ETHNONYMS: Erilagaru, Iraligar, Irulan, Kasaba, Kasava, Kasuba, Ten Vanniya, Vana Palli, Villaya
Identification. Most Irula inhabit the state of Tamil Nadu, India. Although they form a Scheduled Tribe, the Irula are in many ways similar to their nearby Hindu caste neighbors. They have pantheistic and animistic tendencies of their own, but prolonged contact with more orthodox Hinduism has also had its indelible impact.
Location. Most Irula live in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu, where the majority are found in the Changalpattu, North Arcot, and South Arcot districts not far from Madras City. While the Irula in general merit additional fieldwork, it is only the Nilgiri Irula who are considered here. They live in the Nilgiri District in extreme northwestern Tamil Nadu, in the adjacent Coimbatore District, and in parts of Karnataka and Kerala states. Tamil Nadu is the southeasternmost state of India. It is thus a region within the tropics that is subject to westerly monsoonal rainfall, lasting mainly from mid-June through August, and to reverse monsoonal rainfall, which is heaviest from September into November. Some Nilgiri Irula occupy higher and cooler slopes, and others occupy plains that by April are hot and dry.
Demography. After the Malayali (who actually are not the speakers of Malayalam in Kerala) numbered at 159,426, the Irula at 89,025 formed the second-largest Tamil Nadu tribe in the 1971 census of India. There were over 12,000 Irula in the Coimbatore District. As the Nilgiri District had some 5,200 Irula in 1971, only about 6 percent lived there. By 1971, there were altogether 106,939 Irula in south India.
Linguistic Affiliation. Depending on the criteria used, the Irula have been identified as speakers of a distinct Irula language or speakers of a dialect of Tamil. In addition, Malayalam has influenced Irula speech in Kerala, and Kannada has influenced the speech of a subgroup of Irula, called Kasaba, in Karnataka.
History and Cultural Relations
Many of the lowland Nilgiri Irula live near impressive megalithic sites, so the question of whether they could possibly be descendants of inhabitants living in ancient times naturally arises. Particularly among the hoe-using Irula of the Nilgiri slopes, there are farming practices that may represent neolithic survivals. Our earliest description of the Nilgiri Irula in English, by Francis Buchanan who visited them in 1800, briefly provides an overview of how the Irula then survived. The descendants of these Irula ultimately were to be affected profoundly by the spread of plantation agriculture (mainly tea and coffee) by the British. Many lowland Irula, having more frequent contacts with urban centers, probably have long been a part of the lowland cultural continuum and changing civilization. The Irula are best understood as being primarily either lowlanders with many lowland ties or Uplanders with both upland and lowland ties. The lowlanders, users of the plow and even cultivators of wet rice, often live with the members of other castes involved in similar agricultural pursuits. Because the upland Irula formerly lived on the forested outer slopes of the Nilgiris, they did not develop ties as close as those that existed between the upland Badaga, Kota, and Toda. However, they often lived with or close to the Kurumba (powerful magicians and doctors, in both the Alu and Palu groups), and they still do. After plantations spread over formerly forested outer slopes, most of the upland Irula became plantation laborers with ties to a plantation infrastructure. Many uplanders thus came to lead a dual existence: plantation laborers by day and Irula hamlet dwellers by night. Today, an efficient bus service enables lowlanders to travel more easily to lowland urban centers. While some uplanders may occasionally walk the long distances down and up that are necessary to visit lowland urban centers, it is generally far easier for an uplander to travel to a nearby upland urban center. Yet kinship and ritual ties still keep the upland and lowland Irula in close contact with each other.
