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The Ancient Tradition Of Stilt Fishing In Galle, Sri Lanka


by Simonette Janson



Sri Lanka, with its rich cultural heritage and breathtaking natural beauty, is a country that never fails to captivate travelers. From pristine beaches to lush tea plantations, this island paradise offers a multitude of attractions. One unique cultural experience that visitors can immerse themselves in is the ancient tradition of stilt fishing in Galle.


Stilt fishing is a traditional fishing method that has been practiced for generations along the southern coast of Sri Lanka. It is a visually striking spectacle, with fishermen perched on wooden stilts, clinging to them as they cast their lines into the turquoise waters below. This ancient technique is not only a means of livelihood but also a significant part of the local culture and heritage.


The history of stilt fishing dates back decades, with its origins believed to lie in post-World War II times when food scarcity led fishermen to search for innovative ways to catch fish. The practice gained popularity in the southern region of Sri Lanka, particularly in Galle, where the shallow waters and rocky coastline provided the ideal conditions for this unique fishing method.


The skill and dexterity required for stilt fishing cannot be understated. Balancing on a narrow beam attached to a wooden pole requires immense concentration and expertise. The fishermen have fine-tuned their techniques over the years, ensuring that they maintain their balance while skillfully maneuvering their fishing rod.


Stilt fishing is not just a means of catching fish; it is deeply intertwined with the local culture and is considered a symbol of pride for the fishing communities. The fishermen often pass down this tradition from generation to generation, with fathers teaching their sons the art of stilt fishing. It is a way for them to connect with their roots and preserve a heritage that is slowly fading away.


While stilt fishing can be found in various locations along the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Galle is renowned for being one of the best places to observe this ancient tradition. The stunning backdrop of the historic Galle Fort adds to the charm of the experience, with the fishermen silhouetted against the setting sun, creating a picture-perfect scene that mesmerizes visitors.


In the next sections, we will delve into the history, technique, cultural significance, challenges, and conservation efforts related to stilt fishing in Galle, Sri Lanka. Join us as we explore this fascinating tradition and uncover the secrets of this centuries-old practice.


History of Stilt Fishing

The origins of stilt fishing can be traced back to the post-World War II era in Sri Lanka. With the country facing food shortages at the time, fishermen began searching for innovative ways to continue their livelihoods and provide for their families. It was during this time that stilt fishing emerged as a unique fishing technique along the southern coast of Sri Lanka.


In the early days, stilt fishing was primarily practiced in the coastal areas of Galle, where the location offered favorable conditions for this method. The shallow waters and rocky coastline provided a natural environment suitable for the construction of stilt structures.


The early stilt fishermen faced numerous challenges as they honed their skills and techniques. They had to contend with the unpredictable nature of the sea, balancing precariously on the wooden stilts while trying to catch fish. It was a test of strength, concentration, and determination.


Over time, stilt fishing gained popularity in the region, becoming not just a means of survival but also a cultural tradition. It was passed down from generation to generation, with fathers teaching their sons the art of stilt fishing as a way of preserving their heritage.


During the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, some stilt structures were destroyed, and many fishermen lost their equipment. This natural disaster dealt a significant blow to the stilt fishing communities, but they rallied together to rebuild their livelihoods and keep the tradition alive.


Today, stilt fishing is not as prevalent as it once was, and the number of active stilt fishermen has decreased. Factors such as changing economic conditions, declining fish populations, and the rise of more efficient fishing methods have contributed to the decline of stilt fishing as a primary means of livelihood. However, efforts are being made to preserve this ancient tradition and promote it as a cultural attraction for tourists.


Despite the challenges, stilt fishing remains an important part of Sri Lanka’s fishing heritage. It serves as a reminder of the resourcefulness and resilience of the fishing communities that have relied on the sea for their sustenance for centuries. Through the practice of stilt fishing, these communities pay homage to their ancestors and keep their cultural heritage alive.


In the following sections, we will explore the location, technique, cultural significance, challenges, and conservation efforts related to stilt fishing in Galle, Sri Lanka. Let us delve deeper into this remarkable tradition and discover the intricacies of stilt fishing along the southern coast of Sri Lanka.


Location of Stilt Fishing

Galle, located along the southern coast of Sri Lanka, is one of the prominent locations where stilt fishing can be observed. The historic city is renowned for its ancient traditions and picturesque landscapes, making it an ideal destination to witness this unique fishing method.


