The Lakshadweep islands are often described as lamps hung
in the gateway to India. They are 36 in all, including the
10 inhabited islands, 17 uninhabited islands, 3 reefs and 6
submerged sand banks. They lie, one after the other, almost
parallel to the west coast of Kerala, at varying distances, ranging
from 250—450 kms. The southernmost island, Minicoy, is in the
longitude of Thiruvananthapuram and the northernmost island,
Chetlat in that of Mount Ezhimala. The other islands lie in
Much research has not gone into the history and tradition of
the people of these islands. Yet it can be understood that people
from the Kerala coast migrated to them in the background of
the renowned Spice Trade that existed between Kerala and West
Asian countries. The first Settlers were mostly Buddhists. They
later embraced Islam. The language they speak in different
islands show dialect differences. But all the dialects represent a
period when ancient Tamil prevalent in Kerala was transforming
into the modern day Malayalam. With their language, costume,
food habits and other ingredients of culture, they resemble
villages in Kerala; except in one island (Minicoy) where the
language and traditions are different. They show a close affinity
to the people of the island Republic of Maldives.
More than anything else, various types of music and dance
had played a major role in keeping alive social life on the
isolated islands, which would have otherwise been prosaic
and monotonous. There existed greater cooperation among the
people and every work was carried out with participation of
one another. The accomplishment of music and dance formed
an integral part of all such works. The boat building tradition
can be taken as a typical example. Oppana songs by women
and folk dances by men were organized to mark the progress of
work. On completion also, all types of festivities were arranged
and the boat pulled on to the sea, with people singing in chorus.
The islanders are hard working. After the day-long
engagements related to cultivation and fishing, they reposed in
the night by singing and dancing either on the sandy beaches or
inside mosques which purified them mentally and prepared them
for carrying out various tasks with greater cheer and enthusiasm,
the next day. Another pastime during the night hours was
story-telling. These were mainly of two types, one narrated by
grandparents and elders at home and the second by friends and
grand old story-tellers in the assembly of the youngsters. There
are hundreds of such short and long stories on each island.
But in the recent past, the story telling tradition met with a
sudden halt due to the change in the lifestyle of the islanders,
triggered by the introduction of television and other electronic
media in the territory. The island natives are now found sitting
in front of the television screen enjoying various serials and
other programmes instead of listening to the old and imaginary
stories from the elders. As a result, many of the stories that
existed through word of mouth from one generation to the other
are quickly vanishing.
At such a time, earnest efforts are being made to recapture
and record the stories to revive the culture of the golden past.
I had published in Malayalam, two separate titles, one in 2000
by DC Books, Kottayam and the other in 2001 by the State
Institute of Children’s Literature (SICL), Thiruvananthapuram.
The stories in the first book are comparatively smaller in size,
and are prevalent among the young children of different islands
and the second set of longer size, among the youth. They were
not serious narrations but a means to spend time joyfully.
However, moral lessons can be seen behind each of these stories.
Even today The Lakshadweep islands remain crime free and
instances of violence are negligible.
Dr. Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan is the translator. She had
visited our island in 2002. Her feelings about the stories are
also given. I express my sincere gratitude to her.
Needless to say, this is the first attempt to publish the
folktales of Lakshadweep in English in a book-form so that the
readers can come to know about the literature and people of the
far-flung island territory of India.
Dr. M.N. Karassery and Dr. M.M. Basheer had written the
introductions to my books in Malayalam. I am of the opinion
that their detailed study and critical analysis of the stories would
help the readers understand more about the story telling culture
and tradition of the islanders. I owe a great deal of respect to
them and also to Sri A.P. Kunhamu who translated their writings
I also owe great respect to the officials of the central
academy and also to the Malayalam Board Members, its Convener
Sri Prabha Verma and others who have greatly helped me in
bringing out this book, which -has been beautifully illustrated
by Sri Madanan, Chief Artist of the Mathrubhumi Publications
Lastly, I extend a warm thanks to Ms. Divya of Starnet
computers, Kozhikode who had taken all the care to get me
the manuscript typed.
