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Tribus et basses castes

Marine Carrin
Christophe Jaffrelot

Projecting textual identities on the forest of Kuṟavas in Kerala

L’identification des Kuṟavar à la forêt dans le contexte de la religion populaire

Yasushi Uchiyamada


Dans cet article, je montre comment les Kuṟavar cultivateurs semi-tribaux des plaines du Travancore central se sont vus doublement dépossédés pendant les dernières décennies du xxe siècle. Les Kuṟavar habitaient des terres forestières et vivaient de la culture des tubercules. Bien qu’esclaves sous le joug des propriétaires fonciers anglais, ils étaient relativement automnes en comparaison des Pulaya et des Paraya. L’empiétement sur les terres des Kuṟavar s’est intensifié avec les réformes foncières à la fin des années soixante. L’appropriation successive de leurs sanctuaires ancestraux par les hindous de caste ainsi que l’empiétement sur leurs terres ont coïncidé avec les réformes foncières et avec le boom économique du Golfe. Les Nāyar et les Īḷavas ont détourné à leurs fins les sanctuaires ancestraux des Kuṟavar et leur ont associé des images védiques pour transformer leurs pratiques sacrées en une entité connue et maîtrisable. Hindouisation et empiétement sont ici reliés. Mais comment les Kuṟavar ont-ils maintenu le caractère autonome de leur terre jusqu’à une période aussi récente que la fin des années soixante ? J’introduis un exemple montrant que la régénération des arbres dans les plaines est métonymique de la reproduction naturelle dans les montagnes. Et ainsi, les Kuṟavar se trouvent de plus en plus doublement dépossédés de leurs terres dans les montagnes comme dans les plaines.

Note de l’éditeur

The Kuṟavas are concentrated in the central regions of what was formerly the princely state of Travancore in Southern Kerala. They are agriculturalists who cultivate yam and taro in their garden lands. Many of them work as labourers. At the turn of the 20th century there were about 50,000 Kuṟavas in Travancore. Their number increased to about 95,000 at the time of 1931 Census. It is known that the Kuṟavas were once agrestic slaves of Nāyar and Syrian Christian landlords. Yet unlike the Pulayas and the Parayas, who were fully integrated into the caste system, the Kuṟavas were less integrated into the dominant social and religious order. Although the Kuṟavas are officially categorised as a ‘Scheduled Caste’, and not a ‘Scheduled Tribe’, many Malayalees believe that the Kuṟavas, who worship hill gods, belong to the mountains.

Texte intégral

  • 1 A photograph of the malanaṭa ‘temple’ in Nooranadu can be found in Uchiyamada 1999a: 299.
  • 2 According to a Nāyar astrologer I met in Malanata, who told me that Kuṟavas don’t know anything, th (...)

1Upon my return to Nagarajanadu in Allapuzha district in August 1997, Raghu (a son of a local carpenter who helped in my fieldwork in 1992-93 and 1996) asked me to visit his fiancée Bhindu with him one Sunday. I took a ride on the back seat of his second-hand bajaj scooter, which he had recently bought, and headed for Bhindu’s house in a neighbouring village. As we turned to the North at Nooranadu, I saw a small bush surrounded by a wall painted with brickred and white horizontal stripes.1 Two features of the shrine called my attention. First, a reddish-brown and white striped wall is typical of temples in Tamil Nadu, and is not a kind of wall usually seen at lineage kāvus (‘groves’) in Kerala. Second, there were no mature and fearful trees–the embodiment of dangerous life-force and shelters for wandering deities, ancestors and ghosts (see Uchiyamada 1998)–that make a kāvus. Instead, there was a temple office building beside the walled-in bush, and the premise was surrounded by a forest of rubber trees. Just as other similar shrines with a walled-in bush in Pathanamthitta and Kollam districts, the ‘temple’ seemed to be a pruned and ‘sanitised’ kāvu without any self-regenerating fearful and powerful trees. On the way back, we stopped at the walled-in shrubs. It turned out to be that the shrine was one of the 101 or 108 malanaṭa ‘temples’ of Kuṟavas.2 As I had expected, the sanitised ancestral shrine belonged to a temple trust ran by Nāyars and Īḻvas. It was one of many Kuṟava ancestral shrines sans Kuṟavas and kāvus, being sanitised and transformed into accessible Hinduised temples run by caste-Hindus.

2In July 2000, I returned to the malanaṭa ‘temple’ in Nooranadu and found that there was an abandoned Kuṟava ancestral shrine at the top of the hill covered by rubber trees. There was a side-path leading from the foot of the hill to relatively new houses of labourers on the slope. The plantation was neatly maintained: the rubber trees stood at regular intervals forming a grid of rows and columns, and there was no undergrowth. A winding footpath led from the houses of labourers to the summit of the hill. I enquired of Kuṟavas I met in the hill of rubber trees how the rubber plantation had come into being.

3About twenty years ago a Nāyar landlord obtained the hill, which was covered with a forest. It was a forbidding malanaṭa hill of Kuṟavas. At the summit was a shrine of Kuṟava ancestors. There was a straight footpath connecting the shrine at the top to the road at the foot. The Nāyar landlord brought in several Kuṟava families as labourers and an Īḻava family to oversee them, and had their houses and wells constructed on the slope. After the Kuṟavas had settled in, the landlord ordered them to cut some trees at the bottom of the hill. No one was harmed after cutting down trees. The landlord had some more trees cut down. Yet, nothing happened. Because anticipated misfortunes did not strike, the landlord had the entire trees–except for those at the summit–cut down, and transformed the hill into a rubber plantation. Junglish trees and undergrowth were cleared, terraces were created, the approach was destroyed, and rubber trees were planted at regular intervals. A grid of rubber plants and a winding footpath replaced entangled trees, liners, bushy undergrowth and the straight approach to the summit. The Kuṟava workers today believe that unhappy Kuṟava ancestors wander the area.

