In Langscape Magazine Articles

A Chicken for Every Occasion: Exploring the Cultural Significance of India’s Native Poultry Breeds

by Kanna K. Siripurapu and Sabyasachi Das

.

biological diversity

To learn more about why people in India value desi (native) chicken breeds for use in rituals, festivals, and traditional healing, I went to the picturesque Paderu and Araku regions in Andhra Pradesh. Photo: Chandrasekhar Nemani, 2018

.

A few months ago, I received a document written by my colleague Uday Kalyanapu about the success of a backyard poultry project in the tribal-dominated areas of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The project was started by WASSAN (Watershed Support Services and Activities Network), the organization with which I’m currently associated. Something caught my attention when I was editing the document. It reads, “Native chicken breeds have significant cultural value which the improved breeds lack. Native chicken breeds are exclusively used in local rituals and festivals, hence highly valued locally. The price of desi chicken (i.e., breeds native to India) spikes and fetches double the price at local markets during local festivals. Locals use different native chicken breeds as per the situation and context of local rituals/festivals.” Intrigued by this piece of information and upon confirmation with Dr. Sabyasachi Das, the project leader, that the sociocultural dimension of native chicken has not been a focus of the project, I made arrangements to visit the project area, located in the Paderu and Araku (hilly) regions of the Visakhapatnam and Srikakulam districts of Andhra Pradesh, to learn more.

Being born and raised in urban India, I knew chicken only as a food or a pet (I kept a few when I was a kid). In urban India, chicken has been relegated to common dishes such as chicken biryani, chicken tikka, chicken tandoori, chicken curry, and so on. Before departing I was excited to find out a bit more about the sociocultural aspects of native chicken breeds. It was fascinating to learn that chicken occupies a very special place in ancient cultures of the world, including Jewish, Greek, Chinese, and Indian  —  among others. The rooster often represents virulent male energy and aggression and symbolizes both the breaking dawn (knowledge/good) and the waning darkness (ignorance/evil).

Chicken occupies a very special place in ancient cultures of the world.

In Hindu mythology, the rooster is depicted as the vahana (vehicle) of the goddess Aditi/Bahuchara Mata, the mother of all gods and the creator and guardian of all life. The universe was said to be inside her womb; she holds athrishool (trident) in one hand and a sword in the other and traverses the boundless sky perched on a fiery red rooster. Another Hindu god, Lord Murugan/Subrahmanya/Kartikeya, the god of war and the son of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati, mostly worshipped in southern India, holds a flag with a picture of a rooster. The rooster on his flag symbolizes the dawn of wisdom and conquest breaking over the forces of ignorance. A rooster also adorns the war flag of Srikhandi (a transman), who is depicted in the Mahabharata, one of the holy books of Hindus. In the Ramayana (another Hindu holy book), Lord Rama offers the rooster a golden crown for leading him to the castle of Ravana, the demon king, who took his wife Sita hostage. Feared by the greedy humans who already have been killing his kind for meat, the rooster requests Lord Rama to give him a skin crown instead, and that was how roosters got their majestic crowns.

.

biological diversity

In Andhra Pradesh, black chicken hens such as this one are called nalla kodi petta. Nalla kodi are an integral part of many rituals. Photo: Chandrasekhar Nemani, 2018

.

My fieldwork within the communities that I visited in Andhra Pradesh followed a standard pattern. After arriving at a village and exchanging pleasantries, I would strike up a conversation with local people and ask them, “What comes to your mind immediately, when you hear the word ‘chicken’?” In rural villages, I was surprised by their responses, which ranged from “morning alarm,” “reminder of daily chores,” “planning their daily schedule,” “rituals,” “customs,” “culture,” “guests,” “feast,” “festivals,” to “sense of pride,” but nobody said “meat” or “eggs” as the first thing that came to mind. By contrast, when I asked people in communities close to markets, towns, and cities, some of them did associate “chicken” with “meat” or “eggs.”

