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The Mukkuv¡r

A Fishing Community

G. John Samuel

This study of the lifestyle of the Mukkuv¡r is an attempt to focus on the sociological and anthropological backdrops and the behavioural pattern of a fishing community in Puthur, a coastal village in Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu. The Mukkuv¡r , a fishing community believed to have emigrated from Ceylon, are today found in Kanyakumari District, coastal areas of Kerala, Lakshadweep, and in some scattered areas of Karnataka. Although they are described a homogeneous ethnic group, their present lifestyle is believed to vary according to geographical, ecological and other influences.

The fishing industry has a significant place in the Indian economy as a dollar-spinner. It is sustained largely by life-risking, hard-working and socially ill-placed fisherfolk. Their fishing techniques are not very modern and their standard of living is poor. There are few sociological and anthropological studies of Indian fishing communities. The Mukkuv¡r  are one among the many groups of fisherfolk in the country. Scanty ethnographic and allied information on this group is available in travelogues and in district gazetteers. Buchanan (1807), Nagam Aiya (1891, 1906), Thurston (1900, 1907), L.K. Anantha Krishna Iyer (1909), William Logan (1887), and L.A. Krishna Iyer (1937) are a few such sources. Nirmala Bai (1980) and Stephen Sam (1982, 1983-84, 1986-87) have undertaken some research on the Mukkuv¡r , mostly based on oral tradition and on material available on their traditional occupation. There has been no research on their lifestyle using an integrated approach. This study may perhaps serve as a pilot study on such lines.

There are more than 40 villages in Kanyakumari District engaged principally in fishing, and more than 50 per cent of their inhabitants are Mukkuv¡r . This study was restricted to Puthur, a small village, as a study of all 40 villages would have required much more resources and time. It was taken up as a micro-level pilot study involving 10 months of fieldwork (June 1989 to March 1990) by G. Stephen and A. George.

An effort has been made to bring out the lifestyle of the Mukkuv¡r , with a special emphasis on their perception of the environment; and to compare it with the life patterns, traditions and beliefs, and rituals and rites of some tribal groups and agriculturists in Puthur village.

This study is divided into sections on location, setting and ethnology; ecology and environment; fishing techniques and technology; life cycle and rituals; magic and rites; and oral traditions.

Location, Setting and Ethnology

Puthur, a fishing hamlet in Kalkulam Taluk of Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu, is located on the west coast above Cape Comorin. It is bounded by Ma¸av¡½aku¼ichi on the east, Colochel on the west, Ma¸·aikk¡·u on the north, and by the ocean on the south. The famous shrine of the Hindu goddess Ma¸·aikk¡·u Amman is just 500 meters north of Puthur.

Ka¶iapa¶¶i¸am, a village consisting mostly of fisherfolk, about 5 km east of Puthur village, and Colochel, another fishing village, are said to have been centres of maritime transportation. Within a radius of 20 km of Puthur are villages like ‘Monday Market’ (Thingal Sandhai), Colochel, Neyyoor, Marthandam, Thuckalay, Eraniel Rajakkamangalam, and Mu¶¶am, connected among themselves and with Puthur by well-maintained roads and adequate vehicular transport. Fishermen from Puthur go to these places to sell their catch and to buy essentials and other requirements.

North of Puthur, the road from Nagercoil to Colochel runs along a lagoon. There is yet another road leading towards the north, connecting Ma¸·aikk¡·u and Monday Market. The lagoon meandering towards Trivandrum, believed to have been dug during the reign of the Travancore kings, has lost its importance as an inland waterway due to heavy silting: it is now used for bathing.

St. Lucy’s church, said to have been built in 1745 and improved in 1912, is to the east of Puthur, located on the sea-shore. There is a ‘kruzadi’ to the west, not far from the Ma¸·aikk¡·u Amman temple, with four crosses. Other significant features are two wells, a middle school, and a training centre for cottage industries.

