TRIBES OF THE NILGIRI HILLS AND WESTERN GHATS
The Nilgiri Hills is a region of mountains, forests and tea plantations located in southern India where the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka all come together and rise to a height of 2,400 meters. The highlands are rolling grasslands with patches of temperate forest known as shoala. The Nilgiri Hills receive over 14 feet of rain a year, the second highest rate in India. Over 80 percent of this rain falls during the monsoon season which runs from June to August. On the southern, windward side of the hills the forests are wet and lush. The forests on the northern, leeward side are arid and scrubby.
The Nilgiri Hills is home to some unusual tribal groups including the Toda, Kota, Badaga and Kurumba. The steep slopes and the thick forests and high rates of malaria and other diseases that used to exist in the hills below kept these groups somewhat isolated from other groups. The Badaga, Toda, Kota and Kurumba tribes have traditionally relied on each other for different goods and services in a complex trade network. The also trade with the Irulas, Uralus. Pniyans and Chettos on the surrounding hills. The Badagas often traded cloth and food with the Kota, who supplied with music for funerals and thatching and carpentry and other services. The Kurmabs were employed for protection from sorcery from Other Kurumbas.
The main town in the area is Udhagamandalam (Ooty). Sometimes called the "queen of hill stations," it is located at an elevation of at 7,200 feet in the Nilgiri Hills of Madras state and was founded in the early 19th century.Animals seen here among the thickly wooded hills, plateaus and deep valleys, include Asian elephants, tigers, leopards, wild dogs, chital, sambar, barking deer, mouse deer, wild boar, bonnet macaques, common langurs, giant squirrels, flying squirrels, monitor lizards, pythons, crocodiles, Malabar trogons, Malabar grey hornbills, great black woodpeckers, crested hawk eagles, crested serpent eagles, common scops owls, little scops owls, tiny eared owls, parakeets, cuckoo and lots of butterflies.
Western Ghats is a range of gentle green hills and low mountains that run for more than 1,600 kilometers along India’s southwestern coast. The slopes are covered by forests, grasslands, small farms and tea, cardamon, coffee, cashew, pepper and rubber plantations. The average height is 900 meters. The hills and mountains slope steeply to the west and more gradually to the east. The highest peaks range between 1,800 and 2,400 meters. The mountains run parallel to the west coast of India and provide a natural barrier between Kerala and Tamil Nadu and have helped make sure the cultures of these places are separate and distinct. “Ghat” is Hindi word describing a stairways that leads into river used in sacred bathing.
Source: Tribal Research Center in Udhagamandalam (Ooty)
The Badaga is a group that lives in the Nilgiri Hills where Kerala and Tamil Nadu come together. Their names means “northerner,” a reference to the fact that they came the plains of the Mysore district not too far to the north. There live among the Toda, Kota and Kurmbas. They are also known as the Badacar, Badager, Baddaghar, Bergie, Budagam, Buddager, Buddagur, Burga, Burgher, Vadaca, Vadacar, Vuddaghur, Wuddghur. There are about 150,000 Badagas. They make up about 19 percent of the population of the Nilgiri District. Although they were originally outriders they became the dominant food producers and political overlords for the Nilgiri Hills. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Badaga are Hindus that practice hypergamy, a system in which women can marry into a caste that is higher than the one they were born into, and also marry into of lower caste. Generation levels are only recognized among men. This means it is theoretically possible for a man to marry a woman and her daughter and granddaughter as long as they are not his own offspring, and all three would be members of his generation. Polygamy is practiced and newlyweds generally move in with the groom’s parents, sleeping on the veranda, until their first child comes and the establish their own house.
Tattooing used be common with females but is no longer practiced. Important ceremonies for children include naming (40 days after birth), head shaving, ear boring, nostril piercing and milking initiation (for boys aged 7 to 9) and the girl’s puberty right. In some villages fire walking is still performed as way of honoring the goddess Mari Habba so she will keep small pox away.
