Fables of River Dolphins

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Kurakani Series 2

Over a month ago I was in Bardiya surveying the local people about their fishing practices. Having completed my survey for the day, I wanted to hear some local stories or belief regarding dolphins. The Ganges dolphins are killed in many parts of its distribution range for oil but not in Nepal. They inhabit the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Karnaphuli-Sangu river systems. Accidental killings do happen but intentional killings have not been reported in Nepal. Mind you the locals call dolphins ‘Soas machi’ – Soas refers to the sound they make while breathing and machi means fish. So, they think dolphins are fish and yet they don’t kill it.

I reckoned there must be a reason for this and as I was asking around a young woman came nearby. She was married into a Sonaha family and her mother-in-law had told her a story about dolphin. Sonahas are ethnic groups whose ancestral territory included the riverine banks of Karnali river with occupation of fishing and gold mining. Interestingly they are yet to be categorized under indigenous or Janajati group but that’s a story for another day. She recounted the fable as –

Dolphins which was previously a woman was asked to return back before the sun sets. She had gone for a bath by the river and got lost in the moment having fun. The sun had set and her in-law just happen to arrive. Feeling ashamed she wouldn’t get out of the water and later when she emerged her body had changed into half human and half dolphin. The people seeing her emerge asked her to stay in the water and protect the people as many don’t know how to swim. So, she stayed in the water to protect humans and humans in return never harmed her.

There are also fables of the Amazon Dolphins all the way from South America to be humans as well. There the story goes on to say that they can transform into a man during the evenings and hypnotize and seduce unsuspecting young women.

It is as if the indigenous people do have an understanding that the dolphin body functions are more alike humans than fish. They breathe through lungs and give live birth to their young.

The stories passed down through generations have at least helped protect the species here in Nepal. There are also stories surrounding the species why they do not harm humans or their boats because the boats are said to be their brother-in-law and even in close proximity they won’t overturn or touch the boat.

Anu Rai

I am an aspiring environmental researcher.

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