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Island Ecology and Cultural Perceptions

A Case Study of Lakshdweep

Makhan Jha



Among the different factors responsible for shaping and influencing culture and developmental activities, the ecology of a region plays a very important role. That is why social scientists have started showing considerable interest in varying eco-structures with a view to understanding the complexities of cultural perceptions on the one hand and ecological challenges to developmental activities on the other.

Ecological Structure of the Islands

The eco-structure of the Lakshadweep islands has two broad dimensions: the natural eco-system and the man-made eco-system. This brief typology of the eco-structure of the Lakshadweep islands suggests that the natural and the man-made eco-systems are closely linked. For example, land is very limited, only 32 sq km, out of which the land use area is only 26 sq km. Thus too many developmental activities will throw off balance the natural eco-structure of the islands.


Natural Eco-System

Reefs Lagoons Atolls Island (on which various activities are done like coconut plantation, construction of houses, etc.)
Man-Made Eco-System
Inhabitants' houses (both traditional and modern) Man's various activities like agro-horticulture, plantation of coconuts, animal husbandry, industries, fisheries, tourism, transportation and communication etc.)

However, the sea area is unlimited and there is enough scope for fishing and various other activities relating to the fish trade. However, the study of the island ecology shows that over-exploitation or misuse of any one system has an impact on the others.

It has been noted that the total reporting area of the land is only 2800 hectares. Out of this, 445 ha is put to non-agricultural use. There is no forest, hill or river within the islands. The Lakshadweep islands are identical in structure and formation and their tops are built up of coral reefs. The soil has been derived from coral limestone. It is essentially coral sandy soil underlined by limestone and gravel of different shapes and size. The land has 85 to 98 per cent calcium carbonate, which is totally unfavourable for any type of cultivation. Thus the natural eco-structure of these islands is not conducive to agricultural development. However, it is suited for coconut plantation, which is done here to a great extent.

Economic Peculiarities

Most developmental activities on the islands centre around fishing and coconut. Tuna is called the ‘chicken of the sea’. The average annual catch of fish is 7300 tonnes in Lakshadweep. Of this, nearly 50 per cent at Agatti island, but unfortunately there is no fish processing plant there. A fish processing plant has been started at Minicoy, very far away from Agatti, and the Agatti islanders have been agitating for one. The entire tuna catch at Agatti is converted into mas by a traditional method of processing for long preservation. The fish is first properly dressed and then boiled with a little salt. Then, it is smoked and sun-dried. It may be kept for two years. While men prepare mas at Agatti, I was told women do it at Minicoy.

Mas is sold at very high prices. The islanders get the daily selling rate of fish from Cochin by telephone and then the fish-loaded boats are sent to the mainland. It is said that during the monsoon, when the islanders suspend fishing, they remain busy in disposing of their old stock. Recently a fishermen’s cooperative has been established. Although it was started as early as 1962, it had not been functioning well. Only last year, with the efforts of the Administrator, did it start functioning well. At present there are 37 cooperative stores in the islands which deal in many kinds of articles.

Coir-based Industry

After the fish trade, coconuts are the largest trade of the islanders. Training is imparted in coir spinning, rope-making, mat-making, etc. There are three industrial cooperative societies and a few Mahila Udyog Samitis which were introduced in the Seventh Plan period, where knitting, handicrafts, etc., are taught to women. During the Eighth Plan period (1992-97) a sum of Rs. 13.83 lakhs has been provided for the development of coir-based industries in the islands. Emphasis has also been laid on the development of khadi industries, for which a sum of Rs. 22–50 lakhs has been provided in the Eighth Plan period.

In April 1988 a Vayudoot air service was introduced after commissioning the Agatti airstrip, which facilitated the transportation of men and materials. An expert committee has recommended the introduction of amphibian aircraft. If they are introduced, almost all islands of Lakshadweep can have an air service.

