PVV Satyanarayana | 20 Jan 2010

An investigative article on the Nilgiri tribes.

PVV Satyanarayana

THE life and culture of the various tribes in India always kindled interest and amusement. Prized with the vast, rich forests and hills, the country has many aboriginal tribes inhabiting them, preserving their distinct identities.

One such hills that are credited with the origin of some prominent, ancient tribes, is the Nilgiri hills (or, the Blue mountains) in the South that are quite popular. Occupying a significant place in Tamil Nadu, they have in them some noted hill stations such as Coonoor and Udakamandalam.

Udakamandalam (or Ooty, as is popularly known) serves as a favoured summer resort, attracting people not only from all over the country, but also many foreign tourists. Its altitude is over 8000 ft. It receives good rains covering the entire mountain range. As is the case with any other hill station, Ooty too experiences extreme cold weather requiring use of woolens even during the day. Its environs and beauty are quite fascinating and enticing.

The Tribes:

The tribes and the other backward classes constituted half of the Nilgiris’ population. The Thodas, the Badagas, the Kurumbas, the Irulas and the Kotas are the original inhabitants of the Nilgiris. While the towns in the district presented a secular look, the people in the villages largely followed the tribal life styles.

The aim of this article is mainly to focus on the customs, traditions and the culture of these tribes as they presented an interesting insight into the lives of these aboriginals.

The Thodas:

The Thodas are the ancient tribes in India. With their dress code and the busy beards, they are said to resemble the ancient Greeks in their culture. The Thodas lived in Mandoozes. The name ‘Udakamandalam’ is assumed to have its origin in the word, Othaikalmandi – meaning the ‘single-stone dwelling’. Apparently, the early Thodas lived in the rooms or huts made of a single stone, and that is how the name must have emerged.

The Thodas reared the buffalo, which is the symbol of their clan, and they sold the milk. The number of buffaloes he possessed judges the wealth of a Thoda.

The Thodas practiced polyandry – a woman could marry any number of men at the same time! However, the practice had started waning away in tune with the modern times, as also due to the endeavour of the government which wanted to preserve the life and culture of the tribe.

It is damn easy for a married man or woman of the tribe to elope with another’s spouse. However, the man who takes away the married woman shall have to pay a ‘penalty’ to the woman’s husband in the form of buffaloes – double the number of the animals the woman’s husband already possessed. This settles the dispute and the woman becomes the ‘property’ or wife of the man who took her away.

The Thodas worshipped the horns of the animals as their Gods. Significantly, they maintained a secret room in their temples and would not allow the other tribes into their temples.

They also claim to have connections with the ancient Egyptians. Like the Egyptians, the Thodas preserved the dead bodies of their people using salts. The bodies thus preserved are disposed of all at a time during the festival called, Kedu.

The Badagas:

The Badagas outnumbered the other tribes in Nilgiris. It would appear that they had migrated to the Nilgiris from Mysore during the reign of the Deccan Sultans several years ago. Vadayar means ‘people from north’. Badagu is their language, which however did not have a script. The dialect resembles Kannada language. Efforts had been afoot to prepare the Badaga script.

Though the Badaga tribe is different from the other tribes, it is considered to be backward both economically and culturally. Over 75 per cent of this tribe lived in the villages, which are known as Hatti or Halli. While agriculture is their main calling, there are also professionals like doctors, lawyers, and engineers, besides government employees in this tribe. Some are even working abroad. Politics too entered the lives of the Badagas.

As was their ancient custom, the Badagas wore white dhotis, and the influence of the Kotas could be seen in the way they dressed up and tattooed all over their bodies.

The Badagas celebrated a religious festival known as Uppu attuva hubba. The main ritual of this festival is that small holes are dug in the earth in which salt water is poured. A gold or a silver ring is placed in a corner of the hole. Then the cattle are brought over to the holes and made to drink the saline water from them. This was supposed to ensure good health to the cattle. Before distributing food at the festival, the elders of the clan shall have to apologize to those innocents on whom the clan had supposedly inflicted cruelty!

The Badagas also celebrated a festival called, Hethai hubba in the month of January. It is said that a virtuous woman, coming to know, through clairvoyance, of the death of her husband, had committed suicide. Treating her as a Goddess, they celebrated this festival every year in her memory.

As in the West, the Badagas too divorced on flimsy reasons. Almost similar to the talaq system in Muslims, the Badaga man deciding to divorce his wife, would have simply to go to his in-laws’ place and bow before the elders there, and utter that I do not want your daughter – thrice. And it legalizes the divorce!

The divorced woman, when remarries, shall have to return the hunnu to her previous husband (the one who had divorced her). The dowry that was offered by the boy to the girl at the time of their marriage is called, hunnu, which would be about 200 rupees.

The last rites of the dead in the Badaga tribe presented an interesting sight, resembling those of the Red Indians. People would come from far off places with baskets decorated with flowers. Boiled food is brought in the baskets to offer to the dead one – based on their belief that ‘he’ needed the food during his long journey after death! Also, a silver coin is placed on the forehead of the dead one to signify that the person was once a ruler.

After an elaborate religious ritual, all the relatives queued up according to their status, and made offerings with a grain called, samaay. The traditional Badagas would surround the body and perform the community dance before the burial or cremation.

The practice of the Badagas inviting the other tribes such as the Irulas and the Kurumbas for playing drums and the other musical instruments in their festivals is not unknown.

The Kotas and others:

The Kotas were the large inhabitants of Kotagiri – which had assumed its name after the tribe. They were experts in making the farm implements. Expert archers and hunters once, their bows and arrows have remained mere exhibits over the years.

Most of the other tribes, viz., the Paniyas, the Kurumbas and the Irulas lived in the forests even today. Some of them worked in the tea estates in the Nilgiris. Besides farming, these tribes also knew hunting. They hunted the animals for their living and also as a pastime.

The Kurumba tribe is said to practice witchcraft. If someone, especially a girl, fell sick soon after the kaali festival, the Kurumbas are suspected to have done black magic to the person. The Badagas believed that knocking out of the fore-teeth of the sorcerer would neutralize the effect of black magic.

In the Irula tribe, there was a strange practice. They would lay the newborn child on a big, wild leaf for a day or two and dry it in the sun. Thereafter, the child is washed and laid by the side of the mother on the bed

The number 12 carried a great significance in the lives of the Irula tribe. When a child is born, 12 elders came and blessed the child on the 12th day of its birth. Even during the marriage ceremony, the pandal is erected with 12 pillars, while 12 persons would go and bring the bride to the venue. The Irula women are fond of adorning their necks with a necklace made of 12 (erstwhile) quarter-rupee coins.

The Tribal Associations:

The Tribal Association (or, the Adivasi Sangham) provided the much-needed medical relief to the tribes inhabiting the Nilgiris. And the Association is given assistance by the State government and the other Tribal Associations abroad. Besides, the State and the Central governments have their own schemes and projects for the benefit and uplift as also education of these aboriginals. Despite the sincere efforts made by these agencies at the economic and social development of these tribes, there desired much to be done yet. With the passage of time, rapid urbanization and the strides in education, some of the primitive customs of these tribes have been on the wane.

The wealth of Nilgiris:

The various tribes that maintained and preserved their own distinct cultures and traditions constitute the real wealth of the Nilgiris and add to the beauty of the hills. Its tribal songs, music and dances are well known.

The different tribes and their unique cultures greet and present a delectable picture to those who visit the panoramic and enticing Nilgiris. And these hills provide a good field for those who aspire to study – besides the abundant Nature – the life, the customs and the cultures of the various tribes inhabiting them for centuries.


PVV Satyanarayana
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