Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Culture and Development SeriesLifestyle and Ecology

know about Janapada Sampada 

LIFESTYLE AND ECOLOGY

[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]


Island Ecology and Cultural Perceptions

A Case Study of Lakshdweep

Makhan Jha

The tiniest Union Territory of India, Lakshadweep, is an archipelago consisting of twelve atolls, three reefs and five submerged banks. Of its twenty-seven islands covering an area of 32 sq km, only ten are inhabited. They are Androth, Amini, Agatti, Bitra, Chetlat, Kadmat, Kalpeni, Kavarathi, Kiltan and Minicoy. Bitra is the smallest of all, with a population of only 181 in 1981, which increased to 225 in 1991. Recently a previously uninhabited island, Bangaram, has been developed by the administration for promoting tourism. As per the 1991 census there were only 61 persons on Bangaram.

Location

Although the land area is extremely small, if we consider the lagoon area of about 4,200 sq km, 20,000 sq km of territorial waters and about 400,000 sq km of economic zone, Lakshadweep is a large territory. The enchanting coral islands in the Arabian Sea were called the Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi islands, though they were popularly known as the Laccadives or Lakshadweep. The territory was officially named Lakshadweep on 1 November 1973. However, the Lakshadweep islands had been declared a Union Territory of India in 1956.

The earliest reference to the Laccadives is found in the records of the Dutch Company. In the ‘Memorandum on the administration of the Malabar coast’ by J.V. Stein, written in 1743, these islands are referred to as ‘Lekker-Diva’. Though this name was used in all subsequent Dutch records, and the British records used ‘Laccadives’, the local people called themselves inahbitants of the divis till recently. The term ‘Laccadives’ is derived from ‘Lakshadweep’, which is generally interpreted as a hundred thousand isles.

Since these islands lay directly on the trade route between India and Africa and Arabia, they are considered the landmark or the laksh (aim) for navigators, and hence called Lakshadweep. There are many interpretations of the origin of this term.

The islands are irregularly scattered in the Arabian Sea between 8 and 12-30oN and between 71 and 74oE. According to the Survey of India, the geographical area of Lakshadweep is 32 sq km. However, according to the revenue records it is 28.5 sq km, which represents only the land use area. The inhabited islands and the area of each are given below.

 

Sl. no.

Inhabited Islands

Area (sq km)

1.

Minicoy

4.4

2.

Kalpeni

2.3

3.

Androth

2.8

4.

Agatti

2.7

5.

Kavarathi

3.6

6.

Amini

2.6

7.

Kadmat

3.1

8.

Kiltan

1.6

9.

Chetlat

1.0

10.

Bitra

0.1

Present Administrative Set-Up

The history of Lakshadweep in its present form dates back to 1 November 1956, when it was made a Union Territory of India. During the medieval period the administration in the island was almost nil, as the emphasis was more on trade than on administration. Each island was almost a separate unit, though they were all under a common ruler. The islands came to be divided in 1787, when Tipu Sultan accepted the allegiance of the people of the Amindivi islands and took them over in return for a jagir from his territory in Chirakkal. Five islands came under Tipu Sultan’s regime while the rest continued to be under Arakkal rule. This division of islands into two groups continued until 1956. However, in 1799, with the fall of Tipu Sultan in Shrirangapattana, the Amindivi islands were annexed by the British East India Company and came to form part of the South Kanara District. Meanwhile in 1791, the southern islands had passed by the conquest of Cannanore to the East India Company along with other possessions of the Beebi of Cannanore. British control was, however, nominal, and the Beebi retained the administration of Lakshadweep for an annual tribute. When the British took over the administration of the islands in 1875 for non-payment of revenue, the islands were attached to the Malabar District. This arrangement continued until 1956.

At present the adminstration of the islands is divided into four Tahsils. Each Tahsil has a Tahsildar at its head except for Minicoy, which has a Deputy Collector. The headquarters of the Tahsils and the inhabited islands under their jurisdictions are listed below.

 

Sl. no

Tahsil Headquarters

Island(s)

1.

Minicoy

Minicoy

2.

Androth

Androth

3.

Kavarathi

Kavarathi

Agathi

Bangaram

4.

