Onathallu – When we beat them up

First of all a Happy Onam to all the Malayali readers. For those who are not Malayalis, today is the day our old king Mahabali who led Kerala to much prosperity comes back to Kerala from his banishment, if only for a day, to observe the progress of his subjects (at 3AM or so) and so we all deck our houses up, lay a welcome mat of flowers and wear traditional clothes, and make merry (some with a bottle or more), as we eat a very traditional Onam lunch or dinner (as in the case of an NR non resident family). There were and are so many other festivities accompanying the lunch, and the story of Mahabali itself is an interesting one. But the most curious of all is the Onathallu or Kayyankali which is practiced in some places and I decided to do a little research on it, in a hurry, following my brother’s suggestion that it may be a good story to remind readers that such events also existed.

A quick recap on the story of Mahabali - According to the myth, the Asura King Mahabali (Wonder which Sura got the brainwave – for now that meant the Malayalis were ausras!!) made the utopian kingdom of Kerala a reality. His fame spread all over the earth and pathala and the heavens. Indra, the king of Devas and the ruler of heaven, felt threatened by the growing popularity of Mahabali (how insecure – it was actually envy!). Aditi, the mother of Indra, observed a penance called 'payovrata' to help her son and pleased with her devotion, Lord Vishnu decided on a rebirth as Vamana, a dwarf, to Aditi (Strange indeed is this story – Why would Indra’s mother observe a fast and how come the overlord Vishnu never took any direct action! Bad management principles to involve your deputy’s mother or was Indra the clever one, depending on chivalry?).

Anyway the smart boy, Vamana with a tuft and all approached Mahabali who was conducting some poojas (ironically to satisfy the suras I presume). MahaBali asked Vamana to choose anything that he wanted from his kingdom when the Brahmin boy requested alms (you do not say no to a Brahmin – Parasurama’s dictum). Vamana asked for just three steps of land. The king agreed readily. The dwarf sized Vamana grew into the skies and with one step covered earth and with another step – the heavens. With no place to keep the third step, Mahabali offered his head, using this opportunity; Mahabali was pushed by Vamana into the demons abode or pathalam. Strange, but this story found a huge amount of acceptance and for that matter even forgiveness by occupants of Kerala!

But before sending Mahabali to dungeons of earth, Lord Vishnu gave Mahabali the boon that he could visit his subjects once a year. The day Mahabali visits his subjects is celebrated as Onam by the grateful people of Kerala. It is the period when liquor sales sky rocket and the happy people living or vacationing there spend a huge amount of money that comes in from the ‘gelf’ and other countries frequented by NR Malayalis, at the same time grumbling about the copious monsoons. Many pictures are taken, TV crews work overtime and politicians and film stars speak and as we saw this year, some famous people get married again in the traditional Malayali fashion. It was also the time when some people beat up the others as part of ceremony. And that is Onathallu.

Onathallu - This is difficult to write phonetically in English, Ona Thallu means a beating up competition during Onam, or something in that sense. Well, you have all heard of Shiah people flogging themselves during Moharram, but the tradition of Onathallu has been going on for ages. Here the groups beat each other up, so to say, on the onam day. It is now seen only in certain places and Pallassena in Palghat is one such place. Basically a ‘free for all’ friendly thrashing with bare hands is what one can witness if you choose to go through the dusty roads with paddy fields for miles and finally land up in Pallasena.

There are different versions looking at its origins in history. While some say that it was just a competition between kalari’s in North Malabar, set up for the amusement of the village and town folk, other say it was far more symbolic as in Palghat. The Thallu competition is usually preceded by a traditional coir ball or (not soccer) Talappantu competition in villages and followed by an Attakalam. After this or during this, the ladies all partake in a Kaikotti kali which of course most of us know quite better and like to watch. I prefer watching the latter and not the former. There are so many other amusements too on Onam day like Pulikkali, Vattukali, villukottu, Tumbi tullal, Vanji kali, Tiruvathira kali and so on…but they have been covered very well by many people in many forms of media.

So as they say, in south Malabar wrestling combats, popularly known as 'Onathallu', were in vogue during Onam celebrations. After a heavy meal the boys usually repair to the now vacant and leveled fields for manly pursuits like 'Onathallu', a variation of wrestling or beating up. First of all, Onathallu is a mock fight, not fought in earnest. However over time, it was discontinued as it started to become dishonorable and difficult to control with people using the opportunity to bash another up with full license.

At some locations, it is open handed slapping, at other locations it is free style wrestling and at still other places, it is a kind of free for all boxing. In certain other places in Onathallu one had to defeat the rival by the actual process of violent beating. Village youths in the past exhibited their physical prowess and skill in these games. The successful ones received presents. The festival is an exhibition of village life at its best, and a reminder of the good old days. 'Onathallu' is started on the 'Atham' day in certain places and the festivities continued for 10 days. The wrestling combats were arranged and presided over but at the end, people limped off with split lips, broken noses and teeth and a grin on their faces or a dark scowl depending on if he were the winner or loser. Many a time, it was sponsored by nobility and took the form of a serious competition

One sport, patronized in the past by chieftains, is 'Onathallu'. The participants face each other in groups. A trained fighter from one side advances into the middle of the arena and shouts his challenge. One from the other side comes and takes up the challenge. Some say that it was fought after a few drinks and mainly by lower classes while the others watched with glee. But the version at Pallassena is also called Avittathallau as it is started on the Avittom day. This is seen as a sacred activity by the men involved and is a highly revered and attended festival during the Avittam star of Onam.

