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In Photos: The Fascinating Story of Kerala’s Forest King & His Tribe’s 700-Year-Old Legacy

Meet the Mannans, the tribe that has lived in the forests of the Idukki district for centuries and has preserved its ancient ways of life and traditions.

In Photos: The Fascinating Story of Kerala’s Forest King & His Tribe’s 700-Year-Old Legacy

Stories of kings, palaces and chariots from history books always manage capture our imagination. What if kings and kingdoms existed today? Deep in the forests of Idukki, a mountainous district in Kerala, there still lives a king and his subjects. The Mannan tribe, one of the 35 tribal communities in the state, follows time-honoured traditions, including a system of matrilineal kingship even today.

Raja Raman Mannan is the latest in a long line of kings who have reigned over the tribe and preserved the traditions and ecology of the region for centuries.

According to the tribal leaders of the district, a ferociously fought war waged between the Pandya and Chola kingdoms 700 years ago. The Pandya king Chirayvarman was defeated and had to flee from his kingdom with a few subjects. He entered the forest of present-day Idukki district and established a forest kingdom.

Since then, the Mannan tribe has always had a king ruling them. A new king is chosen and enthroned on the seventh day after the death of the previous king, in the presence of the Mannan tribe from all 46 kudis or settlements.

The present king is a young economics graduate from a city college. However putting a rest to his dreams of exploring the outside world and relishing the fruits of opportunities beyond the forest, Raja Raman Mannan accepted the king’s crown and sash with a vow to uphold the age-old tradition of this forest tribe.

In his reign and daily administration, the king is supported by a council of 12 ministers, known as kaanis, and seven of their assistants. Each Mannan settlement has a council which helps the king in executing his office.

Today, there are around 3000 Mannan families living under the rule of Raja Raman Mannan.

The subjects look up to their king as an administrative head and spiritual guide. He can use his power to ostracise members who fail to obey the common rules of the tribe. He also resolves disputes among tribe members.

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The tribe comprises primarily forest-gatherers, who are involved in collecting wild fruits and vegetables, wood-cutting for fire, hunting animals and fishing to sustain their lives even today.

The forest they inherited is preserved and protected by the kingship tradition and Mannan lifestyle. In the era of technological advancements and modern way of living, the Mannan kingship and tribe is not just an example of India’s rich history and tradition, but a tale of the glorious preservation of the life and unceasing courage of a king and his subjects.

The tea plantations of the Idukki district

Mannan women working in the bamboo fields

Fishing is one of the many ways of sustenance for the Mannan tribe

The Aiyyapan templex complex, in the main temple of Kovilmala

Children of the Mannan community

Raja Ramam Mannan with his council of ministers

Mannan women at work

The forest and the river are the tribe’s lifelines

An elderly member of the Mannan tribe

The forest king, with his assistant holding the royal staff

(Written by Basil Poulose)

About the author: Based in Delhi, Basil Poulose is a researcher and executive producer with Vismaya Films, a Delhi-based production house he runs in partnership with Jijo John and Sabu Koshy. This article is based on the research done for a forthcoming documentary movie titled The King who lost his Palace: A Journey to Kovilmala.

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