the two major types. The usual coastal pattern of sea breeze and land breeze is also present. Winds are also associated with the deflection of surface currents.

  1. C°«avakk¡¼¼u blows from west to east during April, May and June, when the current is c°¸u v¡¶u. At times, specially in the mornings, the current can be v¡¸u v¡¶u.

  2. C°«avakkarakk¡¼¼u blows from the south-west during June to September. C°¸u v¡¶u and C°¸uv¡¶¶ukkaravalu are the two currents during this period.

  3. C°«avakk°¶taikk¡¼¼u blows from the north-west in the months September to November, when the currents are V¡¸u v¡¶¶u and V¡¸u v¡¶¶ukkaravalu.

  4. V¡¶akk¡¼¼u blows from east to west during November to February, C°¸uv¡¶u and v¡¸u v¡¶u are the currents during this period.

  5. V¡¶akkoº¶al blows from the south-east during November to March. V¡¸u v¡¶u and v¡¸u v¡¶¶ukaravalu are the currents.

  6. In v¡¶akk°¶ai the wind blows from the north-east during November to January. v¡¸uv¡¶¶u umma¤incavalu is the current.

  7. Ku¶incikk¡¤¤u blows from south to north. It is also called adaiyakacc¡n and karai kurinji and blows during September to November. C°¸u v¡¶u is the current.

  8. N®ru k°¶ai blows from north to south during March–April. The sea is calm and the currents c°¸u v¡¶u and ´u v¡¶u are weak.

These winds and currents do not always strictly correspond to the months mentioned. Winds from two different directions may come into collision, which is called k¡¼¼u takar¡¼u   When caught in this situation, fishermen usually bring down their sails and just go with the wind. The link between wind and current is illustrated in Table 5.1.

Direction

Wind

Current

Months

W to E

C°½avakk¡¼¼u

C°¸uv¡¶¶u

Apr–Jun

NW to SE

C°½avakko¶aikk¡¼¼u

C°¸u v¡¶¶u umma¤incavalu

Sep–Nov

N to S

N®ruk°¶ai

N®r® umma¤incavalu

Mar–Apr

NE to SW

V¡¶akk°¶ai

V¡¸uv¡¶¶u umma¤incavalu

Nov–Jan

E to W

V¡¶akk¡¼¼u

V¡¸uv¡¶¶u

Nov–Feb

SE to NW

V¡¶akko¸¶al

V¡¸uv¡¶¶ukkaravalu

Nov–Mar

S to N

Kurincikk¡¼¼u

Nerekariya¶¶ivalu

Sep–Nov

SW to NE

C°½avakkarakk¡¼¼u

C°¸uva¶¶ukkaravalu

Jun–Sep

 

Generally in the months May to August, storms hit the coast at Puthur. At this time Puthur receives C°«avakk¡¼¼u. If the lightning reaches the earth from the zenith (vertically), it foretells a storm. When the lightning appears the wind stops, the sky wears a pale look, and a dark arrow-like could appears on the horizon. It is believed that the storm will come from the direction of this cloud. On seeing these signs the fisherfolk on the sea return to the shore immediately. Those on the shore light a fire and wave it towards the sea to indicate the danger as well as to showing the way.

Cycles of the Sea

The speed of the waves, the currents, the wind, the rising and ebbing of the water, all vary from time to time. The fisherfolk of Puthur classify three seasons of sea cycles.

  1. Mel¡kka¶aÌ denotes the months April to July. The waves direct their course from the south-west to the north-east. C°«avakk¡¼¼u and C°«avakk¡ra¼¼u blow in this period. By neither rising nor falling fully, the water level maintains its balance. The current C°ºuv¡¶¶u is powerful and drives fish towards the shore. This season is considered good for fishing.

  2. Ki«kka¶al. In the months July to September, the water level rises and the tide leaves only a bit of land as shore. This is called karaiyai ku¼ukki a¶ittal. The season gets the kurincikk¡rru wind and the powerful current v¡ºuv¡¶¶u. Owing to the unrest of the sea, the village is severely affected as the fisherfolk do not go fishing.

  3. C¡yal includes the months from September to April. In this season the sea is calm. The wind v¡¶akk¡rru blows and the currents coºuv¡¶¶u and nuv¡¶¶u keep a normal course. The water level recedes and the catch of fish is small. This season is, however, good for the training of youngsters in the skills of fishing.

