Wayanad, in Kerala, is often described as the ‘valley of heaven’. Situated around 2,500–2,700 feet above sea level, it is a rich reserve of rare biodiversity. A mountain range of considerable significance in the Western Ghats, it has an area of 2132 sq. km, of which 37.07% is covered in forests. Wayanad is famous for its natural beauty as well as its spices. It has the ideal climate and soil for farming that encouraged people from various regions, communities and religions to migrate here.
The district of Wayanad, formed in 1980, is located at the meeting point of three Indian states—Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. In fact, it is the only district of Kerala that shares its border with two other states. The region’s geology and climate is remarkably distinct from the rest of Kerala. As it is almost on the tip of the southern belt of the Deccan Plateau, Wayanad’s geographical landscape has more affinity with Karnataka than with Kerala. The many rulers and kings of Karnataka had invariably ruled Wayanad as well.
Communities in Wayanad
Today, Wayanad has a significant Jain, Hindu, Muslim and Christian population, as well as several tribal communities. Given the unique geography of Wayanad, which shares boundaries with Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as well, migration into the region was understandable. When a dominant community migrates to a region, it is natural that their attendants and workforce follow. These immigrants took land on lease, and lived as tenants. Such a population included carpenters, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, washermen and farm workers. The recorded texts of Raja Pazhassi show that the kings of Wayanad at the time supported and encouraged such immigration.
Wayanad has the largest Jain community among all the districts in Kerala. It is believed that Chandragupta Maurya (fourth century BCE) lived as Bhadrabahu Mani’s student in Sravana Belgola (about 100 kilometres from Wayanad), and that the Jain community of the time are ancestors to the Jains in Wayanad today. It was during the period from the 9th to 14th century CE that the Jain community grew in size in Wayanad, as is shown by the many rock temples in the region built during this time.
Again, the association of the Hindu community with Wayanad extends back for millennia, and is manifest in many stone inscriptions and temples in the region built during this time, including the famous Tirunelli Temple. Most of the Nair and Nambiar communities in Wayanad, who represent a major part of the district’s administrative staff, come from the Vadakara and Thalassery region. It is believed that the Thiyya community came from northern Kozhikode, and the Tandaan, Muthaan and Ezhava communities came from places close to Palakkad. Brahmins, who were tantris or high priests, came to Wayanad from various parts of Palakkad. The Tamil-speaking Chengattiri village, near Mananthavadi, still follow the Tamil Brahmin culture. The Namboothiri community in Korom, in present-day Wayanad, is said to have descended from the Namboothiris who came from various parts of Kerala to conduct priestly duties in temples of the region.
The Wayanadan Chetty community are natives of Wayanad, and the surrounding Nilgiri areas. In the book Wayanad: It’s People and Traditions, author Rao Bahadur Gopalan Nair, the Deputy Collector of Wayanad in 1911, states that they came from Dharapuram, near Coimbatore. This same opinion was voiced by Deputy Francis I.C.S, in the Malabar District Gazetteer of 1908. It is said that there are 18.5 sects among the Chettis, including the Wayanadan Chettis, Maandaan Chettis and Idanadan Chettis; among these, the Wayanadan Chetty is the half-sect.
Muslim migration to Wayanad started only around five centuries ago. Muslims from Kannur, Thalasseri, Vadakara, Malappuram, Palakkad, Kottayam, Mysore and Bangalore migrated to Wayanad during various crucial junctures in history.
It was after the 1930s that a huge Christian population migrated to Wayanad. They came from the farming villages of the former Travancore kingdom. Famine, food shortage and the lack of agricultural lands spurred this massive displacement. This migration process went on till the 1960s. Vishakanyaka, a celebrated novel by S.K. Pottekkatt, tells the story of this Christian migration to Wayanad.
Wayanad has the highest tribal population in Kerala, accounting for about 37.6% of the total tribal population in the state; 17.34% of the population of Wayanad belong to tribal communities. Wayanad has 12 distinct tribal communities—Paniya, Kurichiya, Adiya, Kurumar, Kattunaykan, Wayanadan Kaadar, Karimbalan, Kundu Vaadiyan, Patiyar, Tachanadan Moopan, Uridakkaudar and Kalanaadikal. Further, these communities have subsects as well. Among them, the Paniya community has the largest population. Unfortunately, the historical narratives of these tribal communities are filled with instances of denial of basic human rights and subjugation by powerful people. Until 1975, members of the Adiya and Ponniya communities were sold as slaves on the occasion of the Valliyoorkavu Temple festival. It was only in 1975 that slave trade was banned by law in Wayanad.
