June 09, 2013

Stilt Fishing in Sri Lanka

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 fishes flying swarming the coastline. But little did I know when I reached Koggala that this ‘art’ of catching fishes was dying fast. This morning, the beach was almost empty with only a few peddlers selling coconut water and some snacks. The poles near the beach were deserted.

As soon as I descended from the bus and headed towards the shore, a man in his mid 50s approached me and demanded 500 rupees before I could take my camera fully out from my backpack. I was taken aback and did not understand at first. I told him that the ocean was free for all and I am free to take photos. He responded back that the 500 rupees was for clicking pictures of the stilts with the fishermen ‘on’ them and advertised more on the beauty of the landscape with people sitting on them than taking a photo of the stilts alone. Five Hundred rupees more 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 to only 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  3-4meter tall planted on the ocean floor or on the coral reefs. The height of the stilt could 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 do 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 being seated or standing and holding the fishing line on the other hand, these fishermen generally spend hours together early in the morning or late afternoon with the hope of having a good catch to feed their family and also sell some in the local market and make a few bucks. Test of one's patience indeed!



Small reef fish like koraburuwa (spotted herring), bolla (small mackerel) and ahalaburuwa (young koraburuwa) about the size of a sardine were the primary members in a catch. The caught fish were often stored in bamboo baskets or the polythene covers which were tied to the poles themselves. 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 waters 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 Second World War when discarded ‘iron poles’ or G.I. 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 moveable. These stilts are highly precious commodities for they are transferred 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 exactly knew what the fisherman meant when he demanded 500 rupees for clicking a photo, for I quickly understood that this traditional way of living was no longer the only means of survival, for these fishermen were getting better returns from posing for a few minutes in front of the camera. The increasing cost of living, unpredictable environmental conditions, long hours to be spent sitting on the pedestal and depreciating returns were all factors in ‘commercialization’ of this beautiful-yet-tough-art.

[This article was published in Deccan Herald on 6-June-2013]
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