Ecological References in the Folksongs of the Kurichiyan Tribe of Wayanad – Kerala

Ecological References in the Folksongs of the
Kurichiyan Tribe of Kerala
by Bindu Ramachandran

Abstract: This article is on the folksongs of the Kurichiyans, one of many settled agricultural tribes of the Wayanad district of Kerala. Their culture is enriched by a number of folksongs and myths, which depict their traditional pattern of life and occupation, including the interesting ecological adaptations they have developed because of their constant interaction with nature. An attempt is made in this article to show how most of the Kurichiyan folksongs are, in one way or another, a narration of some environmental aspect of their life — whether about birds, animals, plants, wind, or rain. A few songs are analyzed here to draw out the relationship between this tribal community and the ecosystem they inhabit and depend on.

[…] The tribes of Wayanad constitute Paniyan, Adiyan, Mullaluruman, Uralikuruman, Kattunaiken, etc. The Kurichiyans are mainly a settled agricultural community who practise co-operative farming and have joint ownership of property. It is said that the word ‘kurichiyan’ came from the two words, ‘kuri’ and ‘chiyan’, kuri’ meaning target and ‘chiyan’ meaning people, and therefore, ‘Kurichiyans’ meaning those who hunt or shoot at the target. They are famous for hunting. They claim an equal status with Brahmins and even call themselves Malanamboothiries. They practice untouchablility towards all castes other than Brahmins. Kurichiyans have their own language with alphabet.

They follow the joint family system and are matrilineal in inheritance, with the Karanavar as the supreme authority. The Kurichiyans are highly religious and follow an animistic form of religion. They are an exceptionally interesting tribe possessing a complex culture with a variety of myths and folksongs. Their linkage with ecological factors connected with life and livelihood are clearly highlighted in their songs, which are transmitted through the oral tradition. Being a settled agriculture community, their folksongs also reflect the relationship between land, water, animals and climatic factors. […]

Origin Myth of Kurichiyans

In the distant past, before creation, the sky was on top and the earth far below, covered by sea. At that time, Vadakkari Bhagavathi, the Kurichiyan deity had a dream in which the Almighty ordered her to find a place to create 1001 castes. God also allowed her to move the sea sidewards and then she started the work. Young virgins were given as labourers. On completion of the work, the workers went out to meet God and ask for remuneration. But He said he would not give any remuneration till he had examined the quality of the work. God, therefore, created a bird called ‘Chenthamarapakshi’ (a bird from a red lotus) and asked the bird to fly around the earth and find out the quality of the work. After the examination, the bird found a fault – the work was incomplete in one place. There were two hills standing close together without touching and there was water between the hills. On both the hills God created and placed 18 human castes, and different types of animals and plants — the Kurichiyan caste was one among them. There are various songs such as Narippattu, Kaathippattu, KoomanpattuMampattu, Onthupattu, Pakshippaattu, Mayilppattu, Marappattu, TheeppattuPooppattu, etc. As the names indicate, these songs are mainly concerned with the description of birds, animals, plants and other ecological factors. When they perform these songs during special occasions, one of the members imitates the movements of that particular creature. Though Kurichiyans have their own language, their songs follow the ordinary folk language of North Malabar. […]

Songs and Ecological References

[…] The existing Banasura hill of Wayanad has two peaks – the bigger one is known as large hibiscus and the smaller one as small hibiscus. The hibiscus is a sacred flower used for religious purposes. These hibiscus flowers are used for poojas of Lord Malakkari to retain prosperity and good will. Kurichiyans also believe that there is a sacred pond in the Banasura  hill called ‘Kanakachira’ (gold pond) and if anybody bathes in it and uses the ‘Padamanhal’ (dark yellow turmeric), they will be protected from all kinds of injuries, as they believe that the tuber itself contains blessings of Lord Malakkari. The Kurichiyans who are agriculturists believe that ecological factors like mountains, climate, and sea are the contributions of their beloved god and they worship paddy, hibiscus, turmeric and other plants as the sources of divine existence. The folksongs of Kurichiyans are embodied with ecological factors, which mould and shape their traditional beliefs with some contemporary aspects. […]

In the ‘Onthupattu’ (song of calotes which describes a simple food web in animal ecology), four calotes are mentioned: Aalonth, Pillonth, Charonth, and Vellonth. The habitats of these calotes are described differently, for example, Aalonth are found on the banyan tree, Charonth are seen on rocks, Vellonth in water and Pillonth in grass. This song also describes how these calotes are adapted to their respective ecosystems. […]

In addition, the Kaithappattu (song of pandanus), ‘Theeppattu’ (song of fire) and ‘Pooppattu’ (song of flowers) refer to ecological constituents such as animals, flowers, plants, fish, etc. […]

It is no doubt that the folksongs of Kurichiyans, whether in Wayanad or in Kannavam, are a lullaby of nature, moulded and shaped with ecological adaptations and traditional occupations. A study of the folksongs takes us back to their golden age when the Kurichiyans lived with no pollution in air, water or land, and depended purely on nature. Even their physique is blessed by nature.

Indian Folklore Research Journal, Vol.1, No.3, 2003: 35-40
© 2003 National Folklore Support Centre

Bindu Ramachandran
Department of Anthropolgy
Kannur University Thalassery Centre
Thalassery, Kerala
binduramachandran1@rediffmail.com

Learn more about the Kurichiyan community >>

“Tribal men and women mix freely, but with respect for each other [but] caste Hindu society in India is so convinced of its own superiority that it never stops to consider the nature of social organisation among tribal people. In fact it is one of the signs of the ‘educated’ barbarian of today that he cannot appreciate the qualities of people in any way different from himself – in looks or clothes, customs or rituals.” – Guest Column in India Today >>

Image © The Hindu for “The Adivasi in the mirror: The lynching of Madhu in Kerala must shock our conscience into recognising the dispossession of India’s tribals” by Nissim Mannathukkaren >>

Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” | Learn more about India’s caste system and the effects of “casteism” on tribal communities >>

“The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.” – Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta in “Are mega residential schools wiping out India’s Adivasi culture?” (The Hindu, 13 February 2021) | More about the role of tribal communities in preserving India’s biodiversity and ethnobotany >>

Tip: discover publications released by Indian publishers and institutions by typing “tribal children stories” in combination with the name of a tribal community (e.g. “Gond”, “Santal”, “Warli”), an Indian State or Union Territory (e.g. “Andaman”, “Tripura”, “Telangana”), a region (e.g. “Bastar”, “Northeast India”, “Nilgiri”), name of artist, author or publisher, and preferred language (“Tamil”, “Hindi”, “bilingual”).

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