Culture,  Maharashtra,  Sustainability,  Travel

Hooked on Fishing

A bio-diversity enthusiast from Maharashtra’s Khadki Budruk village recalls his childhood experiences with traditional fishing, and examines the need to preserve the knowledge of indigenous methods and tools

Story by: Balu Nivrutti Bhangre

Read the original story in Marathi

My fascination with fishing and fishing gears started from early childhood – the time of life when curiosity is at its peak and the desire to learn is the strongest.

As a kid, I would frequently visit Chindhya Ba – my father’s friend in our neighborhood – who was so obsessed with fishing that he would go fishing every day, right until he grew old! He would make fishing tools and catch fish of different colors and shapes and bring them back in a gaanjhavi (a bag woven from special thread and used to keep fish). I would look at the fish, amazed by their colors, shapes and movement of some half-alive fish. My curious mind would get crowded with questions – What is the life of fish in water like? How do people catch fish? Are they easy to catch? Do we feel ticklish when we hold them in hands? Do they bite? What do they eat?

I’d go to my father, my mind burdened with questions. My father would answer some, but would soon get annoyed by the unending list and say, “At this age, instead of school and studies, you are obsessed with useless things!”

During summer holidays, I would spend hours sitting next to Chindhya Ba observing the fishing tools he used to make. He made them only for his own use and seldom sold them. I would look at those tools horizontally and vertically and pull at their weavings. Driven by curiosity, one day in Chindhya Ba’s absence, I ended up tangling a fishing net he had started weaving. An extremely upset Chindhya Ba came after me with a stick in his hand. I got scared and ran and hid in my friend’s house! Despite this incident, I remained fascinated with fishing tools.

Traditional fishing tools used in Khadki Budruk. Photo: Balu Nivrutti Bhangre

I returned to Chindhya Ba a couple of days later, hoping that he would have forgotten the incident, and coaxing him to let me help him in his varied fine-grained work. I would bring him mixed bamboo sticks, make thread for weaving fishing nets, bring items from his house and give his messages back to his folks. Chindhya Ba was no longer irritated with me for my inquisitiveness perhaps because of two reasons – he was my father’s friend and I was assisting him with his tasks.

At that age, I did learn a bit about what the tools were for and how they are used for fishing, but I never got the opportunity to use them. I lived in a joint family and besides my parents, no one ate meat. The mere mention of meat would cause a commotion in the house! Although I did not want to eat fish and only wanted to catch it, my childhood dream of fishing remained unfulfilled due to family restrictions. I was not even allowed to go alone to the Mula riverbank in my village. I was only allowed to go with family members and with strict warnings – “Don’t go here! Don’t do this! Don’t go too deep into water!”

Mula River. Photo: Balu Nivrutti Bhangre

It was during my secondary school that I started getting some freedom. Our joint family had separated by then. I started spending a lot of time with my friends. Maruti was my closest friend in the village – we even ate at each other’s homes! His father too loved to go fishing, but not as frequently as Chindhya Ba. He would go fishing along with a group once every month or so. He had all fishing tools stored neatly in the attic of the house, but we children were not allowed to use them. When Maruti’s father would go out, I’d insist on seeing those tools. Maruti would quickly arrange for a Y-shaped ladder so that we could climb up to the attic to examine the tools. Maruti had good knowledge about the tools. He would sometimes stubbornly insist on accompanying his father for fishing too!

Fishing tools in the attic of a house. Photo: Balu Nivrutti Bhangre

It was at Maruti’s home that I learned to identify the tools. I learned that most of the fishing equipment is made from a specific species of bamboo that we locally call as Kalaki. I learned about the methods of using different tools, when and how to use each tool and the accessories used to supplement them. For instance, I learned that

  • Tivris are fishing nets and can be of different types, for example, cast nets that are used to catch small or medium types of fish.
  • malai, a small or medium sized trap, is typically of two types – one meant for fish and other for crabs. It is typically used in the rainy season at places where water flows at a low level (up to ankle level).
  • bhotad is a wide and short trap with fine, beautiful weaving used to catch small fish especially of a species called Murha. Like malai, bhotad is also used in shallow water and farm spillways. It uses a supplementary tool called Sathya. It is typically used between September to November when rain water has reduced.
  • Tondya vary in sizes from small to large and are hollow from inside. The sticks used for knitting them were than the other tools. Before using this tool, a khadan or ditch is built at knee level using stones, tree branches, and grass to block flowing water of a stream. It is used in September-October or as long as the water in streams is flowing. Naad or bhoksi are used as supplementary tools for tondya, which is used to catch medium or large fish.
  • Taata is like a plate or dish used for a meal. A simple, thin cloth is tied and a hole is made in the cloth. The fleshy part of the berkad species of crab is kept in the taata as bait for fish. Taata is used to catch small fish. It is laid out in small ponds in fields and rivulets when the water level in pond starts receding, especially from September to December. It is not used much during the rest of the year.
  • Gal (fishing hook)is used to catch a single fish at a time.