Amini

Amini

Kidmat

Kiltan

Chetlat & Bitra

All the islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, have been kept under a single Lakshadweep District, which is headed by a District Magistrate. The District Magistrate also holds charge as the Administrator. Under the Adminstrator there is a Secretariat at Kavarathi, the headquarters of Lakshadweep, where almost all branches like census, education, fishing, agriculture, science and technology, medical, P.W.D., electricity, etc., work under a system known as "one file, one man". The Adminstrator is assisted by a Secretary to the Adminstration at the Secretariat level. The District Magistrate also holds charge as Development Commissioner and is in overall charge of the administration. Until 1964 the headquarters of the Lakshadweep Administration were at Calicut, and there was difficulty in administering the islands from the mainland. However, when the headquarters shifted to Kavarathi, the tempo of development accelerated. Each section (or Department) is headed by a Director, who works under the overall supervision of the Administrator.

Each Tahsil is managed by a Tahsildar except for Minicoy. One Amin, usually selected from among the local karnavars, is appointed on each island to manage practically all matters of importance. Four C.D. Blocks started functioning, with their headquarters at Kavarathi, Androth, Amini and Minicoy, from January 1971. Amini Block was, however, bifurcated in October 1976 into Amini Block at Amini and the C.D. Block at Kiltan, which covers Kiltan, Chetlat and Bitra islands. Thus there are now five Blocks in the Union Territory. Again, to bring the administration closer to the people, all the inhabited islands along with their attached islands and islets were divided into nine Sub-Divisions in 1983, each under the charge of a Sub-Divisional Officer.

The Islands Council, under the Lakshadweep Island Council Regulations of 1988, was constituted in April 1990. This is the first democratic institution on the islands and consists of 79 members from different islands of Lakshadweep. Very recently a Pradesh Council for the U.T. as a whole has also been constituted, with elected members from each Island Council. The Pradesh Council consists of 21 members, with the Administrator as its chairman.

The Union Territory is represented in Parliament by a member elected to the Lok Sabha. The present Member of Parliament is Mr. P.M. Sayeed.

The Population

The early inhabitants of the islands are believed to have been Hindus who migrated from the Malabar coast. Later they were converted to Islam by an Arab saint and are now Muslims. They were declared a Scheduled Tribe as per the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes List (Modification) Order, 1956.

However, when we look at the social structure of the society, we find that the matrilineal kinship and a rigid caste system, characteristic of the Hindu traditions of the Kerala coast, are still retained in spite of being Muslim for several centuries. This coexistence of matriliny and Islam, which is clearly patrilineal, is most unusual.

The Koyas were the chief landowing caste. The word ‘Koya’ is of recent origin. Formerly they were known as taravadis or karnavars. Originally, they consisted of the principal families or taravads of the early migrants. The heads of these tarwads, known as karnavars, sat as jurors in the society panchayat and considered themselves superior to others.

The Malmis were the sailors, who were brought by the Koyas for sailing their traditional boats, known as odam. The word ‘Malmi’ is of Arab origin and means ‘one who is connected with the sign of ways’. The Malmis were the tenants of the Koyas and served as sailors specially in exporting their produce from the islands to the mainland and bringing back rice and other essential goods. The piloting of boats is no longer an exclusive privilege of this class, as mechanized boats with sophisticated navigational systems have been introduced, which anybody who has acquired mastery over the nautical tables may operate.

The Melacheris, who were the original labour class, still form the major part of the population of Amini, Kadmat, Kiltan, Chetlat and Bitra islands. Their traditional occupation is climbing coconut trees to pluck the nuts and tap neerah, sweet toddy. The Melacheris were originally landless tree-climbers.

At Minicoy, the Manikfans are considered the highest class, at par with the Koyas of the northern islands. They alone owned private property and dictated the destiny of the other groups. While the Thakrufans were sailors, the Thakrus worked on the odams during voyages. The Raveries were labourers and worked as tree-climbers.

All the people, irrespective of their class distinctions, profess Islam. While there are no differences in the religious beliefs, manners and customs of these different classes, they have been compartmentalized by certain social barriers. Marriage alliances between certain groups are not allowed. A Koya boy can marry a Melacheri girl, but a Malmi or Melacheri boy will never be allowed to marry a Koya girl. On some islands, Melacheris are not allowed to perform rathib, a religious exercise, in certain mosques. The Melacheris also suffered some social disability in the past. For example, they were not allowed to use chappals, carry umbrellas or sing on occasions like marriages. But the situation has gradually changed.

