Palaiyar man in the treetops collects Kalpassi
In his element, a Palaiyar man in the treetops collects kalpasi (Photo: Murugeshwari)

Living in and Around the Sholas: The Palaiyars of Kodaikanal

English translation: Kamakshi Narayanan

There are crores and crores of people living in this world, but only about forty crores are the adivasis—the original inhabitants of a place. And, even within the adivasis,   there are many different tribes and cultures, each one unique in its way. Of the 36 tribes we know of, the Palaiyars, who are in the hills of Kodaikanal, share the same ethos with all the other ancient tribes: to live in consonance with the forests they inhabit. They respect and worship the high ranges, the tall shola trees, the rivulets and waterfalls, as they would their ancestors and their Gods. 

The Palaiyars live in close contact with the forest and its creatures

The Palaiyars’ main occupation is to collect wild honey, lichen growing on the rocks and trees, dig for and sell edible roots, and such like—so they are dependent on the forests for their livelihood. The edible lichen, called kalpasi in Tamil, is an important ingredient in most of the masala powders used in our cooking—like chicken, mutton or biriyani masalas, akin to the use of cardamon, cloves, and other ingredients used in garam masala powder. This edible lichen grows on rocks, hence the name ‘kal pasi’, and on trees in the forests. (See ‘From Bark to Biryani‘, in our Food section, for more about kalpasi.)

Kalpassi rock lichen
Kalpasi (Photo: Murugeshwari)

To collect lichen, the Palaiyars use a small chisel ( ‘uli in Tamil) to get it off the rocks and trees. When they go into the forest, those who lead the way break and drop small twigs or large leaves to show the way for those who follow. They all gather together and pray to their gods of the forests—asking that they remain safe and also that no damage is done to the forest by them. They are very particular that no harm comes to the sholas and to the animals and birds living in them. 

Then, they separate and go about their work, keeping in touch with each other by calling out with a whistling sound, occasionally. Each person generally climbs four or five trees to collect the lichen. Men and women work with no difference and each person usually manages to gather about five to six kilos of lichen each day. They protect themselves against the animals of the jungle, like the gaur, leopards, and elephants, as well as snakes and other poisonous creatures, with particular herbal extracts that repel them. 

Bringing the gathered lichen home, they remove the clinging pieces of wood and dry them in the sun for nearly a week—which in effect reduces the quantity from five kilos to sometimes three! 

Gathering lichen is possible only when there is not much rain; climbing trees can be dangerous during the monsoons as the rains can make the trees slippery to climb—odd daily wage jobs are taken on in those three months.

Paliayar man with a honeycomb
Palaiyar man with a honeycomb (Photo: Murugeshwari)

The Palaiyars have another important occupation– that of gathering wild honey. They do this only during the months of January to March, and then again from mid-June to mid-July. They also have specific names for the honey they gather in the various seasons and follow those times strictly: ‘poon thaen’ or flower honey; ‘kunju thaen’ or young honey, and ‘kuchchith thaen’ or stick honey. During this time too, they offer worship at an altar made with turmeric, a specific plant called pachchaipoo, and a small stone, three days before leaving to gather the wild honey. 

The honey-gatherers are very particular not to use large stones, knives, sickles, or fire to drive the bees away—what they do is build a small fire with a type of stick that gives off a lot of smoke about ten feet away from the hives. They leave a small piece of the hive with honey in it on a rock close by, as a gesture of gratitude and respect to the bees that gathered the honey and for the forest trees that provided bees homes to live in and the nectar of their flowers. They then strain the honey through a fine, white cloth and store it in either small cans or bottles for sale.

It is not empty words when the Palaiyars say that they want a life in the forests, and to preserve their culture. Whilst so much of the world is interested in the advancement of ‘science’, the Palaiyars are different. Hardly two percent of their time and effort is spent in learning about the outside world. 

But the Palaiyars have not lagged in getting their children modern education. In spite of financial constraints, they try to get all of them through high school at least. It is not uncommon now to see a B Com or a CA among them. Yet the youngsters are not keen on adopting the habits of the ‘outside world’; they would much rather take up jobs that are related to the forests. There are three Palaiyars with the Forest Department so far. 

They also have no objection to their daughters marrying outside their community.

Palaiyar woman collecting sambrani sap
A Palaiyar woman collecting sambrani sap (Photo: Murugeshwari)

Since it is important to the Palaiyars that their traditions are not lost, they are enthusiastic in teaching the next generation to play their musical instruments—the bamboo flute and drums, as well as how to make them, involving recognising the trees from which they are made. They also pass on their unique knowledge of particular methods of gathering herbs and other wild produce from the forest. This is part of their education of how to care for the forests and live in harmony with nature.

Palaiyar children learning to make and play drums
Palaiyar children learning to make and play drums (Photo: Murugeshwari)

Whatever they do and wherever they go, they have only one thought—that the forests are unharmed and are cared for to the best of their ability. What was taught to them by their elders, they pass on to their children: to be in sync with Nature and the forests.   

Shola bug
Photo: Murugeshwari
Forests are their Life  
And their lives are in the Forest. 
Let us Save the Forest People, 
they will guard the forests, 
for All of Us to Live Well.                

Murugeshwari

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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