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Sport and Work on the Nepaul Frontier
Chapter VI


Fishing in India—Hereditary trades—The boatmen and fishermen of India—Their villages—Nets—Modes of fishing—Curiosities relating thereto—Catching an alligator with a hook—Exciting capture— Crocodiles—Shooting an alligator—Death of the man-eater.

Nor only in the wild jungles, on the undulating plains, and among the withered brown stubbles, does animal life abound in India; but the rivers, lakes, and creeks teem with fish of every conceivable size, shape, and colour. The varieties are legion. From the huge black porpoise, tumbling through the turgid stream of the Ganges, to the bright, sparkling, silvery shoals of delicate chillooahs or poteeahs, which one sees darting in and out among the rice stubbles in every paddy field during the rains. Here a huge bhowarree (pike), or ravenous coira, comes to the surface with a splash; there a raho, the Indian salmon, with its round sucker-like mouth, rises slowly to the surface, sucks in a fly and disappears as slowly as it rose; or a pachgutchea, a long sharp-nosed fish, darts rapidly by; a shoal of mullet with their heads out of the water swim athwart the stream, and fiir down in the cool depths of the tank or lake, a thousand different varieties disport themselves among the mazy labyrinths of the broad-leaved weeds.

During the middle and about the end of the rains, is the best time for fishing; the whole country is then a perfect network of streams. Every rice field is a shallow lake, with countless thousands of tiny fish darting here and there among the rice stalks. Every ditch teems with fish, and every hollow in every field is a well-stocked aquarium.

Pound the edge of every lake or tank in the early morning, or when the fierce heat of the day begins to get tempered by the approaching shades of evening, one sees numbers of boys and men of the poorer classes, each with a couple of rough bamboo rods stuck in the ground in front of him, watching his primitive float with the greatest eagerness, and whipping out at intervals some luckless fish of about three or four ounces in weight with a tremendous haul, fit for the capture of a forty-pounder. They get a coarse sort of hook in the bazaar, rig up a roughly-twisted line, tie on a small piece of hollow reed for a float, and with a lively earth-worm for a bait, they can generally manage in a very short time to secure enough fish for a meal.

With a short light rod, a good silk line, and an English hook attached to fine gut, I have enjoyed many a good hour's sport at Parewah. I used to have a cane chair sent down to the bank of the stream, a punkah, or hand fan, plenty of cooling drinks, and two coolie boys in attendance to remove the fish, renew baits, and keep the punkah in constant swing. There I used to sit enjoying my cigar, and pulling in little fish at the rate sometimes of a couple a minute.

I remember hooking a turtle once, and a terrible job it was to land him. My light rod bent like a willow, but the tackle was good, and after ten minutes' hard work I got the turtle to the side, where my boys soon secured him. He weighed thirteen pounds. Sometimes you get among a colony of freshwater crabs. They are little brown brutes, and strip your hooks of the bait as fast as you fling them in. There is nothing for it in such a case but to shift your station. Many of the bottom fish—the ghurai, the saourie, the hornet (eel), and others—make no effort to escape the hook. You see them resting at the bottom, and drop the bait at their very nose. On the whole, the hand fishing is uninteresting, hut it serves to while away an odd hour when hunting and shooting are hardly practicable.

Particular occupations in India are restricted to particular castes. All trades are hereditary. For example, a tatmah, or weaver, is always a weaver. He cannot become a blacksmith or carpenter. He has no choice. He must follow the hereditary trade. The peculiar system of land-tenure in India, which secures as far as possible a bit of land for every one, tends to perpetuate this hereditary selection of trades, by enabling every cultivator to be so far independent of his handicraft, thus restricting competition. There may he twenty lobars, or blacksmiths, in a village, but they do not all follow their calling. They till their lands, and are de facto petty farmers. They know the rudiments of their handicraft, but the actual blacksmith's work is done by the hereditary smith of the village, whose sun in turn will succeed him when he dies, or if he leave no son, his fellow caste men will put in a successor.

Nearly every villager during the rains may be found on the banks of the stream or lake, angling in an amateur sort of way, but the fishermen of the Behar par excellence are the mullahs; they are also called Gonhree, Been, or Muchooah. In Bengal they are called Nilcaree, and in some parts Baeharee, from the Persian word for a boat. In the same way muchooah is derived from much, a fish, and mullah means boatman, strictly speaking, rather than fisherman. All boatmen and fishermen belong to this caste, and their -villages can be recognised at once by the instruments of their calling lying all around.