Avittathallu is thus the festival celebrated by the Nairs of Pallassena Desam in the Chittur Thaluk in Palakkad. Some say that this is a tradition followed by the Nair’s of the Pallassena Desam in commemoration of the numerous wars they led and fought as part of the army of the Kolathiris. The name Pallassena is derived from the attribute that they were the Pallava Sena or the Pallava Army which eventually morphed into Pallasena as it is known today.

The tradition involves an enactment or warlike performances by men of the Nair community at the mannam constructed near Vettakorumakan temple premises at Puthenkavu (the temple was under the Kolathiri protection). Historically the Pathiyathil Pathiyar and the Nanchattu mannadiyar took up the supervision of the fight.The key part of the performance had men paring up and under the guidance and supervision of elders in the community, enacting physical combat, war cries and battle like behavior.

But then other books state that in the past, this was actually performed by 10 year old youths at the Kalipandal or mannam and they slapped each other on the cheeks with intent to make them fit for the next step, enrollment in kalari and more serious physical activities.

In North Malabar, Onathallu or Onappeda lacks niceties of form and a deep combat philosophy. The rule is simple: get the opponent to the mat by any means and you can take home the trophy. Some times, audiences took sides and a free-for-all ensues. Net result: a reduction in tension & stress, a kind of letting off steam, in those days.

KN Sadasivan in his Social History however mentions that this is a surviving sport reminding one of the martial traditions of Ezhavas. According to him, Kayyankali is an Ezhava discipline and that the Thallukar (combatants or contestants) are selected from neighboring villages. The umpire is called a chaivukar and has the power to conduct the contest in a fair fashion. They are allowed to punch above the waist and never allowed to use tooth or nails or cause a bleeding injury. It is usually a three hour event after which a winner is declared and according to him now survives only in Palghat.

Natesa Shastri however provides a differing perspective. He also terms it Padakkali where influential Malayalis provide patronage to the teams a month or so before Onam. Well known acrobats & wrestlers are contracted for a month and fed up and trained for the event. The men assemble and divide themselves into two cheris. 10 boys from either side are sent for the contest. The umpire calls out names and asks two contestants if theya re willing to fought each other. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes, wisely not. The umpire also makes snide remarks and jokes to enliven the occasion. Conditions are stated and agreed upon, for example if the blows are struck on the back (odaram) on the sides (kadakam) on the neck (pedali) or the cheek (Chekudattu). The fights start, two boys at a time continuing between 1PM and 6PM and continue for 3 days. Finally the padakkali is won by one of the boys and he is richly rewarded by the local chieftain.

I decided to peruse an old book Malabar and its folk by T. K. Gopal Panikkar so as to figure out what was performed in those times. I must state here that the version quoted is as found in N Malabar, where Panikkar is from, and is quite different from the Palakkad version, but provides a nice backdrop.

By midday the principal meal is over and then each one goes his own way to participate in the out-door merry-making. Field games such as foot-ball matches, personal combats, games of chess, dice and cards, and dancing by females and music parties constitute the leading enjoyment from morning till evening. Foot-ball matches are different in detail to the corresponding European ones. A small stick is planted at a fixed spot and people especially young lusty men resolve themselves into two rival camps and open the match. One party stands at the post, while the other stands a little away from it. The ball which is usually made of coir rope is propelled with the palm of the hand towards the rival party who furiously scramble for it vying with each other to catch it and stop its onward career. This done, one of the members takes it in hand and aiming at the post throws the ball in its direction. If the ball hits the post or if any one member of the hostile rank catches the ball in its progress up through the air, but not when it has once touched the ground, then that particular player's turn is over. Then another man takes up the play and continues it; and when all the members of the one party have had each his turn then the rival section begins the play exactly in the same manner and under the same rules as the previous section. The process is continued time after time and then the whole lot of them together declares the issue of the match.

Combats are of two kinds, viz., those that are undertaken singly and those held in batches. In the first the people of one locality divide themselves into two batches. When the match is opened the leader of one group sends forth one trained pugilist who paces along the intervening stretch of ground between the two groups shaking hands and challenging to meet in fair combat any one from the opposite camp. A little while after some one from the other party takes up the gauntlet and then after a few preliminary manoeuvres the combat is begun. Every privilege and facility of a fair nature is afforded to the two combatants. The issue of the fight is watched with eager concern by all interested spectators and the successful man is then deluged with presents of money and clothes by the rich and generous amongst the members. This process is then continued for sometime till the close of the day.

