Profile Source: Philipose Vaidyar
Introduction / History
Black body, circular head, curly hair, broad nose - all these characteristics are not necessarily be of Kanikkar's but Kanikkar who form the largest tribe in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, have similar characteristics. According to 1981 census there are 14,000 Kanikkars, living in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. They dwell in forests or near to forests in Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam in Kerala, and Tirunelveli inTamil Nadu.
Although there are financially advanced people within this group, most of them are backward. Though they cultivate everything and make agriculture as the main profession, they have a special liking for fishing and hunting. Concerning their genealogy and genesis they have interesting stories. Aryans who moved from north to south called them Kanikkar, which literally means landlords, descendants of the Kings, gave their offerings to Attingal King. Thus they are so called. Another story concerning them is that they derived the name Malayarayan from Hindu mythological Sage Agasthya.
Till the advent of the 20th century they are said to have lived in the interior forests, where common people do not have any access. Those who were not accustomed to live anywhere permanently, made tree huts of bamboo and lived there. Now some live in the towns owing to their job and others live in Adivasi (native tribal) colonies built by government for them. The colony where they reside is known as Kani.
Each Kani, in other words, colony will have an elder. He is known as Kani Mooppan or Muttukani. In his presence important matters concerning the tribe is decided. Beside the house of Muttukani there is a shed where the elders assemble everyday. In this council of citizens important matters concerning agriculture, hunting, and fishing are collectively decided. Agriculture, works, house construction, and lifestyle have undergone tremendous changes.
For healing they resort to herbal medicines and magic. They keep the medicine combinations, which heal many maladies, as secret. Habituated to eating leaves, they believed that some of the leaves contain medicinal values. But today they opt for other methods of healing that are accessible.
Those who live in forests eat root vegetables and wild honey. Alcohol consumption, smoking and betel chewing are found among them.
Although the elderly people believe in monotheism others believe in hill gods. Chicken is sacrificed under trees by the shores of streams. Since most of them live in forests they don't think about any other alternative except worshiping hill gods and goddesses.
Kanikkars are interested in music. They have many melodious songs composed. Even though it is said their language is a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam dialects, they have their own mother tongue, which is centuries old. To hold off disease, evil impacts and for other sanctification methods they sing special songs known as Chattu songs (chattu means sanctification). To accompany these songs they play a special musical instrument called Kokkara.
Kanikkars' marriage is distinctive. Muttukani takes the initiative in marriages. When men of the same tribe come from other village they propose to a woman they like. The interest from women's side is disregarded. Bridegroom's age is immaterial there. Once the betrothal is done beside the jack tree, girl is blindfolded and brought before the bridegroom. Wedlock made up of black thread is tied over there. Afterwards they proceed to bridegroom's house. Draped in the garments provided by the bridegroom, the bride is sent to bridegroom's presence with a glass of water. Only at this time the bride sees the visage of the bridegroom and bridegroom sees the face of the bride. Sometimes there are chances that the bridegroom may be an old man. But those who live in towns are not influenced by this custom. They have embraced Hindu marriage customs.
Specialties are there in the burial of the dead. Relatives of the dead collect funds towards the expenses of digging the ditch and service charge to the magicians who conduct burial ceremonies. On that day the kith and kin of the dead undertake fasting. There are ceremonies that last for 21 days from the day they break fasting by eating porridge. In the last 16 days there will be ceremonial singing.
A coconut palm is planted on the burial ground in order to rein in the spirit from attacking those in the house. Some magic and other ceremonies are performed there. If the dead happened to be a small baby the body is buried inside the house. The reason - small babies won't come out to hurt anybody.
Kanikkars have their own hobbies and art forms. Dance by clapping hands and by stepping on the heels are the general style. They used to wear ornaments made of stone pearls. Bows, arrows and spear are their main weapons. There may be many more Kanikkars who are totally insulated from towns and modern living and lead a very primitive life.