Honey Collection Method
The tradition of honey hunting has been practiced around the world for thousands of years, including within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. In the Blue Mountains, the tribes who partake in this ancient tradition have developed unique methods and materials best suited for both honey collection from cliffs overhangs and large trees. There is even distinction in methodology for honey hunting between the tribes.
There are several tools that are required for honey collection, some of which are brought from the village while others are made in the forest prior to the night of the honey hunt. Mostly, the only items brought in are a sharp cutting knife for making the forest tools, as well as a filter and tins pans to collect the honey (this does not consider the items such as food and sleeping mats for while staying in the forest). Some of the main items that are made from the forest are a bamboo pole, basket, and sturdy rope made of either tree bark or bamboo. The necessary tools and number of tools also varies between whether the gathering takes places on a tree or cliff.
When having to climb a tree a bamboo pole/ladder is often used. One bamboo with foot sized sprouts on either side will be set against and tied to a tree for climbing or small steps may be cut into the trunk of the tree. If a rope ladder is used it is made with various climber such as the lianas found on tree bark. In some cases people will simply climb the tree bare foot, not using any tools for support. Additionally, coir rope is used to help with climbing towards the branch where the honeycomb is attached. The tool used to cut the comb down will either be an iron or wooden knife, with the wooden version more often being used by the Sholigas. Sometimes a knife made of bamboo will be used.
In regards to tree collection, it can be handled with a minimum of 2 people, yet more than 2 will likely be found in a group. Comparatively, honey collection from cliffs requires a long rope to be made in the shape of a ladder because it will be tied to a tree at the top of the cliff and then lowered down the cliff face, some of which can be 400-500 feet in height. The ropes made, from a few days prior, will be constructed of either the stripped bark of a tree or the lianas/vines found on the tree. The bark made rope can last up 7 years while the vine rope is only useful for a season. Some of the species of wild climber and bark of trees include Vakka (Sterculia villos), Biskoti kodi (Derris benthamii) and Ullathi (Debregeasia longifolia).
Another crucial tool is the honey basket – its purpose is to catch the honey and honey comb portions after the honey hunters have cut the main comb. This basket is constructed in the forest and made out of vines, bamboo, as well as cane. The inner part of the basket is then covered with leaves from the Cucuma spp. and recently, in some cases, has alternatively been lined with plastic. The making of the basket is often done in the evening before the night of the honey hunt. These days oil tins and aluminum vessels might be substituted the forest woven baskets as a means of convenience.
Honey hunters rarely have protective gear on when they go to collect honey, even when dangling from a cliff a few hundred feet in the air. The only source of protection they use is a smoker, which is a bundle of specific leaves that dangles near the honey hunter as he hangs from the rope parallel to the cliff or is held by the person balancing on top of a branch when collecting from a tree. The purpose of the smoker is to remove the bees from the comb before the honey is collected. Years ago people used to directly touch the comb with the burning bundle, ultimately killing numerous bees in that hive However, today people mostly smoke out the bees so that they abscond the nest and are left unharmed. Certain plants are selected that which are ideal for the smoker, such as: Strobilanthus spp. Cassia fistula are used in Nilambur and, Lantana, Eupatorium, Pongamia pinnata, Syzigium spp in Chamarajnagar.
Some of the other significant parts to the honey collection method include:
- Typically, the honey hunters leave in the morning (~10 a.m. ) in order to prepare tools for the honey collection, such as: the smoker, ladder, baskets, and wooden knife.
- During the day honey hunters will gather honey from the hives of Apis cerana, Apis florea, and Stingless (Dammer) Bees
- However, the honey collection with Apis dorsata is done at night time, starting at around 6:30 p.m. and lasting until about 5:30 a.m., as is dependent on the number of combs
The experience of honey hunting from the cliffs, especially when collecting honey from the temperamental Giant Rock Bee, is a really difficult task. It must be done with a group, each individual having a designated task, and often involves great trust. One such task is the role of the man at the top of the cliff who makes sure the rope holding the man dangling upon it and jabbing the hive for honey is secure. A tradition among the tribes who collect from cliffs is to always have the brother-in-law holding/keeping track of the rope of the man dangling from it. The idea is that if the man up top slacks in his job (or decides to be vindictive) and the rope falls, then the man will fall to his death, which also means the rope holder (brother-in-law) will have made his sister a widow. A very unique tradition as a means to maintain alertness and carefulness.
