The Kurumbas

The Kurumba tribe is found in Southern India, in the states of Taminadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The Kurumbas are ancient inhabitants of the Nilgiris district, although their origin is widely debated. They claim to originate from the borders of Wynyard (now Kerala), Gunwale (now Karnataka) and Attala (now Kerala), all of which are located in and around the Nilgiris plateau. The Kurumbas are divided into 5 distinct groups according to residence, traditional occupation, dialects and clan and social organisation. The Jenu Kurumba and the Betta Kurumba are predominantly seen in the Nilgiris Biosphere.

The meaning of the word "jenu" is honey, which reflects the traditional occupation of this tribe as food and honey gatherers. The Jenu Kurumba are experts at chopping wood and trekking in the forest. Kurumba women are now renowned for their handicrafts, such as bamboo or reed baskets. Traditional tribal housing is constructed from bamboo, with houses raised on plinths with wattle walls and thatched roofs. The Jenu Kurumbas follow distinctive funeral rituals with the dead buried with their clothes, some tobacco, a pot, some pepper, a knife and a live chicken.

The Betta Kurumbas are forest dwellers and "friends of wild elephants". They have a long tradition of handling and taming wild elephants and 68% of the Betta Kurumbas are now employed by the Forest Department as elephant carers and fire watchmen. The Betta Kurumbas live in small, low huts with walls made of bamboo or reed wattle and roofs thatched with leaves. They used to practice "kumri" or shifting agriculture, but due to the status of the Nilgiris as a biosphere reserve this has now been banned. Some tribal families maintain kitchen gardens and derive a small income from produce and forest foraging.

Both the Jenu and Betta Kurumbas have a tribal council known as "Kula Panchayat", designed to keep social control amongst community members. The head of the councils is known as "kariyan" to the Jenu Kurumba and "Yajaman" to the Betta Kurumba. They also share the same religious system, believing in spiritual beings, charms and sorcery.