Brief history of Palani Hills

A Brief History of the Palani Hills

With Priya Mani
Adapted from a report written for INTACH, Kodaikanal

Today, Kodaikanal and the Palani Hills are home to a multitude of communities. This diverse mix includes the original inhabitants of the hills, who continue to live in their traditional ways, close to the wild forest and hills, as well as a number of other communities that migrated to the hills to find their place here.         

The Palani Hills have been inhabited for at least 1500 years. They have come to be a repository of stories, both individual and inter-generational. The stories of the lives of places, people and animals, woven together, offer a glimpse into the life of these mountains.

But whose stories count? Stories of kings and grand conquests occupy a prominent place in history, as if history itself belonged to the rich and powerful. We most often know little, if anything at all, about our immediate local context. Local histories help shape our identities and form our connections to places and people; they reveal and explain present-day hierarchies and deep-rooted oppression, they are both a source of pride and pain.

Oddly, there are almost no texts which document the histories of the traditional communities of the Palani Hills. Literature on this region almost always centres around the establishment of Kodaikanal town, by American and British missionaries, in the early 19th century. It is often assumed that the hills were made habitable by white settlers looking for a cool summer retreat. 

However, a long and rich history of this region exists well before this time.

Paliyan village in the forest Moongilpalam
A Paliyan village today, deep inside the forest (Photo courtesy Nishita Vasanth)

Before 1300 CE

Around 700 years ago, the Palani Hills were a scarcely populated forest. The Paliyans lived in small, nomadic bands, moving across the forest, in search of food. Around the same time, the Puliyans were experimenting with small-scale agriculture. They carved out the first few terraces on these mountains. During this period, the Paliyans and Puliyans would have relied solely on their knowledge of the forest for survival. It is quite possible that these two groups had little or no contact with each other. Although records suggest that indigenous communities traded forest goods with merchants in the foothills in exchange for essentials centuries ago, contact with communities in the plains was most likely minimal. 

Collecting and drying lichen
Collecting and drying lichen. Both the Paliyans and Puliyans continue their century old knowledge and skills in working with forest produce (Photo courtesy Nishita Vasanth)

Peter M Gardner, an American anthropologist, classified the Paliyans as ‘hunter-gatherers’ in the 1960s. Most modern hunter–gatherer communities around the world engage in hunting and gathering, but also combine this with other sustenance strategies such as wage work, occasional cultivation, and trade of MFP (minor forest produce) amongst other things. This traditional way of life can be seen amongst the Paliyans even today, except for hunting. (Read ‘Living in Reciprocity with the Sholas’ by Murugeswari, an adivasi writer, to know more about how the Paliyans live today.)  

Collection of Minor Forest Produce (MFP) for personal consumption, as well as to trade, has always been an integral part of the hunter-gatherer survival strategy. The Paliyans gather more than 60 species of edible plants and many species of medicinal plants. This kind of knowledge is extremely localised. Their staple food was largely comprised of wild yams, which they collected in the area ranging from the foothills to the upper Palani hills. 

The Paliyans have an in-depth knowledge of the forest and are skilled in collecting honey from different species of bees. They have been able to turn this knowledge into trade opportunities with outsiders, by collecting non-timber forest produce and selling it to neighbouring caste villages, or markets in the nearby plains. This pursuit dominates the economy for some Paliyan groups (Norström 2003: 62-70; Schmidt 1997). 

The extent of dependence on forest produce today varies from one Paliyan village to the other. Villages like Polur and Palamalai claim almost no dependence on forest produce collection, whereas in villages like Moongilpalam, MFP collection is a major source of income.

The Puliyans are amongst the earliest settlers or original inhabitants of the Palani hills. According to Nora Mitchell, the British botanist, the Puliyans were settled agriculturists. She suggests that they might have been the first builders of hill terraces in these hills. She elaborates: ‘They are consulted on matters of medicinal herbs, tiger poisons and methods of driving out evil spirits’ (1972, 101).

The Puliyans were once the agriculturalists of these hills, cultivating dry grains like foxtail and finger millets for their own subsistence. During the sixteenth and seventeenth century, they were overrun by migrants from the plains, who were escaping famine, disease and violence during the wars between state-building forces in the plains (Nambiar, 1966, 8).

