Posts Tagged 'anthropology'

Western Ghats, India – Ecological Past

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).


Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic times


The earliest human settlement in the Western Ghats have been traced back to the Palaeolithic or the Old Stone Age period – over 10,000 years BC.
Stone tools were discovered from the river valleys of Bharatpuzha (Palghat district), Beypur (Malappuram district) and Netravathi basin (Dakshina Kannada district).
Palaeolithic artifacts have been found at Kibbanahalli (Mysore district), Lingadahalli and Kadur (Chickmagalur district) and Honnalli (Shimoga district).

Tribal Woman, Wayanad, Kerala – Pic by Mohan Pai

Mesolithic or the Middle Stone Age (10,000 – 3,000BC) witnessed the transition of hunter-gatherers into food growers. Many Mesolithic sites have been discovered from Mandovi river in Goa to Kerala. They are located at Karwar and Ankola (Uttara Kannada district), Netravathi valley (Dakshina Kannada district) Nirmalagiri (Kannur district), Chevayur (Kozikode district) and Tenmalai (Kollam district). Charcoal found from the trenches in Tenamalai, indicates that the people could have burned forests.

The Deccan Plateau during the Neolithic or the New Stone Age (3,000-1,000 BC), was practising primitive agriculture and pastoralism. In Hallur (Dharwar district) close to the Western Ghats, cattle, sheep and goats were domesticated (1500 BC) and millet and horse gram were cultivated 300 years later.
The Jorwe people of Inamgaon – in the western Deccan Maharashtra, had irrigated rice during 1400-700 BC. The Jorwes brought marine fish and shells from the Konkan coast, 200 km to the west, which shows that the Neolithic people had some knowledge of the Western Ghats and the coast.
Many Neolithic sites have been found in the Western Ghats at Tambdi Surla (Goa), Anmod (Uttara Kannada district), Agumbe (Shimoga district), the hill slopes of Sita river (Karkala) and many others in Kerala. The Nilaskal site in Agumbe, being close to the sources of west coast rivers Sharavathy, Chakra and Haladi, was strategic to Neolithic people giving them an easy access to the coast.
Neolithic people with their stone axes descended from the Western Ghats of Dakshina Kannada to the coast in the last part of second millennium BC and resorted to cultivation, probably by slash and burn method. Hill cultivation (presumably shifting) in South India is probably older than the spread of iron tools, about 3,000 years ago.
During the Megalithic period (1000-0 BC) iron implements were widely used. Iron implements date back to 1500 BC in Hallur. The west coast of south India was intensely settled during this period and the Megalithic period witnessed intensification of forest clearance by agri-pastoralists. Many excavated burial chambers in laterite plains have been found in Malabar, Dakshina Kannada and also in Siddapur.(Source : Subhash Chandran, 1997)
The Nilgiris were colonised by the Todas, as early as 200 BC.

Vedic Civilisation

Vedic civilisation was largely confined to one of the most fertile tracts of the northwest part of India that includes the present day states of Punjab, Rajasthan and north Gujarat.
Drained by seven rivers (Sapta Sindhu), this region was referred to as the cradle of Indian civilisation. This ancient civilisation of India appears to have had an extended period of development from 5,000 BC to 2,000 BC when a great period of drought seems to have put an end to it. Because of the drought, the Vedic people migrated eastwards and occupied the Gangetic valley region forming parts of the present day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Bengal and Orissa. Many enterprising people migrated southward both by land and sea and colonised the west coast around Ratnagiri, Goa, coastal Karnataka and Kerala.
These people are even today called Saraswats and Goud Saraswats, a name reminiscent of their original homeland on the banks of the Vedic river Saraswati in north-west India.

Harappan migration ?

According to some historians the Indus civilisation did not perish suddenly. The later Harappan Phase survived in Saurashtra, Gujarat and north Maharashtra up to 1,200 BC.

The biodiversity rich forests, the abundant water resources, the productive estuaries and the sea, could have attracted the drought stricken Neolithic and Megalithic agri-pastorals from the Deccan, as well as the Harappans.

