| Adivasi |

Trapped in Transition

M Suchitra

15/03/2009

Cholanaickans
Pic: Ajeeb Komachi

Loud barking sounds greeted us as we emerged from dark thickets in the forest on to the rocky banks of the river Karimpuzha. Layers of huge round rocks bulging into the sky with tall forest trees bringing up the background. Not very far from us, sitting on the rock at the top, a group of people—men, women and children—were watching us in bewilderment. We trudged towards them, jumping from one rock to another. While we were climbing up the bamboo pole kept as a ladder to the roof of the giant rock, a woman tied the dogs on to a wild creeper. At last we had reached the Cholanaickans, the only remaining tribe in Asia living in rock-cave shelters. The only surviving hunter-gatherer indigenous community in the country.

It was hard getting there. A 100 kilometer bus ride from Kozhikode had brought me and Ajeeb to Nilambur, a small town in Malappuram district on the Kozhikode-Ooty Road. Krishnan, an officer with the tribal department, joined us, and we hired a jeep to the Karulai Reseve Forest where the tribe lives. Karulai rainforest is a part of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reseve on the Western Ghats, a treasuretrove of biodiversity. There were 11 alai (cave settlements) scattered deep in the dense forest, we were told. Most of them, on inaccessible and extremely difficult terrains.

cholanaickans
Pic: Ajeeb Komachi
The bumpy mud road of about 20 kilometers through the teak plantations in the forest ended at Manjeeri. Moinkuttykutty, who has been running a forest produce collection centre under the Nilambur Scheduled Tribe Development Cooperative Society for more than 25 years, accompanied us as a guide. He knew the forest tracts, the tribe and their language.

We started trekking through the narrow forest tract. The nearest Karimpzha alai was six kilometers away. Giant trees in the jungle towered towards the sky, and even at 11 in the morning, sunrays hardly filtered through the dense canopy of the moist, deciduous, evergreen forest. Thick creepers, bamboo thickets, brigh-coloured flowers, orchids. We spotted birds we had never seen before and there were wild squirrels climbing up on the dark brown trunks of the trees. Far below we could see a silvery rivulet flowing and foaming through the rocks. A real visual feast, and Ajeeb’s camera started grabbing greedily the beauty of rugged wilderness.

“ Please keep quiet,” Moinkutty cautioned us in a hushed voice pointing to the fresh elephant droppings along the tract we were treading. “The herd could be somewhere in the vicinity, and might get agitated by loud voices and strange smells.”

We trekked for an hour and crossed the hanging bridge over the rivulet. Moinkutty preferred a “short cut”, a narrow path that would lead us to the bank of the Karimpuzha. We started climbing down the mountain slope. The path was covered with withered leaves. An uncertain step may see us falling down the slope. Holding on to the creepers, exposed roots and bamboo stems we slowly trudged down. And there they were, beings of a different era.

Cholanaickans
Pic: Ajeeb Komachi
Climbing up the bamboo pole we stepped out into the Karimpuzha cave settlement. It was a natural cave on a huge rock. There were only two families in that settlement. Karimbuzha Mathan and his wife Karikka, Karimbuzha Ravi, his wife, mother and four children. Ravi’s family in a cave on the rock below, and Mathan and Karikka in another cave “upstairs”.

All of them were squatting in and around the main cave. The cave was kept very clean. There was a hearth burning, and Malli, Ravi’s wife was cooking while breast-feeding her baby. Karikka was weaving a basket. A long, thin bamboo pole kept as a cloth line, three bamboo baskets with shoulder straps that seemed to be perfect pieces of handicrafts, two axes and three aluminium utensils. The entrance of the cave was adorned with pictures of Malayalam superstar Mammootty!

The Karimpuzh Alai was comparatively small, Krishnan told us. There are cave settlements far interior in the forest where up to seven families live together.

It was in 1970, that the existence of the Cholanaickans in the Nilambur valley was discovered, and till recently they were considered an offshoot of the Kattunaickan, another tribe living in the same valley and also in the adjacent Wynad forests. In 2002, the state government recognized Cholanaickens as one of the five primitive indigenous communities in Kerala . A recent study by the Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (KIRTADS) estimates the number of Cholanaickan at 363 with just 161 females among them. There are 82 families living in different regions of Karulai-Chungathara forest ranges The tribe speaks their own language, a mixture of Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam.

