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PRIMAL ELEMENTS : THE ORAL TRADITION

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Kerala Fisherfolk

Ritualistic and Cosmic Elements

 

P. R. G. Mathur

Numerous spirits have influenced the behaviour of the Hindu and Mappila (Muslim) fishermen of Kerala. Listed out here are some of the beliefs of the Hindu fisherfolk connected with certain important spirits, demons and deities.

Pretham (Ghost): The Element of Air

The pretham (soul) of a person who commits suicide hovers around the place where he took his life or by the side of his house. The marine Hindu fisherfolk believes that when a pretham enters the body of a person he begins to act like a lunatic. When such symptoms appear, the Kaniyan (village astrologer), is immediately consulted, to identify the pretham and locate his abode. The astrologer, after identifying the spirits, directs the next of kin to contact a particular Mantravadi (sorcerer) for conducting a Homam (propitiatory rite) in order to get rid of the pretham. Accordingly, the Mantravadi is invited to perform the Homam. The Mantravadi draws a kalam (cabbalistic figure) in the courtyard with coloured powders. The figures of the supposed Pretham, Gandharvan and his wife Yakshi are drawn in the kalam. The Homam is performed after this. The belief is that once the propitiatory rites are conducted the pretham is consigned to flames. Sometimes an amulet is prepared for wearing around the waist of the possessed.

Akasa Gandharvan: Personification of the Sky

The supernatural power of Akasa Gandharvan, an ethereal goblin of the Mappila fisherfolk of Tanur, is described in my monograph, The Mappela Fisherfolk of Kerala. The Hindu fishermen believe that the Akasa Gandharvan is responsible for causing dissention between Lord Krishna and Arjuna. Krishna Kunhu, my Araya informant, said that Akasa Gandharvan possessed supernatural powers. Once when Krishna was offering prayers taking water in his right hand, the Gandharvan appeared in the sky in his chariot and disturbed the Lord’s mind. The Lord’s prayer stopped as froth from the Gandharvan’s horse’s mouth fell on his palm, thus polluting the water. Krishna became infuriated and vowed to teach the Gandharvan a lesson for his misbehaviour, and kill him before the sunset. Hearing this the Gandharvan was distressed. In order to save his life, he approached Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, but they did not oblige. Meanwhile, Narada appeared on the scene and advised the Gandharvan to seek the help of Arjuna who was spending his life incognito in the mountains along with his brothers. Narada then informed Krishna that the Gandharvan had gone to Arjuna’s abode and decided to bring about a solution. He appeared in disguise before Arjuna and told him to go to sleep when Krishna killed the Gandharvan. He promised that he would restore the life of the Gandharvan. Krishna killed the Gandharvan before sunset as promised, but his life was restored by Brahma at once. Thus, the Hindu fishermen believe that the Gandharvan is still at large.

Kadutha: Ethereal Element

The Aryans of Cochin believe in a large number of spirits like Kuttichathan, Karumkutty, Pookutty and Kalladimuthan. The spirits of the dead wizards belonging to different castes like the Nairs, Irvas and Cherumans or Pulayans are also capable of making mischief, it is believed. For instance, the Aryans of Elangkunnapuzha propitiated on all important occasions Kadutha the spirit of a dead Nair sorcerer of the village. The spirit is housed in a shrine. This Nair sorcerer is believed to be a great devotee of Lord Ayyappan, whose shrine is at Sabarimala Kerala. Thus, Kadutha is worshipped by the Aryans for getting bumper catches and warding off diseases. Special propitiatory rites are performed in Kadutha’s honour. The oracle of Kadutha dances before the shrine and predicts whether or not there will be good catches and about the recovery of the sick.

Marutha: Ethereal Spirit

The Aryans of Elangkunnapuzha believe that Marutha, the spirit of a Pulaya woman sorcerer, has supernatural powers in curing incurable diseases and preventing capsizing of boats at sea and getting bumper catches. Sometimes the Aryans worship her by making special offerings of liquor and meat ostensibly for getting ownership in fishing units. During the Mandalam (fast days from first of Vrichikam to the tenth of Dhanu), Marutha is offered beaten rice, puffed rice, molasses, plantains and camphor. It is interesting to note that although Marutha is the spirit of the Pulaya woman (scheduled caste), she is housed in a special shrine by the Aryans and propitiated on all important occasions, besides offering special worship.