PERCEPTION OF THE ENVIRONMENT

The Mukkuv¡r of Puthur, when they are unable to control natural phenomena, even now resort to ‘magical’ rituals. Being Roman Catholics, they believe in the biblical allusion to the creation of the universe. They have myths about sea, wind, sky, fire and sun. Yet they maintain certain perceptions and beliefs about natural features and forces: these are manifest in many of their rituals, being related to their occupation.

The Mukkuv¡r personify all forms of Nature with which they are in contact, and like primitive ethnic groups, ascribe life to them. They do not venture to slight Nature in any of its forms as they cannot afford to risk its displeasure and bring upon themselves its malefic backlash and baleful influences.

THE SEA

The Mukkuv¡r treat the sea as sacred and attribute motherhood to it. There is a striking similarity to land, which is also treated as a woman by likening its fertility to that women (A. Siva Subramaniam, 1988: 47). This notion is clearly based on the association of land and sea with fertilization, sprouting, florescence and growth of life.

The other universal is the sanctity attached to water from the earliest days of human life. In the Indian tradition, from the Vedic period water has been regarded as a cleanser and purifier. All rituals and oblations performed by the Vedic people have been done on the banks of rivers, and water is used profusely in rituals and rites. River water, perhaps because of its finiteness and sweetness, is given this status. The same custom is seen among the Mukkuv¡r, although they have embraced Christianity, in respect of the sea.

To the Mukkuv¡r, the endless sea may once have inspired awe and fear. Gradually they turned to it as their succour and saviour. As is common among primitives, they do not till or tend: they are only gatherers. No wonder they continue to hold many primitive beliefs about the sea. They regard deaths in the sea as an infliction of the wrath of the mother. They feel that any violation of traditions or of the abstentions prescribed by lore may invite her wrath, which will lead to the annihilation of life. They believe that whenever there is a death natural of otherwise, in the sea, the sea is in fury. They ascribe the occasional high tides to the anger of the sea due to death, and believe that until the corpse is thrown ashore the sea will remain very rough. They believe that while the sea sustains them, it can also harm them when it is offended. Therefore the Mukkuv¡r are very careful in their life at sea and also in their references to any form of nature associated with the sea.

Another significant factor that strikes one is the traditional belief of the Hindu community in Ma¸·aikk¡·u about the sea. They too attribute sanctity to it. They treat the saline sea water as holy and sacred. The thousands of devotees who throng the temple carry away sea water as holy water.

The Mukkuv¡r use sea water as a purifier, as is observed in many of their rituals. They use it to ward off "shadow evil". They consider that the owls are purified after their dip in the sea and that their shadows will no longer harm children. On the twelfth day after confinement, mothers are taken to sea for a purifying bath.

The Mukkuv¡r believe that all water is holy and attribute fertility to it. During the lean seasons, when catches are scanty, they invite the parish priest to sprinkle water on the sea, believing that this will increase the quantity of fish. They believe in the sacredness of water, its palliative effects on the sick and the decrepit, and its role as a communion of divine grace to devotees in the temples. During phases of the life-cycle such as puberty and death, water is held to be a great purifier, capable of the removal of evils.

The Mukkuv¡r, have a belief that the richness and strength of the sea dwindles along with human generations. They believe that the longevity, physical prowess and talent of one generation are less than those of the previous one, and that the strength and richness of the sea is in proportion. The agriculturists of Kanyakumari District too entertain the belief that the fertility of the soil is being reduced and that the seasons are also changing. The fishermen say that the present catches are only three-fourths of what they had been in earlier generations, and believe that the currents and winds have become weaker.

WIND

Wind plays a very important role in the lives of fishermen. The direction of the wind, its velocity and force, all have a great bearing on their vocation. Wind can deflect the course of currents and can alter the stretch of fishing ground. To fishermen who are not used to modern techniques and rely on country boats and sails, the wind is an important factor. There is a folk usage; "Can any one go on the sea without taking account of the wind". Wind is perceive as the equivalent of breathing for a living human. Mores and folkways confirm this: the Mukkuv¡r, wind is an allotropic form of God. When the sea is rough, they say that God is awake; and when it is calm, they say that God sleeps. Gales and storms are the fierce deep breath of God. The fishermen therefore never slight the wind. They refer to death as an "extinction of breath". The occupation of fishing demands the holding of breath for long periods. To hold a breath for a while is equated with a temporary death.

