Oral Epics of Mannan Tribe, Kerala

Oral Epics of Mannan Tribe, Kerala

VEENA R. NAIR

 Oral Epics of Mannan Tribe, Kerala

The proposed project intends to study the various oral epics transmitted through generation among the Mannan tribe in Kerala. It intends to collect all the oral epics in vogue among the Mannan people in their various settlements in Kerala.

History and Culture of the Mannan People

Mannan is a tribal community residing in forty six settlements in Idukki, Ernakulam and Thrissur districts in Kerala. According to their legend, their history can be traced back to the royal clan that ruled the princely state ‘Mannarkotta’ in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. They migrated to Kerala along with the Poonjar royal dynasty in the 12th century due to the threats of the Pandya King. They came to Kerala taking their Goddess Madura Meenakshi and the Poonjar dynasty consecrated the idol at Kanchiyar (a place near Kattappana in Idukki district) and handed over its control to the Mannan community. After that the Poonjar dynasty enshrined God Ayyappan on the shore of river Periyar. The Mannan people believe him to be the son of Muthiamma (they call Goddess Meenakshi at Kanchiyar as Muthiamma) and call him Periyath Ayyappan. In course of time the place of the King’s residence cane to be called Kovilmala because of this temple. The Mannan King got the authority and symbols of kingship from the Poonjar King. They believe that only the Poonjar dynasty has a higher authority over the Mannan King.

            The Mannans used to wander with their gods, settle at one place and farm there for two or three years. But nowadays they tend to be settled as colonies (Kudi or Kura in Mannan language) in the three districts. Their gods are Kanchiyar Muthiamma, Ayyappan at Ayyappankovil, Sabarimala Ayyappan, Siva, Parvathi and various family gods. Each family venerates their dead people as their gods. Each god has his own kingdom named Velluvarajyam, Kuroorarajyam and the like. These gods and their people are not permitted to trespass into another god’s kingdom. The status of the god decides the status of the sub-caste. In the Mannan community there are fifty-five sub-castes like Aruvakkudi, Panirkkudi, Ailavan, Pannivaryan, and Urukaran. The King has to be from the Panirkkudi  sub-caste which worships Kanchiyar Muthiamma.

Political and Social organisation

            The ruling system has a hierarchical structure based on caste differences. The King, believed to have divine powers, is the most important figure in their community. Mannan kingdom has been divided into two with Kottakathala as the border: Thekkodu Kudi and Kizhakkodu Kudi. In Thekkodu Kudi there are six Rajyams (sub-kingdoms/colonies) and in Kizhakkodu Kudi there are eleven Rajyams.  There are four Mooppans for the four quarters of the earth. The colonies of each quarter come under the authority of the Mooppan of that quarter and each colony/sub kingdom has a Kanikkaran as the chief. The King is known as the Valiya Mooppan and the sovereign authority of the whole Mannan kingdom. ‘Ilayarajavu’, the regent, is called Ilaya Mooppan. The Mooppan of the south quarter is addressed as Chinthrandi Mooppan;  of the north quarter as Vadakodumarar; and that of the west quarter as Adinadu Mooppan. The King is the Mooppan for the east quarter and the ultimate authority over all Mooppans. Below the Mooppan comes Kanikkaran. Nine Kanis are there to guard and serve the king. Varakkuralian Kani has the power to take a part in deciding kingship. Below the nine Kanis comes Vathi and then the other Kanis who serve as soldiers. Below them come the Velan and Thendakkaran who function like police and the Thedakkaran is the one who calls the people for meeting and work by calling ‘varathathi varathathi’, standing with a stick that has their authority symbols. This call is a notice for gathering and the whole tribe would meet together at the king’s place on this call.

Women have no role in their ruling system and in the cultural activities like ‘koothu’. Even now they have separate houses named ‘vannakura’ for menstruous and pregnant women. The community follows a rigid caste system which is the main factor that decides their status and power.

Lifestyle

            Their main crops had been paddy, corn, chama, thina, and kurumpullu until about fifteen years back. Still the people at Mankulam and Variyam continue paddy cultivation. People at Kovilmala farm pepper, cardamom and coffee beans. In ancient days the young people (patholamthari, a group of young men, and patholamtharichi, a group of young women) were the workers. Apart from farming they used to hunt, most often using Undavillu, a sort of bow using stone instead of arrow. They also used villu, the trap for swine and the spear. Their main food was meat, honey, edible tubers named Chon, Nooran and Thettam, vegetables like lettuce and melon as well as fruits from the forest. Beef is forbidden to them. The penalty for using it is decided by elderly people with the help of ‘kani’, their astrological device which is a wooden board and some grains of paddy. They use kani whenever they suffer from diseases, extreme weather etc. They have a long tradition of folk-medicine. They claim that the flesh of Mulleli – a kind of rat with thorns like porcupine – is the best medicine for asthma. Although they have a vast store of medicinal knowledge, the medicine men do not impart that knowledge to others until they pass on the information orally to a chosen one on the death bed.

Language, Festivals and Aesthetic tradition

            The Mannan language is a dialect of Tamil, which is very different from modern Tamil. For them father is Appan, mother is Amma, elder sister is Akka, younger sister is Penkya, elder brotheris Thamman, younger brother is Thampi, sister-in-low is Pethi, father’s father is Thathan, father’s mother  is Pattiamma, mother’s father is Kusavanarappan and father’s mother is Kusavanaramma.

