Myths, history and migration

Entwined in a long iron chain from the age old branch of a Koli (ficus) tree standing at the top edge of the colonial Ghat road lives the spirit of Karinthandan who showed the British, the only path to Wayanad.

“It is believed that the Britisher killed Karinthandan to get full credit of his discovery. After his death Karinthandan’s soul haunted the intruders to his land and hence somebody chained his soul to this ficus tree. Myth or truth, the chain lies there for centuries now,” says Mr K J Baby, a social activist.

If true, this could be one of the oldest and unkind deeds of immigrants to the aboriginals of this land. Wayanad was unreachable atop Western Ghats. But Karinthandan opened the first outlet to external infiltration and became the victim to his crime.

“Legend is that Nallorappan and Nalloramma travelled to Wayanad thousands of years ago from Karnataka and their descendants became the tribal people of Wayanad,” says Mr Baby.

But the Edakkal cave engravings claim that there was civilisation in Wayanad way back from 4,000 BC. Edakkal cave which is 4,000 feet above sea level reveals ancient stone engravings. The engravings prove that the aboriginals or tribal people who lived in Wayanad had a culture and language developed much before. The scientists and archaeologists are still trying to find out more on Edakkal engravings. It is a UNO declared World Heritage Centre now.

Edakkal cave engravings

Spread down the valleys of Edakkal caves, there existed a primitive civilisation for centuries across the length and breadth of Wayanad. They lived as different gotras or tribes, not much different to any other society. They were unaware of the concept of possession and hence became easy prey to slavery.

The Jains who fled from Karnataka due to persecution in the Middle Ages settled in the virgin forests of Wayanad. They brought in new methods of farming to Wayanad, which was just a forest land then. The 800-year-old Jain temple in Sulthan Bathery is a proof that Jains inhabited Wayanad for more than 800 years.

“Jains came in 14th century and became the landlords of Wayanad and brought in their culture and religious beliefs with them,” said Mr Palliyara Raman, a Kurichya chieftain.

By late 17th century due to the Hindu religious revival Jainism slowly started vanishing. Today there are about a 1,000 Jains in Wayanad, which is meagre in comparison to their earlier population.

Pazhassi Raja memorial

When warlike prince, Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja became the ruler of Kottayam and Wayanad  he built an army recruiting herds of tribes to resist British invasion. The British found Wayanad a tempting place equivalent in climate to their country. The large vistas of land across mountain valleys for plantations of spices, tea, coffee and oranges were not common in India.

Pazhassi Raja heroically fought against the fire arms of British with his crude weapons like swords and bow and arrow and ill-trained herd of tribal people.  It is believed that he is the first person to use guerrilla warfare methods in his fight.

Mr Raman said: “Pazhassi’s army consisted of Nairs and Thiyyas (castes) and the tribal people Kurichyas and Kurumas. The Nairs and Thiyyas were brought in from Kottayam.

The fight lasted for many years ending in Pazhassi’s suicide in the inner jungles of Wayanad. Pazhassi Raja is still considered as a hero because even in death he refused to stoop before his enemies”.

Pazhassi Raja

Pazhassi’s and Britisher’s invasion brought in new landlords to Wayanad who engaged tribal people in bonded labour and slavery. The Nairs and Thiyyas who became landlords after Pazhassi’s rule treated tribal people as slaves. They bought and sold them with their property.

Mr K M Philip, a 93-year-old veteran says, “In 1929, when the great depression hit all over the world, it has affected Travancore (Kerala state was once known as Travancore) also. The Christians were already feeling neglected and demeaned under the rule of Sir C P Ramaswami Iyyer, the then Diwan (Governor) of Travancore. So they started looking for fertile land for farming in Malabar.”

“My father was one of the first migrants to Wayanad. He came and bought hundreds of acres of land in Payyampilly which was quite cheap then,” he adds.

When Mr Kudakkachira Mathew, (Mr K M Philip’s father) came looking for a fertile land in Wayanad in 1930 from Kottayam, he was unaware of this land’s fertility and history. The house and property he bought in Mananthavady for Rs 3,000 belonged to a Britisher, who committed suicide in the premises.

The haunted house in Mananthavady

“The Britisher was a Writer (Accountant) in an Estate belonged to British East India Company. He diverted seeds, manure, labour etc meant for the estate to his farm. He had created a beautiful farm for himself. He was caught and dismissed from the farm and was punished with a fine of one Anna (1 paise then) which was a meagre sum even then.”

“He was barred from clubs and social functions. His family deserted him and went back to England. Thus he ended his life by hanging from a silver oak in the courtyard,’’ says Mr K P Thomas, son of Mr Philip.

