Here is a story from “God’s Own Country” that one doesn’t hear too often, the story of its “Forgotten faces” – the tribes of Wayanad.
As I travelled through the north of Kerala, I was mesmerised by a peaceful haven of diverse flora and fauna – the Wayanad! Known to be ecologically sensitive and bio-diverse, this region of the Western Ghats is breathtaking with its lush green forests, unusual birds, tigers, elephants and vultures. I was overjoyed, would be an understatement! Awestruck with what I saw through my lens, my fingers quickly clicked each sight of the Almighty’s unique creation.
I ventured further into the forests with the hope of capturing some picturesque scenes. Little did I know that Wayanad was more than just the Edakkal caves, Kuruvadweep and other similar tourist destinations. The adventure ahead, much to my surprise, was an exposure to life within the forests of Wayanad. While I sought scenes of wildlife, what I captured was a realisation of human history. A surprising discovery of a site that is said to be one among the earliest human habitation in India – as early as ten centuries before Christ!
The soul of Wayanad lies buried within the tribal clans, the Adivasis, for whom these dense forests have been home for eons. Each moment in the forest was a learning experience – the clans, their differences, their attitude and their needs. Life’s lessons that I learnt in a few days!
Paniyas, Adiyars, Kurumas, Kurichiyas and Kattunaikkans are the known tribes of the Wayanad – each diverse in culture and heritage yet all in sync with nature wanting no more than what is required for their mere survival.
The vast majority of tribals belong to the Paniya and the Adiyar clans. The Paniyas and the Adiyars, being on the lower strata of the Adivasi society are also considered the slave community among them. They are employed in agricultural lands but are given very low wages and in some cases, no remuneration at all.
I came across two women from the Paniya clan and immediately wanted to capture their arresting presence with my camera. The picture catches them walking home, with the setting sun behind them providing a glorious backlight.
When they saw me with my camera gear, they immediately sensed that I would not, for the sake of a few Rupees, give up on a worthy click and they asked me for money for taking their pictures. I showed no reluctance to pay them but did take more pictures as well. The ladies had no ornaments on them, except for one of them adorning a traditional ‘oolay’ earring which is fitted onto their ear lobule. The ear lobule had to be stretched to fit in the large ‘oolay’ earring.
One particular clan I was very curious about was the Kurichiyas. The Kurichiyas believe that they are of a higher class amongst the tribes in Wayanad. They are extremely conscious about the way they dress. To my surprise, they even practised untouchability to an extent. Kurichiya ladies, unlike the Paniyas, had colourful ornaments – necklaces of coloured beads on them.
The Kurichiya clan is the only clan that lives in joint families and follows a matriarchal system. I was fortunate to meet some Kurichiya families. The Matriarch was disapproving of taking pictures of the family members. When I requested to take some pictures of hers, she denied angrily. Although her family members requested her to face my camera, much to my disappointment, she remained adamant about not showing her face for a picture. I had to be satisfied with some shots of her walking away from me.
Yet another clan, the Kattunayakans, lives in the dense jungle. This makes them protected from modern society and also makes any kind of accessibility to them challenging. Most of them still remain aloof from the mainland, indifferent to all human contact and support. The Kattunayakans use natural medicines for their ailments.
It is a sad reality that we, the civilised societies, have depleted resources deep down in the forest to such an extent that the people of the forests have had to resort to non-conventional methods for survival. They have started depending on packaged food products to a certain extent. These products very well harm them and the environment they reside in. The artificial flavouring and the non-biodegradable wrapping pollute their body and their ecosystem.
Also Read: Ten Popular Forests in Kerala You Must Visit
These forest-dwellers, classified as “tribal”, do not enjoy any civil rights. The whole system that is designed to protect the disadvantaged members of society does not help them. I was under the impression that having grown so much as a society, the same would have reflected in terms of growth and development in the tribal areas. But I was wrong.
I happened to visit Venniyode and Muthanga tribal settlements and I was taken aback by the lack of basic amenities in these areas. After the floods of August 2018 and 2019, the lack of rehabilitation services and support from the authorities only added to their woes. Having seen unfulfilled promises and uncommitted pledges, they no longer trust any government official or politician or for that matter any person outside their community. They have been betrayed by the government and the system so many times that they do not have faith in the whole institution of governance anymore. They even fear to accept any aid that is actually focused on their betterment.
Disheartened as the Adivasis might be, with the floods having taken everything they had, they do not want to move from their current and accustomed habitat. Their only plea to the so-called civilised world is to be left undisturbed to sort out their own destiny. In their eyes is a passionate craving to hold onto whatever they have been left with. All they want is to protect their customs, their traditions and their people. There is no longer a desire to be modernised.
They want to protect their lands from outsiders. It is hard to imagine what their experiences have taught them, for they fear every outsider – the monsters from their stories who robbed them of everything they had.
Their fear of the outsider was very evident from the time I first acquainted them and wanted to take their pictures. They were not only reluctant but also fearful of what my purpose was or what the consequences of the encounter would be. However, after realising that I was not there to make money off them, befriending them was a less tedious task. I realised that when some even asked me for money, it was because they had no other means of livelihood. Post the recent floods, they have little or no income and are burdened with ever-increasing expenses. I questioned myself about the benefit of tribal welfare activities and funds because, had they been directed appropriately, the plight of these forest dwellers would definitely have been very different from what I saw.
Before my visit to Wayanad, I was a proud citizen living under the delusion that all people have access to the public health care system and its design, such that it is affordable to all. But here again, I was wrong. The government health care facilities for these tribes of Wayanad were lacking in all regards. It is through the benefaction and goodwill of independent charitable institutions like Amrita Charitable Hospital in Kalpetta, Wayanad that their medical concerns are addressed. Some doctors and other healthcare professionals also volunteer for the cause.
The Adivasis and their vulnerability have been on my mind ever since I visited them. Why does it still feel like they are living in the dark ages? Why does it still feel like we have failed as a society to care for them? Why does it feel like the tribal areas have made no real progress? Why does it feel like they don’t trust us? What is it that we must do to gain their trust? The disheartening truth is that we have come a long way since independence, mercilessly leaving behind our fellow human beings.
And no! One cannot say that we are still not equipped to deal with such matters because if we are a nation capable of sending an unmanned mission to study about life on the moon, we are definitely capable of not only lending an ear to hear their problems, but also to take concrete measures for their upliftment and empowerment, whilst in all senses preserving their enriched tradition and culture.
While we proudly strut forward proclaiming our many accomplishments, we forget a not-so-fortunate section of us who have nothing to boast of, not even aware that the basic essence of living can now only be found amongst them. Our greed, polished to be called “ambition”, blinds us of the subtle truths and valued learning that can be acquired from our tribal treasures. Valued learning is important, as it could make us protect and live in harmony with nature.
Lest we forget, these earliest inhabitants and their stories are definitely part of our Incredible India!