Sunday, January 1, 2012

Plain Prinia: no time for small talk

Previously referred to as Indian Wren Warbler, Plain Prinia is a small bird with relatively long tail, commonly seen in cultivated land. It differs from Ashy Prinia for its brownish upperparts.    
Irulas: people who know snakes
It was while i was cycling from Chennai to Puducherry -at Madras Crocodile farm, earlier this year that i thought of visiting Irula tribes. Few months later i was back in Chennai, about two hours in local train will take you to suburban town of Chengalpet, if you are lucky you will get a direct bus to Thandarai. About a Kms walk is Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society (ITWWS), founded by Rom and Zai Whitaker in 1986 with an aim of “protecting natural resources, empowering Irula women using the knowledge of forest resources for economic prosperity”. It is a membership based organisation initially started with five villages and now covers an area of 4 districts working with over 60 villages. The Centre is a repository of Irula knowledge, the collection and documentation of seeds is enviable. Apart from this, medicinal herbs and trees are also properly catalogued. I found the literature on Irulas wanting, and had to rely on Anthropological Society of India library in Mysore.             
Irulas are one of the most backward tribes who are facing innumerable challenges. The name Irula bear a reference to the dark jungles they live in. A legend says that goddess was interested to create people who could collect honey without being stung by bees, and she created one out of her sweat, who was successful in collecting honey without being stung. Even now it is said that bees and wild life flee at the smell of Irula’s sweat.   Another legend speaks of origin from irul mara (tree)
   Irulas are classified into various subgroups based on linguistic and social variations. These are Malenadu Irular, Kasaba, Vettakkara Irular, Urali Irular and Villiyan. The first four subgroups share similar ethnic and linguistic features but with slight variations, and are mostly found in Nilgiris and so referred to as Nilgiri Irulas.  Villiyans (villu meaning bow -a reference to hunter) are ethnically and linguistically different. They speak Tamil dialect, and are also referred to as pambukaran (snakeman). They are the one found in Chengalpetu region.
Every clan among the Irula has its own chief called naatamkar, who also doubles up as medicine man and priest. Irulas are known for their expertise in snakebite treatment. It is interesting to read that they use powdered mixture of eight types of plants for snake bite. The bark of the tree (kuruvi or kodachaali) is given to the bitten person to chew if the patient gets sweet taste then it is identified as poisonous bite while if it tastes bitter then it is non poisonous.  After ascertaining poisonous bite, further steps are taken. And yes it is recorded to have worked. By the way leafs of vottam talai (couldn’t locate the scientific name) tree are used to commit suicide. Organic suicide anyone?!!
Kanniamma is the principal deity (Mariyamma in case of Nilgiris– Thurston mentions it as being Goddess of small pox) other deities are influenced by Hindu gods. Kanniamma is represented by five pots arranged in square with a single pot in centre filled with turmeric water. Some trees too are considered sacred, as also the termite mound. The fame of Irulas may lie in snake catching skills but their primary occupation happens to be honey collection, toddy tapping (atleast that is what i read).  Irulas though non vegetarians avoid beef (i haven’t come across a mention of them eating snake, which is strange), rabbits, rats, porcupine etc are on the menu, roasted termites is a culinary delicacy.
Kannimar varniththal is a Irula fortune teller, he beats the drum and shakes while his wife sprays turmeric water over him. Soon he is possessed by Kanniamman. His wife unties his tuft of hair, he shakes rapidly and hisses like snake. He calms and addresses the crowd as if he is the goddess, saying
“Oh children! I have come down on my vehicle, which is decorated with mango flowers, margosa and jasmine. You need fear nothing so long as i exist, and you worship me. This land will be prosperous, and people will continue to be happy. My precious vehicle will be immersed in tank and will be taken out in procession after that the land will become more prosperous”.
Questions if any are put to the ‘goddess’ through his wife. If nothing they chant the praise of kannimar for hours at stretch as more and more people join in.  
I got a CD of Irula songs from the Centre, and last many months i have given to many people to get it translated into English. It has passed from one person to another without any success!! I thought of putting this blog once i get it translated, but since it’s taking too much time i thought of going ahead with the blog. The moment i get it translated will upload it.   
From my scribble pad...
We took the heat
in the blood
to grow stories of passion,
as an afterthought on life
we created myth,
while the marrow grew steady
connecting the synapses

Delicate slashes
placed appropriately in heart’s desire.
So much beauty hurts.