Political and Cultural resistance through rituals: A Sociological analysis of Nerchas among the Muslims of Kerala

Haris M.N, Hani Naseef. K.T   (Research Scholars, Jamia Millia)

This paper tries to examine the local religious ritual Nercha, which has been celebrated in different parts of Kerala as a manifestation of cultural and Political resistance . Nercha is a religious cultural festival, practicing in the tomb of sheikh and shahid, combining with the local folk festival. It is largely associated with sharing of Islamic tradition with the local indigenous culture. As a ritual Nercha is the elaboration of collective individual practice. According to Gangadara Menon, Nercha is a Malayalam word which means taking a vow and it is derived from Dravidian origin “Ner”, a word with several meanings like truth and agreement. This ceremony includes Varavus, Nilavilacku and local dances like kolkali, daffmuttu etc. (Dale, Menon, 1976). Nercha ensures the participation of different religious communities especially lower caste Hindus in its different practices.  People’s approaches toward Nercha were varied in relation with socio-economic and educational position and their generational, gender and other sectorial differences. The Manifestation of Nercha evolved through various forms associated with the changes in socio-political circumstances. Nercha is seen in many regions of Kerala, among these Kondoty Nercha, Mamburam Nercha, Puthiyangadi Nercha, Ponnani Nercha etc. are the major Nerchas in Kerala. We can broadly classify various Nerchas under two categories, conducted in the name of sheikhs and the other in the name of Shahids. We focus here  on, Mamburam and Pookotoor Nercha to substantiate the manifestation of political and cultural resistance through Nerchas. Kondoty and Mamburam Nerchas are in the name of Thangals (Sheikh Muhmed shah thangal and Sayyed Alwi thangal respectively) with some differences and pookotoor Nercha is devoted for shahids who were killed in 1921 rebellion.

Sociology and Anthropology of Islam
Religion has been a crucial subject matter among sociologists and Social anthropologists, which is  quite elusive and intriguing topic, considered for serious scientific treatments and critical analysis for last two centuries.
Emile Durkhiem described religion and culture together, stating their external signs and symbols are expressions of collective consciousness. He says, religion is the sacralization of society and an expression of people’s collective identity. Malinowiski and Raadcliff Brown developed the structural and functional idea of religion and viewed it as a social framework for the harmonious functioning of Society.
Since later 20th century the interest in religion has been revitalized, examining the significance of religion and the way it provided meaning and influenced socio-political life of modern society.  Various scholars like Clifford Geertz, Hamid Elzain, Earnest Gellner Akbar S ahmad etc were major figures specialized in late-modern religion, especially in anthropology of Islam. Clinton Bennots argues, there have always been a process of flux and reflux in the Islamic tradition which maintained the balance between  high-Islam of scholars with low-Islam of people. These scholars made universal definition of religion based on the anthropological analysis of particular region. Clifford Geertz constructed symbolic system of communication. According to him symbols are used for any object, act, event, quality, or relation which serves as a vehicle for a conception, he adds culture does not have any bio-genetic base and  is learned by shared among the people, transmitting from one generation to next, person behaving according to  cultural demand. His argument and analysis are reflecting on the basis of Javanese religious mystics. He also suggested universal definition of religion.
Post-colonial anthropologist Talal asad disagrees Geertz in many aspects, particularly in the universal definition of religion. According to him religion is a discursive thing, it varies depending social context as well as individual subjectivity. Each context provides its own meaning and each individual adopt their own meaning through manifestation of every religious ritual.
Here we analyse the discourse on Religious ritual Nercha as a manifestation of Political and cultural resistance, a resistencial manifestation of Nercha associated with the culture and History of Kerala Muslims and their interaction with other communities.