However, not a single Adivasi community in Wayanad has an objectively written history; stories told in their oral literature, beliefs and myths are counted as their history. These myths and folklores, it is believed, have their roots in the tribal community’s need to reconstruct identity and overcome an existential crisis, which comes from living on the margins of civilization for long. Most tribal communities in Wayanad possess a rich treasure of oral literature. For centuries, they have been transmitting their literary tradition from one generation to the next, through various mediums like folk songs, folk tales and legends.
Wayanad and Ramayana
Each of the many tribes in Wayanad has its own unique beliefs pertaining to Ramayana. The Ramayana plays a big role in belief systems across the different sects and classes of the Hindu religion. Most of these stories of the Ramayana rest on the fringes of religious belief systems. Even within a single sect one can see various versions of a single story. It is worth noting that a significant portion of such stories lies within the landscape of Wayanad.
The most unique feature of oral and written versions of the Ramayana that prevail in India and other Asian countries is how closely they are blended with their local culture. Ramayana stories that have spread to different lands and cultures bear the imprints of these lands and cultures in their retellings. In other words, various castes, religions and local communities have recreated the Ramayana as their own. In Ramayanas from Wayanad, too, the local cultural, societal and environmental influences feature prominently.
However, they are not unrelated to folklore outside the Ramayana. For example, in the ‘Adiya Ramayana’ (the oral version of the text which prevails among the Adiya tribe of Wayanad), there are popular characters from local legends and folklores, such as Valliyoorkavu Bhagavathi, Pulpalli Bhagavathi, Pakkatheyyam, Tirunelli Perumal, Siddhappan, Nenjappan and Mathappadeva; similarly, in ‘Chetty Ramayana’ (the text used by the Wayanadan Chettis), there are characters like Athirukaalan, Arupuli, Kandanpuli, Dammadam, Kaikalan and Thamburatti. In the same way, the ‘Chandrabati Ramayana’ (written in the 16th century in Mymensingh, East Bengal, by a woman named Chandrabati), was rejected by the Bengali pandits of her time but survived for more than four centuries solely through oral transmission. Written from the point of view of a woman, this version of the Ramayana was a unique piece of work featuring local Bengali goddesses like Mangal Chandi, Manasa, Banadurga, Sitala and Shashti.
It may also be said that Ramayana stories can generally be categorised into two types: the first being a cultural narrative, and the second being a literary narrative. While the texts by Valmiki, Ezhuthachan, Kambar and Tulsidas are literary accounts, alternative Ramayanas like those from Wayanad are cultural accounts. Oral traditions of the Ramayana exist in Wayanad’s landscape in various forms, such as etymologies of place names, beliefs, folk tales, folk songs, stories of genesis, art forms, temple-centric concepts, and legends based on rivers, hills and other natural features.
Ramayana and the geographical landscape
Wayanad’s various communities—the Wayanadan Chettis, Idanadan Chettis, several other lower-caste and upper-caste communities—have planted the Ramayana into their local context. And some of the tales associated with the Ramayana are shared by all these communities. For example, legends associated with Jadayattakkavu, near Pulpalli town: both the Hindus and the Adivasis in the region believe that Sita disappeared from where the Jadayattakkavu temple stands today. It is believed that as Sita was sinking into the earth, Lord Rama held onto her hair, resulting in her hair being torn off and so she is thus venerated here as Chedattilamma ('jada/cheda' means hair, atta, 'to move'). Jadayattakavu is the site of the famous Pulpalli Sitadevi Lavakusa Temple.