Within Galle, the best place to see stilt fishing is along the coast of Koggala and Ahangama, which are just a short distance from the city center. These areas offer the perfect conditions for stilt fishing, with rocky outcrops and shallow waters creating the ideal habitat for fish.


When visiting Galle, tourists can venture out to Koggala and Ahangama to witness stilt fishing firsthand. The best time to see the stilt fishermen in action is during the early morning hours or late afternoon, as they head out to sea to catch fish. The rising or setting sun adds to the ethereal beauty of the scene, with the fishermen perched on their stilts against the backdrop of the glistening ocean.


As one explores the coast of Koggala and Ahangama, it is common to come across several clusters of stilt structures. These structures are made from sturdy wooden poles that are driven into the sea floor, providing a stable platform for the fishermen to perch on. The stilts are typically positioned in shallow waters, allowing the fishermen to wade out to their designated spots.


The choice of stilt fishing locations is influenced by various factors, including the abundance of fish in the area and the accessibility of the site. Stilt fishermen have intricate knowledge of the sea and its patterns, enabling them to select the most promising spots for their fishing expeditions.


While Galle is one of the most popular places to witness stilt fishing, the tradition can also be found in other coastal areas of Sri Lanka, such as Weligama and Mirissa. These locations offer their own unique charm and a glimpse into the cultural heritage of stilt fishing.


As visitors watch the stilt fishermen skillfully maneuver their fishing rods while maintaining their balance on the stilts, they can appreciate the harmony between human skill and the natural environment. It is a testament to the resilience of the fishing communities and their deep connection with the sea.


In the upcoming sections, we will explore the technique of stilt fishing, its cultural significance, the challenges faced by stilt fishermen, and the conservation efforts being made to preserve this ancient tradition. Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of stilt fishing in Galle, Sri Lanka.


Technique of Stilt Fishing

The technique of stilt fishing is an art that requires patience, skill, and a deep understanding of the sea. The stilt fishermen of Galle have perfected this technique over generations, ensuring a bountiful catch while perched on their elevated platforms.


Before heading out to sea, the stilt fishermen carefully select their spot along the coast. They seek areas with rocky outcrops and shallow waters, as they provide an ideal habitat for fish. Once they have chosen their location, they wade out into the water until they reach a suitable depth.


The stilts used in stilt fishing are long and sturdy poles made of wood, driven securely into the sea floor. The fishermen carefully balance on a narrow beam attached to the stilt, maintaining their stability as they cast their lines into the water below.


As the fishermen prepare to cast their lines, they hold their fishing rods with precision. The rod is extended out, and a baited hook is carefully lowered into the water, just above where the fish are expected to be. The fishermen rely on their experience and intuition to determine the best spots for fishing.


Once the line is cast, the fishermen wait patiently, keeping a keen eye on any movement or nibbles that indicate a potential catch. Timing is essential – they must judge the right moment to pull the line and secure the fish on the hook. A swift and accurate reaction is necessary to prevent the fish from escaping.


The balancing act on the stilts requires utmost concentration. The stilt fishermen must maintain their equilibrium while skillfully manipulating the fishing rod. It takes years of practice to master the art of stilt fishing and develop the muscle memory needed to navigate the challenging terrain.


Stilt fishing is often a solitary activity, with each fisherman occupying his own stilt structure. They maintain a respectful distance from one another, allowing each fisherman their dedicated fishing space. This practice ensures that everyone has an opportunity to catch fish and prevents any disruption or interference with others’ lines.


While stilt fishing is traditionally done during the day, the stilt fishermen of Galle also engage in nighttime fishing. They use lanterns or torches to attract fish closer to their fishing lines. The darkness adds an element of mystique to the already captivating spectacle of stilt fishing.


The technique of stilt fishing is not only a means of catching fish but also a way for the fishermen to connect with their cultural heritage. It is a demonstration of their resourcefulness and adaptability in utilizing the natural resources available to them.


Next, we will explore the cultural significance of stilt fishing in Galle and the profound impact it has on the local communities. Join us as we discover the cultural heritage associated with this ancient tradition.


Cultural Significance of Stilt Fishing

Stilt fishing holds great cultural significance in Galle and is deeply ingrained in the identity of the fishing communities. It is not just a means of livelihood but also a symbol of pride, heritage, and resilience.


