The Lede
Kadayamalai, a Pulaya village in the lower Palani Hills
Kadayamalai, a Pulaya village in the lower Palani Hills|Photo credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

The Pulayas: A Tribe In Search Of Identity

Social justice has eluded the tribe which is in danger of losing its culture & folklore to modernity

Cibe Chakravarthy

Cibe Chakravarthy

Palraj Neriyan, 64, is from Kadayamalai, a Pulaya mountain hamlet at an elevation of over 4000 feet from sea level in the lower Palani Hills of the Western Ghats.

The Pulayas are a tribe spread out in the Kodaikanal hills. Though the government of Tamil Nadu has not officially recognised them as a Scheduled Tribe, they have all the traits to be named so.

Palraj Neriyan, 64, plantation labourer in Kadayamalai
Palraj Neriyan, 64, plantation labourer in Kadayamalai
Photo credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Palraj recollects how he was serious about a chance to get into the railways 40 years ago, when officers from the Tiruchirapalli division were organising periodical recruitment drives for Scheduled Tribes.

A primary school completion certificate (Standard Five) was enough to qualify and Palraj had finished his fifth grade in 1963 itself.

Since he received his school leaving certificate only in 1974, ten years after he dropped out of the Perumparai Government School in Dindigul district, he could not get a job in the first opening in the railways.

This cost him a railway job. Some of his friends though were lucky to get the job back then.

Palraj looked forward to the next opening in the railways, hopeful that he would get a job in the years to come.

Four decades passed. Palraj Neriyan continues to be a plantation labourer.

Palraj has seen the son of a plantation owner nearby, where Palraj used to work, coming back to settle in the village after retirement from government service.

The plantation owners and their sons were wealthy enough to attend convents in Dindigul and Madurai and found well-paying jobs in government.

“Their life has come full circle,” Palraj noted.

Ten years after Independence, the union government gave a fillip to Scheduled Tribes. The Departments of Post and Railways were to recruit eligible candidates for Group C and D services from these communities, in an effort to give them a leg up, socially.

As a result, ST representation in central government offices – in the Group C and D posts such as gangman and clerks - shot up by nearly 60,000. From 17,060 in 1953, it went up to 81,062 in 1974, according to “A Study of Land Alienation and Indebtedness among Tribals in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka states,” a 2000 study by Dr M Nazer, Researcher, Khadir Mohideen College, Thanjavur.

Why is Palraj Neriyan then still a plantation labourer, with a daily wage of Rs 300?

Palraj’s school leaving certificate where it is noted as Scheduled Tribe
Palraj’s school leaving certificate where it is noted as Scheduled Tribe
Photo credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Because railway officials who came uphill for their periodical recruitment drive in 1980 found that Palraj and his Pulaya community were not a Scheduled Tribe any longer.

With that, the scope for a railway job vanished altogether.

“Even the officers were not aware that we were changed to SC (Scheduled Caste). They asked us to take the matter to Cumbum N Natarajan, who was then the Periyakulam Lok Sabha MP,” Palraj told The Lede.

An entire community was unaware of the September 18, 1976 notification which transferred the Pulayan community of the lower Palani Hills from ST to SC.

Pulayan, Cheramar or Pulaya?

The 1976 Government of India Gazette notifies Pulayan, Cheramar as SC.

Pulayan, Cheramar is a community predominantly found in Travancore, Shencottah and Kanyakumari districts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

They went through the worst form of caste oppression and violence. They were known as the “unapproachable” - the “unseeable” as well as “untouchable”.

They were not allowed to come in front of caste Hindus, as their mere sight would “pollute” them. They were made to walk with bells or signal their presence whenever they enter a common road or a neighbourhood.

If they knew another “higher” caste individual was on the same road, they would have to move away and hide.

In the last century, they were part of social reform movements such as the Vaikom Satyagraha, which helped significantly increase their status of literacy, health and economy.

But Pulayas in the lower Palani Hills were not by any means related to this community in the southern tip of the Western Ghats except for the fact that the Pulayan community at Kodaikanal continues to face caste oppression.

They are allowed to work in plantations belonging to the caste Hindus, climb up trees, plant new trees and crops, yet entrance into their households, dining with them is forbidden.

To date, the government has notified only Pulayan, Cheramar in Tamil Nadu in SC as well as ST lists, whereas on the other side of the Western Ghats, in Kerala, Hill Pulayas are notified as ST and Pulayan Cheramar are notified as SC.