So far as the thrust area of economic development is concerned, 178 km of sea-shore have been identified, of which 16 km are subjected to severe sea erosion. To prevent this erosion the plantation of bushes and trees has been suggested. A scientific committee has also suggested the scientific plantation of coconut trees in the islands. About 180 to 200 coconut trees should be planted per hectare, and hybrid varieties, which may give about 200 nuts per year should be distributed. The present traditional coconut trees give only 40 to 50 nuts per year.

Out of 5,906 households, nearly 3,013 have been identified as being below the poverty line. Of these, 2,573 families had been assisted under the IRDP for self-occupation by the end of 1988. All islands have been covered by seven Primary Health Centres and two hospitals (one at Kavarathi and another at Minicoy) where the services of specialists like paediatricians, eye specialists, pathologists, surgeons, anaesthetists, gynaecologists and others are available.

Food Habits

Fish and coconut form the major part of both daily diet and ritual food. The islanders call themselves ‘sons of the sea’ and from childhood they learn to fish in the lagoons. Tender coconut or its water is mixed in almost all preparations. Some of the food items which I observed are described below.

Salted dishes



The water of boiled rice is left overnight, mixed with fish and coconut water, and is taken in the morning as breakfast. This is very popular among the aged people of the islands.



Rice cooked in the night is taken in the morning with fish or mixed with coconut water. It forms part of the daily diet.



Rice mixed with coconut cream; may also be eaten with fish curry called miha pottichad (Kavaratti, Agatti islands). It is also served on the occasion of marriages, etc.



Rice mixed with chicken or egg, spices, etc. It is prepared on some rare occasions.



Rice, white of egg and coconut cream; popular on Androth island.



Rice chapati (bread)



Rice cooked in coconut water, with or without spices, and then wrapped in coconut cream.



Rice with/without egg, fried in coconut oil with onions, ginger, etc.



Rice and coconut cream, mixed with water of coconut and fried. Balls are made and are placed in a flat pot with sugar paste. In case kumi-uppam is to be made salted, meat or fish is added.



A sweet dish in which rice is cooked with egg and coconut water and mixed with sugar.


Uppam of various types

Bar-uppam, Manda-uppam, Matta-mala, Mattapum

Besides these major items of food, different types of cakes are made of coconut, both sweet and salted. Names, sizes and methods of preparation vary from island to island. After food, most people chew pan (betel leaf), which is brought from the mainland. They may also chew tobacco and smoke cigarettes. However, they do not drink any alcohol except fermented coconut water prepared on some special occasions. Recently they have also started taking tea and coffee without milk.

Beliefs, Rituals and Festivals

The Lakshadweep islanders are all Muslims and most of them belong to the Shafi‘i school of the Sunni sect. Besides the Kuran, they also acknowledge the authority of the sunnet (or customary law) as interpreted by Shafi. Other practices are the recitation of the kalma, an expression of faith in Allah and the Prophet Muhammad; offering of namaz (prayers) five times a day, roza (fasting) in the month of Ramzan; Zakkat (giving of alms), and haj (pilgrimage to Mecca). The islanders are orthodox and pious and they adhere strictly to their religious observances. In this connection it may be noted that the Muslims of the Lakshadweep islands are held in great esteem by the Muslims of South India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, etc. The high-caste Muslims, called Thangals, particularly those of Androth island, go to these countries on preaching tours locally known as safars. Pilgrimage to Mecca, though not compulsory, increases a persons’s social status and prestige.

Besides these common features of the Muslim faith, there are some features peculiar to these islands. Special mention may be made of ratheeb. This is a form of religious performance conducted by the islanders to invoke the blessings of preceptors like Mohiddin Thangal and Raffai Thangal. Generally, the ratheeb mosques are patronised by the descendants of Sheikh Mohammad Kasim, the first Thangal. He is considered the twenty-ninth descendant of the Prophet. He migrated to the islands around 1650 and built mosques at Kavarathi, Agatti, and elsewhere which are popularly known as Ujra mosques.

