A journey to explore the lives of the different tribal communities in Kerala and TamilNadu would take us into a world of indigenous traditions, cultures, cuisine and medicines. Yet it is disheartening to see them being hugely affected by addictions that are slowly eating away their health and wealth. The continuous chewing of local paan and extreme alcoholism is making way for very dangerous diseases among these aboriginal people. With them we lose a rich cultural inheritence of the land. It is high time the government and other concerned authorities took serious measures to overcome the degradation of the tribal communities spread across all the states in India.
Wayanad, the north-eastern district in Kerala has a rich natural diversity that supports the life of many exotic flora and fauna, inaddition to the different tribal communities inhabiting its hills and valleys. The place has a number of historic caves and temples that contains relics from the past, mirroring the prosperous as well as dry days of the tribal communities. Kattunaikkan, Vettakkuruman, etc are few of the many tribal groups residing in this area. Many of these people have now stepped out of the borders of the forests and are trying to live among the other communities by educting their children and finding decent jobs for existence. But there are a lot of others who are being lost to the worldly and temporary pleasures of alcohol and other harmful products. While the improvements brought in their life is a blessing to these people, there is also the loss of the true protectors of our precious forests. The tribal people consider nature to be part of them, the God who sustains them. This belief drives them to protect it from the deadly hands of destroyers. Once they step out of the wild, it becomes open to death from destruction. A very serious issue to be thought of.
My journey to a small Paniyar hamlet at Mananthawady in Wayanad was a sweet and bitter experience at the same time. The people were very simple and loving even though we went as complete strangers. They took us in with no indignation. Treated us to the precious veggies and fruits they grow for their own use. But they were adamant with their habits and addictions. When asked to avoid the use of paan with tobacco, they simply replied that it is impossible and that it is a habit which they are possessing since their birth. It was quite disappointing to hear such a negative response to a very serious issue. We couldnt talk more on the topic and hope to return and make them understand the huge threat they have placed upon themselves.
Here is a small bit of information on the Paniyar tribe:
Paniyars, mainly seen in the districts of Malappuram and Wayanad can be considered as the most unfortunate among all the tribal groups in Kerala. They have been slaves since their origin. But we have to note that in the entire tribal population of Kerala; about 50,000 belong to the Paniyar group. They are said to have entered into Kerala, from the borders of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as slaves for the royal families. They are mostly illiterate and speak a dialect which is a mixture of Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada. If anyone from outside enter their settlement, men and women alike the Paniyars will go into hiding. Their huts border the forest areas and the sanitary conditions are pathetic. The group is addicted to alcohol and Ganja. They are normally farmers but do not own any land. Rice is given as wage when they work till dusk in others’ land. Paniyars do fishing and poaching in addition to the collection of wild herbs, honey, bamboo, etc. to make a living. They worship the mountain Gods and perform magical rituals to decide and decipher anything that happens around them. It’s a common belief among these people that if they pray to the wild elephant it will stay away from their path. All marriages happen during the harvest time. The birth of a child does not call for any special celebration among them. The Paniyars would never cremate the dead bodies and only bury them.
Vellachi speaks and the family listens in silence. She says a yes and they nod in agreement. Her no is definitely a no from old to young. Hear her talk and we feel more confidence than in a modern, educated and so called classy lady.
Vellachi belongs to the Paniyar tribe and lives with her family in a tiny hamlet. The whole family gathers at her home every morning for breakfast. They see it an honour to eat with her. All decisions are made with a final word from her. The respect is absolutely evident in the way they treat this old soul.
Take a moment and think what makes a woman strong.. Away from all colourful campaigns and lengthy empowerment seminars, there are real heroes among us, but they got no flashy capes flying behind them.
Dasan Chettan is Vellachiyammas younger brother. A man who talked with the real pulse of the entire tribe. They have a few habits which are hard to let go. As we talked the red stains flowed down his lips and made quite an interesting pattern.