Muslims of Kerala
The spread of Islam in Kerala happened in different ways. Stephen Dale, describing the spread of Islam in Kerala says, The Muslim community of Kerala originated as a result of wide spread phenomena of peaceful expansion of Islam through the well  established trade routes in parts of Africa, India and south east Asia. The Muslim merchants visited the Malabar Coast shortly after Mohamed wins over Mecca and Muslims became increasingly dominant in the Arabian sea trade as Islam took hold amongst the population throughout the Arabian peninsula and the person gulf (Dale,1980). According to William Logan, Mapplia population increased through steady growth rate during 1831-1851, at the same time  throughthe number of parayas decreased due to their conversion to Islam. Hence, the mappila culture was highly evolved through the interaction with the indigenous culture. Mappila architecture , different social customs and practices were also largely influenced from local culture.
The Mappila’s means of survival was depended on agriculture under different landlords. Later the domination of landlords were replaced by regime of Tippu Sultan. The land lords were re-appointed by British administration which paved the way for exploitation. Many of the Jenmis were the upper-caste Namudhiris and Brahmins; but there were also number of Nairs, some few Thiyyas and Mappilas among the Jenmis (Gangaderan,2008). It has been observed that the re-implementation of Jenmi system by Britishers allowed full property right for Janmis and paved the way for forced and legal exploitation.
Muslim’s social and political life was largly associated with  sheikhs or thangals, who were the leaders of Muslim community. The leaders are the immigrants of Arabia who educated and the local Mappilas. According to Miller those religious leaders can be classified into two categories who were not mutually inclusive. One included leaders with charismatic qualities and being often connected with specific saintly family. The other represented orthodox Moulvis who carried out the routine educational and cultural ministry of the community (Miller, 1976).The Muslim’s life largely connected with Thangals for solutions for their problems and people highly believed in their Karamath( saint’s legend) to solve the problems. Miller argues, Thangals  helped petitioners from various physical distress.( Miller 1976). The life of Thangals were also important in Political aspects, because they spread and inspired people to take resistance actions against enemies. The belief in karamath made people to submit their obedience to Thangals. Mamburam Thangal had also been a fighter against British counterparts and local Jenemis. Kondoty Mohmed sha Thangal shared his role with Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali to struggle against colonizers and Jenmis. By the inspirations from Thangals many people even decided to choose the status of martyrdom in war against colonial powers as well as local jenmis. Stephen Dale noted the influence of Thangals on the decision of people, who decided to become shahids (martyrs) to revenge upon janmis. The victimized mappilas took the oath by the suggestion of Thangals in Masjid by wearing special kind of dress and fasted to kill the enemy in a predetermined day.
Nercha is a symbolically significant ritual in reconfiguring the historical role of Thangals and shahids as virtual legends and spreads the notions of political and cultural resistance. Both political and cultural resistance were complementary and interdependent.
How Nercha manifests Cultural resistance
1)    Nercha ensures the participation of Dalits, who were not allowed in Hindu religious rituals and practices.
2) Nercha symbolizes cultural unification of lower caste Hindus and muslims against the dominant culture and practices.
3)    Nercha symbolizes the resistance to dominant culture through popular culture.
The Shrine of Mamburam allowed Dalits to visit shrine and  considered them in various practices of Nerchas like feast distribution. The annually organized kaliyatakkavu had been playing a ritual, offered to the Thangal in Mamburam. Thangal gave place for kaliyatakkavu to celebrate kozhkikkaliyattam and the date of kaliyattam was decided by him until his death is worth mentioning. The fire work has been considered an important practice of Kondotty Nerchas. It takes place in the paddy field near the Kondotty  kubba. Dalits have been given the responsibility to take the cannon to the field by pasting oil and igniting the Canon . Varavus( bringing gifts and donations from surrounding areas) is an important practice in Kondotty Nercha. All varavus come inside with the permission of the representative of Thangal, but the varavus of dalits have   not required special permission. Nercha has been manifesting resistance to upper-caste Hindus by giving special participatory right for the underprivileged sections of society.
The popular art forms like kolkali and daffmuttu are the significant items with rich participation of Mappilas and Dalits. Manifestation of these local art forms raised voices against the highly sanscritized Hindu art forms. The existed Hindu art forms were complex and not accessible to everyone. But the popular art forms were simple and every one can participate easily with out any structural constraints. Nercha has been making cultural resistance against high culture promoting popular culture through the propagation of locally oriented popular festivals  and questioned the ideals created by dominant sections.
How Nercha manifests Political resistance ?
Whole Nerchas are the symbolic representation of political (both macro and micro) resistance and it is a symbol of collective expression of anger against dominant and exploiting strata of society. Nerchas memorizes political resistance through four ways
1)    The Nercca memorizes the history of Sufi saints( Thangals) and their own history
2)    The Nercca memorizes the History of Martyrdoms ( Shahids)
3)    Some Nerchas have been representing the resistantial history of regional problems and local politics between regional rulers and common people, most were related to land issues, related to  mosques etc. These kinds of local micro politics were also symbolized through Nerchas.
4)    Some of the practices involved in Nercha represent the political control of Thangals during the period.
he political role of Thangals was very significant in the history of anti-colonial rebellion and the antagonism against local Jenmis. Thangal became the leaders and power source for people whenever they faced socio-economic and political misery.  They worked as spiritual power centers by giving spiritual energy for for political change. 
The Malappatu and Kissappatu have significant position in Nercha as a part of it. It had been worked as an important device for making religious awareness and to  provoke people’s consciousness against colonial powers.
Mamburam Alwi Thangal organised Mappila peasants against British rulers; he had composed a poem “Assyful Bathar” a collection of fatwa’s by Sayyed Alwi. It portraits sayyed Alwi’s thinking, in which he treats British as the infidels and calls for jihad against British, asking the involvement including old , women, youth and children. Tangal was considered by the British to be the force behind the revolt of Manjeri Athan kurikkal in 1817 ; there were two apparent reasons for this belief. One is the statement attributed him that ’killing an oppressor or Jenmis is not a sin’ ( Logan, 1951) The second is that Mappilas are used to seek his benediction before embarking on any rebellious activities. During Mysore invasion people supported Hyder Ali and Tipu sultan against Jenmis by the support of Tangals. The Muttyara and cherur pada were led by Mappilas against British as well as local jenmis, they killed two eminent jenmis such as Thottasheri Thachu Panikkar and Kapat Krishna Panickar (they were local Jenmis) by the inspiration of Thangals.
 Thangal was put forward the Islamic legal system and rules as an alternative to British law. There is nothing to show that sayyed Alwi had some kind of hostility towards Nairs and other local non Muslims. He was against local Jenmis from both Muslims and non Muslims, who were exploited the common people (Ganesh, 2000). William Logan again notes about the Halilackam (Astate of frenzy) that, these devotees lost contact with the matters of living world and lived with a kind of supernatural influence of Thangal. Logan added Halilackam and the super natural power of Thangal spread all over the region, which played a crucial role in the development of collective consciousness of the Mappilas against British and Jenmis.
 Kondotty Thangal supported Tipu sultan; Tipu sultan requested him to come Malabar and bring the Mappilas under Mysore rule. Many people   joined with Tipu Sultan against Nairs by the influence of thangal. After the acquisition of Malabar by British, the “Takiyya” was violently attacked by Nair troop of local jenmi Paranambi. Thangal appealed to the local Mappilas to strive for the victory of community and Islam. As a result, Nair was thoroughly beaten and they left the field (Dale, 1980)

