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Mapala (3) - Coorg.jpg

Subject: Mapilla Woman 

Place: Coorg, Karnataka

Year: 2023

Camera: Yashica Mat 124 G

Film: Ilford HP5 Plus

The subcontinent of India is probably home to the largest groups of people of ethnic and cultural diversity anywhere. India has always been welcoming of visitors of all shades to its shores, be they adventurers, traders, invaders, refugees or opportunists. All of these eventually find a home here while being free to pursue their own lives in the shadow of their distinctive cultures and practices, leading to a syncretism rarely seen anywhere else.  No doubt such a comingling of cultures and tenets are also bound to cause tensions, which the country has witnessed in the course of its long history. At the end it emerges stronger than it ever did with ethnic pluralism forming one of its key touchstones. 

Along with trade, which was the principal point of entry for foreigners to India, came new belief systems that slowly but surely entered the mainstream of native life changing it in ways that created new ethnic categories over time. These newly formed groups distinguished themselves through new religious beliefs and the dress codes, social customs and languages that evolved with them.

The state of Kerala is a case in point. Both Christianity and Islam found welcoming and secure homes in this state owing to the benevolence and openness of its people and rulers. The earliest Muslim communities were formed as a consequence of visiting Middle eastern spice merchants deciding to start families and settle there. These communities were mostly located in and around the coastal towns of the west coast whose ports were central to the spice trade. Over time the numbers of these communities swelled through marriage and conversions. 

The term Mapilla was first used to designate the Muslim community of Kerala to distinguish them from the native Hindu groups by their dress and other social customs that reflected their Islamic character. Even the regional language of the state - Malayalam – underwent subtle changes to become a distinctive dialect of this community with its own inflections, phrasings and idioms.

The Mapilla lady featured in this photo is a resident of the district of Coorg in Karnataka that is home to small Mapilla communities who moved from Kerala to these parts. White is a color that is central to the Islamic dress code. The head cover and jewellery are other aspects that denote their particular ethnic identity.  

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