Perched high on some bank overlooking tbe stream or lake, you see innumerable festoons of nets hanging out to dry on tall bamboo poles, or hanging like lace curtains of very coarse texture from the roofs and eaves of the huts. Hauled up on the beach are a whole fleet of boats of different sizes, from the- small dugout, which will hold only one man, to the huge dinghy, in which the big nets and a dozen men can be stowed with ease. Great heaps of shells of the freshwater mussel, show the source of great supplies of bait; while overhead, a great hovering army of kites and vultures are constantly circling round, eagerly watching for the slightest scrap of offal from the nets. When the rains have fairly set in, and the fishermen have got their rice fields all planted out, they are at liberty to follow their hereditary avocation. A day is fixed for a drag, and the big nets are overhauled and got in readiness. The head mullah, a wary, grizzled old veteran, gives the orders. The big drag-net is bundled into the boat, which is quickly pushed off into the stream, and at a certain distance from shore the net is cast from the boat. Being weighted at the lower end, it rapidly sinks, and, buoyed on the upper side with pieces of cork, it makes a perpendicular wall in the water. Several long bamboo poles are now run through the ropes along the upper side of the net, to prevent the net being dragged under water altogether by the weight of the fish in a great haul. The little boats, a crowd of which are in attendance, now dart out, surrounding the net on all sides, and the boatmen beating their oars on the sides of the boats, create such a clatter as to frighten the fish into the circumference of the big net. This is now being dragged slowly to shore by strong and willing arms. The women and children watch eagerly on the bank. At length the glittering haul is pulled up high and dry on the beach, the fish are divided among the men, the women fill their baskets, and away they hie to the nearest bazaar, or if it be not bazaar or market day, they hawk the fish through the nearest villages, like our fish-wives at home.

There is another common mode of fishing adopted in narrow lakes and small stream*, which are let out to the fishermen by the Zemindars or landholders. A barricade made of light reeds, all matted together by string, is stuck into the stream, and a portion of the water is fenced in, generally in a circular form. The reed fence being quite flexible is gradually moved in, narrowing the circle. As the circle narrows, the agitation inside is indescribable; fish jumping in all directions—a moving mass of glittering scales and fins. The larger ones try to leap the barrier, and are caught by the attendant mullahs, who pounce on them with swift dexterity. Eagles and kites dart and swoop down, bearing off a captive fish in their talons. The reed fence is doubled back on itself, and gradually pushed on till the whole of the fish inside are jammed together in a moving mass. The weeds and dirt are then removed, and the fish put into baskets and carried off to market.

Others, again, use circular casting nets, which they throw with very great dexterity. Gathering the net into a bunch they rest it on the shoulder, then with a circular sweep round the head, they fling it far out. Being loaded, it sinks down rapidly in the water. A string is attached to the centre of the net, and the fisherman hauls it in with whatever prey he may be lucky enough to secure.

As the waters recede during October, after the rains have ended, each runlet and purling stream becomes a scene of slaughter on a most reckless and improvident scale. The innumerable shoals of spawn and small fish that have been feeding in the rice fields, warned by some instinct, seek the lakes and main streams. As they try to get their way back, however, they find at each outlet in each ditch and field a deadly wicker trap, in the shape of a square basket with a T-shaped opening leading into it, through which the stream makes its way. After entering this basket there is no egress except through the narrow opening, and they are trapped thus in countless thousands. Others of the natives in mere wantonness put a shelf of reeds or rushes in the bed of the stream, with an upward slope. As the water rushes along, the little fish are left high and dry- on this shelf or screen, and the 'water runs off below. In this way scarcely a fish escapes, and as millions are too small to be eaten, it is a most serious waste. The attention of Government has been directed to the subject, and steps may be taken to stop such a reckless and wholesale destruction of a valuable food supply.

In some parts of Purneah and Bhangulpore I have seen a most ingenious method adopted by the mullahs. A gang of four or five enter the stream and travel slowly downwards, stirring up the mud at the bottom with their feet. The fish, ascending the stream to escape the mud, get entangled in the weeds. The fishermen feel them with their feet amongst the weeds, and immediately pounce on them with their hands. Each man has a gila or earthen pot attached by a string to his waist and floating behind him in the water. I have seen four men fill their earthen pots in less than an hour by this ingenious but primitive mode of fishing. Some of them can use their feet almost as well for grasping purposes as their hands.

