Thomas Mathew Pampackal – « Indigenous Knowledge and Ecological Concerns – A Case Study from India »

Pampackal Thomas Mathew

« Indigenous Knowledge and Ecological Concerns – A Case Study from India »

Concilium 2018-5. Ökologie und Theologie der Natur
Concilium 2018-5. Ecology and Theology
Concilium 2018-5. Ecología y teología de la naturaleza
Concilium 2018-5. Écologie et théologie de la nature
Concilium 2018-5. Ecologia e teologia della natura
Concilium 2018-5.

Linda Hogan, João Vila-Chã, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator

The ocean which covers about 71 percent of the planet earth is significantly absent in Christian discourse, particularly in theological writings. That humans are primarily creatures on the land may be one reason. The geo-social context of theologians is likely to influence both the way they look at the world and the writings they produce. Church documents too ignored the ocean for long, and the acclaimed Laudato Si of Pope Francis hardly does justice to the ocean; it is satisfied with brief references to the ocean (nos 24, 40, 41 & 74).1 However, interest in the ocean is increasing, and the ocean and theology symposium held in Seoul, 1-3 December, 2015, is an unmistakable pointer to it.2

I write this essay sitting near the south-western corner of the Indian peninsula. It is the meeting point of the three seas – the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Vibrant fishing communities have made the sea and the seashore their home for generations. They belong to different caste groups and religious denominations, but what unites them all is their vital link with the ocean and their traditional fishing occupation. Over generations this has evolved into what can be called ‘neithal culture’. The indigenous knowledge of the neithal people, I believe, has something significant to contribute to the search for remedies amidst today’s ecological crisis. The focus of this essay is confined to one segment of coastal people, viz. the Mukkuvar, who reside mainly on the south-western coast of the Indian peninsula, falling in the present-day States of Kerala and Tamilnadu. The fishing harbour of Vizhinjam is the nerve centre of fishing activities in this area. The experience and insights of these fishermen, however, will have much in common with fisherfolk elsewhere.3

This essay has two parts. The first part tries to unravel the amazing world of indigenous wisdom of the fisherfolk, and explores its significance for our response to the current phase of ecological crisis. In the second part we engage in a theological consideration of the issue in the light of indigenous coastal wisdom.

1. A Look into the Coastal World – Significant Features

The coastal world, as seen through the eyes of the fisherfolk, would present a unique worldview, which alone can make that world intelligible. It provides sense and meaning to disparate events and elements in their daily life. These elements would lose significance if taken in isolation, and cumulatively these provide interpretive schemes and recipes for the conduct of individuals and groups.

1.1. Neithal Culture as Interpretive Framework 

The term neithal is rich in meaning having roots in the ancient history of South India. Neithal tiņai refers to the coastal zone in the five-fold geographical division of the land (ain-tiņai) as sung by the bards of the Sangam period.4 The term tiņai referred primarily to a geographical area and each tiņai had its own characteristic features. Each tiņai consisted of specific religious beliefs and practices, thus giving shape to what may be called neithal religion. Worship of ‘Devi’, the Mother Goddess, and Murugan from the Dravidian religious tradition coexisted with neithal deities like Varuņan, the god of the ocean, and Kumari, the virgin sea goddess.

The Christian history of the coastal people starts in the 16th century with the arrival of Francis Xavier and other missionaries. Francis Xavier was instrumental in the mass-conversion of the fisherfolk of the Travancore coast, which for Xavier meant the stretch from Cape Vizhinjam, where the territory of the Raja of Travancore started, up to Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari), the southern-most tip of the peninsula. The coastal Catholicism that emerged as a result has survived four and a half centuries, and the vibrant Catholic communities today are proof of it. It is neithal Catholicism, since the coastal people have successfully integrated elements of the neithal belief system into the Catholic faith they acquired.

1.2. Kadalamma – the Divine Mother

The seashore is the meeting point of land and sea. But a fisherman spends a major part of his life in the sea.  He can hardly survive away from the ocean which is the primary reality for him. The local term used for sea is kadal, but fisherfolk affectionately call it Kadalamma (Mother Ocean). She is their mother, the eternal provider.   «She will also provide for our tomorrow» is a refrain often heard on the seashore. This frees them from the common human urge to accumulate for tomorrow or for posterity. The word Amma in the coastal context is richly evocative, and may be translated as `mother’, `mistress’ or `lady’. This is a term of respect that can be used for any person of the female sex, whether human or divine. The sea is more than a nourishing mother; she is Divine Mother. The qualities they attribute to Kadalamma are the same as that of Devi (Mother Goddess) as prevalent in the religious tradition of South India.