The Irula tend to place their houses together in hamlets or villages called mottas. After the British moved to end shifting (kottukadu or kumri ) agriculture, starting at the time of the land settlements in the 1880s, it became increasingly difficult for the Irula to farm in this way. However, to the limited degree that some still manage to follow this practice in the wildest areas, there may be as a result scattered single houses next to temporary plots. Kasaba who live in a wildlife sanctuary are also likely to reside in separate houses. In hamlets, often with less than fifty people, there are separate houses, houses aligned into rows, or a combination of the two patterns. The alignment of houses was traditional, but the practice was reinforced when plantation managers had "coolie lines," houses built in rows for their laborers. Houses provided by the government also tend to be aligned. A courtyard fronting a house is the most common adjunct, and houses within a hamlet are invariably next to one or more courtyards. Some traditional Irula hamlets of the outer Nilgiri slopes might still have separate "pollution huts" or special rooms for women delivering infants, for women in the postpartum stage, or for women who are menstruating. In the traditional way, too, there is a tendency toward a proliferation of small huts to serve separate functions, and these huts are constructed next to courtyards. Apart from the common firewood storage huts and chicken, goat, or sheep huts, there may also be a separate hut just for drums. In these hamlets there is typically an absence of temples. In each of the main villages of Hallimoyar, Kallampalayam, and Thengumarahada, located on the lowland northeast of the Nilgiri massif and close to the Moyar River, there are over 100 Irula. Because caste people (of which the Badaga and Okkaliga are prominent) live with the Irula and because each of these settlements has considerable governmental investment, the Irula tend to be like their neighbors. Pollution huts or rooms and special purpose huts are thus usually absent, and temples are present. Because all the Irula still have a drive toward gardening, garden plants are usually planted in and adjacent to Irula settlements. Even a separate house next to a temporary millet field is thus likely to have some garden plants growing nearby. Jackfruit and mango trees typically gain a firm foothold in and close to permanent settlements, and the drought-resistant neem (Margosa ) and tamarind are often present within lowland settlements. The lowland Irula who herd cattle for others, typically in drier areas with thorn forest, are associated with a distinctive settlement pattern in which a large cattle enclosure is surrounded by a thorny wall of piled branches. The Irula also have burial grounds with ancestral temples, called koppa manais, in which stones associated with the departed spirits of the dead are housed. Each patrician has a burial place and a koppa manai, but the two are not necessarily together (for example, while Samban people are only buried at Kallampalayam, there are Samban koppa manais at Hallimoyar and Kunjappanai). Although a burial ground is usually close to a settlement, it can be farther away. As in many other parts of Asia and into the Pacific Basin, the sacredness of a burial ground is often associated with the pagoda tree (the Polynesian frangipani). Largely because many of the Irula are landless laborers, most of them live in one-roomed houses. Nevertheless, Irula plantation laborers inhabiting the Nilgiri slopes still occupy bipartite houses with the sacred cooking area formally separated (typically not with a wall but with a shallow earthen platform) from the living and sleeping areas. The Kasaba to the north of the Nilgiri massif, who herd cattle for others (Badagas included), occupy tripartite structures with living quarters for humans to one side of a room with an open front, and a calf room to the other side. The open front of the center room facilitates the watching of the enclosed cattle at night, and it is most useful when predators or wild elephants come near. While traditional Irula houses are made of wattle and daub, with thatched roofs (or in some instances banana sheaths for walling and roofing), more Irula are living in houses with walls of stone or brick and roofs with tiles, especially if the government has provided financial assistance.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The earliest reports indicate that the hoe-using Irula of the eastern Nilgiri slopes obtained one crop of millet in a year from shifted plots, involving a growing period that coincided with the westerly monsoon. They then depended upon garden produce, gathered edibles, and hunting for survival once the harvested grain had been consumed. That these Irula were probably named after a yam species is indicative of how important yams were to them when they turned to gathering. Several wild yam species were available. Irula are still well known for the gathering and supply of honey to their neighbors. Despite sculptured representations of bows and arrows in some Nilgiri dolmens at higher elevation, it is noteworthy that the Irula seem always to have used nets and spears when they hunted. Our record of at least eighty species of plants growing in Irula gardens testifies to the past and continuing significance of gardens to all the Irula. That at least twenty-five of the identified plants had a New World origin also proves the willingness of the Irula to incorporate introduced species into their economy. The continued cultivation of finger millet (Eleusine corocana ), Italian millet (Setaria italica ), and little millet (Panicum sumatrense ) and no dry rice by the Irula on the higher slopes may in itself represent a Neolithic survival, because the cultivation of dry rice has in Southeast Asia widely replaced the earlier cultivation of the Italian and little millets from China. The Irula still commonly grow these two species of millet together and