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
[email protected]

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 >>

Photo: Report on Women’s Rights, p. 15

Equality of Opportunity in matters of Public Employment
Constitution Article 15

Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.—(1) The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them. (2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to— (a) access to shops, public restaurants, hotels and places of public entertainment; or (b) the use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public. (3) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making any special provision for women and children. 2 [(4) Nothing in this article or in clause (2) of article 29 shall prevent the State from making any special provision for the advancement of any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.]

Source: pp. 9 & 16, “Women’s Rights in India: An Analytical Study of The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and The Indian Constitution, Legislations, Schemes, Policies & Judgements 2021” by Research Division, National Human Rights Commission, India ( | Learn more >>
Date Visited: 9 May 2023

“The contribution of [over 200,000] charities—which range from small concerns to vast India-wide networks—to development and the individual lives of millions of poor Indians is incalculable. Activist groups helped India gain independence in 1947 and have since helped restrain the state’s excesses and compensate for its weaknesses.” – Civil society in India >>

“Doctors in the region [Palakkad district] argue that while the proportion of people with mental illnesses is not unusually high, the problem is a crisis because of their socioeconomic vulnerability.” […] “The non-inclusivity of Adivasis is nothing but racial discrimination. Adivasis were always ruled.” | In-depth analysis ( 5 April 2023) >>

“Tribal languages are a treasure trove of knowledge about a region’s flora, fauna and medicinal plants. Usually, this information is passed from generation to generation. However, when a language declines, that knowledge system is completely gone.” – Ayesha Kidwai (Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) quoted by Abhijit Mohanty in “Seven decades after independence, many tribal languages in India face extinction threat” | Learn more about the work done by the People’s Linguistic Survey of India and endangered languages worldwide >>

“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 (The Hindu) | Learn more about the role of tribal communities in fostering biodiversity, ethnobotany and cultural diversity | Success stories | Tribal identity >>

“I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and … toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.” – George Orwell | Learn more: Childhood | Customs | Games and leisure time | Literature – fiction | Storytelling >>

[*] Some clarifications on caste-related issues by reputed scholars

Understanding “caste” in the context of Indian democracy: The “Poona Pact of 1932”
“Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar differed over how to address caste inequities through the electoral system. Their exchanges led to the Poona Pact of 1932, which shaped the reservation system in India’s electoral politics. […]
Two prominent figures who have significantly contributed to this discourse are Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation, and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Father of the Constitution. The two stalwarts of Indian politics, while revered equally by the public, had contrasting views on the caste system. Their subsequent debates have shaped the course of Indian society and politics. While Gandhi denounced untouchability, he did not condemn the varna system, a social hierarchy based on occupation, for most of his life. He believed in reforming the caste system through the abolition of untouchability and by giving equal status to each occupation. On the other hand, BR Ambedkar, a Dalit himself, argued that the caste system disorganised and ‘demoralised Hindu society, reducing it to a collection of castes’. […] 
And yet, despite their differences, they developed an understanding to work for the betterment of the marginalised.” – Rishabh Sharma in “How Ambedkar and Gandhi’s contrasting views paved way for caste reservation” (India Today, 6 October 2023)

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“That upper caste groups should declare themselves to be OBCs [Other Backward Castes] and want to avail of the reservation policy is a pandering to caste politics of course, as also are caste vote-banks. It is partially a reflection of the insecurity that the neo-liberal market economy has created among the middle-class. Opportunities are limited, jobs are scarce and so far ‘development’ remains a slogan. There’s a lot that is being done to keep caste going in spite of saying that we are trying to erode caste. We are, of course, dodging the real issue. It’s true that there has been a great deal of exploitation of Dalit groups and OBC’s in past history; making amends or even just claiming that we are a democracy based on social justice demands far more than just reservations. The solution lies in changing the quality of life of half the Indian population by giving them their right to food, water, education, health care, employment, and social justice. This, no government so far has been willing to do, because it means a radical change in governance and its priorities.” – Romila Thapar  (Emeritus Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University) interviewed by Nikhil Pandhi (Caravan Magazine, 7 October 2015)

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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.” – Book review by Dilip Mandal for Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (The Print, 23 August 2020)

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“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [However] caste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption. There is a tendency to assume that caste is as old as Indian civilization itself, but this assumption does not fit our historical knowledge. To be precise, however, we must distinguish between social stratification in general and caste as a specific form. […]
From the early modern period till today, then, caste has been an intrinsic feature of Indian society. It has been common to refer to this as the ‘caste system’. But it is debatable whether the term ‘system’ is appropriate here, unless we simply take for granted that any society is a ‘social system’. First, and this is quite clear when we look at the history of distinct castes, the ‘system’ and the place various groups occupy within it have been constantly changing. Second, no hierarchical order of castes has ever been universally accepted […] but what is certain is that there is no consensus on a single hierarchical order.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021), pp. 1-2

~ ~ ~

“There is a need for intercultural education. We all need to work together to bridge these divides not only between religions and castes but also regions. It is not correct to think that one part is better than the other. Some of the limitations of India as a whole are due to our common heritage, say the one that has restricted women from having a flourishing life for themselves.” – Prof. V. Santhakumar (Azim Premji University) in “On the so called North-South Divide in India” (personal blog post in Economics in Action, 13 April 2024)

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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Research the above issues with the help of Shodhganga: A reservoir of theses from universities all over India, made available under Open Access >>

See also

Biodiversity and development – Kerala

Childhood – Kerala | Childrens rights: UNICEF India | Safe search

Childrens rights: English or Malayalam (UNICEF India)

eBook | Background guide for education

Education and literacy | Right to education

eLearning | “National development and the development of tribal communities are linked to each other”: Droupadi Murmu – 15th President of India

Ethnobotany & ethnomedicine

Food distribution

Health and nutrition

Human development – Kerala

Kerala | State wise ST list (Scheduled Tribes)

Literature and bibliographies

Literature – fiction | Poetry


Recommendations by the Expert Committee on Tribal Health

Success stories

Tribal schools and educational projects – Kerala

Video – Kerala

Video | M.S. Swaminathan on Biodiversity and the sharing of resources

Video | Trailer to “Have you seen the arana?” – Kerala

Vulnerable tribal groups – Kerala


Women | Safe search | President Droupadi Murmu on women’s empowerment