Sacred Forests
Forest clearance was inevitable for farming and yet, there was an overwhelming belief in the sacredness of the woods. Secondary species and heavily savannized tracts were interspersed with lofty evergreen patches, the menasukans or pepper forests, where the people tended to the wild pepper. The relics of such kans occur to this day in Uttara Kannada and Shimoga. They were important tracts of pre-colonial forest conservation in the Western Ghats. Myriad relics of such groves, exist even today all over the Western Ghats. They may be called Devrai in Maharashtra, Devarkadu in Kodagu and Kavu in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, these forests in pre-colonial landscape, served many functions like the conservation of biodiversity and watershed, moderation of climate and promoted varied wildlife.

A Sacred Forest in Goa

Hunting was subjected to many community regulations. The sacred forests ranged in size from a few hectares to few hundred hectares. The kans of Sorab taluk in Shimoga district, for instance, covered about 13,000 hectares or 10% of Sorab’s area.

Colonial Era


The British occupation of the Western Ghats, from the early 19th century altered forestry operation and traditional forest management gave way to state forestry. The forest working plans for the evergreen belt of the southern Western Ghats concentrated on the extraction of commercial deciduous timber like teak. As large areas of teak were harvested, adequate regeneration did not follow and the rising demand for teak and its depletion in nature compelled the foresters to launch massive vegetational changes in favour of teak monoculture.
The British began large scale forest exploitation and wholesale vegetational changes and transformation into commercial plantations of coffee, tea, wattle and eucalyptus.
Such commercialisation of the high altitude areas such as the Nilgiri plateau, Southern Tamil Nadu and the High Ranges in Kerala marginalised the small tribal groups engaged in hunting, gathering and shifting cultivation.


The state policies favoured the new immigrants who controlled natural resources, and extracted and traded them in the markets. The spurt in commercialisation of natural resources and commodity production also attracted an exodus of migrant labourers with overall serious ecological consequences on the region. The destruction of the forest cover of the Western Ghats has been the result of a nexus between unregulated exploitation by commercial interests, beginning with ship building, railways and the hydel projects in British times and going on to mining, plywood and polyfibre industries after Independence and equally indisciplined harvests by the progressively impoverished rural masses.


From the Edict of Shivaji

“The Armada of our kingdom requires durable hardwood for their hulls decks and masts.
Teak and other appropriate trees of our forests may be felled for this purpose after applying to His Majesty and obtaining the royal permission. If, any more be required, they may be purchased from neighbouring kingdoms.
The Mango and Jackfruit trees of our kingdom also provide suitable timber for naval purposes. But they should not be touched, for it is not as if these trees can be grown in a year or two. People plant them and bestow upon them long years of care, as they would on their own children.
If such trees were to be felled, would not the people be inconsolable? An edifice built upon anyone’s sorrow soon collapses, taking down with it the architect too. In fact the ruler has to bear the guilt of tyranny. Also absence of such trees causes irreparable damage. Hence under no circumstances are such degradations to be allowed.
Perchance, if a very old tree has ceased to bear fruits, then it may be taken with the consent of the owner after persuasion and payment of compensation. Coercion shall not, under any circumstances, be pardoned”.
– Courtesy WWF – INDIA, Newsletter- April 1997

Western Ghats, India – The Tibals

From the book  ”The Western Ghats” by Mohan Pai (2005).


… may his tribe increase

The hill tribes or Adivasis (original inhabitants) as they are called, account for barely 5% of the area population in the Western Ghats. The tribals have coexisted with nature for centuries in quiet harmony with rich traditional knowledge and cultural life.

The changing times have told on the lives of the tribals and they have to make a hard choice; accept development with its positive and negative features or perish. In recent years with the reduction in forest area, imposition of forest regulations, construction of dams etc. the lives of the tribals have been highly disturbed. Hunger, ignorance and exploitation have forced them to leave their traditional forest living and take to crimes, migrate or seek employment in rural and urban areas.

