Wind, ‘Phum’ and Life on the Loktak Lake: A Photo Essay

During these precarious times of climate change, fishing folks who live on the Loktak Lake of Manipur—known as the “floating lake” for the numerous floating phums (biomass of vegetation, soil and organic matter)—are still trying to uphold their age-old traditions of living by the lake. Wind and the concept of fluidity assumes a larger than life role in the lives of these fisherfolk.  


A lone hut on the floating biomass.

The floating biomass on top of which the fisherfolk of Loktak build their houses—mostly used for the purpose of fishing—is severely affected by the wind. The movement of phum (floating biomass) becomes active during autumn (August to October) in the lake. Phum consists of heterogeneous vegetation, soil and organic matter which are at various stages of decomposition.

 


Phum or floating biomass.

 These months are locally known as “phum ngaoba matam” (season where floating mass goes wild—literal translation). 
“It is both a fruitful and difficult time of the year for the fisherman community of the lake,” said Mani, a 42-year-old boatman in reference to the floating mass moving around. 
 


Fishermen arrange the biomass.

During phum naoba matam, fisherfolk usually look for the best phum for constructing phumsangs. Phum, that is not squelchy is selected and then the mass is cut according to the required size; it is then bound together with the help of strong threads.


A fisherman ties the biomass.

 
Once the phum is ready, a layer of bamboo is placed on it in order to make a stable platform for the hut. Some also put tarpaulin on top of the bamboo platform. 


Bamboo is used to strengthen the biomass.

The phum is then anchored with the help of stones to restrict its movement. This process is known as sangkha-namba. This laborious part of the work often turns into a community affair, as members of the community come together to help. If one is unable to get hold of the neighbours and community members for help, paid labour is usually employed. Particularly, good swimmers are sought, as they have to dive into the water to tie the stones with threads which are later tied up to the phum. When anchoring of the phum is completed, the work is considered to be done, as the hut can be constructed by a single person. The life of a phum spans approximately two years, depending on the number of people who reside on it. When it gets swampy, another piece of phum is pushed under the current one so that it is able to hold the hut along with the old phum.
 


A floating hut on a phum.

In 2011, the Loktak Development Authority (LDA) burnt down more than 200 phumsangs and evacuated people under the pretext of the Manipur Loktak Lake (Protection) Act, 2006. The act covers an area of 236.21 square kilometres (sq km) in which 40 sq km of Keibul Lamjao National Park (the only floating park in the world and home to the endangered Manipur Eld’s deer as well) and 5 sq km of Takmu Fishery Farm will not be included. 70.30 sq km is monitored as Core Zone (no activities are allowed) and remaining area as Buffer Zone (fishing, athaphum, etc are allowed) of 236.21 sq km. Fishing is tax free in the lake. Before the 2011 event of burning down of phumsangs, the construction of a phumsang would consume the same amount of time and energy as constructing a house. Since the LDA intervention, fisherfolk now build phumsangs with bamboo, covering the roof either with hay, tin, or tarpaulin, as they are unsure of their stay on the lake. These makeshift homes now are commonplace on the lake. “Our phumsang was burnt down years back, this hut is just a temporary shelter as we are unsure of how long we will be allowed and we are not ready to see another home of ours to be burnt down,” 37-year-old Landhoni remarked. 

 


A fisherwoman on the phum.

A few of the phumsangs  have vegetable gardens on them. In such gardens, vegetables cannot be cultivated extensively because the phum is made of vegetation and weeds and cannot be cleared out, as the phum would not be able to float. The vegetable gardens which cultivate vegetables meant for sustenance help reduce the journey of the inhabitants to markets on the land. 


Spring onion planted on the floating biomass.

 

Some of the fisherfolk, like Landhoni, also rear livestock, such as ducks or chickens. Landhoni lives by herself on the phum with three cats. Her two children study in Imphal and stay with their grandparents because she did not want her children to be part of this lifestyle. Landhoni wants her children to get educated, get full-time jobs and stay away from the “trouble of fishing and sleepless nights.” 


Ducks wandering around on the floating biomass

 

Fisherfolk who stay in phumsangs follow an old tradition of keeping the insects and snakes away: they pour water left after rinsing the rice around the house. 

While phum-ngaoba-matam creates difficulties for the drivers, these days are also fruitful for the fisherfolk, as they are able to catch more fish. When phum comes up, they carry fish along with their flow and they provide food to fish under their mass. The fisherfolk see the  phum as an embodiment of life. They give shelter to fish and humans at the same time. The fisherfolk who reside outside the lake enjoy catching fish by the shore with their fishing tackle. One of them narrated an incident when someone once caught a fish of around 10 kilogrammes and everyone started to fight over it. 


A fisherman mends a trap for the fish.

Fishing at night is common among the fisherfolk of the lake. In order to aid fishing, a bulb is tied to a bamboo which is stuck in the smaller sized phums. The bulbs are lit with the help of rechargeable batteries, which are made in Myanmar.  
 


Bulbs are set up to attract insects 

After sunset these bulbs are lit up attracting insects. These insects work as bait for the fish. 
 

Another type of aquaculture in the lake is the making of “athaphums.” It is made by cutting the phum into smaller sizes with the help of a saw. These are generally tied for 150 metres and then placed in a circular position.


A view of the athaphum.

"The fisherfolk will usually prefer to place the athaphum in the area where water is deep," explained Ibomcha, a 40-year-old fisherman. It usually requires more than five people to build one. After placing the athaphum, a wide net is placed inside it. It is then left for 15 days undisturbed. Ibomcha further explained that it depended upon the owner to how long they wanted to leave the athaphum before catching the fish. When he has athaphum, he usually waits for a month. While enquiring on other precautions an athaphum owner would take before taking to fishing, he explained that once the circling of athaphum was complete, there was not much to do. The only thing is to provide food for the fish. He uses mainly cooked as well as uncooked rice, and skin of grains (locally known as wairu).  


A fisherman feeds the fish in his athaphum.

Whilst in the lake, one will often hear fisherfolk minding their business with tune in their mouth. “There is no particular folk song for us,” replied Megha when asked about the folk song associated with the fisherfolk. The lake fishing community has a small world of its own, which revolves primarily around the lake. They live to fish and during the season of the wind, it takes them to uncontrolled places. Those journeys constitute a sense of belonging and aid their relationship with the lake and its many constituents. 

Photo Essay by Asem Chanu Manimala Asem Chanu Manimala is an independent researcher who works on Northeast. She is also a part of the Pangsau Collective. This research on Loktak is made possible and is a part of the fellowship she received from Firebird Fellowship for the Documentation of Oral Literature and Traditional Ecological Knowledge to work on the project titled "Littoral Community in Loktak Lake: Precarity and Everyday Life".

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