Another mode of capture is by a small net. A flat piece of netting is spread over a hoop, to which four or five pieces of bamboo are attached, rising up and meeting in the centre, so as to form a sort of miniature skeleton tent-like frame over the net. The hoop with the net stretched tight across is then pressed down flat on the bottom of the tank or stream. If any fish are beneath, their efforts to escape agitate the net. The motion is communicated to the fisherman by a string from the centre of the net which is rolled round the fisherman's thumb. "When the jerking of his thumb announces a captive fish, he puts down his left hand and secures his victim. The Bauturs, Nepaulm, and other jungle tribes, also often use the bow and arrow as a means of securing fish.

Seated on the branch of some overhanging tree, while his keen eye scans the depths below, he watches for a large fish, and as it passes, he lets fly his arrow with unerring aim, and impales the luckless victim. Some tribes fish at night, by torchlight, spearing the fish who are attracted by the light. In Nepaul the bark of the Hill Sirces is often used to poison a stream or piece of water. Pounded up and thrown in, it seems to have some uncommon effect on the fish After-water has been treated in this way, the fish, seemingly quite stupefied, rise to the surface, on which they float in great numbers, and allow themselves to be caught. The strangest part of it is that they are perfectly innocuous as food, notwithstanding this treatment.

Fish forms a very favourite article of diet with both Mussulmans and Hindoos. Many of the latter take a vow to touch no flesh of any kind. They are called Kuntlucs or Baghuts, but a Baghut is more of an ascetic than a Kunthee. However, the Kunthee is glad of a fish dinner when he can get it. They are restricted to no particular sect or caste, but all who have taken the vow wear a peculiar necklace, made generally of sandal-wood beads or nccm beads round their throats. Hence the name, from kunth, meaning the throat.

The right to fish in any particular piece of water is let out by the proprietor on whose land the water lies, or through which it flows. The letting is generally done by auction yearly. The fishing is called a shilkur, from shal, a net. It is generally taken by some rich Bunneah (grain seller) or village banker, who sublets it in turn to the fishermen.

in some of the tanks which are not so let, and where the native proprietor preserves the fish, first-class sport can be had. A common native poaching dodge is this : if some oil cake be thrown into the water a few hours previous to your fishing, or better still, balls made of roasted linseed meal, mixed with bruised leaves of the 'sweet basil,' or toolsee plant, the fish assemble in hundreds round the spot, and devour the bait greedily. "With a good eighteen-foot rod, fish of from twelve to twenty pounds are not uncommonly caught, and will give good play too. Fishing in the plains of India, is, however, rather tame sport at the best of times.

You have heard of the famous maliseer—some of them over eighty or a hundred pounds weight? "We have none of these in Behar, but the huge porpoise gives splendid rifle or caibine practice as lie rolls through the turgid streams. They are difficult to hit, but I have seen several killed with ball; and the oil extracted from their bodies is a splendid dressing for harness. But the most exciting fishing I have ever seen was—what do you think?—Alligator fishing! Yes, the formidable scaly monster, with his square snout and terrible jaws, his ponderous body covered with armour, and his serrated tail, with which he could break the leg of a bullock, or smash an outrigger as easily as a whale could smash a jolly boat.

I must try to describe one day's alligator fishing.

"When I was down in Bhaugulpore, I went out frequently fishing in the various tanks and streams near my factory. My friend Pat, who is a keen sportsman and very fond of angling, wrote to me one day when he and his brother "Willie were going out to the Teljuga, asking me to join their party. The Teljuga is the boundary stream between Tirhoot and Bhaugulpore, and its sluggish, muddy waters teem with alligators—the regular square-nosed mugger, the terrible man-eater. The nakar or long-nosed species may be seen in countless numbers in any of the large streams, stretched out on the banks basking in the noonday sun. Going down the Koosee particularly, you come across hundreds sometimes lying on one bank. As the. boat nears them, they slide noiselessly and slowly into the stream. A large excrescence forms on the tip of the long snout, like a huge sponge; and this is often all that is seen on the surface of the water as the huge brute, swims about waiting for his prey. These nakars, or long-nosed specimens, never attack human beings—at least such cases are very very rare—but live almost entirely on fish.