During discussions with the Indigenous communities, I realized that desichicken enjoys a special place in their traditions and culture. Indigenous communities of this region not only consume chicken and eggs but also use them extensively in rituals performed to appease gods, the spirits of ancestors, and nature; ward off demons and evil spirits; and get rid of bad luck. Chickens are sacrificed to mark the start of agriculture activities or a new business; at weddings; as part of birth and death ceremonies, festivals, games, and sporting events; and in traditional medicine, witchcraft, and black magic. Here, Indigenous communities prefer specific breeds for a specific purposes (see Table 1).

.

agriculture

For example, the vittanala panduga (seed festival) heralds the onset of the agriculture season. The festival is celebrated annually during the months of March or April. During the festival, seeds from the entire village are pooled together and offered to the local deity. Animals (usually a pig, but occasionally a native chicken or goat) are sacrificed, and the blood is collected and mixed with the seeds. Blood-tainted seeds are divided into equal parts and distributed among households throughout the village. Local communities believe that sowing such seeds will yield a very good harvest.

.

biocultural diversity

Although not as desirable as nalla kodi, erra kodi (red chickens; here a rooster, or punju) are also widely used in rituals and in healing treatments. Photo: Kanna Siripurapu, 2018

.

Multi-colored chickens (puuvula kodi) also are substituted if nalla kodi are unavailable. Photo: Chandrasekhar Nemani, 2018

.

The seed festival is followed by the itukula panduga (festival of hunting weapons), usually celebrated anytime from the second half of April to the first half of May. This is one of the major festivals of Indigenous communities of this region, usually lasting over a week. Native chicken eggs are offered to weapons on the third day, following which all the men of the village leave for hunting in the forest. Upon returning after a week of hunting, erra or pandra kodi (red chicken) will be sacrificed if the hunt was successful. The entire village feasts, and the celebration includes traditional music; dances; the drinking of rice, millet, and/or jackfruit beer; and the serving of dishes cooked of native chicken and various meats, both domestic (usually goat, pig, and cattle) and wild.

The seed festival is followed by the itukula panduga (festival of hunting weapons), usually celebrated anytime from the second half of April to the first half of May. This is one of the major festivals of Indigenous communities of this region, usually lasting over a week. Native chicken eggs are offered to weapons on the third day, following which all the men of the village leave for hunting in the forest. Upon returning after a week of hunting, erra or pandra kodi (red chicken) will be sacrificed if the hunt was successful. The entire village feasts, and the celebration includes traditional music; dances; the drinking of rice, millet, and/or jackfruit beer; and the serving of dishes cooked of native chicken and various meats, both domestic (usually goat, pig, and cattle) and wild.

Chickens are also sacrificed as part of the Nandi panduga (hill broom festival), celebrated in February, which is always held before harvesting hill brooms (a non-timber forest product). Native-breed chickens also are sacrificed at the time of weddings. The village priest decides the type to be sacrificed based on the time of year and the stars. Locals believe that sacrificing a chicken at a wedding will remove any bad luck for the couple.

The village priest decides the type to be sacrificed based on the time of year and the stars.

When an Indigenous woman conceives, the family vows to sacrifice a black chicken if she has a safe labor and gives birth to a healthy baby. A black chicken also will be sacrificed when the women enters seven months into pregnancy and about three to four days before she enters labor, to ensure a safe delivery. When a healthy baby is born a black chicken is duly sacrificed, as is a red chicken on the day when the umbilical cord stump falls off the newborn.

.

cultural diversity

A village priest of describing the features of native chicken used for different local rituals. Photo: Chandrasekhar Nemani, 2018

.