So now you have some knowledge of a dying folk fight, a sham fight, fought or played as one may term it, during Onam. When you are in Kerala and see this some time, you can now understand better what it is all about. Be it to remember an old battle, or to mould children into brave fighters or to have friendly competition, it adds flavor to the festivity. This is a time, when we should all be in Kerala, but ah! Sadly, I am here, working instead.

Check youtube, you can even see videos of the actual thallu. Or check this out

Notes –

Asura, from Sanskrit meaning a "power-seeking" and "power-hungry" being, is similar to a Titan, often, but somewhat misleading, described as a "demon"; or anaya (non-Aryan) people of ancient India. The term's derivation is uncertain. Some scholars derive it from Ashur, the Assyrian god, or from the breath (asu) of Prajapati, or from the root as (to be). According to a Hindu myth, a-sura is the negation of sura, an Indo-Aryan liquor, and refers to non-Aryan abstainers. In Hindu mythology sura came to mean a minor godin contrast to a-sura, "not-god" or "demon," but this is believed to be a false etymology.

Anyway we in Kerala take the liquor part at least very seriously, Aryan, non Aryan and foreign liquor is consumed with great mirth on Onam and other days…Kerala's State-owned liquor supplier, K Beverages Corporation (BevCo), is all set to soak the annual Onam festival in booze. In the 10 days preceding and succeeding the Onam day on Monday, BevCo hopes to net Rs 225 crore through liquor sales at its 337 outlets State-wide. In 2009-10, BevCo made a profit of Rs150 crore from liquor sales.


Hindu feasts, fasts and ceremonies - By Natesa-Sastri
Malabar & its folk – Gopala Panikkar

Pic - liquor sales - outlook India - thanks

Irani restaurants and Poppy tea

That beautiful scene from the song ‘Pee Loon’ in OATIM featuring the winsome - Prachi Desai a.k.a Bani (for those out of sync with Bollywood, it is the new movie Once upon a time in Mumbai) reminded me of those lovely Irani tea shops and restaurants in Mumbai. The movie was great, the song by Mohit Chauhan ‘mind blowing’ and of course the Bombay of the late 70’s and 80’s depicted in the scene, a different Bombay, long gone.
Of recent, the Irani tea shop Leopold came to limelight with the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, but this is more a pleasant reminiscence of that genre of eating places, which I am sure, will soon fade away with the onslaught of different eating habits and the fast food genre of eateries. Curiously it was only last week that I saw the Antony Bourdain’s new show ‘No reservations’, about his culinary trip to Kerala (you can see clips on youtube). In the show his guides explain the purpose of a tea shop in Kerala to the awestruck Antony, as to how one gupchupped, gossiped and spent time in a tea shop, making it a kind of social event, not a place to just walk in buy or gulp tea and leave in a jiffy.

Well, one did the same in a Irani tea shop in Mumbai, once upon a time and I guess they still do, if only they had the time they seem to still have in Kerala, which I am sure they in Bombay do not, for in Kerala they have time for all kinds of nonsense, especially if it is anything to do with finding fault with somebody else, notably politicians and public servants. Much of the public actions that emanate are germinated in these tea shops, they seem to stimulate the activist gene, I suppose. But that is Kerala, not Mumbai, and as you can see I am drifting now…

We would, a couple of decades ago, walk down from Nariman point, down Madam Cama road, beyond the university grounds, turn right to Colaba and head to Loepold or another Irani café along the causeway, have a ‘bun muska and omelet’ and then hopefully see a movie at Regal. Some days I slipped out & met my cousin who lived in the flats next to the petrol pump behind Regal or meandered towards the gateway of India to watch the pigeons and tourists wandering about and dream of spending a day in the glorious Taj hotel (which I did many years later), the entrance of which was guarded by a fierce mustachioed Sikh with a double barreled shotgun.

I will not discuss the Irani restaurants in great detail, for they are very well written about in a three part blog by a blogger in Golden ripples. But I have to make it clear that the Irani restaurants are not actually Parsi restaurants though they are synonymous with Parsi’s. These Irani’s were later generation Zorastrian Iranians, unlike the Paris who were the original Zorastrians who came to India. Parsis and Iranis are legally distinct, based in part on a 1909 obiter dictum that, among many other issues relating to the Indian Zoroastrians, also observed that Iranis were not obliged to uphold the decisions of the then-regulatory Parsi Panchayat. In other words, they are ‘same-same but different’ with a 1000 year landing gap in India.

But then ambience of these cafes need to be reintroduced and the scene set briefly before I get to the main topic. These cafes do not go all the way back to the 8th-10th century Parsi entry into India, but much later into the 18th century when the Irani’s came. Borrowing text from Wikipedia which quotes

Naomi Lobo has traced the background of these cafes as: “When the Zoroastrian Iranians came to India in the 19th century, they had no riches and were in search of a better livelihood. Bombay, at that time, was already home to another Zoroastrian community, the Parsis. A couple of Iranians worked in Parsi homes as caretakers and met in the evenings to discuss the life they had left behind, and their future prospects. One evening, a man served tea to everyone and charged them a small amount. The result: A business was born, of serving tea. And this was the beginning of an Irani café.

