These are the stories of the Honey Hunters of the Nilgiris, the Blue Mountains, of Tamil Nadu. The honey hunters hail from the various tribal groups of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve and for several of the indigenous groups their histories and traditional practices have been recorded, albeit with some missing information but nevertheless documented. However, the purpose of these anecdotes is to show the personal narratives of each honey hunter and their own distinct experience; to go outside the limitations of textbook information and read about personal accounts. To understand a certain group of people it is necessary to have anthropological information and it is equally important to know the stories of individuals within that group. A few of the simple questions that were asked included: What is your favorite/most memorable moment from honey hunting? Why do you continue honey hunting? Will this tradition continue? Have you noticed any changes in this practice? Below are the summations of their answers; sometimes there is a common thread response and other times an individual gives a completely unique account.
Although now living in a village called Kethoni at the outskirts of Kotagiri, he is originally from the village Kanakarai that is near Hasanur. His wife is from Kenthoni village and he came to live with her. He began honey hunting at the very young age of 5 to 6 years, collecting honey from the hives of Apis cerana. During that time the purpose of honey was for food and the forest was the main source for providing also other sources of food, like potato and fruit. Honey was also used as a trading source by exchanging honey for millet from those who were wealthy enough to own land. In general, he considers honey hunting an occupation – it is one of the means by which he supports himself via the forest, without having to work for someone else.
Mainly he collects from the cavity bound hives of Apis cerana and knows how to properly prep a tree with a stone that way a hive is protected from outsiders and wild animals, and usually returns the next season. Yet he also knows how to honey hunt from the cliffs, as was taught to him by his father and grandfather when he was around 15-16. Each year he will go with his team near Semanarai to meet with other tribes in the area and discuss who can hunt on what cliffs for that year. That way there is a sharing of some of the best cliff resources without infringing on another tribe’s territory. He himself has also taught around 10 people the skills of this tradition. In fact, he has taught honey hunters as far away as in Orissa. The honey hunters from this state once used direct fire on the hives to collect honey, which ultimately destroyed the combs and the honeybees within. It was a very unsustainable method, to which Keystone responded by sending a honey hunters team from the Nilgiris to Orissa to teach the methods of just using smoke.
Back home Jadayan will also teach these methods to the young generation, whom he believes will continue this forest tradition. In fact, young people are still very much needed during the expeditions, especially with cliffs that are 100-200 feet high. While at least one person is at the top of a cliff helping hold the rope and another is towards the end of the rope collecting honey, someone has to climb midway down the rope to give instructions back and forth. Often this is where the younger people come in and Jedayam says they still have interest to learn and come.
From the Irula tribe of Bejaletty village of Hasanur, they are a honey hunting pair. They have 12 members in their team, including Bomun’s son, who are the same every year but the groups is available for others to join. They have both taught 12-15 individuals how to collect honey from the cliffs, which is far more dangerous than from the trees, hence nowadays only about 15 people from the village will collect from the cliffs. For them, honey hunting is a tradition and they believe firmly it must continue, even if buyers such as the Aadhimalai Producer Company no longer existed. They also believe the honey hunting tradition will continue with the next generation and that they will help teach them the necessary skills.
When going for a honey hunt, they collect the wild honey during the morning and evening, and it is also their source of food during that time of day while in the afternoon they eat rice and do not collect honey. Before even beginning a honey hunt they will do a worship and then enter the forest. They know elephants are likely to come during their work but they do not fear the animals. Instead, they believe that they themselves and the elephants are all the same and that they are protected by the gods. When the elephants come, they have to make noise for them to go away. Bomun believes that if you worship god and refrain from bad things, even bad thoughts, then nothing bad will happen during honey hunting, not even swarming from the honey bees. Yet even with the faith these two demonstrate they are met with the challenge of the comb quantity decreasing each year. Five years back cliffs were plentiful with hives, and now only one or two are scattered with honeycombs. They find it difficult to be motivated to collect honey on the edge of these cliffs with the promise of only a small reward.
The name of his village is Geddisal and he began the practice of honey hunting at the age of 20; he is now 45. Unlike most honey hunters, he was not taught by his father yet still felt compelled to learn this practice of his people and so followed other honey hunters into the forest, watched and learned. Although never directly taught by anyone how to honey hunt, he has taught more than 10 people this traditional trade, including his son. His reason for continuing honey hunting is simply for happiness; it is a passion which also helps to sustain his family. The honey that he collects is used first as food for the home and whatever is left over will be sold.
He loves the experience of climbing up and down the tree in order to gather the honey. One of his favorite stories is even of play! After finishing a successful honey hunt with his comrades they take the remnants of honey left on their hands and rub it into each other’s hair in order to make it turn white. All for the sake of fun once the job is done. However, this work is often not just fun and games because he remembers times when he and his team have encountered dangers during this seasonal endeavor. For example, they once saw a bear and they attempted to make it go away by throwing a rope at it but the bear simply kept grabbing the rope. It wasn’t until someone finally made a fire that the bear left.
