Home

Penan Naikas Bushmen



Discovering the hill tribes of the Western Ghats, India...

Karumbas, Irulas, Paniyas and Kattu-Naikas





I arrived in Bangalore in February 2009, it was the winter dry season in southern India although the temperatures were already in the 30's signifying that summer was coming early this year.

My destination was the Nilgiri hills which straddle the border between the Indian provinces of Kerela in the west and Tamil Nadu in the east.

The word 'hills' does not really do them justice however, with peaks reaching nearly 2700m they are twice as high as the Grampian mountains in Scotland. Their slopes are carpeted with thick, impenetrable forests, home to tigers, leopards, elephants, bears, bison, deer, wild boars and a host of other smaller mammals, birds and reptiles. To walk through these hills is to take a journey back in time to an age when Eurasia was filled with such wildlife.

On the margins of these forests and in the valleys that have been cleared for agriculture live a host of ancient tribes, each one both culturally and racially distinct from the others. Agriculturist Badagas, pastoralist Todas with their herds of buffalo and beehive huts, artisan Kotas and dark skinned Paniyas, and spread amongst them former hunter-gatherers who now live a more settled lifestyle raising crops and working in the plantations.

These hunter-gatherer folk include the Irulas, the Karumbas and from the deep forest the Naikens. These are ancient peoples who have dwelt in the forest for thousands of years, their knowledge and connection to the spirits of the forest were second to none. It was said that they could call upon supernatural forces and work black-magic and so they acted as spiritual intermediaries between the world of the forest and the more settled folk living on its margins.

To meet a Kurumba while walking in the forest could mean instant death, and there is more than one account of more settled folk dying of shock from encountering a Karumba while out walking in the forest; but even these Karumbas held in awe the power of the deep forest dwellers, the Naikens, the 'lords of the woods'.

Did the lords of the woods still exist? And if so, would I be able to meet with them? This was what I set off to find out...

DAY 1

THEPPAKADU

Traveling by bus from Bangalore via Mysore I arrived at Masinagudi in the eastern foothills of the Nilgiris. There I tranferred via jeep to the Secret Ivory lodge where I enquired about a guide with knowledge of the hill tribes. I was put in contact with Solomon, a pastor at the local pentecostal church who did work for an organisation called the Grace Charitable Trust, an organisation that helped tribal children with schooling. Now a Christian would not be my first choice for a guide but Solomon seemed to be open minded and had a good knowledge of the local tribes as well as a fluent command of the English language, so I decided to take him on and we agreed to meet the next day.

Solomon arrived in his Indian made Mahindra jeep the next morning and we set off through the forests of the Mudamalai Tiger Reserve towards our first destination, a Karumba village near the settlement of Theppakadu. Solomon had informed me that most of the tribals had been resettled in government built housing, but my aim was to find the least assimilated and most authentic peoples so I told him to take me to a village where the locals still lived in traditional dwellings.

Arriving at the village my first feeling was one of disappointment. I was expecting houses made from forest products but instead I was greeted by the sight of concrete looking houses with corrugated iron roofs. I later discovered that the 'concrete' was in fact made from cow dung mixed with clay, but these were not the traditional houses of forest-dwelling, nomadic, hunter-gatherers. The houses may have been 'traditional' but it was not the Karumba tradition we were looking at here.

The houses were arranged around a central gathering place that looked like a roofed pavilion, here ceremonies were occasional conducted but more commonly people just sat there in the shade and chatted. By the entrances to each house women dressed in saris, and small children, gazed at us as we pulled up in our jeep and strolled into the centre of their village.

We were met by an old woman, barefooted like all the people here and wearing a simple patterned sheet wrapped around her body. We settled down under the pavilion and I was just about to start questioning her when out of a hut opposite hobbled a tiny-framed person, cowled and supported by a thin walking-stick. The figure hobbled over painfully slowly and I couldn't work out if it was some crazy beggar about to accost us or if the cowl would be drawn back to reveal Lord Yoda!