then harvest the Italian millet when the little millet is far from maturation. Very small sickles are used for harvesting individual grain heads. When finger millet (grown apart from the other two) is to be harvested, the plants are visited periodically to permit the removal of grain as it ripens. Another economic pursuit that may have continued from Neolithic times, during which cattle rearing was widespread in southern India, is the manner by which lowland Irula in forested areas keep cattle for their neighbors (Kuruvas included). The few Irula who still manage to practice shifting agriculture set fire in April or May to the vegetation they have cut, so the cultivation of millet will then take place during the westerly monsoon. The barnyard millet (Echinochloa ), bulinisti millet (Pennisetum ), common millet (Panicum miliaceum ) and sorghum millet (Sorghum ), all of the lowland, renowned for their drought resistance, and thus typically grown on dry fields, are cultivated with the aid of plows and mainly in the season of the westerly monsoon. Now with the cooperation of the Forest Department, the Irula gather forest produce (including medicinal plants) for sale. Since most Irula of the Nilgiri slopes currently work as plantation laborers, plantation managements starting with those in the time of the British Raj had to provide periodic release time for those Irula who needed to perform their own agricultural chores. The Gandhian quest to improve the lives of members of the Scheduled Tribes is demonstrated by the manner in which the government has enabled Irula of the eastern Nilgiri slopes to establish coffee and tea gardens of their own, and at Kunjappanai the Silk Board of the government of Tamil Nadu is now providing financial assistance to enable silkworm farming among the Irula. From 1974 the government gave small plots to Irula on the eastern slopes, and the Cooperative Land Development Bank (an agency of the Tamil Nadu government) at the nearest town (Kotagiri) was by 1979 helping to finance the growing of coffee and tea in nurseries, so that the Irula could have their own commercialized gardens. While a few Irula who wisely managed their granted lands and loans prospered, many did not manage their endeavors well and the return payment on loans at a low rate was eventually ended in many instances by a special bill passed in Madras by the Tamil Nadu government. It is primarily the cooperation of the government, with the Forest Department of Tamil Nadu playing an important role, that has enabled more lowland Inula to become involved in the annual cultivation of irrigated rice. Hallimoyar, Kallampalayam, and Thengumarahada (with its Cooperative Society), in which the Irula live close to the members of several castes, have irrigation networks. One rice crop started in March is harvested in June, and the second crop started in July is ready in December. In 1978 a newly constructed rice mill became operational at Thengumarahada. Irula living to the south of the Nilgiri massif are also involved in wet rice cultivation. There, apart from irrigation water from surface flow (Coonoor River is the most important), subsurface water is now being obtained with electric pumps. The main rice crop is grown from June into January or February, and the growing of short-maturation rice enables the production of a second crop from February to May. As lowland population increases, the majority of the lowland Irula (who own no land) are increasingly beset by the problem of obtaining work wherever possible. Some are employed in the irrigated areca groves near Mettupalaiyam, reputed to form the largest human-made forest of its kind in the world. Post-World War II dam projects, including that of Bhavani Sagar, created temporary work for others. Many Irula have entered the general job market in the Coimbatore-Mettupalaiyam-Ootacamund region and are employed in a wide array of jobs in the public and private sectors. Such jobs include positions in air force and army camps, nationalized banks, the income tax office, the Post and Telegraph Department, the Railway Department, the Sugarcane Breeding Institute and Pankaja Mill, both in Coimbatore (the only mill that employs Irulas, out of twenty surveyed), the cordite factory at Aruvankadu, and the Hindustan Photo-Film industry near Ootacamund. The Irula have cattle, chickens, dogs, goats, and sheep, and a few of them may keep buffalo, pigeons, or pigs. Pigs, dogs, and chickens serve as scavengers in some lowland hamlets. Jungle fowl, Nilgiri langurs, parrots, peacocks, quail, and assorted squirrels appear to be the most commonly tamed wild creatures.
Industrial Arts. The Irula make their own drums and wind instruments for their musical enjoyment. The Kota of the upper Nilgiris generally no longer supply music as they once traditionally did, so the Irula are now frequently employed as musicians at Badaga and Toda funerals.
Trade. A kind of bartering trade has persisted for generations between the Kina.r Kota of the upper Nilgiris and the nearby Irula. The Kota obtain honey, brooms, winnowers and baskets made of bamboo and banana sheath strips, punk used to light fires (Kota priests may not use matches to light fires) and resin incense from the Irula in return for iron field and garden implements made by Kota blacksmiths.
Division of Labor. Women still perform all the household-related tasks. While males perform those agricultural tasks requiring more strength, such as plowing or hoeing the earth in preparation for the sowing of grain, women also perform many agricultural tasks. Males typically do the sowing, and women often do the most boring of tasks such as weeding, reaping, and the carrying of loads of harvested garden produce or grain. Both males and females are hired for a host of laboring tasks. Because infant care thus becomes a problem, it is not unusual for women to take their infants to workplaces. Older children not attending school are often taken care of by the elderly in extended families.