The islanders believe that the celebration of ratheeb was started at Kavarathi under the direction of Sheikh Kasim. His grave was constructed near the Ujra mosque and became a place of pilgrimage. His cap, walking stick, flag, etc. are still kept in the Ujra mosque at Kavarathi. The grave of Sheikh Kasim is held in very high esteem by the islanders. Wherever they suffer from serious sickness, they come to his graveyard and offer petitional vows and adorations. Therefore many stories about the spiritural powers of Sheikh Kasim. Crows are not seen on Kavarathi due to a curse given by Sheikh Kasim. Only 5 to 10 per cent of women go to hospital for delivery, as a magical plate given by Sheikh Kasim is available with the people of Kavarathi for eradicating labour pains.

Another performance, very special to the islands, is moulood, which is celebrated to obtain divine blessings. Verses are recited in honour of the saints and food is taken together.

Apart from the majority, who belong to the Sunni sect, other sects such as Wahabis and Ahmadiyas are also found in very small numbers. Wahabis are a reformist sect in Islam who oppose all practices not sanctioned by the Koran. They are followers of Abdal Wahab. They are found on Agatti and Kavarathi and do not participate in ratheeb and maulood.

The islanders believe in magical rites and practices to drive away evil spirits. Ratheeb and maulood are performed before undertaking new ventures like the construction of houses, building of odams, etc. Magical rites are performed in the nights near the sea-shore to cure diseases, to drive away evil spirits, to bring harm to enemies, as well as for the safe return from the deep sea of fishermen.

The customs and rituals connected with marriage, birth, circumcision, ear-boring, death, etc., are more or less common to all the islands of Lakshadweep, except for some differences at Minicoy.

Brief Ritual Calendar

Although the details of the ritual calendar of the islanders have not been collected during the pilot survey work, a brief sketch of the important ritual observances is given here.


Month Date Important rituals


9 & 10

The first month of the Islamic calendar. Martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain. Days of fasting in Lakshdweep. No taziya is constructed.It has not much importance among theislanders.



Urs of Sheikh Mohd. Kasim Wali. On this day


(last Wednesday)

the people of Androth island go to the sea for ritual bathing after applying specially prepared oil on their bodies. Celebrated in memory of the Prophet’s recovery from illness.






The urs of a saint popularly known as Kunthapurath Kazhin Jawar



The urs of Sheikh Mudiuddin A. Geelani (there is a sight difference in the date among the islanders)



Urs of Saint Bukhari of Padanna Puthiyapura, Androth, popularly known as Ippa Kazhinjawar



Urs of Saint Ahmad Kabir Rifayi



Urs of Saint Uways-i-Qurani



Miraj (night journey of the Prophet); day of fasting for the islanders


14, 15

Barath — days of fasting for the islanders; it is believed that God created everything on earth on this day.



The month of fasting. The fast is broken by islanders in the evening by drinking tender coconut water. They call Ramzan Noimbu Masan.



Urs of Saint Ubaidullah, who was responsible for the conversion of the islanders to Islam






Idul Azha


As stated earlier, the main occupations of the islanders are fishing and coconut cultivation. The islanders are busy fishing from September to May, which is believed to be the best fishing season. In the lagoon area, fishing is continued round the year, but deep-sea fishing is suspended during the monsoon. The fishing areas have been grouped oceanographically into three, the middle group of islands consisting of Kavarathi, Agatti and Amini, the north-eastern group consisting of Kiltan, Chetlat and Bitra, and the comparatively isolated islands of Minicoy, Kalpeni, Suheli and Androth. Some of the uninhabited islands like Byramgore, Perumalpar and Elikkalpeni are famous for tuna resources. Thus, sometimes the islanders go to these uninhabited islands for a week or so and camp there for tuna fishing. They carry with them the sweet water and food for and stay on the uninhabited islands in group of 10 to 15 persons. Of the numerous species of fish found in Lakshadweep islands, skipjack, tuna, different species of shark, wahoo (devilfish), sailfish, rays, etc., are economically important. Prawns are non-existent in the sea of the Lakshadweep Islands. Thus an important occupation is fishing, which the islanders pursue for 8 or 9 months in a year.

