'Pakistan' Wayanad is the land of many living Ramayanas

Azeez Tharuvana
Ramayana narratives of Wayanad blend facts, history, myths, legends and beliefs seamlessly in a way that transforms a major Hindu epic into a conduit for cultural identity and protest

BJP chief Amit Shah may have had trouble differentiating Wayanad, now famous as Rahul Gandhi's Lok Sabha constituency, from Pakistan, but he might be somewhat reassured if he took a closer look at the local culture in this verdant Kerala district. It wouldn't be far-fetched to say that Wayanad is the land of the Ramayana, or, more accurately, of many Ramayanas€"retellings of the epic that have become part of the oral traditions and belief systems of several tribal communities living here.

Wayanad's association with Hinduism goes back millennia. This is manifest in many stone inscriptions and temples in the region€"including the ancient Thirunelly temple where Congress president Rahul Gandhi recently offered prayers€"as well as in communities such as the Nair, Nambiar, Namboothiri, and Chetty. Here you will also see Jain rock temples dating between the 9th and 14th centuries. In contrast, Muslim migrations to Wayanad started happening only around three centuries ago. The Christians were even later to arrive, with the largest migration occurring between the 1930s and '60s.

Notably, Wayanad has Kerala's highest concentration of tribal communities, which comprise 17.34 per cent of the district's population. Wayanad has 12 distinct tribal communities (which are further divided into subsects). While these tribes have long suffered human rights violations (for example, members of the Adiya and Paniya communities were sold as slaves on the occasion of the Valliyoorkavu Temple festival until 1975, when the practice was banned by law), their rich oral traditions and folklore have kept their voices from being completely silenced.

These stories, legends and songs, it is believed, have their roots in the tribal communities' need to assert their identity and overcome the kind of existential crisis that comes with living in the margins of civilisation for centuries. Part of this process is cultural and spiritual appropriations from the dominant Hindu communities. This is evident in cultural narratives of the Ramayana (as opposed to literary ones such as those by Valmiki, Ramanujan, Kambar and Tulsidas) in oral tribal traditions.

Wayanad and the Ramayana The Ramayana plays a major role in the belief systems of different sects and classes of the Hindu religion, but also beyond it. Just as Malabar Muslims developed their own narrative of the Ramayana, known as the Mappila Ramayanam, the tribal communities and sub-communities of Wayanad have also retold the epic in their own ways.

There are some similarities across retellings: most have planted the Ramayana into their local context, and have introduced characters from other tribal legends into the story. Many regional communities also have certain beliefs and stories in common. For example, the Hindus as well as adivasis in the region believe that Sita disappeared from where the famous Seetha Devi Temple stands today, near Pulpally town. It is believed that as Sita was sinking into the earth, Lord Rama held onto her hair, resulting in her tresses getting torn off. She is venerated here as Chedattilamma. Locals also believe that Valmiki's ashram was situated in Ashramakoly, and that though it was run by the upper castes, the responsibility of thatching its roof fell on the Mulla Kuruma adivasi community. It is believed that Sita gave birth to Lava and Kusa in this ashram, and that it was adivasi women who provided postpartum care.

Similarly, there are numerous legends that link hills from Ramayana stories to those in Wayanad. For instance, scores of tribal communities, as well as upper-caste Hindus, believe that the war between Banasura and Krishna happened on Banasuramala in Wayanad. It is believed that during the war, Krishna chopped off Banasura's karam (hand), and thus the place is named Karabanam (an eponymous temple at the foot of Banasura Hill is well known in the region).

Then there is Thirunelly, known as the Kashi (an important site of spiritual pilgrimage) of the south, which is central to the beliefs and legends of upper caste Hindus and subaltern communities. Most of these legends place the original ancient texts into the landscape. One legend is that Lord Rama, along with Lakshmana, Bharata and others conducted the last rites for their father King Dasaratha on the banks of the Papanashini River, which is considered to be the regional counterpart for Ganga, complete with sins-cleansing properties.

A tale of two Ramayanas 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 also survived in the form of oral narratives that have modified and adapted it to reflect living circumstances and socio-economic realities. The spoken Ramayana, unlike written versions, is flexible, flowing, and constantly undergoing change.

Let's take a closer look at two of the local versions of the Ramayana in Wayanad€"the Adiya Ramayana and Chetty Ramayana.

Storytelling is an intrinsic part of the Adiya community and many of their leaders are expert storytellers. The most notable names among these are Mathai Vaidyar, PK Kalan, and PK Kariyan.

What distinguishes the Adiya Ramayana is the contextualisation of the main Ramayana narrative to settings in Wayanad in Kerala, and Coorg in the neighbouring 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. Tellingly, major characters like Rama, Lakshmana and Hanuman are lower in status than Adiya tribal gods like Siddappa, Nenjappa and Mathappa.

Another point of deviation in the Adiya Ramayana is the introduction of new episodes. For example, there is a scene where Rama and Lakshmana are tied to a tree and questioned by tribal chiefs about Rama's abandonment of a pregnant Sita. Also, here Ravana takes Sita to Lanka with her full consent. She knows Ravana even before she meets Rama. Certain episodes are also omitted€"the Adiya Ramayana is the only version that eschews a battle scene.

Social issues concerning the Adiya tribe also feature prominently. Lack of personal property among the adivasis is one such issue. Mathai's Ramayana starts with a conversation between Sita and Pakkathappan (Lord Pakkam; Pakkam is a place in Wayanad). Pakkathappan commands Sita to leave his country with her belongings. This situation is reminiscent of an adivasi being removed from his land by a landlord. Mathai says he heard this tale as a bedtime story from his grandfather. This points towards an autobiographical element in Mathai's retelling of the Ramayana, since his forefathers for generations had worked as slave labourers in the Thrisseleri, Thirunelly and Kodagu regions.

The Chetty Ramayana also converts the epic into the oral tradition by transporting stories in the landscape of the community's existence, but there are some differences in style from the Adiya Ramayana.

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 argument. Most of the legends created in the oral tradition were likely created to glorify the place of migration, 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 traditions in the areas from which they had migrated€"Tamil Nadu and Karnataka€"and were thus transplanted into the landscape of Wayanad.

Migration may drive the need to recreate the cultural imprints of a community's native place into the new landscape. When this recreation is done, some elements of the former self remains. One example of this is Bammathan Daivam, a Kannada-speaking god of the Wayanadan Chettys.

Unlike many adivasis, the members of the Wayanadan Chetty community are generally literate and also have a connection with the temple culture. They have knowledge about the Ramayana texts of Valmiki and Ramanujan. Thus, when they narrate oral stories they try to relate it with the written text, even as they adapt episodes into the landscape of Wayanad. Traditional deities of the Wayanadan Chetty community also feature in the story. It is their forest goddesses who inform Rama and Lakshmana that the horse in the Ashwamedha Yaga has been reined in by Lava and Kusa.

Thus, the Ramayana narratives of Wayanad blend facts, history, myths, legends and beliefs seamlessly in a way that transforms a major Hindu epic into a conduit for cultural identity and protest.

The Ramayanas of Wayanad attest to the diversity among Hindus in the region€"which, perhaps more than its Muslim population, makes it a tricky wicket for the BJP.

(Azeez Tharuvana is an assistant professor at University of Calicut)

Also See: Veins of the underground

India picks its best to bring World Cup home

Jallianwala Bagh massacre: ‘Regret’ doesn’t cut it, Britain ought to say ‘sorry’

Read more on India by Firstpost.