Articles by Mahesh Mangalat

Society, Identity and Folklore:Images of Mayyazhi

Presented during 24-26 March 2004 at the 23rd INDIAN FOLKLORE CONGRESS, Department of Punjabi studies, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.


Mahe is a small town, geographically located in the South Western region of the Indian peninsula, on the coast of Arabian Sea. With the advent of the French colonists to the town in 1721, for building warehouses, it began developing a distinct identity of its own. This sparsely populated hamlet was then dotted with hillocks and was under the governance of the local rulers, Vatakara Vazhunnavar. The region came to be known as Mahe or Mayyazhi only when it came under the rule of the French. Mahe became independent in 1954, as a culmination of popular struggle for freedom. Today the town comes under the jurisdiction of the Union Territory of Pondicherry. Pondicherry occupies a unique position among the states of Indian Union. It is multi-lingual and has its four constituent parts located in three states. The towns of Pondicherry and Karaikal in Tamil Nadu, Yanam in Andhra Pradesh and Mahe in Kerala, give the Union Territory a multi-cultural identity. This paper aims at examining as to how the identity of Mahe in post-independent period had been constructed. The paper also attempts to examine as to how folklore performs an ideological function when it gets harnessed for the creation of the identity of Mahe.

The Distinct Identity of Mahe

The renowned novelist M.Mukundan1, in his Preface to the history of Mahe2, tries to examine as to what distinguishes Mahe from the other regions. His views can be summarised as follows:

  1. Neither topographical features nor the past history of colonial rule makes Mahe a town with a distinct identity. There are many places which have similar features.
  2. M.Mukundan says: “Perhaps the place has some magical facade which can not be explicated with reason. It is a hypnotic town. We experience it as if it were a dreamland in a fairy tale”. (P.7)
  3. .”Mahe exists before us as an ordinary little town, rid of all its past splendour and magic” (P.8)
  4. The stories and myths about Mahe’s past reminds us of the ethos in the novels of Marques or Llosa (P.9). So, an ordinary writer would not be able to write its history.

A review of these comments would reveal the following ideas:

  1. Even though Mahe is a region where a market with brisk trading activities and apparent change and progress after independence are found, the “real Mahe” could not be discerned anywhere as of now.
  2. The Identity of Mahe has a magical spell. It is similar to the ambiance that we come across in the novels of Marquez and Llosa.
  3. It is ancient tales and myths that formulate the identity of Mahe. This provides the rationale for the discussion on the identity of Mahe at a discourse on folklore.

Mahe and the 'Folk'

M.Mukundan, one of the prominent modernist writers, belongs to Mahe. Whenever he explains the distinct identity of Mahe, he uses the first person plural like “We” or “Our”, instead of first person singular, “I” or “Me”. This indicates that the question that the writer addresses is rather related to the popular consciousness than his own conceptions on the subject.

The present day society which lives within the geographical territory of Mahe and sharing similar ideas and a common conscious ness can be defined as a Folk following the prescription of Allen Dundis3. This folk look upon their regional identity as something where history and myth are interwoven and believes that these are indistinguishable in their past and present. On account of this, the problematique of the folklore that constructed the identity of Mahe is characterised by an integration of different historical epochs effected through folkloristic imagination.

History and the Folklore

Mahe at the time of the advent of French had just then been assuming the form of a settlement. P.C.Karunan4, a local historian had recorded that Mahe was then a settlement that surrounded the Puthalam Kavu. Tholan Mooppan is said to have been the founder of this settlement and Puthalam Kavu, as well. There were ballads that narrated the exploits of Tholan Mooppan. In fact, as apart from his identity in the ballads, he had been a favourite Theeya village leader, to the French. He was responsible for building rapport with the French rulers and the local populace.

In M.Mukundan’s masterpiece, Mayyazhippuzhayude Theera ngalil (On the Banks of Mayyazhi River), Mahe forms the physical backdrop, as the title of the work suggests. In the sequel to the novel entitled Deivathinte Vikrithikal (God’s Mischiefs), the author presents a Kavu, which could be inferred as the Puthalam Kavu, when a reader draws details presented in the novel and relates it to the local history . The novelist calls it Aadi Theeya Kshethram (the temple of Primitive Theeya or Ancestral Theeya) .Tholan Mooppan is the Primitive Theeya of the regional history. Another creation of the author, a character in the novel, Alphonsachan, a magician of Eurasian origin, requires our attention at this point. This character calls himself the creator of Mahe. He could fly through the skies on the wings of ganja and could recast lives of many other characters in the novel by his magic.

