This post is inevitable really. You’ll know what I mean instantly if you’re Goan. Impossible to live here and ignore the Fish!
Fish is to Goans what air is to us other lesser mortals (I’m including myself here, coz I’m Goan only by birth…in all other ways, I’m anything but! Much to my family’s distress and my infinite relief ;-))! For the uninitiated (read lesser mortals), Goans LIVE for fish! I’m pretty sure they would kill for it if the need arose and most would die without it! A life without fish is no life at all for a Goan, you understand! [Alcohol is another substance that arouses similar passion! Ahem! I must confess to being Goan in this way ;-)] You’re laughing??! Don’t. Fish is no laughing matter here people. Fish is serious business. One glance at the fat, prosperous fisherwomen (Strangely, very few men actually sell fish. They’re the ones who go out and catch it!), with their arms weighted in gold bangles and their ear lobes stretched to tearing-point from the heaviness of their solid gold earrings, will tell you that there is serious money to be made here.
Everyone eats fish in Goa. It cuts across caste, class and religious barriers and every Goan worth his salt swears by that staple food combination that has sustained us, evidently since Vedic times – the humble ‘fish-curry& rice’. Even today, many Goans are reluctant to leave their home State for distant shores, for fear of dying from ‘fish-deprivation’ and resultant starvation 😉 I’m NOT kidding!! As I said, fish cuts across caste barriers in Goa. So although Brahmins elsewhere in India are traditionally vegetarians (for the most part), the Goud Saraswat Brahmins (GSBs for short) of Goa are an exception to this ancient rule. But like everything else in Hinduism, exceptions require justification and explanation, so everyone involved can feel good about breaking rules while escaping ‘sinner’ status and so assured of their place in Heaven!
This is a story about how us Goan GSBs, defied tradition, became fish-eaters and in doing so became one of a rare breed – the meat-eating Brahmin communities of India. Here it is, in the words of my uncle, who has interesting opinions (as you’ll see!), and who shares my fascination and interest in Hindu Mythology 🙂 I’ve kept my editing to a bare minimum.
The Pomfret Story
Once upon a time there lived a tribe of people whose job was to study and learn stuff about the universe. This was the tribe of Brahmins. Many of them stayed and studied on the banks of the river Saraswati (a mythical river, named after the Goddess of Knowledge, which forms the sacred trinity of holy Hindu rivers along with the Ganga & the Yamuna). There is no physical evidence that such a river ever existed and naturally none is needed for the faithful 😉 This sub-tribe of Brahmins was called ‘Saraswat Brahmins’ or SBs.
Over time, there was famine and the fertile riverbanks became barren, whether from natural causes like floods and over-farming or due to some God’s anger, it’s hard to tell. So far the Brahmins had remained true vegetarians, shunning all foods that could run, fly and swim. As times became harder however, they realized they would have to migrate or break their ancient rule of vegetarianism to stay alive. They were intelligent, learned scholars, who probably loved where they lived and so according to my uncle used their considerable knowledge of genetic engineering (he’s an engineer himself), to solve their problem in the unique fashion described below!
Step I – Catch plenty of fish from the river. The fish were evidently unaffected by the famine and were rather large.
Step II – Cut said fish into 3 parts: Head, Body, Tail. (see attached diagram)
Step III – Eat the body while exclaiming “Ooooooooh!! I’m saved! & Whoa! That tastes awesome :)” (my contribution). A change in name seemed indicated with the change in diet and they were now called GSBs or ‘fish-eating’ Brahmins. (Name-changing is an ancient hobby with us Indians and we follow it faithfully to this day, changing names of roads, towns and cities at the drop of a hat or rather the whim of a politician!)
Step IV – Connect the remaining parts together, the head to the tail to create a body-less fish, with afore-mentioned engineering skills or perhaps they were just skilled in the black arts (I favor the latter!).
Step V – Breathe life into the newly created fish and release it back into the river (This is why I favor the black magic theory!), hence escaping the ‘sin’ of committing murder, replenishing food stores & enabling self to retain the Brahmin title and status (possibly the only thing more important than the delicious taste of that fish :P), all in one brilliant master-stroke of genius (Did I mention they were really smart?)! I include a second illustration of the new species of fish thus created all those millennia ago and enjoyed with relish to this day – the Pomfret!
Step VI – (I made this up but it’s not too far from the truth :P) Bask in glory of having escaped starvation, Hell and creating a new species, by vowing never to eat another vegetable for as long as they live!! (Don’t scoff! Thoroughbred Goans like hubby, do not consider vegetables an essential part of their diet! Any mention draws looks of incredulous consternation!)
Moral of the Story – If you’re an intelligent Brahmin, you’ll eat fish 😉 (That’s the Goan interpretation, don’t sue me! I just tell it like it is :P)
The intelligent Brahmins however could stave off famine for only so long. Eventually the river itself dried up (not hard to do when you’re a myth in the first place!) and they had to migrate. They traveled to Kashmir in the north (where they became the Kashmiri Pundits), to Bengal in the east, and to Goa in the west, thus establishing the three major meat-eating Brahmin communities in India!
And that people, is the end of this story 🙂 Fascinating huh?
So as you can see we Goans have a special relationship with our fish. We love them, revere them and are eternally grateful for their sacrifice in keeping us alive 😉 They are therefore we are!
