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Updated: June 15, 2012 12:03 IST

Death in the lives of tribals

Mohamed Nazeer
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HOMAGE TO THE DEPARTED — A Study of Funeral Customs Among the Tribes in Malabar, Kerala: Manjula Poyil; Other Books, I Floor, New Way Building, Railway Link Road, Kozhikode-673002. Rs. 460.
HOMAGE TO THE DEPARTED — A Study of Funeral Customs Among the Tribes in Malabar, Kerala: Manjula Poyil; Other Books, I Floor, New Way Building, Railway Link Road, Kozhikode-673002. Rs. 460.

Mortuary practices are one of the most visibly cultural features

The idea of primitive society postulates a simple model: a pristine, organic society with no private property or family in the sense in which we understand it. This model envisages an organic social life based primarily on worship of ancestor spirits as articulated in the ceremonies, especially death customs, of the tribes living in different parts of the world today.

This prototype, which anthropologist Adam Kuper has debunked in his The Invention of Primitive Society, derives its inspiration from Rousseau's concept of Noble Savage. When Kuper says that “the theory of primitive society is on a par with the history of the theory of aether,” he is treating the perceived purity of the primitive as fictional. Such critiques could have been in the mind of Manjula Poyil when she decided not to use terms such as ‘primitive', ‘aboriginal' and ‘backward' in her Homage to the Departed: A Study of Funeral Customs Among the Tribes in Malabar, Kerala. But the book tends to hark back to the idea of a primeval purity often applied in portrayals of tribal people. In the Introduction of the book, she says the tribal groups of the Malabar region in Kerala are undergoing the slow uprooting of the tribal tradition. She notes: “The intrusion of non-tribal cultural ethos into the tribal milieu has started eroding much of their cultural exclusiveness and identity. Even the death customs, an integral part of their religion, are being invaded by external forces.”

Despite this patronising view of the tribal life that forms the backdrop of the book, a revised version of her doctoral dissertation, it offers glimpses of beliefs and practices of various tribal groups in the region that run counter to the romanticising portrayal of the tribal life. The deep-rooted gender discrimination among the tribal groups in the region, for example, defies “the cherished nostalgic notions of gender equality in tribal life.”

Community life

Mortuary practices are one of the most visibly cultural features observed by archaeologists. English anthropologist, Edward B. Tylor developed the argument that animism has had its origin in the dream and death experience. The body-soul division was perceived by ancient people in dream that persuaded them to believe that the ghost-soul survives the destruction of the body. James G. Frazer expanded this idea and argued that all mortuary rituals were motivated by fear of the ghost-soul of the deceased.

The book describes the community life of each of the tribes in Malabar such as Kadar, Iravalan, Cholanaikkan, Kattunaikkan, Paniya, Kurichiya, Mullukuruman, Adiyan, Kurumba and Karimpalan, among others, how they worshipped their ancestors and how their death customs are determined by their modes of subsistence. Anthropological evidences on tribal death customs all over the world show that they are more or less similar. As Poyil says, human approach to death and funeral rites is universal. Viewing death as a separation of the soul from the body is universal and it runs through all the mainstream religions. Some of the features of organised religion, observes American author Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell , will turn out to be vestigial traces of the folk religions from which they are descended.

Opinion is divided on the hypothesis that the tribes of Kerala are the direct descendants of the Megalithic builders, although they follow many traits of Megalithic culture. Poyil says that any serious study of the history of tribal death customs is possible only with the help of an ethno-archaeological exploration. The book offers a detailed description of mortuary practices, both common and specific, among the tribes of the Malabar region. While the book laments that the “entire tribal tradition is now losing its purity and originality” as they are being fast ‘Hinduised' with animism giving way to faith in Hindu gods and temple-centred worship, it also notes that the tribes that are undergoing greater ‘acculturation' realise adverse impacts of some of their rites, especially expensive funeral rites which cause heavy financial burden on them.

Detailed description of funerary practices in the book including death announcement, wailing, funeral dance, ritual washing and death pollution makes reading tedious. However, the book, which is not without grammatical errors and erratic punctuations, is an important contribution to the study of funeral customs which is largely neglected in Kerala.

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