During the last Onam season, I was in Kavaratti, the capital
island of the Union Territory of Lakshadweep. That was a short
stay. Yet, the peaceful deportment of the island inhabitants
attracted me much more than the scenic beauty of the island.
Away from the din and bustle of city life, this island lies inside
a lagoon that resembles a bright girdle, around its waist. The
lagoon is after all a natural creation protecting the island from
the wrath of the sea. In their colloquial language, it is referred to
as ‘Billam’. The islanders characterize the serenity of the Billam,
rather than the splendour of the turbulent sea around them. In
the daylight, the Billam is seen with a smile of sparkling waves,
hiding in its abyss of bluish green seawater, corals of different
shapes and sizes and curious tiny fish in myriad colours. What
a captivating sight! Did the islanders learn lessons of serenity
from Billam or the other way round? Who knows?
The peace-loving islanders do not indulge in crimes like
theft, manhandling, robbery and murder. When I came to know
that though there is a prison in the capital, constructed years
ago, it has not been inaugurated still, for want of even a single
prisoner, I just visited and returned.
It seems to me that it is the pure human nature within
their hearts, and not the geographical structure that keeps this
quiet society (engaged in fishing, collection of pearls, coconut
cultivation and coir making out of coconut husks) in the form
of an island.
It is the violence, revenge and murder found in these bedtime
stories recited in various islands of the group, though with slight
variations, remind me of the above experience. Even cannibals
have been presented as characters! Seven out of the twelve
stories contain murder. Perhaps the islanders may be getting rid
of the criminal tendencies lying hidden in their mind through
such narrations. I expect that anybody who reads this book
will get an intimate understanding of these good neighbours,
though in a limited measure. The readers cannot easily forget
the wonders of nature (The Child and the Tree), the happiness
that follows sorrow (Rice-cake frying pan), mischiefs (The Sky
root and the Sprout of the Grinding Stone, The Clever Thief),
the superman concept (The Big Belly Button) and the deep
affection among siblings (Kokathi Umma) that are depicted. Just
as the blunders committed by thieves and priests, the pungency
of explicit and implicit social criticism expressed in these stories
too, end up as an exploding laughter. Pearls of sweet humour
and shells of childlike imagination can be seen scattered on
The desire to tell and hear stories is a part of human nature
irrespective of time and space. Whether it is the top of the
Himalayas or the depths of the Arabian Sea, this human desire
remains unchanged. This anthology of folk-tales that has come
to the mainland from the Lakshadweep archipelago is a new
example of this historical truth.
Here we have a dozen folk-tales told and retold by different
groups of people belonging to the Union Territory, from
generation to generation. Now it is transferred from the island of
spoken word to the continent of written text. Before appearing
in book form, most of these tales have attracted Malayalam
readers when they were published in the Mathrubhumi Weekly
and other periodicals. We have been sending these types of
books to the Lakshadweep islands for so many years and
now such a book is being brought out from the islands to the
We have several books dealing with the geographical details,
social characteristics, customs, peculiarities of language and
narrative songs written in English and Malayalam by native
authors as well as by those who stayed there as employees. But
an anthology of folk-tales revealing the ancient tradition of the
islands is something new. Another notable feature about this
book is that the sea appears as a very prominent character in
almost all the tales.
Like folk-tales everywhere, these stories also look upon life
with awe. The wonders of nature are depicted with all the glory
and glitter. The human cruelties are despised and the tender
feelings are praised. Moral lessons useful to the present and
coming generations can also be seen.
The compiler of these tales has told me about the practice
of the islanders assembling on the seashore during nights after
their prayers and supper. Women and children are also present
in these gatherings.
A wide stretch of sand resembling sugar granules; the
soothing breeze coming from the sea; the moonlight spreading
far and wide; coconut trees waving their heads in tune with the
breeze. Wherever you look you find the ‘Billam’ like a girdle
round the sea. The baritone song of the Arabian Sea serves as
a background note for this beautiful setting.
