Physics in action
I must admit that physics has been a bit of a closed book to me. If only my teacher had introduced me to the wonders of the Chinese fishing nets of Kochi then the mysteries of levers, pulleys and gravitational force would have revealed themselves to me. I might even have given Einstein a run for his money and I would have easily surpassed Newton’s paltry total of three laws of motion. Alas, however, my teacher was oblivious to these marvels and so I have remained in blissful ignorance of the physical laws that govern the universe in which we live ever since.
Every tourist book on Kerala bangs on about the Cheena vala of Kochi and so, naturally, we went out to see them from two vantages – from the sea and from the shoreline. They are stunning in a Heath Robinson kind of way and loom up over the skyline. A wonderful sunset through the structure of a cheena vala is an iconic tourist photo of Kochi.
Structurally, they are about 10 metres tall and hold out horizontal nets of around 20 metres in width. The basic mechanism consists of a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the water with large stones, around 30 centimetres or so in diameter, suspended from ropes of different lengths at the end to serve as counterweights. As the net is raised some of the rocks come to rest on the platform supporting the structure, keeping everything in balance.
Each net has a team of around 6 operators who tug away at the ropes. The balance of the contraption is such that one man walking along a pole can provide sufficient momentum for the net to descend into the water.
Are they effective? The jury, I think, is out on that one. When we were watching them in operation, the nets were in the water for around three or four minutes and when raised, they revealed rather a paltry catch. Even then, the fishermen had to be quick off the mark to prevent their catch being snatched by the ever-present crowd of birds. The first catch is then thrown to the motley collection of moggies on the shoreline to ensure that once sated they don’t pinch any more.
Immediately adjacent to the net is a fish auctioneer who receives the haul, pays the fishermen and then immediately auctions the fish off to one of the many fish sellers. We saw a mullet come out of the net, auctioned off and on sale at a nearby fish stall – the transactions completed with such rapidity that the creature was still flapping and gasping for breath at the fish shop, providing a perfect demonstration of supply and demand, wholesaling and retailing in one easy lesson.
The fishermen seemed to make more money by allowing tourists to clamber on the contraptions to take photos than they do from their hauls.
Legend has it that this form of fishing was introduced to the area in the 14th century by the Chinese explorer, Zheng He, but these days it is thought more likely that they were introduced by Portuguese Casado settlers from Macau. This method of fishing is not unique to Kochi – such nets can be found in southern China and Indochina – but they provide a fascinating taster to the wonders that Kerala has to offer.