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Fish falling from clouds

Rohit Gupta | Updated on August 22, 2014 Published on May 30, 2014

Ready for launch. The first manned hot air balloon, designed by the Montgolfier brothers, took off from Paris, on November 21, 1783   -  Wikicommons

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Omens and legends aside, could it have been a surreptitious scientific experiment?

There is an urban legend about Bombay’s most well-known seafood delicacy, the Bombay duck — actually a type of lizardfish, scientifically termed the harpodon nehereus. Murali Ranganathan’s recent translation of an 1863 biography of the city by Marathi writer Govind Narayan relates the myth thus, “When Lord Rama was building a bridge across the sea to get to Lanka, all the fish except the bombil helped him. This enraged Lord Rama who twisted it in his hands and tossed it away. It fell in the Mumbai Bay. From that time on, its bones have been crushed and it has become soft. Devoid of a backbone, it is as soft as cotton when fresh.” Narayan attributes the story to local sheikh chillis (tellers of tall tales). One wonders exactly when the fish thrown by Rama’s own hand finally landed in the waters of the bay, and as it fell did someone notice the boneless projectile descend from the sky?

In an early journal of The Asiatic Society of Bengal, edited by James Prinsep, we find the following account. “The phenomenon of fish falling from the sky in the rainy season,” writes Prinsep, “however incredible it may appear, has been attested by such circumstantial evidence, that no reasonable doubt can be entertained of the fact. I was as incredulous as my neighbours, until I once found a fish, which had apparently been alive when it fell, in the brass funnel of my pluviometer at Benares, which stood on an insulated stone pillar, raised five feet above the ground in my garden.”

The pluviometer is a small rain-gauge, which Prinsep would have owned, being a meteorologist of some repute, aside from many other scientific pursuits. This note describes several other witnesses of fish falling from the sky, “I have now before me a note of a similar phenomenon, on a considerable scale, which happened at the Nokulhatty factory, zillah Dacca Jelalpur, in 1830. Mr Cameron, who communicated the fact, took the precaution of having a regular deposition of the evidence of several natives who had witnessed the fall, made in Bengalee, and attested before the magistrate: the statement is well worthy of preservation in a journal of science; I therefore make no apology for introducing a translation at length. The shower of fish took place on 19 February, 1830, in the neighbourhood of the Surbundy factory, Feridpoor.”

All the nine eyewitnesses listed agree on the date and time (Friday at noon) and on the types of fishes that fell. One of these was Shekh Katbuddin, who as he was “coming from the fields, saw a number of fish spread on the bank of a nala. I picked up six of them, viz two boduli, two mirgal, and two nouchi, besides these, there were many other fish of numerous kinds, and they were witnessed by many persons who were there. Some of these fish were fresh, but others rotten and without heads. I know no more.”

Some witnesses were clearly afraid to consume these supernatural fish. Sree Dipchundru Bundopadhya, aged 45 years, narrates, “...I picked up some of these fish — but one named Banchha Ram Chung forbade me, saying, ‘Do not touch these fish; you do not know what fish they are, and how they have fallen here.’ Listening to him, I threw away all the fish, and went away.” Three years later, the zamindars of a village near Allahabad spoke of a storm accompanied by a rain of fish, that when placed in a pan turned to blood.

Omens and legends aside, and assuming such a thing did occur — it would have to be a rather strong wind or wave to carry away entire shoals of fish into the sky. Or a large flock of birds who dropped their cargo mid-flight, upon the hapless natives. Instead if they were thrown from earth, it would have required a powerful trebuchet — the huge Roman slingshot used in war to hurl rocks at the enemy.

The other possibility is some merry prankster sailing high above in a hot air balloon, throwing fish at the villagers to confound them. However, the first recorded flight of a European in India was on March 16, 1836 by a certain D Robertson from Muchikhola, a suburb of Calcutta — only a few years after the said precipitation of fishes. And yet, this theory has some merit.

We all know that the Montgolfier brothers had made the first manned flight in France as early as 1783, after which ballooning had quickly become the subject of a scientific arms race between England and France. Their scientists were convinced, writes Amitabha Ghosh, “of the research value of balloons in many disciplines like meteorological, astronomical and topographical observations, determination of the limits of respirability, speed of sound, and the velocity of falling bodies in the rarefied atmosphere.”

( Rohit explores the history of science as Compasswallah. Follow him on twitter >@fadesingh)

Published on May 30, 2014

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