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The Umbrella Riots

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Out at the islands, long ago - Lakshadweep

Many years ago, a peculiar series of revolts took place in the lovely islands off to the west of Malabar, called the Lakshadweep (100,000 islands), which were and still are sparsely inhabited by Muslim folk who originated from the mainland, moving to settle down there sometime around the 14th century and thereafter. The immigrants carried with them a form of stigmatic caste system separating the affluent upper castes from the working castes which as you can imagine, resulted in a good amount of friction. Caste separatism within this community was the reason for a rebellion, but the triggers are for an outsider, particularly interesting. We had previously discussed the breast cloth movement in Travancore, and this is another tale from a time period, when life was quite a bit different from what it is today!

The 12 square mile island archipelago of Lakshadweep lies some 120 miles west off the Indian coastline with only 10 of them being inhabited. The oldest inhabited islands in the group are Amini, Kalpeni, Andrott, Kavaratti and Agatti - places where Islam arrived very early, perhaps around 661AD. Around 1545, the islands were in the hands of the Arakkal Ali Raja’s, after the Kolathiri Rajas ceded them to the Beevi. Coir trade was the islander’s major form of livelihood and by this time, the islands were inhabited by Moplahs, under the suzerainty of the Ali Raja of Cannanore. Once the British claimed Malabar from Tipu in 1799, the islands too came under their administration (though nominally under the Beevi until 1908). From very early times, their livelihood was from the export of coir, cowries and dried fish. As you can see, all these involve manual labor, carried out by lower castes. We are now going to check out events which took place there, mainly at Kalpeni, located 80 miles southeast of Kavaratti, the capital of Lakshadweep and about 135 miles west of Cochin, just after the turn of the 20th century.

In Oct 1930, the Illinois Times posted a curious story titled ‘Western Umbrellas Are Cause of Riot On the Malabar Coast’ - A job lot of western umbrellas and shoes; caused a riot on the Laccadive Islands, 150 miles off the Malabar coast - The Koyas , or aristocracy of the islands, long ago decreed that they alone might go shod and carry umbrellas but when the western shipment came in the Malumis, or sailor caste, and Melacheris, who pick cocoanuts, decided-to try dressing up. They picked eleven Melacheris and nine Malumis to defy the old edict and it was a gala day for the strutting low castes until the Koya chief heard about it and ordered out his spearmen. After the fight the mannequins found themselves in jail.

Why would carrying an umbrella be an issue? That too in islands which suffer torrential rain during the monsoon? Well, to understand the umbrella’s importance in ancient Malabar, you could check out my article on Palghat umbrellas and digest the fact that in those days only people up the totem pole could carry one. Now that was valid for the Hindus with their stringent caste system, but how about the Moplahs? Why would they bother unless they had their own sub castes? As a matter of fact, they did. To get the hang of it, let’s first look at the situation in Malabar and then move out West to the outlying islands.

Mappilas shared more of their culture with the Hindu castes of the region and there were multiple castes or subdivisions within the loosely formed port town Mappila communities in Malabar, segregations occurring over a longtime period. Quoting from Souza’s anthropological study, there were five distinct sections among the Moplahs: Thangals, Arabis, Malabaris, Pusalars and Ossans. The Thangals who are at the top of the pyramid, are a small group of people who trace their descent to the Prophet, through his daughter Fatima. The Arabis are a group of people mostly concentrated in Quilandy (a town north of Calicut), who are descendants of Arab men and local women, but who have preserved the memory of their descent. The association of the Arabis with Arabia entitles them to a respect in Moplah society second only to that of the Thangals. The Malabaris also claim descent from Arabs, but they are those who followed a matriarchal system – the so-called "mother-right" culture. As for the Pusalars and the Ossans, D'Souza explains: The so-called Pusalars (new Muslims) are converts from among the Hindu fishermen, called Mukkuvans. Their conversion took place relatively late. Because of their latter conversion and their low occupation of fishing they are allotted a low status in the Moplah society. The Pusalars are spread all along the coastline of Kerala and they still continue their traditional occupation of fishing. The Ossans are a group of barbers among the Moplahs and by virtue of their very low occupation they are ranked the lowest. Their womenfolk act as hired singers on social occasions like weddings. The hierarchies in Moplah society also show a tendency to accord the highest place of honor to the Sayyids, and lowest place to new converts and despised groups, such as barbers.