4The Kuṟavas had a plan to reconstruct a temple. Especially Kuṟava women were enthusiastic about their plan of forming a temple trust themselves and run a temple after the manner of the malanaṭa ‘temple’ run by Nāyars and Īḻavas beside the rubber plantation. The Kuṟavas had been soliciting financial support from their Nāyar landlord. They also had a plan to construct an approach, which was destroyed when the forested hill was transformed into a rubber plantation. They seemed to think that the lack of a proper approach to the Kuṟava ancestral shrine was causing the unhappy state of Kuṟava ancestors. They did not have any ideas about the fate of former inhabitants of the malanaṭa hill.

5During my eighteen-month fieldwork in 1992-1993, I have witnessed and heard about several cases of encroachment of Kuṟava lands by Syrian Christians, Nāyars and Īḻavas. Kuṟavas were (and still are) politically powerless and lacked crucial access to modern bureaucracy and the judiciary system, and have been subject to various kinds of abuses both legal and illegal. Because Kuṟavas in Central Travancore used to own forested garden lands in the plains, they were subject to encroachment. In Nagarajanadu and Pallimood, the area I know most intimately, all official document writers, who prepared legal documents concerning loans secured on the land were Nāyars, and all advocates in the area were Syrian Christians. Īḻavas had been upwardly mobile and some of them had become successful businessmen. All the moneylenders in the area were Syrian Christians and Īḻlavas. Some Īḻavas had converted to Christianity several generations ago, and were now Syrian Christians. Kuṟavas were seen as people without culture and had been despised. The resistance to encroachment was not unknown, however. Thus, Kuṟavas made several attempts to scare off the encroachers by appealing to the fearful power of their deities. There were some successes, but largely the Kuṟavas were losing their ancestral land to the benefit of Syrian Christian, Nāyar and Īḻava farmers, and were losing their ancestral shrines to Nāyars and Īḻlavas.

6As I discussed it elsewhere, a fundamental change in relatedness between the living, plants, ancestors and place had been taking place in Kerala that culminated in land reforms (Uchiyamada 2000; 2001b). By the mid-1970s, people’s relatedness to land had entered a ‘new phase’ which I call ’late modern’ (Uchiyamada 1999a). What follows is an account of the transformation of Kuṟava ancestral shrines into Hindu temples controlled by Nāyars and Īḻavas, based on fieldwork in 1992-93, 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2000. Before describing the transformation of kāvus of Kuṟavas in Kerala, let us make a short detour to mountains in Orissa, where we will see the significance of conserving self-generating ‘auto-ecological trees’ for interchanges between Kuiankas and their environment.


7Savyasaachi (1999) notes that the topography of the environment of Kuiankas is divided into three domains: jaka, soru and wango. Jaka is the highest part of the hills covered with ‘auto-ecological forest’ where humans are not allowed to enter. The base of the hills is wango where Kuiankas live in their settlements and transact with other groups. The slope between jaka and wango is soru, the place where Kuiankas engage in shifting cultivation. At the beginning and at the end of agricultural season, Kuiankas propitiate deities that dwell in jaka, for the regeneration of plants and animals in soru by the power of jaka and the works of Kuiankas from wango. In soru there are ‘auto-ecological plants’ that help Kuiankas produce food.

Auto-ecological plants are capable of self-regeneration: they are able to grow after other plants and trees in their neighbourhood burn out when a cultivation plot is set on fire. They survive a forest famine as well, and thereby can initiate the process of recovery of lost forest. [...] The place appropriate for shifting cultivation must have auto-ecological trees. [Savyasaachi 1999: 148]

8Soru, as a middle ground between jaka (auto-ecological forest and the abode of deities on top of the hills) and wango (human settlements on the foothills), provides us with a useful analogy for a better understanding of the nature of Malayalee backyard gardens with kāvus as a space of cultivation, worship and dwelling. Savyasaachi makes an insightful observation on the nature of soru: “The forest and field that are created as a result of shifting cultivation are not just a source of food crops but a living space as well” (1999: 141, my emphasis). The profusion of plants and animals in soru is sustained by the intervention of cultivators coming from wango, as well as of auto-ecological plants connected to the divinities in the auto-ecological forest in jaka. Hence, soru is the space where jaka and wango meet, the social and natural environment where divinity and humans cohabit and engage in everyday regenerative activities. What has been disappearing rapidly in Kerala is the social and natural environment that is similar, in its nature, to this ambivalent middle ground soru. Kuṟavas in the plains are regarded as ‘hill tribals’ related to tribals in the mountains of the Western Ghats, and hence, their 101/108 malanaṭas in the plains are metonyms of the Western Ghats, which in turn are now turned into plantations and natural reserves.


9At the south side of Pallimood, a Christian junction to the west of Nagarajanadu, there are seven Kuṟava settlements. The area was formerly a forest belonging to Kuṟavas. The Kuṟavas have been losing their ancestral lands to the benefit of encroachers–largely Syrian Christians, and to a lesser extent to Īḻavas and Nāyars–for over a century (Uchiyamada 1999a). One of the seven Kuṟava sub-clans, Maññappiṣṣēri, came from the north of Pallimood, after they had been assaulted by Syrian Christians. According to late Candran, who was the mūppan (‘headman’) of Maññappiṣṣēri, his forefather and his family sought refuge to the forest owned by his wife’s brother. “They came here running,” said Candran. Another sub-clan, Muriyāykkal, seemed to have come from Kuṟakkāvu (‘Kuṟava’s kāvu’) near Ochira.

