The fishermen of Chowara, Kerala
One of the pleasures of a stay by the sea is an early morning walk on the beach. The waves lapping the shore, the sound of sea birds, a gentle breeze … a tranquil spot in which to recharge the batteries.
But what most of us regard as a welcome break from our day to day lives is for others a place of work, and hard work at that. The man in my photo above is a fisherman in Chowara, in Kerala. Here he is again, below right, working with his fellow fishermen to haul a boat up the beach as it returns with its catch. This is a community, everyone helping everyone else.
We were staying at the Travancore Heritage Hotel in Kovalam, directly above this beach. I have read some reviews of this hotel in which visitors complained that the beach was a working one, with all the detritus that accompanies fishing activity.
Clearly some holiday-makers prefer to be sheltered from the daily life of the region they are visiting. But that isn’t our style; and as a keen photographer the acceptance of me and my camera by the local fishermen was a real bonus.
Inspired by ThatTravelLadyInHerShoes and her post of ‘Just One Person From Around the World’, I want to share something of the life ‘my’ fisherman leads, based on what I learned from the Rough Guide to Kerala.
The life of a fisherman in Kerala
The life of a fisherman in Kerala is not an easy one. They are among the poorest of the state’s residents; they have lower than average income levels, literacy and life expectancy in a region which generally rates relatively well in these measures compared with the rest of India. Their living conditions are poor, with home typically a one-room shack with no running water. Child mortality rates are high, while alcoholism and domestic violence are common problems.
These are historic issues. They date back to a time (pre 1930s) when fishermen as a caste were barred from temples, churches and schools and were regarded as the lowest in society. They made only the most basic of incomes from their catches as they were unable to sell directly to their ‘social superiors’; they were forced to use middlemen who creamed off most of the profits. Those same middlemen were quick to offer to lend money when a new net or boat was needed, but charged exorbitant rates of interest, further impoverishing the borrower.
Their poverty had made them ripe for conversion to Christianity when the Jesuit missionaries arrived on these shores in the 16th century. But with the new religion came new responsibilities that cost the fishermen dear. Forced to pay ten percent of their meagre incomes in tithes, they saw the churches flourish while they continued to suffer. It is still striking today to see such huge and rich-looking churches in such otherwise poor villages.
In the 1960s conditions improved a little. Co-operatives were established to buy and sell the daily catch, which allowed the fishermen to bypass the middlemen and get a fairer price for their fish. They also gave them access to low-interest loans when needed. But these improvements were short lived, as any benefits of collective action were wiped out by a big 1980s government promotion of mechanised trawler fishing. This decimated fish stocks and led to a fifty percent drop in the catches of inshore fishermen.
Today there are further concerns that a government scheme to build an artificial reef off Kovalam’s Lighthouse Beach, to protect it from the sort of destruction caused by the 2004 tsunami, may cause further problems for the fishermen of Chowara and other neighbouring communities by diverting currents and causing damage to the beaches they use.
A walk on the beach
A walk on the beach first thing in the morning is an opportunity to see these hardy men at work; hauling in the huge nets, sorting through the catch, cleaning and making ready the nets for the next evening’s fishing.
Local women join them on the beach to help with the sorting; they then take the fish away to the market in the village.
Many birds join them too, in the hopes of snatching a free meal – egrets, crows, kites and eagles, among others.
The whole scene is a hive of activity and will delight any keen photographer I am sure, as it did me. But only a video can convey a real sense of the atmosphere on the beach.
I visited Kerala in 2017
What a fabulous post ..so interesting and it’s nice to read about something not touristy
Thank you Alison, I’m very pleased to hear you enjoyed this 🙂 Yes, there may be tourists in this area but not so many that they have fundamentally altered this traditional way of life.
As always, gorgeous series of photos Sarah.
I have great memories from Kovalam too ( I wrote a post a couple of years ago if you want to have a look : https://lesfrenchchronicles.wordpress.com/2019/02/07/india-tales-the-big-banana-tree/ )
I wish I had a digital camera while traveling around India. I doesn’t really make a difference..
