TRADITIONAL FISHERFOLK OF KERALA - An article about their socio-economic organisation and the special relationship they share with the sea and the environment.
Originally published in India Water Portal by  Aarti Kelkar-Khambete >>

Fisherfolk in Kerala come from three different religious groups - the Hindus, Muslims and the Christians. Each of the groups has its own social organisation and mostly occupies separate places in a typical fishing village, although they do share some commonalties. The distribution of the three religious groups varies according to regions.


Hindu fisherfolk are mostly found in the central and northern districts of Kollam, Allapuzha, Thrissur and Kasargode districts of Kerala. 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 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.

Fishermen are deeply religious and they fully depend on the sea and the other natural forces that control it. 


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).


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.

“He always thought of the sea as 'la mar' which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as 'el mar' which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

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

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


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).






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