Man in a red turban
Coast & seascapes,  Just One Person,  Kerala,  People

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.

Men in turbans pulling a boat up a beach
Pulling a boat up on to the sand

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.

Lots of people on a beach, sorting fish and nets
On Chowara Beach

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.

Large modern church with ornate decorations
A church in Kerala

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.

Fishermen working on the beach

I visited Kerala in 2017

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