Parthiban was holding out a goatfish, salvaged from the folds of his net, for me to see; he called it nakharai. As part of my study of threatened fishes and the people who depend on them, I was gaining an education in local names, beliefs and relationships between people and fish in Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district.
Scattered around us were shredded bits of coral, blue swimmer crabs and other discards of the day’s catch. Parthiban was planning to take them home for lunch, since they wouldn’t sell for very much. As we walked back along the coast, the breeze picked up, spreading the sea-spray. It was a cool January evening, and all was quiet in the Gulf of Mannar.
The Gulf of Mannar has the distinction of being one of five marine biosphere reserves in India. Somewhere within the territory of Mannar, there is also a national park. There is good reason for all these titles—this region houses some of the most extensive seagrass-coral-mangrove ecosystems along mainland India. The sky-blue waters are crystal clear here and tourists take glass-bottomed boats out to see the marine life in the coral reefs. This area forms a nursery for several species of sharks, some species of turtles and dugongs that feed in the meadows of seagrass. Coral-reef fish are a myriad of colours, representing a selection from one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.
An overnight train journey from Chennai had brought me to this world. Here engineers were plying (sailing) boats and casting nets; fishermen were painting houses and cutting marble. The coral reefs were extensive but the fish that lived in them were almost invisible. It was exactly this paradox that I had come to study.
The little platform that made up the Mandapam railway station was sand-blown and desolate within minutes of the train’s departure. The railway track had at once turned into a highway as the pedestrian traffic, which had made way for the train, resumed its speed of flow. I joined the moving lines of people and made my way north, towards the little house that was to be my home during this bout of research.
The Gulf of Mannar has housed fishermen for nearly as long as it has had coral reefs. Fishermen from this region have a long maritime history. This region, as well as the coastal waters further south, were once one of the world’s foremost sources of natural pearls. Much of the world’s trade in pearls until the 20th century occurred through the hands of the Paravar community of southern Tamil Nadu, well known for its history of marine resource use, through fishing or the harvest of pearl oysters. They were powerful, according to ancient Tamil literature, but eventually helped the entry of European colonists, like the Portuguese, into Indian shores.
Using Portuguese help to keep Muslim domination at bay during the wane of the Panyan dynasty, the Paravars changed the face of Tamil society by converting to Christianity. Their brand of Christianity has a unique mix of Hindu ritual and Christian tradition.
In a makeshift shed close to a seaside church in the town of Keelakarai, shells were piled up. Intrigued by the mound of molluscan homes, I spoke to Joseph, one of the fishermen involved in detailed negotiations within the shed. He confessed that he collected shells and chanks for a livelihood, since he was a Paravar diver. His family used to target pearl oysters, but had switched to other shells and chanks when pearl culture knocked the bottom out of the natural pearl market. Traditional divers like Joseph are no longer the source of most of the beautiful ornamental shells and shell jewellery sold in tourist centres like Kanyakumari. He says he would free-dive for pearls or oysters, but this was getting more and more difficult owing to the vigilance of the forest department. It was difficult for divers like Joseph to distinguish between legal and illegal species and choose only allowed shells, when all they had for diving gear was their lungs.
Dugongs, however, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to marine life in the area. Christo, a resident of Pamban Island, tells of his encounter with a blue whale. The disoriented young animal was discovered stranded in shallow water when Christo and his relatives were bringing in their gill-netting boat. After the shock and wonder, realization dawned that it did not know what to do. Christo spoke to some of the elders, and they decided to push the animal back into deep waters.
There is a deep respect in his eyes as he talks about the whale, although he confesses there are times when marine mammals like dolphins get entangled in his net and drown.
Fishermen like Christo make up most of the Gulf of Mannar’s population. The landing sites around Rameswaram are some of the largest contributors to Tamil Nadu’s fish catch. At the same time fishermen must contend with the presence of endangered and exotic species, from whales to seahorses. It is no wonder then that Rameswaram is a sacred place for maritime livelihoods too.
Rameswaram is one of the holy sites on the Char Dham pilgrimage route. Pilgrims come from as far as Uttarakhand and Gujarat. Worshipped as the Hindu god Ram’s gateway to Lanka, Rameswaram is also a gateway to Mannar’s other world, under the sea. Advertisements allude to Rameswaram’s crystal-clear water, describing it as a tropical paradise, but it’s much more. Real, earthy and grounded in complexity, the Gulf of Mannar is at once a dream destination, a gateway to history and a mirror to our future. With change, places like this will become rarer still.
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