KERALA FISHERMEN RITUALS

Photo Story


Aarti Kelkar-Khambete, the author of the article "Traditional fisherfolk of Kerala - An article about their socio-economic organisation and the special relationship they share with the sea and the environment", is a public health researcher based in Trivandrum, and works with the India Water Portal.


Published: India Water Portal, 2012

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Fisherfolk in Kerala come from three different religious groups - the Hindus, Muslims and the Christians. Each of the groups has its own social organisation and mostly occupies separate places in a typical fishing village, although they do share some commonalties. The distribution of the three religious groups varies according to regions. Hindu fisherfolk are mostly found in the central and northern districts of Kollam, Allapuzha, Thrissur and Kasargode districts of Kerala. Christian fisherfolk are concentrated in the southern and central parts of Kerala. Muslim fisherfolk live mostly in the northern districts of Kerala.

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Photo: Zuzana Zwiebel

Rituals, beliefs and practices among the fisherfolk 

Inspite of the differences on the basis of religion, the pattern of living for all the fishworkers is similar. The life of the fisherfolk is centred around the fishing seasons, the fish they catch and the technology they use. Fishermen are deeply religious and they fully depend on the sea and the other natural forces that control it. The fisherfolk thus have different rituals to please the forces of nature.

As Houtart and Nayak (1988) write, the fisherfolk have various representations of the forces of nature that control their lives. They personify all forms of nature in which they are in contact with and think of all forms of nature as alive, affecting their lives in both positive as well as negative ways. Various rituals are practised to prevent the anger or the backlash of these elements of nature. 

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Photo: Zuzana Zwiebel

Special relationship of the fisherfolk with the sea and the rituals practised to appease the sea

Thus the sea, which is looked upon by all the fisherfolk as sacred, is always referred to as the Kadalamma, Kadal meaning the sea and amma meaning ‘mother’, representing the fertility of a woman. Deaths in the sea are regarded as the wrath of the mother, which is attributed to violations of any tradition.

The seawater is considered as holy and sacred and is used in many rituals. It is used to ward off the shadow of evil, it is also used for rituals related to birth, death, sickness. For example, during the lean seasons, when the fish are scanty, the Christian Mukkuvas from the south of Kerala invite the parish priest to sprinkle water on the sea, believing that this will lead to an increase the quantity of fish (Samuel, John 1998; Ram, 1991).

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Photo: Zuzana Zwiebel

Ponkala in honor of the sea

Mathur (1995) writes of the Hindu fishermen of Trivandrum, Quilon and southern parts of Ernakulum who perform an annual festival called Ponkala in honour of Kadalamma i.e. the sea. Ponkala (a rice pudding) is offered to the Goddess of the sea, who is worshipped daily. Other offerings such as flattened rice, puffed rice, jaggery, navadhanyam (nine pulses), ghee, camphor, benzoin, sugercane and coconuts are also included. A mandapam is constructed which is decorated with mango leaves and tender coconuts.

Fisherwomen, gather together on the 41st day at the sea coast with pots full of rice, jaggery, coconut and firewood. Ponkala (a rice pudding) is made in earthen pots on the fire. Two types of Ponkala are prepared, one with jaggery, rice, coconut shavings and plantain and the other without jaggery. All the women prepare this Ponkala and then offer it to the sea. In earlier times, such pots were sealed and thrown into the sea. However, this practice has been discontinued in recent times.

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Photo: Zuzana Zwiebel

Rituals to increase the catch of fish

In her study of the Mukkuva Christians of Kerala, Ram (1991) writes of how fishing assumes the form of a highly ritualised productive activity with attempts to control the environment by using ritual rather than technology. Thus, all the tools used for fishing such as the fishing craft and the gear are blessed by the parish priests for the future luck and the safety of the craft. In some instances, Hindu mantravadis are also invited to use their magical mantrams or chants to attract fish as well as deflect fish out of the nets of rivals into their nets for a share in the fishing catch.

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Photo: Zuzana Zwiebel

Role of forces of nature such as the wind and fire in the lives of the fisherfolk

The wind also plays a very important part in the lives of the fisherfolk. For example, Samuel (1998) writes of the Mukkova community of the South where the wind is considered as an allotropic form of God. The calm sea is compared to the sleeping God, while the rough sea symbolises that God is awake. Gales and storms are equated to the fierce breath of God. The sky is also very important for the Mukkuvas and is considered as the abode of God who lives in the form of clouds in the shape of human beings and other living beings, mountains, rivers etc.