As it turned out it was neither, it was an incredibly old woman called Kullamma (meaning small-lady) who once she stopped hobbling and raised her head was incredibly animated with flashing green eyes. She assured us that she was over 100 years old and had a mentally retarded son to look after! She was a perfect caricature, with skin browned and wrinkled by the sun, chaotic grey hair, one lonesome tooth, a big black wart on her nose, and one very long toenail! She had a dirty old sheet tied around her as a dress and another one knotted around her shoulders as a cloak. In in the same hand that held her cane she also held a small bag of belongings.

She talked constantly, you couldn't stop her! But she listened dutifully to all my questions (Solomon was translating for me) before entering into another animated tirade where as well as answering my questions she talked about all and sundry including her poor state and the handicapped son she had to feed.

Kullamma sat down in the shade next to us and I asked her if the Karumbas still collected food from the forest, she said no, the young people are not interested, she is the very last that remembers such things. The other woman mentioned that they are afraid to go to the forest now because of the aggressive elephants. I noticed a sheet covered in nuts drying in the sun and asked about them. They were collected from bushes nearby and would be sold to make vegetable oil. Absolutely nothing now was collected from the forest for their food.

She then proceeded to spit out a big glob a bright red betel-nut which she had been chewing! Betel nut is a stimulant chewed by many of the tribal people, especially the older ones.

Noticing the round, black spots tattooed across her forehead and chest I asked her about them and she showed me more tattoos on her back and arms. They were her tribal tattoos signifying the stars that she was born under. Each persons future, she said, was written in their birth stars, and if one wanted to know what was happening 'in the stars' one had only to take a plate and pour onto it water mixed with turmeric, this could then be used for divination.

I had a hard time making sense of what Solomon was telling me so I kept asking for clarification, eventually Kullamma got bored and returned to her favourite subject which was her poverty and handicapped son, she asked me for 200 rupees and another 100 for taking her photo! Everyone thought this was a great hoot and an outrageous sum to ask for, they were all laughing including Solomon, but I gave her a hundred and thanked her for talking to us. She seemed pleased enough with that and hobbled off back to her hut.

We had intended to visit more Karumba settlements nearby but these people seemed too far removed from their past to give me insights into the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, so I decided to try elsewhere.

VEDANVAYAL

We continued down the road towards Gudalur and after about 15km turned off down a small track which led through a shallow cultivated valley surrounded by forest. At the end of the valley we parked the jeep and continued on foot, up the side of the valley into a small settlement of Paniyas called Vedenvayal (Hunters-field).

The Paniyas are dark-skinned people who some say are descended from migrant workers from Africa, but to me they looked much more like Australian Aboriginals than Africans, which would mean that they were a very ancient people indeed. We were greeted by the headman whose name was Belli and by his toothy, betel-nut chewing wife, who sat on the veranda of her traditional-looking house which was made of cow-dung and clay with a grass roof.

Traditionally the Paniyas have always been serfs, working for people higher up the social scale, but in the past, Belli told us, they used to hunt for their food also. Using bow and arrow they would take down spotted deer, wild pigs, rabbit and fowl (but never any larger game). Belli remembers this, he tells me, but nowadays they're not allowed to hunt. They're not allowed to take anything from the forest at all, he says. Technically this is not true, the official line is that tribals are allowed to collect from the forest anything that they need to build their houses or maintain their traditional lifestyle. They are not however allowed to sell anything that they take from the forest.

The reality however is somewhat different. India is a country of endemic corruption. Forest officials, if they catch tribals collecting in the forest will accuse them of poaching or of taking forest products for profit. They will then expect a large bribe, failure to comply will mean arrest, harressment and imprisonment. The result of this is that most of the tribal people are now too afraid to collect anything from the forest at all, even the most basic of supplies such as grass for their roofs. They are now totally dependant on the cash crops that they grow around their settlements and upon low-paid wage labour.

What about their religious beliefs I asked, had they survived? Belli told us that they worship the tribal god called Kuliyan. He took me around the back of the house and about 30m away there was a grove of trees containing a shrine roughly laid out in stones. There they make offerings to their god. Just beyond the grove of trees I couldn't help noticing a newly build and very traditional-looking house with a fresh grass roof.

“Who lives there?”, I asked.

“My neighbour,” he replied, “He's Kattu-Naiken.”