The land in this village has an upper layer of sand and loam, which carries the risk of erosion and denudation. Scientific investigations revealed a rich mineral content that includes silicon, monozite, garnets, silimnites, ilemnite and zircon, leading to the establishment of the Indian Rare Earth Complex near Puthur. The edaphic and climatic conditions do not permit any vegetation other than coconut. There is an appreciably rich stretch of coconut plantations embanking the lagoons. A small portion of these is owned by people of the , Ku¼uppu N¡¶¡r, and other communities. Some of the land occupied by the dwellings of Mukkuv¡r families also belongs to individuals of other castes. However, the major part of the land utilised by the Mukkuv¡r for their housing, and pieces of land adjoining this area, called *Urvakai, are treated as the common property of the village, although they are owned by ecclesiastics belonging to the Kottar diocese. The passing of such land from individual holdings to the control of the clergy seems to be shrouded in mystery. None in the Mukkuv¡r community owns a piece of land in that village, although recently a few Mukkuv¡r have purchased land elsewhere.

The Mukkuv¡r have turned to the ocean for their existence instead of becoming agriculturists or pastoralists on infertile land that they do not own. This lack of ownership of land has created, of late, another problem. If their seafaring and fishing expertise is to be refined further in keeping with advanced techniques, the Mukkuv¡r must obtain modern nets, motor-propelled boats and other equipment: but they are unable to avail themselves of bank loans as they cannot pledge any land.

The population of Puthur was recorded as 3000, females constituting 58.3 per cent. Its age-wise and sex-wise distribution is shown in Fig. 5. 1.

In the eligible age group, more than 70 per cent are married. The women account for a greater percentage of the unmarried, due to certain social conditions and to their contribution to family income.

Employment and educational levels among the Mukkuv¡r in Puthur reveal an interesting feature. Of the total population of 3000, only 26 men and 16 women have jobs, while 9 people have taken to small commercial ventures.

Education does not attract many. Only 40 (23 females and 17 males) have had a formal education, in general education or in crafts like tailoring, 10 having completed the S.S.L.C. Currently, just 139 lads and lasses attend formal school. Many children begin to drop out from the fourth standard onwards. To them, formal education perhaps has no meaning or relevance. It is the non-formal education handed down to them that has a bearing on their lives. Skill at launching boats; competence in preparing and handling the nets and other equipment; developing endurance to withstand the rough sea; learning about weather, currents, wind and stars — these constitute their real education. It is interesting to watch youngsters being ushered into the sea by their elders.

The Mukkuv¡r live near their constant associate, the sea. Just as they look to the sea for their livelihood, their abodes too generally face the sea. These are mostly, small huts thatched with coconut palm. Only around 10 per cent are tiled houses. Here we see a direct relationship with the environment, in that materials are chosen to suit the soil, the costal weather, and the precipitational regime. The huts are in a conglomeration, having neither a proper layout nor space of more than 3 feet between adjacent ones. Even this housing is now saturated, since there is no scope for further expansion or extension.

The huts are rectangular, with an all-purpose hall, a kitchen and a pial. The tiled houses have a kitchen, a hall and a room. Both have thatched enclosures for bathing purposes. There are no toilets, the inhabitants using open places for defecation. Schematic plans appear in Fig. 5.2. The Mukkuv¡r are spread mostly in villages on the western coast in Kanyakumari District and in a few villages on the eastern coast in that district. Other coastal villages in Tamil Nadu mostly occupied by the Parathavar, another fishing sect. Small groups of Mukkuv¡r are found in inland villages too, located in areas adjacent to market-places. These inland settlers do not themselves engage in fishing: they market the catch of others.

In Cochin and the coastal areas to the south, the Mukkuv¡r are found in smaller numbers than on the Malabar coast. Similarly, they abound in Lakshadweep, probably having migrated from the Kerala coast. It is believed that the "Mugayar" or "Mogayar", a fishing community found in South Kanara, also belong to this ethnic group. C.A. Innis states that north of Cannanore, there are some fishermen known as "Mugayar" or "Mogayar". One view is that the Mugayar are probably river fishers and the Mukkuv¡r sea fishers, but the distinction is not seen to hold good in fact (Innis 1951: 126). Ethnographers are of the view that Mukkuv¡r and Mogayar are of the same group. L.K. Anantha Krishna Iyer (1909: 266) points out that the word "Mukkuv¡r" is connected with the Canarese word "Moger" coming from the same root, which means ‘to dive’. But J.F. Hall (1938: 64) contradicts this view, recording "Mogayars" as "Muhans". Mukkuv¡r are seldom seen on the Andhra coast. They are not found on the eastern coast except in parts of Kanyakumari District. The estern coast is mainly inhabited by the Parathavar group of fisherfolk.