10In July 1992, Karuttakuññu, the mūppan of Muriāykkal told me the origin myth of his lineage in front of what he called kāvu where there were no longer any trees. Instead, there were newly constructed concrete kryālas, small shrines to seat ancestors, in their lineage kāvu without trees. Two Kuṟava brothers (later three brothers) from Muriyāykkal were working in the Gulf then, and with the remittance sent from the Gulf, the Kuṟavas had built concrete kryālas which they still called kāvu. The following is an edited version of the origin myth of the Kuṟava sub-clan:

  • 3 The ‘Big Church’ is St. Stephen’s Syrian Orthodox chapel founded by the Tarakans in 1835. The Tarak (...)
  • 4 See note 3 above.
  • 5 An ilaññi tree is found at the centre of Mūrtti kāvus belonging to Parayas. It bears edible fruit a (...)

A long time ago, an old Kuṟava lived near Ochira. He left the place and came to the ‘Big Church’ at Pallimood.3 At the Big Church, he prayed to the god [St. Stephen] and asked the god to give him a place where to live. The god told him to go there [Muriyāykkal], because there were already 101 rākṣasas (‘demons’) living with him in the church. The Tarakans4 told him to go to the forest. So the old man came to the forest where there were tigers. There was a big ilaññi tree (Mimusops elengi)5 in the forest. He climbed the ilaññi tree and lived there for four and a half years. He ate the leaves and fruits of the ilaññi tree. An old Kuṟava lived in Cherālil to the south-west of the forest. Without his permission, nobody was allowed to live in the forest. The Kuṟava old man from near Ochira climbed down the ilaññi tree and went to see the old Kuṟava in Cherālil. The old man from near Ochira had 101 swarūpams (‘figurines’) with him. The old man in Cherālil also had similar swarūpams but not as many as the old man from near Ochira had. So the old man in Cherālil was less powerful than the old man from near Ochira. The old man in Cherālil asked the old man from near Ochira to surrender the swarūpams. The old man in Cherālil buried these 101 swarūpams in his garden and covered them with a big uruli (bell metal vessel) to prevent the swarūpams from escaping from the place. The old man from near Ochira was allowed to clear one and a half acre of land in the forest for cultivation. We constructed the kuryāla in his memory. The old man in Cherālil became the ūrāḷi (‘shaman’) of Muriyāykkal. After his death, we do pūja ourselves.

11I am primarily interested in Kuṟavas’ relationships with land and people in Pallimood and Nagarajanadu. In May 1993, as I asked Velumbi, an eighty-five year old Kuṟava woman, to tell me ‘old stories’, she simply said: “Kuṟavas sprouted here,” (kuṟavar ivite kurattadā), implying her people’s autochthonous relation to the soil of the place. Although socially and geographically mobile Syrian Christians had been encroaching the land of Kuṟavas for a long time, Kuṟavas in the area still controlled forested land, and hence, they were able to accommodate Kuṟava affines (Maññappiṣṣēri) and strangers (Muriyāykkal) as the latter were deprived of their lands and came to seek refuge. Assimilation was not difficult for the ancestors of Maññappiṣṣēri compared to the ancestor of Muriyāykkal, who had to build a tree-house on top of a big ilaññi tree and had to live on the tree for several years. Although it is hard to believe that there were tigers in the forest of Kuṟavas, some hill tribals in Travancore, such as Arayans and Uralis, are known to have built their huts on trees to protect themselves from wild animals (Mateer 1883: 63-81). An interesting coincidence is that the priest of Kuṟavas is called ūrāli, while Urali was the name of a hill tribe who lived on trees. Unlike a pūjāri (‘priest’) of other caste groups in the plains, an ūrāỊi is appointed by ancestors.

12The Kuṟava old man who came to Pallimood with his 101 swarūpams must have been an ūrāḷi himself. Another Kuṟava old man who lived in Cherālil was the ūrāỊi of the entire Kuṟava clan in the area. What Karuttakuññu was saying is that although his ancestor had more swarūpams than the ūrāỊi in Cherālil, and hence more powerful than the latter, he had to surrender the swarūpams in exchange for one and a half acres of land to settle in. The burial of swarūpams was a kind of funerary rite that established consubstantial connectedness between the Kuṟava stranger and the soil of Muriyāykkal (Uchiyamada 1999a; 2000; 2001b). Kinship relation was, thus, established through burying the swarūpams in the garden of the ūrāỊi of the host lineage.

Kuṟakkāvu Kāḷi Temple.

Kuṟakkāvu Kāḷi Temple.

Let me briefly explain about ilaññi tree–the tree that provided the Kuṟava stranger a shelter and food as he lived in the dangerous forest for four and a half years. In Nagarajanadu, there are two Mūrtti kāvus. One belongs to a Paraya lineage and the other exists in the midst of a small rubber plantation owned by a Nāyar family. The Nāyar family was suffering from dōṣam (‘fault’) inflicted by the Mūrtti kāvu for cutting down trees in the kāvu. A Nāyar man who owned the rubber plantation cut down trees to expand his rubber plantation. He later died in the Gulf where he was working. Neighbours believe that his death was caused by Mūrtti. In both Mūrtti kāvus there are ilaññi trees at the centre. Nāyars feared Mūrtti kāvus, especially those belonging to Parayas, with destructive powers. Parayas, in contrast, seemed to be comfortable with Mūrtti kāvus. On one hot day in April 1993, as I passed the Paraya settlement in Nagarajanadu, I head someone laughing. I saw Saji, a fifteen-year-old Paraya boy, lying down comfortably in the cool Mūrtti kāvus and reading a comic book. Saji’s easiness and lack of fear in the Mūrtti kāvus gives me a clue to understanding the implication of the Kuṟava old man building a tree house on the ilaññi tree in the dangerous forest. Both Kuṟavas and Parayas are at ease with ilaññi trees and with various Mūrttis. In the Mūrtti kāvu of the Parayas in Nagarajanadu, too, 101 swarūpams were buried underneath (Uchiyamada 1995: 220-27). The buried swarūpams make the Mūrtti kāvu extra powerful and fearful in the eyes of Nāyars; the same Mūrtti kāvu provides comfortable shades to Parayas and their ancestors.