Mr Philip says, “The tribal people and Hindus believed that a person who committed suicide will never rest in peace and his soul will haunt the living. So nobody took the risk of buying the land but my father bought it. It was a beautiful farm with oranges and coffee. Now you cannot find a single orange tree in Wayanad. The climate which was very cool once has changed to too hot for oranges to grow.”

The Christian migrants came and had their sway in Wayanad from 1930 onwards. They were a hardworking lot.

“When we bought our land we had 30 tribal families under our legal contract. They were bonded labourers or slaves of the previous owner,” says Mr Philip.

The migrants did not treat the tribal people as slaves. “They were treated as paid workers but their duties became varied and heavy. Men became alcoholics and young women-unwed mothers, says Mr Thomas.

“The migrants are the main reasons for today’s development in Wayanad. They started schools and churches and brought in civilisation to this land,’’ he adds.

The migrants also brought in the cultivation of cash crops in the place of food crops. Though the paddy fields were the main attraction for them to come to Wayanad, they slowly transformed the wet lands to dry lands and started growing pepper, ginger, cardamom and rubber for financial benefits. This could be one of the reasons for today’s climatic and ecological transformations.

Mr Philip says, “It was quite foggy and cold in those days. It drizzled in every hour of every day. Today the climates are similar to all other places in Kerala. It rains only in the monsoon and most of the time it is hot like other parts of Kerala.”

Wayanad has transformed tremendously. The tribal people, who spoke their languages, wore their traditional attires, believed in their culture and traditions are part of a bygone era. In the place of the vast ranges of forests and open fields once solely occupied by the tribal people, all we see now is a devastated terrain.

Plastic wastes dumped under a banyan tree in Thirunelli

And with the dawn of 21st century, another menace has entered into this arena -Tourism. The plastic and such non degradable substances dumped in rivers and eco sensitive locations is implanting a final blow to a once beautiful place called Wayanad and its once beautiful native people.

Mr O K Johny, a Wayanad historian, says, “Migration is a necessity for a history to form. Different migrations and escapades outline what that land is to become in the later times.”

“But for Tribal people in Wayanad, they have lost their land and identity. Give them back their traditions and land and their problems will be resolved.”

13 Responses to Myths, history and migration

  1. Arjun Ramachandran says:

    A story on Wayanad , I would love to describe this piece as so. Well narrated one.

  2. Namitha says:

    Lovely article. I enjoyed reading it. Well written. I was completely lost in it until the very end. Hats off.

  3. I love your take on Wayanad and its enamoring beauty. We have such beautiful hidden peaceful havens in Kerala. I can’t wait to see this place.

  4. Kishore says:

    Nice article. Have been to Waynad twice, but couldn’t go to edakkal caves :(

    I have heard that Thiyyas came from Malabar and not Kottayam, not sure though.

  5. Abhilash Gopinath says:

    “Within infinite myths lies the eternal truth,
    Who sees it all?
    Varuna has but a thousand eyes
    Indira a hundred
    And I, only two.”
    With your two you have captured the much entwined ‘Mithya’ and ‘Satya’ of Wayanad and it is such a relief that you haven’t attempted to separate the two. Stories like this help us to suspend our disbelief and be lost for awhile. Thank you for conveying the plight and search of identity of the original inhabitants and the necessities and avarice of the settlers. Just because it happens in another place, I don’t think one can attach an otherness to this melancholic history of the people of Wayanad as it resonates with what happened and happens to the aboriginals of Australia or to the Inuits and Red Indians of North America.

    Your story transcends cultural and geographical barriers.

    Good work, Chencho.

    • Chencho Sherin says:

      Great observation Abhilash. The aboriginals or natives of each land go through the same transformations or patterns. The loss of their identity is foremost among other issues they endure. Anyways thanks for bringing up this point.

  6. Rajesh says:

    Nice write up on Wayanad – Will be exploring this mystic and beautiful paradise on earth in my next visit

  7. daisy mathew says:

    haven’t ever been to Wynad, have wanted to… after reading this am attracted all the
    more. SHOULD MAKE IT! Thank you Chencho.

  8. niaz vaheed says:

    Left wayanad 5 years back and never got a chance to go back.. & after reading this have a strong urge to pack my bags n rush back to this heaven ,,, well done ,,, keep writing

  9. Chencho Sherin says:

    Thank you Leemachechi

  10. Leema says:

    This piece is beautifully written! I appreciate the work you are carrying out!! Keep the spirit going!!

  11. Vijay says:

    Edakkal Cave, my personal favorite spot in Wayanad. Never knew this much though..

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