Sarika Mehta says: - “The classic format of these cafes is basic with a subtle colonial touch; high ceilings with black, bent wooden chairs (now cane in some cafes), wooden tables with marble tops and glass jars that allow a peek into the goodies they hold. With huge glass mirrors on the walls to create a feeling of space, visitors are greeted with eagerness and a whiff of baking. The speed of operations is impressive and service quite hassle-free." Mumbai cafes may serve ‘brun maska’ (bread and butter) and ‘paani kam chai’ (a strong Iranian tea), or khari chai (very strong tea), mutton samosas, and Kheema Pavs, and so on and so forth………………and Dukes or a Parsi brewn Raspberry drink.

The marble-topped tables and the black stylish cane chairs (known as 'Welcome' chairs, specially imported from Belgium and Poland) became symbolic of the Irani hotel scene.

And so with all that in the background, I will touch upon a hot affair of the late 19th century. The people who frequented these Irani restaurants, for some reason of the other spread around a rumor that the owners were adding opium to the tea to get them addicted, so that they keep visiting these tea places. Now this spread like wildfire and of course the British government ruling India then had to get involved to sort the matter out. The story is certainly intriguing.

Was that just hogwash? Was there something to it? How did the concept of mixing tea and opium get popular? Was it perhaps a leftover from the Dutch & the Portuguese settlers, probably the former who brought in Opium to Malabar?

I guess you all know about the involvement of the Jews of Bombay with the opium trade, I won’t get into it in great detail, but it is a rich and long story of the 19th century Sassoon family (Sassoon docks Mumbai is named after them) and many the rich Parsi and Jewish traders in Shanghai who controlled the global trade. By the 1820s a large number of Parsis, Marwaris, Gujarati Banias and Konkani Muslims had moved into the opium trade at Mumbai. Of the 42 foreign firms operating in China at the end of the 1830s, 20 were fully owned by Parsis. This effect was evident in the geographical make up of the city. It was the Parsis, many of them beneficiaries of opium’s huge profits, who developed South Bombay. It was primarily opium that linked Bombay to the international capitalist economy and the western Indian hinterland in the nineteenth century. (For more info read Opium City - The Making of Early Victorian Bombay By Amar Farooqui).Indigenous shipping and opium trade too were closely interlinked. Parsis in China were recognizable by their appearance, dress and customs, and were known as white heads for the wearing of white head gear. Opium consumption was noticeable, especially among the bone tired working class and was popular with certain sections of the community.

So a lot of people made money, a lot of people were unhappy about them making money and a lot of others were envious. Whatever said and done, the rumor mills worked overtime and the rumor spread in Bombay. It was soon such a big issue that the British joint commission deliberated on it in 1894. One JM Campbell, the commissioner of opium, enquired into the matter. The story is certainly interesting, but then before that I have to tell you about Poppy tea.

Iran long has been a principal producer of the poppy from which opium is derived. As it was practiced, they made opium tea by adding a pellet of opium to tea or by boiling poppy straw or pods with the tea. Now most of you know about khus khus and the fact that it is popular in Indian cooking, especially certain curries like Kormas. But then in Iran and many other places in that neighborhood, Poppy tea was equally famous. The darker, bitter tea ‘irani chai’ gave a high to the drinker, and some versions at times even involved using certain insecticides. Nevertheless, it suffices to conclude that this was a practice in neighboring countries. In Iran drinking opium in tea and coffee shops was common and an officially tolerated cultural practice. On the other hand, Poppy seed oils were used in Europe as a substitute for or to adulterate salad oil and in making paints, varnish & soap. Journal of the Society of Arts, Volume 40 - By Society of Arts (Great Britain) page 448 mentions also that it was infused with tea in India, especially by Sikhs who were banned from smoking by their religion.

Leaving this topic for a while, we see that the British settled down in India, realized that opium business is big indeed and started cultivating it in Bengal (Malwa in Western India already had it, but it was controlled by the Princes of the region). The EIC had a monopoly over the Bengal produce and shipped it to China which was the main user (Malwa Opium was exported to China even before by the Portuguese). Now that is also another long story and you will recall from my previous blog that George Orwell’s papa was one of those Opium inspectors in Bengal. So Opium and tea were the mainstays of the British East India Company. They had a whole department taking care of this lucrative and sensitive but dark business and that is how Mr JM Campbell got involved in this sordid story in 1894.

The whole furor over tea shops and opium was started by one Miss Sunderbai Powar in 1892. She struggled for 2 years to get herself and the ‘Sunderbai Powar message’ heard by the authorities in India and England.

The Soonderbai Powar message and its disposal

Soonder bai said - That thousands of high caste women die of starvation in their dark zenana rooms because their husbands ruin themselves by smoking in licensed opium dens; that young men are led to smoke opium through the wiles of the opium farmer who sets his servants at the street corners furnished with opium pipes to tempt the youths to smoke; that they (apparently either the opium officials or the opium farmer) quietly mix opium with our tea in refreshment rooms and in hotels, so that a craving for opium arises and before we know what we are doing we shall become slaves of opium.