THE ATMOSPHERE (SKY)

The fishermen in Puthur refer to the atmosphere as sky, or firmament. They believe that God lives there. According to them God lives in the form of clouds in the shape of humans and other living things, mountains, rivers, etc. They hold that the sky consists of Heaven and Purgatory. They believe that the souls of the dead first reach Purgatory.

There is a very popular and interesting story about this among the Mukkuv¡r. There lived one Uyirthan in an earlier generation. He passed away after ailing for some time. After bathing the body, his relations were about to put it in the coffin. To the surprise and awe of everyone gathered there he came to life, stood up and narrated what had happened to him. He is believed to have said that he was transported to Purgatory, where God sat in judgement. He was returned to this world again since his account was not yet complete. Incidentally, ‘uyirthan’ literally means ‘came back to life’, in other words, resurrection.

The Mukkuv¡r have a few taboos with regard to the sky. They do not expose the fallen milk-teeth of children to the sky, as that may hamper the further growth of teeth. Similarly, they do not expose eggs to the sky, fearing that they will not hatch. These taboos are based on fertility and also prevail among other communities of Kanyakumari District.

The atmosphere and the sky are very important for fishing. The fisherfolk of Puthur assess favourable situations for fishing, wind direction and movement of currents by cloud formations and by the positions of various stars. The converging of clouds and star at a particular place, indicates a particular weather condition. The agriculturists of Kanyakumari District hold the same belief. The Mukkuv¡r judge the formation of various currents from the position of such neet¡ram. If it is found in the south-east, c°¸uv¡¶¶u current is indicated, if located in the east, the current would be v¡¸u v¡¶¶u; and so on. If the neet¡ram is straight overhead, absolute calm in the sea is predicted.

There are many perceptions of the sky among the Mukkuv¡r related to their occupation. The stars in the sky are believed to help them in judging direction, time, richness of catch, etc. They depend on nine such stars: Katal velli, A¼a min, K£tta velli, Yeranh¡n velli, Chinna katal velli, Cothu velli, Kurusu velli, Malaim$ûn, and Kappal velli. Based on their distance, from the sun/moon, periods of appearance, and location in the sky, these stars help in calculating time and direction of sailing as well as the seasonal availability of fish.

FIRE

Fire, another primordial element, is held very important by the fishermen of Puthur. Fire is the source of heat, and they believe that life becomes extinct when there is no heat. They equate light to divinity as well. They believe that God exists in the form of light, and they light candles in church and at shrines (kruzadi) as propitiation or in fulfilment of their vows. Candles are symbols of light and also a relic of primitive beliefs. Many rituals among the Mukkuv¡r are found to corroborate this.

Candles are kept burning around a dead body until it is removed from the home. A candle or lamp is kept burning for a further seven days or more, as darkness would invite evil spirits. Even in the graveyard a candle is kept alight for some days. This is attributed to their belief that God beckons to a soul only when there is light. The Mukkuv¡r have a ritual based on the belief that light will ward off evil spirit or, for that matter, natural calamities. Cholera and small-pox are supposed to be spread by evil spirits, ghosts and demons. Therefore whenever there is an epidemic, they light a camp-fire on the outskirts of the village at night, flood the village with lights, and keep awake, resorting to rituals and group singing, trusting that evil cannot enter where light prevails. To the Mukkuv¡r light and God are synonymous.

Fire is at times described by the Mukkuv¡r as an expression of the anger of God. There are occasional fires in the sea caused by climatic conditions in the oceans. The Mukkuv¡r dread such fires and refrain from sailing for three or four days whenever they sight a fire in the sea.

THE SUN

The fishermen of Puthur regard the sun as a ball of fire. The sun has a forceful impact on their life-cycle. They believe that if a pregnant women observes a solar eclipse, she will have a deformed child. They believe in performing certain magical rites before sunrise or after sunset, to ward off the effects of "shadow evils", on the commissioning of new nets, etc. They strongly believe that the transgression of such abstentions will affect them adversely or the desired effects will not be achieved.