The Kattu-Naikas (or 'Forest Nayakas') were once the most primitive of tribes, nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived only in the deep jungle, but this house was very neat and clean and made with great care. It's owner, who strolled over to say hello, was a very friendly and amenable chap with neatly trimmed hair and beard. He was wearing a checked shirt and a brightly coloured lungi and had a gap-toothed smile stained with betel-nut.

He said that he moved here recently to stay with two other Kattu-Naiken families who had been settled here for a while. Next door he was building a new house for his sister.

The curious thing though is that although all these tribes live in and around each other in a fantastically complicated patchwork quilt of settlements, they never intermarry, marriage is always within ones own tribe, so tribal culture and identity is still maintained despite these complex settlement patterns.

But of course some assimilation does occur, neighbours dress and customs are adopted, as are the neighbours gods and religion. This Kattu-Naiken man had built himself a little private temple, inside he worships Hindu gods as well as the Paniya god Kuliyan. Again he tells the same story of corrupt officials, even when he collects the grass for his roof he's taking a risk.

As we walk back down the hill to the jeep Solomon tells me that tribal people get special treatment, they are given money by the government to build themselves more modern houses and their children are sent to school and given free meals while they are there. The problem is that the money for the houses has to go through the hands of so many corrupt officials before it reaches the tribal people that by the time they get the money only 50% of it is remaining, this is not enough to build a house with but the tribal people are obliged to build the house anyway. No doubt the schools are teaching the children how to be good Indian citizens and teach them nothing about their tribal culture and traditional way of life.

We got back in the jeep and set off back down the cultivated valley. As we drove down the valley an old tribal guy flagged us down and started chatting to Solomon. He was pointing to the forest just beyond the fields.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Wild bison!” said Solomon.

As I gazed across the fields I could see several cows and at the edge of the forest what looked like another cow. Using my binoculars I could indeed see that it was indeed a wild bison, identifiable by it's long horns and white socks. It was grazing around some bushes. The workers in the fields were paying no attention to it. Surely in the past such an animal would have been taken for food? This one however seemed to have lost all fear of humans. It was a reminder both of how near the wildwood still was to these people, yet how excluded from it they now were.

We had just made it out of the valley when Solomon's friend Krisna, who had been sitting in the back of the jeep, noticed a trail of fresh oil behind the car. We stopped and discovered that we had an oil leek. Solomon called a mechanic friend of his and then we walked down the road to a nearby village to wait in a cafe. We drank tea and ate Ullivada (Spicy onion cakes) and Bonda (Sweet doughnut balls) and while we sat there shabbily-dressed people came and went to shop or drink tea. One of the arrivals though was of an entirely different caliber, very finely dressed in a brightly coloured and braided silk sari. She looked very elegant but indeed, but something wasn't quite right...

“Is that a transvestite?” I whispered to Solomon.

“Oh.. yes,” he said, looking quite embarrassed and grinning sheepishly.

Maybe you're just not meant to notice such things!

Our mechanic finally arrived and fixed the jeep. He a brought a new oil pipe over metre long and thick as a finger. The old one he just discarded by the side of the road. As we started to drive off I said to Solomon:

“Are you just going to leave that there?”

“What?”

“Don't you realise that oil pipe will probably still be lying there in a hundred years time?”, I didn't want to lecture him but I was getting quite annoyed with all the garbage and discarded rubbish in India.

“Oh yes, you're right!” he said.

He had a quick word with Krisna who got out, picked up the oil pipe, and threw it into the bushes! I was exasperated! I tried to explain to Solomon about environmental pollution but soon gave up as all he did was grin at me as if I was telling a good joke. You just can't explain it to them! It's so much in their culture to just throw garbage in the street and let the cows, dogs and other animals clear up the mess that they just don't get it. Plastic does not degrade and it's not edible! So consequently wherever you go in India you are faced with mounting piles of plastic garbage. On every street, every roadside, every field corner, every tourist attraction, in fact anywhere at all that people go it's the same. The country is chocking in it's own filth, not only from garbage but from the overwhelming air pollution which turns the skies permanently hazy and your snot permanently black!

