The women sea divers of Rameswaram

[India] Did you know where the agar-agar in your favourite dessert comes from? The answer lies in Rameswaram, where we join women divers on their quest for seaweed.

“I’m going to the deep end,” says R Devi, and disappears with a glug into the shallow waters of the Bay of Bengal. Suddenly, I am left standing alone, facing the unending blue. In the minutes I spend in the knee-deep water of the sea off Akkalmadam hamlet in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, all what Devi told me minutes ago comes rushing back: “It is risky business, but we do it because we know nothing else.” She is talking about collecting seaweed.

Used for making agar-agar, the marikolundhu variety is sought after, and the women of Rameswaram go to great lengths to collect a sackful, which will probably end up in a bowl of payasam hundreds of kilometres away.

R Devi, M Nambeeswari, and M Muthukarupaayi from Chinnapalam village, reach Akkalmadam by 7.30 am that humid day, armed with sacks and goggles. They pull T-shirts over their saris, slip on the goggles, tuck their hair into buns, and secure a sack each around their hips like capes. Then comes their most important accessory: gloves made of old bits of cloth.

“We can’t go in without these,” Nambeeswari explains, folding a small length of cloth over a finger and securing it with rubber bands. She has one for each finger. “This will protect us from sharp rocks underwater. Rubber gloves won’t work because they tend to tear. This is more economical and practical.”

The women casually march into the water — the sea bed is lined with slippery coral; this is their workplace for the next two hours. They will scour underwater for seaweed, some varieties of which are also used in the pharmaceutical industry and to make fabric dyes.

“We work here for three months a year, and the remaining nine months, we dive off the islands that surround Chinnapalam,” explains M Lakshmi, also from the village, watching the women from the shore, her eyes narrowed. In 2015, Lakshmi won the Seacology Prize at Berkeley for bringing together the women seaweed collectors in her village and coming up with an undertaking that they will collect it for only 12 days a month. “This will give the paasi (seaweed) a chance to thrive; we do not want to wipe away a precious resource. Rather, we want to protect it.”

Chinnapalam has around 350 families, all of which are engaged in fishing or its allied activities. The women collect seaweed and sell them to a unit in their village, which in turn supplies to a bigger agar-agar unit in Madurai. “We’ve been doing this for five generations now,” says Lakshmi. “It started during my grandmother’s time,” recalls the 50-year-old. “They sailed on a small vatha (catamaran) to the islands nearby — there are around 21 from Thoothukudi to Dhanushkodi — and camped there for a week or so.”

While the men went fishing, the women collected seaweed. “We took our children along, cooked and slept there. We came back once we got a considerable amount.” Today, though, the islands Lakshmi is talking about are protected as the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park. “We now work there for short spans unlike in the past,” she explains. “It’s not easy to get access since the islands are under the control of the Forest Department.”

Just then, the women walk back with their catch: Nambeeswari pulls out a tuft of marikolundhu from her sack — dirt green, it looks like crinkled leaves. “We didn’t get much today,” says the 40-year-old. But she’s calling it a day. “There’s cooking to be done at home.” Agar-agar or kadal paasi, as it is known in Tamil, is ironically not part of the local cuisine. “I rarely use it; it’s too expensive,” says Devi, removing her gloves. “But when I do get a packet, I make halwa with coconut milk as the base. It’s delicious.”

The women will now head back home and sun-dry the seaweed for a day. A kilogram of dried seaweed fetches them ₹50. “We give it to the dealer in Chinnapalam,” explains Lakshmi. As we prepare to leave, the photographer asks the women to pose for one last photo by the water.

The three of them, their clothes and hair dripping wet, and sand sticking to their feet, look at the camera with tired, red eyes that result from long exposure to the sea water and salty breeze. These are the eyes of a fisherman after a long day. The image brings a smile to my face — truth be told, I travelled over 500 kilometres to see this. For, it is impossible to see women at sea anywhere else in Tamil Nadu.

 

Photo:L Balachandar

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