While on a fishing venture, fishermen first pay homage to Mother Ocean touching her ‘feet’ reverentially. The feeding mother needs to be revered.  What characterizes their experience of Kadalamma, is her inherent ambivalence: she appears to be a nurturing mother and protector at one time, but reveals herself as a terrible goddess in fury at other times. This ambivalence is part of her nature, and fishermen do not see it as a problem. It is parallel to the ambivalent nature of the Devi (mother goddess) in their religio-cultural outlook; both the benign and terrible dimensions are to be found within the very same image. The long tradition of the worship of a mother goddess has left very strong marks on the religious consciousness of the fisherfolk.  These not only survive, but also continue to influence deeply their Christian thought and life today.

1.3. Fishing is a Ritual Performance

Fishing is more than mere catching fish from the sea, whether for own consumption or for the market. For coastal people it is the defining activity that expresses their basic beliefs and concerns, their very identity and life orientation. The ocean and all it contains are to be revered, and the tools used for fishing too are ‘reverential technologies’. Fishing is a sacred activity for traditional fishermen. A series of ritual acts accompany any fishing expedition, and these act as the interlinking thread of every aspect of coastal life. In this sense fishing is rightly termed a ‘ritual performance’.

We may mention two fishing rituals as indicative of the ritual world of the fisherfolk. These are eilamidal and cēluparachi. Eilamidal is an integral part of kampavala (shore-seine) operation that engages a large number of people, and involves rhythmic singing of myths and stories, and swaying in unison while at work. Every fishing expedition ends with cēluparachil, a ritual evaluation of the day’s operation- the manner of work, the timing, the location, its coordination, and such. To an outsider it may sound like a noisy quarrel, though. Cēluparachil serves a tremendous social-psychological function by providing a ritual forum for catharsis, especially when the catch is poor.»Mukkuvanu meen pattāl muthappayil kaņņu» (while fishing is in progress, a fisherman sees only the float) is a popular saying. Persons and relationships all vanish while the catch absorbs him fully. But with cēluparachil, relationships get re-established.

1.4. Kaniyam is the Sure Guide

For ages humans have used stars and planets to guide them across the oceans. Fishermen used their knowledge of the celestial bodies to determine the proper time for fishing and to keep track of directions in the ocean. The astrological wisdom of fishermen, popularly known as kaņiyam nokkal, is astounding. Kaņiyam is the traditional marine science of computing the space-time configuration, and involves calculations and measurements that help fishermen to locate a spot or fix a time or to measure a depth in the outer sea. Beyond a distance the shoreline vanishes from sight, and instruments like ‘compass’ and GPS are not in common use. Stars and planets and constellations remain sure guides. Fishermen are not merely at the mercy of the elements of nature; rather, they have succeeded to befriend them using their traditional knowledge and technology.

The ocean is full of movement, ever in turmoil. The tidal phenomenon with its daily occurrence of two flows and two ebbs takes a period of 24 hours and 50 minutes. Thus a fisherman’s day is longer than the solar day, and his year is shorter than the solar year. To be a fisherman is to live in synchrony with this rhythm of the ocean that is ever changing. Yet there is order in this change; a fisherman knows when the next tide would occur, and when the moonlight will vanish. Fishermen have to constantly shift between a lunar rhythm (in the ocean) and a solar rhythm (on land).  They may be living at variance with the mainstream society, but they live in harmony with the rhythm of the ocean.

2. Theological Considerations

2.1. There is Order even in Chaos

The ocean is ever in turmoil; not stability but movement is its character. But it is not chaotic. The Genesis story narrates how the divine Spirit stirred up the primal waters as a prelude to the process of creation (Gen 1:1-2). He/She first separated the waters from the firmament on the second day, and then the waters from the dry land on the third day (Gen 1:6-10). Is there not truth in the words of a fisherman, “In the beginning there was only the sea and God the Father!” Unending movement and apparent chaos are part of every act of creation, and the Lord “stirs up the sea so that its waves roar” (Jer 31:35).

If the Christian Creed and the later theology bypassed this dynamism of the ocean, its reason is partly in the land-bound background of the sacred authors. Isaiah speaks of the sea as the abode of Leviathan the dragon (Is 27:1). Jesus states clearly that if anyone causes one of the little ones to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the depths of the sea with a great millstone around his neck (Mat 18:6). The book of Revelation seems to present the ‘new heaven and new earth’ as devoid of the sea, for “the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1). For those who live on the land, the sea appears as chaotic, dangerous and mysterious, and often as cause of natural calamities. In fact, natural calamity is a misnomer. What appears calamity for humans is part of the inherent rhythm of the ocean.  These become calamity for humans because of human arrogance or human inability to adapt to the rhythm of nature. Nuclear tests under the ocean or in the desert violate the rhythm of nature. The present ecological crisis is an invitation to respect this rhythm, and to harmonise human activity.  Neithal wisdom reminds us that chaos need not be irrational, and that a reverential approach to it is inevitable.