This attitude is reflected in the way that the Indians see their tribal people also. They see nothing wrong with preventing tribal people from living from the forest, and instead making them dependant on consumer goods whose garbage chokes up their villages. Nor do they see anything wrong with preventing tribal people collecting grass for their roofs and making them resort to using sheets of bright blue plastic instead. And of course they should all wear modern clothes! A few of the more enlightened Indians can see that it is bad, but still they have the view that as soon as the tribals get educated, and get proper jobs and get some money coming in, then everything will be better for them.

And so they are forced to join our world, at the very lowest level of poverty, in an already poverty-ridden country. India may be developing fast, but still only 5% of the population of India earn enough money even to pay income tax! There is meant to be special government assistance for tribal people, but corrupt officials and a corrupt system ensure that tribal people never get the chance to advance themselves or improve their lot in life. This was what I was beginning to discover, and it would be confirmed again and again during my travels.

DAY 2

TEMPLE OF MURUGAN

I met up with Solomon again and this time we decided to head south, into an area where Irula tribesmen lived, but first I wanted to investigate sounds of music and festivities that were coming from the top of a nearby hill. Solomon told me that there was a Hindu festival going on there and that Irula tribesmen would be attending.

It didn't take long to reach the top. Solomon drove the jeep all the way up to the temple, as we passed by the pilgrims on the way, making their way up on foot.

Irula musicians are famous for their music and are in demand at festival times. This was no exception and we soon spotted a group of Irula musicians dressed in white and playing ancient looking drums and pipes. People were dancing and enjoying themselves, while other were selling food and drinks, it had the atmosphere of a village fête.

A guy motioned to me and handed me a big plate made from leaves on which was placed some rice with bean curry. The food is handed out free to pilgrims during the festival. I ate it with my fingers, as is the custom here, while people stared at me curiously.

After eating I went over to the temple where the priest was distributing blessing to the pilgrims in the form of white powder pressed into the forehead.

He motioned me towards the shrine where the golden idol of the god Murugan sat enshrined in flowers and was attended to by the temple priests.

After prompting from the Brahman I passed my hands over a flame, pressed white powder to my forehead and paid my respects to the god. The priest assured me that Murugan would bring me health, prosperity and whatever my heart most desired! The priests themselves though must have been a bit hard up as they then asked me for a donation. The gods, it seems, can always do with a bit more cash!

Solomon told me that the priests were Irulas. The animist beliefs of the tribal people are not so different from Hindu beliefs, so Hindu gods are easily adopted by the tribals, and the Hindus themselves will sometimes adopt local tribal gods or gods from another tribe, as I had already seen.

KOILPATTY

We drove back down the hill towards an area known as Bokkapuram and arrived at the village of Koilpatty to be greeted by the sight of a collection of ramshackle dwellings. The stouter ones were made of cow dung and clay with corrugated-iron roofs, while the more traditional ones were lop-sided dwellings of bamboo with roofs made from blue plastic sheeting. The bamboo was waterproofed by having old plastic sacks hung over it while the plastic roof was held in place by a few randomly placed branches.

Outside one of the former dwellings sat an old, bearded man wearing a turban. This was the Irula healer that I had come to see and his name was Bairan. His eyes were bleary-red from chewing betel nut all his life, but he seemed quite jolly and laid-back and was more than happy to answer all my questions.

He said that he healed people using the power of his god, whose idol he kept in his house. When he conducted a ceremony the spirit of the god would enter him and then he could use this power to heal people. His beliefs were basically Hindu and showed no difference from mainstream Hindu belief.

I asked him if anyone still went to the forest to hunt or collect food but he said emphatically no. It was seven generations ago since his people were moved out of the forest and now they get all their food from the market, supplemented by what little they can grow around their settlements. I asked him why they didn't go to the forest to collect building materials for their houses, but it was the same story I had heard before, if the forest rangers caught them in the forest they would punish them. He was aware that legally they were allowed to collect from the forest for their own needs but like everyone else he knew that the reality was different. It wasn't worth taking the risk of being punished by corrupt officials.

It seemed like nothing at all still existed here of the traditional Irula way of life. Although they still had their own language and identified themselves as Irulas they had been almost completely assimilated; but that was not to be the end of their woes. The government has now decided that these people are in the way of a proposed wildlife corridor for migrating elephants. So seven generations after being moved out of the forest, all the villages in this area now face being relocated once again.

RETURN TO THE TEMPLE OF MURUGAN

As dusk approached we returned to the temple to watch the festival finale. The festival had been going on for ten days, and at the end of the last day the god was to be removed from the sanctity of the temple and paraded around it in a processional cart.

We arrived to find the party in full swing, with musicians playing their instruments while most of the people were dancing.

It took a while but eventually the god was removed from his shrine and placed on the processional cart which was decked in flowers, gaudy Christmas decorations and strip lights. All the youths then gathered around the cart and stared pushing its large, spoked wheels by hand. In this slow fashion was the cart paraded three times sunwise around the temple, while the temple priests walked ahead and handed out blessings to the eager pilgrims. Apart from the strip lights and glitter it was a scene almost as old as civilization itself. Our own Indo-European ancestors used similar processional carts when worshipping their ancient gods and this must surely come from that same incredibly ancient tradition.

The old priest that I had met earlier came up and greeted me with a smile and explained what was going on. The white powder that he had anointed me with was still stuck to my forehead. Suddenly he stopped talking and started dancing furiously like a new-age hippy at a rave and spun off into the crowd!

After completing three revolutions of the temple the priests remove the god Murugan reverently from the cart while the pilgrims crowd around, then they all starting moving up onto the temple platform until the whole crowd is gathered around the shrine. As the god is placed back in his shrine the pilgrims begin to chant and clap. The clapping is very sharp and precise, and reminded me of the clapping of the bushwomen as their men entered a trance. Suddenly the speed of the clapping doubles, so that two claps replace one. How they all can clap so quickly and so precisely astonishes me. Suddenly the clapping stops and the priests start to make speeches over a microphone. I get a sense that the ceremony is over and Solomon confirms that they are now just giving thanks and awards to people who have contributed. We head back into the night and leave the lights of the temple behind.

DAY 3

I met up with Solomon again in the morning and decided to visit the hunter's temple which was built to mark the spot where Lord Shiva gave a bow and arrow to a local hero. Along the way we saw many elephants by the roadside.

A Dutch couple, who just happened to be passing by at the same time on bicycles, stopped to have a look at some of the elephants too. Solomon got very anxious and told the Dutch couple to keep moving, the elephants can sometimes be very aggressive and dangerous!

Next we drove to Gudalur to visit a local astrology 'clinic' and then a hospital which treated tribal people. The hospital looked pretty chaotic and run-down, it was hot and cramped and full of tribal people waiting to be seen to. They looked rather out of place in the semi-modern building with it's offices and health posters.


CHOKKANALLY

Solomon and I would visit one more Irula settlement before we parted company. The village was called Chokkanally and there we would visit a local tribal healer.

On the way we to the settlement we had to pass through a gate where some officials were stationed. Chokkanally is in a designated tribal area and is officially off-limits to those without a permit, but luckily for me Solomon was a regular there and often passed through to offer help to the local children, so we were waved right though without any hassles.

Once in the village we went to greet the healer who's name was Mutuen. He was a jolly looking fellow wearing a white turban and a sly grin. He took us back to his house which was made of cow dung and clay with a grass roof, but a brand new house made of bricks was also under constuction.

Sat outside his house was a man and wife with a couple of small children. They were dressed in typical Indian style with the woman in a sari and her husband in a shirt and long pants. Despite their appearance Mutuen said that they had just come out of the forest, and that the woman was possessed by evil spirits which make her pass out for about half an hour regularly. Solomon was not at all surprised by this and said that it was a common problem amongst the forest people, about one in ten people who entered the forest would get possessed by evil spirits.

Mutuen went inside his house and prepared the shrine to his tribal goddess by first placing a silk cloth by the wall and placing the idol of his goddess upon it. He then arranged freshly cut flowers around the goddess and lit incense sticks and an oil candle. Finally he placed offerings that the husband had brought which consisted of a few food items and a small amount of money, along with limes, brightly coloured powders and leaves containing palm nuts. As he does this he passes smoke and flame over the shrine and rings a clear sounding bell to purify the sacred space and drive out unwanted influences.