One of the oldest members of the Geddisal village. He began honey hunting at the age of 7. Most other honey hunters start this dangerous practice between the ages of 10-12 and with the more docile species of local honey bee (Cerana). It isn’t until their late teens and early 20s when they feel confident and capable to take on the hives of the vicious Apis dorsata. Mathun started at the age of 7 and climbed right to the hives of the rancorous dorsata. He was trained how to honey hunt by both his mother and father. This indicates that the now male dominant tradition (at least in the Nilgiris) was once shared between the sexes.
For Mathun, honey hunting is a tradition and he would continue it even if it weren’t a cash commodity. He remembers the days when collecting honey was only for food, not business. In fact, he states there was a period in his life when he only honey and potatoes. Being an elder and well-seasoned honey hunter, he has trained 200-250 in his village the art of honey hunting. He has also seen the changes involved with honey hunting – once when 60 or more combs could be found on a tree now it is more common to see merely 10-20 combs. He explains this phenomenon by saying that honeybees are separating like people; people who no longer stay in one place like a village but leave to find something more. In other words, the honey bees are absconding the nests earlier than normal. There are less resources (fewer forests, fewer flowers to pollinate) and they leave sooner for the sake of survival. The simplicity of this statement revealing a complex and tragic truth.
Jadayappan and Sivakumar are a team and the only honey hunters who live in the KK Nagar village of Hasanur while other honey hunters will only return to the village for the season. Like other of the Sholiga tribe in Hasanur, they began learning the art of honey collection with Apis cerana at the age of 10 and it wasn’t until they were adults that they began to climb trees and cliffs for the honey of dorsata hives. When they collect honey from these large combs it is for money; only the honey from the smaller combs of cerana will they take home for food.
Together they have seen much. During one season, they slept under a tree that they had collected honey from. Later that night, a bear came and tried to take the honey. Yet they woke and after shouting the bear ran away. Even in the midst of these dangers they still maintain this seasonal work and believe the next generation will also continue the tradition. They will teach their children and all other interested youngsters in the village the age old techniques that were once taught to them.
A member of the Kurumba tribe in the village of Vikkypadigai, he began this traditional practice at the age of 12. For him honey hunting is a major part of his tradition and the main purpose of honey is for worship. Prior to a honey hunting expedition, he will worship to be clean and pure, then afterwards will offer honey to the temple. He was taught this practice by his father and grandfather. When first learning, his grandfather made him climb small cliffs that were 10-15 feet high. At first he was afraid, such as if he tried to swipe bees away then he might fall but he felt compelled to learn in order carry on the tradition of his grandfather. Now he is a honey hunting leader of his village. His team is not a permanent one every year because he will bring whoever wants to come along.
He states that in his 50 years of honey hunting he has not experienced anything remarkable, not even close encounters with elephants. It is simply work that he does every April-June season and for the most part it has remained consistent. The only technical change is that now Keystone Foundation has to check for water content of the honey he collects (it is naturally high in the forests of the Nilgiris), since honey can spoil faster on the shelf if water content is too high. Otherwise, the collection methods have remained the same. However, the honey quantity has not. Nowadays, the rains and flowers are less, and thus the presence of honeybees too. And with all the factors being less then there is less honey being produced. Raju also keeps bee boxes. He originally had 35 boxes, yet the number of his boxes has reduced to 10 due to bears.
Since 2011, he has been the leader for honey hunting in his village called Vikkyapdigai and has taught more than 50 people, from different villages, this ancient practice. He himself was not directly taught by anyone and rather learned the basics on his own. He spoke strongly of honey hunting being for the purpose of tradition, both for him and his community. Honey must be given to neighbors, a way of helping and feeding others. Nataraj also believes strongly in the connection between the honey hunter and the honeybee – if the hunter comes with a good purpose and pure heart, then the honey bee will give way and you will not be stung. Hence why he does not fear collecting honey during the day, like most honey hunters.
While some of the honey hunters had little or nothing to say of their most significant memories from these honey gathering experiences, he had more stories than time to tell. One of the largest cliffs in the area is called Padivaraithat would hold as many as 150 hives in a given season. Before 1965, the honey hunters of this village would collect honey from every single one of these hives. But since that time very little collection was done on that cliff because the honey hunters had little to no experience to take on a mammoth endeavor. Nataraj was proud to state that this year (2016) they once again started collecting from the Padivarai cliff and collected all the hives within seven days. The first and only story we have heard, thus far, of a historical skill being revived to full capacity among the younger generation.
He also spoke of the challenges, not only physical but also mental, that one must face when going for this seasonal collection. After scaling down a 400 foot cliff and collecting honey he was ready to return but felt too tired and sore to climb up the cliff, yet the rope was too short to climb down. He had to remain dangling from the cliff until his comrades brought a longer rope to climb further down. Even then it did not fully reach and he had to grab a tree to climb down. This was the only time he had questioned his profession as a honey hunter – even if one comes out unscathed from such a challenge, they are not invincible to the mental strain induced by the moment.