THE MOON

The Mukkuv¡r hold the primitive belief that there are many mountainous rivers in the moon that accounts for its cool condition. Lunar ecclipses are also considered a taboo for women. There is a close association between the moon and the ocean currents, according to them. The radiant halo around the moon indicates the nature of the ocean currents. The angle of insolation of the moon is also said to have an effect on the currents.

FISH

Apart from the five natural forces, the fish that they catch have a significance for the Mukkuv¡r, other than their economic value and as an inexhaustible source of food. The species Trichirus nalataricus, popularly called cav¡lai, is believed to have been condemned by God. They believe the white gelatinous mould in the head of this species to be a stone, decreed by God as the species did not obey Him.

There is another folk belief to explain the cross-like figure on the dorsal surface of crabs. It seems St. Xavier, while walking on the shore, found a crab saluting him. As a gesture of his blessings St. Xavier made a cross on its back with his fingers. This story is analogous to that prevalent among Hindus, that Sri Rama, on seeing a squirrel trying to help his army build a bridge across the sea, affectionately ran his fingers over its back; and that the squirrel thus obtained the three stripes on its back.

Some varieties of fish seem to possess magical potency. The tail of the Tvygon varnak is smoked and shown to those who are believed to have been be possessed by evil spirits. Divergent views exist regarding the pollution caused by fish. On certain occasions fish may be considered holy too (Enthoven 1924: 217).

There is a stray reference to the migration of fish. Normally the migration of fish is due to currents: but the Mukkuv¡r attribute the migration of fish from Quilon to Puthur to the blessings of St. Lucy. They believe that St. Lucy brings all the catch from Quilon and does not allow it to go to the next village, Pallam, before the Mukkuv¡r have taken what they need. They never attempt to catch whales since that is beyond their capacity. They fear them too, and whenever they confront them closely they draw a cross on their backs and trust they would leave them unhurt.

Fishing: Tools and Techniques

Very early in his existence, man was induced to venture afloat in search of food in the form of fish, an inexhaustible resource. Among the earliest traces of human existence in India are implements made of coral, which is an indication that he ventured at least as far as the low waterline. Against the backdrop that fish has formed part man’s food from the early days, and that he has caught it in the sea and in rivers, using tools and implements to suit his skills and competencies, this section analyses the fishing tools and techniques adopted by the Mukkuv¡r.

Though handicapped by a dearth of modern fishing technology, the fisherfolk of Puthur exhibit thorough knowledge and expertise in traditional skills and techniques. They sail either in groups or individuality, in catamarans and boats, within a radius of 30–50 km. Various fishing nets are used.

Catamarans and boats are the craft commonly used. Catamarans are built of four pieces, each 10–20 ft long, using wood like Alpecea, Enythrina indica, Eniodindron and Anfractousum, which easily floats. While two pieces form the base, the other two form the arched front and rear portions, called aniyam and ka¶amaram. These are narrow, while the na¶umaram, the middle part of the catamaran, is wide. The cross-wise wooden pieces fixed to the aniyam and the ka¶amaram are called katiyal. Before being shaped, the wood is cured in water for 10–15 days. After drying, the minute holes or pores are filled. The pieces are tied together with rope or nylon to make a catamaran. This earliest mode of transport is now common in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu. J. Hornel (1921: 144–8) observed that the catamaran is widely found, from the Mediterranean to South American shores.

The boat may be viewed as the next stage of development. Though similar to the catamaran structurally the boat, made mostly from the mango tree, is taller and wider. The planks are fixed together with nylon. Boats are propelled by oars, sail and motors. Colochel, a neighbouring village, enjoys the possession of a good number of motor boats, there are only three in Puthur at present.

The mechanized boats of Colochel are used for fishing and also transport goods between ships and the shore. Boats are comparatively less dangerous and less accident-prone than catamarans, reason enough to refrain from transporting valuables in a catamaran.

'Õ¶¡vi and Va½½a´ke¶¶u are the two artisan groups among the Mukkuv¡r who build catamarans and boats respectively. Making use of simple tools like axe and chisel, a catamaran is easily made; while a boat is the product of hard labour and strenuous hours. The whole range of carprenter’s tools is used, the planks are very closely fitted, and small holes are waxed to prevent the entry of water. The cost of labour amounts to 10 per cent of the price of the wood used in a boat. While catamarans number in the hundreds, there are only six boats in Puthur. After the day’s labour or when not in use, they are dragged ashore and kept under a thatched roof called Panna to prevent damage by sun and rain.

