The Paniyans

The meaning of Paniyan is derived from "pani" which means "work" in Malayam, and Paniyan is therefore translated as "worker" or "labourer" The Paniyan tribe exists in a small area of the Nilgiris Hills and has a population of approximately 5541 (2011 census). The language spoken by the Paniyan is a mixture of Malayalam, the language of the state of Kerala, mixed with some Tamil words. Paniyans refer to their language as Paniyabasha.

The Paniyans were traditionally a hunter-gatherer society, however over time they were exploited extensively by various land lords, rendering them a "slave tribe" in Tamil Nadu. Many Paniyans were forced to work as bonded labourers; however this practice has now stopped thanks to intervention by the State Government and the District Administration. With approximately 70% of the population working for wages on tea estates and spice plantations. Some Paniyans continue to use their ancient skills in foraging and collect firewood to sell in the local towns.

Paniyans traditionally live in scattered clusters of housing, preferring to live in small units called "paddies" rather than large settlements. Their houses are very basic, single roomed huts with verandas at the front. The walls are constructed from bamboo, plastered with mud and the roof is thatched with paddy straw. The Paniyans are non-vegetarians, with rice being their staple food. There diet also consists of barley, root vegetables, tubers, meat, fish and crabs. Tapioca was a favourite of the Paniyans, however wild boar felt the same way about this crop and hence the Paniyans have stopped growing it to protect their villages!

The origin and early history of the Paniyan tribes is difficult to decipher, however there is a strong suspicion that the tribe originated in Africa. The resemblance of the Paniyan to some African tribes is distinct. The facial structure, curly hair and mode of dress is distinctly African, with Paniyan women electing to wear large ear plugs made out of dried and rolled up leaves in their ear lobes. As the ear lobe stretches the ear plugs become larger and larger, a tradition widely practiced in African tribes. DNA analysis in order to find the origin of the Paniyan tribe has not been attempted.