Much of these methods have been maintained for generations, in conjunction to the relationship with the forest and it’s honey that they have adapted their skills too. Over time, changes have been made here and there but the ultimate task has remained steadfast. Time will tell if the overall tradition of honey hunting remains as well. Keystone Foundation is an organization that invests greatly in the multitude of Nilgiri tribes and one way of supporting these groups is by making sure the forest is accessible for them to continue their ancestral traditions, such as helping enforce the Forest Rights Act.
Indigenous People Groups
Within Tamil Nadu there are 36 scheduled tribes, many of which can be found within the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. Of those who are considered as part of the scheduled tribes in Tamil Nadu, there are six groups that are approved as Primitive Tribal Groups (PTGs), all of which can be found in the NBR: Kattunaickens, Kotas, Kurumbas, Irulas, Paniyans, and Todas. The characteristics of a PTG include: “a pre-agriculture level of technology, a stagnant or declining population, extremely low literacy, and a subsistence level of economy” (P.5 Paniyans of Nilgiri District).
When defining a tribe there can be a multitude of answers. On description from the Tribal Cultural Documentation sources a definition from anthropologist T.B. Nayak that directly states –
“A tribe is a social group with territorial affiliation, endogamous, with no specialization of functions, ruled by tribal officers, hereditary or otherwise, united in language or dialect…following tribal traditions, beliefs and customs illiberal of naturalization of ideas from alien sources, above all conscious of a homogeneity of ethnic and territorial integration” (p.1)
In the NBR, and even as small as the Nilgiri district within, there are multiple tribes, each with their own unique culture, language, history, and more. Below is a snypopsis of each tribe within the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. It in no way gives a complete description of each of these indigenous groups but is merely an introduction and hopefully encourages the reader to do further investigation for fuller details:
This tribe is spread throughout Tamil Nadu and within the Nilgiris there are seven distinct groups, each with their own unique features. They are known, even by the other surrounding tribes, for their skilled abilities in the forest, such as with honey hunting. This is one of the few groups that is daring enough to scale large cliffs in order to collect honey from the massive hives of Apis dorsata. They are regarded as the “honey cutting lords of the woods” (Jenu Koyyo Shola Nayakars) because of this expertise.
As is seen among other Nilgiri tribes, the Kurumbas have an art and musical culture. Traditionally it is the men who practice the arts (also are more likely the priests or temple caretakers) while the women are more involved with decorating the home. Some of the common instruments among the Kurumbas are the bamboo pipes (bugiri and Kuvalu), 2 faced drums (are), and 1 faced drums (tambatte). There are two kinds of dances, one called the gandesa attam that is performed by the men while the other is called the yen attam is is performed by the women.
Within the Nilgiris, the Kurumbas have a close connection with the Badaga community, such as with ethno-medicine and even providing music at a variety of Badaga festivals. They are an adivasi group that is somewhat specialized in foraging patterns, given that they are more focused on medicinal plants and honey. Historically they are known for their sorcery powers and ability of finding medicine in the forest. With regards to honey, they harvest all the different varieties and the honey collected from Apis florea and Dammer bees is not sold. Rather, it is kept for medicinal and food purposes, especially for pregnant women and children. They are hunter-gatherers as well as jungle dwellers found within the lower region/forested belt of the Nilgiris, specifically in Gudular, Kotagiri, and Kil-Kotagiri.
- Jenu Kurumbas – This Kurumba division is found in the northern region of the reserve, concentrated in Mysore and Kodagu districts, and the have jenu in the name because the word means honey, for which they are skilled in collecting. In some cases they own land and cultivate land but mostly do seasonal wage labor during the seasons when they are not collecting forest produce, especially honey. The social organization of their groups is known as sangams.
