Traditional fishing in Varkala

Odayam Beach, Varkala, Kerala

It was our second day at Odayam Beach in Varkala, Kerala and we had been watching the fishermen since morning, who were taking their Catamarans (traditional fishing boats of Kerala) into the sea for fishing. We had wanted to go Catamaran sailing with fishermen but sea was rough. After a morning full of fishing sojourns, fishermen had been sitting idle for some time. There was not anyone except us and a father and son duo from the Omanese family at that beach. Suddenly all the fishermen swung into action and one by one they hurried their catamarans into the sea. I was worried. Was someone drowning?

Our beach-hotel owner could barely stop smiling at our naive worries as he spoke “Look at the sea. Do you see some area of sea looking different colored? There, there”, he pointed his fingers to the sea.

We looked along and did see the area peculiarly different in color from rest of the sea.

“A big shoal of fish has arrived there and they are hurrying to catch it”, he explains. He further elaborated, “there are many techniques of locating fish and this visual technique of spotting the shoal of fish by spotting the change in water-color is one of these.”

I took a sigh of relief!

How is a Rajasthani supposed to know any of the nitty-gritty of fishing?
Simple. By visiting Odayam beach in Varkala, Kerala.


We reached Odayam beach in Varkala on a silent afternoon of October. The sun was fierce, raising the temperature on the coast. Sea was eager to add discomfort by adding humidity to the atmosphere. A few Brahminy kites with their bronze body and white breast were flying above us puncturing the all-pervasive blueness of sea and October sky. Crows were resting on the still branches of coconut trees lining the beach. There were no people at this lonely time of the day in this off-season. As our car applied brakes, someone from the hotel approached us. Before they could serve us the welcome drinks, The Arabian Sea welcomed us by splashing its waves on the shore. Kids ran without even taking off their shoes and before I could stop, damage was done. Their shoes were wet and were sand-filled. They took off their shoes and went back to frolic in the sea. Our hotel owner cautioned them “Just stay on the beach. Sea is rough at this time of year.”

As we settled with a welcome drink on the beach itself, my eyes wandered to the horizon, came back to the coconut trees, swept the sandy vistas before finally setting on the two very intriguing boats lying at the beach.

I have seen different kinds of traditional boats being used in India from the round basket like coracle to outrigger boats of Goa, but nothing like these. These were just three logs of wood tied together with coir rope. There was fishing net lying in a lump on the boat and it confirmed the utility of these simple, indigenous boats. “But how do they use it?”, was a question that lingered on my mind.

Fishermen arrive to take catamaran to sea.

I didn’t have to wait long to see those boats in action. Fishermen arrived in their checks printed lower garment, their upper body bare and tanned deeply by sun. I did not understand a word they were speaking, but I was glued to their conversations nonetheless. Their hand gestures and roughness of speech did not confirm anything. Now, one of them started pushing one of the boat towards the water while other walked along it. In no time the boat was in water and the other person jumped onto it, immediately handled the bamboo oars and readied to face the oncoming wave. All of it happened in the blink of an eye. The fisherman on the boat sat folding his legs backward like in Vajrasan, rowing that three log boat called catamaran deftly on the surf, landing down, again going above the surf and again landing down. I watched him till he reached beyond my eyesight. I thought he would return in the evening. But he returned in less than two hours.

Getting into the sea and jumping on the Catamaran

Facing the oncoming surf

Meanwhile the second catamaran was ready to go to sea. Again the fishermen pushed the boat into sea. This time both the fishermen climbed the boat in the same way and oared it to face the rising surfs.

Second Catamaran getting ready

Traditional Fishing Boats in Kerala
These fishermen were using their traditional boats called Catamarans. Catamarans word has derived from the Tamil word “Kattu-Maram” which means wood bound together. These are simply made by tying three logs of wood together with coir rope. The central log is stouter than the side ones; the whole three are shaped and fitted together in such a way that the central one fits keel-wise at a lower level than the other two which rise sufficiently high to form a trough-shaped hollow above. These Malabar Catamarans differ from the Coromondel catamaran in the type of oar used. Malabar Catamarans use lengths of split bamboos wheras the Coromendel catamaran men use broad-bladed paddles. Catamarans are suitable to accommodate only one or two people. Some Catamarans are made by using more logs to make these suitable for four people.

Getting into sea

Gaps between the logs are intentionally not filled to let the water drain. The main purpose of fishermen using these catamarans is just to stay afloat to do the fishing. As their catch size is always small, they do not carry basket or boxes to keep the catch. The catch is brought to the shore in the nets only and then sortes out at the beach by hand.

Catamarma are competent to face surfs in the water and can easily be used on shallow water.

Jumping on to boat

Fishing Nets in Kerala
Different types of nets are used by fisherman to catch different fish. The nets are usually named after the species of fish they are used to catch namely:
Iletholi vala (anchovy net)
chaJa vala (sardine net)
konju vala (prawn net)
valai madi (ribbon-fish seine) etc.

