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Hill Pandaram

Hill Pandaram

ETHNONYMS: Malai Pandaram, Malapantaram


Identification. The Malapantāram (hereafter anglicized as the Hill Pandaram) are a Scheduled Tribe of the state of Kerala in south India and inhabit the forested hills of the Western Ghats between Lake Periyar and the town of Tenmali, about 9° N. Although they share the name "Pandaram" with a caste community of Tamil Nadu, there appear to be no links between the two communities. Mala (mountain) refers to their long association with the hill forests, the Western Ghats, which form the backbone of peninsular India and range from 600 to 2,400 meters. A nomadic foraging community, the Hill Pandaram loosely identify themselves with the forest and refer to all outsiders, whether local caste communities or forest laborers, as nāttukāran (country people).

Location. Centered on the Pandalam Hills, the Hill Pandaram primarily occupy the forest ranges of Ranni, Koni, and Achencoil. The Ghats are subject to two monsoon seasons; the southwest monsoon, falling between June and August, being responsible for the bulk of the rain. Rainfall is variable, averaging between 125 and 200 centimeters annually, precipitation being high at higher elevations around Sabarimala and Devarmala. The forest type ranges from tropical evergreen to moist deciduous. The foothills of the Ghats and the valleys of the major river systemsAchencoil, Pamba, and Azbuttaare cultivated and heavily populated by caste communities who moved into the Ghats during the past century.

Demography. A small community, the Hill Pandaram numbered 1,569 individuals in 1971, and had a population density of 1 to 2 persons per square kilometer.

Linguistic Affiliation. Living in the hills that separate the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the Hill Pandaram also lie between two main language groups of south IndiaTamil and Malayalam. They speak a dialect of one or the other of these languages, and divergences from standard Tamil or Malayalam seem to be mainly matters of intonation and articulation. Their dialect generally is not understood by people from the plains, and although there is no evidence available it is possible that their language may still contain elements of a proto-Dravidian language. Few Hill Pandaram are literate.

History and Cultural Relations

Although the Hill Pandaram live within the forest environment and have little day-to-day contact with other communities, they do have a long history of contact with wider Indian society. As with the other forest communities of south India, such as the Paliyan, Kadar, Kannikar, and Mala Ulladan, the Hill Pandaram have never been an isolated community; from earliest times they appear to have had regular and important trade contacts with the neighboring agriculturalists, either through silent barter or, since the end of the eighteenth century, through mercantile trade. Early Tamil poets indicate that tribal communities inhabited the forests of the Western Ghats during the Sangam period (around the second century b.c.); and these communities had important trade contacts with their neighbors and came under the political jurisdiction of the early Tamil kingdoms or local petty chieftains, who taxed forest products such as cardamom, bamboo, ivory, honey, and wax. The importance of this trade at the beginning of the nineteenth century is highlighted in the writings of the Abbé Dubois and in the economic survey of the former Travancore State made at that time by two British officials, Ward and Conner. Forest trade still serves to link the Hill Pandaram to the wider Hindu society.


The Hill Pandaram have two types of residential groupingsettlements and forest campsalthough about 25 percent of Hill Pandaram families live a completely nomadic existence and are not associated with any settlement. A typical settlement consists of about ten huts, widely separated from each other, each housing a family who live there on a semipermanent basis. The huts are simple, rectangular constructions with split-bamboo screens and grass-thatched roofs; many are little more than roofed shelters. Around the hut sites fruit-bearing trees such as mango and tamarind, cassava and small cultivations may be found. The settlements are often some distance from village communities (with their multicaste populations) and have no communal focus like religious shrines. Settlements are inhabited only on an intermittent basis. The second type of residential grouping is the forest camp, consisting of two to six temporary leaf shelters, each made from a framework of bamboo that is supported on a single upright pole and covered by palm leaves. These leaf shelters have a conical appearance and are formed over a fireplace consisting of three stones that were found on the site. Rectangular lean-tos may also be constructed using two upright poles. Settlements are scattered throughout the forest ranges except in the interior forest, which is largely uninhabited apart from nomadic camps of the Hill Pandaram. The majority of the Hill Pandaram are nomadic and the usual length of stay at a particular camping site (or a rock shelter, which is frequently used) is from two to sixteen days, with seven or eight days being the average, although specific families may reside in a particular locality for about six to eight weeks. Nomadic movements, in the sense of shifting camp, usually vary over distances from a half-kilometer to 6 kilometers, though in daily foraging activities the Hill Pandaram may range over several kilometers.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Although the Hill Pandaram occasionally engage in paid labor for the forest department, and a small minority of families are settled agriculturalists on the forest perimeter, the majority are nomadic hunter-gatherers, who combine food gathering with the collection of minor forest produce. The main staple consists of various kinds of yam collected by means of digging sticks, together with the nuts of a forest cycad, kalinga (Cycas cincinalis ). Such staples are supplemented with palm flour, and cassava and rice are obtained through trade. The hunting of small animals, particularly monkeys, squirrels, and monitor lizards, is important. These animals are obtained either during foraging activities or in a hunting party consisting of two men or a man and a young boy, using old muzzle-loading guns. Dogs, an aid to hunting, are the only domestic animals.

