Penan Naikas Bushmen

Looking for Kattu-Naikas, nomadic hunter-gatherers in the jungles of the Wayanad, Kerela, India...

The bus from Nilambur to Kalpetta climbed up a steep winding pass through dense jungle, the busy but narrow road was full of hair-pin bends where trucks, buses, cars and motorcycles all tried to overtake each other while honking their horns wildly in typical Indian fashion.

Arriving in Kalpetta I checked in to the PPS Tourist Home, it was a world away from the Nilembur manor hotel. Half the residents seemed to be western tourists, activities were organised for the tourists and a well serviced restaurant serving Indian and Western dishes was located next door. It was a great relief to be back somewhere where I could actually be understood and I took to the place at once.

The manager offered me a place on a tour the next day to visit the Muthanga wildlife sanctuary, Edakal caves and a waterfall, so I thought why not. I can relax and be a tourist for the day, and I might learn a bit about the area while I'm at it.


Our Jeep left the PPS tourist home in the pre-dawn light. I was accompanied by a Swiss couple, an Australian youth and our Indian driver, who I soon discovered hardly understood a single word of English, so I soon gave up trying to ask him any intelligent questions.

We arrived at Muthanga about an hour and a half later. The wildlife sanctuary is by the border with Tamil Nadu and actually forms part of the Nilgiri hills which I'd visited earlier around Masingudi. The whole area was of course part of the Western Ghats which stretch for hundreds of miles down the Western side of India.

The park covers several hundred square kilometres and is not fenced so it merely constitutes a specially protected area of the Western Ghats. Also, as most of the forest in the Western Ghats is off limits to tourists, it allows the tourists to get an experience of the forest in relative safety and for the government to generate some income from the tourists.

We arrive in the early morning mist, which is pierced by shafts of sunlight filtering through the trees. The forest here is sparse, more like savannah than dense jungle, and we had arrived during the dry season when much of the vegetation was a crispy brown, but I could image that during the monsoon, when it's all lush and green, it wouldn't look so very different from an oak wood back home.

The big difference here is that this forest still contains the full array of wildlife including tigers, elephants, leopards, sambar deer, spotted deer, wild pigs, bears and bison; but of course there is no place here for tribal people, they have all been kicked out and resettled in surrounding areas. Needless to say all hunting in the wildlife sanctuary is completely forbidden.

We had a rather uneventful and uninformative tour around a small section of the park. We saw some rather bored and depressed looking domestic elephants chained up in the early morning mist before venturing out into the wilderness where we saw a large herd of spotted deer grazing, some bison by a watering hole, some wild pigs and a giant squirrel that was falling asleep in a tree.

We then headed out of the park towards the Edakal caves which we had to hike up a steep slope to approach. There were scores of Indians there enjoying their day out and dropping garbage. The incised rock carvings inside the cave were large and impressive, made by a long forgotten people in an almost alien looking style they depicted strange-looking, life-size, anthropomorphic figures.

We continued on through the countryside, passing tea plantations until we reached our final stop. This was a waterfall which even now it makes me gag to think about. The long path down there was literally strewn with garbage, I must have counted hundreds of bright orange 'chocobar' cartons on the way down. The waterfall itself was even worse, a group of Indian youths were enjoying themselves splashing around in the murky pool beneath the waterfall while the rocks all around were strewn with garbage and used nappies! Don't the people in this country have any concept of taking their filth back home with them? To add insult to injury I noticed a sign on the way back saying “Do not litter. Please use the bins provided.” Needless to say there were no bins provided.

I has been optimistic that being back in a tourist area I would have more chance of getting the assistance that I needed, but today's experience had dampened my enthusiasm for tourism somewhat..


In the morning I spoke to the manager of the hotel and told him that I was doing research on hunter-gatherers and that I would very much like to find some people who are still living in the deep forest.

He sounded dubious at first but after making he few phone calls he told me:

“No problem Sir! We can arrange all that.”

“Where is it?” I asked.

“Just south of here Sir, in the forest.”

“How do I get there?”

“You take a Jeep Sir, then walk. No problem Sir.”

“Is it far to walk?” I asked.

“No Sir, only 3km. No problem!” He arranged an English speaking guide for me who's name was Sabu, as well as a Jeep and a driver. We wasted no time and set off immediately, heading south-east from Kalpetta towards Meenmutty waterfall. Sabu's English was quite good but he had a tendency to speak rather than listen and had permanent cheesy grin on his face which I found annoying after a while.