The names of many places near Jadayattakkavu have their roots in the oral retellings of the Ramayana. A few examples are Ashramkoli, Yogimoola, Rampalli, Sita Mound, Poothadi and Choorupura. It is the belief of the local people that Valmiki’s ashram was situated in Ashramkoli. Even though it was upper-caste people who ran the ashram, the responsibility of thatching the roof of the ashram fell on the local Mulla Kuruma Adivasi community. It is believed that Sita gave birth to Lava and Kusa in this ashram, and that it was the women of the Mulla Kuruma community who provided postpartum care. Legend has it that it was in Yogimoola that the maharishis dwelled: it appears that it was this belief that gave the place its name. Similarly, there are over 30 such places in Wayanad whose nomenclature derives from Ramayana stories.
Again, there are numerous legends that link hills from Ramayana stories to those in Wayanad. Examples include legends based on mountains and hills such as Banasuramala, Brahmagiri, Munishvaramala (Munishvarakovil), Bhoothatthankunnu and Manikunnumala.
Scores of tribal communities, as well as upper-caste Hindus, believe that the war between Banasura and Krishna took place on Banasuramala. It is believed that during the war, Krishna chopped off Banasura’s karam (hand), and thus the place is named Karabanam. Karabanam Temple, at the foot of Banasura Hill, is well known in the region. In the middle of the war, an axe is said to have fallen in a region near Tharuvana, about 10 kilometres from Banasura. This region is now called Mazhuvannur, and there are many legends based on the Mazhuvannur Temple that is situated there.
Another hill, Manikunnumala, is where Manu Maharishi is said to have meditated. The initial name Manukunnu, over time, transformed into Manikunnu. Manikunnumala is said to have a natural Vishnu idol, however, it has no temple, and a pooja happens here only once every year. There are numerous legends associated with this hill. For example, there’s a boulder atop the hill that believed to be the spot where Sita and Lakshman played chess. Lakshman is a common figure in legends and folk tales associated with Manikunnumala.
There are large collections of stories among the many communities in Wayanad that deal with themes like the origin of the universe, origin of man, natural phenomena and the origin of religions. Many among them are related to themes in the Ramayana. There are even Adivasi communities in Wayanad that regard Rama and Sita as canonical figures in their own religion.
Tirunelli, which is known as the Kashi of the south, is a rich store of legends. Both subaltern communities and upper-caste Hindus consider Tirunelli to be the centre of their beliefs and legends. These written and unwritten legends and beliefs uphold Tirunelli as the most important site of spiritual pilgrimage. Most of these legends place references from the ancient Sanskrit texts in the landscape, since the geographical peculiarities of Tirunelli are conducive to the creation of myths and legends.
It is believed that Lord Rama, under the guidance of munis, offered prayers at Tirunelli Temple to achieve victory over Ravana. Another legend is that Lord Rama, along with Lakshman, Bharath and others, conducted the last rites for their father King Dasarath in the Papanashini River. Yet another legend claims that Parasuram, after learning that his father was killed, conducted his last rites in Tirunelli. It is not only characters but also natural phenomena and landscapes that were planted in the settings of Wayanad. Both the Papanashini and Kalindi rivers are examples of this; the former is considered to be the regional counterpart of river Ganga. Just as the holy river Ganga flows through Kashi, the river Papanashini flows through Tirunelli, the Kashi of the south. Hindus believe that both rivers have the power to wash away the sins of anyone who takes a bath in their waters, and that performing last rites in these rivers will grant the souls of the departed entry into heaven. Also, seven sacred waterbodies—Papanashini, Panchatheertham, Rinamochini Theertham, Gundika Theertham, Satabindu, Sahasrabindham and Varaham—are believed to converge at Tirunelli, the most important among them being Papanashini.
Another such common local belief is that Tirunelli is the abode of Gods. It is believed that Lord Vishnu is in the main temple as Tirunelli Perumal, and Lord Shiva in Gundika Temple. And it is here that Brahma worships Vishnu everyday. Hence, in the temple, there is a convergence of all the three lords—Trimurti.
Ramayana influence on folk songs
Among the tribal sects of Wayanad, such as the Adiyas, Mulla Kurumars, Kurichyas, etc., the Ramayana (and in some cases the Mahabharata) story is the main theme of community folk songs. Also, the theme of kolkali, vattakkali, pattukali, etc., among the Wayanadan Chetty and Mandadan Chetty are also based on/related to ancient epics. The Chettys perform kolkali in connection with marriage ceremonies and other auspicious occasions.