Enough said 😉 Happy Monday People 🙂
23 thoughts on “Monday Musings…A Fishy Story!”
Sounds like the Maritimes where I live…generations of families have survived by fishing (although lumber and farming were also big). Salmon, cod, bass, and a little fish called gaspereau (a kind of herring, I think) are the most common ones. Seafood is huge here: lobsters, scallops, shrimp, clams, and mussels are very popular. There’s nothing better than a seafood chowder!
I can see you know your Fish! You would be welcomed into Goan homes and fed copious amounts of curry and fried fish 🙂 We cook our fish in many ways, most involve coconut, but fried fish (after marinating in tumeric, chilli powder and salt) is a favorite! Prawns, king fish, sardines, mackerel, clams, oysters, mussels, pomfrets, snapper, eel…we have them all and more! Goans don’t understand & I think distrust people who dislike fish! I’m a misfit!
p.s. Did you like your BIG prize? 😉
Great! You really added excellent mirch-massaalaa! I hope people really try the experiment of printing the big fish and then folding/cutting it along the dotted lines and then ‘pomfret’tising it. Wait! I will try it myself!
Glad you liked it 🙂 How goes the pomfretising??!
Don’t forget the bengaless (as I), we can smell fish from afar. We too swear by our “maach bhat”. And I wouldn’t spare the head or the tail either.
I can dream of deep fried rui and eelish and drool till kingdom come.
I haven’t forgotten them!! Bengalis and Goans are soul mates as far as fish is concerned!! I just find this whole fish craze inexplicable but then I’m an aberration…born Goan, live in Goa and dislike fish!! My soul is damned 😉
The links between the bongs are goans are more than fishy. Both tribes have a habit of converting the vowel that ends a word (particularly, in a name) to an ‘o’. Example: Upendro (B) and Dempo (G). Goans use the words ‘cadeira’ and ‘janela’ for ‘chair’ and ‘window’. I am told that there are similar words for ‘chair’ and ‘window’ in the Bong-lang. Is that true? If so, is there a Portuguese link?
Have asked Pushpa about the bong words and they do use both! Cadeira refers to a stool and janala to a window. As for the Portuguese influence – maybe! Further research required 🙂
(1) We are Both on The Sea Coast Our Staple being Rice, Fish & Coconut
(2) The Term Gaud or Gowd could be derived from the Ancient area of what is now called Bihar, Bengal….
Saraswat is derived from The Now Defunct River Saraswati “Indus /Saraswati Valley”
Thanks for stopping by Sharat 🙂 Yes, I’ve read about the origins of the GSB…fascinating stuff. Interesting that The River Saraswati figures so prominently in Amish’s Shiva Trilogy!
I’m fascinated, Harsha. The Brahmins sound like a very interesting tribe, and you described the story well. I’m not a fish eater, but I love a good fish story. 😉
Thanks Maura! Brahmins are indeed interesting creatures and the Goan GSB community has it’s own idiosyncracies. I would love to do a post (a sort of insider’s view, coz I belong to it too!), but the fear of excommunication has held me in check…not for long though 😉
Have a great week ahead!
I enjoyed your story Harshatai! I also enjoyed the irony of posting it on Monday, the day where many, many Goans eschew the fish we so love!! 🙂
Thanks Pooja! Are you a fish-lover too? Me, not so much 😛
The irony didn’t strike me until first a cousin and now you mentioned it! But now I’m like…yeah read it and weep people 😉
Ooommppphhhh…….you let my taste-buds go in all the directions…..amazing research on the story, though….now, I can proudly tell all those abt it who always teased me and raised questions abt my being a so-called-fish-eater-brahmin….
The credit for the story goes to my uncle 🙂 Oh you have those too?? I’ve had a few eyebrows raised too when I mention that I’m from a fish-eating Brahmin community; unsurprisingly only from some ultra-conservative Brahmins 😉 Like I care! And I don’t even like fish 😛
Harsha, your blog was good. I shall send to you my own fish article that was published in 2008. Another point, river Saraswati is supposed to have disappeared due to a series of earth-quakes that changed paths of its ground-water resources and became subterranian. Rest is mythological interpretation.
Thanks Kali! Look forward to reading your article. I thought the river itself was myth…at least that’s what I understood from reading Empires of the Indus. You should read that book…interesting stuff!
Thanks for stopping by Elton! Glad you found it interesting! Are you Goan or a fish-lover or both?!
A part of Goa GSBs who migrated to southern parts of coastal Goa due to Portugal invasion in 18th century didn’t eat fish or meat probably due to teachings / influence of Madhwacharya ,mostly in and around Udupi whereas others at Kerala and north Kanara still accustomed to eat fish even today.
Thanks. Really enjoyed this writing. It made me smile many times. LOL I had known much of the mythology of the Saraswat Brahmins and how they came to eat fish but had never heard the interesting take on how they brought life to a new species. 🙂
Thank you Steve!
Glad you enjoyed reading our story 🙂 Sorry for the long delay in this reply…have been travelling and am now in the middle of moving cities!! Did I mention I have a 5-yr-old who is on vacation at the moment??!! Yup…the cup runneth over…and not in a comforting, happy way 😉
Hopefully life will be kinder soon! Thanks again! Hope to see you again 🙂