As the alleged writer. Miss Soonderbai Powar, was born in or near Poona, and has spent almost her whole life in Poona or in Bombay, it follows that these statements referred either to Poona or to Bombay. As each of these statements involved serious charges against the management of the opium revenue in Bombay my duty required me to examine into their truth. Inquiries made through the commissioner of police and the health officer of the municipality failed to reveal any foundation for them, except that, in respect to the third statement, it appeared that there had been a rumour, some two years ago, that certain Irani, that is, Persian Parsi, tea-house keepers, put poppy heads in their tea to darken its colour. As Mr. Almon, the assistant collector of abkari, could procure me independent information, and also as he is responsible for hotel and refreshment room licenses, and under the Abkari Act has power to deal with infringements of the Opium Act, I asked him to make inquiry into the truth of the rumour that poppy heads were sometimes put in tea.

The result of these inquiries was that Mr. Almon failed to find that the rumour had any foundation in fact. Mr. Almon suggested to me that, as is usual in such cases, he might obtain from Miss Soonderbai in Poona the individual who made the statement, information regarding the practice which he hail failed to obtain in Bombay. The letter given above was written with that object and with my knowledge. In reply, Mr. Almon was informed that his friend could not arrange a visit, but that a reference might be made to the Rev. A. W. Prautch, of Thana, to whom his friend was forwarding Mr. Almon's letter, and who his friend wrote would probably know Miss Soonderbai and might arrange an interview. On hearing of Mr. Prautch's connection with the matter I decided to make no further inquiry. Mr. Prautch's statement in the letter to the Chairman, that after the receipt of his friend's communication Mr. Almon called on the witness who declined to see him is, I am informed, without foundation

I have the honour to be,
Sir, Your most obedient servant,
J.M CAMPBELL, Collector of Opium.

But was that true or a whitewash? It had all the looks of a royal whitewash for Soonderbai was a well regarded and much regaled person. A later testimony of sorts came from a tea stall keeper, much after Indian independence. This again is heresy, so take it with a pinch of salt….

The Kayanai and Co Irani tea stall owner provides some more details of the event.

In about 1952 an Irani had a café, and this man used to put kus-kus (poppy) in the tea. And believe it or not, the taxiwallahs who were running the taxi, they used to go there and take their tea always, otherwise they were not happy with their tea. Then one by one, all the cafes started kus-kus tea, we had it here at Kayani, finally the Municipality came to know about it and they stopped it. It is prohibited. The Municipality will take your license and you have to go behind the bar if you tried that now. When Britishers were here, they were foreigners, we Iranis were also foreigners, we got friendly treatment when we went to the government departments; they knew that we were new here, we were also foreigners, so they said “you have to stop putting that in the tea”, and we did.

But the story is not complete without figuring out who Miss Powar was. Sunderbai, an Christian feminist leader from Bombay was also a great friend of Pandita Rambhai (Another lady reformer from Bengal who built up the Sharada Sadan with Sunderbai in Poona), and books refer to her as a great social worker of Poona and Bombay. She spoke not only in Bombay, but also in England, talking about these issues as an eloquent Indian representative (alas! Who remembers these people these days?). She addressed 116 meetings in that one visit to Britain and was lauded as a great Indian feminist and invited back, interestingly being the person to dispel the myth in the West ‘that Opium was needed by the oriental masses and that it suited their constitution’ (the story of these two ladies and their battle with the British and the masses is so touching that it requires a book to cover just the briefs). In posterity, she is far more famous and written about than the JM Campbell who dismissed her opium crusade outright, in the name of profits for the EIC.

And to summarize, the authorities quietly asked the tea shops to stop the practice or risk losing their license and so they stopped serving the poppy tea and all was well. Duke’s raspberry took over and Bombay somehow broke the opium habit.

The Irani restaurants however are a dying breed for they are now afflicted with another malady, the eaters penchant for South Indian quickie healthy food like idlis and dosas, compared to liberal dabs of butter on fresh ‘pav’ with a double omlete – Mahadevan explains in his blog how they have given way to suave Shettys and their udupi restaurants. As he says, the dull looking fair complexioned Irani’s proved to be of no match to the enterprising Sadanand Shetty’s. And he puts it aptly, stating ‘Unlike Udipi hotels, in Irani Restaurants we spend more time and less money.

