Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fort Kochi & the Chinese fishing nets

One day this past week Linda & Michael on S/V B'Sheret joined us for a day excursion to Fort Kochi.  We wanted to see the Chinese fishing nets.  And to visit the recommended Seagull Hotel restaurant for lunch.  Time to get off the boat and wander around for a few hours.

Fort Kochi is the "happening" area of Cochin.  Especially for tourists.  And Cochin does get its fair share of tourists, both international and domestic.   Millions of people in the interior and mountainous areas of India have never even seen the ocean.  And Cochin is a popular place for them to visit.  International tourists to this area come mainly from Europe.   I don't want to give a blow-by-blow, century-by-century description of the history of Fort Kochi, but here is a very brief synopsis.

Since 3000 B.C.  this area has been important for trade.  First came Mesopotamians, the Greeks and Romans and established spice trading.  Then the Arabians who brought the many spices up to Europe.  Many centuries later they were followed by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British.  This area is also referred to as the Malabar Coast and is one of the wettest areas of India.  Fortunately for us, all this rain falls during a 3 month period annually during the strong SW monsoon.  Then it is dry for the rest of the year.  We are here during the NE monsoon and have been told that it will not rain a drop during our visit.  That has been true thus far.

Written documents reflect that by around 600 A.D. there was a large community of people of various religions living peacefully in this area -- Hindus, Christians, Muslims and a Jewish minority.  There is a Jewish synagogue built near Fort Kochi that still stands today.  I do not know the year of construction, but it looks pretty darn old.  In 1341, the natural harbor of Kochi was created by a flood which also destroyed the harbor of the town Kodungallur. Kochi developed into one of the most important harbors on the west coast of India and concentrated on the spice trade with China and the Middle East.  The 1500s found Portuguese ships landing at Kochi.  Explorers Vasco da Gama and Pedro Alvarez Cabral visited.   Vasco da Gama was once buried here at St. Francis Church Fort Kochi.  His remains were returned to Portugal in 1539. The body of Vasco da Gama was re-interred in Vidigueira, Portugal in a casket decorated with gold and jewels. 

The Majaraja of Kochi felt threatened by King Zamorin of Calicut (Calcutta) and thought that the Portuguese would help defend him, so he opened the port to the Portuguese and they established their first trading center in Kochi.  Guess he put a bit too much trust in the Portuguese because they soon took over.  The Majaraja lost most of his power and Kochi became the first European colony in India.

The Portuguese wanted everyone to convert to Catholicism.  They pressured the small Jewish community and the Syrian Christians, who had lived here for hundreds of years.  The Portuguese tried to merge the Syrian Christian Church with the Roman Catholic Church which consisted of people converted by the Portuguese. This created conflicts with the caste system, because the Syrian Christians believed that they belonged to a higher caste than the converted Catholics who consisted mainly of poor fishermen from the coast.  Hard times for all of them.

The Dutch came to Kochi at the invitation of a deposed prince of the Cochin Royal Family and the hereditary Prime Minister of Cochin with the active and open support of the local Syrian Christians.  The Dutch conquered Kochi in 1653. The town now belonged to the worldwide trading network of the Netherlands East India Company.The Dutch also destroyed many Catholic institutions in Kochi (later called Cochin).  The Dutch also established themselves in Sri Lanka, as well as all throughout Indonesia where spices were also grown.  The Netherlands East India Company had the spice trade locked up for a long time.

Around 1790 the British arrived with their ever-expanding policy of world-wide colonization .  In 1814, Kochi became a part of the Madras Presidency and became a part of the British colonial empire. The British shaped the country until the 20th century,  As the clearance process for yachts can attest to this day, the British taught the Indians well when it came to bureaucracy and needless paperwork.

In 1947 India finally gained independence.  In 1956 the first free elections were held and the Communist Party formed the first government of Kerala (the state in which Cochin is located), the first freely elected communist government in the world.  Today India is a parliamentary democracy.

