Saturday, December 12, 2009

Paradise on earth

A cultural festival focuses attention on a place that is just a dot on the map: the Minicoy Island

Photos: Minicoy Island; Tuna fishing; Minicoy women in traditional attire

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the garden of the David Hall at Fort Kochi, a group of women dressed in flowing gowns and white head scarves are busy preparing dishes on a round black tawa. A few young girls hover around watching intently.

There is a palpable sense of excitement in the air. This is the first time that the people from the tiny island of Minicoy in the Lakshadweep Islands are holding a festival displaying their cuisine, culture, handicrafts, and games at Kochi

“We wanted to bring them into the spotlight, so that they could build up their confidence and self-esteem,” says Vineeta Hoon, founder cum managing trustee of the Centre for Action Research on Environment Science and Society, (CARESS), a Chennai-based NGO.

Apart from CARESS, the other organisers included the Maliku Development Society, Maliku Hikimas Producers Society, as well as the CGH Earth Group. Incidentally, Maliku is the name by which the islanders call Minicoy.

“Minicoyans, with a population of 9000, is one of the smallest ethnic communities in India,” says Vineeta. “The island has a radius of only 4.4 sq. km.”

The focus of the festival is on the food. And the surprising discovery is that the Minicoyans eat only one type of fish: the skipjack tuna. But there is a reason for this. “Tuna can be preserved for a long time, provided it is cooked in the right ratio of salt and sweet water,” says K. Mohammed, a member of the Maliku Development Society. There is also a big market for tuna in India, as well as abroad. “So, most of the fish is exported,” he says.

Vineeta says this focus on tuna, which is a migratory fish, is a blessing, in ecological terms. Minicoy is a coral reef island. In these reefs, there are more than 400 varieties of fish. “But each variety is of a small quantity,” she says. “So, if you target reef fish like the sturgeons or the snappers, then one part of the food chain is permanently damaged.”

What is another plus point is the way the Minicoyans go fishing. They never use a net. Instead, they use the pole and line method. Bait fish is thrown into the water, near the boat and the tuna approach it in droves. During the frenzied feeding, several hooks, at the end of long lines, are put into the water.

“Somehow, the tuna mistakes the hook to be a fish and is pulled up,” says Mohammed. In half an hour, more than a thousand fish are caught by the 10-member crew. This is an ecologically friendly method. “If we use a net many small fish which we don’t need are trapped and killed inadvertently,” he says.

This method of fishing is ancient, just like their religion, Islam, which came to Minicoy more than 800 years ago.

“But it is a liberal form of Islam,” says Vineetha. “One reason is because most of the Minicoyans are seamen who have travelled all over the world. So they are broad-minded.”

But the community took a conservative turn in the late 1950s, when a holy man, Husain Didi, came from the Maldives and told the people that too much attention was being paid to folk dances and celebration of festivals. Instead, they should say their prayers strictly.

“The people reacted by getting rid of all the folk dances,” says Mohammed. “Not all people agreed with this trend. After all, festivals bring the people closer.”

However, Havva Mamaugothi, 58, a woman who belongs to a self-help group says it was a good development. “There was too much intermingling between boys and girls,” she says.
So now the only festival that is celebrated is Id, but there are no dances. “However, recently, there has been a move to revive the Lava folk dance,” says Mohammed.

Apart from the Muslim influence, the people of Kerala have had an impact on the Minicoyans. “There has been trade links for several hundred years between Minicoy and Cannanore (present-day Kannur),” says Mohammed. And there has been a positive fallout: in Minicoy the women have access to education and jobs, like in Kerala.

But Vineeta breaks out into a bright smile and says, “The Minicoyans are also learning how to do strikes and hartals, so that the government gives what is due to them. That is definitely a Kerala influence.”

At 7 p.m., the food is ready at the festival and the visitors make a beeline for it. There are several varieties of fish dishes, rice, brinjal, and a cabbage concoction, followed by sweets.

“It is all based on coconut milk,” says Dalekha, 45, who did some of the cooking. “Our most popular dish is rairiha. This is tuna fish simmered in a red curry.” This is eaten at every meal. The Minicoyans have fish in the morning with parathas, at lunch and dinner with rice. The food is tasty and simple and not spicy at all.

“Come to Minicoy and have the time of your life,” says a smiling Mohammad.

Fast Facts

Occupations of Minicoyans
Seamen; coconut climbing; fishing; octopus hunting; cowry and shingle collection; government staff; Navy personnel and labourers.

Octopus hunting
This takes place between August and March. The octopuses are caught in the low tide from the crevices and bottoms among the coral boulders. A 1.5 m rod is used to catch it.

Octopuses usually live alone. When they are caught, another octopus will occupy the same place. They cover the cavity with small flat stones. This is the identifying feature to locate octopus habitats.

Women on top
It is a matrilineal society. 98 per cent of the men lived in the house that belonged to their mother or their wives. Gender equality is represented by the fact that each village has a headman and headwoman. Women take part in all aspects of the economy.

An unofficial caste system
The Manikfans form the aristocracy.
The Thakrus are the boat builders and sailors, followed by the Raveris (coconut climbers). The Raveris were dependent on the Manikfans for work.
However, thanks to affirmative action by the Indian government, people from lower castes have been able to go for higher education and government jobs.

Saving a fragile ecosystem

Coral reefs are ecologically threatened owing to climate change and other man-made factors. In the case of Minicoy it is even more in need of protection because of its isolation from other islands. The Centre for Action Research on Environment Science and Society, a Chennai-based NGO, and the Minicoy fishing community are working together to protect Minicoy reef resources.

With this aim in mind, a Joint Coastal Resource Management Council was set up in July, 2009. The first task of the council was to identify areas for marine conservation and conservation. Posters have been made to sensitise the local public about the need for marine conservation and protecting shipwrecks.

On the poster one of the no-fishing areas is the shipwreck site. A ship sank more than 150 years ago. It is now a part of the ecosystem and it was felt that it would be better not to disturb it.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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