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ETHNONYMS: Jenu-Koyyo-Shola-Nayakas, Jenu Kurumba, Kattu Naikr, Kattu Nayaka, Naicken, Naiken, Naikr, Sola Nayaka


Identification. The Nayaka are a tribal people. Their various names relate to the fact that they live in the forest and collect honey from wild bees' nests: kāu and sōla mean "forest," while jēnu means "honey." The names were given to them by outsiders. The name "Nayaka" probably originated in Malayalam. They refer to their own people by the phrase nama sonta, which roughly translates as "our family."

Location. The Nayaka live in the Nilgiri Hills in south India, at 11° N and 75° E, on the western jungle slopes, from 1,000 to 300 meters above sea level. The area, called the Wynaad (or Wainad), is divided administratively between the Nilgiris District of Tamil Nadu and the adjoining Malappuram District of Kerala. The Nayaka are scattered there amid other populations in small communities between which there are virtually no ties of any kind. The monsoon is at its height during July, while February is the middle of the dry period.

Demography. The Indian census of 1981 estimated their total number at 1,400. Local communities comprise three to thirty nuclear families each. The average number of children per family is probably about two.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Nayaka language, which the Nayaka call nama baśa, "our language," belongs to the Kannadoid Subgroup of the Nilgiri South Dravidian Languages. It contains elements of Kannada, Tamil, and Malayalam, Kannada being predominant. There are linguistic differences between the various Nayaka local communities, reflecting their contact with different neighbors, but not to the point of mutual unintelligibility. Most Nayaka speak in addition to their own language at least one of these three major South Dravidian languages.

History and Cultural Relations

In the past, scholars suggested that the food-gatherer groups of the Nilgiris were the descendants of the powerful Kuruma (Pallavas), who fled to the wild during the ascension of the Cholla dynasty, around the ninth century a.d. More recently scholars have regarded them as the indigenous inhabitants of the area. The Wynaad itself, as part of the Nilgiris, was in the eighteenth century a part of the kingdom of Mysore, ruled by Haidar Ali, and later by his son Tipu Sultan. In 1803, British troops of the East India Company led by the (later) Duke of Wellington won it over. Infected by malaria, the Wynaad was not popular with immigrants, most of whom crossed it and settled higher up the hills; these immigrants included the agriculturalist Badaga in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the British during the nineteenth century, and after them Indians of various castes and religions. In the 1830s exploration for gold began in the Wynaad, building to a brief but devastating gold rush during the 1880s. In the 1860s some coffee, tea, and rubber plantations were opened; most remained marginal at these low elevations. The effects on the Nayaka varied from place to place. In some localities they took to wage labor as their main source of income. In other areas, they added casual wage labor to their traditional gathering in the forest, barter in forest produce, and labor for agricultural neighbors and forest contractors.

Nayaka, while they do not maintain close contact with Nayaka of other localities, do have close contact with Neighboring non-Nayaka populations. They seem to have been in contact with non-Nayaka populations for a long time. They barter forest produce for simple agricultural and manufactured goods, such as tobacco, grain, and metal knives. They occasionally provide labor to their neighbors. They maintain friendly relations with neighboring populations and each party attends the other's festivals.