The Koyas among the Malabari’s claim lineage with the Pardesi Moors and the Nayar castes of Malabar, keeping themselves at the apex of the Moplah caste hierarchy. A second class Koya would be connected to the lower Malabar castes such as the Tiyyas and both these categories differentiate themselves from the converted fisherfolk and the converted Moplahs of the interior, the agricultural help. In summary, the ills of the Hindu caste system permeated into the Muslim castes of Malabar.

But at Laccadives, we find only three classifications, the Tarawadi Koyas, the Malumis and the Melacharis (may have been derived from the word Mlechha - uncultured). The Koyas were the affluent land and Odam (the large sailing vessel used in traffic between the islands and mainland) owners, the Malumis were the traditional navigators, and the Melacheris, the serfs of the Koyas were engaged in coconut plucking, fishing and all sorts of manual labor.

The people according to HA Stuart are not called Mappilas, but (1) Koya, (2) Malumi, (3) Urukkaran, (4) Takru, (5) Milikhan, and (6) Melacheri. No. 1 is the land and boat owning class, and is superior to the rest. Nos. 2 to 5 are pilots and sailors, and, where they are cultivators, cultivate under No. 1. No. 6 were the slaves of the first division; now they cultivate the Koyas' lands, take the produce of those lands in boats to the mainland, and pay 20 per cent. of the sale-proceeds to the Koya owners. The islanders generally dress like ordinary Mappilas. The Melacheris, however, may use only a coarser kind of cloth, and they are not allowed intermarriage with the other classes.

The Melacheris (aka Klasies (Khalasees), Thandals, Reveris) were subjected to a number of restrictions in their social and religious lives. They were not allowed to wear shirts, scarves, or sandals, nor to use umbrellas, and all menial work such as plucking coconuts, manual labor, twisting coir and cooking on odams were their responsibility. Their women folk could not adorn gold ornaments or wear silk clothes. During religious and rites of passage ceremonies such as circumcision, they were not allowed to sing and walk in procession. They could not build any fancy houses. If they did come across a Koya on the street, the Melacheri had to remove his veshti (a piece of cloth hanging on the shoulder) or upper cloth, in respect and move aside. When talking to a Koya, he had to cover his lips with his fingers. A Melacheri may not sit in the presence of a Koya; he should remove his head-gear or turban and stand in reverence. They could neither own odams nor conduct trade by themselves at the mainland. Finally, they had no say or share in the administration of the islands which was fully in the hand of Koyas.

A Koya (of those days) on the other hand, wore a colorful loin-cloth and three other pieces of cloth of variegated colors - one on the shoulder, one tied around the waist, and one wrapped round the head like a turban. He carried a knife hanging at his waist and a brush made of coconut husk tucked into his turban. They were the landlords, the administrators and the judiciary of the islands, and never opposed. The Malumis were placed in between, and a marked difference was that they were sailing folk and never engaged themselves in plucking coconuts or tapping toddy, which was considered beneath their dignity.

For Melacheri weddings, singers from among the Koyas had to be employed and they as well as other koya guests were to be provided with separate eating and seating arrangements. Same was the case  during the socio-religious ceremony – Maulood, where the singers and priests had always to be from among the Koyas.

As you can imagine, this led to a lot of conflict as the Melacheris felt oppressed. From the earliest English records, we can detect a number of complaints and cases reaching the English administration. In the early days the British took to siding with the Koyas, but as time went by, discerning administrators decided to bring a semblance of balance to this unsatisfactory situation. But naturally, as the Melacheris started to express their dissatisfaction, the Koyas employed an iron hand, yielding little or nothing.

In the beginning, all work had to be done only by Melacheris. In 1909, the first mass representation by the Melacheris resulted in the British administration stating formally what work each caste had to do. Though it did little, it made some distinctions and removed abject slavery. During the next phase, some Melacheris acquired land by virtue of their landlord, the koya passing away and this raised some of their confidence, resulting in increased antagonism between the two communities.

In 1913, some Melacceris sang during one of their weddings, incensing the Koyas who reacted violently. They stoned their house, assaulted the inmates and destroyed household utensils. Unable to retaliate against the numerically superior Koya community, the Melacheris approached the government. They submitted a petition to Mr Rabjohns who however, ruled in favor of the Koyas, following which the Melacheri’s struck work and refused to do anything for the Koyas. After an appeal to the high court, peace prevailed and by 1920 things were on even keel.

It is in 1915 that we hear of the first edict alleviating the situation. One Mr Robb decreed in the name of peace, that the Melacheris could carry an umbrella during adverse weather, but not to offend a Koya, that they could sing during festivities within their homes, but not walk in procession, and finally that they could wear shirts while on a voyage or if the weather was cold, but not onshore, as an adornment! These allowed the Melacheris basic social freedom but prevented them from taking any equal or upper hand at the Koyas.

The Melacheris were not happy, even though they had gained some leeway. This was when one Rajab Arakkalar of Kalpeni Island, sailed over and met with the Malabar Collector. He petitioned him for permission to wear shirts island, asking, ' Is the right to wear clothing not a fundamental right?' He eventually secured an order from the Collector allowing Melacheris to wear shirts not only while at sea but also on land. He then found a tailor, all this at Calicut, I presume and made himself made a jacket of very strong and durable material. Armed with the Collector's directive and wearing his coat, he appeared before the Amin of Kalpeni Island, one Attakoya. The Amin had no choice but to obey the Collector's orders and permit Rajab to wear the jacket.

Well, things did not stop there, our man Rajab went for the mosque wearing his new jacket. The Koyas were enraged and trashed him soundly, but as they could not rip off the stoutly made jacket with their hands, resorted to using knives to cut it into shreds. Rajab and all Melcharis were then thrown out of the mosque and banned from entry. Unfortunately, around this juncture, the Malabar collector was replaced by a new fella who decided that it was not wise to change the status quo in the islands, for he grandly stated ‘The islanders should preserve the island conventions themselves’ and slunk away.

But help was at hand, and not far away, for a few liberal Koyas of the island decided to support the Melacheris, and exhorted them to wear shirts, carry umbrellas and sing and dance in procession. In 1922 they proceeded to carry out all the said actions during a wedding and but naturally the Koyas were merciless in retaliation. The Melacheris again approached the Collector, who by this time was the redoubtable RH Ellis. Ellis castigated the Koyas tactfully and stated that the Melacheris be allowed to sing at weddings.

The Melacheris however, decided to stretch the new law by singing and walking in procession. The Koyas sued and the court decided that the 4 Melacheri leaders be fined 15/- each. On appeal to the collector, the fines were cancelled and the rule modified to allow them to sing on the streets. It was settled then by the formation of two singing parties of trained men both Koyas and Melacheris, which were to be invited to all weddings.

Two years passed by and in 1924, one Melaillam Saban, requested permission of the Amin of Kalpeni Island to celebrate son's circumcision ceremony with a musical procession. The Amin, ignoring the previous rulings refused permission. Saban Haji companied to the collector and an inspecting officer, Mr Gone was deputed to check it out. As soon as he arrived, he was deluged by hundreds of complaints and appeals cooked up by the koyas, against the Melacheris. But Gone saw through the ruse and ruled 'It is permissible not only to sing in wedding houses, but since the procession by the bridegroom and his party to the bride's house is an important rite, playing and singing of music at such processions cannot be prohibited.' He also pointed out to the judgement by Ellis in 1922 which implied such a verdict. The koyas were unhappy.

When on a rainy day which followed, Musakka Abdurahaman sporting an umbrella, passed a koya, the Koya sued to the local court who fined Abdurahaman. Abdurahman approached the collector who reversed the fine and the ruling. In 1931, one Mohammed went to a koya mansion as a guest to attend a wedding, but as it was a rainy day, had his umbrella open. The other guests assaulted him and threw him out. He too complained to the collector but the inspecting officer this time, did little than warn the koyas. What became clear by now was that the local administration headed by a Koya Amin as well as the Kachery or the local court were totally useless for the Melacheris. The Malabar collector was needed in case any resolution was required. A very unsatisfactory situation, indeed.

Towards 1931, owing to stricter warnings to the Koyas from various officers, the lower groups were able to assert their rights of wearing shirts and sandals, holding umbrellas and singing in the processions. As time went by the Malis and the Melacheris started to accumulate money and build better houses and mosques.

In 1934, at Amini, fireworks were lit for a Melacheri wedding resulting in them getting trashed by the Koyas, yet again. The Tasildar arrested leaders from both groups and the Koyas retaliated by refusing to allow the Melacheris to use the water wells on Koya lands and destroying the others. The collector intervened to prohibit fireworks and finally allowed the inclusion of two jurors or Moktessors to take care of Melacheri interests, for the very first time, a major win!

Then a Mali at Kalpeni started an Odam rental business and it was then that the Melacheris decided to take the final step in becoming ship – odam owners with 12 of them pooling money to purchase an odam. That was the terrible and proverbial incident of 1949, which went on to break proverbially, the camel’s back. The Melacheris who decided to buy an odam, supported by the liberal koyas, decided to register the sale and the Amin had no choice but to accede, but the following night, the coconut sheds of the Melacheri owners were set afire. The new ship, loaded with produce was drilled with holes and scuttled. A period of violence and threats prevailed, while the outnumbered Melacheri could not even step out of their homes for fear of their own safety.

The Amin appealed to the collector for help, when things started getting out of hand. The Collector arrived with the MSP in tow and found that the complaint was indeed correct, but let the koyas off with a warning and some fines. The die was now cast and the iron grip the Koyas had was started breaking up.

There were so many other issues, such as the incident where some Amini Melechri’s surreptitiously learnt how to sing the Baith, which was a Koya monopoly, then there was the burial where a Koya Khazi was not called to perform the last rites. Similar incidents took place in other islands as well. Finally, in 1952, the administration succeeded in persuading the Kalpeni koys in including two karanavers from the Mali and four from the Melacheri group into the Council of Elders, thus bringing some representation for them, within the local administration.

While I have covered only some known events at Kalpeni and Amini, the situation was as you can imagine, ghastly, to say the least.  Though it all looks very silly, such was life before and immediately after independence. However, friction continued between the two groups for a long time, even after all that we can find a certain amount of social distancing, even today!

So, what about the story we started with? Did the islanders walk in procession with umbrellas? Of that event, much as I tried, I could not dredge out anything dating to the Oct 1930 revolt, perhaps it must have been one of the older stories which percolated slowly to the mainland and got reported by an avid reporter. Perhaps it was from the 1924 events I described previously or thereabouts, perhaps they did carry out an umbrella procession! Interestingly, the pioneer who supplied umbrellas to Laccadives was the famous Abdul Rehman Haji Aboobaker Chhatriwala from Bombay!

So, you can see the effort it took, close to four or five decades to bring about a semblance of balance, if not parity, between the upper and lower Muslim castes in the Laccadives. To get a view of those lovely islands, see the recent Malayalam film Anarkali.

Now if I were to tell you that at one time in Malabar, nobody could tile roofs without express permission from the Zamorin, would you believe me? Even the Cochin king was denied that honor until the Dutch built him a palace with a tiled roof. That my friends, is a tale for another day.

Caste Conflict in Kalpeni Island - Theodore Gabriel – Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (1988). The main source, acknowledged with much thanks
Marriage and kinship in an island society – A R Kutty
Changing patters of an island society – KP Ittaman (Culture & Society Ed BN Nair)
Amini islanders – K P Ittaman


- The union territory of Lakshadweep comprises 19 coral islands of which 13 (4 inhabited) belong to the Laccadive group, five to the Amindivi group and just Minicoy in the 3rd group. While the first two groups are inhabited by Muslims of Moplah stock speaking a Malayalam dialect, the Minicoy has Maladivian stock and speak Mahl. Kalpeni and Amini had the most stringent restrictions.

- Melacheris could not share food with a koya!

- The Melacheri had many other menial tasks like loading and unloading of odams, clearing sandbars, carrying the landlord’s son for circumcision, holding an umbrella for the landlord’s son when he goes to get married, and all this is done gratis. He is just allowed access to some 30-50 coconut trees and in return paid a 5th of the returns from them to the landlord, as well. All kopra and coir had to be sold through the Koya who in many cases underpaid the serfs. In a barter sale, the koya decided what was a proper equivalent for the serf’s produce.

- Any festivity in a Melacheri house has to be with permission from his lord. Wedding presents are checked by the lord and he could pick what he desires, from among them. If any slaughter is done, the animal head has to be given to the koya.

- The Maladives were known as the Mamale islands, for details of the connection read this article I had done some years ago. The Portuguese records included the Lacadives also in this lot, as the Arakkal kingdoms controlled it in the 16th century. 

Pic – Wikimedia