The population of Lakshadweep was 51,681 in 1991. The density of population was recorded as 1,615 per sq km, while the sex ratio was 944 females per thousand males. The island-wise population as recorded in the 1991 census is given below.

 

Sl. no

Island

Population

 

1.

Kavarathi

8,664

 

2.

Agatti

5,667

 

3.

Minicoy

8,313

 

4.

Androth

9,119

 

5.

Kalpeni

4,079

 

6.

Bangaram

61

(a newly created tourist spot)

7.

Amini

6,445

 

8.

Kadmath

3,983

 

9.

Kiltan

3,075

 

10.

Chetlat

2,050

 

11.

Bitra

225

 
 

Total

51,681

 
When we look at earlier census records, we find that there has been a tremendous increase in the population of the islands, although migration from the mainland has been almost nil. The year-wise population figures for Lakshadweep are given below.

 

Sl. no.

Census year

Total Population

1.

1901

13,882

2.

1911

14,555

3.

1921

13,637

4.

1931

16,040

5.

1941

18,335

6.

1951

21,035

7.

1961

24,108

8.

1971

31,810

9.

1981

40,249

10.

1991

51,681

It has been estimated by the census department of Lakshadweep that if the population increases at the same rate, then by ad 2001 the total population of Lakshadweep will be 59,000 to 60,000.

The population of Lakshadweep lives in 6,637 household families, of which 3,013 families have been identified as below the poverty line. Of these, 2,573 had been assisted under the IRDP programme for self-occupation by the end of August 1988.

Language

Malayalam was brought in by the early settlers. In course of time it evolved into its present form, which is considerably different from what is now spoken in Kerala. The island Malayalam has many peculiarities of pronunciation, vocabulary, etc. The civil SDO of Agatti, who hails from Cochin, said that there were many words in island Malayalam which people like him failed to understand. In course of time, many Tamil and Canarese words also crept in. The old Malayalam script used to be in vogue in the islands, but vattezhuthu was replaced by Arabic script, which subsequently came to be known as Arabic Malayalam. This is still very popular, specially among the womenfolk. However, the present Malayalam script was introduced into the territory during the time of the British.

The inhabitants of Minicoy speak Mahl, which is related to primitive Sinhalese. It has also some similarities with the language of the Republic of Male. Mahl has a script of its own called Diwehi Thana. Besides Mahl, the inhabitants of Minicoy also speak Malayalam, which is a link language in the islands.

Education

In earlier days education in the Lakshadweep islands was confined to the teaching of the Koran and the elements of Islamic theology in schools attached to mosques. These schools are called madrasas and still function side by side with the modern schools established specially after 1956, when the islands became a Union Territory. The first government school in the islands was opened at Amini on 15 January 1904. One very old informant said that as the children had to attend the mosque schools in the mornings, the government school functioned from noon to 4 p.m. and the only subjects taught were Canarese, Malayalam and arithmetic. It was further revealed that during those days, as the Amindivi group of islands was under Karnataka, pupils came to the schools only for learning Canarese, the official language. However, in 1905, when Malayalam was declared the official language of the entire Lakshadweep islands, the teaching of Canarese was discontinued.

In 1911 an elementary school was opened in Kiltan and in 1925 a similar school was opened at Kadmat. Another temporary school was opened at Chetlat in 1927. The people of the Amini group of islands did not pay as much attention to modern education as did the people of Agatti and Kavarathi islands, which were under the management of Malabar.

Among the Malabar-controlled islands, the first schools were opened on Agatti, Kavarathi and Androth in 1875. However, on Minicoy the first school was started in 1891 with a hospital compounder acting as schoolmaster in addition to his other duties. In the 1930s measures were taken by the government to make schools more popular in the eyes of the people. Scholarships were introduced for students passing out from island schools and wishing to study further on the mainland.