Stilt fishing is a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, with fathers teaching their sons the art and techniques of this unique fishing method. Through this practice, the fishing communities connect with their ancestors and preserve their cultural heritage.


The fishermen view stilt fishing as a way of honoring their forefathers, who relied on the sea for their survival. It is a tribute to the resilience and ingenuity of their ancestors, who found innovative ways to overcome challenges and provide for their families.


Beyond its practicality, stilt fishing has become a source of pride for the fishing communities. It sets them apart and distinguishes them from other fishing methods. The skill and precision required to balance on the stilts while casting their lines demonstrate the expertise and dedication of these fishermen.


Stilt fishing has also become a cultural attraction for tourists visiting Galle. Travelers are drawn to the unique spectacle of fishermen perched on stilts against the backdrop of the sea. They witness firsthand the harmony between humans and nature, as the fishermen rely on their intuition and mastery to catch fish.


The cultural significance of stilt fishing is also reflected in the folklore and stories passed down through generations. These tales recount the experiences of the fishermen and the challenges they faced while out at sea. They serve as a reminder of the deep connection between the fishing communities and the ocean.


The practice of stilt fishing has not only survived but thrived due to the cultural attachment and pride associated with it. Fishermen take great pride in their roles as guardians of this ancient tradition, ensuring that it endures for future generations.


As tourism has grown in Galle, so too has the cultural significance of stilt fishing. Local communities have embraced this unique aspect of their heritage and have started to organize demonstrations and performances for visitors, providing an immersive experience and a deeper understanding of the tradition.


Stilt fishing has become an emblematic representation of the coastal culture of Galle. It encapsulates the spirit of the fishing communities and their deep connection to the sea. The preservation and promotion of stilt fishing not only safeguard the cultural heritage but also contribute to the sustainable development of the region.


In the following sections, we will delve into the challenges facing stilt fishing in Galle and the conservation efforts being made to ensure the survival of this ancient tradition. Join us as we explore the path towards preserving this cultural treasure.


Challenges and Threats to Stilt Fishing

Despite its cultural significance and historical roots, stilt fishing in Galle faces numerous challenges and threats that jeopardize its existence. These challenges pose significant obstacles to the sustainability of this ancient tradition.


One of the primary challenges is the depletion of fish stocks. Overfishing, destructive fishing practices, and a decline in marine biodiversity have significantly impacted the availability of fish along the southern coast of Sri Lanka. With fewer fish to catch, stilt fishermen struggle to maintain their livelihoods and keep the tradition alive.


The rise of modern fishing techniques and equipment has also contributed to the decline of stilt fishing. More efficient methods allow fishermen to catch larger quantities of fish with less effort. This has created a shift in fishing practices, with many opting for these modern methods over the traditional stilt fishing technique.


Economic factors also play a role in the diminishing viability of stilt fishing. As the cost of living increases and alternative job opportunities become available, younger generations are less inclined to continue the tradition. The allure of higher wages and more stable employment elsewhere often leads to a decline in the number of active stilt fishermen.


The impacts of climate change also pose a threat to stilt fishing. Rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, and changes in ocean currents all affect the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem. These environmental shifts can disrupt fish populations and further decrease the available catch for stilt fishermen.


Commercial development along the coast is another challenge that stilt fishing faces. The construction of resorts, hotels, and other infrastructures can encroach on the traditional fishing grounds, limiting access to these areas for stilt fishermen. This encroachment disrupts their fishing practices and forces them to search for new fishing spots.


Furthermore, the increase in tourism and the demand for stilt fishing experiences have created a potential threat to the authenticity and sustainability of the tradition. Some fishermen may feel pressured to perform for tourists, compromising the integrity of the practice and its cultural significance.


Overall, these challenges and threats present a complex web of issues that need to be addressed to ensure the preservation of stilt fishing in Galle. Efforts must be made to address overfishing, promote sustainable fishing practices, and preserve the coastal ecosystems that support the diverse marine life.


Additionally, there is a need for community empowerment and economic incentives to encourage younger generations to sustain the tradition. Education and awareness programs can also play a vital role in conveying the cultural significance of stilt fishing and garnering support from the broader community.


In the next section, we will explore the conservation efforts and initiatives that have been undertaken to protect and promote stilt fishing in Galle. Join us as we delve into the solutions and approaches to preserving this ancient tradition.


