Stilt fishermen are a Sri Lankan icon. They are at the top of my ‘must-see, must-photograph’ list. A relatively new industry – beginning only some 50 years ago – stilt fishing is an important part of the southern coastal economy. But more than an industry, it is a way of life that has been handed down from father-to-son-to grandson.
Originally fishing was done from the rocks that either lined the seashore or protruded from the ocean. However, prime locations were often taken, so fishermen began to use iron pipes left over from World War II, wedging them into the coral reef, using a crowbar to chip away at the coral. When the pipes became scarce, fishermen turned for support to more available local wood: domba (Calophyllum inophyllum), a large evergreen tree, and kadol (Rhizophora) a Red Mangrove. The wood most often used is the plentiful Wig Banyan (Alstonia macrophylla).
The light, 5m wooden stilts made moving from one fishing location to another easier than relocating the heavy pipes. Fishermen now say, however, that iron pipes last longer than wood and are being used because wood is becoming scarce.
It takes only one man to ‘plant’ a stilt, and it is done during low tide. Once a stilt is secure, the ‘seat’ (petta) is tied into place. Another piece of wood is then added to create a triangle for stability. Other smaller pettas are often added for use as steps. The distance between stilts is the breadth and width needed to cast a line without tangling in a neighbor’s line.
Seasoned Kithul wood (Caryota urens) is used for the slim, long fishing rod and fishing hooks are also handmade usually by the fishermen themselves. Some fishermen ‘angle’ with several rods, manipulating them like jugglers.
A typical day begins before dawn and lasts until dark. It is divided into four shifts: early morning, late morning, afternoon and evening. One by one, so as not to disturb the school of fish that come into the reef area to rest after their nocturnal feeding, fishermen swim out to their stilts. They plough through the surging surf carrying their fishing rods and bags – most use empty 10kg rice bags to hold their catch. They don’t take water or food with them, only their gear.
With the sun or the rain beating down on them, fishermen catch koraburuwa, the spotted herring, Ahalaburuwa, young Koraburuwa and Bolla, a small Mackerel. On a good day, during the high fishing season in December, a fisherman can catch up to 2,000 fish. During the low season a good catch is 150-200. Sometimes the men can bag their catch in just 30 minutes. Other times it might take several hours.
Fishing is extremely territorial. The village that fronts each fishery governs the fishing and the fishermen come from that village. It is the same system for the other fisheries along the coast: Hikkaduwa, Koggala, Ahangama, Gurubabila/Weligama and Kathaluwa.
My favorite group of stilt fishermen is from the Gurubabila/Weligama area. I have taken many photographs of them over the years and have come to know them. This day they eagerly talked to me while they waited for the sun to set – the time when they begin their evening fishing.
Laxsman, a heavy-set man with gray streaks running through his hair, is the fish salesman for the Gurubabila/Weligama area and the ‘boss’ of the fishery. His village chose him for the position. ‘My father was a fish salesman for the village,’ Laksman told me. ‘It is what he taught me to do.’ There was obvious pride in his voice. The fish salesman pays the fishermen daily for the catch. The going rate that Laxsman pays is Rs3 per fish. He then sells the combined catch to the Weligama roadside stand for Rs3.5. Laxsman records each transaction for his crew of 40-50 fishermen, who range in ages between 15 and 65. With so many fishermen to a fishery, I wondered about over-fishing. ‘We don’t use net,’ he said. ‘No problem, fish come same every year.’
Typically, the fishing trade is handed down from one generation to another. The village depends on fishing and so it is only natural that fathers teach their sons what they know. With unemployment plaguing many villages, being a fisherman provides a steady income. Piyadas, another gray-haired fisherman, piped up. ‘My father’s father was a fisherman, and his father,’ he said in halting English. ‘I fish, in sun, rain, every day.’
‘Do you hurt from sitting so long on the stilt?’ I asked the men. They collectively nodded their heads, even the young ones. Several grabbed their backs, showing that the time spent balancing on a stilt takes it toll on their bodies. But they didn’t seem to be complaining, only answering my question. They are rugged men, not daunted by strong waves or harsh weather. Most of the men are of small stature, able to balance with one hand holding onto the stilt while casting with the other. They sit against the wind, they said, for the best conditions to cast.
Images of stilt fishermen are popular graphics for Sri Lanka products. They’re used on websites, as hotel logos, and provide inspiration for wooden figurines. Posing for stilt fishing photographs has become an industry in itself. Hotels have taken to placing stilts along their beaches as tourist attractions. While driving past the Ahangama fishery, I spotted about 60 fishermen perched on stilts that were lashed together with a fence, or weta. Two men were fishing from the tandem stilts. I quickly stopped on the roadside to take a photograph. The sun was just about to dip into the ocean and the display of orange glistening water, with the flock of fishermen perched like black sea birds on the posts, was breathtaking. I scurried through the mangrove trees out to the beach to get a shot.
Fishermen have become savvy over the years and know that a photo opportunity is a hot commodity, especially at sunset and sunrise. The Ahangama fishermen are some of the most commercially aware. One approached me before I could lift my camera and asked for ‘tea money’ for the group. Normally I don’t mind donating, but this man was so insistent that I missed the shot completely – the sun had set while he blocked my view. That wouldn’t have happened with the Gurubabila/Weligama fishermen.
To take your own stilt fishermen photographs, you must drive south of Colombo along the coastal road and watch for the telltale stilts sticking up out of the water, starting at Hikkaduwa. Most drivers and guides know the popular sites. If you’re super adventurous, drive further south to Weligama and seek out the Gurubabila fishery. Ask Laxsman, the fish salesman, to help you get good photos. Tell him that I sent you and he might even invite you home for tea!
Note: this article was written in March 2008 and so Laxsman may not still be the fish salesman, but I’m sure he still lives in the village.
Weligama Gurubablia Fishery. This photo
won an award from Traveler Photographers Network.
Fisherman comes in with his meagre catch.
Fisherman finished for the shift.
The fish salesman pays the fishermen daily for their catch.
On a good day a fisherman can catch up to 2,000 fish.
Fishing hooks are handmade,
usually by the fishermen themselves.
Seasoned Kithul wood is used for the slim, long fishing poles.
The evening shift.
Piyadasa contemplating the sea.
This photo was the cover photo of
Serendib Magazine, the inflight magazine
of Sri Lanka airlines.
This is the shot the tourists want. And some will
pay the fishermen to get it.
Check out my Sri Lankan wedding photography, travel photography, portrait photography, female photographers, commercial photography at my website at: http://www.shadetreeSL.com
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