Catching crabs in the river
Catching crabs in the river

Coronavirus through the Kodai Lens: An Adivasi’s Perspective of the Pandemic

English Translation: Kamakshi Narayanan

The Coronavirus disease is something we all know about – it started in the Wuhan district of China and affected the Chinese first; the government did not know how to control the spread of the infection and the disease spread to many countries; soon countries had to shut down and impose lockdowns; economies suffered. India was one of the countries badly affected; crores of people died and even now, nobody knows how the disease originated.

In these circumstances, the Adivasis have suffered loss of their livelihoods. The Palaiyars have incurred heavy losses during the pandemic lockdown. Their primary occupation of gathering wild produce like honey, lichen (kalpaasi), gooseberry (malai nellikkai), medicinal myrobalan (kadukkai), as well as the manufacture of brooms have all been severely hit. Due to the lockdown, the purchasers of these products have not been coming regularly. Even the collected wild fruits got spoilt as there was no offtake.  About 30,000 broom bundles were eaten by termites, and quite a bit more were destroyed in the wildfires.

Wild honey gathering

This year too, the purchasers are still reluctant to make major investments, and so the Palaiyars are forced to take up odd jobs for daily wages in places close to them. 

Generally, the Palaiyars are used to being independent and looking after their needs by themselves.  Even with lockdowns in place, they were not affected by the fact that they could not get soap or other essentials – in fact, they use a herb called ‘thala naar’ as a substitute for soap. They get all that they want from the forests – with their usual occupation of gathering honey and harvesting wild tubers, wild fruits and the tiny but pungent wild chillies (known as kaanaa milagai), their food needs are satisfied. Occasionally, they have also been receiving food aid from agencies.  They have not been worried about coronavirus. 

Palaiyar man with a harvest of wild ginger

Since these Adivasis are used to having the forests as their main source of food and other essentials, they strongly feel that the disease has come only because the gods of the forests are angry. When asked why the gods would be angry, their answers left me dumbfounded.  They say that the forests as well as the birds and beasts of the forests are not what they were; that even some of the lesser gods of the forests are not there as they were previously; some of the gods that inhabit the trees are not found any longer; usual forest creatures like the gaur, the pangolin and the spotted deer are not found in plentiful numbers, and the Adivasis wonder whether these animals have moved away or  become extinct.  Moreover, they also do not find the usual chirping birds that were aplenty before.

The tourists that come to enjoy the forests have no regard for the forest people or for the wildlife – the original inhabitants of the forest. They discard plastic bottles, bags and boxes, liquor bottles, and used clothes that they bring everywhere and generally pollute the environment. As a result, the forests and the forest life that belong to us are badly affected. Moreover, some of the herbs we get from the forests are not available to us. This is not just for us, the Adivasis living in the forests but for the entire earth. Our hearts are heavy because the wildlife in the forest areas eat the garbage that is thrown on both sides of the roads and are driven to death. The Adivasis feel that it is this behaviour that has angered the gods of the forests and brought on the Covid pandemic. 

Palaiyars doing a ritual in honour of the Forest God

People on this earth have been multiplying their needs and wants, and with the heavy increase of this, the balance of Nature has gone. I don’t say this only about the forests we live in but the forests, the atmosphere, the Earth, all of these. Excessive untreated effluents from factories and the exhaust fumes from all the vehicles plying on the roads have all combined to make a hole in the Ozone Layer. Today, in our national capital, New Delhi, the crackers burst on Deepavali added to the pollution; now we have been pushed to buy oxygen to breathe, and the garbage in Chennai has risen to 8 tonnes.

People neither accept nor obey the laws made by their governments to save the environment. So, Corona is the order promulgated by God. Where 130 crores of people live in India, only a mere 11 crores are Adivasis and these 11 crores are the ones dedicated to the protection of the forests: not just the forests but also all the life in the forests and therefore, the world.

A Palaiyar man in his element

‘We respect and obey all the rules and laws laid down by the government, but do not fear the disease; we have gone about our daily life even during lockdown,’ say the Adivasis. Even when separated by language and geography, the aim of the Adivasis everywhere is to live in harmony with the forests. Living in sync with nature is what they will continue doing even if adversity flings them far away from their homeland; the people who have received modern education amongst them, use it along with the traditional wisdom they have received from their elders.

The young people learning the ways of the forest from their elders

However, with the lockdown, quite a few of the tourist spots have been closed, and there are not as many tourists entering the forests. There has been a renewal, so to speak, of the forests – quite a few of the medicinal herbs have started growing again, and we are thrilled with that. 

‘It makes us feel so happy that our medicinal herbs are coming back and are not totally lost,’ says Kaaleesvari, a Palaiyar.

Along with the resurgence of the forests, let us also be proud of the traditions of the Adivasis and strive to maintain them.


Murugeshwari is part of the Paliyar adivasi community. She has completed 12th standard and lives in Thandikudi, near Kodaikanal, with her husband Yesudas and her son. She works as a daily wage earner and enjoys writing about the Adivasi community and their traditions.

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