- Aalu Kurumbas – This group of Kurumbas is mostly found at the mid-range within the southern and eastern belt of the Nilgiris. They are further divided into two specific endogamous groups, being the Nagara and the Bellaga, which could be further divided into several different clans or Kulams. In their governance system they have what is called a mothali, which administers the village, along with the help of three assistants that each have a specialization (agriculture, marriage, and one as the messenger). Their villages (also known as motta or kombai) are typically constructed with bamboo, mud securing, and tiled roofs. Nowadays, more villages from this group can be found at the edge of forests, both ekking out a living from their lands and through wage labor.
- Betta Kurumbas – This group lives in the northern parts of the Nilgiri, specifically in the Gudular district. They are known for living in large settlements, which can be up to 60-80 settlements. Their livelihoods are mostly dependent upon wage labor and NTFP collection, however they are not major honey collectors. The wage labor is especially due to the rapid growth of tea cultivation in Gudular. In regards to NTFPs, they are very skilled at finding medicinal plants and herbs, and especially collect kodampuli and shikakai during the season.
- Yanai – experts in trapping elephants and being mahouts
- Mullu Kurumbas – This group is concentrated in the Waynaad region as well as parts of Gudular. They are best known for their abilities with hunting and bird catching, and the women are skilled at fishing. In addition, they now practice agriculture within the Wayanad vayals (fields). The traditions of animism still prevail within their religion even though much of their cultural practices of the present day are borrowed from Nayars of Kerala.
Their name is broken down from the words kadu (forest) and nayakan ( leader or chief). They are mostly found in the northern to western part of the Nilgiri region, especially towards areas of southeastern Wayanad. Their main occupation is as hunter-gatherers and they are the most prominent collectors in this region. They live in very small settlements, sometimes with only 5-8 households. Prior to the increased forest restrictions, they were once a group shifted often and their livelihoods were based on food gathering, yet due to present day limited access to the forest they have now had to focus more on labour. In addition, they are known for their expert skills in basketry. There is little known about their origin and early history, though they consider themselves as one of the autochtons (original inhabitant of a place) of the Western Ghats and in the plains of Tamil Nadu have claimed that they migrated from Andra Pradesh and were once servants of the Pallava Kings. They refer to their own language as namma basha, which literally translates as our language.
They are one of the smaller Nilgiri tribes with a population of about 1500 that are spread throughout the Nilgiris among ~60 settlements. They are known for being nomadic pastoralists who look after their herds of semi-domesticated buffalo. Hence, they are mostly found among the hills or upper plateaus where there are natural shola grasslands that are necessary for the buffalo to graze. With their buffalo they also practice dairying and are strictly vegetarian having mainly a diet of milk products and millets/cereals.
Grasslands are significant to the lives of the Toda however, they have had to convert some of the land for agriculture purposes, albeit cultivation is not a preferred form of livelihood. Nevertheless, the grasslands and their buffalo that roam them are held as sacred and much of the Toda rituals are related to this animal and the milk it provides. They also have a practice of burning the grasslands through fire control, which is meant to help maintain a healthy ecosystem and even indirectly provides a higher yield of honey.
Collecting honey is also a major part of their livelihoods, being also part of their sacred beliefs, such as with mythology and names of rivers. They have a very distinct practice with honey collection in which they refer to their ancestral trees (handed down from father to son) as sirfs and from the cavities of these trees they collect the honey of Apis cerana. When taking the honey comb they do not use any fire or smoke, but merely blow into the cavity to calm and move the bees, and then extract the honey. Thus the brood is not destroyed in the honey collection process and insures that the colony returns every year.
Another unique feature of the Toda community is their style of dress known as Puthukulli that is made of thick cotton and with distinct patterns of the colors red, blue, and/or black. The women are also known for wearing long ringlets in their hair, which is kept in shape with the use of buffalo ghee. The villages are referred to as munds and the traditional shape of home are rounded huts that are made with different resources from the forest. Nowadays these types of homes are less common to live in, yet every village still has a sacred mund style hut for a temple and a place to store the buffalo milk. Their belief system is mostly based on the divine beings such as Tokisy, On, and Kwatene. In addition, they not only have a great respect and knowledge of the land (inclusive of the fauna and flora) but also revere the natural world as sacred.
