Celebrating With Beef: Omanur Nercha Shows South Malabar's Religious Syncretism

Muhammed Haneefa A P (mudh.haneefa@gmail.com) is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
3 August 2018

The Omanur Nercha, celebrated by Sunni Muslims, is a testament to the brotherhood, love of hospitality, and communal harmony among the different religious communities in south Malabar. This fascinating syncretic festival and the process of food distribution in various villages of south Malabar bothers not only the Salafi Muslims, but must also be unimaginable to many Indians, especially the cow vigilantes who unleash terror in various parts of the country. 

Exactly a week before Mohammad Akhlaq was killed in Dadri for allegedly consuming and storing beef at home, on 21 September 2015, hundreds of villages in south Malabar in Kerala celebrated a festival by distributing beef and coconut rice to the locals, irrespective of their caste and religion. In one village alone, for instance, 1.5–3 quintals of beef were cooked and distributed to nearly 200–300 households. Every year, on the seventh day of the Islamic calendar Dhu al-Hijjah, Sunni Muslims celebrate Omanur Nercha with feelings of piety and brotherhood. What is particularly interesting about the festival is the process of food distribution to the entire village and how irrespective of religious affiliation, the locals contribute their money and time to maintain the tradition. While the ritual and performative aspects of Nerchas used to be the site of religious piety, its celebratory aspects question the politics of religious exclusiveness. 


Twice a year, villages in Ernad taluka of south Malabar celebrate the Nercha festivals with public food distribution. The two occasions are the Omanur Nercha and the Rabi-ul-Awwal Nercha (celebrated on the birthday of Prophet Muhammed). During these two festive days, irrespective of religious faiths, people wait eagerly for Nercha choru (Nercha meal) cooked by expert local chefs. Both before and after the lynching of Akhlaq and Junaid by the goon gau rakshaks, and even before the Sangh ideologues unleashed violence across India in the name of cows, Hindus in south Malabar contributed money, helped Muslims to cook, and ate the beef cooked by their fellow Muslims. In south Malabar, beef is a significant dish served during marriages, Nerchas, and on other festive occasions. During some years, at Nercha venues, there is a hue and cry by people not for slaughtering cows, but for not getting their share of beef.


Nercha and Sacred Hospitality

In their work, Dale and Menon (1978: 526) noted that Nercha, literally meaning vow, is not listed in the Islamic religious calendar. They argue that Nerchas are seasonal harvest festivals, which have a common ceremonial pattern with the Hindu festivals. This led them to conclude that Nerchas are an adaptation of local Hindu festivals like velas and purams. However, the Nercha that I describe here commemorates the death anniversary of Omanur shuhadas (martyrs) who fought against the feudal lords to defend their religious and social rights. This occasion falls on the seventh day of the Islamic calendar Dhu al-Hijjah and is celebrated across different villages in south Malabar based on the Islamic calendar. Local historical malas (ballads) point out that Kunjali and his two men of Bimbanoor (Omanur) fought against the feudal lords to protect the dignity of the converts and were brutally killed on 22 November 1716 (seventh Dhu al-Hijjah 1128). Though Omanur, near Kondotty town, is the epicentre of the Nercha, people in various other villages celebrate the Omanur Nercha. Special congregations held at mosques for the recitation of devotional songs such as malas and mawlud (recitation of the appropriate literary genre on the occasion of Prophet's birthday or the death/birth anniversaries of Sufi saints)[1]  and food distribution are the major events.

Though it is common for Hindus in Kerala to eat beef, I am particularly interested in narrating stories from three villages of Ernad taluka which reflect the syncretic tradition of deep respect and cooperation among the different religious communities in the area. The “sacred hospitality” of the Malabari Muslims is one of their characteristic qualities that I have noticed in my three years of fieldwork in south Malabar. Sacred hospitality is a term that was originally developed by French Catholic scholar Louis Massignon to describe the hospitality he received from the Muslims, especially from the Alousi family in Baghdad. Hospitality, as Massignon sees is “like a secret and divine alms” (Derida 2002: 368-375) and is fundamental to many Islamic cultures (Chandler 2007:138). Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, the Swiss traveller, wrote that “hospitality to strangers is another characteristic common to the Arabs, and the people of Haouran” (Burckhardt 1822: 294). Similarly, during my travel on the Nercha day to remote villages in south Malabar, I have experienced several instances that correspond to descriptions of the notion of this sacred hospitality. On the day of Nercha, arrangements are made such that no one in the village leaves without partaking in the Nercha feast. On certain occasions, the Nercha committee members pack the food and parcel it to the households from where no one has been able to collect the food prepared. Interviews with several people in the region have revealed that preparing and serving the Nercha feast to people across religious communities is seen as part of their religious duty and they believe that Allah will reward them for their every effort. How the villagers maintain the tradition of public food distribution will be explained further. 


