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Sri Lanka’s Stilt Fishermen

by Coole Photography on September 10, 2012 Leave a comment

After a quick trip back to England for a family wedding, my first destination back in Asia was Sri Lanka, a place I have visited before but one of those places you feel the need to go back to. Unfortunately, my timing was somewhat less than perfect and the weather was absolutely horrendous for 90% of my stay. In my defence I knew it was a possibility but was still hoping the weather would be on my side… not this time it seems. The focus of this particular visit was the tea plantations in the central highlands and the stilt fishermen along the south coast, but sadly the first set of shots I was hoping to get never happened thanks to the relentless rain and although the second set did happen, it was at a larger than expected price.

Firstly, a little background information – Stilt fishing is unique to Sri Lanka and mainly found along the South coast, although it can apparently be seen on the Western coast as well. This is no ordinary form of fishing, the fishermen in this scenario sit on small benches attached to poles which have been stuck into the water a few meters offshore. There are no large fish caught either, it is solely for catching small reef fish called ‘Bollu’ and ‘Koramburuwo’, tiny little things about the size of a sardine. There is no recorded history as to the origins of stilt fishing, and the locals who I chatted to couldn’t really explain how it started, they did say that traditionally the skill, and the pole itself, was passed down from father to son, and some poles were considered to be better than others based on location and surroundings. The stilt poles, known locally as riti panna, can be seen all along Galle Road, sadly however many were damaged or destroyed during the tsunami.

What is even sadder is the fact that although there are still fishermen genuinely using this technique, it has become quite uncommon, the fishermen seem only to appear when the tourists arrive, and once a fee has been collected they mount their poles and pose for photographs. Don’t get me wrong, I can understand why they do this, the images of these guys have become Sri Lanka’s most iconic shot, and it seems only fair for me to pay for my shots as I will hopefully make money from them at some point in the future, that’s how I look at it anyway.

Right, hopefully you are all still with me and apologies about the amount of text, I felt it only right to say how these shots actually came about, there is no point in saying I happened across these fellows and got the following images quickly and without any instruction or direction. My decision to BIG Stopper them only came about due to the awful weather and the fact that without the filter the shots would have looked a little bland, in my opinion. The long exposure gives the images a little more atmosphere and mystery, and hopefully shows the practice at its best.

I do hope you enjoy the photographs, and although you know they were set up please remember I still worked very hard to get them – the weather was truly horrible, my tripod kept sinking in the sand (please bear in mind a sinking tripod and long exposures don’t make for a happy photographer!) and sea spray continuously coated my poor BIG Stopper filter! The fishermen also worked hard and had a laugh about the whole situation; they stayed still for as long as they could bare and swapped poles whenever I asked!

No trip to Sri Lanka would be complete without checking out a few temples, I decided on Wewurukannala Vihara and Mulkirigala Raja Maha Viharaya, so here are a few shots from those temples as well!

These first images are from the second century B.C. Mulkirigala Raja Maha Viharaya, known locally as Little Sigiriya, located roughly 20km from Tangalle:

And finally, the images below are taken within the late nineteenth century Wewurukannala Vihara Temple, located in the town of Dikwella:


To see the full gallery of images from Sri Lanka please click here

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