Swarūpams of Mūrtti at an ancestral ‘palace’ of Kuṟavas in Malanaṭa (July 21, 2000).

Swarūpams of Mūrtti at an ancestral ‘palace’ of Kuṟavas in Malanaṭa (July 21, 2000).

(Photogr. Yasushi Uchiyamada)

13I was intrigued by the stories of the 101 buried swarūpams and I had enquired about them. Yet, I never got satisfactory answers during my fieldwork in 1992-93, or on revisits in 1996, 1997, and 1999. In July 2000, I saw several swarūpams at several ancestral shrines of Kuṟavas in Malanaṭa for the first time. In a Mūrtti kāvu of Kuṟavas in Malanata, I learnt that kāññiram trees (Strychnos nux vomica) were innumerable, androgynous and animalistic Mūrtti swarūpams themselves. Swarūpams I saw were mainly of four kinds: male figures, female figures, figures with a cattle head, and a human figure with horns (see photo, above). Although I have never seen the actual conduct, a haunting ghost is invoked into a piece of kāññiram wood and is taken to an appropriate repository for unwanted beings. When the ghost of Jagati, a son of the last kāraṇavan (‘headman’) of Kallur taṛavāṭu– Jagati was killed by his sister’s husband in front of Raghu’s house in the late 1970s–refused to leave the place, Kuṟava dancers were summoned to remove the ghost. Jagati’s brother told me that the Kuṟavas removed the ghost of Jagati and deposited it in his mother’s lineage temple. It is most likely that the ghost was invoked into a kāññiram figurine by the Kuṟavas and was brought to an appropriate repository in his mother’s taṛavāṭu. (The ‘devil masks’ used by exorcists in Sri Lanka are also made from kāññiram.) I infer that the 101 swarūpams, which the Kuṟava old man from near Ochira brought with him, were the essence of his lineage kāvu, ancestors, deities, and his natal place. Just as the dead bodies are ‘seeds’ planted in the garden, the 101 swarūpams buried in the garden of the ūrāỊi of the host lineage, were the movable essence of a Mūrtti kāvu wherein the living, ancestors, plants and place merged. In the next section, I shall briefly describe the experience of encroachment of Kuṟava lands viewed from a Kuṟava woman’s vantage point.


14Rajamma does not hold the paṭṭayam (‘title deed’) of her land. According to her, her father Kandan borrowed from the Co-operative Society in Pallimood 1750 rupees on the security of twelve cents of land. But he could not repay the loan. When he received a seizure note from the Society, he borrowed 1750 rupees from a Syrian Catholic merchant and moneylender. The merchant took the paṭṭayam as collateral for the loan. When illiterate Kandan asked the merchant to produce a written agreement stating that the creditor would return the land when Kandan pays the money back, the merchant wrote a document and Kandan signed it. But the creditor deceived Kandan and took away the land. Now the merchant fells trees and harvests coconuts from Rajamma’s garden. The merchant had many people to come there, all of them interested in buying Rajamma’s land. Rajamma said:

They brought many people here to sell the land. We did not let them sell it. At that time did we know what to write in a document? My father asked them to return the land. But they did not write that in the document. When other problems arose, they brought the document. The sub-inspector of police read it out and said, “No need to return the land.” We said, “Even so, we cannot give it away.” We will not let them sell the land. We will not give up even a tree from here. One thousand seven hundred and fifty rupees is the cost of a tree. Look there, where banana plants are. There stood a jack tree. They cut it down without our being informed. Do you know how much they got?... Smart fellows. They said “Yes” and wrote the document. Didn’t they cheat Kuṟavas? Did our father know how to write and read? In those days, we didn’t know how to read and write. We were cheated that way.

At the village office, I could read that the paṭṭayam of the 12 cents of land was still registered in the name of Kuṟavas. This is not an isolated incident. At Maññappiṣṣēri Kuṟava ‘colony’ (which was headed by late Candran), the three sons of the former mūppan, Candran, Krshnan and Ayyappan, who inherited a plot of 30 cents of land, did not have a full paṭṭayam. They had a paṭṭayam for 20 cents only. The paṭṭayam of the remaining 10 cents was in the hand of their Syrian Christian neighbour Varghese. Their land was registered in the names of the three Kuṟava brothers. Yet, the paṭṭayam for the 10 cents was never received by the Kuṟavas. Varghese, on the other hand, owns only 740 square metres of garden land according to the official land record. Yet, he had enclosed one acre of the garden land of Kuṟavas with barbed-wire fences and has been cultivating the land as if it were his own. I shall now explain how Kuṟavas lost their land by borrowing money on the security of their land as oṭṭi (‘pawned land’).

15Oṭṭi is a legitimate means, widely used by the rich to encroach the land of Kuṟavas. Oṭṭi works as follows. A plot of garden land is pawned as collateral for a loan. In theory, the creditor and the debtor go to the Registrar’s Office to register the transaction. A document writer (in 1992-93, all document writers in the area were high caste Nāyars) produces an oṭṭi document. The creditor (or the oṭṭi tenant) can keep the oṭṭi up to five years. Although he can use the land for cultivation, he is not allowed to build a house on it. He harvests jackfruits, coconuts, areca nuts from the oṭṭi as interests. If the ‘original owner’ of oṭṭi repays the loan, the creditor has to return the land. If the debtor does not repay the loan by the end of the fifth year, and if the creditor keeps the oṭṭi for altogether twelve years, the latter becomes the legitimate owner of the oṭṭi.