Tribals and peasants use various methods and equipment other than nets. They drive the fish to shallow water or beyond a weir, where they are easily caught. These techniques date to pre-historical times (Kosambi 1989: 81). This ancient method is prevalent in Kanyakumari District.

Ropes are used in Puthur during the months of January, February and March, the lean season. In the single hook rope (oruthan¡ kayi¤u) a stone is tied to one end of a 60 ft rope and a rod is fixed some 3–4 ft above the stone. The other end of the rope is fixed to a float. The stone end of the rope is thrown into the sea, using fish or crabs as bait, while the other end is held in the hands. Small jerks or movements of the rope indicate a catch. Large fish like c£rai, cemm¢n and vowm¢n can be caught single-handed. This tedious method is not much liked.

The multi-hook rope (kochu mattu) runs to 500 ft and is made of cotton. The cotton cord is made thick and strong and is soaked in water boiled with the outer skin of tamarind seeds. In this process the cord turns crimson, which does not scare away the fish. The fishing line is made of 5 ft of gangoose rope, and more than 1000 lines are attached to the rope at intervals of 1 ft. Stones and floats are attached to the rope at intervals of 50 ft and 100 ft respectively. In mid-sea, while one person sows the catamaran slowly, another drops the bait dexterously. After a patient wait of two or more hours, the line is drawn up and the fish caught are stored in a conical basket made of palm-leaf and called omal.

This fishing tackle can be used only once in a day, as it involves a tedious and cumbersome process. The fixing of bait in the many hooks consumes 3–5 hours, and one can spend around 2 hours in the disentangling of the enlaced cotton and gangoose strings.

The angling hook rope (oithu mattu) is smaller but structurally resembles the multi-hook rope, and 50 to 60 lines attached. Apart from the baits, silk pieces of various hues — crimson, yellow, white, green — are also attached to the line. These attract fish who mistake them for moss and sea vegetation. Single-handed, this is used to catch large fishes.

K£du, a Tamil word, finds its equivalents in ‘cage’, ‘nest’, ‘hive’ or ‘assemble’. This is a sort of trap made of palm-fibre or coir and is very rarely used in Puthur. The fibre is woven into box-like rectangles. This V-shaped trap has a hole of 3 cm diameter and a tiny door-like structure to trap fish. The trap is laid in stretches of sea full of rocks. Small varieties of fish are drawn inside the trap to lure prawns, which are the main catch. Although the trap is painted green to attract fish, the method is not particularly successful.

People in Kanyakumari District use a similar contrivance to fish in rivers and streams, but that is made of the ribs of palm leaves. One end of the conical trap is pointed, while the broad end is concave and has a hole. When water flows through this, little fish enter the hole and are trapped. Highly suitable in rivulets and small streams, this is still in vogue among tribals inhabiting the hills of Kanyakumari and Chidambaranar Districts.

Nets came into use because of their greater efficiency, and modern technology has greatly influenced their quality, structure and operating techniques. Cotton was replaced by stronger, more durable nylon, which also resulted in the net’s becoming a factory product. Considering the various disadvantages of cotton nets — the long hours needed to make them, their low durability and not-so-easy maintenance — the fishermen opted for nylon nets. A factory established in Ma¸av¡½aku¤ichi produces nylon fishing nets for the fisherfolk of Kanyakumari. Midalam, a fishing village situated in the west, 10 km from Puthur, houses a cottage industry which produces nets under the auspices of the Catholic Church.

These two units do not produce complete nets. They manufacture the smaller sections called m¡l. A m¡l has usually 100 holes but depends on the type of net for which it is meant. As the size of net varies according to an individual’s economic status, efficiency, and skill, people purchase m¡ls and assemble them to make their own nets. The coming of these units has robbed the womenfolk of their livelihood. Earlier the women would produce m¡ls while the men were out. This labour fetched them between Rs. 5 and Rs. 10 for a m¡l.