Kotha: Ethereal Element

The Aryans of Elangkunnapuzha say that the spirit Kotha possesses miraculous powers in curing illnesses and saving the fishermen from hazards of the sea. Kotha is the spirit of a departed woman sorcerer who belonged to the Pulaya caste (agrestic serf). She is believed to be the sister of Marutha. The spirit is frequently worshipped by the Aryans by offering liquor and meat. A shrine has been built in her honour in the village for offering worship to her. During the Mandalam period only vegetarian dishes are offered to gods and goblins.

CHEMBAN MUTHAPPAN, UNNIKKA MUTHAPPAN, SURANAT KAIMAL

The spirits of the ancestors are propitiated by Hindu fishermen on all important festive occasions. The Aryans of the Elangkunnapuzha village have installed three unhewn stones in a shrine representing three ancestors, namely, Chemban Muthappan, Unnikka Muthappan, and Suranat Kaimal. Chemban Muthappan and Unnikka Muthappan belonged to the Arya caste whereas Suranat Kaimal was a Nair. These three spirits are propitiated for 41 days during the Mandalam days by making an offer of vegetarian dishes.

THOTTAM KAZHIKKAL

The Thottam Kazhikkal ceremony is performed on the last three days of the Mandalam. Pullavans and Velans are commissioned in the performance of the Thottam Kazhikkal ceremony. They draw cabbalistic figures using coloured powders, five in number. They also draw human figures of deities like Vigneswara and Yessaswari. Pulluvans and Velans beat their drums and sing songs in praise of the deceased sorcerer. The she-oracles possessed of the spirits of Chemban Muthappan, Unnikka Muthappan and Suranat Kaimal dance before the Kalam (the figures drawn on the floor) and circumambulate the shrines. The ceremony lasts for about six to eight hours. The oracles predict the future welfare of the fishermen. The Pulluvans and Velans are paid from ten to fifteen rupees for their services.

MUNNODI APPAN

Munnodi Appan, the spirit of the dead ancestor of a family belonging to the village of Tarayakadappuram in the Alleppey district, is propitiated by the Aryan fishermen. The spirit is housed in a shrine and it is worshipped as a devan (male deity). The local tradition is that long ago the fishermen offered their prayers to different Gods for getting bumper catches to meet their livelihood. Munnodi Appan, and Aryan, employed his magical powers and got bumper catches for the entire villagers. Thus, he saved the villagers from starvation. A shrine was built in his honour by the villagers when he died. Whenever the Aryans of Quilon, Alleppey and Trivandrum do not get good catches, they take a vow to offer special pujas in honour of Munnodi Appan either at home or in the shrine. They make votive offerings consisting of meat, liquor, fried fish, etc. when their prayers are heard. Now, vegetarian dishes only are offered in the shrine of Munnodi Appan. When Munnodi Appan is propitiated at home, the species which the fishermen want to haul, are offered to him. Avoli and Ayala (Mackerel) were relished by Munnodi Appan. Apart from fish and meat, liquor and pappad are offered to this spirit.

Hindu fishermen of the erstwhile Travancore state particularly those of the Alleppey district make periodical offerings and perform special rituals in the honour of Munnodi Appan at his shrine, if they get bumper catches or if serious illness is cured within a given time. Once their wishes are fulfilled, they conduct the special ritual at his shrine spending as much as Rs. 500. The mode of worship at the Munnodi Appan’s shrine is very interesting. The office of the priest is hereditary in the family of Munnodi Appan. The women folk are forbidden from entering the shrines and have to keep a distance of a furlong during the propitiation of Munnodi Appan. The priest is not allowed to wear any cotton clothes when he performs the worship. His dress is made of banana leaves (ada). He has to observe vegetarianism and celibacy. Neither liquor, nor meat is offered to Munnodi Appan now-a-days. The Aryans of Travancore generally set apart three-and-a-half per cent of their day’s catch for Munnodi Appan’s worship. When the amount increases to Rs. 500 the special ritual at Munnodi Appan’s shrine is conducted. Sometimes, when they are enable to save Rs. 500 for his worship in the year, they borrow funds from moneylenders to propitiate Munnodi Appan.