Figure 1-Puthur Population: Age and Sex

Figure 2. Puthur Houses, Schematic

Figure 2. Puthur Houses, Schematic

According to Innis (1951: 126) and Thurston (1987: 107), it is believed that the Mukkuv¡r probably migrated from Ceylon and settled in Malabar. Evidence to establish this is not available. There is a reference to the Mukkuv¡r in Buchanan’s works: "The Mucua or in plural mucuar, are a tribe who lived near the sea-coast of Malayala, to the inland parts of which they seldom go, and beyond its limits, anyway, they rarely venture" (Buchanan 1807: 527).

The Mukkuv¡r of Kanyakumari District and those of Kerala have a considerable affinity. Mukkuv¡r from Kanyakumari District sail along the Kerala coast, but they do not venture towards the east coast although it is geographically proximate. That region abounds in the Parathavar fishing community. The spoken language of the Mukkuv¡r shows the great influence of Malayalam. There are many Mukkuv¡r who are capable of conversing freely and with confidence in Malayalam. The political identity of Kanyakumari as part of the erstwhile Travancore State is also cited as one of the reasons for resemblance and ethnic connection.

Still, there are a few cultural differences between the Mukkuv¡r of the southern parts of the western coast and those of the northern part. An important difference is that while the northerners practise marumakkat thayam (matriarchal lineage), quite significant in Kerala, those of the south adopt makkat thayam (patriarchal system), according to C.A. Innis (1951: 126). The Mukkuv¡r to the north follow the ‘house system’ peculiar to in Kerala, as evidenced in names like ‘Ponillam’, ‘Semmbillam’, ‘Karillam’, ‘Kachillam’ (pon: gold, sembu: copper, etc.). Those of the southern areas of Kanyakumari District do not have this system. It is therefore clear that while the Mukkuv¡r of Kanyakumari and those of Kerala share an ethnic identity, these are also a number of cultural differences between them. There exists a good deal of professional interaction as fishermen between them; but they do not have any marital alliances.

Nagam Aiya (1906: 405) writes that a group of fishermen (Mukkuv¡r) was brought into certain parts of Kanyakumari District by Kesava Pillai, Dewan of Travancore during the reign of Marthanda Varman, for developing those places and improving inland communications. However, conclusive evidence is not available to establish their place of origin. It is also observed that during the regime of Marthanda Varman, special efforts were made to enable fisherfolk, workmen engaged in the dyeing industry, and other artisans, to settle in these areas: grants of land were included. Some of the ancestors of the Mukkuv¡r of Kanyakumari are said to have possessed land, although none can boast of land ownership nowadays.

The Mukkuv¡r, although fisherfolk as a group, are not without social stratification. No ‘house system’ is prevalent among this community in Kanyakumari District, but there are two well-defined groups — Pulukkaiyars and Arayans. The word ‘Arayan’ connotes leadership. In Malabar, ‘Arayan’ is synonymous with ‘Mukkuv¡r (Innis 1951: 126; Buchanan 1807: 527; Thurston 1987: 107). Many of the Mukkuv¡r call themselves [‘Arayans’ and at the same time call their leader ‘Arayan’. Arayans were the ‘masters of ceremonies’ in the caste, affording leadership in the religious and social matrix of life. It is interesting to note that after about 1950, the functions of the Arayan have been appropriated by the clergy. The traditional roles of Arayans during festivals and social occasions are now lost. The Mukkuv¡r still like to be called Arayans, as a consequence of the low status extended to them socially. According to Thurston, they were placed in the social ladder below the Thiya and artisan groups (Thurston 1987: 107). Social practice demanded that they stop 24 feet away when talking to higher-caste people (Logan 1951: 118). Because of this they resent being referred to as Mukkuv¡r.

