Traditional fisherfolk of Kerala - An article about their socio-economic organisation and the special relationship they share with the sea and the environment

This article by Aarti Kelkar-Khambete informs of the socioeconomic organisation of the fisherfolk in Kerala and their special relationship with the sea

Fisherfolk form an important community in Kerala, but remain neglected and marginalised inspite of the higher socio-economic progress the state has made as a whole. In this article, the author points out, that it is important to understand that the fishing community is a distinctive group of people geographically located in the coastal areas and have their own way of life and a distinctive culture, and to understand the special relationship, they share with the sea and the environment.

Fisherfolk of Kerala (Photo: Aarti Kelkar-Khambete)

Fisherfolk and the fisheries sector in Kerala

Kerala is situated on the southwest coast of the Indian sub continent with an area of about 38,863 square kilometres, which makes about 1.27% of the Indian territory. The state is separated from the rest of India by the Western Ghats in the east and the Arabian Sea in the west. The territory of Kerala can be divided into three regions, the highlands, midlands and the lowlands. The lowland lies close to the sea.

Kerala has a coastline of 589.5 kilometres, which forms 10% of India’s total coastline and this has facilitated trade with other countries since a very long time. The density of population is very high all along the coastline as compared to the midlands and the highlands (Asia Development Bank, 2003). A very rich marine wealth with a large variety of fish and a highly skilled population of fishermen have made Kerala a leading producer and consumer of fish (Aerthayil, 2000). 

The high rainfall and a large number of rivers makes the Kerala coast especially fertile for fish. One speciality of the Kerala coast is the mudbanks, known in Malayalam as chakara. It is the formation of clay and organic matters on the coast that occurs after monsoon with the sea remaining calm, thus resulting in good harvest of fish. Fish is a source of livelihood and of rich protein for the fishworkers as well as the people of Kerala and fishing plays an important part in the economy of the state (Kurien, 2001).

The average fishlanding in Kerala accounts for about 20% of the total landing of the country (Department of Fisheries, 2005). The average share of fish exports of fish products from Kerala was 10.24% in 2000-2001, while it has increased to 15.97% in 2002 and 19% in 2005-2006 (Department of Fisheries,  2005) of the total marine export of India in the same period. The average fishing area in Kerala is the lowest as compared to this output. This shows that the fishing pressure on the coastal areas is very high in Kerala (Dietrich and Nayak, 2002; Aerthayil, 2000).

Apart from fishing, the fisheries sector also includes allied activities such as working on the beach, fish distribution on a small scale, fish curing, work in peeling sheds and fish processing work in the plants.

Distribution of the fisherfolk population in the state

Fisherfolk form an important segment of the population of the state. Kerala has the eighth position, with regard to the population of fisherfolk among the fourteen coastal states . The total populace of fisherfolk residing in the state of Kerala is estimated to be 11.114 lakh, which includes 8.55 lakh in the marine sector and 2.55 lakh in the inland sector. Out of this, the number of active fishermen is 2.28 lakh (1.90 lakh in marine sector and 0.42 in the inland sector).

Currently, there are 222 fishing villages in the marine and 113 fishery villages in the inland sector, where fishing and related aspects provide livelihood to a vast majority of the population (Department of Fisheries,  date not specified). Out of the two types of fishermen, the marine and the inland, the concentration of marine fishermen is more in Trivandrum district, followed by Allapuzha, and then by Kollam and Kozhikode districts, while the inland fishermen are concentrated in Ernakulum, Allapuzha and Kollam districts respectively (Department of Fisheries, 2005).

Nearly 12% of the fisherfolk depend on allied activities like marketing/repairing nets, fish vending, processing and other fishery related activities, for their livelihoods. The state's fisheries sector is a huge one, comprising of 19,173 crafts out of which 7% are mechanised, 44% motorised and the remaining 49% are non-motorised crafts. Although the fish catch from Kerala coast includes more than 300 different species, the commercially important number are about forty and the prominent ones, amongst these are seer fish, pomfret and prawn (Department of Fisheries, date not specified).