16In practice, oṭṭi arrangements did not work as they ought to. Many low caste and poor oṭṭi givers lost their lands to the benefit of their creditors. One informant told me that many poor people were cheated by the rich, for the former were illiterate and could not read oṭṭi documents produced by Nāyar document writers. Many ‘oṭṭi agreements’ were in fact documents which agreed to sell land, according to this informant. Further, the debtor who repaid the loan did not necessarily regain his land, because the creditor who kept an oṭṭi was allowed to mortgage it. This arrangement made the poor and uneducated debtor vulnerable to swindling. In many cases, Kuṟava oṭṭi givers lost their land to the benefit of higher caste creditors. In a few cases, high caste creditors suffered from ‘misfortunes’ (dōṣam), as a result of offending ancestor spirits and deities who dwelt in the soil of the place.


17In July 2000, I stayed in Ochira for two weeks to find out where the ancestor of Muriyāykkal Kuṟavas came from. Although there was no Kuṟava settlement near Ochira, I was told that there was a new temple called Kuṟakkāvu, which literally means Kurava’s kāvu, about five kilometres from Ochira. The temple was run by a temple trust owned by Nāyars and Īḻlavas. (See fig. above, p. 116.)

18A chamber of Kāḷi, which is facing the east, is at the centre of Kurakkavu temple. To the north-east of Kāḷi is Kirātan, and to the south-west of the goddess is Brahma Rākṣasa. At the north-eastern corner of the temple yard, there is a shallow walled-in bush which is about one metre in width. An iron gate of the walled-in bush is locked. Beside the iron gate, on the front wall of the bush, a notice reads « vettila paraññunna sthalam » (‘the place to throw betel’), which seems to mean: Do not enter! Throw your offerings from here! What is striking about the walled-in bush is the lack of mature and fearful trees, such as pāla, pana, ilaññi, kāññniram and so on. There is, however, an unimportant young cashew tree in the opening of the heavily protected bush. The want of any of mature and fearful tree endowed with destructive powers and the presence of a young cashew tree make the bush look rather queer. The walled-in shallow bush without any important tree, but with a young cashew tree at its centre, with its locked iron gate, and the notice: “Throw your offerings from here!” is a sign inspired by fear, contempt and ridicule.

19Between Kāḷi’s chamber of and the walled-in bush is a chamber of Kirātan– a textual savage figure in Mahābhārata. Kirātan, as a symbol of imagined mountain tribals, has replaced real Kuṟavas (and their ancestors) who are now barred from approaching Kuṟakkāvu. Real tribals are thus replaced with a textual savage. Once unnameable and innumerable Kuṟava ancestors are replaced with the familiar textual figure of Kirātan, it will not be too difficult to transform the shrine of Kirātan into that of Śiva as it occurred in Kerala (Uchiyamada 2001b). Siva is known to have disguised himself as Kirātan, and hence, the emergence of Kirātan is a premonition of Śiva’s arrival. In fact, Śiva is already worshipped in the Kurakkavu temple. On the west side of the bush, there is a new tube well which, according to an inscription it bears, was donated by a Syrian Christian in April 1998. The presence of the well donated by a Syrian Christian suggests that the Syrian Christian supported the project of local Nāyars and Īḻavas to expel Kuṟavas from the kāvu of Kuṟavas.

20There is only one Kuṟava family in the vicinity of Kurakkavu today. According to an old Kuṟatti (Kuṟava woman) of this family, who claims to be a former ūrāỊi (‘shaman’) of Kuṟakkāvu, three Kuṟava clans owned the kāvu in the past. Nevertheless, the Kuṟavas had gradually lost their lands and left the place. Six to seven years previously (i.e. in 1993 or 1994), Nāyars and Īḻavas formed a temple trust, took the kāvu, and prohibited the Kuṟavas from coming close to it. The Nāyars and Īḻavas kept terrifying the Kuṟava family by threatening to kill her grandson (who has recently become the ūrāḷi) if he approached Kuṟakkāvu. Because the Kuṟatti worried that my presence at her house would only endanger their already jeopardised situation, I had to leave the place quickly.

  • 6 There are two symbols of Mūrtti: a pedestal of Mūrtti and a chamber of Kirātan-Mūrtti with reduced (...)

21Although I was unable to confirm Kuṟakkāvu as the natal place of the Kuṟava old man who came to Pallimood with 101 swarūpams several generations ago, it seems possible to infer that the founding ancestor of Muriyāykkal Kuṟavas came from either Kuṟakkāvu or a place like Kuṟakkāvu that existed near Ochira. The kāvu of Kuṟakkāvu does no longer exist; nor do its ancestors either, nor its numerous deities in the temple.6 There are two well-known precedents. One is Pāvumbakāḷi temple, the other is a pedestal of Duryōdhanan in Malanaṭa. As I discussed the Pāvumbakāḷi temple elsewhere (Uchiyamada 1999b; 2001a), I shall now turn to the pedestal of Duryōdhanan in Malanaṭa.


  • 7 A photograph of the ālttara in Malanaṭa can be found in Uchiyamada 1999a: 299.

22I first went to Malanaṭa ālttara (‘banyan platform’) in Kollam district in 1997.7 In Kerala, there are several groves and trees surrounded with a raised platform known as ālttara. The most famous one is Ochira ālttara along the national coast highway. Malanaṭa ālttara (hereafter Malanata ‘temple’) is one among fourteen sacred sites belonging to a Kuṟava lineage in the place. Malanaṭa ‘temple’ was recently reconstructed in 1988 by a temple trust dominated by Nāyars and Īḻlavas. Moreover, I found that a high-status Nāyar astrologer, who was not a member of the trust, was influential in the process of maintaining the official temple myth of Malanaṭa. Unlike many other Kuṟava temples run by temple trusts that excluded Kuṟavas, there are four Kuṟava members in the temple trust of Malanaṭa. This, however, is not a sign of the ‘empowerment’ of Kuṟavas in Malanaṭa. It rather points to division within the Kuṟava lineage.