Land Tenure. Members of the Thengumarahada Cooperative Society cultivate allotted amounts of land. A few of the Irula own title to land, sometimes in the form of patta (land ownership) documents. Gaudas and Chettiars in particular have taken over Irula land through loan manipulation, and some thereby now also have Irulas working for them. Many Irula lease land from landowners.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Irula form an endogamous caste with twelve exogamous patricians (in Sanskrit gotras, in Tamil kulams )—Devanan (or Thevanan or Devala), Kalkatti, Koduvan (or Kodugar), Kuppan (or Koppilingam), Kurunagan, Ollaga, Peratha, Porigan, Pungan (or Poongkaru), Samban (or Chamban), Uppigan (or Uppali), and Vellagai (or Vellai)—and a clan represented by the thudai tree (Ilex denticulata ). Nevertheless, because members of a patrician cannot marry members in one or more "brother" patricians, there are exogamous patrician units among the Irula.
The overall size of these units varies from one area to another. Thus, the Irula kinship system is similar to the one that dominates in southern India. In addition, the Irula have a system whereby each patrician is affiliated with a friendship patrician whose members help when an event, typically a rite of passage, requires cooperative effort. The ideal marriage among the Irula is of a female with her father's sister's son (i.e., a male with the mother's brother's daughter). Also in conformity with the acceptable Dravidian norm, an Irula male should not marry the mother's sister's daughter. An Irula male may also marry his elder or younger sister's daughter, but this practice exhibits a departure from the Dravidian system, in which a male cannot marry his younger sister's daughter (the Irula do not differentiate between the two sisters).
Kinship Terminology. All near relatives are spoken of in terms of being older or younger in age than the person concerned, and generation thus plays a secondary role.
Marriage. Monogamous marriage is the rule, but a few polygamous marriages occur. Polyandry is extremely rare. Soro-rate and levirate remarriages are not the norm. By choice and consent, however, Irula men may occasionally marry sisters of their deceased wives. The old traditional marriage, started by parents negotiating and the young man then going to the young woman's village with a load of firewood to live with her on a trial basis for a few days, has almost disappeared. Nowadays the young man's parents go to the prospective bride's house, after they are certain that she is in a marriageable clan. The bride-price, now usually the standardized amount of Rs 101 and 50 paisa, is paid in the presence of elders from both sides and the facilitator (jatthi ). Then the date for the marriage is jointly agreed to. The groom's sister will serve as the bridesmaid, and the bride's brother will serve as the best man. The bride is brought by her relatives and the groom's party to the groom's house on the wedding day. In the house or within a temporary shelter (pandal ) erected near the house, the groom in the most pertinent act of the marriage ceremony and in conformity with the widespread practice in southern India, ties a necklace (tali, provided by his maternal uncle) around the bride's neck. A feast is then provided by the groom's people. Millet would in past times have been served, but it is now fashionable to serve rice with curry. The groom afterward bows to the feet of guests to receive their blessing and is followed in this act by his wife. Along with their blessing, the guests give money (typically Rs 1, 2, or 5) to the couple. All later go to the bride's house, and there is then another feast (again, with rice and curry), which runs into the night. All feasting is accompanied by the dancing of males and females (usually in separate groups but in one circle). The consumption of intoxicating beverages is also liable to take place. The establishment of a separate patrilocal household after marriage is the norm. Conforming with the widespread practice in southern India, the wife usually returns to her paternal home in her seventh month of pregnancy and remains there until after her infant is delivered. While a woman's inability to bear a child is not considered grounds for divorce, an Irula man may marry another woman if his first wife cannot conceive. He then is married to both women. The usual grounds for divorce are unfaithfulness or a husband's lack of provision for his wife. When a marriage is troubled, a member of the Samban patrician will try to keep it intact, or a member of the Koduvan patrician will help if a member of the Samban clan is involved. If three attempts at reconciliation do not work, a divorce is granted. The village headman and a group of males forming a council (panchayat ) simply issue their consent for divorce. The bride-price and any gift jewelry must be returned to the husband's family. Then the husband's mother or husband's brother's wife smears some castor oil backward from the forehead of the wife along the part of her hair. After the tali is removed from her and returned to the husband, they are divorced. The children from the marriage will remain with the father.