Interior of a Toda Tribe Hut in the Nilgiris – Pic by Mohan Pai

The profiles of some of the major tribes of the Western Ghats are as follows:

The Tribes of the Nilgiris

Before the British opened up the high pastures of the Nilgiris in 1818 to the western civilisation, they were the preserve of four tribes: The Kotas, who gave their name to Kotagiri, made tools and music; the Badagas, who cultivated the land, the forest dwelling Kurumbas who collected honey and wood and also performed sorcery; and the Todas, who with their herds of sacred buffalo, provided milk and ghee. 

Toda Woman in traditional shawl – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Todas

The Todas have unique traditions revolving around their buffalo and their temples, which are dairies. Unlike their neighbours on the plains, in feature or build, they are tall athletic and well-proportion built and variously described as being Italian, Mesopotamean, Arabic or Jewish origin (it has been suggested that they are the lost tribe of Israel or descendants of Alexander’s army). Their traditional dress is Roman type toga, covered by a shawl, and their language is Dravidian in origin, which supports the theory that they were part of the Dravidian flight southwards from the invading Aryans. The idea does not explain however, their physical appearance which is so different from their shorter neighbours on the plains below; when and why they sought refuge in the Nilgiri plateau must remain a mystery forever. The Todas consider they were created by gods to be the lords of the Nilgiris, and have been here beyond human memory. The Todas live in hamlets called munds. Their huts have an entrance less than a metre high, and closed by a solid block which slides across to close the entrance.

Toda Hut- Pic by Mohan Pai

Inside these bamboo and rattan structures is a raised sleeping platform, a fireplace and a cooking slab. Toda life centres around their cattle and dairy produce – milk, curds and ghee -forms the basis of their diet. When a tribesman dies, several of his valuable buffaloes are bludgeoned to death so he will have solace of their company and the nourishment of their milk on his journey to the kingdom of death.

Toda Temple – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Todas practice polyandry, a woman marrying all the brothers in the family; inbreeding and syphilis led to a long and steady decline in their numbers until recent times, when the advent of drugs and better medical care has helped stabilise their population. Today there are about 60 Toda settlements around Ooty. 

Author at a Toda Village

The Soligas

The forest regions of Yelandur, Chamarajnagar, Nanjangud and Kollegal which include Biligiri Rangaswamy and Malai Mahadeshwara hill ranges in the southern part of Karnataka are inhabited by nearly 20,000 indigenous people called Soligas. The Soligas have co-existed with the forest for centuries in quiet harmony. Though primarily semi-nomadic, in recent years with the imposition of forest regulations, the Soligas have taken to more or less sedentary existence in small forest villages called podus or doddi or hadi. To an outsider what impresses most is their traditional knowledge, cultural life and a life in harmony with nature.

Soliga Tribal Sttlement, B. R. Hills – Pic by Mridula Pai
The Soligas live in small huts at appropriate distance from water sources in fairly safe places to protect themselves from wild animals. All through the night they keep fire near their huts so as to ward off wild animals and protect them against cold.

The staple food of Soligas is ragi. The crop cultivation practices are quite primitive and their agriculture is known by the name kalakodu besaya. The Soligas depend extensively on a number of non-timber forest products that are collected by the entire family.

The Soligas have their own medicine system known as naru beru aushadhi(roots and tuber medicine). They also depend on Thammadi (the priest) who worship their Gods and Goddesses and give them vibhuti (sacred ash).

The Soliga marriage is simple and by elopement. The boy and girl normally in their teens love each other and elope to the forest and may land up in some remote podu. The local Soligas provide them food and water. They are then brought back to their podu and a Nyaya(inquiry) is held. They are fined Rs. 12.50 and then blessed by the elders. A simple marriage ceremony is held thereafter involving a community feast. In some cases, however, no ceremony is held and the boy and girl live as man and wife in their podu. The Soligas appear to be acutely aware of their environment. Their concern for environment appears to be a product of their necessity and intuition. Years of close association with nature might have made them realise her secrets and inner life. Their life-line being forest, by sheer necessity too, preservation of forest has been ingrained in their culture.