1300-1800 CE 

Over the next 500 years, several communities migrated up the mountains, at times to escape war, at other times to escape famine and disease. The Mannadiars, under the rule of the Pandya kings, were the first (non-indigenous) community in recorded history to migrate up the hills looking for new lands. By this time, the Puliyans had developed skills and techniques to grow crops and maintain farms in the hills. When the Mannadiars arrived from the plains, they found the conditions unfamiliar and sought help from the Puliyans. However, over time, a hierarchical relationship emerged, and the Mannadiars enslaved the Puliyans, forcing them to work on their farms.

Around the same time, the Aasaris and Arundathiyars migrated up the mountain. The Aasaris worked as blacksmiths, goldsmiths, stone masons and carpenters, servicing the newly established Mannadiar settlements. They built houses, tools for farming, temples for worship, and other material goods. 

Some Paliyan homes are built with sticks, mud and thatch
Even now, some Paliyan homes are built with sticks and mud for the walls and thatch for the roof, all found in the forest nearby (Photo courtesy Nishita Vasanth)

The Arundathiyars accompanied the Asaris, shouldering the responsibility of providing labour to the Mannadiar settlements. They were skilled craftspeople who worked with leather to produce footwear, containers and musical instruments. Several other communities like the Mudaliars and Pillais joined these early migrants in the years to come. 

Arundathiyar man playing the Kombu
The musicians of the Palani hills: an Arundathiyar man playing the Kombu (Photo courtesy Nishita Vasanth)

Over the course of this period, the caste system was introduced into the Palani Hills. The Mannadiars, Aasaris and Arundathiyars shared a hierarchical relationship, with the Mannadiars dominating. Strict rules of purity and pollution dictated all social interaction, and defiance was severely punished.

1800-1947 CE 

Over the next 150 years, a second wave of migrants came up the hills. The Chettiars and Muslims brought salt, cloth, oil and horses from the plains and traded them in exchange for items like millets and garlic. When the first road leading up the mountain was built, these communities moved to exploit growing opportunities. Around the same time, clashes with the British led the Pirimalai Kallars to move away from their lands, in the plains, to the hills. By the mid-nineteenth century, the first white settlers arrived and Kodaikanal town was established. It was during this period that the forest department was set up, and the forests were officially managed for profitability. 

1947- Present

After India became independent, Kodaikanal town grew. In the 1970s, the first group of Sri Lankans arrived in India, under the repatriation scheme. Several groups of Sri Lankans were granted land in the Palani Hills, some were brought to work in timber felling programs. Over the last 70 years, Kodaikanal town has grown into a bustling tourist destination. Families continue to migrate to the hills, making the demographic of these mountains more diverse than ever before.

Today, the Palani Hills is home to over 15 communities. Each of these groups has a unique story, which has led them here. Their individual journeys have shaped the ways in which they relate to this landscape. Original inhabitants like the Paliyans have a much longer association with this land than some of their neighbours, like the Sri Lankan repatriates, who came as recently as 40 years ago. 

Life in the Palani hills is constantly evolving. At every moment, a new tale unfolds, countless relationships are forged, and another possibility arises. The story of a place will always remain incomplete, making room for those that were previously unheard. Perhaps this is what it really means to share space.

Priya Mani

Priya Mani

Priya Mani, along with Nishita Vasanth, worked on the INTACH project to document oral histories and community narratives in the Palani Hills. She now works with the Centre for Pastoralism to document stories of pastoral communities across India. She shuttles between her home in Shenbaghanur, Kodaikanal and Bangalore.

Nishita Vasanth

Nishita Vasanth worked as a researcher for the Kodaikanal Chapter of INTACH for three years, documenting stories of migration across over 60 villages and covering all 15 gram panchayats of the Kodaikanal Block in the lower, middle, and upper Palanis. Currently, she works with Adivasi honey gatherers in the Palani Hills to package and market their honey.

1 Comment

  1. Hi, Thanks for the article.

    I am from Mannadiar community, settled in Kollenglode, Palakkad. I was finding my roots in internet and got a chance to read this. Thanks a lot Recently I visited Kodai but didnt know that my ancestors were there around 1000 years before. When I was on the way from Kodai to Palani, my inner mind asked, who came first in Kodai and when it would be ? then I got this article.

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