Pu«ukkaiyars are also Mukkuv¡r  in the real sense of the term: but there exists a deeply carved status difference between them and the Mukkuv¡r. Pu«ukkaiyars belonging as a whole to a far lower economic stratum. No marriages among the two groups are permitted. The difference is so deep-rooted that they live at appoint ends of the village. It is said that the economic differences derived from possession of fishing nets and other equipment. Until the time of the century, Pu«ukkaiyars did not possess any equipment for persuing their profession independently. They were treated much as ‘serfs’ by the Arayans, doing the work of servants.

There is an interesting anecdote about the treatment meted out to Pu«ukkaiyars by Arayans. It is said that when Daniel was Arayan (1950), he used to supervise work on the shore. During his visits two Pu«ukkaiyars held umbrellas to protect him from the sun, which one more aide carried his case containing betel leaves, nuts, etc. He would sit in a lone chair laid exclusively for him, while the Pu«ukkaiyars stood in the hot sun and sand. During his later days there was a slow decline in his control over the Pu«ukkaiyars. Some Pu«ukkaiyars, servants of his successor Mundan, managed to obtain their own fishing net (karamodi). This gave them crucial self-reliance and gradually enabled them to shake off their servitude.

Pu«ukkaiyars are said to have been ill-treated, even to the extent of being made untouchables. It is stated that when Daniel was Arayan, some Pu«ukkaiyars once sat on his cot. This act so angered Daniel that he condemned all the fibre (n¡r) and fully refurbished the cot. The Pu«ukkaiyars had to accept whatever they were paid for their labour. They were not invited to weddings and other rituals by the Arayans.

The word ‘Arayan’ refers both to the leader of the Mukkuv¡r  and to the higher group among them. The Arayan, once looked up to by all the Mukkuv¡r  for the dispassionate dispensation of justice, slowly lost this position for the Pu«ukkaiyars. The two groups started looking up to different people of the settling of their disputes. While the Arayans continued to resort to the Arayan, the Pu«ukkaiyars started going to the landlord (pa¸¸aiyar) of nearly K£ttumangalam. This landlord was from a different community — ‘Ku¼uppu’, colloquially called ‘Krishan Vakaikkarar’. He would send for the Arayans and, after listening to both sides, would pacify them and effect an abiding reconciliation. The Arayans sometimes used to drive the Pu«ukkaiyars away from their villages, at which they would rush to the K£ttumangalam landlord. Such clashes became more frequent and pronounced day-by-day.

During Daniel’s tenure as Arayan, a group of Arayans was once learning kaliyattam, a kind of martial dance. Some passing Pu«ukkaiyars seem to have jeered at them. This sparked off a riot leading to the death of 2 Pu«ukkaiyars, serious injury to 4 more, and the expulsion of all Pu«ukkaiyars from the village. A case was registered. Daniel appeared on behalf of the Arayans and the K£ttumangalam landlord for the Pu«ukkaiyars.

Also disturbing to the Pu«ukkaiyars was the discrimination they faced under the altar, where they stood as Christians. During the solemnization of weddings, bride and groom would be seated in chairs specially kept for the purpose. These chairs would be removed, however, and Pu«ukkaiyars couples made to sit on the ground. When the Pu«ukkaiyars attained a better economic status and started claiming equal treatment, this was denied them both by the Arayans and by the Church. Outraged by such humiliation, the Pu«ukkaiyars decided to switch over to Hinduism and adopt Ma¸·aikka·u Amman as their deity. The parish priests, shocked at this, invited the Pu«ukkaiyars to embrace Christianity again and permitted them to bring their own bridal chairs to church. Eventually the Arayans were also made to bring their own chairs, and only then did, the Pu«ukkaiyars return to Christianity.

