Photo Essays | Society | South Asia

In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

Stilt fishing has declined, but tourism keeps Sri Lankan men on the poles.

By Ahmer Khan for
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

According to the fishermen, the art of stilt fishing requires a great deal of patience and endurance. Once they learn to maintain their balance on the narrow wooden pole, the rest of the process involves waiting for several hours in complete silence, to catch the fish.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

At lunch, the fishermen sometimes have fruit and most of the time sit together playing cards and drinking alcohol.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

Fishermen climb higher on the poles after waves hit the shore in Weligama along the southern coast of Sri Lanka.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

Fishermen make their own fishing equipment. The stilt is known as ritipanna, which is made by tying a small crossbar on a pole, made of kaduru wood. The pitta, the fishing rod, is made of kithul.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

Jagat Kumara, 34, has been fishing since he was 12 years old. His father and grandfather were fishermen, too. He is now the leader of this fishermen group, who ties up with the tour operators in arranging tourists for stilt fishing tours.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

Most of the time the fish they catch are small – each just a few centimeters long, and not enough to feed a family.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

On a good day, the fishermen can earn $5 posing for pictures.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

55-year-old T. H. Jayasena has been fishing for the last 35 years. He learned the art from his father and grandfather.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

Chinese tourists take selfies near the stilt fishing spot.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

Fisherman sit on their poles with a hope of catching a fish before heading home.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

A fisherman heads home after having a busy day with the tourists in Weligama district of southern Sri Lanka.

Credit: Ahmer Khan
In Sri Lanka, a Dying Livelihood, a Tourist Attraction

Many of the children of the fishermen do not want to follow in their fathers’ footsteps.

Credit: Ahmer Khan

WELIGAMA, SRI LANKA — A few dozen meters from the shoreline, fisherman T. H. Sena sits motionless on a wooden stilt, waiting for tourists to come and pose for pictures. A picture in return for money.

Stilt fishing is a recent innovation, first adopted just after World War II when food shortages and overcrowded fishing spots prompted people to try fishing further out on the water. Two generations of fishermen have eked out this physically demanding existence at dawn and dusk along a 30-kilometer stretch of southern shore between the towns of Unawatuna and Weligama.

Since the tsunami in 2004, however, this mode of fishing has declined drastically as a livelihood in of itself and has now become more of a tourist attraction with the help of the government of Sri Lanka, which promotes it as an attraction. Many of the true stilt fisherman have taken up farming, or reselling fish purchased at larger markets.

For stilt fishing, a vertical pole with an attached crossbar is embedded into the sea floor among the shallows or on a riverbed. The crossbar allows the fishermen to be seated a couple of meters above the water, causing minimal shadows on the water and therefore little to no disturbance among the sea life. The stilt fishermen then uses a rod from this position to bring in a good catch from the comparative shallows of the sea or from the river.

During monsoons, these fishermen catch fish on boats and sometimes on stilts too and later sell them in markets. And, for the rest of the year, they pose for pictures for tourists. The money collected from tourists is divided into equal parts among the fishermen, with a share also going to the tour operator who brings the tourists to the shore.

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In 2009, the year in which the 26-year-long civil war came to an end in Sri Lanka, tourist arrivals numbered about 448,000. In 2017, tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka reached an all-time high of 2,116,407.

“We need to make a living out of something,” fisherman T. H. Sena said.

Ahmer Khan is a freelance documentary photographer based in Kashmir. He tweets @ahmermkhan