NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, CALICUT
SOCIOLGY AND HUMAN SETTLEMENT
DEPARTMENT OF ARCHITECTURE AND PLANNING
STUDY ON FISHER FOLK
OF KERALA AND THEIR
FISHERIES SECTOR IN KERALA
• Kerala’s coastline: 589.5 kilometres
• Forms 10% of India’s total coastline
• The density of population is very high all along the
coastline as compared to the midlands and the highlands.
• A very rich marine wealth with a large variety of fish and
a highly skilled population of fishermen have made Kerala
a leading producer and consumer of fish.
• The high rainfall and a large number of rivers makes the
Kerala coast especially fertile for fish.
• One speciality of the Kerala coast is the mudbanks,
known in Malayalam as chakara.
• It is the formation of clay and organic matters on the
coast that occurs after monsoon with the sea remaining
calm, thus resulting in good harvest of fish.
DISTRIBUTION OF THE FISHERFOLK POPULATION IN THE CITY
• The total populace of fisher folk residing in the state of Kerala is
estimated to be 11.114 lakh, which includes 8.55 lakh in the marine
sector and 2.55 lakh in the inland sector. Out of this, the number of
active fishermen is 2.28 lakh.
• Currently, there are 222 fishing villages in the marine and 113 fishery
villages in the inland sector, where fishing and related aspects provide
livelihood to a vast majority of the population.
• Out of the two types of fishermen, the marine and the inland, the
concentration of marine fishermen is more in Trivandrum district,
followed by Allapuzha, and then by Kollam and Kozhikode districts,
while the inland fishermen are concentrated in Ernakulum, Allapuzha
and Kollam districts respectively.
SOCIO ECONOMIC ORGANISATION
Fisher folk in Kerala come from three
different religious groups - the
Hindus, Muslims and the Christians.
• Hindu fisher folk are mostly found in the central and northern districts of
Kollam, Allapuzha, Thrissur and Kasargode districts of Kerala.
• They come from the caste groups of ‘arayans’, ‘velan’, ‘mukkuvas’ and the
• The Christians and the Muslims are converts from these Hindu castes.
• There is a village headman, but the village committee called as
the Karayogam takes all the decisions concerning the village.
• The Karayogams are supposed to be democratic and autonomous bodies
that preserve the culture and the official records of the village. However,
the activities of the Karayogams are now reduced to village festivals.
• Women are not members of these village committees although they can
take part in the meetings.
• Christian fisher folk are concentrated in the southern and central parts
of Kerala. They belong to the Latin Catholic community and are mostly
converts from the Mukkuva caste groups.
• The Church is the main institution around which the social organisation
and the community of the Christian fisher folk is organised.
• The priest is the main leader who looks after not only the religious
concerns, but also the socio-economic concerns of the community.
• Catholic fishermen are very poor, but are adventurous, aggressive and
creative compared to the other two religious communities.
• It is often said that the Christian fisher folk are the ‘real’ fisher folk of
• Muslim fisher folk live mostly in the northern districts of Kerala.
• They also have a very strong organisational set-up with social cohesion and
• The main religious body amongst these fisher folk is the Mosque.
• The elected council of the Mosque decides on ethical matters of the
• These ‘imams’ who conduct prayers are highly respected among the Muslim
• There are also the madrassa committees that are in charge of schools for
religious instruction and for the council of elders who take decisions about
the working of the village and even the fishing operations.
• The members of both these bodies are elected by the fisher folk.
MUSLIM FISHER FOLK
• Although, Kerala boasts of the highest quality of life in the country as measured by
human development indicators, the state's fishing community has largely been left out
of the general development experience.
• Department of Fisheries (2005) stated that the literacy level, educational attainment of
fisherfolk is much lower than that of the general population .