These contradictions have melted away of late, but not totally. Occasionally the embers of enmity may become live flames. There are not many differences between the social customs and life-cycle rituals of the groups.

The conflict among the Arayans and the Pu«ukkaiyars on the ground that they belong to different castes does not hold water. The difference is not ethnic but economic. Arayans themselves accept the Pu«ukkaiyars as Mukkuv¡r  although they do not concede them equality. The Pu«ukkaiyars, because they did not posses fishing equipment and were entirely dependent on the Arayans for their livelihood, were driven to such a subservient position that the Arayans felt that they stood out as a distinct class.

The fisherfolk of Puthur have generally good contacts with neighbouring fishing villages. Ka¶iapa¶¶i¸am village is mostly occupied by Pu«ukkaiyars, and so is Pa½½am. There are matrimonial alliances between the Pu«ukkaiyars of Puthur and these villages. It is observed that villages west of Puthur have a preponderance of Arayans, while those to the east are mostly occupied by Pu«ukkaiyars.

Mukkuv¡r  are found in many fishing hamlets on the west coast, though Malabar to Karnataka. The fishing villages have gaps of up to 3 km between them, occupied mostly by coconut groves. Each village has an independent existence, but all maintain working relations as well as a social coherence. They exchange visits during weddings and other social occasions and rituals. Their maritime exercises too afford them opportunities to meet in mid-sea, which they are said to welcome. They speak of their career and economic difficulties, share food, discuss local occurrences and events, and help one another when situation warrant it. They stand united whenever there is a threat to any of them.

Ma¸·aikka·u, just to the north of Puthur, is a village where the major population is from the N¡¶¡r community. The temple of the goddess Ma¸·aikka·u Amman is quite famous in the area. People of various castes from all over Kanyakumari District visit this temple in large numbers during the annual festival in March. Puthur is also busy during this festival. Its people allow the visiting devotees to sleep in their front yards and quite often help with cooking utensils, firewood, water, etc. There is much interaction between the visitors, who come to worship a Hindu goddess, and the local people, mostly followers of Christianity. There is remarkable religious tolerance and a confluence of inland dwellers and the coastal community. A very big temporary market comes up, selling fish, condiments, sweets, fruits, etc., and a vast sea of humans competing with the sea. The fisherfolk do not mind certain inconveniences to them during this festival. There is a traditional belief that Ma¸·aikka·u Amman and Lucy, a Catholic saint, are sisters.

The Mukkuv¡r  are reported to have formed a dependable corps of soldiers of Marthanda Varman, the chieftain of Travancore (Nagam Aiya, 1906: 350). It is said that women belonging to families which rebelled against Marthanda Varman were sold as slaves to the Mukkuv¡r  (Nagam Aiya 1906: 338).

There is generally a concord and an amount of contradiction between Mukkuv¡r  and the N¡¶¡r. N¡¶¡rs and Mukkuv¡r  exchange their produce, like jaggery and sweet toddy from one side and fresh and dried fish from the other. The fisherfolk buy their domestic needs from shops mostly owned by N¡¶¡rs. Similarly, the Mukkuv¡r  have close associations with Moplahs in Malabar, even to the extent of matrimonial relationships (Thurston 1987: 110) Such relations extend beyond these two communities. There is an eating place at the Ma¸·aikka·u junction, run by a Muslim. For a fisherman the day begins there, with an invigorating cup of tea or breakfast, before setting sail on the rough sea. What happens at dawn is repeated at dusk. The fishermen of Puthur take the financial support of other communities like the N¡¶¡rs and the Ku¤uppu. They borrow money, sometimes even without interest, and are said to be very prompt and regular in repaying it.

Though the community practises an extended family system normally, there are a few instances of nuclear familes too. The earning husband is invested with powers on larger issues like marriage, rituals and rites, and he enjoys the greatest control in the purchase of costly things. The wife, in the husband’s absence — a common phenomenon — runs the family, according for daily purchases and saving a little. She has to look to her husband’s decision on major items of expenditure.