The Disappearance Of The Hill Pulayan

The existence of Pulayan, Cheramar in Kanyakumari and Shencottah could be verified in from the state of Madras SC list in the 1956 Act.

Similarly in the ST list of Madras under the 1956 Act, a separate mention of the Pulayan community in regions of the state other than Kanyakumari and Shencottah is noted and Hill Pulayan communities as yet another separate community is observed in Kanyakumari and Shencottah of Tirunelveli district.

But in the next amendment Act 1976, the list features only Pulayan, Cheramar but no mention of Hill Pulaya or Pulayan in either the SC or ST lists.

This left no option for the Pulaya community in the lower Palani hills but to be considered as Pulayan, Cheramar.

It is unclear as to whether this case was a transfer from ST to SC or deletion of a community name itself.

Whether by omission or commission, for four decades, the Pulayas are yet to see the light of social justice and empowerment.

The Traits Of A Tribe

Research and field studies conducted as late as 2013, after the advent of modernisation and technology in these hill communities, reveal them to be holding to their tribal identity and practice of their customs and culture.

Their identity and culture remained intact even after receiving Indira Awas Yojana concrete houses, Kalaignar TV, Arasu cable, grinder and Aadhar card - all tokens of modernisation and development.

Meanwhile, a research paper in Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam on the Brief History of Pulayas describes them to be “Malayalam speaking, predominantly located in Travancore - Cochin, the two erstwhile kingdoms of Kerala” and there was no mention of any connection with the Pulayas of the lower Palani hills.

There clearly exists a linguistic as well as geographical dissimilarity between the two communities.

How then the community was excluded from the ST list as late as the 1970s?

Dr C Maheswaran, former Director, Tribal Research Centre, Ooty noted in an interview to The Hindu, that the Pulayan community of Kodaikanal is a tribal group going by Lokur Committee’s five necessary traits of a tribal community and that they could have been excluded from the ST list by mistake.

He is said to have noted the same in a report submitted to the government dated 10 December 2013 as Director, Tribal Research Centre.

He has also recommended recognition of ST status for the Pulayan community of the Kodaikanal hills.

Yet nothing has changed.

The Stories Of Elders

It gets dark as early as 4 pm in the hills. The workers leave estates and plantations before then. They have either buses heading towards Dindigul, Oddanchatram or Batlagundu or else they have to walk all the way home.

Palraj gathers up the elders in Kadayamalai so that they can share their stories. Thangavel Chinna Vellaiyan, 75, the chieftain starts the discussion. He has a knack for storytelling.

Thangavel Chinna Vellaiyan, 75, chieftain of Kadayamalai
Thangavel Chinna Vellaiyan, 75, chieftain of Kadayamalai
Photo credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Stating that they were neither from Dindigul nor from Oddanchatram, he dives into a Pulaya proverb.

Munnum Pinnum Moovaezhu Thalamurai,

Kallum Kavuriyum, Pullum Poondum Thondriyabothu

Thondriya Pulayan.”

(Spanning across 21 generations into the past as well as the future,

Pulayas started to live here right after the hills and vegetation appeared here.)

Of the 32 Pulaya villages in existence, Kadayamalai is the oldest and Gandhipuram is the newest.

A plantation owner named Perumal Pillai, a Congress member, bought a patch of land and named it Gandhipuram.

He made Pulayas dwelling in Kochavayal and Poomalai deep in the woods settle there.

Old tree at Kadayamalai, a sacred tree known as <i>Arali maram</i>
Old tree at Kadayamalai, a sacred tree known as Arali maram
Photo credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Every village has its own primeval deity or spirit. In Kadayamalai, they have Sokkar, Maruthaveeran and Poovakezhavi.

While male spirits end with Appan, Aandi & Veeran, female spirits end with Nachi, Appuchi & Thaayi.

Pulayas are themselves organised in different groups or koottam. Thangavel notes that he belongs to paliyan kootam whereas his brother belongs to vedi mallan koottam.

Segana koottam, vaduraiyan kootam, siruman koottam, narayan koottam, mottaiyan koottam, aadiya kannan koottam - the list goes on.

These horizontal grouping is divided into Yaezhu kudiththiyar (House of Seven) and Naapathu Kudiththiyar (House of Forties).

Though the prime reason for these classifications are not known, though believed to be for division of labour like herding, protecting the children, hunting, gathering, as of now they only play an active role in their marriage system.