Domestic Unit. The typical family whose members are served food from the same hearth averages four to five people, but it may reach a size of seven to nine people. Because the institution of the extended family still remains vital, those relatives beyond the nuclear family may assume residence, especially if they are left destitute in infancy or old age. If the wife dies, it is the responsibility of the husband to care for the children. He may remarry. While the constitution of India now enables a woman to remarry if her husband dies, an Irula widow seldom will. The brothers of a deceased husband are expected to care for the widow. The brothers of the widow may also care for her, if those of her deceased husband give their consent.
Inheritance. It is unfortunate that Irula tribal pattas are not more restricted by the government. Quite apart from their being taken over by unscrupulous outsiders, they also are divided equally among the sons upon the father's death. Purchased land units are similarly divided among the male descendants.
Socialization. Much of the infant and child rearing is done by adult females, including those among the elderly extended family members who might be present. Older siblings of both sexes play an important role in the care of their younger brothers and sisters. Government has now provided day and residential schools for the formal training of Irula children, and the related socialization process provides the main means for introducing the Irula into broader civilization. Unfortunately, most Irula have thus far abandoned the formal educational institutions in the lower stages.
Social Organization. In the tribal manner, the Irula maintain an open and free society. Each hamlet or village has a headman (gaundan or muppan ) whose role is not to control from above but to help in the solving of problems and to act as a mediator among his people and between them and government officials or non-Irula neighbors. Following the ancient Indian tradition of the panchayat (the hamlet or village council), the headman can call a varying group of males together to help him. As Samban patrician members (or Koduvan patrician members, if a Samban person is involved) traditionally have acted as mediators for the Irula, a headman can also turn to one of them for counsel. There is also a local go-between person (bandari ) who assists the headman. Any decision of a council is considered to be binding (kattu manam ) on an individual or family. Each friendship patrician in a hamlet or village is headed by a facilitator (jatti ) who plays the vital role of organizing any cooperative effort. A local priest (pujari ) is also present to take care of religious matters. Lastly, a Kurumba helps during ceremonial occasions. South of the Nilgiri massif, such an individual (a Palu Kurumba) also serves to protect the Irula from Muduga sorcery.
Political Organization. In the period of the British Raj, the lowest political division was a village unit with one or more villages and several hamlets. Along with several appointed officials, such as the maniagar who was the representative to the Crown and the tahsildar who kept the land records (and therefore the basis for taxation), there was a formal group of males who formed the village panchayat. The members of the panchayat then managed the affairs of the village. After independence, the village units were kept and the panchayat was envisioned as the grass-roots organization that would guarantee representation by the people. Its members were to be elected. Unfortunately, primarily because the Irula are so lacking in education, they are poorly represented in the larger panchayats. Also envisioned in the Indian constitution was the establishment of land units called blocks, each with a block development officer, in which economic development would be promoted with governmental assistance. Although some Irula—lowland Irula in particular—have benefited, including those living in Hallimoyar, Kallampalayam, and Thengumarahada, the general lack of Irula representation among block development officers has too frequently precluded Irula from obtaining the type of aid that would enhance them economically.
Social Control. The Irula as tribals place a premium upon the avoidance of conflict. They are in many ways rigidly controlled by their caste and patrician standing. The possibility of being made an outcaste for unacceptable behavior normally causes members to abide by the mores. Even though they may have few actual contacts with officialdom, the Irula are subject to all the rules and regulations of the central and state governments.