Importance of Martyrdom
Another form of Nercha has been practiced in the name of shahids (martys). Many Mappilas had taken the decision to become Shahids which was very political and a decision based on careful analysis of existing social circumstances and they were more aware about its consequences   (Ansari, 2008).Many people have been motivated for martyrdom by the influence of Thangals and belief in their karamath. Thangal was the ultimate source of religious knowledge and role model of their life. People believed that these Karamath is able to solve their problems and even if they lost the fight, they believed Karamath would rescue them. Even today the shahids are significant in the unification and mobilization of people in various socio-political contexts. Political and religious organizations have been using the name of great Tangals, shahids and their glorious histories to motivate people for political purposes. Nercha, consciously or unconsciously symbolizes the form of political and cultural resistance in its manifestation.
Symbolisation of the regional influence of Thangals: Different practices in Nercha like varavus have symbolized the Thangal’s socio-political influence in the surrounding regions. Varavu means, people bringing their contribution and gifts from surrounding regions. In Mamburam Nerchas, presently varavus doesn’t exist, but different programs have been conducted before Mamburam Nercha in the mosques nearby the areas of Mamburam. These mosques were founded by the Thangal of Mamburam who had more influence and power on that regions. Historically, Nercha also expresses the socio-political circumstances in different regions.

The Recent Changes
Different kinds of changes have brought in Nercha, mainly due to the changes in attitude of people towards Nerchas and changes happening in various practices. Many Nerchas disappeared from the place. Many Nerchas removed the practices like Fireworks, varavu, Nilavilack etc and replaced with Islamic speech, Moulid sadass etc. The major causes of changes are
1)    Opposition from reformist movements (Mujahid and jama-athe islami)  against Nerchas.
2)    Gulf migration and Spread of education
3)    Madrasa movement for religious education
4)    The reconfiguring agenda of Islamic rituals by traditional sects of Muslim Community.
The reform movements among Muslims were emerged in 1920s. They considered rituals like Nerchas are against the fundamental teachings of Islam, Which is tawhid (belief in the oneness of god).They campaigned against these rituals among Muslim community. They established schools and Madrasas for providing both Religious and modern education. After 1970, the huge migration to gulf countries was occurred and gulf money boosted different educational and charitable activities among both conservatives and reformists. These socio-economic changes lead to the diminishing of rituals including Nerchas.


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AUTHOR: Haris M.N, Hani Naseef. K.T
  (Research Scholars, Jamia Millia)