A kolkali performance is done holding a one-foot long bamboo pole which requires a minimum 12 people. The speciality of the performance is the repetition of different steps. This art form was useful in strengthening communal bonds and to sustain their belief system through the repetition of age-old tales. The main plot of kolkali revolves around mythical heroes and associated stories.
Sitaye Ravanan kattu
Kattangane kondupoyi Sitaye Ravanan
Kadalum kadatheettale kondupooyathu
Chembaka vanmaram valiyoru vanmaram
Vanmaram keezhilu kondanganeyiruthi Sitaye
Roughly translated as below:
Disguised as a deer
Ravana stole Sita
Stole Sita and took her, did Ravana
Across the sea
Chamba tree, the big tall tree
Sat Sita under the big tree
Inangi ennodu punarenam
Azhakotha meni azhakum sundaram
Eppoyum ninte roopam kandittu
Roughly translated as below:
Rising up, the great Sage
Thus spoke to her
Come, let me embrace you
What a beautiful body you have
Your beauty overwhelms me
Every time I see you
Tanum tarunimaril nee vanbathi tanee
Hitathode ninte marodanayuvan
Roughly translated as below:
Then spoke Ravana
Of all young girls you are the best
I yearn, young lady,
For a long time
To embrace you with love
Numerous songs like this circulate among tribal communities in Wayanad. All of them are either linked to epics or give ample hints of them. The vattakali and kolkali songs of Mulla Kurumas are entirely based on the stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata. At the same time, they are quite modern in composition and the language used is modern Malayalam. This goes to show that these songs are not very old.
Oral Ramayana texts in Wayanad
Oral texts, in the form of folklore, riddles, myths and legends, are the more ancient forms of literature in cultures around the world. The Ramayana, despite being a written text, has survived as oral narratives in several cultures and communities, while it has also been modified and adapted to suit the living circumstances, socio-economic status and specific classes where it has made its way. And even within a specific community it has different local variations. And given the poetic license allowed to an oral chronicler, it is obvious that there have been numerous local versions of the Ramayana narrative. In general, we can assume that the spoken script of Ramayana is like a flexible form, flowing, constantly undergoing change, while the written script of Ramayana is a solid form, rigid and without change. In the following section, we’ll take a closer look at two of the local versions of the Ramayana in Wayanad.
Storytelling is an intrinsic part of the Adiya community of Wayanad and many of their leaders are, therefore, expert storytellers. The most notable names among these are Mathe Vaidyar at Thrissileri near Mananthavadi, P.K. Kalan and P.K. Kariyan. Among these Mathe has even created a comprehensive oral version of the Ramayana. Given that the contextualisation of the main Ramayana narrative to the local is what distinguishes the Adiya Ramayana, it may thus be said that there are several deviations from the original text in this indigenous version.
In terms of location, Adiya Ramayana is set in Wayanad, Kerala, and Coorg, Karnataka. Lanka is not across an ocean but near a river. In this story Sita is a woman from the Adiya tribe and hails from Pulpally, Wayanad. There is a Valmiki shrine near Pulpally and also a spot where Sita is supposed to have vanished under the earth. Towards the end of the story Rama, Lakshman, Hanuman and other tribal gods go to Iruppu, a village in Karnataka, where now stands a temple dedicated to Sita. And all other characters like Ram, Lakshman and Hanuman are lower in status than Adiya tribal gods like Siddappa, Nenjappa and Mathappa.
Another point of deviation in Adiya Ramayana is the introduction of new episodes. For example, in Adiya Ramayana is there is a scene where Rama and Lakshman are tied to a tree and questioned by tribal chiefs about Rama’s abandonment of a pregnant Sita. Such an interrogation is unseen in any other version and is exclusive to the Adiya Ramayana. Also, here Ravana takes Sita to Lanka with her full consent. She knows Ravana even before she meets Rama. The omission of episodes is also another aberration, in that Adiya Ramayana is the only version without a battle scene.