The consumption of alcohol is virtually an ‘occupational hazard’ for the Mukkuv¡r  fishing community. The beating of wife and children by an inebriated man is common. The women of the community are victims of sexual violence perpetrated by their strongly built husbands, roughened by their hard life, when in a state of intoxication. They are forced to satiate their men, who are indifferent to their responses, tastes and willingness.

Adequate housing facilities are not available for the growing population. The dearth of land, and economic backwardness account for this. Sons staying with parents is but a Hobson’s choice, because they have neither the land for housing nor the facilities to set out to sea independently. On the demise of a man, his fishing equipment is distributed among his sons, who then run their separate families in the same precincts.

The Mukkuv¡r  were originally Hindus. Foreign incursions into the social web influenced their religion. The Christian missionaries, with their commitment to spreading their religion, found the poverty, backwardness, social suppression and ignorance a fertile ground for their work.The higher taxes on fishing communities also added to their agony. Fr. Francis Xavier (1543) was very successful in converting many of the Mukkuv¡r  Christianity. The missionaries tried to retrieve the Mukkuv¡r  from their abject poverty, squalor, starvation, and lack of recognition by the higher strata of society. Christianity, known for its concern for the poor, became a ready palliative for all social and economic evils for the Mukkuv¡r . They were give food, clothing, relief from taxes, and many other benefits. Ill-treated by other Hindu caste people, the Mukkuv¡r  found a totally different acceptance and equality among the Christians. Fr. Francis Xavier, with the respect that he commanded among the British officers in Tirunelveli and in stretches of erstwhile Travancore, enjoyed a good deal of public confidence.

The Christian missionaries in general had some influence with the bureaucracy, hence they could get many concessions for converts (Velu Pillai, 1940: 537–38). The Mukkuv¡r  were permitted to wear upper garments. An inscription in St. Thomas’ church at Muttam testifies to the tax relief and remissions granted to the Mukkuv¡r  (Nagam Aiya 1906: 146). It is observed that fishermen in Travancore had to pay taxes annually and those in areas dominated by the Dutch had to give 8 pounds of fish everyday to the officers (L.K. Anantha Krishna Iyer 1909: 252). Col. Munroe (1811–15) removed the taxes levied on fishing (Nagam Aiya, 1906: 463). Due to all these factors, Christianity took firm root among the Mukkuv¡r.

Christianity, which offered social status to the Mukkuv¡r , could not in the long run afford them the relief they looked for. Deep-rooted caste differences and barriers could not be removed; the Jesuits were unable to succeed in this. This factor not only impeded the initial momentum in the spread of Christianity, is also allowed a sense of disappointment to set in among the Mukkuv¡r . While the foreign missionaries felt the caste system an obstruction to the speedy spread of Christianity, converts like, the Mukkuv¡r  found that even this religion could not rise above the long-grown barriers of the caste system; ultimately both were disappointed (Forrester 1980: 42).

The Mukkuv¡r  are addicted to alcohol, even though Christianity taboos it. Invariably, men take drinks after Holy Communion on Sundays. The Church permits them to take food only after drinking some water, and that after the lapse of an hour. The Mukkuv¡r  take advantage of this: they overcome the taboo by taking a few drops of water before consuming alcohol.

Catholics seem to have Idianized Christianity. St. Lucy’s church, in the east of Puthur, houses shrines to St. Mary and St. Lucy. As the Indian religions are Mother-oriented, so do sacred virgins occupy the prime position among the Catholics. There are many local legends prevalent, in one of which St. Lucy is called Kannamma, (meaning grandmother). According to local legend Kannamma, the religious-minded daughter of a minister, declined the marital advances of the king. Angered, the king ordered that her eyes be gouged out, but they reappeared. After her death her statue, with eyes held in a hand, was laid in a box, marked for Puthur and brought by ship to a spot near the village. Discovering it, the fishing folk of Ka¶iapa¶¶inam enshrined it, facing east, in their temple. To their dismay, they found the statue had moved towards Puthur, which lies in the west. Their initial reluctance to give away the statue was ended by an epidemic believed to have been caused by St. Lucy. The statue now lies consecrated in Puthur Chapel.