Next to fish, the principal articles of export and the main sources of income have always been the coconut and its products like coir, copra, jaggery, etc. A sizeable portion of the coconut production is consumed at home, and the surplus is exported. It fetches them very little income after meeting expenses on transport. Recently there has been a rise in the price of nuts and allied items as well as improvements in methods of cultivation (specially the hybrid trees). Coconuts have thus come to stay as the deciding factor in the island economy. While the menfolk are occupied with fishing, the children, women and old men remain busy in collecting coconuts, making coir ropes, mats, jaggery, etc., which fetch a good income.

However, the situation differs at Minicoy, where many able-bodied men join foreign shipping corporations as they are good sailors, those left at home going fishing. The womenfolk at Minicoy look after the mas processing, while it is done exclusively by the menfolk on the northern islands. Coconut, the only commercial crop in Lakshadweep, is cultivated even on uninhabited islands. At present an area of 2855 hectares is under coconut cultivation on the inhabited islands and the area on the uninhabited islands is not known.

Social Life

Under the matrilineal set-up, the social life of the islanders centres around females, and fathers have very limited rights and responsibilities over their children and in family affairs. The children are brought up in their mothers’ houses and have rights of inheritance to their property. Though the father has no legal responsibility for the maintenance of his children, usually he meets part of their expenses on clothes, ornaments, education, etc. But he has an obligation to contribute towards the expenses connected with their rites of passage.

Children grow bereft of the love and care of their parents, specially the father. The matrilineal system prevailing in the territory make the situation worse as the children stay with the mother in her house. Their father visits the house only late in the night and leaves early in the morning for his house. As a result, small children seldom see or talk to their fathers.

There are two broad categories of property: Friday property, known as velliazhcha, and Monday property, which is called thinkalazhcha. While ancestral property, also known as tarwad property, is controlled by the eldest male member, the karanavan, Monday or self-aquired property, which consists mostly of movable articles like jewellery, gold, utensils, cash, bicycles, wrist watch, radios, etc., is managed and owned by the persons concerned. Tarwad property cannot be sold. However, it can be mortgaged in lieu of loans. Tarwad property usually consists of coconut trees over a piece of land, which are not usually divided. However, the rules of partition and division state that tarwad property is to be divided among the members of the joint and extended family. The tarwad, which has been a notable feature in the islands, is now on the verge of breaking down owing to economic and social factors, specially due to the growing aspirations of modern educated youths, which are not fulfilled in it, and the impact of new ideas and the individualistic outlook of the younger generations.

Arts and Crafts

The islanders show considerable artistic skill in carpentry. Beautiful wood carvings are seen in many mosques all over the islands. The intricate carvings in wood found on the pillars and on the ceilings of the front part of the Ujra mosque at Kavarathi is the most exquisite. This is believed to be a century old. There are several legends associated with this masterly creation. According to one legend, it was done by a carver belonging to a family called Mukri Illam. He got his inspiration from the leaf of a plant in his courtyard. It is said that after completing the carving work at the mosque he thought of making the same carving at his house, but a piece of wood hit his eyes he lost his eyesight.

The construction of the floors of the mosques and the tanks adjacent to them reveal the skill of the islanders as stonemasons. Tombstones are also beautifully carved. Carvings on the tombstones, specially at Kavarathi, exhibit the islanders’ delicate skill.

On all the islands there are expert craftsmen who construct the odams, although their number is decreasing day by day. The islanders are also good at producing a variety of handicrafts out of tortoise-shell, coconut shells, coconut fibre, corals, etc. It is said that the Chetlat islanders are expert in making hats, mats and baskets from tender coconut leaves. The Minicoy islanders decorate many of their household utensils and furniture by engraving and painting them colourfully.

In order to promote arts and crafts in the islands, several steps have been taken by the Administrator of the Union Territory, and a few small-scale factories like hosiery factory (since 1967), a decorating fibre plant (since 1968), etc., have been started. But as the islanders do not show much interest in these factories, their talents and resources have not been fully exploited.