I remember seeing one catch a paddy-bird on one occasion near the junction of the Koosee with the Ganges. My boat was fastened to the shore near a slimy creek that came oozing into the river from some dense jungle near. I was washing my hands and face on the bank, and the boatmen were fishing with a small hand-net, for our breakfast. Numbers of attenuated melancholy-looking paddy-birds were stalking solemnly and stiltedly along the bank, also fishing for theirs. I noticed one who was particularly greedy, with his long legs half immersed in the water, constantly darting out his long bill and bringing up a hapless struggling fish. All of a sudden a long snout and the ugly serrated ridgy back of a nakar was shot like lightning at the hapless bird, and right before our eyes the poor paddy was crunched up. As a rule, however, alligators confine themselves to a fish diet, and are glad of any refuse or dead animal that may float their way. But with the mugger, the loach, or square-nosed variety, "all is fish that comes to his net." His soul delights in young dog or live pork. A fat duck comes not amiss; and impelled by hunger he hesitates not to attack man. Once regaled with the flavour of human flesh, he takes up his stand near some ferry, or bathing ghaut, where many hapless women and children often fall victims to his unholy appetite, before his career is cut short.

I remember shooting one ghastly old scaly villain in a tank near Eyseree. He had made this tank his home, and with that fatalism which is so characteristic- of the Hindoo, the usual ablutions and bathings went on as if no such monster existed. Several women having been carried off, however, at short intervals, the villagers asked me to try and rid them of their foe. I took a ride down to the tank one Friday morning, and found the banks a scene of great excitement. A woman had been carried off some hours before as she was filling her water jar, and the monster was now reposing at the bottom of the tank digesting his horrible meal. The tank was covered with crimson water-lilies in full bloom, their broad brown and green leaves showing off the crimson beauty of the open flower. At the north corner some wild rose bushes drooped over the water, casting a dense matted shade. Here was the haunt of the mugger. He had excavated a gloomy-looking hole, into which lie retired when gorged with prey. My first care was to cut away some of these bushes, and then, finding he was not at home, we drove some bamboo stakes through the bank to prevent him getting into his Maun, which is what the natives term the den or hole. I then sat down under a goolar tree to wait for his appearance. The goolar is a species of fig, and the leaves are much relished by cattle and goats. Gradually the village boys and young men went oft' to their ploughing, or grass cutting for the cows' evening meal A woman came down occasionally to fill her water-pot in evident fear and trembling. A swarm of minus (the Indian starling) hopped and twittered round my feet. The cooing of a pair of amatory pigeons overhead nearly lulled rne to slumber. A flock of green parrots came swiftly circling overhead, making for the fig-tree at the south end of the tank. An occasional raho lazily rose among the water-lilies, and disappeared with an indolent flap of his tail. The brilliant kingfisher, resplendent in crimson and emerald, sat on the withered branch of a prostrate mango-tree close by, pluming his feathers and doubtless meditating on the canity of life. Suddenly, close by the massive post which marks the centre of every Hindoo tank, a huge scaly snout slowly and almost imperceptibly rose to the surface, then a broad, flat, forbidding forehead, topped by two grey fishy eyes with warty-looking callosities for eyebrows. Just then an eager urchin who had been squatted by me for hours pointed to the brute. It was enough. Down sank the loathsome creature, and we had to resume our attitude of expectation and patient waiting. Another hour passed slowly. It was the middle of the afternoon, and very hot. I had sent my toledar off for a "peg" to the factory, and was beginning to get very drowsy, when, right in the same spot, the repulsive head again rose slowly to the surface. I had my trusty No. 12 to my shoulder on the instant, glanced carefully along the barrels, bat just then only the eyes of the brute were visible. A moment of intense excitement followed, and then, emboldened by the extreme stillness, he showed his whole head above the surface. I pulled the trigger, and a Meade shell crashed through the monster's skull, scattering his brains in the water and actually sending one splinter of the skull to the opposite edge of the tank, where my little Hindoo boy picked it up and brought it to me.