Their aesthetic articulations mainly include their tales, songs and koothu. Koothu is their art form in which they sing the story of Kannaki. They have their own costumes for this art form. As women are not allowed to perform, men disguise as women. Their main festivals are Kalaavoottu and Meenoottu. Kalaavoottu is a harvest festival which has some similarity to Pongal, a festival of the Tamil people. The celebration is for Kanchiyar Muthiamma. They conduct ‘koothu’ on the day of Kalaavoottu. If Kalaavoottu is a festival for Muthiamma, the next day they go to the son, Ayyappan, at Ayyappan Kovil and stay there for a night, organising ‘koothu’ to please Ayyappan. In the morning the King gives rice to the fishes of the Periyar. The Mannan people believe that in ancient days a big fish used to come and accept the offerings, but now that fish has disappeared. They think it was caused by the unnatural fishing methods of the people. After the offerings, the King gets a handful of rice from the temple. He gives a portion from that to each family to add to the rice they cook. They conduct ‘koothu’ on death ceremony as well. It is their belief that if they do not conduct ‘koothu’ before burial the dead man will not achieve salvation. So they preserve the dead body the whole night and organize ‘koothu’. On the seventh day after burial ‘koothu’ will be conducted again. Apart from these occasions, ‘koothu’ will be performed on the days of official meetings.

Research question

            The proposed study focuses on the oral epics of Mannan people. They sing and dance their version of Kannaki-Kovilan story in Koothu. On certain occasions the performance lasts for seven days. Apart from the story of Kannaki, Kotthu has many other stories which can be considered as the indigenous epics of Mannan people such as the stories of Chinnan-Chinnaswami-Cherupuli Vettakaran, and Veerapandi Kattabomman. Their epic tradition can also be traced in certain tales and songs.

Their history, culture and literature are not yet considered as canonical. As their literature has not been written down so far, their rich cultural heritage is on the verge of extinction. Only a few people give importance to their art forms and other oral traditions. Collection and preservation of these oral treasures is important because this oral tradition is a part of Kerala culture, though not yet recognized with due importance. The researcher will be using field work, survey, interviews, audio and video recording, translation, transliteration and analysis of the same as research methodologies.

            The researcher has got the written consent of Mr. Panchan S, who is the Kanikkaran (chief) of Mullayath Rajyam, to be the collaborator and to help in the data collection for the project. He lives in Labbakkandam Mannan settlement at Kumily, Idukki district. Outsiders are allowed to get into the settlement only for essential purposes permitted by the community elders, for fear of the degeneration of culture as happened in other settlements. He is a member of the Eco Development Committee (EDC) and is interested in social work. His contacts and his knowledge of their culture, literature and the sources of information will be of great assistance to the researcher. His bilinguality of Mannan language and Malayalam will help in the collection and consolidation of the oral epics of the community.

Working plan for one year

            The researcher is planning to visit the settlements and interview people three days each week from November 2012 to July 2013. The researcher and the collaborator will carry out the data collection during those interviews. Other days will be utilised for translation, transliteration, consolidation and documentation of data. Those days the tribal collaborator will be gathering further information from the community and this will be an ongoing process for nine months. Field trips to various Mannan settlements of the Thekkodu Kudi and Kizhakkodu Kudi will be undertaken during this phase. A trip to Poonjar palace will also be made to get data about the history of Mannan tribe, for the tribal King, Raman Rajamannan, assured the researcher that one can find their history in the ancient books of the palace library. In August 2013, the collected data will be consolidated in preparation for the documentation of the oral epics of the tribe. The collaborator will ensure the accuracy and the authenticity of all the collected data from time to time. The documented facts will be read out to the people concerned and necessary changes will be made before preparing the final draft. The final draft will be ready by the beginning of October. The final draft along with the audio and video recordings will be submitted to the Institute before the end of October 2013.

My scholarly and technical ability to undertake the project

I did my M.Phil on the area of folklore in 2011 (thesis title – Folktales and Desire: A Lacanian Reading). And I have been conducting interviews with various tribal people and documenting the collected information nearly a year for my Ph.D. I have done audio and video documentations of interviews and tribal art forms for the same purpose.

The expected outcome and impact of the project

Mannan people’s life and culture has changed significantly in the recent past. Colonialism has corrupted them and made many of them landless by deforestation, and for Idukki and Mullaperiyar dams. They have lost their authority over their temple, Ayyappan Kovil, and many of their gods still domicile in forests. If colonialism was the beginning of major transformations in their life, the post-colonial period has made their life more vulnerable and exploitative: they became marginalized people in all realms of life. The Mannan language too changed under the influence of Malayalam and most of the new generation are unaware of their linguistic heritage. They became hybrid because other people trespassed into their region and they tend to forget their real identity on the mirror of a false world. The academia should be aware of Mannan culture and literature and proper importance should be given to Mannan oral tradition and culture to bring them to the limelight of mainstream culture and literature. The scope of this study lies in the possibility for a social change, a change in the point of view of the community and of the outer world through rethinking and re-describing the past, present and the future.

Why this project requires financial support?

A project of this dimension requires a lot of time, travel and other expenditure. Mannan tribe has forty-six settlements that are spread out in many districts and to trace the regional differences in the theme and structure of stories and songs, field works are the only option. Since I am not employed, a financial support is essential to carry out the research. And my tribal collaborator will have to spend a lot of time for the project putting aside his regular work for livelihood and so he will have to be provided monthly financial assistance.

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