When it comes to marriage, alliance should only be between the two houses not within. The house relationship is a fraternal one.

Thangavel tells stories of forefathers, how one of their forefathers was amused by the musical notes of a pair of Greater Coucal, species of Crow Pheasant (Sembuthu in Tamil) and tried to reproduce the same with rock and bamboo stem.

Artists performing traditional notes with <i>kuzhal </i>, <i>melam </i>and <i>kinkini </i>in Paaraipatti village
Artists performing traditional notes with kuzhal , melam and kinkini in Paaraipatti village
Photo credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Later he improvised it by making a drum, called melam, with cow skin on one side and goat skin on the other so as to match the two different notes.

Similar stories come out on the discovery of their clarinet, called kuzhal and medicinal herbs from the forest.

When asked whether all these stories and tradition have been carried to the younger generation in the community, he nods no.

Pazhaya kaalathula moothor peru thaan vaippaanga - We used to give the newborn, names of our forefathers. Now they all refer from television and cinema. Thing is, we elders are not able to understand these names - not a bit,” Thangavel told. His infant grandson was named Sudhik.

Boothan, Kathavan, Palraj and Palaniandi with <i>kuzhal </i>and <i>melam</i>
Boothan, Kathavan, Palraj and Palaniandi with kuzhal and melam
Photo credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Palraj seemed to have discovered a chance to display their culture and arranged meeting with elders from two other villages called Paarapatti and Sembadi Oothu located before Pachalur hills.

Kathavan Kudiyamangalan, 64, began to play the kuzhal and the procession starts. Palraj and Boothan, 52, follow with their melam.

They start with nadai then proceed to amman thaalam after which they arrive at the puli thaalam.

There are 12 major notes or thaalam with each thaalam for each special occasion. Except the saavu thaalam, the one for funerals, they played sample notes of all the twelve.

While the norm is two kuzhals, two melam and one kinkini for a company, only one kuzhal was present.

Ramakrishnan Boothan, 55, said that he could not play as only one was available.

“Earlier we used to make instruments as well as repair the old ones. Every Pulayar function is equally important. No one will go to work. One group will manage the food while the rest of us play the instruments,” he said, blaming the mic set and speaker for spoiling their functions and festivals.

Raw materials for the instruments are sourced from the forest itself. While the clarinet is made from white teak (kumula maram), the drum is made from jackfruit tree (pala maram). The bell piece of clarinet made in brass is however sourced from market.

Sembadi Oothu is located deep inside the forest at the foot of Shenbagasoodi hills which houses the wood spirit Shenbanachi. The road connecting Nadupatti and Sembadi Oothu is part of an elephant corridor.

Palraj asks every passerby during the 1 hour trek if they spotted ‘periyavar’ (a word of respect for elephants) on the way.

Locals here don’t venture outside after 5 pm for wildlife becomes active at dusk.

Rich plantation owners have solar fences to protect their plantain crops while middle class farmers called samsaaris, don’t invest in plantain. They go for coffee, cardamom and pepper instead.

A villager was trampled to death by a lone tusker only a week before.

A dolmen cave stands at the village entrance bearing graffiti supposedly made by the village youth. Children are seen playing around the megalithic stone-age relief.

Children on top of Dolmen cave, a megalithic stone age relief in Sembadi Oothu
Children on top of Dolmen cave, a megalithic stone age relief in Sembadi Oothu
Photo credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Durairaj Palaniandi, 62, who is the head priest in Sembadi Oothu reflects immediately on the reference to Pulayas as Adivasis. “We are not Adivasis. We are vanavasis, forest dwellers, rightful heirs to the forest. Every hill and valley here is named after wood land spirits and every spirit is related to a flora or a flower found in that hill or valley.” he said.

Durairaj Palaniandi, 62, chief priest, Sembadi Oothu
Durairaj Palaniandi, 62, chief priest, Sembadi Oothu
Photo credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Durairaj has been actively visiting all the 32 villages of late, taking classes to the youngsters about their heritage, customs and culture. It mainly includes the knowledge about their diet, deity and marriage tradition.

Elder Pulayas still continue to have palivi keerai and kuzhi kizhangu for food and they hold the rightful claim to pala kai (jackfruit) and veli viragu (firewood growing along the fences) from the lands of samsaaris, the middle class farmers. The species of jackfruit found here is in a jelly state and so they are consumed before they ripen.

Durairaj makes a connection between the settlers and the natives of the forest.