Chandran who is 45 years old and his brother Nanjan who is 50, are both members of one of the Kurumba tribes of Coonoor. They honey hunt together, alongside their two other brothers Arumugam and Rangan. All four brothers are a team together and others can join in the seasonal work if they so desire. Both were taught how to honey hunt by their father and older brother (Ranjan – featured in the first photo). Chandran was 10 when he first started learning how to collect honey but it was not until the age of 20 that he started hunting professionally on the cliffs, while Nanjan began honey hunting later between the age of 15-16 and started professionally earlier when he was 18. A couple of decades ago, the purpose of honey hunting was for food and it wasn’t until later on when these honey hunters began selling to villages and until recently when they began selling in larger bulk to Keystone Foundation.
They have become so renowned for their honey hunting skill that other villages invite them to collect honey from large trees in their area. In the villages they visit, they also teach the techniques for how to tie the rope, such as for making a ladder. There was also a time, about 20 years ago, when they used to cut down small trees and attach them together in a long line along a cliff that could reach 100 feet high. The multiple tree bridge would be balanced in the gaps of the cliff, then they would climb up and down these trees to collect honey. This used to be their more common method of climbing cliffs and it wasn’t until later they were taught how to make and use rope.
When honey hunting they must retreat deep into the forest and this often means risky encounters with wild animals. Years back, when Chandran was must younger, he went honey hunting with his father and one day was given the task to make coffee. So he went to find two stones to balance the kettle on the fire and once found he placed them near what looked like a log. He remembers it being the length of the width of the road and about 1 foot high and 1 foot thick. After placing the stones down and beginning to prep a fire they (he and his father) noticed the “log” was moving and realized that it was actually a large snake that had recently engulfed a deer. They ran away in fear. Even with mishaps like this, these honey hunters are incredibly in tune with nature and know what to observe in certain tree species to indicate the start of a new honey hunting season. For instance the tree they call the Konne Mora indicates the start of a honey hunting season when it comes into bloom. There is also a tree they refer to as the Billi Mora that the honeybees do not pollinate from but when it gives off a bunch of blossoms this means there will be a lot of honey for that season.
At 80 years of age, he is an elder of the Toda village of Kodithenmund. He began his honey hunting endeavors around 10-15 and learned by going in the forest with his father and grandfather. He remembers a time when there was not separate place for honey hunting; simply a person went wherever there was a mund (name for Toda village) and could collect honey. Thus, he has roamed much of the Nilgiris and would collect honey, if available and possible, wherever he went. During this time he learned multiple languages such as Badaga, Tamil, and Kurumba. There is one forest that he calls Muukurithi that is stuck in his memory because he recalls collecting a lot of honey in that area. Another memorable time for him was finding one hive from which he filled 21 bottles worth of honey.
Every year he used to go honey hunting with the same group of three friends and they were consistently each other’s teammates; yet now all those friends have passed away. Today he still continues to honey hunt. For him honey hunting is another season, summer to be exact. The other months of the year are the seasons of milk and ghee (Todas are renowned pastoralists and get these resources from their buffalo). Although he carries on the tradition of honey hunting, he does not believe it will continue with the next generation. He says he would teach anyone who joined him how to honey hunt but it seems like the interest from the younger generation has reduced.
For Kathe Kuttan, honey hunting is a part of his culture. After coming home with honey, it would be shared, and it was only after this that he would sell the honey. He has taught this traditional trade to 7-8 people and was taught by his uncle, specifically his mother’s brother. Unless the honeycomb is close by his village he will not go alone and instead goes with one other person, which can be anybody who is interested to come. Kathe still believes that the tradition of honey hunting will continue with the next generation.
In terms of favorite or most memorable moments, he says he does not have one of his own. However, he did relay the relationship the honeybees, the snake, and the honey hunter that a few others in the village had experienced. The Todas are famous for how they collect honey from Apis cerana (i.e. no use of fire or smoke but merely one’s breath) and they gather the honey from within tree cavities, where this honeybee species typically builds its multi-combed hive. Sometimes, a snake will be found within this cavity, curled up at the base while the combs hang from the cavity ceiling. Yet, supposedly, this should not pose as a danger to honey hunter because if they are pure then the honeybees will tell the snake to move aside and allow the honey hunter to reach in and collect the honeycomb. Purity involves discipline of the body (ex. Daily bathing), mind (ex. Having good thoughts), and obeying the disciplines of the village (ex. Not working on temple day). When a honey hunter does not maintain this purity then they are at risk for being bitten by the snake. Kathe knows of a man whose hand was recently bitten. The Todas believe in a deep connection between people and the entities of the forest, and Kathe Kuttan is no exception.