In Langscape Magazine Articles

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

July 13, 2021

Kanna K. Siripurapu and Sabyasachi Das

Indigenous breeds

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

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 chickens 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.

Indigenous breeds

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

Being born and raised in urban India, I knew chicken only as a food and chickens as pets (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 chickens occupy 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).

Chickens occupy 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 a thrishool (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 Shikhandi, an androgynous character from 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.

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.”

Indigenous communities of Andhra Pradesh use chickens extensively in rituals performed to appease gods, ward off demons, and get rid of bad luck.

During discussions with the Indigenous communities, I realized that desi chickens enjoy 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 specific purposes (see Table 1).

Langscape-Magazine_Siripurapu-Das_tableFor 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.

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 chickens) will be sacrificed if the hunt was successful. The entire village feasts, and the celebration includes traditional music, dances, the drinking of rice/millet/jackfruit beer, and the serving of dishes cooked of native chicken and various meats, both domestic (usually goat, pig, and cattle) and wild.

red chicken

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

Itukula Panduga is followed by the Korrakotta festival, usually celebrated during August, when the crops are about to get into flowering stage. A ritual called jolda is performed during Korrakotta. Jolda involves the collection of food grains from families of the entire village, which again are pooled together. The village priest mixes chilies and turmeric with the grains. The priest then sacrifices a chicken (preferably a fertile red hen) while chanting mantra (sacred utterances). The priest adds the blood and meat of the sacrificed chicken to the mix and divides it into equal portions. Each family receives its share (based on the number of farm plots it owns), and the mix is wrapped in a piece of cloth and tied to a stake. The stake is then planted in their respective farm plots, where locals believe that it will prevent crop diseases. If a bumper harvest results, an erra kodi (red chicken) is sacrificed.

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 of chicken 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 woman 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.

chicken

The least preferred for rituals, tella kodi (white chickens) are often prescribed as part of traditional treatments for sick or injured children. Photo: Kanna Siripurapu, 2018

Certain chicken taboos apply as the child grows up. Meat and eggs of white chickens 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 chickens) are 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 for those who have undergone tubectomies or vasectomies. All types of native chickens are sacrificed three days after the demise of a family member.

biological diversity

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

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 chickens 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.

cultural diversity

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

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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 Siripurapu.

Kanna K. Siripurapu is a researcher interested in the agro-biodiversity and biocultural diversity of the Indigenous communities and traditional pastoralists of India. He is associated with the Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN), Telangana, India. Read more from Kanna K. Siripurapu.

Das, Sabyasachi.

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Sabyasachi Das is National Coordinator of Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network (RRAN) and Director of WASSAN. He is interested in rainfed agriculture, extensive livestock systems, pastoral systems, animal genetic resource conservation, and the enhancement of livelihoods of rainfed farmers.