Mari, adivasi honeygatherer in the trees
Mari, adivasi honeygatherer in the trees (Photo: Kural)

Smoke, Fire, and Honey: Meet Mari, an Adivasi Honey Gatherer

With Nishita Vasanth

The lens of a mobile camera zooms into a frame in the forest. Through a haze of buzzing bees, a man is seen standing on a single bamboo pole, comfortably balancing a machete in one hand and a smoker made of dried twigs in the other. He stands almost 50 feet above the ground as he waves clouds of smoke towards the hive. The smoke billows, the bees temporarily leave, and he cuts the honey chamber out of the comb, dripping with sweet amber liquid.

Gathering honey from the hives of rock bees  in the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu

The man in the video is Mari, and this clip is one of several I have seen that documents his foraging endeavours in the forests of the Palani Hills. Mari is a member of the Paliyan-Adivasi tribe of Kodaikanal, the original inhabitants of the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu. Like many young men in his community, Mari is skilled at gathering forest honey and understands the intricacies involved in the process. 

Now in his 40s, he has been harvesting honey since he was a young boy, using ropes made of forest vines and bamboo poles fashioned into ladders. He monitors weather patterns, bee species, and floral sources, and is knowledgeable about the nutritional content and medicinal properties of different kinds of honey. Some of this wisdom he shares through his Instagram account, where he uploads videos of his walks through the forest, with detailed commentary on the process. 

Nectar of the gods 

Wild honey is beautifully complex. One can taste the forest in its sweet, sour, sometimes bitter tones, and Mari knows this well. Honey is the nectar of the forest, for it reflects the microclimate and habitat within which it is produced. 

In the Palani Hills, for example, we enjoy two distinct honey seasons as a result of two seasons of rain. Towards the end of April, when the forest is filled with jamun flowers, bees produce a distinctly bitter honey. As the jamun flowers fall and others bloom, bees collect nectar from these flowers to produce a multifloral honey. Although eucalyptus trees were introduced to this landscape only 150 years ago, wild bees have adapted themselves to this changing landscape to produce a sweet eucalyptus honey towards the end of October. 

The flavour and consistency of honey also depends on the species of bee that produce it. In the Palani Hills we have four distinct honey-producing species: the Apis Dorsata, commonly known as the rock bee, the Apis Cerana, or the Asian honeybee, the Apis Florea, called the little honeybee, and the Trigona spp.,called the stingless bee. Each species collects nectar from different flowers, builds distinctive hives in specific parts of the forest and produces a unique variety of honey. Natural variations in texture and colour of wild honey are a result of a combination of these factors. Across seasons, the colour of honey may vary between a dark burgundy to a golden. Flavours can range from delectably mild, to distinctively bold. 

A local variety of Kurinji flower, that is favoured foods for horses and bovines. Like the more popular blue Kurinji variety, this one flowers once every twelve years; honey gathered at this time is prized for its medicinal value

A history of honey 

The Paliyan-Adivasi community understand these minutiae because they have harvested honey from the forests of the Palani Hills for centuries. Over generations, gatherers such as Mari have developed a highly sophisticated understanding of their habitat that relies on direct observation and the guidance of their ancestors. 

Each season, as he ventures into the forest to harvest honey, Mari listens closely to his predecessors, who have given him this wisdom. ‘During the honey season,’ he says, ‘my dreams are filled with images of bees and honey-filled combs. Dreams guide me; they show me how to climb the tallest trees and sharpest cliffs to collect honey. They warn me of dangers too. I listen closely to my dreams. My ancestors speak to me through them.’

Mari says they never harvest the same hive more than once a season, thus allowing the bees to build back their reserves, and they are always careful not to disturb the brood when harvesting the honey chamber in the hive. 

Occasionally, the Paliyans also relish the protein-rich larvae in the hive, which they cook into an omelette. While the abundantly available rock bee and Asian honey bee honeys are traded, the rarer varieties are stored away for medicinal purposes in Paliyan homes. 

Sting in the tale 

Perhaps the single biggest threat to this traditional syncretic relationship between the Adivasis and the bees is the issue of access to forests. The Paliyans have lived in and with the forest for centuries, yet today their entry into the forest is contested. In 2006 the Indian State passed the Forest Rights Act, which gives indigenous communities and traditional forest dwellers the right to access the forest and collect forest produce that they have customarily depended on for nutrition and trade. However, reports have assessed Tamil Nadu to be among the worst performers in the country when it comes to the implementation of the act. Even after 15 years, few Adivasis have been granted their claim-rights under the act. Where claims have been granted, they give access to only 10% of the forest that communities traditionally depended on. 

Adivasi honeygatherers near Kodaikanal
Mari (far right) and friends, at home near the Moolaiyar River. Mari’s Instagram account chronicles his life in the Palani Hills of Tamil Nadu (Photo: Kural)

Much more needs to be done to ensure that honey gatherers like Mari are supported to carry on their traditional livelihoods, in the context of the modern world. In a recent meeting at the village, a group of young Adivasis discussed the possibility of using rock climbing gear to ensure their safety while climbing tall trees.Access to technology has enabled a younger generation of honeygatherers to engage with a world beyond their village. 

In this video, Mari names all the trees he sees, and lists their uses, benefits, and harvest time

Creating a buzz 

Mari says his Instagram page is as much for him as it is for the community. ‘I want my life to be documented somewhere,’ he says, ‘so that when I am old and frail, I can look back at my life in the forest. ’In this way, Mari and his friends challenge stereotypes as they find new ways to reinvent their lives inside the forest. Without free access to the forest, however, the Paliyans stand to lose their history, culture and home. 

Wild forest honeycomb in Tamil Nadu
In the Palani Hills we have four honey-producing bee species. Each bee collects nectar from different flowers, builds distinctive hives in specific parts of the forest, and produces a unique variety of honey (Photo: Hoopoe on a Hill)

This is where we come in. 

Despite the growing popularity of wild honey on breakfast tables across the country, Adivasi struggles for access to forests have remained outside the purview of drawing room discussions. Without honey gatherers like Mari being able to freely access their ancestral lands, there will be no forest honey for us to enjoy. 

Some bees make hives in tree tops, while others find security in hollowed out crevices in the rock (Photo: Hoopoe on a Hill)

As connoisseurs of wild honey, we have a role to play in ensuring their rights are secured. One way to do this is to buy honey from sources that work with indigenous communities in fair and equitable ways. Another might be to contribute to organisations that conserve valuable forest habitats, and to recognise the role of forest protectors that the Adivasi communities have played for centuries. 

‘Vengamaram’ is famously known as the tree that bleeds when cut. In Mari’s Adivasi community, the blood-like resin is used topically, to treat inflammation

While these actions alone don’t address these issues—the emphasis on consuming ‘consciously’ at times deflects from the larger struggles about access to resources by marginalised communities—they can help us develop a sense of consciousness, and a sense of collective living and action that connects us to the beauty of our natural heritage as well as the issues of injustice and inequality all around us. When we live in harmony with nature and those around us, everything tastes a little sweeter, especially honey. 

Priyashri Mani

Priyashri Mani is the co-founder of Hoopoe on a Hill, an organisation that filters, packages and markets wild honey harvested by the Paliyans of the Palani Hills.

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