Conflict. The Irula, beset by circumstances forcing change upon them from the outside world, are liable to come into conflict with their neighbors. Our best retrospective example of this is offered by the hamlet of Koppayur, on an eastern slope of the Nilgiris. The British managers on the nearby Kilkotagiri tea estate enabled the Irula to continue living at Koppayur and to cultivate the adjacent land. Irula worked on the estate and were considered to be dependable laborers who periodically needed time off for their own agricultural pursuits. Even after independence, the continued British management enabled the Irula at Koppayur to live in the same way until at least 1963. By 1978 the British had left. Because the Irula and their fields at Koppayur then occupied land in forest reserve, they began to be evicted. (By contrast, in the early 1800s, the Irula had usufruct use of all the surrounding land.) They were supposed to occupy a steep slope not far away. Under Indian management at the Kilkotagiri tea estate, coffee had already been planted right up to the Irula hamlet and over land once used by the Irula for the cultivation of millet. Originally, the dismal prospect of the move was alleviated by some possibility of government aid enabling 20.5 hectares of land to be opened to coffee and tea gardening near the new hamlet, but by 1988 this brighter prospect for the Irula had long since been extinguished. There were then fifteen Irula families living in the limited space (about 1/4 hectare) covered by the new hamlet. The original hamlet, however, still had seven occupied houses. The only landowners are headmen Balan (1.6 hectares) and Masanan (3.6 hectares). Garden jackfruit and bananas are the main produce. The nearby ancestral temple, the koppa manai after which Koppayur is named, no longer has a roof, and the burial ground is choked by weeds. In that the estate management now restricts the access of the Irula to their hamlet, there is even more cause for ill will. The management considers the Irula to be a menace, because they stand accused of stealing coffee and selling it.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Irula are pantheists who make provision for the presence of spirits in humans and objects. In addition, a recurrent theme in their religious belief is the significance of the male and female principles as symbols of the ongoing creative process. It is rare for an Indian tribal people to be Vaishnavites, but the Irula, like the Beda of Karnataka, are ostensibly worshipers of Vishnu. They have thus gained fame for their temple dedicated to Ranga (also known as Vishnu) on the top of Rangaswami Betta. This is a peak that crowns the eastern Nilgiri slopes and that can be seen from many Irula hamlets and villages. In addition, the Irula seem to have a propensity for the worship of the god Muneshwar and the goddess Mari, both of whom are considered to be Hindu deities. Curiously, however, the Irula of Kallampalayam store their gilt image of Mari and the accompanying ritual paraphernalia in a rock shelter close by. They do this because they believe that the objects are too sacred to store in any structure made by humans. This practice perhaps may be prompted by a need to make Mari a part of the universal spirit that is everywhere. By dint of the accompanying bloody sacrifice, Mari is also related to earth and the fertility of plants springing from it. As Mari is the common goddess of smallpox in Tamil Nadu, the Irula have also worshiped her in that capacity. Like their Hindu neighbors, the Irula now watch nighttime performances of excerpts from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana acted into the early hours of the morning. There are benign and protective ancestral patrician spirits and family ancestral spirits that may be petitioned for assistance; such a petition is called a toga. There are also roaming evil spirits (pe ), and it is possible for one to possess a human. A virgin female demon (kannipe ) must be treated with great care by any priest, and near Garkiyur there is a temple into which an Irula priest entices a kannipe for a month's stay (October to November) each year. She is enticed to come with a welcome song on one day, vegetarian food offering on another, and the sacrificial offering of meat from a sambar (an Asian deer) that must be hunted down on the third day. Because the Irula visit the temples of their Hindu neighbors, go on pilgrimages to Sabarimala in Kerala, and worship deities in the same manner as the Hindus, there is clear evidence that the Irula participate in polytheistic Hinduism.
Religious Practitioners. The Kalkatti (stone-offering) patrician traditionally supplies priests, and the priests who serve on Rangaswami Betta come from a family that resides in Kallampalayam. The fact that a tribal Irula serves as priest to Ranga, which is a seeming departure from orthodoxy, is legitimized by a folktale in which an officiating Iyengar Brahman priest is convinced that an Irula should serve instead. The deity images and the ritual paraphernalia used in the recently constructed temple on Rangaswami Betta reveal a mixture of Shaivite and Vaishnavite imagery and symbolism. It thus seems probable that the officiating Irula priest is simultaneously and dualistically catering to Ranga and Krishna worship for Hindus and male principle worship for Irulas. The lowland Ranga temple at Karamadai offers interesting comparisons. In a folktale somewhat similar to one told about a stone associated with Ranga at Rangaswami Betta, a cow drops her milk on a stone in an anthill. When the cowherd discovers what is happening, he in a rage strikes the stone with a knife. He is amazed when blood comes from the stone. In a dream shortly thereafter, the god Ranga appears and asks to be worshiped with the stone as an image at the same place. The stone, a linga, became the centerpiece of worship in the temple that was eventually built on the site. But one of the most fascinating aspects of this temple is a belief that officiating Irula priests there were eventually replaced, ironically, by Iyengar Brahman priests.
