Homage to the Departed makes an original foray into the thinking of some tribal groups in northern Kerala about death and dying. Having realised that the available ethnographies of Kerala are often conceptually and methodologically flawed, Manjula Poyil has gone directly to her “source” and reports the beliefs and past practices of various tribal groups. There is a rich description of practices to do with death-common practices as well as treatment specific to age, gender, and the status of one who has died. Ghosts, omens, ritual dance at funerals, the appropriate musical instruments and memorials are some of the aspects of funerary practice described in this study. Especially important among these is the aniconic tutelary deity, almost ubiquitous in historical India. The sensitive question of the space and voice conceded to women in social dealings with death has also been accomplished in this compelling book.
MANJULA POYIL belongs to Kannur district in Kerala. She had her MA and MPhil in History from the University of Calicut. She took her PhD on the topic "Death, Funeral and the Ancestors: Cult of the Dead and the Malabar Tribes" from the University of Calicut. She has several articles published in national and international journals and volumes. The work Homage to the Departed: A Study of Funeral Customs Among the Tribes in Malabar, Kerala is a revised and updated version of her research thesis. She currently teaches history in the University of Kannur.
MANJULA POYIL’S Homage to the Departed makes an original foray into the thinking of some tribal groups in northern Kerala about death and dying. The study extricates the notion of the "tribe" from the morass of misapprehensions to which it has been subject, contrasting the tribe with peasants, the tribe-by-definition with the hunter-gatherer band, and tribal religion from Hinduism. Importantly, through the text the approach is to rescue tribal culture from the paradigm of timelessness that has prevailed in Indian archaeology and anthropology. Rather than a pristine entity or primordial culture, a tribal group in Kerala is today often the victim of deforestation, displacement, and deracination- better fitting the category of landless labour than the romantic notion of original residence in a place.
Having realised that the available ethnographies of Kerala are often conceptually and methodologically flawed, Manjula Poyil has gone directly to her "source" and reports the beliefs and past practices of various tribal groups (especially the Kurumba) as told to her by representatives of those cultures. There is a rich description of practices to do with death-common practices as well as treatment specific to age, gender, and the status of one who has died. Ghosts, omens, ritual dance at funerals, the appropriate musical instruments, and memorials are some of the aspects of funerary practice described in this study. Especially important among these is the aniconic tutelary deity, almost ubiquitous in historical India. The sensitive question of the space and voice conceded to women in social dealings with death has also been accomplished in this compelling book.
Even as an attempt is made to mesh this data with the archaeological remains of the Iron Age in Kerala, Poyil reminds us that as tribal culture changes-with increasing influence from temple rituals and Brahmanical thought-so too will the treatment of the dead. We come to realise the great role of the social structure of rural Kerala land rights and political structure included-in matters we would otherwise categorise as ideological or symbolic.
This Book is a revised version of my doctoral dissertation, Death Funeral and the Ancestors: Cult of the Dead and the Malabar Tribes, submitted to the University of Calicut in 2008. It is a pioneering work in a largely neglected field of knowledge and is an attempt at linking anthropological data with the archaeological and historical. Since there is an unhealthy preoccupation among anthropologists to appraise tribal life and culture as motionless, the historicity of rites and beliefs are largely neglected. Apart from this assymetrical academic rendition, what probably discouraged a true historical investigation would be the relative difficulty in tapping information directly from the tribal people on such aspects. The ill treatment meted out to the tribes by the non-tribal people combined with the growing deprivation has caused suspicion in their minds against all 'outsiders: Thus every tribal harbours an inherent antipathy in his mind against a non-tribal. Naturally they are reluctant to open up themselves before an intruding outsider. Even in this prevailing situation of animosity and more so in the midst of poverty and misery, their readiness to disclose themselves to the inquisitive minds would certainly astonish us.
In completing this study, I have received a good deal of help from various people. First and foremost, I should express my sincere thanks to the kind informants of various tribal settlements; all of their names cannot be mentioned here as the list itself is very long. However, special thanks are due to Ramesh of the Muduga settlement of Chindakki (Asst. Secretary, Adivasi Kshema Samiti, Palakkad District), Murugan Mooppan of Thadikkundu, Pacha Mooppan of Thodikki and Burman Achan of Anavay (all Kurumba), Gopalan (Gotramahasabha activist, Tirunelli), C.V. Balan (Secretary, Thachanadan Mooppan Charaitable Society), Kakkottara Kelu of Vellamunda (Kurichiya), Palliyara Raman (prominent Kurichiya and a leader of the BJP), Kuruman, the Adiyan Mooppan of Trissileri, Chemmaran (Ex. President, Ulikkal Panchayat) and Alacheri Chaman of Parikkalam (both Karimpalar). Homage is also paid to late P.K. Kalan, Ex. President, Thirunelli Panchayat and the well-known promoter of tribal art forms of the Adiyans, for wholeheartedly allowing me to attend a Gaddika and inviting me to partake in a Kakkappula performed under his guidance.
I remember with a sense of gratitude a few individuals, without whose support I could not have accomplished my fieldwork. Vinod and Preetha Vinod of Maithri, an NGO in Palakkad, rendered me great services in helping to meet the tribal people of the Parambikulam region. H. Dinaruddeen and P.E. Usha of AHADS helped me in identifying important tribal settlements of Attappadi. Haridas, a tribal promoter at the AHADS, and an inmate of the Kadukumanna Kurumba settlement, assisted me in getting a passage to many Kurumba settlements. Murugan, an Irula and a post-graduate student of Farook College, guided me to the tribal hamlets of the whole of Attappadi. Krishna Gireesh, forest officer, Karulai Range, Nilambur, gave me blanket permission to visit the Mancheri Cholanaikkan colony disregarding all official restrictions. Benny of Karulayi and Moyinkutty of the Cholanaikkan Co-operative society extended me necessary help to meet Cholanaikkans and Aranadans. Subrahmanian, Member, Mampad Panchayat, introduced me to the Malamuthans of Veettikkunnu.
