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 Introduction | The Chank Fishery | The Chank Shell and its Uses | Making Bangles 

The Chank Fishery

In life the heavy white shell of the chank is covered by a thick brown outer coating (periostracum); when the animal's head and crawling foot are retracted, the aperture of the shell is partly closed by the operculum, a flat horny plate attached to the rear end of the foot. The shallow sea between the Tinnevelly district of Tamil Nadu and the opposite coast of Sri Lanka is the main region where chanks are fished. The sea-bed is composed of rocky banks (pars), where pearl oysters live, interspersed with areas of muddy sand (pirals) in which live large populations of various tube-dwelling worms. The chanks congregate on the pirals to feed on the worms, which are their principal food. The chank beds are widely spread at depths of 50 to 60 feet off the Tinnevelly coast, but there are few pirals on the Sri Lanka side. There the fine sands contain little mud, and chanks are not numerous except in a few restricted areas. Although patchy beds extend up to 200 miles north of Madras, attempts by the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department to transplant chanks and start new local commercial fisheries have been unsuccessful.

Chank Boats
Chank fishing canoes, Rameswaram.

Gauging chanks, Tiruchchendur.

2¾ inch gauge, Madras.

D.H. Measuring
The author using a chank gauge (and sporting a chank ring), Madras.

D.H. Measuring
One diver's catch, after grading, Tiruchchendur.

Valampuri and Chank
A 'valampuri' chank and a normal shell, Madras.

In Tamil Nadu the chank fishery season opens around the middle of October and extends to some time in May around Tuticorin and then moves up the coast to Cuddalore and Ramaswaram until July or August. It is very dependent on the weather and the clarity of the sea, so the fishery is likely to move to where the best conditions prevail. The hardness, whiteness and size of the shells varies from place to place; shells of the highest quality are found off Tuticorin and Tiruchchendur. Chank fishing in Tamil Nadu is carried out by divers working from canoes with no more apparatus than a face mask, a diving stone and a nylon rope bag into which the chanks are gathered. In Hornell's time, each canoe had a team of six divers and a helper (thodai), whose job is to bale the canoe, haul up the diving stones after each dive and look after the supply of drinking water. Nowadays the larger canoes carry a crew of 10-12 divers and three or four helpers. In the days when sail and wind was the chief motive power for the boats, the fishermen were very dependent on a favourable breeze from the land to enable the little fleet of 8 or 9 canoes to set sail before sunrise. When catches were good the men would sleep on the sands beside their canoes and set off even earlier at 2 or 3 a.m. If they were becalmed for several days, 'wind wizards' would be brought in to conjure up a change in the weather. Now the Tamil Nadu Government provides motor boats to tow the canoes out to the chank beds. Normally the fishermen have a hot meal before they go and take very little food with them. When they reach the fishing grounds, the canoes drift and the divers descend from time to time to prospect, until a rich bed is found. The canoe is then anchored and the work begins. On reaching the bottom each diver releases his sink stone, which is at once hauled up by his thodai, and swims slowly over the bottom hunting for the brown lump that denotes a chank or for the rut the animal makes when slowly crawling about half buried in the sand. A diver can remain under water for about a minute at a time; he makes about 25 descents, collecting from 0 to 8 shells per dive. The average yield is 100 shells per diver per day. Between 3 and 4 p.m. the canoes head back to the bay, assisted by the sea breeze that usually comes in the afternoon.

On the run home as much flesh as possible is extracted from the shells using a pointed iron rod. This is put into the palm-leaf baskets used for baling the canoes. The animal's viscera are left in the shell to rot out, but the foot and head are carried home to be prepared for food. The operculum is removed and the flesh (chanku-chathai) boiled for a short time before being cut into thin slices and dried in the sun. These may be sold in the bazaar or fried in oil and eaten with rice and curry. "On one occasion I essayed to try this much esteemed food, but my taste was not sufficiently cultivated; the fried slices tasted or rather smelled like frizzled shoe-leather and were altogether too tough for my teeth" (Hornell, p.171). The operculum is not wasted; ground to powder and soaked in water it produces an adhesive matrix for coating incense sticks with powdered sandal-wood and other sweet smelling materials.