The Process of Food Distribution

The food distribution to the locals is an important characteristic of the Nerchas (Rantattani 2007:69; Muneer 2016: 438). The Nercha committees in the village of Cherukulam, Elambra and Kareparambu make delicious beef and thenga choru (coconut rice) as a part of the festival. The money is donated by the villagers irrespective of their religious beliefs. From 2005 onwards, the style of the food distribution has changed. Until then, everyone from the village assembled near to the madrasa or mosque to collect their share of food. However, from 2005 onwards, the Nercha committee implemented a new rule. One person from each family comes and collects the food for the rest of the family. For instance, if a family has six members, one of the family members, man or woman, comes with a bucket and a big pot and says “food for six members” if they have six members at home. The new rule took away the commensality of the festival, that is, the tradition of locals eating together at the Nercha venues, but it still ensured that the food prepared as part of the Nercha reached every household of the village.

To collect the feast, the Nercha committee calls out the name of the families according to the order in which they entered their names in the Nercha notebook. The list of households is made by entering the name of the head of the household in the Nercha notebook when they contribute the money. The committee starts to collect the donation 15–20 days before the Nercha. It is not the amount that matters, but how early one contributes the amount that determines their ranking in the list compiled in the Nercha notebook. The food distribution starts immediately after the zuhr niskaram (noon prayer) and the mawlud and mala recitations are completed before the zuhr azan. Those who end up last on the list would get the food, in the end, around 1.30 pm. The Nercha notebook of Cherukulam village from 2012–17 shows that households contribute between Rs 100 to 1,000 according to their financial means. No one is forced to contribute to the Nercha festival. However, the Mujahids and Jamat-e-Islami adherents who vehemently critique the Nercha, hardly contribute to it. Apart from people’s contribution, every village has a Nercha petti (Nercha box). In order to fulfil their vows, people usually offer money in the Nercha petti. Every year, 10 days before the Nercha, the committee collects the money from it, and the amount varies from Rs 5,000 to 10,000. From 2012 onwards, according to the Nercha notebook, at the time of Omanur Nercha, the average beef cooked in a year is 1.8 quintal for an average of 195 households. Almost the same amount has been cooked during the Rabi-ul-Awwal Nerchas.


Hindus’ Contribution to the Nercha

Long before the cow began to be used as a communal political weapon and a tool to kill Muslims, it has been used as a token of the gift of reciprocity between the Hindus and Muslims of south Malabar. My ethnographic research shows that it is not just the Muslims, but also the Hindus and Christians who contribute abundantly to the Nercha festival. Such an inter-religious contribution and the participation of Hindus in Nerchas existed even in the colonial period. Citing colonial documents and newspaper reports, Razak (2007: 28) points out that “during the colonial period, Hindus vigorously participated in Nerchas held in different parts of Malabar. Just three years after the Malabar rebellion, [in] the Malappuram Nercha held in March 1924, Hindu drummers participated along with Mappila drummers, which further shows that ‘Hindu–Muslim unity had not been hurt in Ernad”. Even today, such a tradition continues. 

During the 2000s, Chathangottupuram pooram, was one of the most prominent Hindu temple festivals near Cherukulam village. The Chettis, who sold bangles during the pooram, contributed money generously to Nerchas. Chetti is “an agglomeration of a number of occupational castes of Tamil Nadu” who migrated to different parts of South India for trade due to the loss of agricultural occupation (Singh 1998: 669). Thurston (1909: 213) states that Chettis are meat-eaters, but some profess to be vegetarians. Chettis who traded different goods in south Malabar ate meat, and they contributed to a festival which distributes beef as a feast to the locals. According to Kunjaputti, one of the oldest Nercha committee members, in 1994, the Chettis gifted a cow to the Nercha committee saying that they had had an economically profitable year. During those times, they not only came to collect the food, but many of them were also running the temporary trade shops during the festival markets. My elderly Chetti informants remember that Payyand and Pullara Nerchas were like any other temple festival for them to sell their products. However, since the manner in which the Nercha is conducted has changed, their local business has been affected the most. 

Seventy-year-old Kunjan, who belongs to the Cheruman caste, has been an active participant of the local Nerchas in his village Elambra and neighbouring areas. He informed me that everyone in his family goes to Nerchas to collect the feast. He remembers that “on the morning of Nercha day, none of us go for our jobs. Many people from my caste go to the Nercha venue to help the Mappilas, for cutting the wood for the fire and fetching water to the Nercha venues.” Based on oral sources provided by the Chettis, we could assess that 20 years ago, many Nerchas in Ernad lasted not for a day, but for anywhere between three days to a week. Hindus have been contributing money for the Nerchas according to their financial means for decades. The contribution reflects the mutual respect of the different religious communities for each other. For Chettis, during those days, the Nercha was the biggest opportunity to sell bangles for a good amount. If there were no Nercha and poorams, it would have been difficult for them to sell their products. More importantly, as an informant said, “most of my family members including my child, wife, and parents enjoyed having the delicious feast prepared by our Mappilas.”