Trade. The collection of minor forest produce is an important aspect of economic life and the principal items traded are honey, wax, dammar (a resin), turmeric, ginger, cardamom, incha bark (Acacia intsia, one variety of which is a soap substitute, the other a fish poison), various medicinal plants, oil-bearing seeds, and bark materials used for tanning purposes. The trade of these products is organized through a contractual mercantile system, a particular forest range being leased by the Forest Department to a contractor, who is normally a wealthy merchant living in the plains area, often a Muslim or a high-caste Hindu. Through the contractor the Hill Pandaram obtain their basic subsistence requirements: salt, condiments, cloth, cooking pots, and tins for collecting honey. All the material possessions of the community are obtained through such tradeeven the two items that are crucial to their collecting economy, billhooks and axes. As the contractual system exploited the Hill Pandaram, who rarely got the full market value for the forest commodities they collected, moves have been made in recent years to replace it by a forest cooperative system administered by forestry officials under the auspices of the government's Tribal Welfare Department.

Division of Labor. Although women are the principal gatherers of yams, while the hunting of the larger mammals and the collection of honey are the prerogatives of men, the division of labor is not a rigid one. Men may cook and care for children, while women frequently go hunting for smaller animals, an activity that tends to be a collective enterprise involving a family aided by a dog. Collection of forest produce tends to be done by both sexes.

Land Tenure. Each Hill Pandaram family (or individual) is associated with a particular forest tract, but there is little or no assertion of territorial rights or rights over particular forest products either by individuals or families. The forest is held to be the common property of the whole community. No complaint is expressed at the increasing encroachment on the forest by low-country men who gather dammar or other forest products, or at increasing incidences of poaching by them.


Kin Groups and Descent. Unlike the caste communities of Kerala, the Hill Pandaram have no unilineal descent system or ideology and there are no recognized corporate groupings above the level of the family. The settlements are in no sense stable or corporate units, but like the forest camps they are residential aggregates that may be described as "transient corporations." The basic kinship unit is the conjugal family, consisting of a cohabiting couple and their young children. A forest camp consists of a temporary grouping of one to four such families, each family constituting a unit. There is a pervasive emphasis on sexual egalitarianism and women sometimes form independent commensal units, though these always are part of a wider camp aggregate. Many encampments consist only of a single family, and such families may reside as separate and isolated units for long periods.

Kinship Terminology. The kinship terminology of the Hill Pandaram is of the Dravidian type common throughout south India, though there is much vagueness and variability in usage. Apart from conjugal ties and close "affinal" relationships (which in contrast to the "kin" links have warmth and intimacy), kinship ties are not "load"-bearing in the sense of implying structured role obligations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Both polyandrous and polygynous marriages have been recorded, but most marriages are monogamous. Cross-cousin marriage is the norm and marriages emerge almost spontaneously from preexisting kinship patterns, as camp aggregates center on affinally related men. There is little or no marriage ceremony and there is no formal arrangement of marriage partners, although young men tend to establish prior ties with prospective parents-in-law. Marriages are brittle and most older Hill Pandaram have experienced a series of conjugal partnerships during their lifetime. A cohabiting couple forms an independent household on marriage, but the couple may continue as a unit in the camp aggregate of either set of parents.

Domestic Unit. The conjugal family is the basic economic unit. Members of a family may live in separate leaf shelters (though spouses share the same leaf shelter) and may form foraging parties with other members of a camp aggregate, but all food gathered by an individual belongs to his or her own immediate family, who share a simple hearth. Only meat, tobacco, and the proceeds of honey-gathering expeditions are shared between the families constituting a camp aggregate.