A Nayaka community averages about five clusters of huts. The clusters, which we will call "hamlets", here are located in the jungle, near water sources, at a distance of a few miles from each other. Occasionally there are additional small hamlets at the fringes of the jungle near local Indian villages. The huts vary considerably. The most substantial have a framework constructed of wood on a mud platform. The walls are made of strips of split bamboo resting on a low mud base, leaving a small doorway. The hut has a roof of grass thatch. Occasionally several huts are joined to each other in a row. The more casual huts are simply lean-tos resting on a rock, or on another hut, with no walls. There is a little-used fireplace in each living space, and a few articles lie casually on the ground. Except during the rainy period, people mostly sleep, cook, and eat outside their huts.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Nayaka know of many species of flora in the forest, whose various parts they utilize for culinary and medicinal purposes, as well as for barter and for fabricating their shelter, tools, and utensils. In the forest they gather roots (mainly of wild yams), nuts, berries, and fruit; they fish; they collect honey from wild bees' nests; occasionally they trap birds; and they sometimes hunt deer with their dogs. They collect forest produce such as soapnuts and spices to sell to their neighbors and to traders from the cities. Nayaka also take up a variety of casual employment, which usually requires expertise acquired through a food-gathering way of life (e.g., clearing jungle paths and guiding hunting expeditions). The nature of these jobs changes in response to changes in the surrounding environment. Viewing the forest as a generous provider of food and all other material requirements, Nayakas are flexible and opportunistic in their choice of occupations, and they frequently shift from one to another. Each family operates independently, and a heterogeneous economy arises around the core of the traditional food gathering, which is highly valued. The Nayaka have no tradition of animal husbandry or cultivation. A few families every now and then acquire a few chickens, or even a cow, which they keep for only a short period. Similarly, every once in a while a few families cultivate small plots of paddy, which they barely maintain and subsequently abandon. Most Nayaka plant some fruit trees near their huts. They keep dogs that feed on leftovers. Their Children occasionally adopt as pets young monitor lizards and parrots found in the forest.

Industrial Arts. Nayaka manufacture various containers, baskets, and mats from bamboo and grass for their own use. Occasionally they make simple coconut spoons, wooden pots, and pestles and construct bamboo fences and huts for their non-Nayaka neighbors.

Division of Labor. The Nayaka have little division of labor based on gender. Spouses pursue most subsistence activities together and also share domestic pursuits to a considerable degree. Families, even single adults, are generally self-sufficient.

Land Tenure. Nayaka live and utilize resources wherever they wish to within the territory they occupy.


Kin Groups and Descent. All the Nayaka of a local community consider each other kin. In everyday conversation they refer to and address each other by kinship terms. On the whole, families do not cooperate in work, share productive equipment, or exchange gifts; but people are expected to be generally friendly and hospitable toward one another. The Nayaka, though warm and friendly, are highly autonomous. They rarely cooperate with other members of their hamlet, and every six to eighteen months they move to another Hamlet. Life-cycle events are celebrated, if at all, by ad hoc aggregates of people within the locality who are invited by the celebrants. The conjugal family is the only corporate and effective group among the Nayaka. Its members share possessions, work, and responsibility for each other. There are no descent groups. The Nayaka attach equal importance to matrilateral and patrilateral kin links.

Kinship Terminology. Nayaka use kinship terms that reflect a Dravidian kinship terminology. In everyday application of kinship terms, they do not strictly maintain the distinctions between affinal and consanguinai relations in the first ascending and first descending generations.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Nayaka mostly find their spouses for themselves within the local community and sometimes among kin outside it. A courtship takes place, then the couple start sleeping together and establish their hearth, and then they increasingly share subsistence pursuits and domestic chores. There is no formal event to mark the marriage: it gradually emerges and is then publicly recognized. Some marriages, especially for long-standing single persons, are arranged. This is done by a maternal uncle or other relatives, and the spouse is usually from outside the local community. Such a union is sometimes celebrated by a meal that is offered to a small gathering of invitees and passersby. Nayaka express a preference for cross-cousin marriage (perhaps under the widespread Dravidian Influence) and secondarily for spouses outside the close circle of relatives. Marriages are monogamous. A new conjugal Family is independent and free to choose its place of residence. Some couples reside with the wife's parents during the initial period of marriage. Separation is common during the early years of marriage; it is effected by mutual agreement or by one of the parties leaving the other. A marriage that survives the early years is likely to endure.

Domestic Unit. A man, a woman, and their young offspring constitute the domestic unit and usually sleep, cook, eat, and work together. Single persons, young or old, are temporarily attached to families. Strict separation is maintained between the living spaces of the conjugal family and those of their long- or short-term visitors. The former, especially, keep their separate hearths, near where they sleep, eat their share of the food on their own, and frequently cook it themselves. Nayaka value their independence highly.

Inheritance. A Nayaka is frequently buried with the few possessions he or she used at the time of death. Children and other relatives sometimes take one or two of the deceased's possessions as remembrances. There is no individual ownership or inheritance of land.