We all go inside the house and sit by the shrine. The woman who is possessed kneels in front of the shrine and Mutuen, who is sitting by the shrine, starts the 'exorcism' by pressing a lime to the woman's head and chanting. The woman starts to sway and Mutuen presses his lips against the lime and blows. He repeats this several times and the woman starts to sway more and more until she collapses. She mutters something about feeling intoxicated while Mutuen sits her upright again and continues.

Mutuen cuts the lime in half and rubs the lime juice into her scalp and then her neck. He appears to be feeling his way into the right spots to place the lime. He rubs coloured powder into the lime and then rubs that into her scalp also. He then appears to be drawing the evil spirit out of her head by tracing a line with his hand from her head to the ground at an angle. He repeats this over and over, but is not so engrossed in his work that he cannot stop and chat with Solomon half way through!

He continues with the rubbing, blowing and drawing out until eventually he announces that the spirit is now under his control. The woman will not get any more problems but she must come back in 15 days so that the spirit can be completely removed. She then collapses on the floor, her head facing the shrine, and her husband gives thanks to the goddess and then tends to his wife.

When questioned afterwards the woman said that she was conscious throughout the whole process but felt dizzy and disorientated. She said that it felt like her body was enlarged and that things were moving around inside her. It was strange to watch something so obviously ancient as this and to see people so thoroughly devout and believing. These were not new-age hippies trying to patch together ceremonies from a lost tradition, this tradition was still alive, and had been alive for thousands of years, an unbroken chain of belief stretching into the unimaginably ancient past. To these people it was as real today as it had ever been and formed part of their world-view.

Even Solomon, a Christian, could not deny that these evil spirits existed and needed to be driven out of the possessed people. He said that he had performed these exorcisms himself using the power of God. When asked where he thought the traditional healers power came from he said that he didn't know, but surmised that perhaps more powerful demons can drive out lesser demons!

“So what will happen in 15 days time?” I asked.

“The spirit will ask for an offering before it leaves the woman's body. We do not know what it will ask for, it may be a chicken, or some alcohol or tobacco, we do not know until it asks. Once the spirit leaves her the healer will capture it and place it in a bottle.”

“A bottle?!” I exclaim, “You mean like a genie in a bottle?”

“Exactly,” Solomon says.

So here's an explanation for the genie-in-a-bottle story! Quite an unexpected discovery for the day!

“Can the spirit decide that it doesn't want to leave the woman's body?” I ask.

Solomon pauses, “That can happen..” he says looking slightly concerned.


OOTY

My next destination was Ooty (Ootacamund), the administrative capital of the Nilgiri Hills area where I hoped to gain more information about the tribal people at the Tribal Research Centre and the Nilgiri Library.

Not wanting to take the bus I got Solomon to drive me up the long, steep winding road to Ooty. Ooty is one of the classic hill stations, built by the British to escape from the sweltering heat of the plains. Sitting high in the mountains at 2200m our jeep had to brave 36 consecutive hair-pin bends before reaching Ooty's dizzying heights, peering down I could see the foothills that we had just ascended from looking like distant tapestry far below.

If the town once had any colonial charm it now seems to have lost it in the now familiar rush of traffic, pollution, garbage and vile smells that now characterise most Indian towns. As well as being the administrative capital of the Nilgiris Ooty is also on the main tourist trail. The guesthouse that I was lodging in contained the usual array of western travellers, here for a quick trek through the hills before moving on to the next destination in their whistle-stop tour of the continent.

I was here hoping to get information. The tribes that I had visited so far had all been assimilated into mainstream Indian culture and had no remaining connection with their hunter-gatherer past. Surely somewhere in the vast expanses of the Western Ghats there were tribes who still lived in the forest, and lived from the forest, and were relatively untouched by outside influence?

Well Ooty seemed to be the place to find out, it had bookshops, the Nilgiris library, a tourist information office and, best of all, a tribal research centre with attached museum. I tried the bookshop first, called Higginbottoms, but it had nothing at all about the tribes. I tried the tourist information office, but it was closed. So, feeling a bit breathless from the high altitude I climbed up the hill to the Nilgiris library. There they proudly pointed out to me the eight volume collection of Franklins 'Tribes of Southern India' published in 1909. OK, interesting, but I'm really looking for some more recent information, where can I find the tribes today? The most recent book they had was called 'The Blue Hills' and was published in the 1980's, but they wouldn't let me look at it until I had paid a 200 rupee membership fee.