Fishermen venturing out into the sea (Photo: Aarti Kelkar-Khambete)

Socio-economic organisation of traditional fisherfolk

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

Hindu fisherfolk are mostly found in the central and northern districts of Kollam, Allapuzha, Thrissur and Kasargode districts of Kerala. They come from the caste groups of ‘arayans’, ‘velan’, ‘mukkuvas’ and the ‘marakkans’, respectively. The Hindus worship Bhagvati and Kali, but also have their own culture of cult worship. The totem tree is a regular part of their worship. The religious leaders among the Hindus are the priests who are also involved in the occupation of fishing and are elected by the community (Dietreich and Nayak, 2002).

The Christians and the Muslims are converts from these Hindu castes and have been grouped under the category of the ‘dheevaras’ (Aerthayil, 2000). Houtart and Nayak (1988) and Aerthayil (2000) write that the dheevaras have a patrilineal set-up and are more homogenous than the Christian fisherfolk who have class distinctions. There is a village headman, but the village committee called as the Karayogam takes all the decisions concerning the village. The Karayogam consists of legislative and executive councils consisting of village elders who are elected and nominated by the people.

The Karayogams are supposed to be democratic and autonomous bodies that preserve the culture and the official records of the village. However, the activites of the Karayogams are now reduced to village festivals. Women are not members of these village committees although they can take part in the meetings.

Christian fisherfolk

Christian fisherfolk are concentrated in the southern and central parts of Kerala. They belong to the Latin Catholic community and are mostly converts from the Mukkuva caste groups. The Church is the main institution around which the social organisation and the community of the Christian fisherfolk is organised. The priest is the main leader who looks after not only the religious concerns, but also the socio-economic concerns of the community. In many cases, the Church levies a tax on the fishermen, which is usually 5% of their income. This right to collect tax, the Kuthuka is auctioned and usually goes to someone better off, who hands this money to the Church (Dietrich and Nayak, 2002) .

Catholic fishermen are very poor, but are adventurous, aggressive and creative compared to the other two religious communities. It is often said that the Christian fisherfolk are the ‘real’ fisherfolk of Kerala (Hapke, 2001). Ram (1991), who has worked amongst the Mukkuva Christians of the south, traces the low status of the fisherfolk in the society to their geographical isolation and being concentrated in the coastal areas, in slum-like and crowded settlements.

Muslim fisherfolk

Muslim fisherfolk live mostly in the northern districts of Kerala. They also have a very strong organisational set-up with social cohesion and class differentiation. The main religious body amongst these fisherfolk is the Mosque. The elected council of the Mosque decides on ethical matters of the community. These ‘imams’ who conduct prayers are highly respected among the Muslim community. There are also the madrassa committees that are in charge of schools for religious instruction and for the council of elders who take decisions about the working of the village and even the fishing operations. The members of both these bodies are elected by the fisherfolk (Houtart and Nayak, 1988; Aerthayil, 2000).

Socio-economic backwardness amongst the fisherfolk

Although, Kerala boasts of the highest quality of life in the country as measured by human development indicators, the state's fishing community has largely been left out of the general development experience. For example, the literacy level, educational attainment of fisherfolk is much lower than that of the general population (Department of Fisheries, 2005).

Other development related indicators such as lack of income-earning opportunities, poverty and deprivation, insanitary and overcrowded living conditions, lack of access to basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity, poor health conditions amongst men and women, higher infant mortality rates, lower sex ratio and lack of access to health facilities, also show evidence of this neglect and marginalisation of the fisherfolk in the state (Asian Development Bank, 2003).

Fishing villages

The fishing villages have a distinctively different appearance as compared to other villages in Kerala as well as India. The fishing villages are characterised by a very high density of population along the coast and are made up of a large number of houses clustered together and occupying the coastal fringes of the state. Unlike the rest of Kerala, which gives a clean appearance, the fishing villages are characterised by extremely congested houses and lack of basic facilities.

