The Palghat Umbrella

The ubiquitous Olakkuda of Malabar

Though I knew a bit about the palm leaf umbrella, the olakkuda of Malabar, I never knew until recently that it was more popularly known as the Palghat umbrella.  I saw it mentioned so in the pioneering book Saraswati vijayam by Potheri Kunhambu, for the first time. The entire book (its English translation by Dilip Menon for the Book literary trust series) had that umbrella as a motif at the start of each chapter and on its cover (the laborer is chained to his umbrella). That it was used by the nobility as well as the lowly serf was quite clear, so I still do not understand its significance in the book, but let’s leave that discussion for now and concentrate on the umbrella. Some years ago, my departed friend, the late Abraham Tharakan had written an article on this very same subject, but I thought I should revisit the topic with more detail, also because a researcher requested some dope on the subject, for her continuing work.

And so we go to those days when there was hardly any traffic on the road. People walked long distances, sometimes for many days, stopping only for food and ablutions. The noble accompanied by a retinue of servants legged it out on finished and unfinished roads, stopping to sleep at satrams or choultries. One should also remember that only very high ranking nobles or ladies were carried in a pallaku or palanquin by bearers, the rest walked. Let’s see how Kunhambu described one such walker…

“Kuberan Nambudirpad was of average height with a fair complexion tinged with red. He was wearing a fine mundu tied rather high to make walking easier. There was a freshly laundered cloth on his shoulder with which he occasionally wiped his perspiration. To ward off the heat, he held above his head a long-handled Palghat umbrella, which he would hand over to the servants whenever they paused in the shade”.

Why would it be called a Palghat Umbrella? I can only surmise that the reason was that makers of such umbrellas, so also the raw material - the Palmyra leaf, were both native to Palghat. The latter is quite apparent, for you will see a number of the tall Palmyra trees only in Palghat. While the Palmyra is the official tree of Tamil Nadu, Palghat being a border district is naturally home to a number of them. Today you may not see many, but I can assure you the fruit of the palm, the panam nongu (edible jelly) is something to slurp, eat and enjoy. If you have not had it, you have truly missed something. Palghat has always been known as land of Palmyra or black palm trees (കരിമ്പനകളുടെ നാട്) and are mentioned in many a book set in Palghat. Then again, you may recall that these palms were also associated with bewitching yakshi stories (see my article).

Now let’s get to the makers/weavers. The Panan community were at some time the sole supplier of the Palghat umbrella. Later they diversified to become iterant bards, arriving at a tharavad and singing about their greatness or even for communities such as Christians where they would arrive to sing about their origins. But before all that they monopolized umbrella making and in Palghat, and it was the privilege of Panan headman to present umbrella to Palakkad Rajah by custom. This Palghat umbrella was also known as Malabar umbrella. There were many versions, the long handled olakkuda, the hat version – the toppikuda, the version meant mainly for Nambudiri woman, the marakuda.

One could go on to make studies on how it is also popular in the whole of SE Asia and even China, 
for you can still see similar contraptions all over South Asia, SE Asia and mainland China, and I will only skim through it a little later. There could also be questions as to whether the concept came from those places, but I will leave that subject for others to pursue when they have the time and inclination.

Strange is the story of this umbrella - The palm-leaf umbrella which a Nambudiri (Kerala Brahmin) women invariably used as a shield and cover themselves from prying eyes, during their rare outings and escorted by Nair (Sudra) maids called Vrashalis, was the craftwork of untouchables from the Panan community. See how the caste play worked!

The Panans, according to early ethnographies, were traditionally parasol-umbrella makers and are believed to be resident throughout Palghat, Cochin and Trichur and in parts of Tamil Nadu. They are described by E. Thurston as "exorcists" and "devildancers" and their womenfolk were known to be midwives and had good knowledge of plants and herbs used as medicines. Some mention that the term Panan comes from the word pan meaning music and as you will see they did moonlight as bards of a sort. Another business they associated with was magic and sorcery and they were known to engage on request in performing voodoo and black magic (Odi). It was also believed that they have the power to transform themselves into wild animals. But for generations and all practical purposes, these families had provided umbrellas to everyone in their village. While this was their official occupation, it appears that they were unofficially, called upon to perform rituals that included exorcisms.

Now there is a bit of curiosity in this whole business, though I have not been able to figure out why. While the making of umbrellas with Palmyra (incidentally they are dried palm leaves – Cadjun leaves) leaves is a Panan’s occupation, he cannot make the whole of the umbrella. While he makes the leg and the cane framework, the palm leaf weaving and attachment has to be carried out by women in his family. If he has no female relatives of his own, capable of finishing of his umbrellas, he must secure the services of other females in the neighborhood. They are also experts in making umbrella made of palm leaves for the use of farm laborers (Toppikuda – slightly smaller). These communities are attached to the land owning families and are obliged to supply the required number of palm leaf umbrellas to their patrons at the onset of monsoon, so also leaf plates to Ezhava’s on ceremonial occasions. Another curiosity is that basket- makers, called Kavaras will never hold an umbrella, as they have a motto “Do not take hold of Panan's leg." There is so much more connected with the workings of this community, but this is not the place to talk about devils, exorcisms, voodoos and the such. We will stick to their umbrella making skills.