But then there is always the scene from OATIM that you can go back to or see one of the Basu chatterjee movies with the Parsees. There is bound to be an Irani restaurant in some scene that you can relate to…

Some interesting articles on the Irani hotels

Asia times
Mumbai mania
A complete set of 3 articles on Irani restaurants by Golden ripples
Article 2
Article 3


First report of the Royal commission on opium 1894, Vol 3
Journal of the society of arts 1802

Poster photo – jugalbandi.info
Brabourne restaurant – Wikipedia
Pallonji Raspberry drink
Bun pictures – Mumbai mania

The Chinese Fishing Nets at Kochi

Now and then a question comes up – about the origins of the Cheena Vala or the Chinese fishing net in Cochin. Some opine firmly that they are of ancient Chinese origin, dating to Kublai Khan’s times (mid 13th century); some others say it arrived even before that and others grandly announce they actually date to Zheng He’s arrival (early 15th century). To get to a factual answer, one has to try & search hard and long, possibly fruitlessly, even though the very name of the net signifies that the connection had to be Chinese. My own introduction to the Cheena Vala came by a (non detail) textbook which we studied in school titled so and written by our lecturer CKC Nair (I did not see one though until much later). A wonderful collection of short stories, this specific story detailed the life of a Cheena vala operator in Cochin and I still remember the laborious attempts of his in placing a Petromax gas lamp into position before he retired for the night, near the net, for fishes to get drawn to. Though I had forgotten the story, the net remained in my mind, a majestic but forlorn contraption, which remains operational to this day even after so many hundred years (I am not saying the wooden poles or nets date that long back and I do not know if at all that is the case anyway), now an object of intense tourist scrutiny. These nets can be found only around Cochin and people look at them with much curiosity and awe and walk away consigning them into their notes and diaries written about their fascinating trip to the backwaters, penning in memories of the ‘karimeen’ fish fry, the local ‘kallu’ coconut liquor and the boatmen in the covered house boats as they traversed the backwaters. All this time, these Chinese cantilever fishing nets, suspended like giant webs along the tip of Fort Cochin, silently watched millions pass by.

What are they, where did they come from? We will find out. Are they indeed centuries old? Possibly the only surviving 800 year old machinery, man made? Are they found in China? We had never seen a picture of an installation in china in recent times, mind you - said a friend. Unable to resist the challenge, I donned my research cap (like an ancient Viking with his helmet) and set about into the not so dusty digital annals of history with my trusty weapons, the PC and the mouse, right hand clad in a special glove making it look like a medieval gladiators hand (though it is actually meant to tackle telltale signs of a carpal tunnel issue cropping up) holding a trusty sword. Ah, you can see that I am losing it, must be age catching up..

These shore operated lift nets at Kumbalangi - Fort Kochi are cantilever nets, not seen these days in the southern mainland China where they are supposedly from. As Wiki explains These huge mechanical contrivances hold out horizontal nets of 20 m or more across. Each structure is at least 10m high and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights at the other end. The installation is operated by a team of up to six or so fishermen. The system is sufficiently balanced that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is sufficient to cause the net to descend into the sea. The net is left for a short time, possibly just a few minutes, before it is raised by pulling on ropes. The catch is usually modest: a few fish and crustaceans — these may be sold to passers by within minutes. The system of counterweights is most ingenious. Rocks, each 30 cm or so in diameter are suspended from ropes of different lengths. As the net is raised, some of the rocks one-by-one come to rest on a platform thereby keeping everything in balance. Each installation has a limited operating depth. Consequently, an individual net cannot be continually operated in tidal waters. Different installations will be operated depending on the state of the tide. Thus installed, the nets satiated the hunger of those who ate the catch since those ancient times, possibly the Jews, Christians, Moplahs, Arabs and some the aborigines of Cochin. For one to get a good catch there is a need for backwaters, slow moving water, lots of algae & of course plenty of fish.

Curiously these are seen only in the Cochin area, straddling the backwaters. Considering that Cochin or Perumbadappu Nadu itself rose to fame after the 14th century floods at the Periyar delta which moved power and people from Muziris or Kulashekara Perumal’s seat of power at Mahodayapuram to modern Cochin, one could also question if the very backwaters were formed as a result of the floods? Though places north and south of Kochi are mentioned in quite some detail in many accounts by ancient travelers, mentions of Kochi are absent prior to the arrival of Zheng He and the Portuguese. Kochi's prominence as a trading port grew after the collapse of the Muziris port around 1341 AD. No traveler before the medieval had noticed these nets or reported on extensive fishing though many including the Chinese have documented the Kochi area. So considering that they are found in Cochin and the fact that Cochin itself rose to fame in the 1350 period, the nets were presumably laid into position between the 13th and 14th century at the earliest. This was a period of intense trade with China concentrated at Quilon, Cochin and Calicut. The conclusion seems very satisfactory, but for the fact that no traveler of that period reported it.

Ibn wahab was around in 9th Century, Benjamin of Tuleda in 1167 but Marco Polo did not mention it. As the Cochin brochure documents it, neither in the earlier notices of Malabar nor in the accounts of Pliny (AD 23-79), Ptolemy, Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, Marco Polo (AD 1290-93) nor Ibn Batuta do we find any mention of a place named Cochin.