This hunter gatherer community is found in the southern and eastern slopes of Nilgiris, and are also spread throughout much of Tamil Nadu. It is believed by anthropologists that the Irulas were not originally found in the hills but were and are a people more of the plains. Likely they moved up to the hills while doing their slash and burn cultivation. In addition to agriculture such as subsistence farming with tea and coffee, the Irulas also hunt and gather food. This includes honey collection, which is done mainly with Apis dorsata and Apis cerana.
They also collect medicinal plants and other NTFPs, much of which they gather in volume in order to trade. Overall, their form of livelihood is a mix between hunter-gathering, wage labor, and agriculture, such as rearing cattle and cultivating land. When honey hunting they use much of the same tools as Kurumbas, such as burning leaves as a smoker (they refer to as Raja Tulasi) for protection and making rope ladder from certain tree fibres. In this honey collection tradition they also perform spiritual rituals like refusing to eat meat prior to the hunt or praying on the honey rock (the cliff where hives can be found).
In addition, they designate some cliffs as sacred, believing spirits live in them, and thus do not harvest from there but send a small prayer during the season. When potential honey hives are found prior to the collection season they mark with tobacco to warn other people that they comb has been claimed. Once honey is collected, the first of the harvested comb will be offered as a gratitude to the gods in three different directions. The Irulas also are known for the sacred groves that they call “thoga” and their burial sites that they refer to as “koppe”.
From whom Kotagiri, one of the Nilgiri districts, was named. In total, there are seven Kota villages dispersed throughout the hills. They are best known for being the artisans of the various adivasis in the Nilgiri. Their artisan skills include being: blacksmiths, tanners, rope makers, carpenters, potters and gold and silversmiths. In addition, to bartering the artisanal goods and services as a form of livelihood they also cultivate land for various crops like grains and herbs.
Their pottery goods and tools were once especially traded with the Badaga and Toda communities before being replaced by more modern equipment, yet their artisanal goods are still desired for ritualistic purposes. It is the women of the village who shape and mold the distinct style of Kota pottery and the men contribute by helping to construct the wheel and digging for the clay. The main deities for the Kota are Ainor, Amnor, and Kamtraaya (creator of the universe). Each village will have two temples that are dedicated to the Ainor and Amnor, and their most significant festival is to commemorate Kamtraaya at the onset of their annual cycle of rituals.
This group is the largest ethno-linguistic entity within the Nilgiri territory of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, consisting of over 200,000 people. It is unclear as to their origin, with some speculating that they came to the hills around the 16th century after the termination of the Vijaynagar Empire while others think it was earlier when they came given that they are regarded as one of the main indigenous communities of the plateau (along with the Todas and Kotas). They used to gather honey and wax up to the 1800s but this practice has since ceased, and now they are more tillers and herdsmen, as well as avid businessmen. They are one of the groups to have modernized the most with ease and can be found in a variety of vocations and forms of livelihood, nonetheless are still regarded as an agricultural community.
A very small community of only about 200-400 individuals that live in relative isolation in the Karulai Forest Range of Nilambur, found in the western part of the NBR, in of Kerala. They are a particularly vulnerable tribal entity and are one of the most primitve indigenous groups, even being considered at the pre-agricultural level of development. They live in temporary shelters alongside rivers an then shift to caves during the monsoon season. Often their shelters are huts made of reed, grass, and bamboo that can be found underneath rock overhangs.
The traditional leader of a clan, referred to as Jenmakkaran, is also regarded as the priest and healer. Thus he will make the medicines for his people, which comes directly from the forest. However, this tribe has a stronger belief in their gods healing them as compared to the herbs they collect. They keep their worship site inside the forest, which include terracotta figures of various images (i.e. elephants, lamps) and baskets that hold their idols, which they take from home and bring to the forest during puja. In addition, they pray to their ancestors. Their belief for how they originated was that a huge flood occurred in the blue hills, which a swept a couple to present day Maanchery, and whose offspring became the Cholainacken tribe.
