Winter is Coming, and so are the Hilsa

Europeans and North Americans have their Salmon. South Asians have their Hilsa (as the fish is known to English-speaking Indians), or to be more precise, Ilish (Assamese, Odiya and Bengali), Pulasa (Telugu), Ullam (Tamil), Valava (Malayalam), Polasa (Kannada), Palva (Marathi and Gujarati), and Pallo (Sindhi and Punjabi). Farther afield, the fish is known as Ngathalauk in Myanmar, and Sabur in Iran and Iraq.

This anadromous (fish that migrate upriver, from salt water to fresh water, in order to breed) species is common in the northern half of the Indian Ocean, in a belt stretching from Kuwait in the West to Vietnam in the East. And in many of these countries, it is considered a delicacy on account of its rich, oily flesh. Hilsa were and are harvested in large quantities every winter as they make their way to spawning grounds (in rivers feeding the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal).

This happens mostly in the aftermath of the Southwest Monsoon (from July to September). The adults are filter-feeders, surviving on a diet of plankton which they capture using their gill rakers. Their scientific name is Tenualosa ilisha and they are members of the genus Tenualosa which has a total of five recognized species (Tenualosa macruraTenualosa reevesiiTenualosa thibaudeaui, and Tenualosa toli apart from the Hilsa). They are called ‘Shad’ or ‘Herring’ and are members of the herring family (Clupeidae).

The Clupeidae are a very important food fish, renowned for their oily flesh that is consumed by humans, fed to livestock (as protein supplements) and turned into fertilizer. The family is distinguished by its appearance (fusiform bodies covered by shiny scales) and habits (shoaling in large numbers to catch plankton and evade larger oceanic predators). Among the Hilsa’s distant cousins are such famous species as the Pacific Herring (Clupea pallasii), the Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus), the Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) and the European Pilchard (Sardina pilchardus).

My people, the Telugus of South India, love their fish as much as any people with a maritime culture. And they too value the Pulasa (the Telugu name for the fish). Telugu fishermen wait for the adult fish to ascend the Krishna and the Godavari (the two great rivers of Telugu country) after the monsoons. The catch (increasingly rare, on account of over-fishing, pollution and the construction of dams across rivers used by the Hilsa for spawning) is sold at exorbitant prices (upto Rs. 4,000 per kg, compared to a kg of silver coming at Rs. 40,000) to star hotels and wealthy buyers.

‘Pulasa Pulusu’ is a Telugu specialty involving slow-cooking the fish with okra, tamarind juice, mango pickle and jaggery into a delectable curry. However, even the Telugus are nothing compared to their northern neighbors, the Bengalis (of West Bengal and Bangladesh) when it comes to elevating its preparation to an art form. Hilsa has become a cultural symbol of the Bengali nation. It is to be found not only in their ritual offerings and festival platters but also in their folktales and news reports. Such is the demand for Ilish among the Bengalis that a sizable amount of the fish caught in Andhra Pradesh are sent to Kolkata.

Given below is an excerpt from The Hindu newspaper’s article on Telugu fishermen preparing for the arrival of the fish (‘As winter sets in, Hilsa begins migration to Krishna’), dated November 6, 2017:

As the winter has just begun, the famed Hilsa Ilisa fish has started migration from Bay of Bengal to river Krishna, leaving the local fishermen to run after it. The Hilsa’s population is abundant in the Godavari during the early monsoon. Sensing that the Hilsa has started the annual migration to the confluence point of river Krishna into Bay of Bengal, the fisherfolk have intensified their search for the prized catch on the engine boats. Eelachetladibba, an island near the Krishna confluence point in Nagayalanka mandal, has become the prime destination to catch the Hilsa. Venturing into the sea, the local fishermen have been celebrating the day’s catch of Hilsa since one week at the river confluence point, despite they were being forced to wait to get it in their nets. The present price of the Hilsa is between Rs. 400 and Rs. 500 per kilogram in Krishna district, from where it is being exported to West Bengal.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows an illustration of the Hilsa from the ‘The Fishes of India, Vol 2’ by Francis Day (1829-1889). Day, an army surgeon posted in the Madras Presidency played a pioneering role in South Asian ichthyology, describing more than three hundred fishes in a two volume work – The Fishes of India. The image is dated to 1878.


(This article was originally published in Keshav Vivek’s blog “Man Without a Past” on November 06, 2017.)

Keshav Vivek

Blogger and academic who explores South Indian history from a Dravidian perspective.