The Cholanaickans are still in the pre-agricultural stage of development. They totally depend on the forests for their survival. The tribe confine themselves to the caves only during the rainy seasons. In winter and summer, they move from one place to another in search of food and forest produces. They collect tubers, root, nuts, fruits, honey, ginger, wild pepper, soap seeds and dammer. While wandering in the forest some of them make bamboo huts, or sleep under the sky on big rocks. Rivers are the only source of drinking water for them.

cholanaickans
Pic: Ajeeb Komachi
Among the Cholanaickans there is no clan organization but they live together as territorial grouping, which is called chemmam. Each territory has its own leader called chemmakkaran. Territories have natural boundaries- trees, rivers and rocks. Chemmam is a closely-knit group of two to five families, and they generally cluster together in a single cave or adjacent caves. A typical Cholanaicka family consists of a man and his wife with two or three children, an aged parent, and perhaps an unmarried younger brother. Inside the rock shelter, space is demarcated for each family. Parents usually sleep around the hearth. Burning fire is always kept inside as well as in front of the cave. Unmarried sons sleep in front of the cave whereas grown up daughters sleep inside the cave. Members of a chemmam are considered brothers and sisters.

There is no word for “ arranged marriage” in their language. A boy can choose a girl from outside his chemmam. If a boy and a girl like each other they go to the forest sleep together and become man and wife. If there is any opposition, the boy can take away the girl by force. But they have to give some fine to the tribal chief. After the marriage the girl becomes a member of her husband’s territory. Since the number women is less in the tribe, many Cholanaicka men remain unmarried or marry from the Kattunaicka tribe. Couples prefer to use forests as their mating place rather than the caves where others live and the “Divine Basket “ of the gods is kept. They also avoid having sex in caves where any ancestor might have been buried

Generally it’s the women and the children who collect the food items, and men collect honey and other forest produces. They have deep knowledge about the nature of the forest, and know where different kinds of edible tubers and roots are found in different seasons. They even know at what depth the tubers and roots would be in a particular month. They take the produces to the collection centre of the Nilambur Scheduled Tribal Development Co-operative Society at Manjeeri and buy rice, salt, oil, chilly and other necessities from the society. Mathan remembered selling 20 kilogram of honey to a trader for Rs 20, before the society came into existence.

Cholanaickans
Pic: Ajeeb Komachi
“ Cholanaickans are very innocent and trustworthy. They never betray you.” Pointed out Moinkutty. “ They still believe the forest belongs to them.” They keep their ration cards at the collection centre. Most of them have thrown away their voters identity cards. A few members of the tribe get Rs 240 as old-age pesion, they walk about 20 kilometers, go to the town, and while returning hire a jeep for Rs 650!

Since 2002, a residential school, exclusively for the primitive tribes, has started functioning in Nilambur, and Cholanaickens are increasingly taking interest in sending their children to school. Despite being highly intelligent and imaginative, half of the children drop out from the school by the time they complete primary education. Whatever they learn at school become irrelevant and useless once they return to the same old nomadic life in the dense forest. Literacy rate of the tribe has gone upwards from zero to 24 per cent.

Shrinking of forest, increasing contact with non-tribals, change in their traditional occupation and food habits and marital relation with others have put the Cholanaickans at the crossroads. Their nomadic nature is slowly changing and their identity as cave dwellers is at stake. The self-sufficient forest economy is changing to market based economy and the tribe is adapting to it by turning to wage labour.

As the contact with the ‘main stream’ increased, their needs too have increased. Utensils, dress, liquor (The Cholanaikens never touched alcohol in the past)…so too their debts. And also their dilemmas. 18 families were rehabilitated at the fringes of the forest by the government. But only five remained there and the rest returned to their stone slits. Marauding elephants is the reason they tell you, but it is quite obvious that they are at home only in their natural habitat. At the same time they cannot resist at least some of the temptations of ‘civilisation’. Cholanaickans
Pic: Ajeeb Komachi
The posters of the film star speak volumes. The sense one gets is that of a community, trapped in transition and undergoing a conflict between its basic instincts and the beckoning calls of the outside world.

Worse, the prohibition order has not been reviewed after imposing it 12 years ago. For effective implementation of prohibition, two high-power committees-one at the state level and the other at the district level-- had been formed in 2004. This first committee met only once in the last three years, and the other, despite meeting many times, never came up with significant decisions. Also, the excise office and the police stations are inadequately equipped to implement prohibition effectively in a difficult terrain with hills and forests that spreads over745 sq.kms. We climbed down the bamboo pole and were on our way back, when I turned around and waved good bye to them . The Cholanaickens were again huddled together, not even the kids waving back, the same bewildered look on their face, as impenetrable as their stone homes.


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The Cholanaickans are still in the pre-agricultural stage of development. They totally depend on the forests for their survival. In winter and summer, they move from one place to another in search of food and forest produces. While wandering in the forest some of them make bamboo huts, or sleep under the sky on big rocks. Rivers are the only source of drinking water for them.


Shrinking of forest, increasing contact with non-tribals, change in their traditional occupation and food habits and marital relation with others have put the Cholanaickans at the crossroads. Their nomadic nature is slowly changing and their identity as cave dwellers is at stake.


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