Payyanur Pavithra Modiram and Geographical Indication
by K P Prabhakaran Nair on 26 Nov 2012 0 Comment

The Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB), Chennai, on 17 November 2012 set aside the grant of geographical indication (GI) registration of the famous “Payyanur Pavithra Modiram” ring given in the name of a society named Payyanur Pavithra Ring Artisans and Development Society. The board meeting was chaired by Justice Prabha Sridevan and vice chairman Mrs. S. Usha.


It has become a bone of contention between parties which seem to have a pecuniary interest rather than in the sanctity and uniqueness of this famous ring (modiram). Before going further into the legality of this, against the backdrop of the GI, one must briefly touch upon this masterpiece Payyanur Pavithra Modiram and what it signifies, both spiritually and artistically.


This has a great importance not only to all the Keralites within the State, but also for Keralites who reside in other States, and even all Indians who come to Payyanur in northern Malabar (Kannur district) to possess this unique ring, many a time prescribed by learned astrologers to wear to ward off evil forces or even by one’s own deep conviction that wearing it brings good fortune and divine blessings not only to the one who wears it, but also to one’s entire family. That is the millennium old tradition and belief of Keralites. 


This article is written against the backdrop of a previous one entitled “Safeguarding Ancient Indian Wisdom” (Nov. 1, 2012), which generated tremendous reader interest as testified by innumerable emails and telephonic calls the writer received, bringing a very important subject to the attention of readers and Indians at large.


Legend has it that in the Malayalam year 1011, Sri Tharananallor Namboodiripad, a great scholar of the Vedas and Indian rites and thantri of Irinjalakuda, entrusted the task of making a ring in gold to a person who belonged to the Choovatta Valappil Tharavad of Payyanur, as the thantri had practical difficulties in making a ring of durbha grass to be worn by him in performing all Vedic karmas, including those karmas which normally are carried out after a person’s demise (“pithru karma”) as per Hindu tradition. The ring has been in production by the artisans of this tharavad ever since.


The ring is a uniquely crafted one, made of pure (24 carat) gold and silver by artisans belonging to this tharavad in Payyanur, Kannur district. The sacred ring is believed to bring good fortune and the grace of God to one who wears it with utmost devotion. In fact, the ring is not a “run-of-the mill” product, but is placed at the feet of the Lord (Payyanur Perumal, symbolizing Lord Subramanya, or His depiction in one’s own abode) and worshipped before handing over to the buyer. The making of the ring requires great expertise and dedication and the concerned artisan is totally isolated and works in solitude for at least three days continuously to make the ring.


The decision by the IPAB


The Chair of the Board noted that “The main object of the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act is to protect those persons who are directly engaged in creating or making or manufacturing the goods. They have the “hands-on- experience” of the GI products. When these creators or makers complain that the application has been made behind their back, we cannot allow the registration to remain”. It is important to note that the IPAB further noted that “A mere claim that the society is called Payyanur Pavithra Ring Artisans and Development Society will not suffice. There should be evidence to show that the producers are desirous of coming together to protect the mark and that is clearly absent”. 


Clearly, under the belly of all these legal issues, it is the pecuniary interest that is hidden from the common man. The IPAB directed the proprietor of a private jewellery shop in Payyanur to forthwith remove the words Payyanur Pavithra Modiram from his showroom.


There was a time, many decades ago, when one had to take an arduous trip to the concerned artisans of the Choovatta Valappil Tharavad to get a Payyanur Pavithra Modiram made. All that has been swept under the carpet in the current pursuit of money against the sanctity and uniqueness of this rare creation.


Traditional knowledge and limits to GI


It is often considered that Geographical Indication can be used to protect traditional knowledge and communities. Hence, many countries have adopted the GI laws, the Indian law being “Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act of 1999”.


Historically, the concept of GI has evolved from principles such as unfair trade practices, consumer protection against deception, “passing off” (when some products – mostly counterfeit – are passed off as genuine, a world-wide phenomenon; many Indians also resort to this to cheat the public).  


The modern form of GI protection originated in France, where protection was given to products which met the geographical origin requirements and the quality standards associated with these origins. The most famous example is French Champagne. Many people wrongly think that the word “Champagne” refers to a product. Actually it refers to a village in France, where the famous white sparkling wine from specially grown grapes (under careful nutrition and irrigation) began to be made centuries ago. The French government religiously protects the name and no trespassers are allowed to usurp it. French Champagne is a sparkling wine and the Germans also make excellent sparkling wine, but cannot use the word “Champagne”.  It is like Scotch whisky, a famous brand of whisky made in Scotland.