23The foundation of the temple trust seemed to be connected to the encroachment of Kuṟava territories. Malanaṭa was formerly a Kuṟava territory covered with a forest. Kuṟavas, whose claims I could not substantiate, believe that some 70 acres of forested land once belonged to Kuṟavas. Today the biggest landowner in the area is the trust. In short, the Malanaṭa temple trust is instrumental for non-Kuṟavas, both the members of the trust and non-members, to legitimately intrude into the Kuṟava territory and encroach Kuṟava lands. It is also instrumental for transforming the Kuṟava ancestral shrine into a Hinduised temple.

24The origin myth of Malanaṭa ‘temple’ goes as follows:

Duryōdhanan–the eldest brother of the one hundred Kaurava brothers who were the rivals of godly Pandavas in Mahābhārata–passed through the area in search of his enemy Pandavas. Being exhausted and thirsty, Duryōdhanan received milk from a fair skinned woman, who appeared to be of noble origin. After drinking milk, Duryōdhanan noticed a tali tied around her neck. It had a peculiar shape belonging to Untouchable Kuṟavas. Duryōdhanan was thus polluted and became a member of the Kuṟava clan. This was how he was established on the hill of Malanaṭa.

25When I visited Malanaṭa ‘temple’ in 1997, the priest I met at this former Kuṟava ancestral shrine was an Īḻava. The sweepers of the ālttara were Kuṟavas. At Pāvumbakāḷi temple too, the members of the temple trust are Nāyars and Īḻavas, and the priest who serves the Kuṟava goddess is an Īḻava. Kuṟavas, who have blood relations with the goddess–Pāvumbakāḷi is a deified young Kuṟatti who was pregnant when she committed suicide along with her Brahman lover– are beggars in the temple (Uchiyamada 1996b: 2001a). During my visits to Malanaṭa three years later, I learnt that the Malanaṭa ‘temple’ was one out of fourteen Kuṟava shrines in Malanata, and was not the representative of the Malanaṭa complex as the trust members and their business allies (such as Nāyar astrologers) would have it. It was rather a Hinduised former Kuṟava shrine now run by the temple trust as a business enterprise, which caters to the needs of both pilgrims and the trust members as well as their allies. The representation of the Kuṟavas as the Kauravas of Mahābhārata fits nicely with the worldview of Nāyars and some Indologists. Nevertheless, many Kuṟavas I met in Malanaṭa were not interested in interpreting the Kuṟavas as the mythical Kauravas.

26In fact, I was approached by a Western anthropologist who was interested in the worship of Duryōdhanan in Malanaṭa. His interest seemed to be consistent with a view of a Nāyar astrologer I met in Malanaṭa who told me not to listen to Kuṟavas who were not interested in the story of Duryōdhanan. This Nāyar astrologer seemed to be projecting a Vedic worldview upon the tribal ancestral shrine. Kuṟavas themselves were not amused with the projection of the textual tradition. In my view, Duryōdhanan’s story should not be mistaken as a variation of familiar origin myths of Untouchables who lost their former high ritual status by a careless mistake. In these well-known origin myths, a hero with a high ritual status eats polluting substance carelessly or by trickery, and as a result, becomes an Untouchable (Prakash 1990). This is exactly what happened to Duryōdhanan. Nevertheless, from the point of view of local Kuṟavas, their status did not change following the incident. As one Kuṟava ūrāḷī of a Kuṟava ancestral shrine explained it to me, Kuṟavas did not lose a high ritual status of Brahman when Duryōdhanan mistakenly received milk from the hand of an Untouchable Kuṛatti. The ūrāỊi told me that there had already been Kuṟavas when Duryōdhanan came to Malanaṭa. The pan-Indian apologetic story of all invoking Duryōdhanan is not relevant in other ancestral shrines in Malanaṭa. This Vedic cliché may be of interest to non-Kuṟava Hindus. Yet, the process of Hinduisation seemed to be creating fissures and tensions within Kuṟavas in Malanaṭa.

27The crises (viewed from the vantage point of Kuṟavas excluded from the Malanaṭa Dēvaswam) seemed to have gathered momentum around the time of the land reforms. In 1973, the Malanaṭa ‘temple’ was granted the title deed for 12 acres of land, while other Kuṟava ancestral shrines with various forms, viz. temple, kāvu, and kottāram (‘palace’), received the title deed for 10 cents of land each. Thus, a Kuṟava ancestral temple in which Malanaṭa forefathers are deified holds altogether 90 cents of land. The Kuṟava ūrāḷī and other Kuṟava temple officials have rights on the 10 cents of land on which the shrine stands. The remaining 80 cents of land, which is a coconut garden that surrounds the temple, belongs to the Malanaṭa Dēvaswam with 25 members: 8 Nāyars, 6 Īḻavas, 4 Kuṟavas, and 7 others. The profit from the coconut garden goes to the Dēvaswam. Out of the 14 shrines, only 6 belong to Kuṟavas today. Because Kuṟava ancestors are considered to be invested with special powers, running a Kuṟava temple is a lucrative business for non-Kuṟava caste Hindus.


28Śankaran Ayyappan died on 15 May 1997. He had been the ūrāỊi of the Malanaṭa ‘temple’ for 65 years. According to his son and his family, Śankaran was appointed as ūrāỊi of the Malanaṭa ‘temple’ by the deity. When he was young and still single, Śankaran went to Pattanāpuram to take up a government job– no one, including his widow, knew what kind of government job it was. While he was in Pattanāpuram the ūrāỊi in Malanaṭa died. In the meantime, Śankaran had a revelation and returned home a day before the annual festival of Koṭiyēttam held in March. (Without the ūrāỊi the annual festival cannot take place.) As people watched him with expectation, Śankaran was possessed by the god and hopped with one leg. This was the sign of the deity’s approval of Śankaran. Today it is believed that the ancestral deity who possessed Śankaran was Duryōdhanan. Although I cannot substantiate, it is possible to argue that the deity who possessed Śankaran was an ancestor who is not necessarily textual Duryōdhanan. Let me make another short detour back to the paddy field of Nagarajanadu.