• Other development related indicators such as lack of income-earning opportunities,
poverty and deprivation, insanitary and overcrowded living conditions, lack of access to
basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity, poor health conditions amongst men
and women, higher infant mortality rates, lower sex ratio and lack of access to health
facilities, also show evidence of this neglect and marginalisation of the fisherfolk in the
SOCIO-ECONOMIC BACKWARDNESS AMONGST THE FISHERFOLK
LACK OF ACCESS TO BASIC SERVICES OVERCROWDED LIVING CONDITIONS
• The fishing villages have a distinctively different appearance as compared to other
villages in Kerala as well as India.
• The fishing villages are characterised by
1. A very high density of population along the coast.
2. Are made up of a large number of houses clustered together and occupying the
coastal fringes of the state.
• In general, the houses are hutments or semi permanent structures made with mud
with thatched roofs or tiles, varying according to socio-economic status. However,
even these houses have a shortage of basic amenities such as water, electricity and
• Fisher folk always face a shortage
of money and live on a day to day
basis. They have a high rate of
dependence on moneylenders
and traders .They spend all their
lives managing the burden of
debts. This leads to ‘cyclical
poverty’ leading to poverty, low
income, poor health and
TYPICAL HOUSE OF KERALA FISHERMEN AND IT’S LAYOUT
• Typically, the men are out on the sea fishing or on the shore mending
their nets while women are busy with transporting fish to the market,
engaging in small trade or busy with their household chores. The
dropout rate among children is very high and very few of them complete
school and go for higher education.
LIFESTYLE OF FISHERMEN AND FISHERWOMEN FROM
• In spite of the differences on the basis of religion, the pattern of living for all the
fish workers is similar. The life of the fisher folk is centred around the fishing
seasons, the fish they catch and the technology they use. Fishermen are deeply
religious and they fully depend on the sea and the other natural forces that
control it. The fisher folk thus have different rituals to please the forces of nature.
• The fisher folk have various representations of the forces of nature that control
their lives. They personify all forms of nature in which they are in contact with and
think of all forms of nature as alive, affecting their lives in both positive as well as
negative ways. Various rituals are practised to prevent the anger or the backlash
of these elements of nature.
RITUALS, BELIEFS AND PRACTICES AMONG THE FISHERFOLK
• The Hindu fishermen of Trivandrum, Quilon
and southern parts of Ernakulum who
perform an annual festival called Ponkala in
honour of Kadalamma (the sea).
• Ponkala (a rice pudding) is offered to the
Goddess of the sea, who is worshipped
daily. Other offerings such as flattened rice,
puffed rice, jaggery, navadhanyam (nine
pulses), ghee, camphor, benzoin, sugercane
and coconuts are also included.
PONKALA IN HONOR OF THE SEA – MAJOR FESTIVAL
CELEBRATED BY THE KERALA FISHERMAN
• A mandapam is constructed which is
decorated with mango leaves and tender
• Fisherwomen, gather together on the 41st
day at the sea coast with pots full of rice,
jaggery, coconut and firewood. Ponkala (a
rice pudding) is made in earthen pots on
• In earlier times, such pots were sealed and
thrown into the sea. However, this practice
has been discontinued in recent times.
RITUALS TO INCREASE THE CATCH OF FISH
• Fishing assumes the form of a highly ritualized productive activity with attempts to
control the environment by using ritual rather than technology.
• Thus, all the tools used for fishing such as the fishing craft and the gear are blessed
by the parish priests for the future luck and the safety of the craft.
• In some instances, Hindu mantra Vadis are also invited to use their magical
mantras or chants to attract fish as well as deflect fish out of the nets of rivals into
their nets for a share in the fishing catch.
ROLE OF FORCES OF NATURE SUCH AS THE WIND AND FIRE
IN THE LIVES OF THE FISHER FOLK
• The wind is considered as an allotropic form
• The calm sea is compared to the sleeping
God, while the rough sea symbolizes that
God is awake. Gales and storms are equated
to the fierce breath of God.
• The sky is also very important for the
Mukkova and is considered as the abode of
God who lives in the form of clouds in the
shape of human beings and other living
beings, mountains, rivers etc.
• Fire is perceived as the expression of the anger of God and in cases of fires in the
sea, they do not sail out into the sea for a few days.