“Landed caste Hindus from plains migrated uphill to establish plantations. Britishers followed later. Our people became a natural option as labourers in plantations for both these settlers. Our people used to work from dawn to dusk without any kind of awareness about the outside world. With no knowledge of what was going on, about government acts, reservation, SC or ST, we were clueless when they told us that we are not STs anymore,” he said.

But he has a story behind this shift from ST to SC.

The Settlers And Valley Plantations

After Independence, the samsaaris - a term for the landed caste Hindus and the middle class farmers who own more than 5 acres of land - rose to power in these valleys.

With large plantations and orchards, they were invincible. The tribes were made to work as slaves with meagre wages.

Unlike the Palliyan tribe which was still in the deep woods, shy of the outside world, the Pulaya was the only tribe trained to civilization.

They became the natural choice for jobs in railways. But Pulayas also formed the backbone of the agriculture labour system in the hills.

Only a Pulaya can climb up a tree be it jack, teak, white teak, silver oak - all tall trees easily reaching 25 metres, work from there efficiently and only a Pulaya can work throughout the 8-month rainy season in the plantations withstanding the wildlife and climate.

But once the first batch in the Pulaya community entered Trichy railways, they started a new life in the cities.

They gave good education to their wards, wore shirts and pants, unlikely attire for a Pulaya at that time. They would come uphill during festivals and they became success stories in their locality.

“Looking at our exposure to the outside world and the imminent development of our social status, they feared that they would run out of labourers. They were powerful people with wills to do anything and they made this happen,” Durairaj said.

Colin Mackenzie, the first Surveyor General of India, conducted extensive research and study on the tribes of south Indian states. He stayed at Madurai during his service and in his manuscript he mentions Kunnuvars, the Vellalas from Dharapuram and Kangeyam, migrated uphill to Palani hills to find Pulaya tribes in power and predominance.

But they were soon suppressed and made plantation labourers. He notes that Kunnuvars wielded greater power in the valleys.

However times have changed. With the recent market crash and poor demand for coffee and pepper in the lower Palani Hills, the samsaaris have either sold or leased the lands for contracts.

Increasing presence of elephants and population explosion of the Manjampatti white bison in the last decade (called kaatumaadu) deter middle class farmers from investing in food crops like beans, chow chow or plantain.

As a result many lands were put up for sale in the last decade. Multi-millionaires and politicians began registering properties in the valleys, buying lands in large parcels of 100 acres. Ministers from ruling as well as opposition parties own lands here.

Reflecting on their tradition, Durairaj said - “We don’t have any Gods from the plains. We have an idol of mandoo bootham in the village. Through mandoo, we call our spirits and worship. We have countless number of spirits marking the sun, the moon, the earth, the winds in the valley, the rocks, trees and the caves of our periyor (forefathers) and so on.”

<i>Mandoo bootham</i>, Deity found common in all Pulaya villages
Mandoo bootham, Deity found common in all Pulaya villages
Photo credit: Cibe Chakravarthy

Mandoo bootham is a stone slab structure and finds its place in every Pulaya village. Every festival, function and even funeral starts with mandoo bootham.

“Our marriages are also different from the plains. We don’t have dowry or seer varisai (dowry in kind). The maapillai (groom), his brothers and cousins kneel down head to toe before the bride’s relatives and beg for the girl. The marriage is also not a costly affair. We offer betel leaves to mandoo. The bride is made to stand on a stone meant for her, the groom on the other stone and the marriage is performed,” Durairaj said.

Both Durairaj and Thangavel said that many researchers have visited their villages and studied their lifestyle and practices especially the medicinal herbs. “They all mention that we are tribes yet the government does not approve of it.”

Thonimalai marundhu, a type of spinach found in these parts is a medicinal herb that is still in use today. The Pulayas have been using them for ages, for bone fractures and other injuries.

The Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge conducted an ethnomedicinal survey of the lower Palani Hills. They found both the Palliyan and Pulayan community to be using 45 medicinal herbs actively by their healers.

While reports and evidence point otherwise, the community still continues to be in SC list. It is evident that the elders are the last repositories, who like a climax species, carry their culture, customs and traditional knowledge of the forest, the valley, the wildlife.

With the proposed tourism development in the Thandikudi Hills, modernisation is a reality. In these changing times, the priority for such knowledge transfer to the next generation becomes low.

The identity of the tribe rests ultimately with this knowledge. And for the tribe to live on with its ancient heritage, it needs to be named a tribe and not a caste.

A lot is in a name.