Thanks for the kind words about my photos Vero 🙂 I’m off to look at your Kovalam post now …
I can’t really walk on the beach very easily anymore. As a matter of fact, I’d rather be on a boat. But to look at the beach it would be better to have some activity to look at (and photograph)
Yes, I agree – while a deserted beach can also be good for photography I prefer the variety of a busy one on the whole 🙂
Absolutely fantastic and such beautiful photos, it made me feel as if I was back there. So lovely.
Thank you Agnes, I really appreciate your kind comment 🙂 And thanks too for starting to follow my blog – I hope you find more here to interest you!
I know that I will Sarah 🙂
Sarah, great post about Kerala’s Chowara fishermen! It was quite an education. Your photos are magnificent!
Thank you so much Sylvia, I’m glad you liked this, and learned something from it 😀
Great to see you joining in with this one, Sarah. A really informative, excellent post so thanks a lot 🙂 🙂
Thanks Jo, I enjoyed putting this together and I’ll definitely join this challenge again as it’s a topic that really resonates with me 🙂
Just by looking at the expression on their faces, one can almost imagine hearing the most amazing stories – probably unheard of to the “outside world”. You’ve captured something very special … a realness of hardship, but with a touch of a sincere smile … your photo’s in this post really touched my heart 💌.
Thank you, I really do appreciate this comment. I hoped to capture something of the character I saw in these men and you reassure me that maybe I managed to do so 🙂
Sarah! Oh my gosh! What a wonderful insight to the lives and plights of these fisherman! And, you are right the video at the end just says it all! I hope you will post again and thank you for joining the challenge this week! I will also feature all the posts from everyone on Wednesdays so if anyone missed reading the post the first time they have a chance to see it again! Cady
Thank you so much Cady, I’m really pleased you enjoyed my contribution 🙂 It’s a great idea for a challenge – thanks for thinking of it and inspiring this post!
I look forward to hearing more from you!
one of the best places in INDIA!
Thanks Michael – I loved Kerala but I have to admit I enjoyed Rajasthan more. My favourite city in India so far is Jaisalmer!
Great blog about a place I’ve never heard of. The pictures look like something you would see in National Geographic.
Thanks so much Nancy, I really appreciate the compliment 😀
An informative post Sarah. I enjoy your photos but really appreciate the background story.
Your Kerala scenes remind of similar ones in Bali. There as well, the people who live from the sea are disparaged by those live by the land.
I talk about it in one of my posts: https://thesandychronicles.blog/2020/04/23/bali-snapshots-2/
Thank you Sandy 🙂 I’ve just read your Bali post and I can see exactly why this reminded you of it – lots of parallels.
A wonderful post – especially the evocative video. I didn’t visit coastal Kerala, but was inland, and saw enough of the fall-out from the recent past when farmers had been encouraged to replace subsistence farming with mono-culture, with its attendant problems of possible harvest failure, and being captive to market forces not on the side of the small-scale producer. And the fact that children were being educated enough to have them aim to move to the cities in search of work, but not enough to put decent jobs with prospects in their sights. This of course is about 15 years ago now. I don’t know how things will have changed in the interim.
Thank you Margaret, I’m glad you enjoyed the post and video. Some things can only be conveyed with movement and sound, and the atmosphere on that beach was one of them. I can only comment on the situation inland as we saw it, but it seemed to be to be less poor than the coastal region, so maybe some of the issues you observed have been ironed out?
Even then, things were on the up – apart from the inexorable drain to the cities.
Great Sarah! Yes I’d have chosen to stay right near this beach too for the same reasons as you! It was interesting to learn about fishermen as a caste and how the caste system is still going strong today. Did you manage to chat to any of the fishermen? I never made it to Kerala I stayed in Mysore and intended to visit, but next time definitely. I bet you had some great fish meals during your stay?
Hi Katie! No, we didn’t exchange more than the odd smile with the fishermen – just enough to be sure they didn’t mind us photographing them. They wouldn’t have spoken much English, I suspect, and also they were too busy to chat!
The food at this hotel wasn’t so memorable that it’s stuck in my head tbh 😉