There are subtle differences, for example the length of the handle determines the prestige of the holder. The fringes are sometimes adorned with tender coconut leaf arrangements. The correct way to carry a Palghat or Malabar umbrella is to ensure that the end of the handle rests on the palm carrying the umbrella with the arm straight by the side in an L formation. The diameter is usually 36 inches.

As umbrella demand dwindled, the Panan and his wife Patti, armed with a Maddalam and cymbals, and the small Pana veena visited each Nayar and Nambudiri households between midnight and dawn during festival seasons, singing sweetly of the history of the land and the emergence of Nambudiri supremacy. Or in the case of Christian households, the advent of Christianity. They also sang the Tuyil unarattu (awakening) song with the patti keeping the beat striking a bell metal vessel with a knife.

Early British administrators were not very happy when these local parasols were replaced by imported British umbrellas. In fact the local manufacture of ugly European black umbrellas started at Calicut. Innes stated that these (Cadjun) umbrellas were more serviceable than those of European manufacture and provides more details -

No turban is worn; it is in fact wrong for the higher castes to cover the head; but it is their universal practice to carry an umbrella. The lower castes often twist a small cloth loosely round the head in the form of an embryo turban; but this should be removed in the presence of superiors, before whom custom demands that inferiors should always appear bare above the waist. Characteristic of the West coast is the umbrella or mushroom-shaped hat made of palmyra leaves, which is invariably worn by fishermen and agricultural coolies, and serves as an admirable protection against sun and rain; such a hat with a crown too small for the head is often carried by Nayar women in their hands instead of an umbrella.The umbrella of the country is made of leaves of the umbrella palm or the palmyra with a long bamboo handle, of which the length increases according to the dignity of person carrying it. It should be carried with the end of the handle in the palm of the hand and the arm stretched down at full length. But the ugly European black umbrella is becoming more and more common.

The editor of the Asiatic journal also expounds on its qualities while comparing it to a smaller Javanese toppikuda or umbrella hat, but the Javanese umbrella is varnished on the outer surface - An excellent hat of this description is worn by the fishermen of Malabar, and others much exposed to rain, of the western shores of India. It is usually composed of a palm leaf, perhaps that of the cocoanut tree, and is not varnished. It is in size generally between an umbrella and a lady's parasol; about the shape of the latter, but not so deep in the concavity. In the center is a receptacle for the head, like the crown of a hat, or like that part of our university caps. The article is very light, and very efficient in resisting rain as well as sun; covering, indeed, with a little address in the position and movements of the head, nearly the whole person. Nor is it liable to fall, nor, unless in very high wind, to be blown off. Altogether it is, we think, the most sensible and useful protector of the head against weather that we have ever seen….

Anthropologist Thurston is more detailed in his thoughts, he attributes the color of the Nair to carrying an umbrella. He goes on to state - It should have been noticed before that the colour of the face of the ordinary Malayali is invariably lighter than that of the body; possibly from the prevailing custom of using the umbrella. Malabar is for the most part shaded by trees and palms, and its peoples have not that disregard for the sun’s javelins which we see in the country to the eastward. No one starts on a journey, and rarely leaves his house, without his umbrella-the thing of cadjan now being by degrees replaced by the cheap umbrella of European manufacture. The labourer working in the field, the fisherman in his boat on the sea, the boatman on the backwater, all wear a large umbrella-like hat. Women always carry an umbrella out of doors; or, as in North Malabar, an umbrella hat-like thing which seems to be a curious survival of the custom of wearing an umbrella hat, is carried. This is, apparently, an ordinary umbrella hat, but the central part which appears to be made to fit the head, as in the ordinary umbrella hat, is too small by half to fit any head, and this hat-like umbrella is carried in the hand to shield the head from the sun and the face from the inquisitive passerby. The fact remains that the Nayar, of whom we are now speaking, who never or very rarely wears any covering on the head, cannot withstand the effect of the direct rays of the sun without an umbrella. A few hours’ walk in the midday sun where there is little or no shade, is sufficient to bring on fever to the ordinarily strong man.

If one were to compare these with early oriental hats of China and SE Asia, you will see that (The Atlantic, Volume 40) - The Oriental hat is of basket-work. Shade and ventilation are the great needs, not warmth. The Chinese hat, for instance is of bamboo splints, inside and out, inclosing leaves of the bamboo, the diameter of the brim is 18”. The Siamese hat of Gnaup is 18” in diameter, and is of plantain or bamboo leaf on a frame of rattan. The skeleton head-piece is lashed by rattan to the inside of the crown, and does not allow the head to touch the surface of the hat, thus securing perfect ventilation all round.

