The enchanting group of coral islands in the Arabian Sea form the Union Territory of Lakshadweep. This archipelago consists of 12 atolls, three reefs and five submerged banks. Of its 36 islands only ten are inhabited. The islands earlier known as Laccadive, Minicoy and Amindivi, are irregularly scattered between 8° and 12° .30 North latitude and between 71° and 74° East longitude, away from Kozhikode by about 200 to 400 kms. The islands which were administered at various places were grouped into a Union Territory in 1956 and the name of this Union Territory was changed to Lakshadweep with effect from November 1, 1973. In 1964 the administration was shifted from Kozhikode to Kavaratti island.
The islands are described as Coral Paradise because of scenic beauty. These present a breath-taking spectacle of sparkling coral reefs encircling a placid and tranquil lagoon and palm covered tiny islands. These Islands not only have their wealth of natural beauty, but also present spectacular variety of animal and bird life. Lakshadweep is Indias only Coral Paradise.
According to geologists these islands are continuation of the Aravali system of rocks of Rajasthan and Gujarat through the banks of the Gulf of Cambay and through the Agaria banks further south. Little is known about their sub-surface geology. Their tops are built of coral reefs from late tertiary times. Accumulation of corals is being continued even now.
Lakshadweep has extensive lagoons with an area about 4,200 sq. km., 2,000 sq. km. of territorial waters and a very large area of economic zone. Its 36 islands together have an area of 32 sq. km. According to 1991 census Lakshadweep has a population of 51,707 people of which 94 per cent are Muslims and majority of them belong to the Sufi school of the Sunni sect. The Island has one of the highest literacy rate. 81.78 per cent population is literate. Malayalam is the language spoken in all islands except Minicoy where people speak Mahl written in Divehi script which is spoken in Maldives also. The entire native population of Lakshadweep group of Islands because of their difficult economic and social condition, has been classified as Scheduled Tribes. 93 per cent of the population belongs to Scheduled Tribe category.
This territory though known as Laccadives, Minicoy and Amindivi islands till recently, was popularly called Laccadives or Lakshadweep. The origin of the name remains obscure. The colloquial term is interpreted as a hundred thousand isles. The Dutch records describe the islands as Lekker Diva and British records as Laccadives. The local people called themselves as inhabitants of the Divis until very recently.
The flora in the Union Territory of Lakshadweep include Banana, Vazha (Musa Paradisiaca). Colocasia, Chambu (Colocassia antiquarum), Drumstick morningakkai (Morings Cleifera), Bread fruit, Chakka (Artocarpus incisa) and Badam (Terminalia catappa) are grown extensively. The marine life of the sea is vast and difficult to describe briefly. The commonly seen vertebrates are cattle and poultry birds. Oceanic birds generally found in Lakshadweep are tharathasi (Sterna fuscata) and Karifetu (Anous stolidus). They are generally found in the uninhabited Pitti island. Pitti island has been declared as a birds sanctuary.
The coral atolls have two important mineral deposits. The phosphate deposits (Guano) on the islands and the calcium carbonate in the lagoons. The lagoons and the adjacent areas of Lakshadweep are found to have algae which is of great economic importance. The distribution of these economically important algae is sporadic in the lagoons. There is every possibility that extensive beds exist in the shallow area of the sea adjoining the islands. The preliminary survey on the important algae present in the lagoons and their Commercial uses are very encouraging. Out of the 10 varieties found, nine contain food value.
These islands have a tropical humid, warm and generally pleasant climate, becoming more equatorial in the southern islands of the territory. The climate is equable with no distinct well marked seasons. South-west monsoon period is the chief rainy season which lasts from late May to early October. The average rainfall at Minicoy is approximately 1640 mm, while Amini has about 1504 mm. The rainfall in the southern islands is more evenly distributed than over the north island.
On an average the number of rainy days i.e. days with rain of 2.5 mm or more, in a year at Amini and Minicoy are 80 and 94 respectively. The number of rainy days during the south-west monsoon season are also more in the north than in the south. Temperatures are generally uniform over the territory but slightly increasing from South to North. April and May are the hottest months in the year, with the mean daily maximum temperature around 31° C at Minicoy and 33° C at Amini. Maximum temperature may occasionally reach 35° to 37° C at Minicoy and 36° to 38° C at Amini. Air is humid throughout the year, the relative humidities being always over 70 to 75 per cent. Winds are light to moderate during October to March or April. Towards late summer, winds begin to strengthen and continue to be strong in the south-west monsoon season. Northerly or north-easterly winds prevail during the months of December to February.
Lakshadweep is a multilingual union territory. Eleven languages specified in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution are spoken as mother tongue. Of these, Malayalam is predominant and is the mother tongue of the local people except those in Minicoy who speak the Mahl language. Other languages i.e. Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Oriya, Tamil, Telegu, Konkoni, Urdu and English are also spoken by the migrant population.
The women have a higher social status and economic freedom than elsewhere in the country. The matrilineal system of inheritance under which the property descends through the female line, saves the women from economic dependence. Customarily the husband is obliged to make an annual payment towards the upkeep of his wife which is part of the marriage settlement and contract. A wife can demand divorce on grounds of non-payment of customary dues. There is no social stigma to divorce nor it is a disqualification for a woman to seek fresh matrimonial alliance.
* Dy. Principal Information Officer in Press Information Bureau, New Delhi.
** Press Information Bureau has already brought out features, one each on, A&N Islands, Daman & Diu Islands and Assam under the series.Features under the series are being released to promote national integration and mutual understanding.
Some Marine Terms Clarified
Reef: Reef is the name given to a ridge of rock either above or below surface of water.
Atoll: An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef enclosing a lagoon.
Coral: A coral is a hard calcareous substance consisting of the continuous skeleton secreted by many kinds of submarine creatures for their support and habitation.