The Irula are a Scheduled tribe that lives in northern Tamil Nadu and the Nilgiri Hills. They are sort of like a cross between tribals and ordinary southern Indians. They have many animist beliefs but have had enough contact with Hindu s to embrace many orthodox Hindu beliefs. Their most important sacred objects are kept in a secret cave so they are not polluted by coming in contact with things defiled by humans. Many Irula live near old megalithic sites which has led some to speculate that are a very old culture. There are around 110,000 of them. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Irula live in villages with special “pollution hut” for menstruating women, lots of mango and jackfruit trees, and ancestral temples with stones in them that represent the dead. Many live in two-room houses with a separate room with a sacred fire. They are known as collectors of honey and hunt with nets and spears. They harvest millet with impossibly small sickles for harvesting individual grain heads. Much of their traditional land has been lost to tea and coffee plantations.
The Irula are known for being inspired musicians, They produce their own flutes and drums and are employed by other tribes such as the Toda and Badaga to perform at their funerals. During Irula funerals a priest goes into trance and is asked by the family of deceased whether the death was natural or the result of sorcery. If the latter is the case a number of rituals are performed before the deceased is buried. After month a stone is placed in a temple to give the deceased a place to stay.
The Irula marriage process used to be initiated by a trial cohabitation initiated with a delivery of firewood to the bride’s family’s house by the groom but this is no longer practiced. A standard bride price is paid in the presence of elders. The marriage ceremony revolves around the tying of a necklace around the brides neck. If a wife is unable to produce a child the husband is allowed to take a second wife. Some women have tattoos and wear toe rings.
The Kotas are a group thought to be indigenous to the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu. Also known as the Cohatur, Kohatur, Kotar, Koter and Kothur, they are classified as a Scheduled Tribe and have traditionally lived among the Badagas, Todas and Kurumbas. Even though the are small in number (there are around 1,500 of them) they have managed to rise above their traditional roles as servants and consumers of carrion flesh to be influential bankers, doctors and civil servants in the Nilgiri Hills area. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
In the old days the Kota lived in wattle and daub houses with thatched roofs. Their villages had special houses for menstruating women but no toilets. They traditionally only grew a few crops themselves and obtained most for their food by trading various goods and services with their neighbors, primarily the Badagas. They have traditionally sacrificed water buffalos and were known as fine musicians and musical instrument makers. They often performed at Badaga and Toda funerals. The Kotas had a reputation for being a jack of all trades and the provided services such as blacksmithing, music, leatherworking and pottery making for other groups such as the Toda and Badanga in return for food and clothes.
Women have traditionally given birth in special huts. Ten days after birth a child is given a name. The ceremony for this is often regarded as more important than a wedding ceremony. In the ceremony a village elder gives the child his or her name while feeding water and a few crumbs of rice to the child. Afterwards a lock of hair is cut and wrapped in cow dung and leaves and tossed away. At the age of 16, boys and girls undergo a head shaving ritual in which all their hair is shaved off except for one lock. Tattooing is also common.
The Kota practice “green” and “dry” funerals. During a normal or “green” funeral the deceased in honored in a simple ceremony led by a small boy called the “fire-keeping boy” and is cremated in a special place called the dav nar (death region). A piece of the forehead bone is saved for the dry funeral. In the dry funeral the bone is serenaded with special music from double-reed instruments and barrel drums.
The Kurumbas are another group that lives in the Nilgiri Hills. There are seven major Kurumba groups: the Alu (milk)-Kurumbas , Palu (milk) -Kurumbas, Betta (hill)-Kurumbas, Jenu (honey)-Kurumbas, Mulla (net)-Kurumbas, Urali (village)-Kurumbas, and Mudugas. Each group[ is regarded as a separate ethnic group, with its own dialect, religious beliefs and other cultural features. There are about 15,000 Kurumbas. About a third of them live in the Nilgiri District. Others are scattered across southern India. They are regarded as the poorest of the Nilgiri Hills groups. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Kurumbas have traditionally been hunters and gatherers. They forage a variety fo foods from the forest and hunted and trapped birds and animals. They lived in rock shelters and caves and grew bananas, mangos and jackfruit in forest gardens. Deforestation had driven them out of their traditional villages into the plains, where they work in tea and coffee plantations.