Although St. Mary enjoys the highest status, other saints are also worshipped by the people of Puthur. Supplications to the Lord are made through St. Mary, St. Lucy, St. Xavier, St. Thomas and St. Antony. The concept of ‘family deities’ also finds expression. Saints and Apostles are considered family deities and icons or pictures of them, supposed to ward off evil spirits, diseases, etc., adron houses. Angels like Gabriel and Michael are also held in reverence. Almost all are credited with various boons and functional powers related to pregnancy, disease, etc. Toeing the traditional line of the Hindus, the Catholics of Puthur too offer prayers and candles for being blessed with pregnancy.

In a similar vein, the Catholics associate St. Lucy with diseases like chicken-pox and cholera. It is believed that evil spirits, with the permission of St. Lucy, cause epidemics. An epidemic is thus viewed as a manifestation of St. Lucy’s wrath: the people of Puthur then make a bee-line to her shrine, apart from seeking blessings and cures from Hindu goddesses like Ma¸·aikka·u Amman, who was worshipped by them before their conversion.

The parish priest, the spiritual head of the fishing folk, assumes the role of village leader too. He nominates a body which governs both the parish and the village. This body consists of educated people who abide by the rulings of the priest. Clashes and quarrels are settled, and concessions and other privileges granted, by this village committee. As the housing areas are owned by the Church, the fishing folk pay it 5 per cent of their income. This applies only to people using dragnets. Nowadays laxity has set in and the non-payment of this tax is not viewed seriously.

With the rise of the church and its power to take over land, the role of headman became insignificant. Headmanship eventually came to vest in the parish priest. The 1981 communal clashes in Ma¸·aikka·u can be cited as an instance. The pealing of the church bell made the people assemble. They were informed of the imminent danger and dashed to ready themselves. This practice is followed in moments of crisis, and even today government officials or police personnel meet the parish priest when an enquiry is to be initiated against anyone in the village. The granting of loans is also done through the priest.

To sum up, we may say that Christianity has had on this ethnic group an impact both positive and negative. While in the initial stages conversion afforded them succour and a social status, in the long run it failed to release them from social evils like caste. For its survival, Christianity had to absorb the traditional culture; and to consolidate its position the Church was also obliged to absorb the social structures indirectly. Gradually the land became the property of the parish and the leadership of the Arayan fell into the hands of the parish priest.

Perception of the Environment

Certain occupational groups are constantly exposed to various environmental situations and ecological conditions. This exposure inevitably leads to the acquisition of various types of knowledge, skills and talents. Different occupational groups are bound to have different kinds of experience: for example, the fund of knowledge acquired by agriculturists is quite different from that of fishermen. Each group has transmitted acquired skills and knowledge down from generation to generation. Based on changing demands, these are reworked and find their place in new settings, part of the changing total ecological setting. People also adapt to these changes and adopt new patterns of life.

That man’s life is closely linked with his environment is seen clearly in Puthur. The rugged coast, the soil, the roaring sea with its tides and currents, depth unfathomed, the life within the mass of water, the wind, the sun, precipitation, all bear upon and add meaning to the Mukkuv¡r ’s life. The Mukkuv¡r  attribute every aspect of their life to their perception of the sea. This section aims at presenting the environmental features of the village, associating them with basic primordial forces, and so interpreting various aspects of the life of the Mukkuv¡r.


The interaction of water and earth has resulted in a soil condition peculiar to this area. The upper soil in the village is a mixture of sand and loam which runs just two feet deep. Below this level, down to ten feet, is black and white sand rich in minerals. Black clay is found at a still lower level.

Vettumadai, situated between Puthur and Kottilpadu, is a village projecting into the Arabian Sea. This projection of land protects Puthur from the force of the waves. Due to incessant removal of sand, however, the projection has thinned down and Puthur is now the victim of severe high tides.

Three kilometres from the shore lies a rock called Adumeichan Parai or Melakkal, 186 square metres in area and rising 2 metres above sea level. The sea is 20 metres deep in this place. Another rock, 2 km east of the above rock, is Kelakkal, about 45 square metres in area. According to local tradition, the land extended up to these two rocks in ancient times. The first mentioned rock, Adumeichan Paria, is so named because of the belief that sheep grazed there earlier.