Mahe: The real and constructed

M.Mukundan’s novels have captured popular attention by their ingenious application of myths and lores. Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil, is his first novel to utilise the backdrop of Mahe in its real name and it is also the most captivating among his works. Korumbiyamma, the grandmother character in the novel, narrates to her grandchildren the tales of Mahe. U.A.Khader, another novelist is popular for his recreation of folk tales in its real flavour. But, Mukundan’s creations stand apart by their philosophical preoccupation, regarding life. Mukundan had been a votary of existential modernism. One myth that is presented in Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil regards the popular Velliankallu (Silver Rocks). It is actually a natural rock formation found in the Arabian Sea, where the fisherfolk go to catch fish. The dragon flies found on the rock are insinuated as souls of the people of Mahe. When one is born in Mahe, it is the soul that arrives from the Silver Rocks. When one dies the soul returns to the rock. The myth about the Rock as a resting inn of the souls during the interval between deaths and rebirth is an idea or an individual contribution made by the author. The stories told by Korumbiamma, the implied author, are in fact those crafted by the writer. What remain real are the geographical territory and its real name, Mahe, which the author utilises as the backdrop for his narratives. Author attributes an aura over the land through incidents in the novel, which has a magical spell similar to folktales. In almost all regional novels the writers create such a facade through the recreation of tales about a super realty. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa are the best models found in world literature today, in this regard. The reference made by the writer about these authors while discussing the identity of Mahe and its magical spell can not be ruled out as incidental, in such a context.

The dawn of modernism in Malayalam Novel comes with O.V.Vijayan’s novel Khasakhinte Ithihasam (The Legend of Khasak), which is very much cast as a regional novel. Earlier to this, Jnanpeeth winner author S.K.Pottekkad had published his Oru Desathinte Katha (Tale of a Village). In addition these, the novels, Smarakasilakal (Memorial Stones- Punathil Kunhabdulla), Ennappadam (Oil Field- N.P. Mohammed), Thrikkottoor Kathakal (Lores of Thrikkottoor - U.A.Khader), Aalhayude Penmakkal (Daughters of Aalaha - Sarah Joseph) have portrayed the mysterious aspects of the life within their respective locales. All these novels are read as literary texts and have not been treated as local history. M.Mukundan’s novels have been considerably successful as it appropriated the construction of a regional identity. In other words, fiction written by a contemporary writer is being treated as local history and the foundation for a constructed identity. Keeping this in mind, Mukundan himself has said once in an interview: “There are two mayyazhis One created by god and the other created by myself”. Alphonsachan of Deivathinte Vikrithikal, a creation of the author, also calls himself as the creator of Mahe.

Identity is an ideological construct. As such, a regional identity could also be viewed as an ideological construct. The term ideology has been explicated as either a complex system of ideas or as a false consciousness (S.S.Sreekumar5).The construction of Mahe’s identity could be interpreted in both these senses. It could be examined as to what are the conceptual constituents of the identity of Mahe and to what extent false consciousness is celebrated as identity.

The necessity for identity

The beginning of the quest for a distinct identity of Mahe could be ascertained and reconstructed on the basis of certain relevant records. Though Mahe became independent in 1954, it is only in 1964 that Mahe and other erstwhile French territories in India were brought under the jurisdiction of the Union Territory Bill. Had that bill was not passed Mahe would simply have become a part of Kerala on the basis of Linguistic division of states. Pondicherry and Karaikal would have been included in the Tamil Nadu and Yanam would have been with Andhra Pradesh on the basis of their respective linguistic identity. The accord signed by France and India at the time of independence suggests that the former French areas in India should be retained as separate territories to provide scope for protection of its unique cultural milieu. It is the reason for keeping the territories which are located in three linguistic states, having diverse cultural and political past, together as a single administrative unit. Mahe and the other towns started developing tremendously as markets with the tax exemptions for the union territories. The concept of distinct cultural identity for Mahe gets strengthened within the context of expanding markets and trade relations. The tax structure in a Union Territory and a state has been always different. The difference has paved way for flourishing markets in these locales than the neighbouring towns in States. In the case under review, items, which could be procured at a cheaper price, include alcohole, which was often attributed as an icon of French connection. Goa also is popular for the distilleries and their special brews such as fenny. It happened to be another Union Territory and an erstwhile Portuguese territory in India. As a flourishing market, the appearances of the town, lifestyle and the presence of a large floating population delineated Mahe from its past and from the neighbouring towns in Kerala, situated within 10 or 15 kilometres. The new halo of low-priced market draw people from nearby as well as far away places to Mahe. It was at this point of time that M.Mukundan’s Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil was serialised in Mathrubhoomi weekly, one of the elitist literary magazine in Malayalam. The literary quality of the novel was responsible for its success.

In Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil, the novelist portrays a time span beginning from the tranquil Mahe under French rule to the turbulent days of freedom struggle. The novel concludes when the soul of Dasan, the protagonist, returns to Velliankallu. To build up a suitable ambiance for the narrative, the novelist has used French names of streets which were never used by the local people, but for the official French documents. Eurasian characters in the novel have their fate cogitated to Mahe and the stories that Korumbiyamma tells her grandchildren reflect the philosophical preoccupation of the novelist. Alongside the myths surrounding the Velliankallu and other signifiers, Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil could create an enduring impression of Mahe, in the mind of readers. It was as compelling as to displace the historic past and to substitute it with the creation of a contemporary writer. There is hardly any other instance in Malayalam, similar to any other work of art. Displacing the historicity of the land was instrumental in casting a unique identity for the place. As far as any writer is concerned the recognition he gets for the stories and characters is something that he looks forward to. For that reason the author of Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil considering the image that he created as real setting can be understood and appreciated.

The authentic constituent aspects considered for a distinct identity for a place can be listed as language, lifestyle, customs, rituals and cultural expressions. Mahe does not remain unique in these aspects in relation to the neighbouring towns of Kerala. The novelist does admit the fact in his prefatory remarks to the history of Mahe. However, the distinct identity of Mahe is often talked about by certain sections of the society. For example the leader of Traders Association once argued that Mahe should remain a part of Pondicherry to retain its distinct cultural identity to posterity. He further argued in a televised interview that, in order to be with Pondicherry, he is willing to accept Tamil as his own language. This declaration points towards the ideology of regional identity and the economic norm that are upheld by the exponents of distinct identity. As constituents of the identity they would talk about Velliankallu, Koyyethippovu (May Flower, which was referred to in the novel ) and the French names to the streets, which we see again in the novel.

Folklore and identity

When we look at the society of Mahe as a folk, it becomes clear as to how folklore is utilised by a contemporary society for the construction of an identity of its own. As seen in the earlier part of the present paper, folklore is used as a channel that integrates the process of constructing the identity. Folklore lets it to relate their identity to past. As M.Mukundan says the stories and myths about Mahe’s past reminds of the ethos in the novels of Marques or Llosa. The past in such a prescription is devoid of historicity. In the case we study, it is nothing but folklore. Past incidents are freely mixed with imaginative stories and tales. Creation of a contemporary writer is not differentiated with the lore of the folk. In other words, the lore of the present day folk is an amalgamation of real as well as created. The hesitation of the folk to accept history as their past and their fretfulness to embrace fictional elements to rationalise their contemporary existence, is the paradigm that lets folklore the foundation for construction of an identity. A modern novel despite its philosophical preoccupations becomes a noteworthy model for a contemporary folk’s adaptation as its lore6. As an ideology contemporary literature as well as folklore plays complimentary roles in the process of construction of identity of present day folk.


1. Mukundan,M., 1987, Avatharika, Mayyazhi (Malayalam), Book Square, Mahe.
2. Gangadharan,C.H., 1987, Mayyazhi (Malayalam), Book Square, Mahe.
3. Dundes,Alan.(Ed.),1965.Study of Folklore, Eagle Wood Cliffs; Printice Hall.
4. Karunan,P.C.,1978.Mayyazhi Puthalam Bhagavathi Kshethram, (Malayalam) Jawaharlal Nehru High School Diamond Jubilee Souvenir, Mahe.
5. Sreekumar,S.S. 2000, Prathyasasthra Parayanangal (Malayalam), Book Worm, Thrissur.
6. Mahesh Mangalat,2001.Oru Puzhayum Desa Swatwathinte Roopaval kkarananvum,Asaya Samanwayam,Kozhikode.