They are very forest dependent and like many other tribes of the NBR, collect honey. The elderly are skilled at attracting honey bees to certain trees and do so by finding particular trees where the wind is not too strong and then make the trees visible by clearing the plants around it. Typically the honeybees will build nests midway on the tree and the honey hunters will stand on the branches to collect the honey. They learn their honey hunting skills by observing their parents and will accompany the adults into the forest during the seasonal harvest. It is around the age of 20 when a young man is considered old enough to have the skill to climb a tree and safely harvest honey from the Apis dorsata hives.
They will generally go honey hunting in groups of two. As stated previously, the Cholaickens have a spiritual connection to nature and regard the forest and rocks as sacred because they believe that Maladeivam (God of hills) resides within the forest. Thus when certain rocks (cliffs) are deemed sacred, such as the Thali varai, they will not harvest honey from the place. This is another example of the God cliff tradition among the NBR tribes and inadvertently ensures a gene pool for the honeybees in that area. Unfortunately, these people suffer the prevalence of anemia within this tribe, in addition to most members being underweight and weak. This adds to the general concern of the dwindling population of this group.
The Kasabas live in the forested habitats of the northern part of the Nilgiri district, in between the Nilgiris base and the Moyar River. In some cases they are lumped with different tribal groups in the different regions of the NBR, such as with the Irula in the Nilgiri region and then with the Uralis and Sholigas of the Bilgirirangan Hills found in southeast Karnataka. They have about 80 households and often can be found settled near areas rich in wildlife. By being adept in the forest, as well as dependent upon it, this makes them good NTFP collectors. The Kasabas will collect the NTFPs in bulk and sell it to traders. In terms of honey collection, they have two seasons the first being from June-July and referred to as Karbogha while the other, as well as considered better, is in August and referred to as Mungar. They do a bit of agriculture with seasonal millet and vegetable, however the land is mostly barren due to water shortage and often the crops are destroyed by wildlife. Other forms of livelihood they take up are wage labor by herding cattle for the Badaga community and hunting small animals.
The Paniyans live mostly in the Wayanad region of Kerala and some are in areas near Mudumalai of Tamil Nadu. Their population is small in size with only ~6000 people. Their features suggest them to be of African decent. There is even speculation that their ancestors were African slaves brought to Malabar coast of India to work on coffee plantations. However, their origin is still strongly debatable. For certain, they were once slaves in India, being forced to work for rich land owning communities. They no longer are forced to work as slaves, but they still often do hard labor work, such as agricultural tasks in the marshy valley habitats. In fact, the name Paniyan is a modification of the Malayalam word for work “Panikkar”, which means labourer. They have been described by early writers as a daring tribe because of their ability to hunt large and dangerous animals like tigers and panthers with only spears and nets. Outside of agriculture labor, they are a hunter-gatherer people, collecting mostly roots and herbs. In this region, they have had much difficulty obtaining access to land and work, which has caused many major issues for this community.
Mudugas/ Muduvas/Mudvans –
The name Muduvar or Muduvan actually means aboriginal or ancestral people. They are one of the tribal groups of the NBR that has a small population and can be found near the area of Boluvampatty within the Coimbatore Hills. Additionally, they are considered a endogamous group that often marries into the Kurumba tribe. They mostly live in the upper plateau areas where they are adjacent to the Tropical Evergreen Forests, and here they own large amounts of land for which they cultivate both for cash crops and food. However, recently there have been more restrictions on their access to the forest and they have even been dispossessed of some of their land that was initially given by the Forest Department.
Much of what they mainly grow includes beans, cardamom, and pepper. They also still rely heavily upon the forest for their livelihood, from which they collect NTFPs like honey. They mostly collect honey from Apis cerana. However, they are also one of the few tribal communities that will scale a cliff to collect wild honey and do so by climbing down a rope that they design with loops for footholds. Then they collect the honey in steel or metal alloy vessels. Prior to the honey collection season they will worship in the forest. Overall, they have a very thorough knowledge of the forest and its medicinal properties, nonetheless their livelihoods are more based upon agriculture.
Another hunter-gatherer group, they are mostly found within the Karnataka region of the NBR, mainly between Bandipur and Biligirirangan. They depend heavily on the forest for their livelihoods, such as honey, lichen, and gooseberry. They also participate in different agricultural practices, like shifting their cultivation practice to their staple diet of ragi during seasonal agriculture. They mostly collect NTFPs but due to forest restrictions have had to start contracting more with plantation labor. Right before a honey hunt they do not eat meat. The first comb harvested is always offered to the tribal god as well as thrown in three directions as an offering.