This helped in protecting the interests of consumers to purchase quality products, but also producers who could extract some “reputation rent”. One can multiply the examples. “Kannur Crepe” and “Panniyur Black Pepper” (also produced in Kannur region) are classical examples. But, when the governments in the State and New Delhi are not vigilant in protecting the interests of both the producers and consumers, unscrupulous elements can play havoc.


As an agricultural scientist, I am aware that unscrupulous exporters and traders import a lot of poor quality Vietnam pepper (which is cheap and far inferior to the Panniyur black pepper), mix it in Kochi, and export it as the famous “Malabar Pepper” for a premium. When it is detected at the other end, it is not merely an embarrassment to the Indian government, but the producer in Malabar suffers more because he loses a good market overseas.


The case of the famous Assamese Muga silk can be compared with Payyanur Pavithra Modiram. Muga silk is the first GI registered product of India’s north-eastern region. The Assamese Science Technology and Environment Council (ASTEC), a semi-government agency, took up the process of applying for GI for muga silk in 2005, and managed to get it registered in 2006. Obviously, ASTEC did not have any commercial interest in this, unlike the society referred to above, in the case of Payyanur Pavithra Modiram.


Technically, muga is a fit case for GI registration due to the socio-cultural value of the product and its uniqueness. Registration was obtained under “classes” 23, 24, 25, 27 and 31 (there are 34 “classes” under the law) for raw silk yarns and threads, textile and textile goods, including a large number of items as well as for the cocoon, and for the whole map of Assam State. Muga’s uniqueness to Assam can be understood from the very fact that the silkworm – Antheraea assamensis – from which the unique muga silk is produced, derives its name from the State.


There is documented use of the product since ancient times, even finding mention in Kautilya’s Arthasastra. While the soil and climate play a crucial role in making muga silk what it is, the knowledge of the farmers is also a very important factor. While the ASTEC is the registered proprietor of the muga GI, till date there are no registered users. Only two entrepreneurs have come forward to register themselves as users; their application for registration of the GI is still pending. No producers, either of silk or of muga products, came forward for GI registration. No producer or producers’ association from Sualkuchi (the hub of silk weaving in Assam) has yet come forward as there is very little awareness of the uniqueness of muga silk. All these important facts are in strong contrast to the case of the Payyanur Pavithra Modiram, which in the first place was made for a specific divine purpose, but unscrupulous commercial interests are taking over.


Where do we go from here on GI?

it is important to understand that GI can only prevent the use of protected marks or indications; it does not protect knowledge per se, or the technologies which embrace that knowledge, as such. To understand and appreciate this, let me give another example.


The globally famous Banarasi silk saree or Kancheepuram silk saree can be produced with even better quality using more sophisticated technology anywhere else in India or for that matter in the world. But, it cannot be named Banarasi saree or Kancheepuram saree. The same logic explains the case of Pavithra modiram.


This is what unscrupulous jewellery shops are trying to do. For an ordinary consumer, it might not make much sense to buy a GI certified Banarasi or Kancheepuram saree, or a GI certified Pavithra modiram. But, when a “run-of-the mill” Pavithra modiram is bought, the sanctity of a Pavithra modiram made by the authentic Choovatta Valappil Tharavad family members will simply be not there, and the very purpose of buying a genuine Pavithra Modiram will be lost.  


Hence, the central question is: without the proper GI certification, can an unscrupulous jewellery manufacturer display a Pavithra modiram in his shop? Certainly not. This is the heart of the matter.


As things stand, the actual producers or the people who are the repositories of this rare and unique technical skill, blessed by a divine force, stand to lose in the present state of affairs.  Hence the move by the Intellectual Property Appellate Board is certainly justified. But the larger question is, how will these extremely skilled artisans of Choovatta Tharavad be adequately compensated? India is full of such instances of blatant piracy where the unscrupulous are making a kill and whether it is Pavithra modiram, or the Kani tribe, the original founders of “Arogya Pacha”, or the original farmers who have selected and evolved the unique Panniyur Black pepper, stand to lose.


In the early sixties, when this author was doing his Ph.D in the prestigious Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, he was witness to the pirating of a number of our rare rice germplasms, some very high yielding, some with excellent pest and disease resistance, some with rare fragrance, and others with high medicinal properties, by a select privileged few in power. These were handed over to alien powers, for some personal benefit. These persons were rewarded with awards and accolades, but the real farmers who were the originators of these rare rice breeds, a painstaking process of hundreds of years, were left high and dry! It came to be known as “The Great Gene Robbery”.



The author is former Professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium and Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany and Chairman, Independent Expert Committee on Bt brinjal; he can be reached at

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