Conservation Efforts for Stilt Fishing

Recognizing the cultural and historical significance of stilt fishing in Galle, several conservation efforts have been initiated to protect and promote this ancient tradition.


Government agencies, non-profit organizations, and local communities have come together to address the challenges facing stilt fishing and to ensure its sustainability for future generations.


One significant conservation effort is the implementation of regulations and fishing restrictions to prevent overfishing and promote sustainable practices. Guidelines have been established to govern the size and quantity of fish that can be caught, as well as the use of certain fishing equipment. These measures aim to preserve fish stocks and maintain a balance in the marine ecosystem.


Educational programs and workshops have been organized to raise awareness about the importance of stilt fishing and its cultural value. These initiatives target both local communities and tourists, emphasizing the need to support and preserve this tradition. By fostering understanding and appreciation, it is hoped that stilt fishing will be valued and sustained.


Community empowerment plays a crucial role in the conservation of stilt fishing. Efforts have been made to provide economic support and alternative livelihood opportunities to stilt fishermen. Microfinance schemes and small business initiatives are introduced to enable fishermen to diversify their income and reduce their dependence solely on stilt fishing.


Collaborations between stilt fishermen and the tourism industry have been established to develop responsible and sustainable tourism practices. This includes organizing guided tours and demonstrations that showcase the art of stilt fishing while ensuring that the activity is carried out in an environmentally-friendly manner. It also encourages tourists to engage with the local communities, fostering cultural exchange and economic support.


Research and monitoring initiatives are conducted to gather data on fish populations, habitat conditions, and ecological changes. This information helps inform conservation strategies and allows for evidence-based decision-making. By understanding the dynamics of the marine environment, stakeholders can develop targeted conservation measures that benefit both the fish and the stilt fishing communities.


International collaborations and partnerships have also played a role in the conservation efforts for stilt fishing. Organizations from around the world provide funding, technical expertise, and knowledge sharing to support the conservation initiatives in Galle. This global support serves to amplify the local conservation efforts and ensure a coordinated and holistic approach.


Preserving the cultural heritage of stilt fishing requires a multi-faceted approach that encompasses environmental, social, and economic aspects. By addressing the challenges and implementing conservation measures, stilt fishing can thrive as a sustainable and culturally significant practice.


As we conclude our exploration of stilt fishing in Galle, it is important to remember that the preservation of this ancient tradition is not just about the fish caught on the lines, but also about the intangible heritage it represents. By valuing and safeguarding stilt fishing, we honor the centuries-old connection between humans and the sea, fostering a sustainable future for both the fishing communities and the marine ecosystem.



The ancient tradition of stilt fishing in Galle, Sri Lanka, is a remarkable cultural practice that has stood the test of time. From its humble origins as a means of survival to its status as a symbol of cultural pride, stilt fishing holds a unique place in the hearts and minds of the local fishing communities.


Throughout history, stilt fishing has faced numerous challenges and threats, ranging from declining fish stocks to the rise of modern fishing techniques. However, through concerted conservation efforts and a deep commitment to preserving their cultural heritage, the stilt fishing communities of Galle have taken significant strides to ensure the survival of this ancient tradition.


Government regulations, educational programs, and community empowerment initiatives have contributed to the protection and promotion of stilt fishing. By emphasizing sustainable fishing practices, raising awareness about the cultural significance, fostering responsible tourism, and providing alternative livelihood opportunities, stakeholders are actively working to ensure a bright future for stilt fishing in Galle.


As we reflect on the intricacies of stilt fishing – the delicate balance on the stilts, the precision in casting lines, and the sense of kinship with the sea – we are reminded of the resilience and resourcefulness of the fishing communities. Stilt fishing is not just about catching fish; it is a connection to the past, a celebration of a way of life, and a testament to the enduring bond between humans and the ocean.


Visitors to Galle are privileged to witness this ancient tradition firsthand, to marvel at the skill and artistry of the stilt fishermen, and to be a part of the continued conservation efforts. By supporting and embracing stilt fishing, we contribute to the preservation of the cultural heritage, the sustainability of the fishing communities, and the protection of the precious marine ecosystem.


As we bid farewell to the breathtaking shores of Galle, let us carry with us the memories of stilt fishing – an age-old tradition that captures the spirit of humanity’s deep-rooted connection to nature. Let us honor and cherish this remarkable practice, recognizing its significance and playing our part in safeguarding it for the generations to come.