The Kurumbas have a reputation of being sorcerers. Traditionally, the Badaga hired an individual Kurumba man who act as hraduan for a specific villages. This was a lifelong job that was passed down from father to son. This individual over agricultural festivals and was employed as a diviner, exorcist. and sed gerbs, spells and rituals to cure the sick. Because of the knowledge of sorcery Kurumba were greatly feared. When bad things happened they were often blamed. In eh 1800s there were several massacres of Kurumbas in relationship for perceived acts of sorcery. Kurumbas are not employed as much as sorcerers as they were in the past,
The Nayaka are another group that lives in the Nilgiri Hills. Traditionally regarded as honey collectors and people of the forest, they are also known as the Jenu Kurumba, Kattu Naikr, Kattu Nayaka, Naicken, Naikr and Sola Nayaka. They have traditionally lived in huts in the forest and migrated every six to 18 months. There are only around 1,400 of them.
Nayaka have no history of animal husbandry or cultivation other than having a few fruit trees near their huts. They have traditionally subsisted primarily on wild yams, nuts, berries and fruit that they collected and fish and trapped animals. They sometimes hunted deer with dogs. They also collect items from the forest such as medicinal herbs that can be traded or bartered for things they need like grain, cooking pots and utensils. They also have worked on plantations and done other work to make money.
Nayaka have no formal marriage ceremony. A couple is generally regarded as married when they start sleeping together and sharing the same hearth. The Nayaka are friendly but independent. They generally don’t form strong lasting relationships outside their conjugal families. Their society is very egalitarian, There are no real administrative groups. Their religious beliefs are mostly animist with some Hindu deities in their pantheon of gods and spirits. The only life-cycle event that they honor with a ritual is death.
Hill Pandaram are a scheduled tribe that lives in rain forests of the Western Ghats in the state of Kerala. Also known as the Malai Pandaram and Malapantaran, they are a nomadic foragers who speak dialects of Tamil and Malaualam, the language of the people that live around them, and practice Hinduism infused with beliefs of hill spirts, ancestral ghosts and other supernatural beings. They are only about 1,500 of them and they occupy an area of forest at a density of 1 or 2 per square kilometer. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]
The Hill Pandaram have inhabited the forest of the Western Ghats at least since the 2nd century B.C. and probably long before that. They have never been completely isolated. They have always traded items such as ivory, honey, wax, cardamom, turmeric, dammar (resin), bark material used in tanning, ginger, bamboo and herbs used in medicines for rice, palm floors, cassava, cooking pots, utensils, adzes, bill hooks, salt and other items with the local people around them.
About a quarter of the Hill Pandaram are completely nomadic. The others live in small settlements with around ten widely scattered bamboo-walled, thatch -roofed huts They grow a few crops such cassava and have mango and tamarind trees nearby. These settlement are only rarely habited. When foraging the Hill Pandaram live in shelters with bamboo frames and palm leave coverings. Marriages tend to be fairly flexible. There is generally no formal marriage ceremony and many have several spouses at different during their lifetimes. They sometimes engages in spirit possession ceremonies to the rhythm of drumming,
The Hill Pandaram possess no land and have few material possessions Social relations are defined mostly by family and gathering groups. The roles of men and women are relatively equal. Their main sources of food are various kinds of yams that the dig up in the forest and nuts and fruit they obtain from trees. They hunt small animals, monkeys, squirrels and monitor lizards. Much of the hunting is done with dogs and muzzle-loading guns.
Kani and Their Magic Berry
The Kani people of the rain forest of Kerala are poor and live in thatch huts. Men go shirtless and wear sarongs. The roam the forest with wooden bows and poison arrows, shooting birds and fish. Scientist who studied the Kani noticed that they never seemed to get tired or fatigued and were energized by pale-green berries they plucked from the "divine" Arogyapacha plant that grows only on Agastyavanam Mountain in Kerala.
One Kani tribesman said, "We eat its fruit when we go hunting. It gives a sudden burst of energy. We don't feel hungry for several hours; we don’t feel thirsty or tired. And I seems we can walk and run in the mountain for hours again. Plaupa Pusjpangadan, the director of the a botanical institute, has the helped the Kani market the energy-giving berry in such a way that the Kali get some of the profits. A tonic made from the berries performed well in trials and sold out immediately when it was sold on the open market. Efforts have been made to cultivate the Arogyaepacha plant on 800 hectares near the Kani's forest and grow the plant in other places.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated June 2015