Hallaki Vokkals of Uttara Kannada

Halakki Vokkals are confined to the coastal talukas of Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. They are agriculturist living on farm lands located at the outskirts of towns that are sandwiched between the Western Ghats on the east and the expanse of the Arabian sea to the west. 75,000 Halakkis live in Koppas under direct control of their community heads. Mud walls and floors of their thatched huts are elaborately decorated with Hali White rangoli against black or red background). They have a rich folklore.

Their women (Gowdathis) are graceful, light in colour and very pretty. The hair are parted in the centre and brought back into a pendulous bun. Their nose, ears, necks arms and ankles are loaded with ornaments made of brass, copper and silver. They have a great fancy for blue, yellow and red beads, and wear them in large numbers around their necks in the form of strings. Women are extremely hardworking and a bridegroom has to pay Tara (bride price) to his father-in-law prior to the wedding.

The Siddis

Siddi schoolgoing children near yellapur- Pic by Mohan Pai

The Siddis are the descendants of African Negroes, who were brought to India mainly by Arabs, the Portugese and the Dutch. They are chiefly found in the forest areas of Ankola, Mundgod, Haliyal and Yellapur taluks. They live in small clusters constituting a distinct settlement of a village or independent settlement. Their occupation is agriculture and they also collect honey and go hunting. They speak Are-Marathi, a mixture of Marathi, Konkani and Kannada.

Tribals of Wayanad
Wayanad district is predominently a tribal district and the major tribes are : * Paniya * Adiya * Kuruchiya *Kathinayaka * Kuruma tribes.

The Paniya

Paniya Woman – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Paniya, a major tribal community in Kerala live in the hills of Wayanad. The headman of Paniya settlement is called Kuttan, and the head of the family is Mudali. The Paniya priest Chemmi wields authority over a group of settlements.

They practice monogamy and widows are allowed to marry. The Paniyas were bonded labourers employed by the planters.


Wayanad Tribal – Pic by Mohan Pai

The Adiyas

This is another of the slave tribes and the community is divided into subgroups called the Mandu. The headman of the Mandu is called Peruman. Polygamy is not a taboo among them and sex offender is not ostracized.

The Kattunayakans

This is a primitive tribe and the Kattunayakans literally live in jungles and are mainly engaged In collecting forest produce and honey. They do not mingle with other tribes. The headman is called Muthanwhose decisions are always final. The Kattunayakans worship animals, birds, trees and other Hindu deities and firmly believe in black magic and sorcery.

The Kuruchiyans

Author with Wayanad Tribals

The Kuruchiyans are an agricultural tribal community and they are excellent archers who joined Pazhassi Raja in fight against British. They live in small though clean houses and do not encourage drinking alcohol except on festive occasions.

The Kuruma

The Kuruma tribals are supposed to be the original inhabitants of Wayanad. They are also good archers and had joined Pazhassi Raja in his fight against the British.

Subsistence economy in the Western Ghats is gradually dwindling for much of the hill dwelling tribals have sought employment in the local private and government sectors. The proportion of people classified as scheduled tribes is less than 5% in the four biodiversity rich states viz Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In fact the population classified as scheduled tribes in the states of Goa, Tamil Nadu and Kerala is hardly 1%.

Distribution of the Tribes of Northern and Central Western Ghats (Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa)

Bhils are considered to be amongst the oldest settlers in the country. They derive their name from the Dravidian word Billu, which means bow. Bhils are thus seen with bow and arrow which is their traditional weapon. They live in isolation, go for hunting, fishing, practice shifting cultivation and have escaped to a large extent the influence of Brahmania (upper caste) culture. This tribe was able to maintain political independence to a great extent and it remained the most turbulent amongst all the tribes.

Warli Tribe has become famous because of their traditional folk painting art. The Warlis are mainly residents of Thane district of Maharashtra spread out in the villages of Dahanu, Talasari, Mokhada, Vada, Palghara and extends up to the Gujarat border. Their tribal paintings are different from other folk and tribal art. They do not narrate mythology in primary colours as did the Madhubanis instead they are painted on mud, charcoal, cow dung based surfaces using only white colour, and are decorated with series of dots in red and yellow. Their paintings are influenced by the seasonal cycle as their life around them is directly reflected in the paintings.

Goa tribes include Gaude, Velip, Dhangar and Kunbi.

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