In Adiya Ramayana, social issues concerning the Adiya tribe also feature prominently. Lack of personal property among the Adiyas is one such issue. Mathe’s Ramayana starts with a conversation betweeen Sita and Pakkathappan (Lord Pakkam; Pakkam is a place in Wayanad). Pakkathappan commands Sita to leave his country with her belongings. This situation is similar to the picture of a tribe being thrown out of his land by his landlord. Mathe says he heard this story as a bedtime story from his grandfather. This points towards an autobiographical element in Mathe’s retelling of the Ramayana, since his forefathers, for generations, had been slaves of landlords in the Thrisseleri, Tirunelli and Kodagu region.
It is common practice among the Chettys, especially Wayanadan Chettys, to convert epics into the oral tradition by placing them in the landscape of their existence and thus owning them. The cultural sphere of the Wayanadan Chetty community is spiritually connected with the stories of Ram, Sita, Lava and Kusa, Valmiki, Hanuman and others.
The Wayanadan Chettys consider Wayanad as Panchavati in Ramayana. There are many other places between Ponkuzhy and Pulppally on the Wayanad–Mysore road which are linked to the Ramayana and form a part of their belief system. In one way, it is the Chetty community who are the true custodians of this oral tradition.
The Chettys migrated to Wayanad centuries ago. According to Rao Bahadur C. Gopalan Nair, Wayanadan Chettys hail from Dharapuram near Coimbatore, Edanadan Chettys from Edanadu in Kodagu, and the Mandadan Chetty from Gudalur in Nilgiri. Their language and culture corroborate this theory. Most of the legends in the oral tradition are probably created to glorify the place they have migrated to, probably in an attempt to gain social acceptance among the dominant indigenous communities. It is also possible that some such stories were already prevalent as oral tradition in the areas from which they had migrated, i.e., Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and were thus transplanted into the landscape of Wayanad with their displacement. Migration, among these communities, may explain the need to relate the oral traditions with a community’s belief systems by recreating the cultural imprints of their native place in the cultural map of the place they have migrated to. When this recreation is done some elements of the former self remain. One example is the Bammathan Daivam, a Kannada-speaking god of the Wayanadan Chettys.
Unlike tribal people, the members of the Wayanadan Chetty community are literate and also have a connection with the temple culture. They have knowledge about the Ramayana texts of Valmiki and Ezhuthachan (Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan). Hence when they narrate the oral stories they try to relate it with the written text. For example, the presentation of the ‘Chetty text’ of the Ramayana by community chief Kalankandy Ravunni Chetty, who belongs to Muthanga, shows influences of the written text. He uses the concept of time as ‘Thretha Yugam’ when he starts the narration. But as the narration progresses, local places come into the story, such as a natural lake in Wayanad, which is believed to be born out of the tears of Sita and is known either as Sitakulam or Kanneertadaakam (lake of tears); the Valmiki Ashram at Ashramkolly near Pulpally; Sitadevi Temple in Pulpally; Temple of Sreerama at Ponkuzhy and the Jadayattakavu at Pulpally, etc. Traditional gods and goddeses of Wayanadan Chetty community like Athirukalan, Arupuli, Kandan puli, Bammathan, Kaikkolan, Thampuratty, etc., also feature in the story. It is these forest goddesses who inform Rama and Lakshman that the horse in the Ashwamedham Yagna has been reined in by Lava and Kusa. The uniqueness of the Chetty Ramayana is that it presents in a very interesting and convincing manner a story that is believed to have happened centuries ago. Rejecting the spatial and temporal settings of the original text, the Chetty Ramayana deftly adapts it to the contemporary landscape of Wayanad. The Chettys have some sort of spiritual connection with the locations of their version of Ramayana and therefore firmly believe that story of Ramayana took place at Wayanad.
There are different versions of the Chetty Ramayana popular in Wayanad. According to some texts, Wayanad, at some point, was an open field for demons and everybody were scared of them. They used to abduct young women and take them into the deep forest. Kusa, son of Rama, is said to have once saved Chandika Devi, daughter of Erumapally Chetty, from the demons and this culminated in the marriage between Chandika Devi and Kusa. Subsequently, with Hanuman’s intervention, Lava, brother of Kusa, was married to Sunitha Devi, sister of Chandika Devi. Thus the spoken text of Ramayana is evolving and its tellers keep on improvising even now.
Thus, the Ramayana narratives of Wayanad blend facts, history, myths, legends and beliefs seamlessly without any discomfiture for the narrator or the audience and thereby nurture the tribal faiths.