• Light is considered as divine and known to ward off evil spirits or ghosts or natural
calamities. Candles are lit in Churches and shrines by the Mukkovas as prayers or for
fulfilment of their vows. Samuel (1998) also informs us, of the perception of the
Mukkovas regarding cholera and typhoid to be caused by spirits, ghosts and
demons. Thus, a campfire is lit in the outskirts of the village to prevent evil from
entering the village. Magical rites are also performed before sunrise or sunset to
ward off the effects of evil shadows on new nets.
SPECIAL SIGNIFICANCE OF FISH FOR
• The fish also have a special significance for the
fishermen. For example, Samuel (1998) in his study
of the fishing communities of Kanyakumari writes of
a fish called cavlai having a white mould on its head,
which is believed to be because of the wrath of the
God, as it did not obey him.
• There is also another belief with respect to the
cross-shaped structures found on the back of a few
crabs. St Xavier walking along the shore found a
crab saluting him. The saint made a cross on the
back of the crab as a blessing.
• Some fish are said to have magical potency and
some are also considered as holy.
THE ROLE OF THE SUPERNATURAL IN THE LIVES OF THE
• In general, the fisher folk are also strong believers in the influence of the
supernatural on the natural processes of the body. Thus, rituals and magic-
religious means of healing form an important aspect of their culture. These
beliefs and practices can be attributed to the constant exposure of the fishing
communities to the different forces of nature that are perceived to be
• For example, Ram (1991) in her study on the Mukkovas writes of how the
different forces of nature are perceived as affecting the body. The body is also
looked upon as a site for divine and supernatural intervention. This intervention is
believed to lead to an imbalance in the body at the physical and psychological
level leading to illnesses in a person. When the body is believed to be affected by
the supernatural intervention, offerings are made to the Gods and Goddesses to
• Fishermen perform rituals to get a good catch as
well as to ward off the evil eye. Thus, artisans take
their new fishing nets to the shore, make offerings
of jaggery and coconut, which is distributed among
a large number of children to come on the shore.
This is a form of imitative magic, which represents
the flocking of fish in the same way near the net.
The net is then taken home and kept under the
hatchet to ward off the effect of the evil eye.
• The same ritual is repeated the next day with the
remaining of the offering being thrown into the
sea. A portion of the fish catch of the first day is
thrown into the air in all directions to be taken by
CULTURAL SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE HINDU, MUSLIM
AND CHRISTIAN FISHERFOLK
• Just as the Hindu; fisher folk are worshippers of the Goddess Bhagvati and Kali
and also have their own culture of cult worship, among the Christians too, the
same Mata is worshipped as Mother Mary to deal with various problems related
to their lives such as the daily material needs, in case of the safety of the men
out at the sea, in the case of epidemics such as cholera, small pox.
• Mathur (1978) writes of the Muslim fisher folk called as the Mappilas who are
mostly converts from the Mukkova castes. The Mappilas follow the social rites
prescribed by the Koran and the Hadith. However, their lifestyles, economic
activities as well as their rituals connected with diseases and illnesses are very
similar to that of the Hindus.
• Thus, all the magic-religious methods used for curing illnesses, rituals in relation
to the sea for good catches, practiced by the Hindus as well as the Christians are
also practiced by the Muslim fisher folk. Large sums of money are spent by all
the fishing communities on ceremonies such as births, deaths and marriages.
The fisher folk follow and practice numerous rituals during such ceremonies that
form a very important aspect of their social lives. However, these ceremonies
are controlled by the richer classes.
GRADUAL DETERIORATION IN THE SOCIO-ECONOMIC AND
CULTURAL TIES WITHIN THE TRADITIONAL FISHING COMMUNITIES
• Kerala’s fishing communities have shared the ocean’s resources and maintained
close social and economic ties despite cultural and religious differences since a
very long time.
• However, Chekutty, N. P (2010) writes that the recent phenomena of
globalization and mechanization in fisheries leading to international subsidies,
the stringent conditions of global trade, and intense competition for fishing
have seen a sharp decline in fish catch and profits leading to poverty,
deprivation and consequent anger and discontent amongst the fisher folk. This
has led to increasing instances of communalism and violence among the fisher
folk in Kerala over the last few years.