Ceremonies. In January the Mattu Pongal festival (one of the main Hindu festivals held in Tamil Nadu), paying special homage to cows, is generally observed by the Irula. They also attend the annual festival at Karamadai, near Coimbatore, which takes place in the Tamil month of Masi (March-April) . The annual one-week festival honoring Mari at Kallampalaiyam, with chicken, goat, and sheep sacrifices, climaxes on the full moon day of the Tamil month of Adi, on or close to 15 August. An Irula priest, wearing the "thread of the twice-born" (a loop of sacred thread hung over the right shoulder), officiates on the top of Rangaswami Betta on every Saturday for two months starting in mid-August. Shortly before the start of this period, the image of Ranga is carried between the Irula settlements and is the focus of worship at each nighttime halting place.
Arts. Irula women are tattooed and enjoy wearing jewelry, including earrings, nose rings and toe rings. Although the Irula do some doodlings on the walls of their houses, for example, there is a lack of any formal decorative art among them. They do however have a distinctive dance form called arakkole atam.
Medicine. Irula hamlets have a few members with an intricate knowledge of the medicinal values of plant species, so lowlanders in particular seek the counsel of Irula herbalists. Irula living near the Marudamalai temple, near Coimbatore, sell herbal cures to visiting Hindu pilgrims. A hospital founded by the late Dr. S. Narasimhan (who also founded the Adivasi Welfare Association) at Karikkiyur, the nearby dispensary at Kunjappanai, and a field hospital at Arayur on the Nilgiri massif have played a significant role in meeting the medical needs of the Irula. The Irula are also increasingly taking advantage of the widespread medical facilities provided by the government, including a mobile medical unit (first associated with the famous Toda nurse Evam Piljain). There is a dispensary with a midwife at Thengumarahada.
Death and Afterlife. When a death occurs, the relatives are informed by a Kurumba. Upon arriving at the place of the deceased, the heads of males are shaved by the jatti. Both males and females dance to music and about the cot upon which the deceased rests. After all those who should attend have arrived, the corpse is carried to the burial ground. Members of the deceased's brother-in-law's patrician bear the prime responsibility for digging the grave, but the Kurumba present also assists. When all is ready, the body is placed in the grave so that it faces toward the north. The local Inula priest (pujari) then gazes at a lamp and goes into a trance. A member of the bereaved family asks him if the death was natural or the result of sorcery. If natural, the grave is filled in right away. If sorcery was the cause of death, elaborate ritual used to be performed; today, however, the priest says a simple and hasty prayer to ease any torment of the spirit and to enable it to depart peaceably. All the mourners then leave. A highlight in the ending of the seven days of ritual pollution among the close relatives of the deceased is the distribution of new clothing by the Kurumba to these relatives. As soon as possible after the funeral, preferably within a month, a stone (often waterworn and from a stream bed, but sometimes sculpted by non-Irulas) is placed in the ancestral temple to give the deceased a place to stay. Because of the belief that, without a stone, the spirit of the deceased wanders around and may become troublesome if it does so for too long, the time issue is understandable. After pouring a little oil on the stone as part of a prayer ritual and leaving food and drink for the spirit of the departed, the relatives leave. Once a year, all those who had a relative who died within the year participate in a final ceremony. Each family purchases a new cloth and rice gruel is prepared. At the nearby river or stream, the gruel is poured over the cloths, which are then set adrift. In addition to honoring the spirits of those who died within the year, the Irula thereby honor all the ancestral spirits of the related patricians. After group feasting, dancing continues into the night.
See also Badaga; Kota; Kurumbas
Buchanan, Francis (later, Buchanan-Hamilton) (1807). A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara, and Malabar. Vol. 2. London: W. Buhner & Co.
Jebadhas, A. William, and William A. Noble (1989). "The Irulas." In Blue Mountains: The Ethnography and Biogeography of a South Indian Region, edited by Paul Edward Hockings, 281-303. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Nambiar, P. K., and T. B. Bharathi (1965). Census of India, 1961. Vol. 9, Madras, pt. 6. Village Survey Monographs, no. 20, Hallimoyar. Delhi: Manager of Publications, Government of India.
Nambiar, P. K., and T. B. Bharathi (1966). Census of India, 1961. Vol. 9, Madras, pt. 6. Village Survey Monographs, no. 23, Nellithorai. Delhi: Manager of Publications.
Zvelebil, Kamil V. (1973-1982). The Irula Language. 3 vols. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
Zvelebil, Kamil V. (1988). The Irulas of the Blue Mountains. Foreign and Comparative Studies/South Asian Series, no. 13. Syracuse, N.Y.: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.
WILLIAM A. NOBLE AND A. WILLIAM JEBADHAS