Islanders’ Cultural Perceptions

The islanders call themselves ‘children of the sea’. Their daily activities centre around the sea. From morning to night they move in and around the sea, and therefore their cultural perceptions are sea-oriented.

Knowledge of the Cosmos

At Kavarathi the Secretary of the Pradesh Council, who is believed to be the most knowledgeable person of the island, asked me to first note down how many types of Muslims there were in the islands, as their world-views differ. Of the four sects of Muslims, Sunnis are found in overwhelming numbers in all the islands except Minicoy, where 60 to 70 per cent are Wahabis. At Agatti, only 50 families are of the Wahabi sect. There is one family on Kalpeni island which belongs to the Ahmadiya sect. The Ahmadiya Muslims trace their origin to a village named Kadiani in Western Punjab. The Table Muslims keep very unusal long beards and wear kurtas down to their knees but are not considered true Muslims by the others. The Sunnis believe that Mohammad was the last messenger of God, but the Ahmadiyas believe that Ahmad Gulam Kadiani was the last messenger.

The islanders believe that there are seven worlds in the sky and that God lives in the seventh sky. The Koran was brought from the seventh sky to the Prophet Mohammad by God’s angels.

The islanders believe in panchendriyam (five tattva): sky, water, wind, fire and that earth. This is an impact of the Malabar coast (indirectly Hindu impact). In Malayalam we come across the concept of pench-bhutam, and obviously the islanders, who migrated from the Malabar coast, brought this concept with them. The islanders maintain the sacredness of fire. They do not spit into it, nor do they throw any dirty articles in it. They consider the sea very sacred. Some of their rituals are performed on the sea-shore. Myths and legends are related to, and based on, sea voyage and various other marine matters. Many such traits of marine culture have already been lost, and those that are in vogue today will be lost soon due to the rapid changes taking place.

Fish and Coconuts — Dual Entry Points

As mentioned earlier, the islanders are experts in the art of fishing, and 80 to 90 per cent of their daily catch is tuna. Fishing is carried out on a large scale in the islands. Tuna is caught not with nets but with the pole and line. A cotton line is used with a barbless fish-shaped hook attached to it.

Sea Fishing

When the boatmen sight a tuna shoal, they scatter live bait in its path. Attracted by the live bait, the tuna rush towards the boat. Then the boatmen cast the hooks. As soon as a fish bites, with a jerk of the rod it is swung into the boat. An informant at Agatti said, ‘experienced fishermen can catch even three fish at a time — one in the boat, the second in the air and the third on the hook’. Five or more people can fish together in the sea depending on the size of the boat. Sometimes even a ton of tuna can be caught within half an hour. This method is very popular on Agatti and Minicoy, where nearly 70 per cent of the total catch is produced. The Lakshadweep administration is trying to popularise this traditional pole and line method of tuna fishing among other islands also.

Before the islanders leave for deep-sea fishing, they check their boats. These are now mechanised, loans being sanctioned by the administration. The present cost of a mechanised fishing boat is one lakh and fifty thousand rupees. The fishermen get up around 2 a.m. and collect the necessary materials like drinking water, food, tea, medicines and other accessories related to fishing, and then come to the sea-shore. They offer brief worship by breaking a coconut and praying to the sea-god for a good catch and safe return. Usually 5 or 6 persons go together in a boat. They return around 2 or 3 p.m. Thus they fish for 8 or 10 hours, of which 2 to 4 hours are spent in going and coming as well as in searching for a tuna shoal. After disembarking from the boat they unload the catch and start dressing the fish for mas preparation.

Uses of Coconuts


Next to fish, coconut is the main food of the islanders. Even in fish curry they use coconut water. They prepare different sweet and salted dishes with coconut cream. Coconut oil is the medium of cooking and is prepared at home. However, recently palm oil, imported from Kerala, has come into limited use.


