Day 28 (Part 5): The day we met the original inhabitants of the hills

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We walked from Dhanya towards Gottiyarkandi – a Kurumba hamlet situated deep in the Attapadi forests. The dirt road steeped upwards and we could see remnants of large tyre tracks embedded in the muck. Most of the Kurumba settlements are inaccessible during monsoons. Not so long go, the tribes had to trek through dense jungles down the hill in order to buy supplies like sugar and salt from neighbouring towns. The pathways are laden with leeches and slush. And, it is nearly impossible to drive through the woods this time of the year. “Atta literally translates to leech. They are found in abundance here. So, watch your step,” said Jose with a chuckle.

As we climbed uphill, Sheen told us that Kurumbas are the most primitive of the three tribes residing here. They led a nomadic lifestyle and were the earliest occupants of the hills. They refused to accept any help from the authorities back in the day. The tribal leaders declined the government’s offer of splitting their forefather’s lands into sub-plots and having them chalked up as private property. They wished to continue living in the forests where they truly belong. Their land belonged to their people and everyone lived collectively since time immemorial.

Categorised as proto-Australoid – an early human society of hunter-gatherers – their racial markers can be traced to some of the most ancient autochthones of the country. In fact, it was Roland Burrage Dixon, an American anthropologist, who first coined the term proto-Australoids and defined them as descendants of the first modern human beings to migrate from Africa 50,000 years ago. Largely endogamous in nature, Kurumbas are divided into numerous subgroups – Betta Kurumbas, Jenu Kurumbas, Mullu Kurumbas, Urah Kurumbas, Alu Kurumbas and Palu Kurumbas. However, all these tribal communities follow different cultures, religious beliefs, customs and even language.

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The Kurumbas of Attappadi are Palu-Kurumbas. According to a few anthropologists, apart from cross-cousin marriages, polygamy is still widely practised within the tribe. As a matter of fact, one of their legendary healers – Mudhu Moopan – from Anavai claimed to have 16 wives. UNESCO even described him as an encyclopedia of medicinal plants. The 110-year-old headed the Anavai hamlet for more than half a century.

“They still have their traditional medicine but most of them are now accustomed to Western medication,” said Sheen as he led us into the jungle. The hills stretched to a distant mist. Bamboo groves and tall trees transformed the path into a cave of lush green paradise. Creaks and cracks resounded in the air as trunks fought for space crashing into one another. Leaves rustled against swaying stalks while birds warbled tunes of whispering melodies. There’s an intimate mimetic connection between the rhythm of the forest and the harmony of its creatures; the sonic structures almost mirroring the echoes of the universe. And, so we set forth on paths where once tread souls of a primordial era now forgotten by men of ‘sophisticated’ culture.

“There’s a short cut up here through the trees. The straight route will take us longer to reach,” said Jose as he took the detour through dense thickets and wild shrubbery. The trail was rocky and thick vegetation adorned the paths. Soon, the emerald green crown of the forest was visible from atop.

In about twenty minutes, we reached the hamlet and were greeted by a cheery young woman. Her name was Chindi. She grabbed a few chairs and placed them on the courtyard. We couldn’t see the hamlet in its entirety. Most of the homes were hidden from vicinity and surrounded by a thick canopy of trees. Chindi held us by her hand and took us inside her home. The living room was filled with several young women nursing their babies while watching an old Tamil movie. She introduced us to everyone and said, “This is my family.”

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We asked her to describe the house she grew up in and what she cherished the most about her childhood. Her face broke into a delighted grin as she said, “It was made of bamboo, grass and mud. All our houses were built that way. Things were different back then. We had to work very hard. Today, we live in structures made of brick and cement. We have electricity and water. And, we all watch television together. We are very happy with all the facilities provided to us.”

What she said puzzled us. That the government introduced schemes have done more harm to the tribal communities than benefit them was quite evident from our visit to other hamlets. However, here they seemed to be embracing the transformation wholeheartedly. It was only later we learnt that ‘development’ was enforced upon Kurumba hamlets ten years ago. Therefore, ‘change’ is relatively new to them. And, they are yet to gauge the negative side of government intervention. It almost felt as if we had stumbled upon the missing link between an ancient world that once existed and a modern world torn apart by urban civilisation.

(to be continued…)

Project ‘Rest of My family‘  is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.

Through ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….

Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502

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