Equipped with the knowledge I’d gained, I hoped that I would now get a chance to go fishing, but it did not seem like Maruti’s father would let us use the tools. Without tools, we couldn’t fish. One Sunday, Maruti informed me about a broken tivri from which his father had removed all the mani (iron nut-bolts or round elongated beads made of lead or clay that submerge in the water). Maruti’s father was about to throw it away, but Maruti kept it in the house. On hearing this, I rushed to Maruti’s place. We inspected the tivri in the shade next to Maruti’s house only to realize that the tivri was unusable. We joined the tivri with a rope and tied knots wherever it was damaged. We made mani from black clay and dried those so that we could string them into the tivri so that it could be submerged in water.

Tivri being submerged in water. Photo: Balu Nivrutti Bhangre

After the broken tivri was fixed, I went to the Mula river after lunch one Sunday with Maruti and Tanaji. We bathed in the river and sat on the riverbank much like the men we had seen fishing and submerged the tivri in the water. After a long wait, we pulled the tivri out. To our disappointment, we saw that not a single fish had been caught in the tivri! Frustrated and dejected, I started walking back home feeling defeated in my first expedition to catch fish. My friends tried to console me and cheer me up. They said that there was no fish in the side of the river where we had put the tivri but I had realized that the tivri had proven to be useless. I didn’t meet my friends for a couple of days after that and engaged my mind in studies and games.

Rains start pouring in my village around the month of July. Village folk start sowing seeds in fields. The river starts filling up with rain water – the happiest time for us. The first time the river is filled with rain water, everyone bathes in it with reverence and worships the river. Within a few days, streams start gushing too. During this time, fish come in the direction of the water flow to lay their eggs. One such rainy season, after my first failed expedition, I bathed in the first water of the river. It had kept drizzling on and off. The paddy seedlings were ready for cultivation. Within a couple of days, it started raining heavily and the river and streams started overflowing. We got instructions from home, “Don’t roam in the rains! Don’t go near the river!”

Yet, on a school holiday, Maruti and I decided to go to the river for fishing after being bored of the game of cards we had been playing for hours. There was no one at either of our homes. We left for the river with shovels, a basket and malai in our hands.

Torrential rains and gusts of winds were lashing the village. The force of wind kept pushing Maruti and me apart by a few feet, but we remained undeterred. We covered ourselves with a ghongta (a sack cloth usually used for storing grains, but can also be folded and used as protection against rain), yet got drenched. We were cold and our lips and teeth chattered. The way to the place, called holicha dara, where we had decided to go fishing was downhill, steep and slippery. Our elbows and knees were bruised because of slipping along the way. Yet, neither Maruti nor I talked about returning. We eventually reached the spillway of a farm at holicha dara where water was flowing in full force. We needed to block the flow to catch fish. We got to work real fast! Rocks and stones – big and small, grass, twigs and branches, we got everything we could find nearby to try and block water. We removed soil using shovel and built a barrier with it to block flowing water. We didn’t realize when the ghongta that was protecting us against the rain slipped away. We were cold, but we continued with our efforts. After a lot of hard work, we finally succeeded in blocking water. In front of us, in the somewhat dry part of the spillway, there were numerous fish! The moment I’d been waiting for, the dream I had nurtured was right in front of me!

“Don’t just watch! Get to work, else you’ll miss catching these too!” Maruti yelled.

We greedily started catching fish without stopping. The experience was new to me. The fish felt slimy to the hands. The hands felt ticklish. Most fish there was of the species called malya. I was scared of catching Shingatya (river catfish) since it had whiskers, but Maruti could easily catch it. We caught almost 5kgs of fish until the barrier we’d built using soil and rocks and twigs burst open and the blocked water started flowing again. We then laid malai in the lower embankment of the river and decided to wait for half an hour more to catch more fish, but could wait no longer than 15 minutes due to the cold, rain and wind. Yet, we managed to catch half a malai full of fish. We gathered our tools and started our return back home. I was elated with the success. Though there was lot of weight in my hands and on my shoulders, I hardly felt it. I was happy, yet worried – happy because I’d finally succeeded in my mission and worried thinking about whether my father would be upset with me since I’d ignored the instructions of elders and gone fishing to the river in heavy rains and wind. I prepared myself to face the consequences and returned home. I changed into dry clothes and quietly dried the wet clothes in the paddock.

Spot in the river where malai is placed. Photo: Balu Nivrutti Bhangre

When father came home and sat by the stove to warm himself up, I placed a bowl full of fish in front of him. “Nice! Where did these come from? Who gave these?” my father asked, visibly pleased. His happiness soon changed to anger as soon as I told him that I had gone fishing. With tears in my eyes, I said, “No dada! I’d only gone for a few minutes with Maruti. I didn’t get too drenched, dada!” My father pulled me close and explained that they all care about us. Later, he kept a few fish for us and distributed the remaining in the entire neighborhood. Some people showered praises on me because no one had thought that at such a tender age, I could catch fish by myself.