The nets used by the fisherfolk of Puthur can be classified under two heads, circular nets and flat nets and their use depends on the seasons. Structurally, circular nets resemble k£du. Karamati, also called karavalai, is one of the largest nets used. Shaped like an hour-glass, it derives this name because it is dragged ashore after a large haul. The holes in the net are half a centimetre square. When pulled, the middle part of the net contracts. Both ends of the net are attached to floats; and to enable the net to settle on sea bed, stones are fastened. Usually 50 ft long and 20 ft broad, this net is used in lean months, i.e., January and February. As dawn breaks, a group sets sail in a boat along with the net. While two row, the rest drop the 500-ft rope attached to the floats. After the rope is laid the boat turns towards the shore, when the net is cast. While returning the rope attached to the other end of the net is slowly dropped. The net is then dragged ashore by 20 to 40 people holding both the ends of the rope.

The Katalanayan, a fishing community of coastal Cochin, possess nets which are similar to this. At present Puthur has seven such nets. The income on catches is shared among many. The following is the break-up of the profit made on the catch:

  1. 5 per cent as tax to the Church

  2. 4 per cent of penduva fish for the owner of the net, women, and cooking assistants

  3. 5 per cent of kuthu fish for labourers who put in hard work

  4. 2 per cent for the barber

  5. 5 per cent for the one who takes care of the net after the catch and who carries out minor repairs

  6. 4 per cent for the helpers who push and pull the catamaran or boat into and from the sea

  7. The rest is divided into three portions and taken equally by the owner of the net, the people who ventured into the sea with the net and those who dragged it ashore.

On the whole, a quarter of the profit is enjoyed by the owner of the net, another quarter is ued for miscellaneous expenses, and one half is equally divided among persons involved in the catch. This usually leaves them with Rs. 10 or Rs. 15 each. As the Arayans own the nets, Pu½ukkaiyars have always been subordinated to them.

As the land on which houses stand belongs to the Church, the fisherfolk pay 5 per cent of the profit to it as tax. A decade ago the bursar of the church used to visit households which use karamati with a money-box to collect this tax. This system has been abolished now, but we can see how a clan, after the introduction of tools which require collective labour, has gained from anomalous production; and how a group in possession of tools can easily enslave the have-nots. Social and economic status are determined only by the possession of large nets, as is also seen among the Jalari, a fishing community of Andhra Pradesh (Kodanda Rao 1990: 26-30).

The ta¶¶uma¶i similar in structure to the karavalai, is 15 ft long and 8 ft broad. Two catamarans, with three persons in each, are employed with this net while one transports the net to the sea, the another closely follows. The net, to which are fastened stones, is dropped in fish-rich waters and the end of the rope attached to the mouth of the net is passed to the people in the second catamaran. When both ends of the rope are pulled, the net contracts and surfaces. The Katalarayan of Cochin use their circular net in the same manner (L.K. Anantha Krishna Iyer 1909: 214).

Flat nets mark a further development in fishing technology. Six kinds are used in Puthur: valuvalai, c¡lavalai, kaccavalai, kank£svalai, tattuvalai and koliyameraluvalai. Floats are fastened to the upper portion of the net while stones are hooked to the bottom. Gravitational pull makes the lower part rest on the sea bed and the floats keep the upper part near the surface. The net remains wide open and the fish swim into it and get their find entangled. The process involves two persons and takes about two hours, so that many catches are possible in a day. While one steadily rows, the other drops the line, and finally both haul in the catch. The size of the net and of the holes in it depends on the variety of fish to be caught. The flat nets need in Puthur are:

  1. Valuvalai: Around 13 m wide, with square holes of about 11 cm, this costs about Rs. 50,000. The largest among the flat nets, it is used mostly in shallow waters.

  2. C¡lavalai: Used to catch the smaller varieties of fish, this is 10 m wide, with square holes of 3 cm.

  3. Kaccavalai: Although this too has a breadth of 10 m, its holes measure only 5 mm. It is used to catch tiny varieties of fish like nettili.

  4. Kank£svalai: Also called ‘discovalai, parivalappu valai and nelattu valai, this is chiefly used to net prawns, which dwell close to the sea bed. It is about 3 m in breadth and has holes of 1 cm. This net is made of strengthened cotton thread, which the fisherfolk twist on their own with spindles.

  5. Tattuvalai: Used to net sharks and other large fish, this is also 3 cm wide and has holes of 5 cm. Used in mid-sea, this net is cast among rocks and the place is marked with signs of mountains, temples, etc. The catch is taken up only after a day or two.