One of the main tourist attractions at Fort Kochi is the area of Chinese fishing nets.  Why these are called Chinese, I have no clue.  We did not see anything like this in China.

These are nets suspended from bent tree trunks.   There are large rocks tied with hanging ropes on the land side of these structures that are used to pull up the tree trunks & nets.  To submerge the nets, a man walks out to the far end of one of the tree trunks.  It is all a balancing art.  I must assume that weight is removed on the land side while the man is standing out near the center of the net structure; otherwise, it would seem to me that the net would rise again as the man walks back to land, which it obviously does not.

The nets are allowed to remain submerged for a  brief time -- maybe 5 minutes or so.  Then a group of men pull on the hanging ropes laced with large rocks and raise the nets out of the water.

Next a couple of the men go back out on the platform near the tree trunks and start shaking the net.  They do not go as far out as the man who walked out to cause the nets to submerge; they remain closer in and cause no effect on the balancing of the structure.

As they shake the large net, any fish fall toward an off-center "pocket" where a smaller net is attached.  The men still on land pull the ropes & rocks a bit more, causing the net to rise higher.  This allows the man or men out on the tree trunks to reach the smaller net where the fish have been accumulated.  There is some kind of drawstring type opening in the smaller net that allows the fish to be poured out.  These are collected and brought to containers ashore, where they are sold to waiting customers.

These photos should make the process fairly clear.

The only fish we saw being caught were very small.  We wouldn't bother with anything that small, but both in Sri Lanka and here in Cochin the locals like to eat these tiny fish.  Cannot imagine why.  Give me a nice thick fish fillet any time, no bones please, instead of these tiny fish.

Michael walked farther down the row of Chinese fishing nets -- there are at least a dozen along this part of the shore; and many more elsewhere around Cochin.  Michael said the men farther down had caught larger fish.  He saw decent sized snapper and large prawns for sale.  And those were actually being kept on ice -- a practice we have not seen anywhere else here.  Usually fish are just laying on plain wood and are not refrigerated; sold on the side of the street.  As you can guess, this is yet another place where we are not buying seafood.   

Hardly seems worth the effort, although there is little effort involved.  This is the simplest method of fishing imaginable. 

The 4 of us got a tiny surprise when we entered the restaurant at the Seagull Hotel.  There are at least 2 entrances to get into the restaurant.  We chose the first one we came to on the street and followed the signs.  I noticed a "Family" sign that diverted to the right, but did not snap as to what that sign meant.  We followed the sign straight ahead of us that said "Restaurant."  When we entered through the low doorway, it was immediately obvious to me that we had chosen wrong.   The entire place was filled with men -- no women present.  They looked at us and got a little loud and we could see anger in some of their eyes.  Oh crap!  We screwed up.  I knew what was going on here because my brother and sister-in-law had lived in Saudi Arabia for years and had explained this custom.  We had walked into a restaurant for men only -- a normal Muslim custom.  That "Family" sign back up the walkway a bit was where we needed to go.  Linda was confused by all this because she and Michael had never heard of segregated male/female dining.  Bill and I knew about it but had never run into this before.  We all quickly backtracked and soon were seated in the comfortable family section and enjoyed a delicious lunch.

For people not familiar with this custom, it is normal in stricter Muslim societies for women to be barred from entering restaurants unless the restaurant offers a separate "family" section.  This includes McDonald's or KFC or any type eating establishment.  We had not encountered this custom in either Indonesia or Malaysia or even Sri Lanka.  The percentage of Muslim population here in the Cochin area is far, far less than in Indonesia or Malaysia; but here in Cochin they follow this male/female separation idea more commonly.  After our mistake, when we later walked around town we noticed more signs segregating the regular "restaurant" from the "family" area.  We assume that if a group of women are dining that they would be allowed to enter the "family" area -- even though not accompanied by any males.  But we have not yet seen than happen.

1 comment:

  1. The fishing nets are really interesting! Love to hear about other people's lives and customs.


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