There was a mighty agitation in the water; the water-lilies rocked to and fro, and the broad leaves glittered with the water drops thrown on them; then all was still. Hearing the report of my gun, the natives came flocking to the spot, and, telling them their enemy was slain, I departed, leaving instructions to let me know when the body came to the surface. It did so three days later. Getting some chumars and domes (two of the lowest castes, as none of the higher castes will touch a dead body under pain of losing caste), we hauled the putrid carcase to shore, and on cutting it open, found the glass armlets and brass ornaments of no less than five women and the silver ornaments of three children, all in a lump in the brute's stomach. Its skull was completely smashed and shattered to pieces by my shot. Its teeth were crusted with tartar, and worn almost to the very stumps. It measured nineteen feet.

But during this digression my friends I'at and Willie have been waiting on the banks of the "Teljuga." I reached their tents late at night, found them both in high spirits after a good day's execution among the ducks and teal, and preparations being made for catching an alligator next day. Up early in the morning, we beat some grass close by the stream, and roused out an enormous boar that gave us a three mile spin and a good fight, after Pat had given him first spear. After breakfast w got our tackle ready.

This was a large iron hook with a strong shank, to winch was attached a stout iron ring. To this ring a long thick rope was fastened, and I noticed for several yards the strands were all loose and detached, and only knotted at intervals. I asked Tat the reason of this curious arrangement, and was told that if we were lucky enough to secure a mugger, the loose strands would entangle themselves amongst his formidable teeth, whereas were the rope in one strand only he might bite it through; the knottings at intervals were to give greater strength to the line. We now got our bait ready. On this occasion it was a live tame duck. Passing the bend of the hook round its neck, and the shank under its right wing, we tied the hook in this position with thread. "We then made a small raft of the soft pith of the plantain-tree, tied the duck to the raft and committed it to the stream. Holding the rope as clear of the water as we could, the poor quacking duck floated slowly down the muddy current, making an occasional vain effort to get free. We saw at a distance an ugly snout rise to the surface for an instant and then noiselessly disappear.

"There's one! " says Pat in a whisper.

"Be sure and not strike too soon," says Willie.

"Look out there, you lazy rascals!" This in Hindostanee to the grooms and servants who were with us.

Again the black mass rises to the surface, but this time nearer to the fated duck. As if aware of its peril it now struggles and quacks most vociferously. Nearer and nearer each time the black snout rises, and then each time silently disappears beneath the turgid muddy stream. Now it appears again; this time there are two, and there is another at a distance attracted by the quacking of the duck. We on the bank cower down and go as noiselessly as we can. Sometimes the rope dips on the water, and the huge snout and staring eyes immediately disappear. At length it rises within a few yards of the duck ; then there is a mighty rush, two huge jaws open and shut with a snap like factory shears, and amid a whirl of foam and water and surging mud the poor duck and the hideous reptile disappear, and but for the eddying swirl and dense volumes of mud that rise from the bottom, nothing gives evidence of the tragedy that has been enacted. The other two disappointed monsters swim to and fro still further disturbing the muddy current.

"Give him lots of time to swallow," yells Pat, now fairly mad with excitement.

The grooms and grass-cutters howl and dance. Willie and I dig each other in the ribs; and all generally act in an excited and insane way.

Pat now puts the rope over his shoulder, we all take hold, and with a "one, two, three!" we make a simultaneous rush from the bank, and as the rope suddenly tightens with a pull and strain that nearly jerks us all on our backs, we feel that we have hooked the monster, and our excitement reaches its culminating point.

What a commotion now in the black depths of the muddy stream! The water, lashed by his powerful tail, surges and dashes m eddying whirls. He rises and darts backwards and forwards, snapping his horrible jaws, moving his head from side to side, his eyes glaring with fury. We hold stoutly on to the rope, although our wrists are strained and our arms ache. At length he begins to feel our steady pull, and inch by inch, struggling demoniacally, he nears the bank. When once he reaches it, however, the united efforts of twice our number would fail to bring him farther. Bleeding and foaming at the mouth, his horrid teeth glistening amid the frothy, blood-flecked foam, he plants his strong curved fore-legs against the shelving bank, and tugs and strains at the rope with devilish force and fury. It is no use—the rope has been tested, and answers bravely to the strain; and now with a long boar spear, Pat cautiously descends the bank, and gives him a deadly thrust under the fore arm. With a last fiendish glare of hate and defiance, he springs forward ; we haul in the rope, Pat nimbly jumps back, and a pistol shot through the eye settles the monster for ever. This was the first alligator I ever saw hooked ; he measured sixteen and a half feet exactly, but words can give no idea of half the excitement that attended the capture.


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