PARASSINIKADAVU MUTHAPPAN

Hindu and Muslim fishermen of Malabar send their votive offerings to the Parassinikadavu Muthappan. His shrine is at Parassinikadavu, a village in the district of Cannanore, and belongs to a Thiyya family. The local tradition says that once Siva, under the spell of Shani (Saturn), went to the forest of Parassini for penance. He attained moksha during his penance. A structure was raised by a Thiyya family in his honour at Parassinikadavu, then in a forest, and later on it came to be known as Parassinikadavu Muthappan’s shrine. This Muthappan is a non-Sanskritic deity. Meat, fish and liquor are offered to him. It is noteworthy that the members of almost all castes in this region propitiate the Muthappan. His devotees are generally given free boarding and lodging. Even Nambudiri Brahmins and Nairs are sent offerings to the Muthappan in fulfilment of their wishes and vows. The Hindu fisherfolk of Malabar, Mukkuvans and Mogayar (Mukkuvans) propitiate the Muthappan at home as well as in the shrine for getting bumper catches, relief from illness, protection from the hazards of the sea and for becoming owners of fishing units. His favourite dishes are a mixture of fried millets, pappad (wafers) and katala (bengal gram). Hindu fishermen frequently vow to set apart five per cent of their daily haul before launching if they are blessed with good catches. They exhort the Muthappan thus: "Oh Muthappan: Let our net be filled with bumper catches; we shall send our offerings to you." Sometimes a fishing unit has workers from both the Hindu and Mappila communities. In that case the expenses in connection with the propitiation of the Muthappan are borne by the entire crew.

The Muthappan is worshipped daily but special offerings are made once a week, once a month and once a year when his festival is celebrated. He is frequently propitiated at home by the fishermen for getting bumper catches and for getting relief from sickness. The propitiation of the Muthappan is called pazhamkuttivekkal. Another important offering to the Muthappan is called vellattam or tiruveppu. Two or three mannans (washermen) impersonate the Muthappan for vellattam and perform the dance in front of his shrine. This performance of dance is conducted as the main vazhivadu (votive offering) for getting bumper catches and rid of incurable diseases. It costs Rs. 13 for conducting this ceremony. On the other hand, only one Mannan is required for tiruveppu who assumes the guise of the deity and dances before his shrine. The Mannan’s fee for performance of this rite is Rs. 1.25. Vellattam is performed at night.

Gulikan: Ethereal Element

Gulikan or Mandi is propitiated by the Hindu fishermen all over Kerala. The Gulikan is connected with diseases and death. Horoscopes are cast by every Hindu of Kerala in which the position of the Gulikan is clearly indicated. The Gulikan’s position indicates when the person will die. When death occurs in a fisherman’s house, it is customary to plant a stone outside the house representing the Gulikan. An informant informed me that stone representing the Gulikan will never be installed in the room reserved for ancestors or in any of the house. However, the fishermen believe that once the Gulikan is propitiated by installing a stone on the earthen platform, it will prevent death. The Gulikan is generally worshipped to get big fishes like etta and avoli. They vow to conduct a special puja in honour of the Gulikan by offering etta and avoli. They fulfil their vow by making votive offerings when they get these species of fish. The Gulikan is periodically propitiated by the offer of kuruthi (water mixed with turmeric and lime), today, bananas and flowers. A wick lamp is lighted for the worship. A red fowl and a ram are sacrificed in the Gulikan’s honour on important festive occasions like Omam and Vishu. Sometimes, the oracle of the Gulikan, in trance, directs the fishermen to handle times of crisis. The oracle reveals the causes of illness and discloses the remedy.

The Mukkuvans of Malabar believe that there are four kinds of Gulikans: Brahma Gulikan,Vishnu Gulikan, Abhimanyu Gulikan, Asura Gulikan. They further believe that if the Asura Gulikan is displeased tensions in the family are bound to arise, besides infights among the members of the crew. In such cases the Mukkuvans consult the kaniyan (village astrologer) and seek their advice to ward off the wrath of the enraged Asura Gulikan. The kaniyan prescribes the remedy in the form of a magical rite called Puramneekkal which is similar to Uzhinhu Vangal. A magician is invited to conduct this rite. The articles required for the purpose prescribed by the magician and the astrologer are: a cooked fried fish (etta, aikkora, and narimeen), coconut oil, potato, lady-finger, bengal gram, beaten rice, puffed rice, etc. A thigh of the cock is roasted in the fire and given to the Asura Gulikan. The total expenditure for conducting the rite comes to Rs. 100.

