ETHNONYMS: Pania, Paniya, Panya
The word "Paniyan" means "laborer." They are among an unfortunate group of people who traditionally were bonded laborers. "Bonded labor" results from a social agreement Between a debtor and creditor that stipulates that the debtor has a lifelong obligation to work for the creditor. These people are scattered in Kozhikode District, parts of Malappuram District on the outskirts of the Ghats, and also in some areas of Nilgiri District, in Tamil Nadu. They totaled 51,655 in 1971. The Paniyans' origins are unknown. To some Europeans they seem to be of African ancestry because of their dark skin, curly hair, large ear plugs, and broad noses. The people themselves have no notion of their ancestry or homeland.
Their housing consists of rows of huts made from bamboo with thatched roofs. They, are either single- or double-storied. During the months of monsoon the Paniyan move near streams and cool places, and after the rain is finished they return to their main huts. The Paniyan speak a Malayalam dialect. People employed on estates also speak Kannada.
The main Paniyan occupation is working as cultivators for landowners. Traditionally, they were usually bought by the owners for small amounts of rupees, after which they could not leave at will; if such a bonded laborer left, the landowner made sure that he would not be hired by anyone else. Bonded labor is now illegal, and a few Paniyans own their own land and cultivate rice and ragi. Women and children usually participate in digging jungle roots or pot herbs for food. The Paniyans previously were often known as coffee thieves, Because they were sometimes hired by wealthy landlords to go out during the night, strip bushes, and deliver the coffee beans to the landlord. Today they are frequently employed as farm and plantation laborers.
Marriage takes place with the help of parents. A girl is chosen by a man's family. The ceremony is very simple and is conducted by a chemmi (priest). Sixteen coins and new clothes are given to the chemmi, who presents them to the bride's Parents. Monogamy is usual, but there is no opposition to a man taking more than one wife if he can afford them.
Paniyan religion includes placating demons of various types with occasional offerings and worshiping deities in animal form, Kuli being the main one. They especially honor the Hindu divinity Kad Bhagavadi; this deity has no image, only a wooden box. Shrines dedicated to her are built in most inhabited places, with offerings.
Gopalan Nair, C. (1911). "Paniyans." In Wynad: Its Peoples and Traditions, 100-105. Madras: Higginbotham.
Thurston, Edgar, and Kadamki Rangachari (1909). "Paniyan." In Castes and Tribes of Southern India, edited by Edgar Thurston and Kadamki Rangachari. Vol. 6, 57-71. Madras: Government Press.