We stopped at a roadside cafe for chai and some lunch before proceeding down a 4WD track towards the waterfall. On the way we picked up our local guide, without this guy, Sabu told me, we would not get any access to the tribal people, the Kattu-Naikas. After a short while we reached a checkpoint. Forest officials in uniform were hanging around there and I had fill out a hiking permit and pay the outrageous price of 600 rupees; the local guide was costing me 400, Sabu 500 and the Jeep and driver over 1000, so I was being well milked of my tourist dollar that day.

At the end of the track we jumped out of the Jeep and continued on foot through a coffee plantation. We headed downhill though the plantation and soon entered thick forest. The track got steeper and steeper and ropes were provided to hang onto in case you lost your footing. To our left we could hear the rushing of the waterfall and catch occasional glimpses of it far off through the trees.

As the track turned to the right it levelled out briefly and provided an incredible view over a deep and heavily forested valley. To the left were sheer cliffs with the large rushing waterfall cascading down into the valley, and beyond the cliffs could be seen the valley bottom, a spongy mass of tree tops disappearing away into the misty distance.

“That's where we're heading!” said Sabu, pointing towards the mist-shrouded valley away in the distance.

“Just 3km walk eh?” I thought.

He had omitted to mention that half of that distance would be a near vertical scramble!

So we continued to scramble down, holding onto the ropes until eventually we came to a small platform where the waterfall could be clearly seen to our left.

“Further than here we are not allowed to go,” Sabu said, “So be careful and don't hurt yourself!”

The last thing he wanted was for me to injure myself and then have to be evacuated out of an area that I was not supposed to be in in the first place.

So, ignoring the restrictions, we continued on down into the valley. This track was used only very occasionally by forest officers, there were no more ropes and the path was slick with dried leaves and loose boulders. The rainforest crowded in all around with huge buttressed tree trunks covered in strangler figs, creeping vines and hanging lianas, interspersed with the occasional tree fern or grove of bamboo. As the path got steeper and steeper I had to edge my way down like some ridiculous-looking crab to avoid slipping from the narrow track and breaking my ankle.

The sound of tropical birds could be heard high above us, wild cocks would occasionally startle me by thrashing around in the undergrowth, while far to our left the rushing sound of the waterfall provided a background ambiance of white noise. We came to a place where a large creeper lay across the track which had been mashed to a pulp. Our guide inspected it:

“Elephants,” he said ominously.

Me and Sabu were told to hang back while he went on ahead. I found it hard to believe that elephants could be inhabiting these steep slopes, but as we followed our guide at a distance we soon came across more evidence, an unmistakable pile of elephant droppings, and then a little further on a track crossing our own. This track was at least as wide as the one we were walking on, except that this track was not made by human feet.

“Elephants,” Sabu repeated.

We continued on cautiously, looking and listening for any sounds, but the jungle was so thick that we couldn't see very far. Expecting to bump into elephants at any moment we continued on.

Some more droppings on the track were full of red berries, but these were smaller and made by sambar deer, not elephants. If elephants had been around here recently they must have moved on for we didn't encounter any.

Eventually we made it to the bottom of the slope and stopped for a rest by a cooling stream. The setting was magical, pure virgin rainforest surrounding a bubbling brook, with huge colourful butterflies flitting silently around, the calls of tropical birds and the humming of cicadas mixing with the song of the stream to create a natural symphony. On a rock lay the remains of a crab shell, cracked open by an otter for a tasty snack.

“This is more like it,” I thought, “No pollution here, no garbage, just pure immersion in nature.”

The village was not far away now and the worst of the trek was over. We could relax and enjoy a pleasant walk through the forest. Before long we started to see signs of human habitation, first a discarded broom made from grass and then a long bamboo pole tied against a tree.

“What's that?” I asked.

“It's a ladder for collecting honey,” Sabu replied.

Then we came across a woman washing pots by a water pipe. The pipe was the first sign of anything modern I'd seen, as were the woman's brightly coloured Indian clothes and aluminium pots.

She didn't pay much attention to us, which is the reaction I've come to expect from the tribal people, whether she stole a glance at us after we passed by I cannot say. We were obviously getting very near to the settlement now but the next thing we encountered came as a complete surprise.

“An electric fence!” I said.