Another incident that I distinctly remember occurred when I was in the ninth grade. We used to frequently visit my maternal grandfather’s farm since he was old and tired and unable to bear the load of farm work. We used to help him. In the month of May, when my summer holidays had just begun, I was supposed to go to my grandfather’s place along with my younger brother and parents. The river was just about a kilometer away from our village and on the other side of the river was my grandfather’s farm. So it was planned that on the way, we’d wash clothes in the river and then go to grandfather’s farm. We always felt thrilled to go to the river as it was an opportunity to build temples and houses using the sand and soil on the riverbank and swim to the heart’s content in the river.

We reached the river as planned and saw that Sunil – a guy from our village – was already at the river with his parents. While all the elders were busy washing clothes in the river, Sunil, my younger brother and I built sand temples. Suddenly, Sunil suggested that we catch fish. We were surprised and wondered – how could we catch fish without fishing tools? But Sunil was smart and experienced in fishing. He had just seen fish in the shallow pond near the river. Since it was the month of May, the water level in the river was very low.

Sunil started giving instructions and we started acting on those. Using a mixture of clay and sand, we created a small barrier and created two parts of the pond. With the help of ghamela (buckets), we started pouring water from small part of the pond to the larger part. As we did this, fish moving around in the pond water kept tickling our feet. My younger brother gave up after some time and sat on a rock, but Sunil and I refused to give up. After a lot of effort, the water in the smaller side of the pond started getting over and fish in the small part of the pond started jumping here and there. Seeing this, my brother started jumping and whooped in excitement catching the attention of our parents. They rushed to our aid and together, we all emptied the smaller side of the pond and got busy catching fish. My brother was the happiest catching fish, though some of them were slipping and escaping from his hands. It was his first fishing experience and he had significantly contributed to it too! We had caught an entire bucket full of fish. We divided them into two shares for our respective families. This was my second fishing experience and Sunil certainly played a big part in it. But my father’s appreciation of fishing skills of his two sons gave me immense pleasure. Every time he would tell someone that my sons easily caught fish as if it was kids’ play, my heart would be filled with pride.

Since then, I have got many opportunities to go fishing. I have used different tools such as tivri, tondya, malai, bhotad, taata, jholi to catch fish. I used these tools at my maternal uncle’s place too. The only tool I didn’t get a chance to use was the throwing net and since it is difficult to use, I ignored it too. I am no expert in fishing nor do I like to eat fish. I eat it only twice or three times a year. Fishing has been my hobby because of my fascination for the fishing tools.

Fishing using cast net or throwing net. Photo: Koshy Koshy from Faridabad, Haryana, India, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When I started college, I learned more from the people who make fishing gear. Only 2-3 people in the village are skilled to make fishing tools. I roamed around with fishermen and learned from their discussions and actions the importance of catching only as much fish as needed and the role of traditional fishing tools. Some people at various places are now using inappropriate methods, such as explosives, toxic powders, and anesthetic plant leaves. This is causing fish to die in the water, poisoned or forgotten, for no reason. It ends up killing the juvenile fish too. Killing of fish at a massive scale is causing a decline in the fish population in the river.

In our village, only 8-10 people go fishing, that too as per their convenience and time. There are 2 people who catch fish 4-5 times a month. In their free time in summer, people catch fish once or twice a month in groups. The village folk still catch fish using the traditional tools tivri, tondya, malai, gal, tata. Depending on the season and the time of the day, they decide which fishing tool to use when. They usually place a tool in channel of a stream in the evening and remove it the next morning to fetch the captured fish. The number of fish that are caught using an equipment depends on its size and shape. Typically, village folks catch only as much fish as is needed – for a meal or two at the most. By chance if they catch more fish, they distribute those among neighbors or guests. This avoids a drastic decline in the fish wealth in the water body.

I recognized the distinction between fishing using traditional fishing equipment and practices, and the current methods of fishing. From this I realized that there is a need to save these tools and create awareness about them. When I started working on biodiversity and the environment in 2009, it was part of my job to gather information about traditional fishing tools. My previous experience helped me a lot. Today, I am striving to pass on the knowledge of the traditional fishing tools and practices. Through my endeavors, I hope to spread the knowledge gained through traditional wisdom to the next generations.

Read the original story in Marathi

Meet the storyteller

Balu Nivrutti Bhangre
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Balu grew up in Khadaki Budruk village in rural Maharashtra, where he now works as a senior assistant the Watershed Organisation Trust. He has worked with the People's Biodiversity Register in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, to raise awareness about the local biodiversity among the residents of these states. He has a keen interest in environment conservation, as well as in visiting and learning about biodiversity hotspots. He also enjoys spending time with younger generations and sharing his knowledge.

Grassroutes Journeys
Website | + posts

Grassroutes Journeys is a national award winning social enterprise that aims to develop sustainable livelihoods in rural India through community-centered tourism enterprises – owned, managed and run by local communities. It is working across 17 financially sustainable village tourism centers in 4 states – Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Its rural tourism model has created over 15,000 days of employment annually, impacted about 700 households with alternate source of livelihoods, and helped in reverse migration and conservation of biodiversity.

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