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Denizens of Darkness

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in the Sunday Herald on March 31, 2019

I became familiar with the term Irular a decade or so back during my trip to Ooty (Udagamandalam) and the surrounding hillsides of the Nilgiris. The Nilgiris gain their name from the abundance of Eucalyptus trees that exude a blue haze when the vapourized oil from their leaves fuses with the water vapour around. 

I am meeting with the Keystone Foundation that works with the tribals living in the area helping bring sustainability to their traditional crafts. Irular, Kurumbar,Thodar are the ancient inhabitants and keepers of these mountains…

The subliminal curiosity aroused then leads me now to explore that little further into the lives of these inhabitants of Aiyor Forests, the Irular.

The ethereal beauty of the dry harvested expanse of Bamboo forests that fringe the roads from Aiyor Forest Guest House to Kodakkere have taken my breath away. Beyond that lie the hutments of the Irular tribals.

We've crossed the enchanting Sameari, the watering hole of elephants (Aiyor forests are a part of the Elephant Reserve) without spotting a single one.

The magic of the rains, there's enough water available inside the the forests says Samappa the  forest guard who’s hitching a ride with us from Hosur. 

He is busy on the line with the Irula chief Muniraj arranging a meeting for us. Having dashed our hopes of elephant sightings he’s in a generous mode.

Irular  belong to the six primitive tribal communities of Tamilnadu, these being Kurumbar, Thodar,Paniyan, Kattunayakan, Kothar.

The term Irular is derived from the word ‘Irul’ meaning darkness hence Irular means ‘people of the dark’. Dark of skin, the Irular and accustomed to living deep inside the forests they are supposed to be endowed with keen eyesight which might be the result of being habituated to darkness. 

 They are snake and rat catchers and are  used to sourcing forest produce, tubers such as ‘Maravalli Kizhangu’, Mahali (sarasaparila) roots, greens, honey and herbs  for their livelihood. 

They worked also on agricultural farms as farm hands for daily wages or as bonded labour for the Lingayat community during sowing and harvesting seasons. They were never seen outside the woods, shying away from contact with outsiders. 


Community life

Now with the efforts of the Forest Department and Government initiatives they are being integrated gradually into the mainstream. Basic pucca community houses have been built for them in Kodakkarai outskirts where about 600 Irular families live. These are certainly far from ideal but a beginning has been made.

They speak  the Irula tongue, a Dravidian language that is a variant of Tamil. The script is Tamil. There numbers had dwindled to about 6-700 and but have now risen to around 3,500.

As we approach Kodakkarai from Aiyor Forest Guest House where we are stationed, the freshly tarred roads are a refreshingly welcome sight. The picturesque intensely verdant mountainscape around us is a feast for the eyes. The tranquility soothes the soul and quiettitude makes you long to stay there forever…

Samappa keeps us entertained with his free flowing chatter. He is well versed with the countryside and is ready with information. 

These roads Samappa says are about six months old. 

Accessibility is of vital importance. 

Muniraj is articulate and aware and speaks fluent Tamil. He explains in detail the Govt. schemes and the initiatives of the Forest Department. He says they have been coaxed to leave the forests and a life of survival and introduced to the civilized way of life. The Irulas in this area were cut off from civilization until 2004  living off the tubers, roots and greens in the forests. The change in food and habitat and moving away from tribal practices and adapting to the mainstream hasn't worked out on all fronts. 


Education 

Primary education is available. Muniraj says they send both boys and girls to school. The teachers come all the way from nearby Kodakkarai. Now a state bus plies once at 9 in the morning returning at 2.30 in the afternoon. Children who have completed higher classes like 8th and 9th standards also take classes for the younger ones. College will also come soon, he says. There is a note of hope in his voice.

Other than doing daily labour as  farm hands (on a daily wage of Rs.100) the ones with masonry training(under building contractors) go to nearby Denkanikottai, Anchetty, Hosur or even Bangalore to work in construction projects and earn double that.

I notice small outreach offices of HCL and NABARD, a part of their social initiatives.

All through our walk through the village we have a horde of curious children following us. We feel like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Several photographs are taken. And there are continuous requests for more. To day is Sunday and there is no school.

There is an Anganwadi centre that provides midday meal to children. Eggs are included in the diet Muniraj says.


The road ahead

Medical facilities are still coming. There is no hospital. Doctor visits are rare. For small ailments says Muniraj they use herbal cures which they are used to over generations and in more complicated cases they go to the nearby town. However cost of living has made it difficult for them to have more than 2 meals a day. Staple is ragi. Bamboo rice used to be a mainstay too but with knowledge of its being regulatory of blood sugar it is sold in the markets in cities and fetches a good price. 

How do you compare your life now with your earlier existence in the forests, I ask Muniraj. He gives it some thought. Longevity was greater he says, people used to live upto 80 and 90 he says. And now? He says they have access to modern medicine but diseases like TB have taken over due to lifestyle changes.

Early marriages were the rule but not anymore . And intermarriages within close relatives such as first cousins, uncle and niece (if the couple so desire) was/is common. These  bind them together in a homogenous whole and the entire village where 600 families live, are connected via marriages to each other. Now the circle is slowly becoming wider and few (and far between) cross community marriages between Irulas and Lingayats have also happened. Family planning has  taken root. 6-10 children was the rule. Now it is 2-4.

Muniraj is 42 yrs old and his wife Rajamma, who at the age of 37 is already a grandmother to two, is herself  the mother of six. As we sit on the neatly swept mud floor of their little brick housing, we are surrounded by the whole clan consisting of Muniraj’s children, grandchildren, his brother’s children and grandchildren, several in their infancy and ranging from 3-4 yr. olds to teenagers.

We have been asked to carry toffees and biscuits for them but not wanting to meddle with their native good health we carry sets of handkerchiefs and towels. 

As we part ways Muniraj points out to small plots of land on the hillsides where they grow their ragi...we don't own them but we can grow our crop and harvest it for our use he says. 

We don't own them he repeats gently. I am reminded that those forests belonged to them once...

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