Since the visitors of that period never reported them, where was Cochin mentioned? The first mention of Cochin is made sixty years after the formation of the harbor by Ma Huan, a Chinese scribe in Zheng He’s fleet, and later by the Italian traveler Nicolo Conti (AD 1440). These writers, as well as those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, variously called the town Cocym, Cochym, Cochin, Cochi etc. However they do not mention the nets. Were writers like Edna Fernandez and many others right in concluding that they existed since the time of Kublai Khan? Writers of the later medieval also failed to mention it, like Barbosa & Varthema. Barbosa 1503-1517 writes about fishing in other places, but no mention about it in Cochin. Varthema writing about Cochin 1508 also fails to mention these nets. Did they not find it worthy or curious enough?

Francis day in his 1862 book Perumals of Kerala states thus about the nets of Cochin– A species of Chinese nets, are used along the river's banks, they are about 16 feet square, suspended by bamboos from each corner, and let down like buckets into the water, and then after a few minutes drawn up again ; a piece of string to which is attached portions of the white leaves of the cocoanut trees, is tied at short intervals along the ebb side of the net, which effectually prevents fish from going that way. As this mode of fishing is continued all through the monsoon, (excepting on very stormy days,) it affords an excellent criterion, of the tribes and species to be found in the rainy months, and renders Cochin the best place along the Western Coast, for making observations on this subject: owing to this, the Icthyologist can continue his enquiries, (with occasional intervals,) during the boisterous, as well as the quiet months of the year, although the sea netting may be quite suspended. Fish thus caught, are sold at the nets.

That the nets have a Chinese origin were always definite. What were the Chinese connections in the Malabar region? When did the trading start? To get to these answers, we must refer two major sources, they being the records of Zhao Rugua or Chau Jhu Kua and the Ying Yai Sheng Lan. The first dates to the 12th century and the second to the 15th century. Both books mention the trade with Malabar but there are no specific comments about fishing in Cochin or the Chinese there. The former has been covered in my article referred here.

So we believe that these nets originated from South mainland China, and we have also read and seen pictures of similar nets in Vietnam and Cambodia – locations in Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam otherwise known to the Chinese as Giao Chi – Guchi – Kochi. The term was changed to Cochin China in order to distinguish it from Cochin in later days.

John Crawfurd confirms their existence in Siam & Cochin China in his book written during 1830 stating - Another mode of fishing was practiced here, and is frequent in all parts of the coast of Cochin China. It consisted of a net affixed to a long crane and lever, from the bow of a boat, which, by being well-balanced, was sunk and raised without difficulty. With this machine prawns and other small fish only were caught, its use being confined to shallow water. In other situations there were ponds on the banks of the creek for feeding and preserving fish, such as are common in some parts of Java, and in that country extremely productive.

Chinese butterfly fishing net

Mara Louise Pratt-Chadwick in her book People and Places Here and There, Volume IV China 1892 provides an interesting aside with the whole practice – She adds a sketch as well, which will be familiar to those who have seen the Cheena Vala.

Did you ever hear how the Chinese catch fish? In some peculiar way, you may be sure. It isn't Chinese to do anything as other people do, and their fishing methods are no exception. On the river they fish with nets fastened to a round hoop, which makes a sort of bag, very like the nets with which we catch butterflies. To this netted bag is fastened a long pole. The fisherman very slowly sinks this bag in the water and watches. If he is a skilled fisherman, he can feel the slightest movement of a fish across the hoop of the bag. Then he raises it quickly, very quickly, and if any fish did chance just then to be swimming along in the water over the net, he gets caught in it, and is brought to the surface. This is a very slow way of fishing, for it is only now and then that a fish " happens " to be just over the net; but then, as you have already learned, the Chinese are not the people to mind slow waiting; so the native fisherman is perfectly contented to sit, half asleep, all day long, on his raft, waiting for the possible fish that may happen to cross the net.

Now do you recall my mention of another interesting technique - that of using torch lights to catch fish as popularized by the Chinese. They had used lamps to draw flying fish into scoop nets held by fishermen. The same technique is adopted in the butterfly nets of Cochin (as I alluded to in the first paragraph with a Petromax or gaslight). It appears that the ‘Chinese’ even used otters in Cochin to catch fish (pg 33 - Fish catching methods of the world - Otto Gabriel, Andres von Brandt). Note here the mention ‘Chinese’, not native mukkuvars.

So the mystery was clearing up – This type of fishing technique and fishing net were indeed from China. But how can we be sure? We need a picture, a location in China to be definite. I searched hard and long and finally hit jackpot at the THE WIDE WORLD MAGAZINE APRIL, 1898, TO SEPTEMBER, 1898 Page 496, thanks to Google books, an article titled ‘Peculiar fishermen’ by Louis G Mulhouse. He explains

The last photograph reproduced shows an immense Chinese fishing net and typical joss outside the walls of Wen Chow city. When the fish are to be caught the bamboo poles are gradually lowered until the net is quite beneath the water. It is allowed to remain there from morning until night, when it is again drawn up, with a curious absence of ceremony or excitement, and the miscellaneous catch of fish carefully and methodically removed. The Chinese, who are most superstitious, have the strongest possible objection to drawing up these big fishing nets in the presence of foreigners. Will they, one wonders, ever conquer their hatred and distrust of the European, whose influence is swiftly extending among them? They always maintain that the eye of the “foreign devil” bewitches and even poisons the fish, and brings ill-luck to the hard-working fishermen. Through the round hole in the city wall which is seen from the end, a European narrowly escaped with his life during the fearful riots of 1884, solely because he had innocently looked on while these very nets were dragged up and emptied of their catch of fish.