Socialization. Young children are greatly indulged. They are rarely scolded or punished. They spend most of their time with their parents, though occasionally they stay with grandparents or older siblings. At about the age of 10, they start visiting other families in the local community, and later beyond it, for increasingly long periods. They become autonomous in their late teens, and they establish their own conjugal partnerships any time from then up to their mid-twenties. They acquire survival skills and knowledge through watching adults and by trial and error; there is no formal instruction.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Nayaka are highly egalitarian and individualistic. They have various leveling mechanisms to prevent the development of inequalities of wealth, power, and prestige. Very few persons maintain friendships, or other binding interpersonal ties, outside their own conjugal family. Cooperation and communication between the highly individuated conjugal families is facilitated by the still-single persons who move between the conjugal families. Conjugal families occasionally cooperate with such single persons in subsistence pursuits. The single persons are important channels of communication within the local community.

Political Organization. The Nayaka have a band society, with no overarching administrative or political organization. Its constituent units are autonomous families and Individuals, who aggregate themselves voluntarily into ad hoc, fluid, and open-ended social groupings: the coresidents of a Hamlet, for example, or the participants in a celebration. Neither Nayaka society itself, nor any of its local communities, constitutes a political community. There are no offices carrying authority or power. Today, there is external pressure on the Nayaka to organize themselves as a political unit or to appoint representatives.

Social Control. Valuing individual autonomy above all, Nayaka refrain from intervening in other people's affairs; even gossip is rare. When intervention is necessary, they appeal to outside agencies (neighbors or deities).

Conflict. Nayaka prevent conflicts by avoiding cooperation and competition and by moving away from potential confrontation. The few conflicts that occur are mainly over women.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Nayaka believe in natural spirits that reside on hilltops, in water sources, in high trees, and on the ground. They have added Hindu deities and the deities of neighboring people to their pantheon.

Religious Practitioners. There are a few individuals in each local community who are occasionally possessed by spirits and then mediate between humans and the spirit world. Most are men, but some are women. There are also diviners who can identify the supernatural causes of diseases.

Ceremonies. With the exception of death, which is celebrated quite elaborately, Nayaka barely mark life-cycle events, if at all. A communal celebration is held annually, in several locations in the area. During the celebration offerings are made to the ancestral and natural spirits. Through possession a sort of collective contract is renewed, by which the living undertake to preserve cultural continuity, to keep the "ways of the forefathers," and the deities undertake to preserve physical continuity, safeguarding the living from mortal diseases. The souls of the people who died during the preceding year are joined during the celebration with the other spirits.

Arts. A few individuals play the bamboo flute, or beat a drum, on their own. Only at the annual celebration is there any collective music making. Then dances are held, a band plays music, and a play is performed.

Medicine. Illnesses are classified into those for which a natural cause is obvious and those for which it is not. The former are treated by medicinal plants, known to all; the latter by establishing supernatural causes through divination or possession, and then by making offerings.

Death and Afterlife. A ritual is held in the place where the death occurred; the corpse is buried elsewhere. The spirit of the deceased, dangerous to meet, roams in the forest until it is brought back into the community of spirits during the next annual celebration.

See also Kurumbas


Bird, Nurit (1983a). "Conjugal Units and Single Persons: An Analysis of the Social System of the Food-Gathering Naiken of South India." Ph.D. dissertation, Cambridge University.

Bird, Nurit (1983b). "Wage-Gathering: Socioeconomic Changes, and the Case of the Naiken of South India." In Rural South Asia: Linkages, Changes, and Development. Collected Papers on South Asia, edited by Peter Robb, 57-89. London: Curzon Press for the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Bird, Nurit (1987). "The Kurumbas of the Nilgiris: An Ethnographic Myth?" Modern Asian Studies 24:173-189.

Bird-David, Nurit (1988). "An Introduction to the Naikens: The People and the Ethnographic Myth." In Blue Mountains: The Ethnography and Biogeography of a South Indian Region, edited by Paul Hockings, 249-280. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Francis, Walter (1908). Madras District Gazetters: The Nilgiris. Madras: Superintendent, Government Press.