2.2. The Ocean Mediates the Divine

The conception of the ocean as ‘Mother Ocean’ (Kadalamma) is illustrative of the personification of the sea with divine attributes. Worship of a mother goddess was in existence pervasively among all coastal communities of the State. It is natural that neithal people used the same polysemous term amma for the ocean, their life support. She is their divine mother in every way mediating life and love. They look at the ocean as the revelatory symbol of divine presence and providential care.  Every sea is a Sea of Galilee and its coastlands where Jesus found willing audiences for his teaching. He moved along the sea shore. It was there that he gathered his disciples, taught them where to fish, spoke to people sitting in boats by the shore, calmed the storm and walked over the water (Matt 4:18-23; Jn 21:5-6; Matt 13:1-3; 14:25-32; 8:24-27). By celebrating the ocean as Divine Mother, fishermen celebrate God, the maker of the deep sea and the dry land and everything under the firmament.

Coastal wisdom awakens us to the divine revelation, Gods self-disclosure in and through the expanse of the ocean. It would remind people what the Upanisadic sages of India sang ages ago: “Isvasyam Idam Sarvam” (this universe is pervaded by the divine; Isopanisad, 1).  The ocean is pervaded by the divine; it is the ‘original holy scripture’ of coastal people, as some would say, which speaks to us in light and sound and colour. She teaches us God’s self-witnessing – as Father and Mother. This mysticism of the ocean is the source of courage to face danger and death, the secret of their resilience. The belief that those who die in the sea will come back as wandering medicine men (lata guru) adds to their courage and their hope in a risk-ridden life.  

2.3. The Ocean Upholds ‘Common Property Rights’

Mother Ocean belongs to all her children. For ages fishermen have been treating the ocean as their common property. We hear an echo of the biblical vision here: the earth is the Lord’s!  It is a recurring theme in the OT books (Ex 19:5; Lev 25:23; Deut 10:14) The coastal people have translated this basic truth to the marine context through the concept of ‘common property rights’. They are aware of the impending danger of privatization and commercialization of this common property. Indigenous wisdom is incapable of confronting the might of technology that has the blessings of State power. 

Laudato Si, has as its sub-title “On the Care of Our Common Home”. The metaphor of ‘common home’ is certainly evocative. The question “common to whom?” is often overlooked in an anthropocentric theology. Property rights in the common home naturally extend to all its inhabitants including animals and fish, and to Mother Ocean. The sense of a common home is naturally ingrained in neithal culture. The weekly rest on Sunday has more than religious meaning; it is a time of rest also for Kadalamma, the fish and even the fishing gear. They know that the sea has limits to its carrying capacity, and that it needs time to replenish. How to recapture the sense of ‘common home’ and to incorporate reverential technologies into today’s consciousness is the challenge ahead.

2.4. Fishing is a Sacramental Ritual

Sacraments are privileged moments that make experience of divine presence tangible in everyday life. Fishing, for a traditional fisherman, is neither a ‘job’ to be done nor a commercial activity to make money. It is a sacred ritual into which he puts his heart and soul, which he sees as his dharma or sacred duty, and which he enjoys spiritually and aesthetically. Fishing is a joyful exercise, though physically taxing. They know from experience that one cannot survive in the sea alone, and fishing as a collective venture is the source of comradery and fellowship. At all stages of a fishing operation this solidarity is manifested, viz. launching the boat, casting the net, cleaning and mending the net and such. 

This solidarity is not restricted to the companions in fishing; a share of fish is gifted to anyone who offers a helping hand, and a share is also kept aside for the church. They offer “fruit of the ocean and work of human hands” to feed the human family and to continue the work of the Creator. Fishing is a sacramental ritual that allows them to experience the divine mystery in depth, and to nourish communion – among themselves, with the Mother Ocean, and with the Creator. The womb of Kadalamma ever remains a mystery to revere and to wonder at, a mystery that is benign and fierce at the same time. The ocean and its resources are sacred signs and means of contemplation,and challenge the one-dimensional ‘wisdom’ of modern approaches to technology.