For those interested, Wen Chow is Wenzhou is a port South of Shanghai.

Many a writer mentions that the nets were introduced by traders from the court of Kublai Khan. He was the great Khan of the Mongol empire between 1260-1294. The writer who covered him for the west was Marco Polo. Some say thus - The unique design of the fishing nets still in use today in Cochin, on India's Malabar Coast, was brought from China during the Yuan dynasty and perhaps even on the very same cargo vessels on which Polo sailed. Marco however mentions Malabar, though not Cochin. Then again some modern historians even question if Marco Polo ever went to China (More on that another day).

But the Mongols subdued Cochin China around the end of the twelfth century that was perhaps the reason for the confusion to some researchers. Chinese had already been trading with Coastal Malabar even before the Khan, though the Khan did some promotion of maritime trade.

It is my belief that the technology came to Cochin between the times the Chinese left Quilon and before they settled in Calicut, perhaps the 12th or 13th century as detailed by the trade relations from the Chau Ju Kua. Considering that it was during the time of the Khan, one could say perhaps promoted by him. On the other hand, it may have come with Cheng Ho in the 15th century as Marco Polo failed to mention it, though that is also unlikely as Zhneg He or Cheng Ho was bound for Calicut and Ma Huan did not mention the fact.

But now we come to another angle – Did they come much later as explained by Deepa Leslie? Calicut Heritage forum focuses on the question - Why There are no Chinese Nets in Calicut? Deepa states in her articleOur recent studies show that these Chinese nets were introduced by the later Casado settlers of Cochin from Macau. The names of the different parts of these Chinese nets used even today are in Portuguese language, which is a definite indication of its Portuguese Origin. The net used for catching the fish is called rede, its edge is borda, the arms of wooden parts which hold the extensive net together is brasao, while the flexible ring on the top on which the entire brasao moves is argola. In addition there are Corda and Pedra for balancing the movement of the net. There isCaluada on which the fishermen move up and down and the posts which support the entire structure from the river bottom are called Odora.

That could of course be right. The Portuguese had recently converted the Paravas and many had settled down in Cochin (See my article on this subject). They demanded a better life after conversion and ascendancy up the social caste ladder, compared to their old lifestyle in Kayalpatanam. After Portuguese Macau was established in 1557, the Portuguese traders perhaps brought in the technology from Macau to Cochin. It could also have been that the fishermen being Portuguese converted Paravas were using Portuguese terms, for they themselves had not seen these nets in Kayal – Tuticorin. A very satisfactory explanation, but well, every good story has a twist is it not?

Thus the Portuguese brought in the Chinese nets, like the cashew nuts and tobacco and so on…Now is that right? I left it till a curious report caught my eye. John Latham wrote his book ‘A general history of birds in 1824’. He covered the Cochin Tharavu or duck in Volume 10 - The footnote in Page 291 provided an intriguing bit of text.

In India, about Cochin, the bird is called Tarava and when first caught is almost unfit for food, living chiefly on pilchards; therefore on board a ship, the Ducks are kept for a long time on different food before they are killed. An immense trade is carried on with them in the maritime towns of India, giving employment in particular to the Christians, Mahometans, and black Jews.— Osbeck mentions two sorts of Ducks, one called Hina-a; the other, Kongo-a. He had not seen the latter, but says, that certain Wild Ducks were in such plenty as to greatly disturb the fishermen, by taking the fish out of their nets.

We were (says Osbeck) astonished to see the Chinese, who had put their nets into the water, shoot constantly without aim ; but found, they were forced to watch their fisheries, and to frighten away the Ducks, as they would else empty the nets sooner than the men could ;never were such fearless, and numerous flights of Ducks as here, one flight after another came, notwithstanding the noise made on all sides, and endeavoured to settle near the nets; but were always hindered in the above manner.

So can one conclude that until 1824, these Chinese fishing nets in Cochin were operated by Chinese settlers!! Why not? Well, no wonder the name stuck. One could still, as a typical Malayali would, state that the Portuguese brought Chinese fishermen from Macau to Cochin. Yes, that could also be so. But why use Portuguese terms instead of Chinese? Well, Of that I am not sure, but I can say that we have hardly had any Chinese terms creeping into our lingo, though it is peppered with words from the languages of the people who ruled over those areas…

And so that was my bit on the Chinese fishing nets for a rainy day reading. It is raining here today and I am sure it is raining in Cochin & Calicut. So whether you are aimlessly browsing and reached this page or reading with intent, I can hope I have satiated those urges to read something new….

Pics and References

Thanks to google books
For a different angle to the nets in Cochin click here
For a picture of the Vietnam net at Mekong Delta click here
For a picture of the Cambodia nets click here
Chinese Trade at Calicut