Certain chicken taboos apply as the child grows up. Meat and eggs of white chicken are never served to kids below ten years of age. It is believed that if such kids eat white chicken then they are likely to be hit by lightning or possessed by evil spirits or fall victim to black magic. Instead, megavanne or puvvula kodi (speckled/multi-colored chicken) is served to children of this age group as part of traditional remedies to cure ailments. The meat and blood of various breeds are used to treat sleeping sickness, seizures, paralysis, nervous disorders, injuries from accidents (especially bone fractures), and even those who have undergone tubectomies or vasectomies. All types of native chicken are sacrificed three days after the demise of a family member.

Local communities don’t appear to follow any specific techniques to maintain the populations of native chicken breeds; most raise them in their backyards. In case of scarcity or outright unavailability of a specific native chicken breed, local communities either buy at market or bring birds in from surrounding villages to maintain the breed stock. Also, there is a gender dimension attached to native chicken. Women usually tend to chicken raised in their backyards, and hence have access to whatever little income is generated from their sale.

My fieldwork in Andhra Pradesh gives just a sampling of the rich sociocultural significance of India’s native chicken breeds. Similar research in other parts of the country would undoubtedly reveal many other variations and much more interesting detail.

.

Volume 7, Issue 2 Editorial Table of Contents | Subscribe | Buy | Donate


Acknowledgments. The authors would like to thank the local communities of Rangasila village of Hookumpeta mandal, Killoguda village of Dumriguda mandal, Kujjali village of Paderu mandal, Peda Kodapalii village of Pedabayalu mandal, K. Kudapalli village in K. Kudapalli Panchayat of Paderu in the Visakhapatnam district, and Panasaguda village of Seetampeta mandal in the Srikakulam district of Andhra Pradesh, India, for their valuable time and information. I thank the Department of Animal Husbandry and the Tribal Welfare, Department of Andhra Pradesh for supporting the study. I also thank Dr. Sanyasi Rao, ML and Rakesh Gullapalli of WASSAN for field support during the study.

.

 

Kanna K. Siripurapu and Sabyasachi Das are affiliated with the Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture Network (RRAN) and Watershed Support Services and Activity Network (WASSAN), a network of nonprofits that works for sustainable development of rainfed agro-ecological systems and enhancement of livelihoods of marginalized agrarian and Indigenous communities in India. At RRAN/WASSAN, Siripurapu is a Young Professional Fellow, and Das is a Program Leader in livestock management.


Further Reading

Chwalkowsk, F. (2016). Symbols in Arts, Religion and Culture: The Soul of Nature. Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars.

Yadav, A. K., Singh, J., & Yadav, S. K. (2017). Characteristic features of Indigenous poultry breeds of India: A review. International Journal of Pure Applied Bioscience, 5(1), 884–892.


biocultural diversityBefore you go…

…did you know that Langscape Magazine is an ad-free, full-color publication that brings you unique stories about people and nature from all over the world  —  inspiring stories that you won’t find anywhere else?

“Langscape is the heart of the movement.”  — Kierin Mackenzie, PhD Student, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

We believe there never was so important a time as now for these stories to be shared as freely and widely as possible  —  online as well as in print. That’s why we’ve been putting many of our stories on Medium for everyone to read.

But we are a small team with big goals. We want Langscape Magazine to continue to be brimming with global stories rather than with ads. So far, this quality has been made possible by grants, donations, and subscriptions. That’s why we are asking for your help.

“Langscape goes beyond intellectually-based concepts of the crisis our planet faces today, to an almost intuitively spiritual grasp of those problems. Free of ads, Langscape bows to no one, addressing those profound changes that must be made to save our cultural diversity, our environment, and our shared humanity. There is nothing like Langscape!”  — Linda Quiring, CEO and Founder of Saltspring Soapworks

If everyone who reads and likes our magazine helps support it, we’ll be able to continue to bring you these amazing stories into the future. For as little as $1, you can support Langscape Magazine  —  and it only takes a minute. Subscribe to the handsome print or PDF version of the magazine, or buy individual copies. Thank you for your support!

The Langscape Magazine Team

<< Previous  |  Next >>