In the light of the lantern, somebody opens a book of Mapila
songs and one or two among them start singing. Someone else
explains the story of the song. All others listen intently to the
song and the story. Some of them are tempted to join the singing.
On another day instead of singing somebody tells a story.
This is usually done by youngsters. Most of the stories are the
ones heard from their ancestors. Stories heard from the mainland
also are chosen at times. However, these ‘imported’ stories are
presented with modifications suited to the island. In addition
to these, stories born of the imaginative minds of the narrators
are also presented occasionally. That is how these stories got
the name ‘Bed-time stories.’
Arabian Tales are supposed to be stories told by the beautiful
damsel Shaharasada to Sultan, Shahariar. She was afraid of her
death in the next morning. So, she went on telling stories. In
one of her stories, ‘Aladdin and the wonderful lamp’ the Dyin
saves Aladdin and the princess, a second time. As the dawn
approached, she abruptly stopped her narration. Then, there was
a conversation between her and the Sultan, as under:
Sultan : How many stories do you know?
Shaharasada : I can go on telling stories for 1001 nights.
Sultan : So it will suffice for extending your life for
two years and nine months. What will you
Shaharasada : Then I will make new stories.
Sultan : If so, do you mean that I will not be able to
Shaharasada : Do you actually want to kill me?
Sultan : No, not at all.
Shaharasada could understand that her life had been out of
danger. The sultan had started loving her. So without fear, she
went on telling stories. Behind each story, narrated on each
night, there had been a definite purpose. That was to enable her
to live on the next day. Thus the episode continues. Eventually,
the sultan’s mind changes. She could save herself and all other
girls of the country who were supposed to be killed by the crazy
Oral folk tales of Lakshadweep, compiled by Dr. Mullakoya
are felt as a continuation of the Arabian Tales, with an exception.
Here the context and characters are different. The islanders
toiling from dawn to dusk, usually assembled at their seashore
for taking rest at night. While doing so, they were in the habit
of telling stories. These stories took them to experiences of
suffering, agony, humour and hilarity. It is a sojourn through the
worlds of fact and fancy. In this journey, they mustered energy
and made themselves liberated from mortality. After all stories,
by and large, are attempts for escaping from the inevitable
experience of death.
‘Father’s Halal Ship’ and ‘The Angel of Death’ are the two
main stories included in this anthology. Both are brilliantly
penned fantasies. They unfold the challenges, sufferings and
basic instincts for escaping from the experience of death and
the destiny of every man which he is compelled to undergo.
These tales have the strength and capacity to stand at par with
the stories of Mahabharata or the Arabian Tales (1001 nights).
In the ‘Father’s Halal Ship’, the climax emerges through a
story within the story. The protagonist, a small boy, is a seeker
of truth. He had participated in a story-telling competition
pretending to be an old man. He wore a cap, gifted by a witch,
due to the magic spell of which, he appeared to be an old man.
The old man narrated his own story. It was about a dispute
between the king and the queen. Looking at a strange object
which appeared in the distance, the king said that it was a
fragment of a cloud; but the queen argued that it was a forest
animal. The king sent his minister to find out the truth. The
minister wanting to be in the good books of the king hid the
truth and concurred with him. Enraged by it, the king ordered
the queen to be abandoned in a forest as punishment for distrust.
She underwent many miseries in exile. Yet, succeeds to survive
with the unexpected help from Providence. After years, the
minister comes to know about the queen. He takes her to the
country but imprisons her with her son. At that time, there
arose a problem with the launching of a new ship constructed
by the king. The minister uses the child to launch the ship into
the sea. He also lifted the anchor with his own hands. The
story thus progresses and finally concludes like this: "Poor
queen! Even now she is living as a prisoner in the house of
the minister." Saying these words the child removes the cap he
wore. Soon he was transformed to a boy. The king realized that
the boy was his own son. He kills the dishonest minister. The
queen and the boy are saved for their agonies. The story here is
all-powerful. The entire stories in this collection are narratives
of escape from death.
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