From the census of 1951 we learn that literacy was only 15 per cent, which by the 1961 census had increased to 23.27 per cent. The steady progress of the territory in the field of education is reflected in broad terms in the percentage of literacy, which rose to 43.66 per cent in 1971. In the same year literacy was 60.4 per cent in Kerala and 29.5 per cent in India. The literacy rate again increased to 55 per cent for Lakshadweep by 1981, while for India the increase was up to 36.2 per cent.

Till recently there was no institution of higher education in the territory, and students had to go to the mainland. To ease this problem, the Jawaharlal Nehru College, the first of its kind in the territory, was inaugurated on 15 July 1972 at Kavarathi. It imparts teaching in mainly three groups: (1) mathematics, physics and chemistry; (ii) physics, chemistry and biology; and (iii) Indian history, world history and economics, up to the pre-degree level. The college is affiliated to Calicut University. Another similar college has been started at Androth.

Dress

The people of the Lakshadweep and Amini groups of islands dress in a very simple way, while the islanders of Minicoy wear colourful clothes. Except on Minicoy, men wear a white or coloured lungi, which is a rectangular piece of cloth the ends of which are stiched together. Both men and women wear a silver thread round the waist. Elderly persons draw the lungi through the string to hold it around the waist. Men generally do not wear anything above the waist, but on special occasions a fine piece of embroidered cotton or silk cloth is put around the shoulders. Shirts are more popular among the younger generation. The women also wear a rectangular piece of cloth, known as kachi, around the waist, but unlike the lungi its edges are not stiched. The cloth is tucked into the thread or waist belt made of gold or silver. The kachis are either completely black or white with black borders. Silk kachis are generally red with black borders. Women cover their upper bodies with a tight-fitting full-sleeved jacket. The front of the jacket has a piece of embroidered lace studded with gilt and glass pieces. The headdress of the women is known as thattam, which is a long scarf for covering the head and shoulders. Educated women sometime wear saris.

The dress of the people of Minicoy is distinct. The different classes — the Manikfans, the Thakrufans, the Thakrus and the Raveri — have their own traditional dress. While the aristocratic Manikfans wear ordinary lungis and the shirts, the traditional dress of men of other classes is trousers resembling jeans. They are generally of black, white, blue, bright pink or green cloth and are fastened to the waist with a cord. They have a coloured embroidered tape lining on the sides as well as around the ankles. Among the Thakrus and Thakrufans, only those who have performed a sea voyage are privileged to wear this kind of dress, whereas a Raveri can wear it on attaining adulthood. A piece of white cloth is used as a waistband over the trousers. The chest is generally bare. The headdress is confined to a red or black cloth with stripes, which is worn with two to four upward projections indicating the different classes. The younger generation, however, prefers trousers and shirts to the traditional dress.

The dress of the Minicoy woman consists of a blue or green undercloth and a long robe, known as libus, which goes from shoulder to ankle. Made of brick-red cloth with black stripes, it has an opening only at the neck, where there is generally embroidery. Clothing with floral designs is worn on special occasions. A piece of black cloth serves the purpose of a headdress and, of late, a white cloth is also being used by some women to cover the face down to the chin.

Ornaments

The women of the islands other than Minicoy use ornaments in profusion. An aranchan around the waist, vala or kodam on the wrists, koodu and alikkath on the ears and an urukku around the neck are the usual ornaments of a woman. The waist-belt is either of gold or of silver. It can be of two types: the kannadi aracha, about one inch broad with a lock; and the adippu, which is around chain. The vala is an ordinary bangle while the kodakam used like a bracelet. The koodu is an eardrop pyramidal in shape, while alikkath are small rings worn on the outer rim of the ear. The most popular among the necklaces is the urukku, a chain of black beads intertwined with gold.

Bridal ornaments, however, are more elaborate, with a variety of necklaces and other jewellery like gold or silver anklets. Minicoy women are more frugal in wearing ornaments. Certain traditional restrictions on the use of jewellery also exist. Only Manikka women (the female folk of the Manikfans) are allowed to wear gold ornaments, while women belonging to other classes wear ornaments made of silver. Earrings and a chain around the neck are their characteristic ornaments. Every woman is seen wearing a modram, a ring on the finger.

