They sit on stilts and fish farm; command a fee for clicking their charm. I was expecting a picturesque sea-scape with poles jutting out from the middle of the ocean, and stick-like figures sitting on them, with their fishing rods extended and lots of fish flying, swarming the coastline.
But little did I know when I reached Koggala, that this ‘art’ of fishing was dying fast. This morning, the beach was almost empty with only a few peddlers selling coconut water and snacks. The poles near the beach were deserted.
As soon as I alighted from the bus and headed towards the shore, a man in his mid-50s accosted me and demanded Rs 500 before I could even take my camera out from my backpack. I was taken aback and did not understand what was going on. I told him that the ocean was free for all, and I am free to click photos. He responded saying the Rs 500 was for clicking pictures of the stilts with the fishermen ‘on’ them and advertised more about the beauty of the landscape with people sitting on them than taking a photo of the stilts alone.
An additional Rs 500, and I could sit on the stilt and have a picture of myself taken, and also get a feel of this art, which is unique only to this part of the world.
Stilt fishing (commonly known as riti panna) requires sitting on a cross-bar (called petta) tied to a vertical pole that is three to four metres tall, planted on the ocean floor or on the coral reefs. The height of the stilt can be adjusted based on the height of the tides, and also the distance between any two stilts was such that the lines of two adjacent fishermen did not get entangled.
Two or more stilts could be combined together (called as wata) so that more than one fisherman can sit along the stilt. Holding the stilt by one hand while sitting or standing and holding the fishing line in the other hand, these fishermen generally spend hours early in the morning or late afternoon, in the hope of getting a good catch to feed their families and also sell some in the local market. Test of one’s patience indeed.
Small reef fish like koraburuwa (spotted herring), bolla (small mackerel) and ahalaburuwa (young koraburuwa), which is about the size of a sardine, are usually found in these waters.
The fish are often stored in bamboo baskets or polythene covers that are tied to the poles. Fishing nets are prohibited, and so are certain types of hooks. This is an unobtrusive method of fishing, wherein no baits are used on the hooks, for the fishermen believe that any changes in the water would lead to the reef fish not returning in the next season. Also, full-moon days are avoided.
It is believed that stilt fishing started after the World War II, when discarded ‘iron poles’ or GI pipes were used as stilts in the reef. But soon, the practice changed with the use of timber that was cheaper, lighter, durable, and also easily movable.
These stilts are highly precious commodities for they are handed down from generation to generation, along with particular fishing skills that are unique to each family. Located primarily along the southern coast of Sri Lanka in places like Koggala, Habbaraduwa, Ahangama and Kathaluwa, every reef was allocated to a village or a group of villages to avoid possible disputes between fishermen.
Now, I knew exactly what the fisherman meant when he demanded Rs 500 for clicking a photo, for I quickly understood that this traditional way of earning a living was no longer the only means of survival.
These fishermen were getting better returns by posing for a few minutes in front of the camera. Rising cost of living, unpredictable environmental conditions, long hours to be spent sitting on stilts and depreciating returns were all factors in the ‘commercialisation’ of this beautiful-yet-tough-art.