• He informs that the phenomenon of mechanization, which was introduced from
the mid-’60s in the Kerala waters, led to the gradual marginalization of the
traditional fishermen, whose small vessels were unable to compete with the
trawlers and their traditional skills started becoming redundant. This not only
affected the livelihoods of the fishing communities, but also led to massive
losses to the economy, reduction in the production and catch of fish and the
emergence of a new class of entrepreneurs, the moneylender-cum-boat-owners
who took economic control of the beaches.
• This has led to increasing clashes between the new class of mechanized boat
workers and the traditional fish workers, which has become more acute with the
area becoming a fertile ground for the spread of social and communal tensions
along the Kerala coast. However, he also argues that the changed scenario, has
created circumstances that have forced the fishing communities to come
together, to face the common external economic aggression.
OWNERSHIP OF THE FISHING EQUIPMENT
• Two broad patterns of ownership exist among the traditional fishing sector of
Kerala, the individual ownership and collective ownership.
• The individual ownership is found mostly in the case of fishermen using the
Catamaram in the South of Kerala for the ‘hook and line’ fishing and for the ‘canoe
and net’ fishing in the north of Kerala
• Under collective ownership, many people own the fishing equipment together. A
fisherman can get a share in the investment by contributing any of the fishing
• Each member has to supply labourers to the unit according to the proportion of
the amount invested by him.
• Failure to follow the rules of the agreement on the part of the employer or the
employee is punishable by the caste panchayat, which is the local level
organisation of the fishermen.
HOOK AND LINE FISHING, SOUTH KERALA CANOE AND NET FISHING, NORTHERN KERALA
PATTERNS OF OWNERSHIP OF FISHING EQUIPMENT
Six different patterns of ownership in traditional fishing based on
three aspects, nature of ownership, status of the owner and the
status of the non-owner. They include:
1. Individual ownership
• Owner worker: where the owner is also a worker
• Non-owner partner: the other person is not the owner, but a
2. Individual ownership
• Owner worker: where owner is also the worker
• Non-owner labourer: the other person is not an owner, but a
3. Individual Ownership
• Owner non-worker: the owner is not the worker
• Non owner labourer: the other person is a labourer
4. Collective ownership
• Owner workers: where the owner is also a worker
• Non- owner partners where the other person is not the owner,
but a partner
5. Collective ownership
• Owner workers: where the owner is also a worker
• Non owner labourers: the other person is a labourer
6. Collective ownership
• Owner non-workers: the owner is not the worker
• Non-owner labourers: the other person is a labourer
ROLE OF WOMEN IN FISHING
• Women play a very important role in all the fishing activities right from the
period of harvesting. In the preharvest period, women in the marine sector
are involved in making and mending nets, preparing hooks and baits.
• During the harvest season women spend a lot of time in activities such as
netting in the estuaries, in clam and mussel picking, collecting seaweed and
also pearl diving in a few cases (Nayak and Vijayan).
ROLE OF WOMEN IN FISHING
• There is a strong sexual division of labour within the fishing community.
Women are in general not allowed to participate in the actual fishing activities
involving going out to the sea and their activities are usually restricted to the
• All other fish related activities such as drying, peeling of fish are carried out by
the women within their domestic spheres of activities. It is a very common
sight to see women working in groups near to their houses in a typical fishing
village. The job of fish trading is usually carried out by the older women
among the fishing community, but younger women are not allowed to work as
fish traders (Ram, 1991). Majority of the women participating in the fishing
activities come from the Christian and Hindu communities. Very few Muslim
women are seen participating in the fishing activities
• Mechanisation and commercialisation of fishing has led to
decrease in the availability of fish as well as created
problems for the fish vending women by destroying their
traditional economy of fishing in the village.
• Commercialisation of fishing has helped in increasing the
prices of fish and also helped some fishing communities to
prosper. However, it has also led to the marginalisation of
the women in the fishing industry.