Out of a total of 36, only 10 islands of Lakshadweep are inhabited by the local populace – Andrott, Amini, Agatti, Bitra, Chetlat, Kadmath, Kalpeni, Kiltan, Minicoy and Kavaratti; the latter being the headquarters of the Union Territory. The 11th island, Bangaram, holds a resort. Human communities of Lakshadweep are primarily Koya, Malmi and Melacheri, belonging in most cases to the Shafi School Muslims of the Sunni sect. The earlier inhabitants of Lakshadweep were Hindus who had migrated from the Malabar coast of Kerala and were converted to Islam in the 7th century AD by Hazrat Ubaidulla, an Arab Saint. As per the Census 2011, the total population of Lakshadweep is 64,429 of which male and female are 33,106 and 31,323 respectively, spread over a 32 sq km of land area with a population density of 2013 per sq km.
Even though there is dominance of Islam, the social structure is based on the matrilineal kinship and caste system that reflects the Hindu customs of Kerala – a custom that in recent decades has significantly lost its grip, with a rise in nuclear families and male heads of households.
Koya: The community has been named from a term derived from khoia meaning ‘respect’ in the local dialect. The community was formerly known as the Tarawad referring to the principle families or the Karnavan who were heads of Tarawads. The Koyas are generally land owners and a class enjoying great respect in the society. This and the other classes speak Malayalam but a local dialect does exist – Vattezhuthu, which has Tamil and Canarese influences.
Malmi: The sailor community, named after ‘muaellim,’ a word of Arabic origin, meaning, ‘one who shows the way’. Thus, Malmis are the sailor community that plied the indigenous boats ‘odam’ to serve the Koyas by transporting rice and other essential goods from the mainland. The traditional dress of Lakshadweep is fairly simple, with men wearing white or coloured lungis with its ends stitched together and women wearing kachi, the unstitched version, around their waists tied in place with silver belts. Women also cover their head with thattam – a kind of a long scarf, and wear a fitted long sleeved bodice with embroidered fronts. Ornaments are worn in profusion, with multiple ear and nose piercing fairly common. Today, however, the practice of purdah and the advent of salwar kameez is changing the traditional clothing of the women in the communities here. Men too have changed their attire from being generally bare chested to modern day shirts.
Melacheri: Originally they were the community of landless tree climbers, plucking coconuts from trees owned by Koyas and tapping sweet-toddy. Belonging to the class that provides labour, Melacheri faced a level of social obstracisation in terms of marriage into koya families and certain rituals in the past. The divide has slowly levelled out in the present context.
One island however stands apart – Minicoy, which has older communities and a slightly varied class structure, having named land owners Manikfan, holding the same status as the Koyas ruling over the other class groups. Thakrufan are like Malmi, Thakru the sailors and Raveris – the landless nut plucking community like the Melacheris. As a deviation from the other islands the women of Minicoy enjoy special identification with specific names accorded to them.
Manikfan women are known as Manika, those belonging to the Thakrufan and Thakru are called beefanun and bibees, respectively and women of Raveris are known as Kambilo. This is also reflective of the social status awarded to the women, which despite the significant weakening elsewhere has held its position here. In fact, men from this island still settle with the women’s family after marriage. The people speak a different tongue here – Mahl, although most can communicate in Hindi and Malayalam as well. The islanders of Minicoy dress differently too – men, apart from the high ranking Manikfans who prefer spotless white lungi, wear loosely tailored straight fit pants. The women wear a colourful long robe – libas, over a fitted bodice and cover their heads with a black scarf. Here, as opposed to the other islands, high ranking women are seen to wear gold, while the others prefer silver and black thread. With better earning among other classes, these differences are however on its way out. Also, traditional clothing is presently being replaced by modern garments – readily available to these seafaring people.
Inputs from K G Mohammed, Senior Publicity Officer (former), Minicoy