  6. Koliyameralu valai: This is an assembly of worn-out, used nets, with no specific size. The net derives its name from the koliyameralu, a fish usually caught with it.

An analysis of the distribution of the various types of net shows that about 20 per cent of the households of fishermen in Puthur possess one of the above types. About 10 per cent own two nets each, and around 2 per cent own even more than two nets. The possession of nets is considered a pointer to economic status. Another feature is the joint ownership of nets by two or three families so as to share the high cost. The income through such nets is shared in proportion to the monetary investment in them. All the male members in a family have a right in the use of all fishing tools, including nets. When the head of a family continues to work with the nets in his possession, married sons are given a share in the income. However, when any lone member of the family is using a net, he is expected to give a share of the income to other male members of the family.

Kaccavalai and c¡lavalai are supposed to have followed the karavalai, which is considered to be the oldest type to have been used by fishermen in Puthur. The other types are of very recent origin. Twenty years ago, nets like kacc¡valai, c¡lavalai, karavalai and tattuvalai were made of cotton thread. The advent of nylons was exploited rightly by the Mukkuv¡r. The use of nylon threads helped overcome the difficulties of drying the nets during winter and the frequent decay of cotton threads. The tattuvalai slowly edged out the karavalai because of its compactness and light weight. Even youngsters can use this net.

Apart from the various types of boats and nets, there are a few other indigenous implements used by the Mukkuv¡r. The "omal is a cylindrical basket, made of palm-leaf, used to store the catch. It is tied with a rope at the apex to facilitate opening and closing. Of late, it is also being made of nylon. The korukacca is a seive, with a wooden handle, made of fragments of broken nets. The implement is mostly used with the ka]nava type of fish, which is found near the upper surface of the sea. The gadget is also helpful in collecting the small prey caught with the fishing ropes. The k°ttum¡l is a small square container made of nylon rope, used to carry the nylon nets. The ko«utta¶¶i is a piece of wood, normally a metre long, to the end of which is fixed an iron hook. This is useful in hooking out the bigger fish from koccumattu nets while transferring them to boats or containers.

Floats, called p¡ttai or k¡vi, play a very important role in fishing. Until recently the Mukkuv¡r used floats made of Alpecea or Erythrina indica. When they found it uneconomical to change these floats frequently, and after taking to nylon nets, they began to use plastic floats. Nowadays the Mukkuv¡r use big plastic cans or thermocole sheets for floats.

The Mukkuv¡r classify four major fishing times:

K¡lai ma¶i (Morning catch) : Set out at 4 a.m. and return by 10 a.m.
Ucha ma¶i (Noon catch) : Set out around 8 a.m. and return by 2 p.m.
A´tima¶i (Evening catch) : Leave at 2 p.m. and return by 6 p.m.
Ir¡ ma¶i (Night catch) : Sail before midnight and return by 8 a.m.

The Mukkuv¡r carefully plan their fishing depending on the availability of catches. For example, the variety ayila is mostly available during nights in January and February. They will normally choose Ir¡ma¶i for this catch, being fully aware that this species will swim ashore generally during the nights. There are some varieties which are lured by the stars and by moonlight. The time of making a catch is sometimes influenced by the mode and time of marketing. Catches are mostly consumed in Puthur village. Some valuable varieties like prawns are usually sent to Kerala for drying and curing. The trade is organized by big companies and the fishermen are mostly at their mercy.

Auctioning seems to be the most common method of marketing the catch in Puthur village. Immediately on returning to the shore, the Mukkuv¡r generally auction their catches to the crowd waiting for them. There is a group or professional auctioneers, commisssion agents, and small merchants. The professional auctioneers are usually paid 2 per cent of the sale proceeds. Occasionally the Mukkuv¡r carry their catches home, clean them and sell them by weight instead of by lot. The large-scale dealers from Kerala pay the commission agents in advance. In turn, the Puthur fishermen are paid in advance as part of a contract of supply valid for each season. This practice is generally disadvantageous to the fishermen because the merchants always try to pay low rate. At times such dealings lead to quarrels.

When the catch of certain types like c¡lai and nettili is abundant, it is cured, stored and sold for higher prices later on. Months like July, August, September and October are normally marked by abundant catches, and the Mukkuv¡r’s purchasing power is correspondingly high. These are usually their happy months, when marriges and festivities take place in their families.

Contd...

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