Fire is also perceived by the Mukkuvas as the expression of the anger of God and in cases of fires in the sea, they do not sail out into the sea for a few days. Light is considered as divine and known to ward off evil spirits or ghosts or natural calamities. Candles are lit in Churches and shrines by the Mukkuvas as prayers or for fulfilment of their vows. Samuel (1998) also informs us, of the perception of the Mukkuvas regarding cholera and typhoid to be caused by spirits, ghosts and demons. Thus, a campfire is lit in the outskirts of the village to prevent evil from entering the village. Magical rites are also performed before sunrise or sunset to ward off the effects of evil shadows on new nets (Samuel, John, 1998).

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Photo: Zuzana Zwiebel

Special significance of fish for the fishermen

The fish also have a special significance for the fishermen. For example, Samuel (1998) in his study of the fishing communities of Kanyakumari writes of a fish called cavlai having a white mould on its head, which is believed to be because of the wrath of the God, as it did not obey him. There is also another belief with respect to the cross-shaped structures found on the back of a few crabs. St Xavier walking along the shore found a crab saluting him. The saint made a cross on the back of the crab as a blessing. Some fish are said to have magical potency and some are also considered as holy.

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Photo: Zuzana Zwiebel

The role of the supernatural in the lives of the fisherfolk

In general, the fisherfolk are also strong believers in the influence of the supernatural on the natural processes of the body. Thus, rituals and magico-religious means of healing form an important aspect of their culture. These beliefs and practices can be attributed to the constant exposure of the fishing communities to the different forces of nature that are perceived to be uncontrollable.

For example, Ram (1991) in her study on the Mukkuvas writes of how the different forces of nature are perceived as affecting the body. The body is also looked upon as a site for divine and supernatural intervention. This intervention is believed to lead to an imbalance in the body at the physical and psychological level leading to illnesses in a person. When the body is believed to be affected by the supernatural intervention, offerings are made to the Gods and Goddesses to please them.

Samuel (1998) informs of how the fishermen perform rituals to get a good catch as well as to ward off the evil eye. Thus, artisans take their new fishing nets to the shore, make offerings of jaggery and coconut, which is distributed among a large number of children to come on the shore. This is a form of imitative magic, which represents the flocking of fish in the same way near the net. (Samuel, 1998). The net is then taken home and kept under the hatchet to ward off the effect of the evil eye. The same ritual is repeated the next day with the remaining of the offering being thrown into the sea. A portion of the fish catch of the first day is thrown into the air in all directions to be taken by birds (Samuel, 1998).

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Photo: Zuzana Zwiebel

Cultural similarities between the Hindu, Muslim and Christian fisherfolk

Just as the Hindu fisherfolk are worshippers of the Goddess Bhagvati and Kali and also have their own culture of cult worship (Dietrich and Nayak, 2002), among the Christians too, the same Mata is worshipped as Mother Mary to deal with various problems related to their lives such as the daily material needs, in case of the safety of the men out at the sea, in the case of epidemics such as cholera, small pox (Ram, 1991).

Mathur (1978) writes of the Muslim fisherfolk called as the Mappilas who are mostly converts from the Mukkova castes. The Mappilas follow the social rites prescribed by the Koran and the Hadith. However, their lifestyles, economic activities as well as their rituals connected with diseases and illnesses are very similar to that of the Hindus.

Thus, all the magico-religious methods used for curing illnesses, rituals in relation to the sea for good catches, practised by the Hindus as well as the Christians are also practised by the Muslim fisherfolk. Large sums of money are spent by all the fishing communities on ceremonies such as births, deaths and marriages. The fisherfolk follow and practice numerous rituals during such ceremonies that form a very important aspect of their social lives. However, these ceremonies are controlled by the richer classes (Dietrich and Nayak, 2002; Houtart and Nayak, 1988)


TITLE PHOTO: Zuzana Zwiebel

TEXT: Aarti Kelkar-Khambete

PUBLISHED: India Water Portal, 2012

Tags: Spirituality | Gods | Hinduism | Kerala | India | Photostory | Yoga with Lenka & Lucie | The Travancore Heritage | Trivandrum | Chowara Beach | Fishermen

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