The fisherfolk venture up to 30 km out to sea. The sea-bed gradually slopes for 4 km where the depth is only 20–25 metres. Later it becomes very deep. Sand is found up to 500 metres from the shore; up to 3 km it is pebbles, soft rocks and sand; beyond this is mud and rocks, both small and large.

There is great interaction between the life in the sea and that on the coast. Humans on the coast are very largely influenced by the sea, and Mukkuv¡r  have a good perception of this. The vegetation of Puthur and its animal life are also interdependent with the sea’s life. There is a continuous cycle of life that contributes to the richness of plankton, which in turn forms the prey of aquatic creatures big and small. These animals have a bearing on the life of the Mukkuv¡r , influencing their economic, social, and cultural life and being reflected in their customs, mores and cultural patterns.


The soil of Puthur is good for coconut, and in the northern part of the village it is cultivated in plenty. No more interest is shown in coconut cultivation as the land is owned by the church. Plantain is very commonly grown in houses, and trees like Thespesia populnea, Hyperanthera moringa, holly-leaved berbery, Odina wordier, cassia and Jatropha curcas are found as bathroom shelters. Papaya and guava are grown in a few homes. In the infertile, barren land Vinca Rose, Calotropics gigantea, the thron apple, Sterculia foetida, hedge-cotton, cactus, milk hedge varieties, sweet scented screw pine, Phyilanthus niruri and Amranthus spinosus are found and are used in fences. Rose, jasmine, hibiscus and table rose are a few ornamental flowers used in decorating homes.

Though numerous sea plants are found, the most commonly known are algae. Some 2 km into the sea we find Sida hwnilis (kotaipaci) floating on the water surface. Certain water plants like satam parai grow on rocks and are used for decorative purposes. Vallisneria spirilas (patchap paci) grows on tiny stones. Since it does not permit the fishing net to trap completely, it is called thandapara.

Poultry, dogs, cats, sheep and pigs are generally reared in Puthur. Sixty per cent of the houses have dogs, hens and cats; 10 per cent keep sheep; and 20 per cent rear pigs. Only one house has a cow. These apart, birds like crows, cranes, falcons, kingfishers and sparrows and animals like squirrels and chameleons are commonly seen.

A kind of sea bird resembling a duck, but small and with a long neck, locally called karuvandu, lives some 20 km away into the sea. The fishing folk believe that shoals of fish are more likely to be available in places where these birds live. Sea herons are found on rocks between 3 and 20 km into the sea. Also called pullu (which literally means ‘bird’), these are seen in large numbers in the months from February to June.

Sea logs, mostly found a kilometre into the sea, are believed by the fishing folk to destroy fish on a large scale. They are considered useless and are never trapped. Sharks (sellappillai) are seen 20 km into the sea. Dangerous creatures, there are called ‘King of the Ocean’. They are never mentioned by name by the fishing folk; and whenever sighted, they are worshipped with awe. Whales are found 3 km off to sea, like floating rocks. Catamarans are easily toppled by sharks and whales. Since modern fishing technology has not made any dent among the fishing folk of Puthur, they seldom attempt to capture sharks or whales.

Tetrodon immaculatus (pettai), Diodon brachiatus (mullam pettai), snakes, starfish (katal vilakku), Hippocampus guttulatus (kudirai meen), crabs, murai, vanda sori, karupatti sori, alumba sori, rajatimlei (odukku), nerinji, sangu, mullan sangu, valampuri sangu, sovi sangu, kadal sippi, urula sangu, eluthani, vali sippi and sippukai sangu are widely found and not edibile. Sangu and sippi varieties are used for decorative purposes. Insects found on the shore (nariyen, odalu and kilavan) are used as bait in fishing.

More than a hundred varieties of fish are found in the sea off Puthur. Table 5.3 lists them according to the nets and seasons in which they are mostly caught.


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