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The Kurichia Tribals of Malabar

The picturesque hilly regions in Wynad district and Kannavam forest regions in Kannur district are the homeland of the Kurichias known to be the original inhabitants of Malabar.

Probing into history, one can see that the Kurichias were one of the freedom fighters in India. They were the soldiers of Vir Pazhassi Raj, the king who ruled the regions of Tellicherry and Wynad in northern Kerala. When the historic battle between Pazhassi Raj and the British forces took place on January 7, 1787, the Kurichia tribals took up arms under their tribal leader Thalakkal Chandu. Their scrupulous and cunning tactics in warfare had defeated the British several times. It is said that they were adept at hitting a target with their arrows with amazing accuracy.

According to a widely prevalent belief among the Kurichia tribals, their ancestors were the Nairs, a Hindu uppercaste community of Kerala.

Hundreds of years ago Wynad was said to have been ruled by the Veda kings, the ancestors of Mullakuruma tribals. One of the rulers of the Kottayam dynasty in North Malabar defeated the Veda king and conquered Wynad. As the Veda King’s armed forces were so powerful, the king of Kottayam had to call up some excellent Nair soldiers from South Keralaq to defeat the Vedas. After their victory the Nair soldiers returned to their hamlets. However, the Nair soldiers were no longer acceptable to their community because of their ‘pollution’ by their contact with the tribals of Northern Kerala. These Nair soldiers then returned to the king of Kottayam who rehabilitated them by providing them houses and land in the jungle regions of Kannur and Wynad. They then came to be known as “Kurichia tribals”.

Kurichias are strictly endogamous people. They continue restriction in their social contacts with other tribals, who according to them are inferior.

According to late Dr. A. Aiyappan, the eminent Indian anthropologist, Kurichias are committed to the matrilineal system supported by a myth. Once upon a time a tiger approached an old Kurichia tribal chief with a request for a Kurichia bride. The tiger threatened to kill at the Kurichias if his request was not fulfilled. The old man first asked his daughters who were all reluctant. He then put the same request to his sister’s daughter and one of them agreed. The tiger turned out to be a prince in disguise. The old man drove away his daughters and declared his niece his heiress.

The Kurichias believe that their genetic relationship to their sisters and sister’s children more powerful. That is why Kurichias transfer proprietory rights to their nieces and nephews rather than to their sons and daughters.

A matrilineal dwelling place is called mittam which is a group of several huts clustered together. Every mittam has an Odayakkaran (tribal head) whose decisions are said to be final. Every mittam will also have a joint property where male and female members of all families work together. In regard to marriage and birth, decisions of the tribal head are authoritative. Marriage with other tribals and non-tribals is taboo and those breaking this rule are ostracized. Love marriages are uncommon and under the system of arranged marriage, the proposal comes from the bridegroom’s party. The girl is called by her uncle to reside in his home at least one month before the marriage. On the day of the marriage the groom with his uncle and other relatives come to the uncle’s hut where the rituals take place. The groom ties a thali around the bride’s neck. A feast follows and by evening the ceremony is over. Unlike other tribals in Wynad, Kurichias have no entertainment like dance and songs during the marriage ceremony by evening, the groom takes his bride home. Before the bride puts her right foot on the threshold of her new home, she washes her feet after which, accompanied by some women, she enters the verandah and sits before an oil lamp. The groom’s uncle offers rice, sandal and tulsi leaves which she passes on to her husband.

Women are given sufficient aegis especially during their prenatal and postnatal periods. When the child completes 6 months, he is named and some of the names found among Kurichia men are Kelu, Chanduy, Chappan and Achappan and among women, Theyi, Ammini, Korumbi, Mathi and Ammu. A girl who attains her puberty is given a warm welcome by the tribal members with a celebration.

Kurichias, like other Wynad adivasis bury their dead in a pit which normally measures 66 feet by 3 feet with a depth of 5 feet. After about 14 days, the tribal chief performs some rites for the departed soul. All relatives are invited and are given a feast on the occasion. Kurichias call their ancestral spirit nizhal which literally means ‘shadow’. They worship several deities such as Malakkari, Malon, Karimbil Bhagavathy, Athiralan Theyyam in which the most prominent is the first named. The Kurichias also feel that Malakkari protects them from evil spirits while Karambil Bhagavathi comes to the safety of the pregnant, mothers and children. Athiralen Theyyam protects their cultivation. They, too, take part in the traditional Thira festival which is held by non-tribal Hindus.

Twenty-two songs have been detected from amongst the Kurichias. Kumpapattu is in praise of their deity, Malakkari – Lord Shiva – while Naripattu are verses that highlight their traditional life as hunters. All other songs are about the chivalry of their ancestors on the battle field.

Modern civilization has made its impact on the lifestyle of the Kurichias. Today many of the men have cropped hair instead of allowing it to grow to be tied on the left side of their head.

Since 1991 a coaching camp in modern archery for 30 Kurichia youths – 18 male and 12 female – has been conducted at the Ambedkar Model Residential School, Wynad, by the State government. This camp is held every year form April 22 to May 21 and is supervised by trained coaches from the State Archery Association, Sports Authority of India. The aim of this camp is to find talent from among the tribals so as to help them gain position in national and international competitions.

