Updated: May 15
What does it mean in sari symbolism?
"Give me a fish and I eat for a day. Teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime." -- Proverb
A fish has been a known motif in Indian mythology, cultures, folk lore and clothing designs (sari and fabric weaves, prints, dyes and embroidery). The idea stems from water, an energy source that holds endless mysteries. In Hindu mythology, it appears as Matsya Avatar — of Lord Vishnu and Vedic deity of oceans and sky Varuna. It represents fertility, beauty, freedom, food, abundance, and even children. It is also considered as a symbol of purity, and life force of regeneration and reincarnation. Sometimes it means flow and is used to ward off evil when drawn using flowy lines with rice paste on doorways and as floor designs (a.k.a. Rangoli, Kolam, Muggu) on entrances to houses and courtyards.
Then they are infused as curvelinear shapes using yarns into saris from coastal (both river and sea) areas. Think motifs in weaves from Odisha, Andhra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. They also become relief embroidery designs in artworks of Nakshi Kantha (surface ornamentation handstiching) from West Bengal. And they are played with as forms in tribal and folk-art like Madhubani and Gond. In fact, culturally too, a fresh, colossal fish (‘Maach’ in Bengali), decorated with nose pin, bindi, sindoor, kajal, sari wrap and the works, is offered to a bride on the day of her wedding by her parents-in-law as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. It conveys purification and is considered auspicious.
Cut to the global scenario: Pagan cultures associated this zoomorphic motif or design with vigilance (probably because of its swiftness/ alertness). Ancient Babylonian, Mesopotamian, Neo-Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Persian civilizations also used fish as a visual and spiritual language. It was also closely linked to world religions — Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism — and their faith connotations, stories and myths. too. For instance, the Ikhthyes (Ichthyes) were two river fish (probably they were the centaur-like Aphros and Bythos?) who saved Aphrodite and her son Eros when they were escaping from Greek serpentine monster Typhoeus. Another Greco-Roman legend goes that the mother-son duo while feeling the gigantic beast were transformed into two fishes which goddess of wisdom Athena later placed in the stars. Which later become the constellation Pisces — “the fish” (plural) in Latin, now part of one of our 12 horoscope-based readings. While in Egypt, Hatmehit or Hatmehyt was a fish goddess of life and protection, and their Goddess Isis is known to have turned into a fish called Abtu, which later became sacred to the Egyptians. There is a fascinating article on Scroll.in that talks about the ‘three-fish-one-head’ symbol. Read it here.
Native Americans, Norse, Celts and the Orientals also had fish as wise teachers in their oral folk stories. Chinese Koi are a traveller’s delight and are famous bright symbols of joy and prosperity, while Japan’s giant catfish Namazu of mythological origin is known to cause earthquakes. Apparently in real life catfish are seismologically sensitive and are taken seriously. Read more on this in a Scientific American article here. Another example was the Greek and Roman mythological creature called Hippocampus — half horse (upper body) and half fish (lower body) that had its own tales to narrate. In European folklore, literary, mythology and cultural realms, legends of fish and half-fish-half-human forms (piscine humanoids) like the mermaids and mermen, were famous as symbols and art. Children’s’ fairy tales were built around them.
Today, besides being used in art and craft, a number of these fish-inspired symbols are used as logos and identities in contemporary branding and design to denote higher order concepts and thinking. They are understood and sometimes misunderstood. They are interpreted and sometimes misinterpreted. But all in all, fish remains one of the world’s most-loved symbols of life. And it sneaks into almost anything, anytime and anywhere. Not that we mind it. Do we?
Oh, by the way, in the 'now' scene, did you know that "fish skin is the new frontier for eco-friendly fashion?" To know more, read this article on Fashion United.
Fish sketches © Sathya Bhavana Datta