29As I discussed it elsewhere, there are two fearful pālas (‘milk’ trees) in the midst of low-lying punja land which gets flooded during the monsoon. These two pālas emerged from the head and the body of a Pulaya ‘soil slave’ who was killed by his Nāyar master (Uchiyamada 1998: 179-180; 2000: 70-71). I was told that the former mūppan (‘headman’) of this ‘soil slave’ lineage was possessed during the pūja and hopped with his one leg, moving extremely fast between the two pālas in the punja and his lineage kāvu. Thus, to be possessed by an ancestor and hop with one leg is a well-known type of ‘institutionalised possession’ (Uchiyamada 1999a: 292).

30As I have noted above, the Malanaṭa ‘temple’ was granted a title deed for 12 acres of land in 1973. The land reforms began in 1969 when a Congress-led conservative coalition replaced the Communist-led government. In the mid- 1970s Malayalīs started to migrate to the oil rich Gulf countries and began foreign remittances, which was followed by the housing boom since the 1980s. The foundation of the Malanaṭa Dēvaswam in 1980, by Nāyaras and Īḻavas, has to be situated in this wider context. When the Dēvaswam was formed, the members of the temple trust made several attempts to expel Śankaran from the Malanaṭa ‘temple’. In 1985, the Dēvaswam finally reached its goal and expelled Śankaran from the ‘temple’ of Duryōdhanan. Nevertheless, Śankaran was still allowed to perform pūja on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. According to Śankaran’s son, because these three days were important days of the week, Śankaran was still able to maintain his prestige. What was at stake was not only the priesthood, but more importantly the ownership of the land and the temple, as well as the access to the revenue of the temple.

31By the time Śankaran died in May 1997 (I visited the Duryōdhanan ālttara in June 1997), the Malanaṭa Dēvaswam had appointed Śankaran’s sister’s son as ūrāỊi (along with an Īḻava priest). Śankaran’s sister’s appointment was in accordance with marumakkattāyam (‘matrilineal inheritance’). By that time, the rule of inheritance, however, had been changed from marumakkattāyam to makkattāyam (‘patrilineal inheritance’). The important point is that the office of ūrāḷi is different from that of mūppan. An ūrāỊi has to be appointed by the deity. Śankaran’s sister’s son got possessed and hoped with one leg in public when he was appointed. A few months later, however, he was dismissed from the office, because it was believed that the deity was not pleased with the Dēvaswam’s appointment and that the possession was not genuine. It was said that he did not have the ‘blessing’ (anugraham) of the deity. He was replaced with Śankaran’s brother’s son.

32In 2000, Śankaran’s son, who was disputing with Śankaran’s brother’s son over the ownership of the Malanaṭa ‘temple’ and its land, was prohibited from approaching it. He and his allies were planning to transform Śankaran’s kryāla into a full temple. Meanwhile, a Kuṟava who was a member of the Dēvaswam was offering readings of Rāmāyaṇa at the Malanaṭa ‘temple’ for several days. I saw a loudspeaker tied to an ātmāvu (‘soul’) tree at a Kuṟava ancestral shrine dedicated to a Kuṟava ancestress and other deities. When I visited that day, the story of Rāmā’s birth in Ayodhya was reverberating from a loudspeaker tied to the ‘soul’ tree.


33In Kuṟakkāvu, real Kuṟavas and their ancestors were replaced with textual Kirātan, and Kirātan was about to be replaced with Śiva. In Nooranadu, a malanaṭa hill has been transformed into a rubber plantation, and one of the Kuṟava ancestral shrines was transformed into a ‘temple’ owned by Nāyars and Īḻlavas. In Pāvumba, the Kuṟava ancestress Pāvumbakāḷi was removed by Nāyars and Īḻavas from a lineage kāvu of Kuṟavas and established in a newly created Pāvumbakāḷi temple conveniently located nearby a tarmac road.

34Candran and Ayyappan, who were in their early eighties and late seventies respectively, were knowledgeable informants of mine. They were mūppans of two Kuṟava sub-clans located to the south-west of Nagarajanadu. When I used to visit Candran in 1992-93, he was making an attempt to drive out encroachers by using the dangerous power of a demigoddess Marutā, who had been tamed by the Kuṟavas just like their cattle. Candran told me that because Marutā wandered the area during the night, outsiders could not approach the Kuṟava territory. Candran was killed in an traffic accident in 1997 on the way to the market. The person who hit the old man was a son of a Syrian Christian landlord who had been encroaching the Kuṟava territory.

35When Ayyappan told me once that they were nothing without their ancestors in their lineage kāvu, my attention was focussed on the strong meaning of those kāvus that connect the living, the dead, plants and the place. Ayyappan died in 1997 too. A Kuṟava ascetic from another sub-lineage, who had been observing asceticism in order to strengthen the power of Kuṟava ancestors so as to protect the Kuṟava territories from encroachers, gave up his quest by the time I revisited him in 1997, and in 1999 he was dead. Śankaran Ayyappan, the ūrāỊi of the Malanaṭa ālttara, died in 1997. Thus, many Kuṟava leaders who stubbornly upheld older practices and resisted encroachment, had passed away at the turn of the century. With their demise, that the pace at which the landscape of Kuṟava territories had been changing seemed to have accelerated.