Settlement, Land Reforms and House Construction

There are no records of the islands showing the details of land held by individuals. In the Lakshadweep group there were paimash, registers showing the number of coconut trees held by an individual on pandaram (government land) and the amount of tree tax to be paid by him. These registers were maintained since 1892 and revised once in twelve years. In the Amini group there was a property register prepared in 1875, which was called the Land Manual and was corrected as late as 1935, which showed the details of coconut trees and their owners. In the past, wealth was estimated in terms of coconut trees and houses owned.

Land on the islands may be broadly classified into two groups: lands under private ownership, called janmon lands; and lands under Government ownership, known as pandaram lands. Janmon land may be further classified as that which is directly in the possession of the janmi (landlord) and that which has been transferred and is in the possession of a kudiyan or tenant. Government lands are also of two types: lands under the absolute control of the Government and lands which have been made over to private individuals on lease.

Three types of tenancy in private janmon lands existed on the islands: nadapu tenancy, pattam tenancy and house site tenancy. Nadapu tenancy was a peculiar system prevalent in Kavarathi, Agatti, Amini and Androth islands. Under this system tenants have to render a series of customary services to the landlord from time to time. A nadapu normally consisted of 30 to 40 trees granted by a landlord to his tenant.

Under pattam tenancy, a contract is made between the parties to render services on some occasions. For example, when the landlord goes on a voyage, he enters into an agreement with people for sailing his odam, for which, besides some remuneration, concessions are granted to the tenants to allow them to plant trees, etc.

Under the House site tenancy system, the house site belonged to the landlord. The tenant was permitted to build a house on the site. No rent was demanded for the site, but certain customary duties were involved, such as helping the landlord with labour on special occasions. The tenant could live in the house as long as he liked, but if the house was dismantled, the site reverted to the landlord.

These tenancy systems of the islands have undergone several changes, specially after the introduction of the Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi Islands Land Revenue and Tenancy Regulations of 1965, which provide, among other things, for the conferment of occupancy rights. These changes have brought a revolution in the lifestyle of the people, specially the Melacheries of the Lakshadweep and Amini groups of islands and the Raveris of Minicoy.

Land and tenancy reforms in the islands have been social and economic issues due to the peculiar system of service tenancy in vogue. Landlords depend too much on their tenants, who are obliged to serve them for favour of trees, land, boats, etc. As there were no shops on the islands where the daily necessities of life could be bought or bartered, nor was there any local market for the island produce, the only channel for procuring their needs and for selling their products was through their landlords. The ecological set-up of the island compelled landlords and tenants to depend on each other.

House Construction

Nature has provided sufficient materials to construct houses on these isolated islands. The bricks made of sand collected from the sea-shore, the jelly, which works as cement, collected from the lagoon area of the sea, the coconut leaves used for thatching roofs, these are some of the materials which have been provided by the existing ecology for constructing their houses in the Lakshadweep islands.

By a rough estimate, about 84 per cent of the houses on the islands have walls made of stone and only 16 per cent have walls made of grass, leaves and reeds. So far as thatching is concerned, the islanders use mainly coconut leaves. About 70 per cent houses have roofs made of coconut leaves while approximately 28 per cent have tiled roofs. I was told at Kavarathi that Minicoy has more tiled houses than the Amini group, nearly 60 per cent. This is due to their income from jobs such as employment in foreign shipping companies, export of fish, etc. On the economically backward islands like Agatti, Kiltan and Chetlat the standard of houses is noticeably lower than on other islands.

Communications

Communications on the islands are still in a primitive stage, although many improvements have been made after 1956. As there is no scope for road communication, there is no ques-tion of its improvement, although some pucca roads of a few kilometres have been cons-tructed linking the circuit house or dak bungalow with the secretariat or jetty on each island.

Previously the islanders used their own country boats, known as odams in the Laccadive and Amini groups of islands and odies in Minicoy, for visiting the mainland as well as making inter-island contacts. The traditional means of transport in the territory was the country-made sailing vessel. These odams and odies are of various sizes and shapes, built to carry about 70 to 400 tons of cargo. The people of Chetlat island are expert in making these traditional vessels. On Bangaram, which is almost uninhabited, a special type of wood is found, which is used in making odams. Coconut wood is also used. The wood of the breadfruit tree is also used in making these country boats, which measure from 10 to 15 metres. In the past, the islanders used to build small boats without using any wood. They were made of twisted coir and fish oil was applied to make them water-tight. Not a single iron nail was used in such coir boats. However, the people of Minicoy used iron nails extensively in building their odies.