When copra is taken away from a coconut, the outer layer is dried and used as fuel. The roots, truck, etc., of the coconut are used in making windows and other parts of houses.


Whenever the islanders suffer from injury, headache, joint pain, etc., they apply coconut oil, fish oil, etc., as cures. Nowadays modern medicines are also available on all islands, but until some thirty years ago, the people were totally dependent upon these indigenous remedies. They still apply coconut oil mixed with camphor to their foreheads.


The long leaf of the coconut is used by most islanders for thatching their houses. Those who can afford them use red titles, imported from the mainland; but the Melacharies, Riveries, Malmis and those who are poor, use the long dried leave of coconut. They also make mats of the dried leaves both for domestic use as well as for export to the mainland.

Coconut-Based Industry

Lakshadweep was once the scene of considerable odam-building activity, in which indigenous materials like coconut wood, coconut ropes, oil of fish and crabs, etc., were used. With the arrival of mechanised boats, odam building gradually declined. But other small-scale industries based on the coconut and its products came up in the islands.

Coir twisting is one of the oldest industries of Lakshadweep which has played a vital role in the history of the islanders. It is said that Arab vessels used to come to the islands to collect cordio (coconut rope). This continued even during British rule. But after Independence, the coir twisting industry was made a welfare scheme and many types of economic assistance have been extended to its workers. It is now a very important cottage industry in the islands. Mainly women work in this industry, which adds to their sources of livelihood.

Copra Industry

Copra is the dried kernels of coconut, used either for oil crushing or as food. Copra making is a seasonal cottage industry which starts from September and continues to May/June. The ripe nuts are first dehusked and cut into two pieces each. Then they are spread on mats of coconut leaves to dry. Once dry, they are exported to the mainland for oil crushing. Lakshadweep copra is usually exported to Calicut, Mangalore, etc. These are popularly known as deevai copra centres. Unfortunately no big industry has been established in the islands to extract oil from the copra.


This pilot survey of the Lakshaweep islands confirms that there is an intimate relationship between the island culture and its ecology. The islanders’ cultural activities centre around fishing and coconuts, which may be called dual entry-points for studying the cultural perception of the Lakshadweep islanders. The islanders’ awareness of their immediate environment, its flora and fauna, and their notion about sea, space, etc., refer to their historical background as well as to the existing ecological set-up. Some of the old traditions, folklore, folk songs, myths, magical rites, beliefs in spirits and miraculous dreams, etc., are shaped and determined by the ecological set-up. But as rapid changes are taking place in the man-made eco-structures of the islands, it is feared that old cultural values and traditions may become extinct soon. For example, the wave (tide) songs, rendered in the sea, have completely disappeared. The cyclone song has met the same fate. The binelam, a type of street-song, has also become extinct. It is urgently required to record such vanishing folk songs and other details of the people’s cultural perceptions.


Administration of Lakshadweep,1978. Union Territory of Lakshadweep. Lakshdweep Administration, Kavarathi

———, 1984. The Coral Paradise. Lakshadweep Administration, Kavarathi

Dube, Leela, 1969. Matriliny and Islam. National, Delhi

Ellis, R.H., 1924. A Short Account of Laccadive Island & Minicoy, Madras, reprinted in 1992

George, Abraham, 1985. ‘Land Relations in Lakshadweep’. State and Society, Vol. V, No. 4

Government of Madras. Reports of various Inspecting Officers on Lakshadweep from 1886 to 1924

Gabriel, P.C. Theodore, 1989. Lakshadweep: History, Religion and Society. Books and Books, New Delhi

Ittaman, K.P., 1976. Amini Islanders, Abhinav, New Delhi

Mannadiar, N.S., ed., 1977. Gazetteer of Indian Union Territory of Lakshadweep. Administration of Lakshadweep, Kavarathi

Robinson, W., 1846. Report on the Amini Islands: Report of the Inspecting Officer. Revenue Department, Government of Madras

Robinson, W., 1848. Report on the Laccadive Islands. Government of Madras


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