“It wasn't here the last time I came,” admitted Sabu.

Our guide confirmed that it had recently been built by the forest office, in order to 'protect' the village from elephants and to allow them to raise livestock and crops inside it's perimeter.

As we passed through the fence and entered the compound my spirits sank. On a slope to the right I could see three or four shabbily build bamboo houses festooned with plastic, while ahead was a larger bamboo building that looked like a large shed.

“Is this it?” I asked, hoping that there was more that lay hidden.

“This is it,” Sabu said.

We wandered over towards the buildings where women appeared to be cooking and performing other household chores while half naked kids dressed in filthy western clothes hung around them. We stayed at a distance while our local guide wandered over to them and returned in a few minutes with a shabby looking old man who, I learned, was the village headman.

We decided to get out of the sun and wandered over to the large bamboo shed, which it turns out is the schoolhouse. On the way we passed a few goats feeding greedily on the lush green vegetation that carpeted the compound. Upon entering the hut I was surprised to see a forest officer in full uniform.

“Err.. Are we not meant to be here?” I whispered to Sabu.

“No problem!” he said.

The forest officers here knew the score, the tourists wanted to visit here sometimes. No doubt they all got a share of the proceeds, or at least their boss did.

“But I want to ask the old man about hunting,” I said to Sabu, “I don't think he'll want to talk about that while the forest officer is here.”

Our local guide explained to the headman that I wanted to ask him some questions. The headman looked irritable and disinterested and there was an uncomfortable silence as everyone waited for me to ask something.

“OK, what about his spiritual beliefs,” I said, “What does he believe in?”

Our local guide translated:

“I don't want to talk about that!” he said, “You believe in one god above everything, blah, blah, I don't want to talk about that.”

It didn't help that both Sabu and my local guide were Christians. Luckily for me the forest officer got bored and decided to leave, so I asked:

“Do you collect any food from the forest?”

“Illa!” It meant 'No' and this guy said it a lot. Do you hunt? Illa! Do you ever go out into the forest? Illa! Can I take some photos? Illa! Can I talk to someone else in the village please? Illa! He was getting irritable and tapping his hand on the bamboo wall while twitching his leg. He obviously needed a fix of some kind. I was getting nowhere and getting desperate. What else could I ask?

“Are there any other people living in the forest?” I asked, “Over that way?” I said, pointing further into the deep forest.


I was so surprised I hardly knew what to say!

“Can we go and see them?” I asked.

“Yes!” he said again, “They're just on the other side of the river.”

Why had all his 'No's suddenly turned to 'Yes's? I figured it out immediately. The people on the other side of the river were not his people, not part of his little domain which he controlled. We could do what we like and say what we like to those people over there, they were not his problem. No doubt he would be glad to see the back of us!

I gave him some packets of tea as a gift, which made him laugh; I think he would have preferred some liquor, or at least some money to buy liquor. The forest officers were trying to teach these people to farm, but I don't think they had much interest in farming, they got a small income from the forest department for being 'protectors and watchers of the forest' which was enough to supply them with basic food, as well as liquor, tobacco and betel nut on occasion, but judging by the state of their dwellings these people had little pride and respect for themselves. Such a beautiful location but yet such squalor and despair.

The river was broad with small grassy islands in the middle, but luckily it was also shallow enough for us to cross by skipping from rock to rock without getting our feet wet.

We headed left down the opposite bank and soon came across a large family of people sitting by the river bank. They were crouched on mats and behind them were rocks on which were stacked some personal possession, firewood etc. It looked like a temporary camp. They had made a shelf out of some bamboo and around them were strewn Indian-style aluminium cooking pots. Behind them and to the right they had constructed a level sleeping platform faced with small rocks.

We were greeted by a man with short greying hair, neatly trimmed beard and only one tooth. His dark, lean, sun-tanned frame was adorned only by a lungi around his waist and a silver chain around his neck.

He told us that he and his family were living nomadically in the forest, collecting food to eat, including roots, fruit and fish, and occasionally selling surplus items at the market. Like the people in the nearby settlement they were Kattu-Naikas, but this family were living in a much more traditional way.

I asked him about his spiritual beliefs and he told us that he worshipped the god of the mountain. He pointed to a bag on the sleeping platform that contained his religious items but he was reluctant to show them to us. He said that during the monsoon he left the forest and stayed in a permanent dwelling to keep dry, back there he had drums and pipes that he used to perform puja for his gods.