Sailing vessels used to operate only during the months from September to May as they were not strong enough to withstand the fury of the south-west monsoon. Their ports of call depended on seasonal winds. A traditional navigator told me that previously they did not see the people other islands for three or four months, specially during the monsoon, nor did they visit the mainland during these months.

But the situation is completely changed now, as mechanised boats have been pressed into service by the administration, specially after 1970. This has eased the problem of communication and transportation. Big ships like the Tipu Sultan and many other speedboats are in operation these days, and an islander can reach the mainland in 24 to 30 hours.

Other modern means of communication like telephones and fax are in operation on some of the islands, through which quick communication is possible with any part of the world. Postal facilities, bank facilities, treasury works, etc., have brought the islands close to the rest of the country and to the world. Some islands like Kavarathi and Agatti are linked with Delhi Dooradarshan through microwave.

The islanders use bicycles for moving around. A few of them have three-wheelers for carrying passengers from the jetty to their place of stay or to and from the helipad.

Flora and Fauna

The surface soil of coral sand contains 95 per cent calcium, hence most of the islands are barren with little spontaneous vegetation. However, the soil and the climatic conditions are ideal for coconut cultivation, and coconut therefore forms the staple product. Coconut is the spine of the island economy, with copra and coir forming the major export items, besides fish.

Two varieties of coconut, locally called thenga, are cultivated here. The common tall variety does not give sufficient nuts, but the micro variety, which is about 5 or 6 ft tall, gives high yield, though the size of the nut is small. The micro variety copra has high oil content when compared with the ordinary variety. Breadfruit, papaya, drumstick, etc., are also found on all islands, though in limited quantity. The distribution of flora is more or less similar on all the islands.

There are no forests in the entire territory, although some bushes are seen. Vegetables are neither cultivated nor a part of the daily diet. However, the Agriculture Department produces some vegetables in its demonstration farms on different islands.

The fauna of any oceanic island is generally very restricted due to the difficulty of crossing an extensive barrier of sea. However, the marine life of a coral sea is very elaborate and colourful. It is almost impossible to condense the thousands of forms found in the lagoons and adjacent seas of the Lakshadweep archipelago, and therefore this description is limited to the most common fish there.

Tuna, shark, sailfish, seer, flying fish, turtles, etc., are found in the Lakshadweep sea area. Out of total fish catch, 80 per cent is of tuna. Turtles are of two types, green turtles and hawksbills. The fat of green turtles is used to make boats waterproof. Sometimes dolphins are also found in the sea but are not commonly hunted. The islanders at Agatti reported that whenever they saw whales in the sea, they avoided hunting them as their arrival was considered auspicious for the islands.

While describing the fauna of Lakshadweep, the importance of molluscan forms cannot be overlooked since they are magnificent in appearance and important from the economic point of view for the islanders. The money cowrie is abundant in the shallow waters of the lagoons and on the reefs. Cowries are picked up from the reef area at low tide, mainly by the womenfolk during their spare time, and are largely sold on the mainland.

Cattle and goats are reared on the islands in a very small way. Dearth of fodder is a major problem. As a result, the yield from these animals is very poor. Poultry also is reared. Cats are common, but dogs are almost wholly absent. There are no poisonous snakes on the islands, but they are infested with rats and mosquitoes. The rats bring about a great deal of damage to coconut trees. Different types of birds are also seen on the islands, some of which are migratory. There is a legend substantiating the total absence of the crow from Kavarathi island. A Muslim saint, Sheire Muhammad Kasim Walliwullah (17th century), once visited Kavarathi and was doing vajju before offering namaj at the Ujra Mosque when a crow defiled his dress with its droppings. The saint cursed the crow to leave the island immediately, and since then no crow has been seen on the island. However, at Pitti island, which is uninhabited and is located only 24 km from Kavarathi, crows and many other birds are found. Pitti has been declared a bird sanctuary.

Contd...

[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]


HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

 [ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]


© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi