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Guardians of the Grain

G.S.Unnikrishnan Nair

Gentle wind was blowing over the lush green paddy fields. We could see some Sparrows chirping and flying around. Cheruvayal Raman pointed his fingers towards the canopy of rice plants. A nest made up of dry vegetation was seen carefully woven between the paddy leaves. Hidden inside the nest were six small oval eggs. “These birds eat lot of insects and we in turn offer a toxin free nestling ground for them in our paddy field. After hatching, the young sparrows remain in the nest for about 20 days and then fly out to feed on their own. Our paddy field is their nursery for the season.” Cheruvayal Raman is one of those farmers who are well aware that the rice field is a unique ecosystem which provides food and shelter for many organisms. He belongs to the Kurichya tribe in Wayanad for whom rice farming is an intimate part of daily life. For the Kurichya, rice is the grain that links Heaven and Earth, mortals and gods.

The bygone Glory of “Wayal”nadu

The name Wayanad is derived from “Wayal” Nadu, which means “Land of Paddy fields”.Wayanad district is nestled among the mountains of the Western Ghats and is part of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve known for its rich biodiversity. Among various districts of Kerala, Wayanad has the highest tribal population. Kuruma and Kurichya are among the major tribes in Wyanad for whom Paddy cultivation is the traditional livelihood. During late 80’s and early 90’s Wayanad underwent many agrarian changes .Local rice varieties were replaced by high yielding varieties, paddy lands gave way to banana and other horticultural crops and traditional farming practices were replaced by modern chemical farming. Rice cultivated in about 40000 hectares in Wayanad was drastically reduced to about 9000 hectares. Kuruma farmers shifted from rice farming to the cultivation of spices, coffee, tubers, fruits and vegetables while Kurichya continued their intimate relation with rice, the grain that shaped their culture, tradition and ritual.

The name Kurichiyan was given by the Kottayam Raja as they were adepts in archery. Word ‘Kurichyan’ came from two words ‘Kuri’ and ‘Chiyan’. In Kurichya language ‘Kuri’ means target and ‘Chiyan’ means those who shoot sharp at the target. The traditional account of the Kurichiyar’s arrival into Wayanad is that the Kottayam Raja brought them to fight the Vedar rulers Arippen and Vedan. Their caste-men were reluctant to take them back and hence they settled in Wayanad. Being experts in guerrilla warfare, Kurichya warriors’ became part of the army of Pazhassi Rajah. Descendants of the Kurichiya tribes that fought the British alongside Pazhassi Raja had their settlements in and around Banasura Hill. There are three Kurichiya tribal villages lying close to Banasura Hill even now. Later kurichyas adopted farming as their main livelihood.

When our ancestors settled here, Wayanad was mostly covered with forest. During certain months like those having heavy rain, Sun was barely visible. Winter months witnessed extremely cold nights. Our ancestors were forest dependent people. But due to severity of climate and wild animal attack, collection of forest produce became more and more life threatening. So they began cultivation of rice and millets to overcome the hunger. Attack by wild animals was there on the rice fields also. But with traditional wisdom, they fought against all odds and protected the glory of Wayal nadu.”-says Kelu of Peruvadi Kurichya tharavadu.

Even today, Kurichya farmers continue their tradition of cultivating rice. According to T.R.Suma, Social Scientist, MSSRF, Wayanad; the reason is that the Kurichya follow a matrilineal joint family system in which land is kept as a common asset. Traditional Kurichya joint family consisting of more than 100 members used to live in a single house complex. A headman, who is called Karanavar manages the community’s property and organize family affairs and farming activities. So as to feed the big family rice farming was a necessity for Kurichya. They used to say that”Mannum Kunjukkuttiyum makkalum” meaning ‘Soil, younger ones in the family and children” are very important in their life.

Kurichya practice collective family farming on large paddy lands, utilizing family labour. Nowadays many in the joint families have constructed their own houses and live separately. Present Kurichya joint families consist of 5 to 10 small families only. Even then, all family members living at nearby places come to their “tharavadu” during festive occasions and to do family labour whenever it is required.

Tradition, community and good food

Kurichiyas classify paddy fields into three types; Kuni Vayal, Nadu Vayal and Kuzhi Vayal based on soil type, water retention, fertility and topography of the field.

Each stage of cultivating rice right from land ploughing to transplanting and harvest are based on conventional farmer’s almanac. There are two rice seasons in Wayanad; Nancha the rainy season and Puncha the summer season. Puncha is cultivated only in a small area nowadays. During Nancha, sowing of seeds in the nursery takes place in the month of Medam, on the day after Vishu. Earlier, flocks of bullocks were used to plough the land, which is replaced by tillers and tractors now. Month of Medam is followed by the month of Edavam, when the South-West monsoon begins. During rain the water flowing downhill into the paddy fields in the valleys carry with it the rotting twigs, leaves and rotten organic matter from the forests.  These make the paddy fields rich in nutrients. Other than this, the farmers incorporate cow dung and different types of green manure in the field. Full moon days are considered best for planting. On that day rodents hides in their burrows do not dig and eat the newly planted seedlings.”Kambalanatti”, a dance and song ritual is performed by Paniya tribe of Wayanad during transplanting. The loud sound frightens rodents. For Kurichya tribesmen, every stage of paddy cultivation is a divine activity as well as a ritual.

Rice is an integral part of our life and rituals. We consider rice as Goddess Lexmi. Before sowing, elders of the joint family obtain permission from ancestor spirits called “muni” and guardian gods. We have our own special deities called Malakari - an aspect of Siva as a hunter and the fierce Mother-Goddess Karimpili. We believe that Makam in the Malayalam month Kanni symbolizes the birth star of rice .On this sacred day we worship the rice plant. They are sprinkled with tender coconut water as well as turmeric and sandal paste. Then the plant is worshipped with flowers in front of Nilavilakku, incense sticks and broken coconut. Bamboo used for making agricultural utensils as well as bow and arrow is collected on this day. In the following month, rice panicles become mature. Then we celebrate reaping of the first rice panicle in a ritual called “Kathiru kettal”.Mature panicles from various fields are collected in the night and hanged on the ceilings and fixed on walls with cow dung .After this, male members of the family take part in a ritualistic game hunt in the nearby forests, which is not prevalent nowadays. “Koythu thudakkam” is the beginning of the harvest. Old women of the family usually do the first harvest followed by others. After the harvest, we conduct the “Puthari kolu” ritual, which involves making offerings to the gods and ancestors for protecting our crop in the form of “Thira”. Thira is an important art form of Kurichiya. We also sing folk songs like “Nellukuthu pattu”. Feast is served to family members on this day”-says Palliyara Raman, whose family cultivates eight traditional rice varieties in 10 acre land.

Complete organic farming is adopted for rice. Rice produced using chemical inputs is forbidden in Kurichya rituals. They are very particular to eat only pure, toxin free food. Repellent plants like wild Tulsi are either spread over the field or their extract mixed in standing water to repel pests. Rodents are beaten away with special type of arrow known as “mottambu”.

Kurichya follow traditional knowledge in collection and storage of seed. Healthy, bold, pest and disease free grains are collected. Different varieties of seeds are dried separately for about 15 days in an open space, day and night exposing to sunlight and mist. Kurichya believe that the seeds acquire good adaptability to climate by doing so.

A unique method for preserving paddy seeds has been practiced by Kurichya farmers. This method known as “Mooda Kettal” is not prevalent nowadays and few men only have expertise in it. The process of “Mooda Kettal” takes place seven to 15 days after harvest. For preparing each mooda, different varieties of rice seeds are wrapped in a layer of dry hay with bamboo plinths. Each mooda can hold 10 to 60 kg of rice seeds. The seeds preserved in mooda can be conserved without fear of pest attack and moisture loss for one year. For grain purpose it can be kept for 2 years.

Granary of Traditional Rice varieties

105 traditional rice varieties were cultivated in Wayanad as per the early records. But now many traditional rice varieties have gone completely extinct while some are slowly on their way out. Number of traditional rice varieties cultivated in Wayanad has been reduced to about 35 now.

Each Kurichya family cultivates 5 to 10 different varieties of local rice, which differs in their duration taste and use. Varieties like Veliyan having long duration are planted first followed by Chennellu, Chomala, Gandhakasala, Jeerakasala and Navara in the descending order of duration. Flowering of these varieties occur at different times, thus avoiding the chance for cross pollination. The advantage of this system is that rice can be harvested for about 5 to 6 months in a year ensuring stable supply of food grains for the joint family. In this era of climate change, many of these varieties provide insurance against crop failure to the farmers. Cooking quality, grain color, fragrance, calorie value, feeling of satisfaction, medicinal qualities, high fodder and grain yield are some of the main characteristics of these landraces.

Medicinal “Chennellu”

According to an article published in Journal of Computational and Theoretical Nanoscience, Chennellu from Wayanad contain similar or higher levels of phytochemicals like Phenols, flavonoids and alkaloids compared to Njavara varieties. Also, the total antioxidant of this cultivar is at par with Njavara varieties or higher. Flavonoids have been widely used in cancer treatments, coronary heart diseases, gastrointestinal ulcers and rheumatic diseases. The presence of phenolic compounds makes these rice variety potential sources of antioxidants. Such medicinal rice varieties could be used as a potential source for plant based pharmaceutical products.


Traditional varieties are highly adaptable and require less care .They can be cultivated in a completely organic way and has better taste compared to high yielding varieties. “Veliyan” and “Thondi” types of rice are suitable for daily use as they are tasty, nutritious and give feeling of satisfaction. Varieties like “Chomala” are used for making breakfast dishes and sweet rice.”Gandhakasala” and “Jeerakasala” yields scented rice, which is used during family occasions for making ghee rice.”Kayama” varieties are gifted to guests. Other than this, there are medicinal rice varieties like “Chennellu” used for treatment of stomach ulcer and digestive problems. Chettuveliyan is Flood resistant while Chenthadi and Kalladiyariyan are drought-resistant varieties. Most Kurichya families’ rear cattle and straw is essential for feeding them. So we prefer tall varieties rather than high yielding short varieties. Tall varieties with more straw are also required for thatching our huts. Various types of rice are essential for rituals and worship of our deities.-explained 92 year old Edathana Achappan Vaidyar, Kurichya Chieftain and tribal healer.

The registration of Farmers’ Varieties is a unique provision in the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act of India. The provision of the act allow the farmers to register those varieties cultivated and evolved or bred by them, wild relatives or land races about which the farmers possess common knowledge. Rice conservators of Wayanad with the support of M S Swaminathan Research Foundation formed Seed care, an Association of Traditional Crop Conservators of Malabar during 2009. They could register 21 traditional varieties under the act as Wyanadan rice varieties.

The Genome Savior

In his 2 acre land in Edavaka Panchayat of Wayanad, Cheruvayal Raman, a Kurichya farmer conserves 45 rice varieties. During 2016, 64 year old Raman was awarded the National Genome Savior Award instituted by Plant Varieties Protection and Farmers Rights Authority of India. Chervayal Raman realized the genetic erosion of rice in Wyanad long back and conserved maximum number of varieties in his farm. Varieties with duration of 3, 4, 5 and 6 months are cultivated in Raman’s farm. Raman has established a network of farmers through an informal seed distribution mechanism based on the traditional barter system. He gives rice seeds to anybody on a condition to return the same quantity in the next year. According to Raman, seeds cannot be sold because they are the manifestations of farmer’s love, care, and hard work. We should stand together, protect and cultivate these varieties in order to prevent their erosion and Bio-piracy.  This exchange system helps to increase the cultivation of local rice varieties and strengthen the bond between farmers. Every year, Raman distributes about 150 kg seeds to 250 farmers across the country.


Conserving Biodiversity

Kurichya are well aware of the beneficial organisms associated with rice field. They can distinguish between farm friendly creatures and pests. Kurichya never hunt water birds as they increase the fertility of field by depositing guano and feed on the pests.

Various species of Erget, Heron, Ibis, Comorant and numerous other birds are noticed in Kurichya fields. Local and migratory birds live comfortably in this toxin free environment. Kurichya could identify many types of fishes found in and around paddy fields .They catches these fishes with “Koodu” made using bamboo. But they have the wisdom not to catch fish during the breeding season. Many types of dragon and damsel flies, crustaceans and insects including various spiders are identified by them. They identify 3 types of crabs and observe that 2 to 10 litres of water will be stored in a crab hole, which contributes to the groundwater in an area. There is a saying among Kurichya that “Malayile maramanu Wayalile Vellam, Wayalile vellamanu nalathe jeevan” meaning “The trees in the mountain and water in the rice field ensure the continuity of life”. Numerous medicinal plants including many grasses seen in and around rice fields are identified and used by Krichya.

Kurichya household is known as “Mittom”.It is a sacred place for them. In the mittom there is place for ancestral spirits and guardian gods. They built huts with the material collected from their surroundings. Mud is used for hut structure, bamboo for pillar, bamboo reeds for attic, and rice straw for thatch. Mud structures are coated with a mixture of cow dung and wood ash and designs are dawn on that. The house surroundings are kept neat and plastered with mud so that there is least chance for mosquitoes to breed.

Disease incidence is less among kurichya. Other than hygiene, good eating habit and physical activity contribute to their health. Food basket of a Kurichya is richer than that of an average malayali. Over 40 wild mushrooms are also collected, cooked and eaten by kurichya. They can well distinguish edible mushrooms from poisonous ones. The most commonly consumed mushrooms are Arikkoon, Puttukoon and Perumkali, which are highly delicious and available in plenty, though they are very specific to peculiar habitats. Over 50 types of leafy greens, many types of fruits including wild ones and more than 50 species of inland fishes becomes part of their menu. Earlier they used to eat millets during cold months for body resistance. Many wild tubers are also eaten by kurichya community.

Kurichya homesteads are rich in biodiversity. They never destroy trees and plants in their vicinity. Many of these plants or their products are eaten by them. Some plants used for making implements and hand-made utensils are also found in kurichya homesteads. Kurichya collect medicinal plants from their natural habitat at different seasons and prepare the medicines. Ready to use medicines are mostly made and used by them. The preparations range from decoctions, oil, paste and powder.

Traditional cultivation, conservation and associated knowledge are quickly disappearing from the Kurichya community. Attracted by the financial support given by the Government for constructing houses, many have left the joint family and live separately. Even then strong human relations, Rice farming and associated rituals and traditions binds them together. The elders in the community try hard to create the spirit of togetherness among younger generation.

The disappearance of thousands of rice landraces entails an erosion of folk knowledge pertaining to those specific varieties, extinction of many traditional agricultural systems, derangement of food cultures and deprivation and displacement of marginal farmers. Irrespective of the economic outcomes of the cultivation, Kurichya farmers from the agricultural tribal community of Wayanad continue their saga of conserving and cultivating the golden grain. Something magical and spiritual still radiates from the depths of the green fields and fills their minds. The lessons from such farmers would definitely contribute to the state’s conservation and farming policies. For the Kurichya, Rice is food, Rice is tradition, Rice is livelihood, Rice is culture, Rice is environment and Rice is knowledge.

Pricipal Information Officer

Farm Information Bureau


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