“You want to charge me 200 rupees to look at one book?” I exclaimed.

But they wouldn't be budged and so I grudgingly handed over the money. The book had some interesting information about Irula sacred sites, but nothing revelatory. I flicked through Franklin's volumes also and peered at old pictures of Irulas, Kurumbas and Nayakas, but there was still nothing to help me in my search.

In desperation I decided to try the other bookshop, another Higginbottoms. This one turned out to be better, it had books about the local area and about wildlife. I picked up a book about the Nilgiris which as well as a map had brief descriptions of each of the tribes. I also found a book called “Honey hunters and bee-keepers of Tamil-Nadu” which I flicked through and decided to buy. I didn't realise it at the time but it contained vital information.

Still I was feeling a bit peeved and I thought that my only hope now was the tribal research centre and museum. I hopped into an auto-rickshaw and travelled the 10km (the driver claimed it was 15) to the research centre. While the driver waited outside I went into the office and guy came out and accompanied up to the museum. I tried to ask him some questions about the tribes but soon gave up as he didn't seem to understand a word I was saying.

The museum just looked like big warehouse with a large shutter on the front. Somebody had a cut two vertical holes in the shutter to make a door and had then padlocked it back together using two padlocks. These the attendant dutifully unlocked and led me inside the museum. I tried to explain that I was only interested in hunter-gatherers, i.e. Irulas, Karumbas and Nayakas, but he didn't get it and just proceeded to lead me around the museum reeling off his well rehearsed lines. There was no point in me trying to ask anything so I just tagged along and had a closer look at items that interested me.

The displays were unimpressive, to say the least. Artlessly made wooden objects were collected into groups based on tribe and were covered in dust and cobwebs. If these items had indeed been made by tribal people then they looked like they were made by the last of their race who had already forgotten the skills of their forefathers. Basically it was junk. A handful of broken bows looked like they wouldn't have worked, even if they had not been already been snapped in two. A small collection of spears had metal points that looked like they'd been made by children in a back street garage. There were a couple of drums that looked OK, but were no better than the ones I'd seen Irula musicians using at the temple, and it struck me that that is where they probably came from. These were not ancient artifacts, they just looked like modern junk, recently collected.

He made me sign the visitors book. Looking at the entries I could see that no-one had been here for four days, I could understand why. My search had drawn a blank and so I had to get my auto-rickshaw driver to translate for me and ask if there was anyone there I could talk to about the tribes. The guy who had shown me around admitted that he only worked in the office, there were no researchers available, they were all at a conference in Chennai, on the opposite side of India!

The driver took me back into town and I handed over 400 rupees. I knew he was ripping me off but I couldn't be bothered to argue by this stage. What to do now? I decided to check the tourist information office once more and this time the gates were welcomingly open! I strode up the driveway and stepped inside, my hopes were not high, the inside was bare and contained one empty desk with a woman in a sari sitting behind it. I tried to explain to her that I was interested in meeting tribal people who still lived in the forest, but she didn't get it and just repeated to me some well rehearsed lines about the tribes that she probably gave to all the tourists.

Then at last I had a stroke of luck, a guy who was standing by the counter next to me overheard my conversation and saw the books I was carrying. He said that he was involved in the production of the book on the Nilgiris and he also gave me lots of information regarding the Keystone Foundation who had produced the Honey Hunters book that I was carrying. When I told him that my specific interest was in hunter-gatherers he then told me about the Chola-Naikas. They were still living nomadically in the forest he said, somewhere near Nilambur in Kerala. If I wanted to see them then I should contact the Kerala forest department in Nilambur.

I was excited, this was a breakthrough at last! I checked the map and saw that Nilembur was not far. Just 3 hours journey by bus. I decided to head there the very next day.

CONTACT DETAILS

Solomon is based in Masinagudi, Mudamalai, India

Tel: +91 9443461720 or +91 9943983741

You can contact me for more information: robt@jelldragon.com



Copyright © 2009 Robert H Taylor