Waiting on shore for the returning canoes are the staff of the Chank Fisheries Department, ready to examine, gauge, and count the heaps of shells laid out by each diver, and pay cash on the spot for all acceptable chanks brought in. The gauges used are wooden boards about 7 inches long, including the handle, and 4½ inches wide, surrounding a circular brass-bound aperture. Two sizes of gauge are used, which rest on tripods so that each shell can be placed vertically over the aperture. If it does not pass through the larger gauge (2¾ inches) it is graded as a Class 1 chank (jathi); if it passes through that but not through the smaller gauge (2 3/8 inches) it is graded as a Class 2 chank (patti). Any shells which pass through the second gauge are graded as undersized chanks and confiscated to discourage the divers from bringing immature animals ashore; those still alive are returned to the sea at the end of the day. Any shells which are badly 'worm-eaten' (i.e. extensively attacked by the boring sponge, Clione, which decalcifies the shell material, making it useless for cutting and carving) are also confiscated. The divers argue vociferously with the Fisheries officials over every shell whose size or quality is borderline, and it takes much tact and patience before the grading and payment are agreed. As the Tamil Nadu chank fishery is a State monopoly the price paid for Class 1 and Class 2 shells is negotiated annually. In 1982 the divers received Rs3.50 for each Class 1 shell and Rs2.75 for each Class 2, a considerable increase over the previous year's remuneration of Rs2.60 and Rs2.25 respectively. For a 'wormed' shell they received only 20 paise, and nothing for any immature ones brought in.

The Government sells the entire annual catch of around 40 lakhs (4 million) shells to the West Bengal Handicrafts Development Corporation Limited once a year, but many of the best shells are kept back by the fishermen for private sale. A diver lucky enough to find a 'valampuri' chank is guaranteed 1000 times the standard rate (on average only one or two are found during the fishing season), but he will be tempted to smuggle it out of the State, often to Pondicherry, where it would fetch even more on the open market. Only three had been declared in the two years before our visit. We were shown these, kept in a safe in the Government offices in Madras; although nicely displayed in velvet lined boxes, the odour of decaying chank was still pervasive. The sale of 'valampuri' chanks is advertised and the sealed tenders are all opened on a certain date, the shell going to the highest bidder; in 1982 bids of around 4,000 rupees were expected for a patti specimen and 16,000 rupees for a jathi. It should be noted that whereas we refer to the reversed chank as 'left-handed' or sinistral, the Indians call the 'valampuri' right-handed, because they orient it with the spire downwards and the aperture uppermost and, consequently, on the right side of the shell. In Colombo we saw specimens of the common lightning whelk, Busycon contrarium Conrad, from Florida, which is naturally sinistral, being traded fraudulently as genuine 'valampuri' chank.

Elsewhere the chank fisheries are organized differently. In the Jamnagar district of Gujarat the chanks are not dived for but are taken by licensed collectors during spring tides, when great areas of the shore are exposed at low water. They are of good size and quality and most of the catch is shipped to Calcutta, but there is also a local demand for them as souvenirs by pilgrims visiting the shrines associated with Krishna at Dwarka and on the island of Beyt. Shells from deeper water taken as by-catch by trawlers are sold through agents. Trawling was not practised over the shallower chank beds because of the damage it could do to the essential worm populations and to the spiral egg masses of the chank itself, which are attached to the sea-bed. There is now a worry that the rapidly increasing shrimp and prawn fisheries will cause similar ecological damage. In 1916, Hornell had plans to develop a submarine boat with wheels which would save the divers from having to come to the surface for air and thereby provide a much greater yield of chanks. Unfortunately that idea came at the wrong time, as funding for the Fisheries Department was drastically cut because of the war in Europe.

In Sri Lanka the chank fishing grounds are leased to Moslem merchants who employ local divers, but the greater number of chanks from Sri Lanka are sub-fossil shells of poor quality from the extensive Jaffna lagoon, which is about 24 miles long. The chank collectors wade in, armed with an iron probe and a hooked pole. They probe with the pointed rod until they strike against a chank and bring the empty shell to the surface by dextrous use of the hook on the pole. Because of the political troubles, we were not permitted to visit the Jaffna peninsula during our visit and so we do not know to what extent the Jaffna chank fishery has been affected by the civil war. Since Independence India has not imported chanks from Sri Lanka. The trade appears to be entirely with Bangladesh, where the chank does not occur and cannot be imported from India. Both the Gulf of Mannar and the coast of Gujarat were known in antiquity for their pearl fisheries, and there was considerable trade with the Arab countries and Egypt. The chank and pearl-oyster are usually associated in Indian waters, the chanks living on the sandy stretches between the rocky areas which form the habitat of the pearl-oyster. The same divers are employed for both fisheries, so that in years when a pearl fishery is authorized by the Government there is no chank fishery. The pearl fishery may seem more glamorous, but there have been very few years with a pearl fishery since the second World War, and it is the chank which provides a steady source of revenue.

 Introduction | The Chank Fishery | The Chank Shell and its Uses | Making Bangles 

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