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.
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.