The gift of a cow to the Muslims by Chettis, as per the Marcel Maussian gift theory, is a part of a reciprocal gift exchange. The Chettis donate money or gift a cow for a Nercha with the expectation that the Nercha festival would provide them immense economic opportunities. Also, many of the contributions were due to belief in the miracles of the martyrs; people firmly believe that Nercha donations and participation would bring prosperity to their work and home. In addition, many of them also thoroughly enjoyed the feast cooked by Muslims. As noted by Shahi, the mason of the village Elambra, “even if my family tries to make beef at home, it will never match the taste of Nercha beef.” Many Mappilas have the same opinion, and some say that during their extended migration period in the Gulf region, the one thing that they missed the most was the Nercha feast, especially the Nercha beef.


The Changing Nature of Nercha

Hindu–Muslim relations are slowly devolving in certain parts of Malabar. As noted by Dominique-Sila Khan (2013: 78), “the polarization of Hindu and Muslim communities perceived as two monolithic and hostile blocs is thus a comparatively new phenomenon” in Kerala. However, Nercha as a religious festival was not attacked and critiqued by the Hindus, rather the attack on the celebration of Nercha comes from the Muslims. Intra-religious antagonisms, especially between the Sunnis and Mujahids, are extreme among the Kerala Muslims. For instance, the latest Omanur Nercha celebrated in these villages was on 29 August 2017. People from both the Hindu and Christian communities participated in the Nercha by donating money and collecting their share of food. However, Mujahid and Jamat-e-Islami members of the village stayed away from the Nercha due to religious reasons. Their teachings argue that Nercha vitiates “true Islam.” 

The older generation remembers that the Nercha and many of its characteristic features have changed over time. The change has happened mainly due to criticism from the “reformist” Mujahids. They consider all such practices as shirk (polytheism). They are vehemently opposed to such syncretic nature of Muslim culture including Nerchas and Chandanakudam festivals celebrated either at Changanacherry or Thrissur. Based on the syncretic theory of Peter van der Veer (2005), it would be right to argue that while the Sunni Muslims see Nercha as a syncretic tradition which promotes tolerance, the Mujahids see it negatively as “a corruption of absolute truth” and promoting the decline of the pure faith. To defend themselves, most of the Sunni Muslims dropped off their syncretic cultural practices. In his ethnographic study in Puthiyur, Kerala, R Santhosh (2013: 33) noted that:


The Nercha in five of the saint tombs in the town are now conducted in a much restricted way, limiting to the distribution of food to the visitors and the recital of Qur'an. Earlier, it used to be a grand affair conducted with much fanfare and festivity with a procession of caparisoned elephants, musical instruments and followed by a feast. These practices were criticised by the reformists as they were against the foundational idea of tauhid (monism) and hence amount to shirk.


The severe criticism that the Sunni Muslims faced from the Mujahids made them rethink the “Islamic aspect” of Nerchas.  Like Puthiyur, even in other regions of south Malabar, the Nercha festival has changed over time, but has not vanished. Nerchas have been revived into a new form where Sunnis celebrate them with the pious recitation of mawlud and public food distribution. The nature of the biggest Nerchas in the region such as the Pullara Nercha (celebrated on the 22nd day of Ramadan), and the Payyanad Nercha (celebrated on the last Friday of Rabi-ul-Awwal) have also changed over time, but the process of food distribution is intact. Mujahids, with their desire to maintain religious boundaries, tell Sunnis that “your tradition is invented” and “it has no place in real Islam.” Even though they have been trying to reform the local syncretic tradition for a century, the Nercha as a religious practice and the local festival continues to exist; there is no gradual marginalisation of the syncretic tradition, but a new enthusiasm among the people to celebrate it with complete religious zeal. This process must be contradictory to the argument of Francis Robinson (1983: 187) who says that in India there is a gradual marginalisation of syncretic tradition and the slow victory of the reformist “pattern of perfection.”

The Sunni exegetes engage critically with the religious texts to argue for the maintenance of Nercha and mawlud, though the Salafis use the religious texts to point out that Nercha is un-Islamic. The debate on the Nercha and its “Islamic aspect” continues to be a heated one among Muslims, and it is likely to remain unsolved for generations. While concluding their article which describes the origin and development of four prominent Nerchas in south Malabar, Dale and Menon (1978: 538) claimed that “the nerccas will continue to occupy an important role in life of the Kerala Muslim community.” After four decades, it would not be unreasonable to argue that Nerchas not only play a vital role in the life of Mappila Muslims, but they also question the communal sociopolitical structure by celebrating religious–cultural differences. Sociologically, Sunni ulamas’ intentional attempts to give meaning to the Nercha have produced another fascinating unintentional positive consequence in the villages of south Malabar: it has united different caste and religious groups under one roof to have a feast that must be unimaginable for many who live in other parts of the Indian subcontinent. 

Muhammed Haneefa A P (mudh.haneefa@gmail.com) is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
3 August 2018