36Candran is still lying beneath the concrete slab, in the garden of his daughter Kuṭṭi. In 1999 I wrote:

The concrete slab looked alien; it made it difficult to plough Candran’s body into the soil one year after the burial. I thought the slab blocked the fertility of the agricultural land and the lineage, which was supposed to flow from the body of Candran. It seemed as though it were the end of resistance. Candran’s daughter Kuṭṭi, however, told me that her father appeared in her dreams and talked to her every night: “Why do you look so sad, daughter? Don’t cry...” Kuṭṭi told me that she would move Candran’s soul from the concrete slab to their lineage ‘palace’ on April 19th, 1998, on his first death anniversary. [Uchiyamada 1999a: 306]

37Candran’s concrete tomb was still there in the garden. Beside his concrete slab was the burial ground of Candran’s wife Cakki, who died in 1999. Kuṭṭi did not take the soul of Candran to the lineage ‘palace’; her husband who was tilling the garden with an iron bar, explained to me that it was more convenient to have Candran’s tomb in the garden, for he and his family did not need to go to the ‘palace’ to propitiate Candran. The concrete slab in the garden was no longer something alien but seemed to be a new trend. The Kuṟava ascetic, too, was buried in his garden and covered with a concrete. According to his son, the ascetic told his family not to move him to the lineage temple, and to consider his tomb as the family temple. As encroachment of their lands and ancestral shrines intensified, the Kuṟavas seemed to have changed themselves into more self-contained, smaller family units. Without this simultaneous transformation, Hinduisation of the Kuṟava ancestral shrines is inconceivable.

38Y. U.



Mateer, S. (1883), Native Life in Travancore. London, W. H. Allen & Co.

Prakash, G. (1990), Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labor Servitude in Colonial India. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Savyasaachi (1999), “Sapangada: A Kuianka Living Space”, in R. Jeffery & N. Sunder, eds., A New Moral Economy for India’s Forest? Discourses of Community and Participation. New Delhi, Sage Publications, pp. 130-150.

Uchiyamada, Y. (1995), “Sacred Grove (kdvuf. Ancestral Land of ‘Landless Agricultural Labourers’ in Kerala, India”. Unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, The London School of Economics.

Uchiyamada, Y. (1998), “‘The grove is our temple’. Contested representations of kāvu in South India”, in L. Rival, ed., The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism. Oxford, Berg, pp. 177-196.

Uchiyamada, Y. (1999a), “Soil, self, resistance: late-modernity and locative spirit possession in Kerala”, Puruṣārtha, 21: La Possession en Asie du Sud: Parole, Corps, Territoire. Paris, Éd. de l’EHESS, pp. 289-311.

Uchiyamada, Y. (1999b), “Two beautiful Untouchable women: processes of becoming in Southern India”, in S. Day, E. Papataxiarchis & M. Stewart, eds., Lilies of the Field: Marginal People Who Live for the Moment. Boulder, Co., Westview, pp. 96-116.

Uchiyamada, Y. (2000), “Passions in the landscape: ancestor spirits and land reforms in Kerala, India”, South Asia Research, 20 (1), pp. 63-84.

Uchiyamada, Y. (2001a), “Shifting balance of mountains and ocean: Hinduised groves, commodified place, and a permeable person in late modern Kerala”. Unpublished paper presented at the Department of Social Anthropology Seminar, The University of Edinburgh on 2 March, 2001.

Uchiyamada, Y. (2001b) “Journeys to watersheds: biodiversity, a national state and shifting balance of Malayalam”, Journal of the Japanese Association for South Asian Studies, vol. 13.


1 A photograph of the malanaṭa ‘temple’ in Nooranadu can be found in Uchiyamada 1999a: 299.

2 According to a Nāyar astrologer I met in Malanata, who told me that Kuṟavas don’t know anything, there were one hundred and one malanaṭas in Kerala. A young Kuṟava man, who told me that the Nāyar astrologer was lying, told me that there were one hundred and eight malanaṭas.

3 The ‘Big Church’ is St. Stephen’s Syrian Orthodox chapel founded by the Tarakans in 1835. The Tarakans were a Syrian Christian merchant family who served Kayankulam Raja.

4 See note 3 above.

5 An ilaññi tree is found at the centre of Mūrtti kāvus belonging to Parayas. It bears edible fruit and the wood is used for cremation. The ilaññi is associated with Mūrtti worshipped by Parayas and feared by Nāyars, and is associated with the dead. Kuṟavas worship Mūrtti or Muhūrtti which is associated with kāññiram trees.

6 There are two symbols of Mūrtti: a pedestal of Mūrtti and a chamber of Kirātan-Mūrtti with reduced degrees of fluidity and fuzziness.

7 A photograph of the ālttara in Malanaṭa can be found in Uchiyamada 1999a: 299.

Table des illustrations

Titre Kuṟakkāvu Kāḷi Temple.
Fichier image/jpeg, 41k
Titre Swarūpams of Mūrtti at an ancestral ‘palace’ of Kuṟavas in Malanaṭa (July 21, 2000).
Crédits (Photogr. Yasushi Uchiyamada)
Fichier image/jpeg, 48k


Lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, he has worked among former Untouchables in Kerala and in bureaucracy in Tokyo; Yasushi Uchiyamada teaches South Asian Anthropology and Anthropology of Organisation and Democracy.
– 1999 « Two beautiful Untouchable women : processes of becoming in Southern India », in S. Day, E. Papataxiarchis, & M. Stewart, eds., Lilies of the Field : Marginal People who Live for the Moment, Boulder, Co., Westview.
– 1999 « Soil, self, resistance : late-modernity and locative spirit possession in Kerala », Puruṣārtha 21, pp. 289-311.
– 2000 « Passions in the landscape : ancestor spirits and land reforms in Kerala, India », South Asia Research, 20 (1), pp. 63-84.

© Éditions de l’École des hautes études en sciences sociales, 2002

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