Uralis are a honey collecting tribe that gathers this wild substance from both cliffs and trees. They typically go in groups of 10-25 people and practice similar honey hunting skills as other tribes: making a fire at the bottom of a cliff to smoke away bees, constructing a strong rope made of bark fiber that can last 4-5 years, collecting honey in a vessel (referred to as kurke dabba). They often do not collect wax.
This group lives in places of low elevation and down to the plateau region, such as in the district of Coimbatore as well as adjoining parts of Kerala. Their livelihood includes NTFP collection, being a community that relies mostly on the forest, and they also practice marginal cultivation (slash and burn). However, they mostly earn for their livelihood through wage labor, and there are those (mostly young generation) who are working regular jobs as well as those who practice settled agriculture.
One of the tribal groups found in the Wayanad region of the NBR and are believed to be one of the earliest communities that inhabited these hills. They are reputed for being excellent archers and are historically known for revolting against the British alongside the forces of the Pazzhasi Raja. A unique feature of this indigenous community is the fact that they are the only matrilineal (kinship based on female line) in South India. Thus the women participate in many chore activities that many might consider masculine, such as: agricultural operations, animal husbandry, collecting fuel, fishing, and more. Traditionally they were shifting cultivators as well as hunters but now mostly farm (most land will be owned by the lineages as opposed to just individual owners) or work as farm laborers.
Small in population, this tribe is spread throughout Northern part of Tamil Nadu and Southern part of Kerala in two distinct groups that speak their own language – The Wayanadan Chettis that live in Kerala and the Manthadan Chettis who live in the Mudumalai sanctuary zone. A similarity between these two groups is that they are both cultivators and have bee known to hire the Paniyas as their farm-laborers.
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. His reason for continuing honey hunting is simply for happiness; it is a passion which also helps to sustain his family.
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 that 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!
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. Even more eyebrow rising is the fact he was taught by both his mother and father how to honey hunt. Hence this now male dominant tradition (at least in the Nilgiris) was once shared between the sexes. I have heard of only one legend of a female honey hunter from generations back but there has yet to be an explanation for why the practice has ceased among the women.Maybe it will never be explained. Maybe there is no explanation.
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. 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. Thus the honey collection method will sustain, yet against the unfortunate recent trend of the honey quantity lessening. With less forests, less flowering plants, and therefore less bees, this seasonal livelihood source might also become less. Hopefully changes will come for the better.
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.
Traditions that incorporate conservation practices
The practice of wild honey collection, even when done with the utmost regard for the environment and natural systems, still has a negative impact on the honeybees in the end. The very apparent harmful impact is the fact that the honey is the main source of food for the honeybees, especially for the brood. Honey hunting is even more harmful when it is done out of complete disregard for the honey bees. For instance, some honey hunting has involved the destruction of an entire hive by putting direct fire on the comb, thus much of the brood and adult bees will be killed. However, there are ways in which the varying tribes of the Nilgiris have sought to make their practices more sustainable. For example, most honey hunters nowadays will only put smoke near the hive to encourage them to temporarily abscond the nest, as opposed to directly burning the colony.
Since the honeycombs on cliffs are at a 45 degree angle, only part of the hive attached to the cliff will have the honey. Thus, with proper dexterity (of course, while dangling from a cliff) a skilled honey hunter can stab out only the honey portion of the comb and leave the rest of it attached to the cliff, which is comprised of the brood.
This method can also be done on a tree if part of the brood section (non-honey comb) is attached to the branch. By not bringing down the whole comb this ensures the survival of the next generation of the colony and the insurance of sustaining that species.
There are some sustainable practices of honey hunting that are as ancient as the relationship between the people and their connection with the honeybees. One such practice can be referred to as God Cliffs. Among the handful of Nilgiri tribes who honey hunt on cliffs, they will designate some of the cliffs as sacred and strictly leave them untouched. This is done out of spiritual consideration with the cliff being believed to have a divine connection. However it is also an intentional way to maintain ecological balance by allowing some colonies to thrive and regenerate. This help to ensure that these honeybees return every year and that the species will be sustained.