Inheritance. As the Hill Pandaram possess no land and have few material possessions, little emphasis is placed on inheritance.

Socialization. The Hill Pandaram put a normative stress on individual autonomy and self-sufficiency, and from their earliest years children are expected to assert independence. Children collect forest produce for trade and will often spend long periods away from their parents.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Organized as a foraging community, living in small camp aggregates of two to three families scattered over a wide area, the Hill Pandaram exhibit no wider structures of sociopolitical organization. There are no ritual congregations, microcastes, nor any other communal associations or corporate groupings above the level of the conjugal family. A lack of wider formal organization is coupled with a pervasive stress on egalitarianism, self-sufficiency, and the autonomy of the individual. Some individuals in the settlements are recognized as muttukani (headmen) but their role is not institutionalized, for they are essentially a part of the system of control introduced by administrative agencies of the Forestry and Welfare Departments to facilitate efficient communication with the community.

Social Control. The Hill Pandaram have no formal institutions for the settlement of disputes, though individual men and women often act as informal mediators or conciliators. Social control is maintained to an important degree by a value system that puts a premium on the avoidance of aggression and conflict; like other foragers, the Hill Pandaram tend to avoid conflict by separation and by flight.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Although nominally Hindu, Hill Pandaram religion is distinct from that of the neighboring agriculturalists in being un-iconic (i.e., venerating not images of deities, but the crests of mountains) and focused on the contact, through possession rites, of localized mala devi (hill spirits). Hill Pandaram may occasionally make ritual offerings at village temples, particularly those associated with the gods Aiyappan and Murugan at the time of the Onam festival (December) or at local shrines established in forest areas by Tamil laborers; but otherwise they have little contact with the formal rituals of Hinduism.

Religious Beliefs. The spiritual agencies recognized by the Hill Pandaram fall into two categories: the ancestral ghosts or shades (chavu ) and the hill spirits (mala devi). The hill spirits are supernaturals associated with particular hill or rock precipices, and in the community as a whole these spirits are legion, with a hill deity for about every 8 square kilometers of forest. Although localized spirits, the hill spirits are not "family spirits" for they may have devotees living some distance from the particular locality. The ancestral shades, on the other hand, are linked to particular families, but like the hill spirits their influence is mainly beneficent, giving protection against misfortune and proffering advice in times of need. One class of spirits, however, is essentially malevolent. These are the arukula, the spirits of persons who have died accidentally through falling from a tree or being killed by a wild animal.

Religious Practitioners. Certain men and women have the ability to induce a trancelike state and in this way to contact the spirits. They are known as tullukara (possession dancers, from tullu, "to jump"), and at times of misfortune they are called upon by relatives or friends to give help and support.

Ceremonies. The Hill Pandaram have no temples or shrines and thus make no formal ritual offerings to the spirits, leading local villagers to suggest that they have no religion. Nor do they ritualize the life-cycle events of birth, puberty, and death to any great degree. The important religious ceremony is the possession seance, in which the tullukara goes into a trance state induced by rhythmic drumming and singing and incarnates one or more of the hill spirits or an ancestral shade. During the seance the cause of the misfortune is ascertained (usually the breaking of a taboo associated with the menstrual period) and the help of the supernatural is sought to alleviate the sickness or misfortune.

Arts. In contrast with other Indian communities the Hill Pandaram have few art forms. Nevertheless, their singing is highly developed, and their songs are varied and elaborate and include historical themes.

Medicine. All minor ailments are dealt with through herbal remedies, since the Hill Pandaram have a deep though unstructured knowledge of medicinal plants. More serious complaints are handled through the possession rites.


Fürer-Haimendorf, Christoph von (1970). "Notes on the Malapantaram of Travancore." Bulletin of the International Committee for Urgent Anthropological and Ethnological Research 3:44-51.

Krishna Iyer, L. A. (1937). "Malapantāram." In The Travancore Tribes and Castes. Vol. 1, 96-116. Trivandrum: Government Press.

Morris, Brian (1981). "Hill Gods and Ecstatic Cults: Notes on the Religion of a Hunting and Gathering People." Man in India 61:203-236.

Morris, Brian (1986). Forest Traders: A Socio-Economic Study of the Hill Pandaram. L. S. E. Monographs in Social Anthropology, no. 55. London: Athlone Press.

Mukherjee, B. (1954). The Malapandaram of Travancore: Their Socio-Economic Life. Bulletin of the Department of Anthropology, no. 3. Calcutta.


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