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Stilt Fisherman - Sri Lanka's Vanished Tradition

Discover the vanishing tradition of Sri Lanka Stilt Fisherman. Learn about this lost craft and the fishermen's efforts to preserve it. From this article, you'll learn everything you need to know about where to see the Sri Lanka's Stilt Fisherman in 2024.


Sri Lanka's Stilt Fisherman

Stilt fishing is one of Sri Lanka's most well-known crafts. This fishing style began along the southern coast, mainly between the towns of Galle and Weligama. Stilt Fishing was a more affordable alternative to boat fishing, which weren't widely available in the past. Fishermen climb bamboo poles fixed between rocks and on the reef to fish from them. The fisherman would spend a few hours each morning and evening fishing from their stilts, safely from the waves, a couple of dozen meters out in the ocean.


Is Sri Lanka good for photography? Check our gallery with photos from Sri Lanka!


Sri Lanka's Stilt Fisherman

Sri Lanka's Stilt Fisherman Currently

In 2004, tsunami waves destroyed most of the rich reef in the southern part of Sri Lanka, making this location no longer habitable for fish. Due to this unfortunate event, Sri Lanka's Stilt Fishermen not only lost their homes but also the chance to earn money in the future, as there are no more fish in the impacted area.


Along with the reef, the stilt fishing tradition ended because it's now harder to catch anything and no longer profitable for the fishermen to spend hours on the sticks. Most fishermen had to adopt new professions, but a few still cultivate this lost tradition by demonstrating it to tourists.


Sri Lanka's Stilt Fisherman

From what I learned from them, some were fishermen in the past, while others joined the performance for profit. One could say that Sri Lanka's fishermen are staging unrealistic situations as they throw their rods without any hopes of catching anything. However, I found them to be very transparent about it, and by watching how they introduce stilt fishing to the tourists, I could clearly feel that, besides performing for profit, they're preserving this lost craft and demonstrating it to the visitors.


This is completely opposite to the staged photography situations I encountered in Vietnam, where photographers transport items and actors to a suitable location and then create an impossible situation just for the sake of getting a competition worthy picture and earning profit. I wrote more about my thoughts on staged travel photography in the article below.



Sri Lanka's Stilt Fisherman

Where to see Sri Lanka's Stilt Fisherman

You can find stilt fishermen along Sri Lanka's southern coast between the towns of Galle and Weligama. I spent a few days driving along the coast at sunrise, hoping to find locals fishing, but without any luck. As I traveled around, I noticed many places with bamboo stilts, but all of them were empty. Whenever I saw a local on the beach, I also asked for tips to see if they could help me find some real fishermen, but they all told me the same thing: "No fish, no fishermen, only photo fishermen." Hearing this was really disappointing, but also inspiring, as I later thought about how the iconic photographs of Sri Lanka's Stilt Fishermen, taken by Steve McCurry, are now the last remains of this lost tradition.


The other day, I was driving along the same road and noticed a bus with tourists parked on the side of the road. The tourists were taking pictures with the fishermen and climbing the stilts, so I decided to stop and observe the situation. No one bothered me or asked for money. Everyone was smiling, and one of the fishermen even asked me if I wanted to see his rod. The locals were helping the tourists climb the stilts and even carrying them through the rough water. The atmosphere was very positive, and the day was coming to an end with the sunset.


Sri Lanka's Stilt Fisherman

When everyone left, I asked the locals if they would continue fishing so I could photograph them. They agreed to demonstrate their craft, and in return, I had to contribute 3K rupiah for their cause. As the fishermen climbed their stilts, I stepped knee-deep into the water. The sea was very rough that day, and there were moments when the waves splashed over my shoulders and face, with my camera being the only thing standing out above the water.


I found this demonstration to be no different than seeing someone dressed in medieval costume in a European town square, showcasing local traditions. As time passes, traditions and crafts like this one will naturally die out, and soon, there won't be anyone left to even demonstrate Sri Lanka's traditional Stilt Fishing, so it's worth documenting what we can see now.


Sri Lanka's Stilt Fisherman

See our other articles about Sri Lanka

In April 2024, we spent a full month exploring all the natural and cultural sights of Sri Lanka. Staying for such a long time enabled us to gain a deeper understanding of local life and discover many popular as well as overlooked places that Sri Lanka has to offer. Check out our other articles about Sri Lanka and plan your own trip using all the tips and recommendations we've gathered on our blog.



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