2.5. Covenant Written into Human Hearts

The book of Genesis tells us the story of God’s covenant with Noah after the great flood. It was a covenant with Noah’s family, his posterity and with every living creature on the earth (Gen 9:8-17). The rainbow that appears in the sky (“God’s bow in the clouds”) is a reminder of that natural covenant. Some consider the covenant with Noah as corrective to the human pretensions of superiority and domination without responsibility. As a people of the covenant the fisherfolk seem to be saying: the sea shall no more be destroyed by us! It is a covenant written into their hearts that makes them stewards and caretakers of the sea and all its precious wealth. This sentiment restrains them from catching juvenile fish, or fishing in the breeding season.  The same sentiment made them agitate for legislation to ban fishing in the breeding months. But legal measures have limited scope to prevent damaging human action. The spirit of the covenant needs to be written into human hearts, a new heart of flesh in place of a heart of stone or of law (Ez 36:26).  

Many lament that Christian theology, being too anthropocentric, has failed to work out a rich theology of the ocean, or for that matter, a theology of nature. We need to re-read the Genesis stories and the Christian Creed with the eyes of coastal people in order to understand them deeply. Scholars point out that the Hebrew word that is usually translated as ‘to dominate’ can also be translated as ‘to serve’, thus totally changing the contours of theological discourse (Gen 1:28). Jesus seems to give more meaning to it when he points to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field; they are fed and nurtured by the heavenly Father, and “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matt 6:26-29). Samuel Rayan writes: “It is time we realized that when we deal with trees and animals and the earth, we are dealing with divinely covenanted realities, realities God respects and loves, God’s daughters, sons and friends. Is it possible to remember this truth without a sense of awe and wonder before bird and beast and fish and grass?5

3. Conclusion

The fishing communities know better than anyone else the value of the ocean and the need for its protection for sustaining life on planet earth.  It is this treasury of indigenous knowledge that would prompt us to reflect more radically and theologically on the present state of ecology and its vital concerns. Our call is not to a return to the primitive stage of the fisherfolk ignoring recent technological progress. What is intended is a change of perspective, a change in the way we see the ocean and all creation. The fisherfolk, with their inherited knowledge about Mother Ocean, will be able to enlighten the wider society on the present ecological crisis. Religion and theology have a role here:  to enable the present generation of humans to look at the ocean and the universe through mystical eyes. The coastal people show us concretely how to be mystical yet practical. Ultimately, the ecological crisis is a crisis of the mind and the heart, not of the environment.  


Primal people the world over are at a critical juncture, being pressed between an ideology of development and their indigenous wisdom. This essay explores the struggle of a fishing community along the southern Indian coast and highlights key elements of their indigenous knowledge and what it promises to the contemporary world that is facing an ecological crisis.


Pampackal Thomas Mathew is a Jesuit priest who was formerly a member of the Faculty at Vidyajyoti College of Theology, Delhi. He holds a Ph.D. in Christian Studies from the University of Madras, and did post-doctoral research at the JSTB, Berkeley, USA. After a period of lecturing at the Loyola College of Social Sciences, Trivandrum, he spent many years working with the marine fisherpeople and studying their life and culture closely. He is author of We Dare the Waters – the World and the Worldview of Mukkuvar (Chennai: University of Madras, 2001), Human Persons in the World – Explorations in Christian Anthropology (Anand: Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, 2017), and co-author of Baptism and Confirmation (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2006). Presently he is Executive Assistant of the Jesuit Province of Kerala, and continues teaching in different theological centres.


Kerala Jesuit Province Christ Hall, Malaparamba  Calicut – 673009 Kerala, India.


  1. Pope Francis, Laudato Si – On the Care for Our Common Home, Encyclical Letter, 2015.
  2. Pat Mcmullan, “The Ocean & Theology Symposium”, [] accessed 16.05.2018.
  3. This essay is based to a great extent on my study on a fishing community in South India. See my book We Dare the Waters: The World and Worldview of Mukkuvar, Chennai: University of Madras, 2001.
  4. The Sangam (Academy) period existed between 500 BCE and 200CE in Southern India, Ain- tiņai is coming from the rich literature of the period. People living in the mountain zone (kuŗiñji) were identified as hunters; those of the forest (mullai) were herdsmen; those of the fertile plains (marutam) were cultivators; those in deserts or arid tracts (pālai) were warriors; and people of the coastal zone (neithal) were described as fisherfolk.
  5. Samuel Rayan, “Theological Perspectives on the Environmental Crisis”, in K. Kunnumpuram (ed), Nature, Woman and the Church – Indian Christian Reflections on Ecology, Feminism and Ecclesiology, Delhi: ISPCK, 2013, p. 32