In general, the houses are hutments or semi permanent structures made with mud with thatched roofs or tiles, varying according to socio-economic status. However, one can also see some dotted concrete double storied structures belonging to the richer fish merchants, to salaried civil servants, teachers and others. However, even these houses have a shortage of basic amenities such as water, electricity and sanitation.

The annual income, land ownership and housing facilities are also very low along with a very high level of indebtedness among the fishing community (Arya, 2003). Fisherfolk always face a shortage of money and live on a day to day basis. They have a high rate of dependence on moneylenders and traders (Dietrich and Nayak, 2002). They spend all their lives managing the burden of debts. This leads to ‘cyclical poverty’ as Deitrich and Nayak (2002) call it, leading to poverty, low income, poor health and malnutrition.

Fishermen and fisherwomen from a typical fishing village

Typically, the men are out on the sea fishing or on the shore mending their nets while women are busy with transporting fish to the market, engaging in small trade or busy with their household chores. One can see a large number of children playing around in the village. Some of the older children are seen helping out with everyday chores. In recent years, more and more of the children are seen going to schools. However, the dropout rate among children is very high and very few of them complete school and go for higher education.

Typical fishermen in the coastal areas appear to be strong, athletic and hardworking people, clad in colourful ‘lungis’ commonly worn by the people in south India. The women wear an upper blouse and tie a colourful cloth similar to the lungi on the waist. A white cloth put over the shoulders is used to cover the front part of the body. The hair is usually tied into knot on the head. Women appear to be very hardworking and are commonly seen carrying aluminium vessels with ice and fish. They can be seen everywhere in the cities travelling by buses and at all markets.

Crowded housing in a typical fishing village (Photo: Aarti Kelkar-Khambete)

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.

It is very important to note that although all the three religious communities among the fisherfolk practice their own religions, all the three share many common beliefs, practices and rituals. This has been attributed to their similar patterns of living and their common Hindu origins. For example, Mathur (1985) who has worked amongst the Muslim fishworkers of Kerala and Ram (1991) who has worked amongst the Mukkova Christian fisherfolk of Kerala, write that in spite of the religious differences, both the communities display a strong connection with their Hindu counterparts with respect to the rituals, beliefs and practices.

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).

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.

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.

A toilet in a fishing village (Photo: Aarti Kelkar-Khambete)

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).

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.

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.

A view of the kitchen in a fishing village (Photo: Aarti Kelkar-Khambete)

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).

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)

Fishermen mending/repairing their nets (Photo: Aarti Kelkar-Khambete)

Gradual deterioration in the socio-economic and cultural ties within the traditional fishing communities

Kerala’s fishing communities have shared the ocean’s resources and maintained close social and economic ties despite cultural and religious differences since a very long time. However, Chekutty, N. P (2010) writes that the recent phenomena of globalisation and mechanisation in fisheries leading to international subsidies, the stringent conditions of global trade, and intense competition for fishing have seen a sharp decline in fish catch and profits leading to poverty, deprivation and consequent anger and discontent amongst the fisherfolk. This has led to increasing instances of communalism and violence among the fisherfolk in Kerala over the last few years.

He informs that the phenomenon of mechanisation, which was introduced from the mid-’60s in the Kerala waters, led to the gradual marginalisation of the traditional fishermen, whose small vessels were unable to compete with the trawlers and their traditional skills started becoming redundant. This not only affected the livelihoods of the fishing communities, but also led to massive losses to the economy, reduction in the production and catch of fish and the emergence of a new class of entrepreneurs, the moneylender-cum-boat-owners who took economic control of the beaches.

This has led to increasing clashes between the new class of mechanised boat workers and the traditional fish workers, which has become more acute with the area becaming a fertile ground for the spread of social and communal tensions along the Kerala coast. However, he also argues that the changed scenario, has created circumstances that have forced the fishing communities to come together, to face the common external economic aggression (Chekutty, N.P., 2010) .

(The author is a public health researcher based in Trivandrum, and works with the India Water Portal)

Part II of this article on the economy of fishing and the role of women on the activity of fishing can be accessed at this link


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