Among the Toda tribe, there is a distinct practice with honey hunting. They are highly skilled at collecting honey from the parallel combs of Apis cerana found within tree cavities. When they collect the honey there is no use of smoke or tools to harvest the honey comb. Rather they breathe into the cavity to move the bees and keep them calm, then stick one hand inside and pull out only the honey comb. Any of the combs with the bee brood is left untouched. This system of wild collection is even more ecologically sound given no irritants, such as smoke, are used. Sometimes with cliff hunting, it is only possible to collect honey by bringing down an entire hive, thus harming all the brood of that hive. This method ensures that most of the brood will survive.
There is also an awareness that honeybees prefer healthy forests. If the forests are not healthy then there will not be a surplus of flowering plants for the bees to collect nectar from and to pollinate. As stated before, honeybees need to collect nectar and make honey for themselves as a food source, thus when resources are not available they leave that area to find what they need. For the past few years, the number of combs in the Nilgiris have reduced in conjunction with the gradual felling of forests. All these natural systems are interconnected, so forests must be maintained in a healthy state for the honeybees to thrive and for the people to have a honey source.
Spiritual connection in relation to honey hunting
Honey Hunting is to collect wild honey, a NTFP (non-timber forest product) that supplies a necessary nutritional source to the people who gather it. Honey hunting is a means to make a profit, a direct supply and demand between those who collect this honey and those who want to consume this sweet commodity from the forest. Honey Hunting is also a deeply spiritual process, one that has developed for thousands of years alongside the practice itself and still remains significant today.
Before the honey hunting season begins, even weeks prior, there are several rituals that must be done. The honey hunters will do weeks of fasting, daily prayers to the spirits for blessings on the upcoming honey hunt, and will bathe often. Some of these honey collectors will even go so far as to remain abstinent until the season comes. The goal is to obtain excellent focus for the intense experience of honey gathering, especially in regards to cliffs. It is impertinent to be cleansed not only of the body but also the mind, as in one must approach the honey hunt with pure thoughts. The indigenous groups who practice honey hunting have a strong regard for the forest and a belief that the forest deities who dwell there strongly favor honey hunting.
As the season approaches, the priest of the village (pujari) will be consulted to set a date and time for when the honey hunt should begin. Cliff hunting is given even further spiritual regard such that the cliff climbers call the rock (the cliff) their mother, the rope their father, and the tree on top of the cliff their older brother. Cliff hunting is incredibly risky and requires great trust in one’s own ability and those of one’s teammates. With a strong belief in the forest deities, and that they have a say over how well the honey hunt goes, it is no wonder that the nature and tools are regarded in such a familial manner.
There is even a spiritual practice with the tools. For example, in some instances materials such as iron will be prohibited from use and only bamboo will be allowed as a stabbing tool. It is believed that if iron is used to cut a honey comb then the following year, on the same tree, honey will not be produced again. One of the most unique spiritual practices in regards to honey hunting is that only specified cliffs will be harvested while the rest are left untouched. The cliffs that will not be harvested for their honey are called God Cliffs – there is a strong belief that only certain cliffs should be used for honey collection while the others have a divine connection and should be regarded with reverence.
Spiritual songs are also a significant part to this process. During a climb, mantras will be sung to help protect the honey gatherers from bee stings.
Kunna Athigde Kacha Beda
Dhodda Athidge Kacha Beda
“Younger sister don’t bite me
Older sister don’t bite me”
Songs are also sung after successful honey harvest, while eating honey and even bee brood collected from the combs, as a way to celebrate in the village a good honey collection.
As mentioned in another section, song are a major part to the honey hunting process. They often tell of the relationship between the honey hunter and the honeybee, as well as are a way to connect and show respect to nature. Below are a few examples of song, their recordings, and translations. As this website progresses, hopefully too will the recordings of these songs increase:
Bee Song sung by Ramichandran
Kunna Athigde Kacha Beda
Dhodda Athidge Kacha Beda
“Younger sister don’t bite me
Older sister don’t bite me”
Kurumba Song during honey hunt
The text will go here