Brahma Gulikan: Ethereal Element

The Brahma Gulikan is worshipped for getting bumper catches and also for warding off the misfortunes and illness caused by him. Sometimes the Mukkuvans call the Brahma Gulikan as Brahma Yakshasu, the spirit of a dead Brahman. The Mukkuvans believe that the Brahma Gulikan is capable of causing separation of a husband and wife. An amulet is prepared by the magician and given to the patient to wear or a Puramneekkal ceremony is conducted to appease him. Sometimes the mantram ‘Oh Gulika, Brahma Gulika, Vishnu Gulika, Asmara Gulika and Abhimanyu Gulika’ is chanted for 21 times over a string for putting on the waist of the patient. The same mantram is written 21 times on a copper plate and an amulet is prepared for wearing. Sometimes rice powder mixed with molasses is given to the Brahma Gulikan to appease his wrath. The Mukkuvans say that the Vishnu Gulikan and Abhimanyu Gulikan are not wicked. The Abhimanyu Gulikan is the spirit of Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna, who died in the Kurukshetra war.

Pottanmar: Ethereal Element

The Mukkuvans of Malabar believe that Pottanmar are the bodyguards of the Goddess Bhadrakali. They are propitiated on festive occasions like Mandalam, Karkitaka Sankranti and Sivarathri. Pottanmar are offered vegetarian dishes consisting of balls of rice, jaggery and coconut. The ordained oracle of the Pottanmar speaks a mukabhasha (gesture language) in their frenzy and declare what offerings would please the Goddess. They predict future events that affect the fishermen and divine the causes of illness in their families.

KANDAKARANAN

The Mukkuvans of Malabar hold that Kandakaranan is the defence minister of Bhadrakali. They say the deity does not like meat and liquor. It seems he has been elevated as a Sanskrit deity. The main offerings of Kandakaranan consist of boiled rice, jaggery and coconut. He is worshipped for getting bumper catches, getting rid of illness, particularly, smallpox, and for protection from the hazards of the sea. The Izhvas of Palghat propitiate this deity by sacrificing a fowl.

Kadalamma: Water-element

The Aryans of the Kanjirachera village, Alleppey district, perform an annual festival called Ponkala in honour of Kadalamma (mother or Goddess of sea). It is reported that this ceremony is also conducted by the fishermen of Trivandrum Quilon and southern parts of Ernakulam. Ponkala the cooking of rice or pudding in the open air by women is an offering to Kadalamma, who is worshipped daily. A mandapam (open shed) is erected for this. The offerings consist of flattened rice, puffed rice, jaggery and navadhanyam (nine pulses), ghee, camphor, benzoin, sugarcane and coconuts. The mandapam is decorated with tender coconuts and mango leaves before the actual ceremony. Fisherwomen who have reached their menopause assemble on the morning of the forty-first day at the sea coast with ponkala pots containing the necessary rice, jaggery, coconut and firewood. The ladies cooking the ponkala should abstain from sexual intercourse and observe vegetarianism for the day. Two kinds of ponkala are prepared, one with rice, jaggery, coconut shavings and plantains, and the other without jaggery. Forty-one women participated in the festival of 1971 at the Kanjiranchera village in Alleppey. Each lady cooked the ponkala in a new earthen pot and propitiated the Kadalamma jointly. Formerly, the ponkala payasam (pudding) was thrown into the sea in sealed pots. This practice has been discontinued in recent times. However, it is reported that this custom is still in vogue in the Azhikkal village, Alleppey district. Charms and sacred formulas are uttered while throwing the pudding into the sea. Krishnan Kunhu, my informant, told me that in olden days, the ponkala pots thrown into the sea used to return the following day to the ovens on which the pudding was prepared. Many of his ancestors, he claimed, had seen such miraculous deeds of Kadalamma. A few coins and a little rice pudding are the only items thrown into the sea today instead of ponkala pots. A night long nadaswara cutchery (a music concert played with Nadaswaram — a snake pipe with 12 holes and other accompaniments) is held on the occasion.

The Akasa Gandharvan, Gulikan, Kadutha Kotha, Munnodiappan, etc., represent the cosmic element of sky, ether, air, etc. Kadalamma is the proeification of the cosmic element of water. The rituals connected with the propitiation of various gods and goddesses represent the element of fire and water.

References

Iyer, L.K.A., 1912. Tribes and Castes of Cohin. vols. I and II.

Mathur, K.S., 1964. Caste and Ritual in a Malva Village.

Mathur, P.R.G., 1978. The Mappila Fisherfolk of Kerala.

Mathur P.R.G., (forthcoming) The Hindu Fisherfolk of Kerala.

Menon, K.P.P., 1934. History of Kerala.

Pereira, J.J., 1989. Narayana Guru: A Social Educator.

Saraswati, B.N., 1977. The Brahmaic Ritual Tradition.

Swami Sarvananda, 1973. Taittriopanishad.

 

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