“Isn't it dangerous,” I asked, “Living in the forest?”

“No,” he said, “What should I have to fear?”

“Wild animals?” I ventured.

“No, I do no harm to the forest, so the forest does no harm to me. The spirits help me to avoid elephants and bears. We can sense each others presence and so we avoid each other.”

“What about tigers,” I asked, “Have you seen them?”

“Yes, he looks at us like this..”, he says as he does a comical impression of an animal peering curiously around a tree, “and then he walks away.”

It really did seem like this was guy was completely in-tune with the ways of forest. That it held no special fear for him. He respected the gods of nature and the spirits that dwelt there and so he was respected in turn by the spirits of nature. That may sound a bit esoteric but for him entering the forest was nothing mystical. It was like joining in a song, if you already knew the tune then it was easy. He was able to step into the harmony of the forest and pass through without leaving a trace or altering it's balance. If you or I were to try to do the same we would strike notes of discord and invite danger upon ourselves. That's the difference between one of the 'kings of the forest' and us, they have been born and raised there, they are part of it. While we and others have either lost or have never had this ability, the forest becomes a thing of fear and danger for us, something to be controlled and 'civilized'.

I told him about the Kattu-Naikan guy I had met north of Nilambur who's foot had been savaged by a bear while out collecting gooseberries, but he simply could not comprehend such a thing happening. Living and working in a plantation had caused those Kattu-Naikas north of Nilambur to lose their connection with the forest, they were no longer in tune with it's dangers and so nowadays risked harm every time they ventured into it.

Then I thought back to the Kurumbas and Irulas that I had met near Masingudi, how generations of separation from the forest had now made them so afraid that they feared even to leave their village to collect a few berries.

“There are too many elephants,” they would say. An excuse I'd heard many times and that sounded lame every time I heard it.

It had been a rare privilege to meet these true forest nomads who were still living in harmony with nature, an echo of long ages past and a way of life that was now all but gone.

Sabu however did not share my view:

“These people are suffering”, he said in that moralising and condescending way that Christians have.

I wanted to know if he did any hunting for the pot but he denied it, I couldn't tell if he was telling the truth or not. Sabu had told me that they set traps for small animals, but the Kattu-Naikas were not really known as hunters, even in the dim and distant past they only took the occasional small animal and lived mainly on roots, fruit, herbs and fish.

I would have liked to stay and talk to them all day, but it was getting late and we had to make it back to the jeep before nightfall. As we made our way back across the river I gazed back and took one last look at the nomads in their temporary camp. I waved goodbye and reluctantly continued on my way as they continued to gaze back at me curiously. Who knows what they must have thought of my brief visit to their little patch of forest.

We passed back into the electrified compound that surrounded the settlement.

“Our nomadic friends have no need of an electric fence to protect them from elephants,” I mused.

The plastic covered shacks looked just as depressing as before.

“So this is development,” I thought, “drugs, alcohol and dependency; but hey, as least they're starting to learn to grow their own food, and instead of being a 'burden' on the forest they can become a burden upon society instead. What a great trade off!”

I had a feeling though that removing these people, these 'keepers and protectors of the forest', from their natural forest habitat, an ecological niche which they had inhabited for thousands of years, would not have a positive effect on the environment, it would instead have an, as yet unforeseen, profoundly negative effect, not just on them but on the forest itself.

We made our way back through the forest, the walk back soon became a scramble and then a climb. Hot, humid and constantly pushing on ever higher and higher, respites were brief, and soon I was soaked in sweat from head to foot, my legs wobbling and my heart pounding. Sabu and our local guide were used to the climbing and the climate and soon left me far behind, easy prey for any lurking tigers or hungry leopards.

“They always pick off the weakest ones,” I thought, “and today that's gonna be me!”

Luckily for me the tigers must have been sleeping that day and despite my snail's pace I still managed to make it back to the jeep before dark on shaky, tired legs.

Thanks to our lucky encounter with the nomads I felt like the day had been a success, but I had still not found anything out about hunting. Sabu informed me that if I wanted to meet hunters I should talk to the Karumbas, they were famous as hunters and many of them still possessed bows and arrows.

“Let's meet them tomorrow then,” I said, and so we headed back to Kalpetta as the sun went down.


[To be continued...]

Copyright © 2009 Robert H Taylor