“You know, madam, there is a proverb in Malayalam which says, once you have seen Kollam you would no more need your illam (home),” says my driver in a mix of English, Hindi and Malayalam as we drive past the quaint town of Kollam (formerly Quilon). He continues, “Tourists go to Kochi, Alappuzha, Kumarakom, Kovalam, but not many know that this is the original Travancore kingdom. Many palaces were here at one time; it was a very rich town.”
We stop at Kollam Beach as I take a walk along the shore, gazing at the deep blue of the Arabian Sea. The vendors are asleep as the tourists are yet to arrive, but the breeze blows inland steadily. And that’s where I get my little dose of history.
Kollam, located on the banks of the Ashtamudi Lake, was once a prosperous and ancient sea port, trading with the Chinese, Romans, Phoenicians, Portuguese, Dutch and the British. It is said that Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler, visited Kollam and other towns on the west coast.
It is late afternoon and I am surrounded by tender coconut vendors. The sea and sky merge into shades of blue as I continue chatting with the driver. He takes me to the old Thangasherry lighthouse, standing tall at 144 feet. Looking down, I see the coastline bordered with foam. The afternoon sun doesn’t let me linger as we continue our journey towards Ashtamudi.
Buses whiz past and the Neendakara Bridge fans out before me. On either side is a fabric of deep blue that merges with the horizon. A flock of kites flies into my path and swoop up to fill the sky again. Here, the Ashtamudi Lake joins the Arabian Sea.
The sun hangs low. The lake stretches out before me, coconut trees interrupting its seamless flow. Shades of blue emerge from the water as I’m lost gazing at the colours.
Ashtamudi Lake is one of the best kept secrets of Kerala. It is the second-largest lake after Vembanad and yet, tourism is a recent phenomenon here. The Chinese fishing nets lie scattered on the waters as the fishermen await the dawn. Small green islands glisten like emeralds against the horizon, some of them home to just three or four families. Their connection to civilization are only narrow canals and wooden bridges.
I take a boat to explore the lake. The Kallada River empties into Ashtamudi Lake and creates eight branches giving the lake its name. “It’s like an octopus with eight hands,” says my boatman, describing the lake. We discuss the route while I cross several small islands and go around the Thalababuram Bridge. He points to “seacrows” – their name for cormorants – that dip their beaks in the water to catch their morning fish. Herons and storks give them company.
The villages make a pretty picture with colourful houses in yellow, orange and lavender standing amidst the blue-green mosaic. Life unfolds in these little villages. An old man, comfortable in his boat, reads the morning paper. A duo is returning home while a young girl with her father is rowing her mother to the neighbouring market. Villagers are dressed for church as they board the boat. My boatman says boats made out of wood from mango trees are very sturdy. He gets animated when we discuss fishing.
“Can you see that light, Madam? It has seven bulbs,” he says, points across the vast expanse of water to a long, horizontal contraption with outstretched rods. That’s a cheena vala,” he says, referring to the Malayalam word for the Chinese fishing net, which are believed to have been brought into Kerala by the 14th-century Chinese mariner Zheng He.
The waterscape is littered with these shore-operated, stationary nets. Long, metallic and wooden rods jut out into the water, held in place by ropes. We sail closer to take a look. The structures are more than ten metres high. Birds perch on the stretched-out rods and the nets are outstretched. My boatman explains the process and says that fishing usually starts at night. A net can be operated by a team of about five fishermen, who lower the net and submerge it at a certain depth. The lights suspended from these rods are placed on the surface of the water and are used to attract fish and crustaceans. The electric cable stretches out from the fishermen’s homes from the bank to the contraption.
“You can find more than a thousand of them,” he says referring to the Chinese fishing nets. Popular in Kochi, they are used by local fishermen to catch prawns and crabs. I learn that on a lucky night, the catch can be anything from four to ten kilograms.
We move on, passing islands and islanders and see cormorants perched on the rods immersed in water. “Here, Karimeen (Pearl Spot) fishing is also carried out,” he says, and adds that it is a delicacy in the backwaters. According to him the fishermen promote breeding and maintain “fish sanctuaries.” He shows me a fish the size of my palm.
“The fishermen, even women, catch by hand,” he adds, “We call it Vellavali.”
I ask him about the rods and he explains that they are stems replanted on the waters. The fish, he says, feed on the leaves of plants littered below the surface. Stems are placed above the water and the nets are cast around them to catch them at night. I listen fascinated as the boatman tells me that lanterns are used by the fisherfolk and karimeen auctions take place early in the morning.
It is Sunday and the backwaters are silent. It is a five-day week for the fishing community. As we sail back, my companion sums up: “There are different kinds of specialists for various varieties of fish and each technique is different from the other, even the nets.”
Amazing, I muse, how we take such simple things for granted.