Facing the surf

History of Boat Designs in West Coast of India:
Traditional boat designs in the coastal areas are adapted to suit the geographical and physical features of the land, abundance of fish in ocean, and the socio-economic as well as cultural influences absorbed over a long period of time.

Afternoon break at Odayam Beach

The north-west coast of India usually comprises of coastal line of Gujarat and Maharshtra. The maritime trade with the people of Persian Gulf here dates back to as long as 2000 BCE. As a result, the native boats here have dominant Arab influence and designs. Malia, Nalaki Hodi, Machwa are the various types of boats found in Gujarat. Though these coast have lowest fish concentration and the hinterland of the coastal line here also does not consume fish, still the traditional boats here have larger size. This anomaly is best explained by the fact that fishing was not a perennial activity in olden times because of very poor availability of fish in different weathers. To make up for that, these boats were used as carrying vessels, therefore these being of comparatively larger size.

Returning with the catch

The South-West Coast comprises of the Konkan and Malabar coast. The Konkan is upper coast along Maharashtra and Goa and some of Karnataka. The Malabar coast is lower south-west coast.
Fishing boats of Maharashtra have a lot similarity with traditional Gujarat boats. However Goa has traditional dugout canoe with large outrigger.
Karnataka has the dugout canoe and Rampini boats as its traditional fishing vessel.

But Kerala shows the most variety of Indigenous boats in the western coast. These are of three types:
1. Dugout Canoe
Single logs of trees like mango are scooped out to make such boats. Larger ones are called Odam, medium is called Thoni and smaller dugout canoes, which are less than 8 mt length are called Bepu Thoni. These boats are propelled by paddles and sails.
Larger ones operate boat seines and smaller ones gill nets and lines to catch fish.

2) Plank built canoes
Locally called as Tonga Vallam / Chemboke, these boats are made using planks which are sewn together with coir ropes. These boats are propelled by paddles mostly.

3) Raft catamaran (Chalatadi)
It is constructed by tying 3-5 logs of soft wood with coir ropes. Split Bamboo oars are used to propel these catamarans. Catamarans are used in pairs to operate boat seines and individually to operate gill nets and long lines.

Hauling the catamaran to the shore with catch

Lifting the Catamaran to the beach

The Malabar region has had deep trade contacts with the Egyptian, Syrians, Arabs, Romans and Chinese. The Arabs and Chinese had well-known sea-faring skills and their boat designs were also distinctive. Because of the rich trade, there was a famous centre for the repair, design and construction of Arab type boats outside the Arabian gulf in Beypore in Malabar in those days. Even today, the traditional Arab Dhow-boats are built at Beypore and exported to Arabs where these are used for tourism and as luxury yachts. The people living along Malabar coast also converted to Islam. Yet, as happened in Gujarat, fishing boat designs of Malabar coast did not get influenced by Arabs.

There are two main reasons cited for this: first, availability of large trees in abundance in the hinterland of Malabar therefore making of catamaran, dugout canoe and plank boat easy to build. Second, rich variety and abundance of fishery resources in the Malabar waters. This made the carrying capacity of boat a non-issue in this coastal area. Hence no need to replace the small and indigenous traditional boats with larger Arabian boats.

After activities of Fishing, Varkala

While watching catamarans go fishing was an interesting activity, the activities after they returned with their prize of venture was equally engaging. As they returned from the sea, boat was pulled by the rippling arms of fishermen who to my utter puzzle, had a paunch also. This big paunch was a stark contrast to their well-developed arm and shoulder muscles. Once the boat was on the safety of sand, net was taken in hand and each fish, prawn and likes were pulled out one by one by hand. Pulling them out from net required patience and deft fingers else the fish would be damaged and fetch less money.

Kids, who were either indulging in water or busy making sand art, also could not resist leaving all activities to help pull the boat back to the shore and watch fishes being sorted out.

Crow foot print in sand at Varkala

Crows always started coming over for the possibility of feast and they did get it as fishermen threw unwanted marine animals. Crows walked around and dared to go quite near to boats, leaving their footprints in the sand. A large wave came and washed the crow’s footprints as well as our son’s castle in the sand.

Sorting out the Catch

A basket is ready to be taken home!

Hands at work to sort fish.

Another Basket of Prawns is ready

Pulling the fish from net is Not an easy job!

Such are the side benefits of traveling. You come to enjoy a beach and return home knowing about Indian traditional fishing boats and techniques.

Travel Tips:
Varkala is connected by rail and Bus to Kochi and Trivandrum. Trivandrum is also the nearest airport for Varkala.

We visited Varkala in early October which is not the season for tourists. Some part of the beach remains submerged at that time. December and January is best time when sea recedes and full beach emerges. It does get crowded at that time.

Varkala has many beaches like Papnasam beach, Black beach, Odayam beach and Varkala Cliff. Besides, all these beaches and further ahead are linked by a beautiful walk along the cliffs, beneath the coconut trees and along the sea.

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