Kurichias treat all illnesses with wild herbs. Tribal healers can cure various kinds of headaches, jaundice, asthma, stomach ache, scabies dysentery etc. As per the proposal of kirtads (Tribal Research Institute in Kozhikode), the State government started a Centre for Tribal Medicine on 15 September 1993 at the tribal hamlet of Valat in Wynad with Kolichal Achappan as the chief healer along with other Kurichia healers. The patients, an average of 200 a day, come from various parts of Kerala and are given medicine free. Ten tribal youths in the age group of 18 to 30 are now attending a one year certificate course. They re taught buy 25 tribal healers from 5 different tribal communities viz., Kurichia, Paniya, Adiya, Kathunaikka and Kuruma.


Syrian Christian is an umbrella term used for any Christian living in Kerala. They could be Latin Catholics such as the Syrian Christians who went over to the Pope after the advent of the Portuguese or Latin Christians who are mostly fishermen who were converted much later. The only common factor is that they all come under the Pope. The liturgy or language used for the church service varies from Latin to Syriac to Malayalam.

Then there are the Jacobites who belong to the Orthodox Church or Eastern Church which prides itself on being older than the Church of Rome. It was at Antrioch (now in Turkey) that the disciples were first called Christians. The language that the earliest missionaries used to spread their message through the continent of Asia was Syriac, a dialect of Eastern Aramaic and so closest to the language that Christ himself must have used. Of these were two factions, the Patriach’s side that owed allegiance to the Patrianch of Antioch and the Malankara Orthodox Church. All of them are known as Jacobites. As far as I could make out, they held their services in Syriac.

I was introduced to a group that claimed to be a part of the Mar Thoma Church. Some time in the last century there was a reform in the Jacobite Church. Possibly because of the influence of the Protestant missionaries. There was a movement of rebellion and reform. From this came the Mar Thoma Church, a mixture of Protestant and Jacobite, that conducts its service in Malayalam.

Quite apart form this an Anglican Church started by British missionaries and the sect calling themselves Nestorian Christians who have small congregations at Thrissur, Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram. In some ways one can compare the Christians to the Parsis. Like the Parsis, they are an ethnic religious group within the Indian social frame who have retained their identity and absorbed the flavour of their surroundings. They have strong affiliations to the place of their birth yet they look Westwards for the spiritual spark that gives them their special status. Whereas the Parsis came as a persecuted people, as perhaps some groups of Syrian Christians in the 9th century, the majority of Syrian Christians are of native stock.

The Syrian Christian tradition is that St. Thomas, one of the original disciples of Christ, came to India in 522 AD. He was known as Doubting Thomas because legend has it that he could not believe his eyes when he saw the risen Christ and touched one of Christ’s wounds to convince himself. He was shocked to find that it still bled. It is said that when Thomas landed at Musiris, which everyone believes to be the sleepy hamlet believes to be the sleepy hamlet of Kodungallur, a Jewish girl playing a flute was there to welcome him. The ties between this stretch of the Kerala coast and those of the Middle East go back to the time of Solomon who used to send his ships to trade in the wealth of the ancient spice coast. St. Thomas may have taken the overland route across the Palghat gap in the Western Ghats to find his way to Mylapore or Meliapore as the Greeks would have it, a suburb of Madras where the elegant Cathedral of San Thome stands serenely with the sea and sky as the backdrop. The cave on St. Thomas Mount, where he was murdered stills stands and no airborne visitor to Madras can miss this landmark on an otherwise flat plain.

The next important person to make his mark on the Christian landscape of Kerala was Thomas Cana. A merchant, he came with a large number of men, women, and children in the middle of the fourth century AD. from Babylon, Nineveh and Baghdad. The details are shrouded in controversy but in the Persian city of Isfahan, there are written documents that speak of a connection between the Christians of this city and a king of South India. Cana’s descendants in Kerala are distinguished by the fairness of their complexion, a distinction that they tried to preserve by not marrying out of the community. The Knanyi Thomas’s as they are known were again divided into a northern faction and southern faction based on those who were the immediate descendants of Thomas Cana and who lived around him and those who were his followers who lived a little to the south of the leader’s house.

Thomas of Cana was apparently received with full honours by Cheruman Perumal, the reigning king of Chera country. Among the various marks of favour that would signal their status was the right to carry a royal umbrella. This would seem a neglible honour but in Kerala where the rain lashes the countryside with indiscriminate fury, it was a very practical one. More lasting than any of the royal tokens of favour that Cherumal Perumal granted them was the right to trade. Since Kerala at that time had no merchant class, the Christians filled the role quite well although they had occasionally to fight the Jews and Arabs for the pepper monopoly. The extraordinary thing about the Syrian Christians, is that they have never been interested in conversion. It was something that the Western Christians were never able to understand. This trait could have contributed to the Syrian Christian’s ability to survive through so many centuries without being assimilated.

It is quite extraordinary to listen tot eh sonorous chanting of the priest in the Mar Thomas church reciting the prayers in front of the simple wooden Cross before him while a helper swings a globe shaped censor with the heavy fragrance of burning camphor. The long drawn out ululations of the priest could well be as old as those that were heard in Antioch, Alexandria or even Constantinople. But he is in fact reciting the prayers in Malayalam, as indeed are the responses of the congregation as they stand up to sing their hymns in their mother tongue, ending with “Allehluhias”. It was quite extraordinary listening to Indian voices reciting prayers in an Indian language and yet hearing echoes that went far back into the vaulted dome of time.