Tribal and Rural Communities of the Nilgiris

The main beneficiaries of CTRD are socially and economically marginalized rural communities in the Nilgiri District of Tamil Nadu. The key rural communities with whom CTRD works are the scheduled tribes, rural poor and disabled people.

Scheduled Tribes

After Africa, India has the second highest tribal population in the world - with around 645 tribes and sub-tribes. According to the Census of India 2011, the population of scheduled tribes is 104,545,716 and accounts for 8.63 per cent of the total population in India. The indigenous minorities are officially regarded as ‘scheduled tribes’ by the Government of India, but they describe themselves as ‘Adivasi’ (first inhabitants). In the state of Tamil Nadu there are 36 scheduled tribes, of which six groups are considered as indigenous tribal groups. In the Nilgiri District, where the CTRD Trust is located, there are all six indigenous ethnic minorities. Originally, the tribal communities can be classified according to their economic activity as hunters and gatherers, pastoralists, hill cultivators/farmers of shifting cultivation, traditional artisans, plains or lowland cultivators, and as industrial and agricultural workers. They consist of linguistically and culturally greatly differing ethnic groups and their traditional culture was closely linked to the forest. Today, the majority of tribes live in remote and geographically inaccessible hilly or forested areas, which tend to be underdeveloped and poorly integrated with mainstream society. The Adivasi belong to the poorest ethnic groups in India and suffer from low standards of living, political injustice, insufficient health care, poor education, and a high illiteracy rate. Most of the Adivasi barely have any income opportunities and are mostly involved in subsistence farming.

The six scheduled indigenous tribes of the Nilgiri District:

The main beneficiaries of CTRD are socially and economically marginalized rural communities in the Nilgiri District of Tamil Nadu. The key rural communities with whom CTRD works are the scheduled tribes, rural poor and disabled people.

Approximately 32% of the tribal population of the Nilgiri District lives in the Pandalur taluk, and 14.33% live in the Gudalur taluk - the two key taluks of CTRD. The current target tribal beneficiaries of CTRD are the Kattunayakans, the Paniyans, the Kurumbas, and the Kotas. Up to now, CTRD has been working with tribal groups in around 150 hamlets (5-50 families per hamlet), but continuously expands its scope of activities to more villages and to new Adivasi communities. The primary focus of CTRD projects is to implement holistic grassroots level initiatives on health, education, livelihood, economic security, biodiversity conservation, and women empowerment. For more information on the projects please visit the ‘Projects’ section.

The Kattunayakans

The Kattunayakan tribe is found in Southern Indian: In the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. The Kattunayakans believe they are the "Chiefs of the Forest", with "kattu" meaning forest and "nayakan" meaning chief in their language namma bashe. At the 2011 census the Kattunayakan population was estimated at 1629 individuals, spread over 452 households.

As with many indigenous tribes, their origin and early history is a mystery, although they claim to be the indigenous people of the Western Ghats. In Tamil Nadu the Kattunayakans are split into a number of clans and lineages and prefer to live in small settlements of less than 10 families.

The Kattunyakans were originally hunter gatherers, experts in fishing, bird trapping and foraging for forest produce such as honey and fruit. Whilst these activities are still the main form of livelihood for many, some Kattunayakans are now employed on tea estates and spice plantations. Kattunayakans typically live in clusters of small and very basic mud huts, plastered with charcoal and cow dung and thatched with paddy straw or grass.

The community structure is very basic, with families preferring to act as independent units. However there is a traditional tribal council designed to maintain social decorum and tribal elders will be consulted on difficult issues. The Kattunayakan diet is based on forest and local produce, occasionally supplemented by purchases from local markets.

Music and dance are very important to the Kattunyakans, acting as the main source of knowledge on their environment, culture and respect for kin. A variety of musical instruments have been fashioned by the tribe - most resemble drums and flutes.

Black magic and sorcery are both practiced by the Kattunayakans and they have a strong belief in the power of herbal medicine, prayer and animal sacrifice as a cure for disease. Kattunayakan women are renowned for their practice of black magic, with members of the Paniyan and Kurumba tribes visiting the Kattunaykan magicians hoping for easy child births, success in love, employment and the ripening of fruits.

The Kurumbas

The Kurumba tribe is found in Southern India: In the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. The Kurumbas are ancient inhabitants of the Nilgiri 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.

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 Nilgiri 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. Approximately 70% of the population work 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. Their diet also consists of barley, root vegetables, tubers, meat, fish and crabs. Tapioca was a favorite 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.

The Kotas

In India, Kotas are found only in the Nilgiri District of Tamil Nadu. According to the Census 2001, the Kota population is 3122. They live in seven settlements (“Kokkals”), which are spread all over the Nilgiri Hills. Each settlement has its own tribal council, which is called a “koot” and maintains social control in the community. The Kotas are the only artisan community in the Nilgiri Hills.

In former times, they were practicing industrial arts, which was important for the other neighboring communities, with whom they had a symbiotic relationship. In exchange of pottery, iron tools, music etc. they received dairy and forest products from other tribes. Today, 50% of the Kota people practice agriculture and horticulture as self-cultivation, 19% are still involved in artisan activities, 18.2% are employed in modern businesses, and 9.5% do animal husbandry. The houses are usually built in rows with a front yard, built out of brick and have three doors.

The traditional garment is a white shawl, which is called “varad” and wrapped around the body by men and women. The Kota people have their own religion, but it is linked to Hinduism and they accept Hindu gods and goddesses alongside their own. At every Kota settlement there is a sacred temple complex for their god Kambatrayan and their goddess Kambateeswari.