Notes from Kihnu

The women are recognised by their flowing red pinstriped skirts, which they weave in winter. Photo: NYT  

The Kihnu Virve is a rather unusual ferry boat for two reasons. For one, its gleaming, white hull is adorned with vivid blue tribal symbols that belong to the tiny community of 700 or so indigenous Kihnu people. They’re the original inhabitants of the eponymous Kihnu island, located off the west coast of Estonia. A place where the waters of the Baltic Sea are surprisingly calm and shallow.

But most importantly, the ferry is named in honour of one of Estonia’s living legends — Virve Koster, a 93-year-old folk singer who also happens to be one of the Kihnu people. This community is so distinct that UNESCO recognised its culture as part of the ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’ in 2008, and it’s widely believed to be Europe’s last matriarchy — of which Koster is the uncrowned queen!

Forested land

It is a warm summer afternoon when I board the ferry at the modest-sized Munalaiu harbour on the mainland. My destination is the tiny — — forested Kihnu island, which comprises four close-knit villages. If I had made this 20-minute journey in winter, I would have been able to drive across the famous ‘ice road’ that forms over the sea, effectively linking the two land masses.

The pine forests and idyllic beaches of Kihnu island. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The pine forests and idyllic beaches of Kihnu island. Getty Images/iStockphoto  

As I sail the placid waters, I cannot help but draw parallels to the legendary Greek island of Lesbos in the northern Aegean Sea. Just like Lesbos, which was said to be ruled by a phalanx of goddesses, life in Kihnu pivots around the all-important axis of ‘The Matriarch’, the de facto custodian of culture on the island.

Once on the island, I soon learn that Kihnu is a place run by women thanks to historical circumstances that slowly took root in the culture. The Kihnu people were first mentioned in written records around 600 years ago, although there is evidence that fishermen and seal hunters from the mainland set up base here about 3,000 years ago.

Interestingly, those are the same activities the islanders depend upon today for their livelihood. Over the centuries, as the men spent most of their lives at sea — often for weeks at a stretch — the women became responsible for the land and thus took on the mantle of weavers of the island’s socio-cultural fabric. Quite literally.

Kihnu island lighthouse in Estonia. Getty Images/ iStockphoto

Kihnu island lighthouse in Estonia. Getty Images/ iStockphoto  

Iconic lighthouse

Recognised by their flowing red pinstriped skirts, which they weave in winter, the women of Kihnu do everything from building houses, farming and repairing to governing and manning (or “womanning”) the island’s iconic lighthouse, which is kept by the rosy-cheeked Elly Karjam. Vintage, side car-saddled motorcycles — said to be relics of Estonia’s Soviet past — are their preferred mode of transport.

The church on Kihnu island. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The church on Kihnu island. Getty Images/iStockphoto  

A woman from the island’s tourist information centre tells me that even the local church is run by a group of women. Speaking of which, the Kihnu have a tradition wherein once a woman reaches her 60s, she starts to weave the funerary clothes she is to be buried in, all in the vivid blue shade that’s the community’s mourning colour. Furthermore, to show that they are strong of body even in death, other women stuff hay into the stockings and arms of the deceased to mimic the robust figure she prized when she was alive and able.

Back on the mainland, I soon realise there is much scepticism among other Estonians about life on Kihnu.

Many feel the whole matriarchy angle is a bit of a smokescreen and not entirely an accurate description of everyday living there. A fancy, modern day Lesbos-esque tale for the romantically-inclined tourist, they claim.

They say that Kihnu’s brand of matriarchy is simply the absence of men for most of the year, as well as the absence of expectations that some jobs on land shouldn’t be done by women. There’s no official denial of men’s rights, and anthropologists believe there has never been any unambiguous matriarchal society on Kihnu. At least not in a way that’s similar to the archetypical patriarchal societies we’re used to seeing.

But for those like me who have actually been on the island and felt that megawatt of ‘womanpower’ light up everything, there’s no denying Kihnu’s magnetism. Myth or not!

The Mumbai-based writer and restaurant reviewer is passionate about food, travel and luxury, not necessarily in that order.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 1:33:46 PM |

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