In fact some olakkuda versions had decorations, for the above source explains – The Indian umbrella is made of palm leaves laid upon a rattan frame. The hat is ornamented beneath with white paper, red cloth, mica, and green beetle-wing covers; also with pendants of mica and beads. The head-band is cylindrical, and is also of palm leaf with cloth binding. The brim is thirty six inches in diameter, and bears the palm for size among Asiatic hats.

That it has been in vogue in Malabar for many centuries is clear. Ibn Batuta recalls meeting a Zamorin (1342) wearing a dhoti and strolling along a Calicut street, towards the beach to inspect a wreck- “his clothing consisted of a great piece of white stuff rolled about him from the navel to the knees, and a little scrap of a turban on his head; his feet were bare, and a young slave carried an umbrella over him." So you can see that these were used in Malabar for many centuries until the 20th.

As public transportation became popular, the carriage of these umbrellas was a problem since they could not be folded. In fact Devaki Nilayangode mentions this in her memoirs. She says that Anterjenams could not easily board any bus with their clumsy marakkudas. So you can imagine how modernity, locomotion and development killed the ancient Palghat parasol.

By the 20th century, the Seemakuda took over in Malabar and the ugly black umbrella became commonplace. This changed over time, with different fabrics, handles, push button opening, sizes and nowadays UV proof. In fact there are mosquito repellent versions too. The first manufacturers in Kerala were Ebrahim Currim & Sons in Calicut, who established a unit there, after thriving at Bombay (first started in 1860) and Madras. The official record states - Prior to the opening of the Calicut branch the majority of the people on the Malabar coast used palm-leaves as protection against sun and rain, but Messrs. E. Currim & Sons have taught them to adopt umbrellas, and purdah ladies have even been converted to the use of them. A large wholesale business, giving the firm a practical monopoly in India in the umbrella trade, has been built up, and the partners attribute this success in a very large measure to the strictly honourable manner in which they conduct business.  The gazetteer states - By 1933 there were three manufacturers in Calicut. The biggest of them was owned by Nagji Purushotham (a football tournament was named after him!) and is run by power. In those days, the iron ribs of the umbrella and the cloth are imported from Germany or England! In those versions, the factories made the sticks and handles from thin bamboos obtained from the local forests, and the ribs and cloths were fitted to them. Calicut supplied umbrellas to several other districts in the Madras presidency.

The extensive use of cloth umbrellas hit the Panan and the Parayan communities owing to the lesser demand for their products. With that the old fashioned but practical olakkuda and its variants died a death and the Palghat umbrella gave way to the Calicut Umbrella!!

Though it was still used in the fields by the ladies working there until the 80’s, we were in for a shock. When we joined NIT Calicut in the late 70’s, I was amazed to see that the Toppikuda had been resurrected. During the rainy or monsoon seasons, many a student had the toppikuda on his head, it was more like a practical fashion statement, and I too purchased an inexpensive one for myself! This was eventually gifted to a new student when I passed out. Perhaps this entirely recyclable umbrella must have become manure or something else, as days went by. These days you see them only during Onam seasons, with plays and Faux Mahabali’s sporting them.

By the way how many of you know about an umbrella riot in the Laccadives? It is somewhat connected to the topic of Malabar caste customs. The koyas of Calicut established a similar caste hierarchy in the islands where they were masters and looked down on the Malumis (sailors) and the Melacheris (coconut pluckers). These lower classes were not allowed to carry or use any kind of umbrellas. One day in Oct 1930, a shipment of western umbrellas arrived. Eleven Melacheris and nine Malumis decided to defy the age old edict by marching with unfolded umbrellas and this resulted in the Koyas calling out their spearmen, and a riot of sorts occurred. But that is a story I guess, for another day.

And so my friends, I have perhaps managed to waste a good one hour of your time reading this seemingly useless bit of umbrella history which I spent many hours to research and compile. Maybe I didn’t waste everybody’s time, for there was one lady who desired more information for her film project and who once asked me for this information, perhaps it will be of some use to her, at least. And thanks to Mini Krishnan for getting me started on these trains of thoughts and peruse Saraswati Vijayam, yet again…..

Malabar gazetteer – CA Innes
Malabar manual William Logan
Nayars of Malabar – F Fawcett
The Atlantic, Volume 40

The Bombay Presidency, the United Provinces, the Punjab, Etc - Arnold Wright
Ebrahim Currim history Papers 1 & 2

The marakkuda and olakkuda features in many a Malayalam song (Olakkuda choodunnoru, Manakkele thatte marakkuda thatte, Marakkudayal mukham marakkum manalla…)

See how it is made 1 & 2



Ashita Nair said…
hello sir,
This has been the most informative and brilliantly constructed article on the topic i have come across till now.
Maddy said…
Thanks Ashita
I enjoyed the research...Hope it helps
sumal said…
Excellent article. It was a pleasure reading it. By the way, is the skill of making the olakuda extinct by now?
Maddy said…
Thanks Sumal
not really, there are still some families making it - check out the videos you can see that and there was a newspaper report about some remaining families who still could supply it