I am greatly indebted to Professor Shereen Ratnagar for patiently going through the entire manuscript amid her busy academic engagements and for recommending the necessary corrections and additions and above all for contributing a fitting foreword to my work. I am grateful to Dr. K.J. John, under whose supervision this study has been completed, Professor M.G.S. Narayanan for the useful discussions I had with him on the research topic and Dr. Anandabhanu, former Head of the Department of Anthropology, Palayad Centre, University of Kannur, for persistently encouraging me to publish this work.
The staff of the various libraries and other repositories inside and outside Kerala deserves special mention for providing me the necessary facilities for study and reference. Thanks are due to the staff of Jawaharlal Nehru University Library, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Archaeological Survey of India, Madras University Library, Connemara Library, Chennai, Tamil Nadu Archives, Madras Museum Library, Mysore University Library, Anthropological Survey of India, Mysore, Library of the Department of Anthropology, Palayad, Regional Archives, Calicut, CH. Muhammed Koya Library and History Department Library, University of Calicut, AHADS, Attappadi and KIRTADS, Calicut. Also, I am thankful to Other Books, Calicut, for their sincere interest in publishing this work.
The ultimate word of gratitude is reserved for my husband, M.R. Manmathan, whose cooperation and personal sacrifices far transcended the call of duty. I owe a lot to my parents, especially to my father, K. Radhakrishnan, for keenly going through the whole text despite infirmities of old age. I recall with a prick of conscience, how my daughter Anamika bore with fortitude my total withdrawal into research work, leaving her alone to carry on with her school assignments and without caring to attend to her small needs.
This Volume deals with the death customs of tribes in Kerala, a neglected area of study by social scientists till recently. Many existing works on this area focus on the practices of caste' Hindus. Despite the fact that tribal rituals revolve around death customs and ancestor worship, most anthropological studies have either ignored or missed this aspect and have focused mainly on the socio-economic structure of tribal life without attempting to link the two aspects. This phenomenon may probably be attributed to the element of mystery that shrouds tribal religious practices. Moreover, collection of information relating to the death customs had hitherto been almost impossible and it is only in the recent times that tribal people have started disclosing such matters to outsiders. As far as archaeological studies are concerned, there is an overwhelming concentration on Megalithic monuments. Yet the originators of the Megalithic monuments remain still an enigma. Archaeological excavations are yet to be undertaken in the graveyards of the present' day tribal settlements to establish the survival of megalithism among the tribes.
Though disagreement exists over the hypothesis that the present-day tribal people of Kerala are the direct descendants of the Megalithic builders, it is a fact that they still follow many traits of Megalithic culture. Any serious study of the history of tribal death customs is possible only with the help of an ethno-archaeological exploration.
Before we proceed, let us clarify the notion of 'tribe' as understood in this study. A tribe is a group of kinsmen and kinswomen united by a common ancestry. We cannot define a tribe on an ethnic/racial basis. The tribal world is constituted by kinship-based social organisation. Within a tribe, there is theoretically no caste or class distinction, no ruling class versus commoners on the basis of property rights. The history of tribes goes back to the Neolithic stage of prehistory, and tribal culture is linked with Neolithic agricultural techniques of production. Agriculture being a labour-intensive activity, all agricultural activities need a settled way of life and cooperation between families. Returns on labour are delayed. This led to the formation of kinship-based societies and such societies fall under the category of/tribe. According to Shereen Ratnagar, "Tribes are characterised not by this or that race, habitat, or religious practice, but (in my understanding) by the bonding fabric of kinship and the joint ownership of the natural resources from which they make their living. Jointly held resources comprise agricultural land, wells, forest trees and game, river water, river fish, etc. There is no private property in these”. A tribal group inherits property from its ancestors or ancestor-gods and thus has no right to dispose of such property.
Tribal descent groups trace their parentage through either patrilineal (male only) or matrilineal (female only) line. In the case of larger tribal groups, clan divisions or lineage divisions exist. But the smaller groups are usually cohesive kinship groups. A member of a tribe has certain duties and obligations to perform towards his/her kin. Each tribal group or clan has a leader, usually the spokesman of the group and master of its ceremonies (birth, marriage, death, etc). He settles disputes within the tribe and acts as a messenger between tribal men and tribal gods. There are no formally constituted judicial or constitutional institutions among tribes.
Tribes can be classified as shifting cultivators and settled cultivators, the former is also known as slash and burn or swidden cultivation which is opted mainly by forest agricultural tribes. "Swidden agriculture is typically adjusted to a seasonal alteration of drier and wetter periods, with preparation of the field undertaken in a dry season and cultivation timed to catch the rains. The main tasks include selecting the site, cutting down the forest growth, firing the accumulated debris, planting, weeding and harvesting... Local variations occur in all these practices… A field may be principally devoted to one crop, such as rice or maize, but other plants are usually 'intercropped' with the staple… The cleared plots are often an acre or less... A large labour force, however, is not usually required for swidden farming: a single family will undertake many of the main occupations on its own field... The principal disadvantage of swidden cultivation is the large amount of arable land required”. Settled agriculturists also rear cattle mainly for manure.
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