• Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Twitter

The Kurumbas: an introduction

Photo 1: Kurumbas women circa. 1870’s (Courtesy NDC)

Inhabitants of the steep slopes of the blue mountains of india, the Kurumbas tribe are descendants of the royal family of the pallavas, the kings who ruled southern India in the 7th century. The tribe still inculcates their morals and practices rituals such as death and marriage ceremonies, etc. An intriguing study about the kurumbas and their knowledge indicates that  they played the roles of both priests and sorcerers for tribes other than their own. So able were their powers that the kurumbas were respected and often punished for deaths and illnesses in other tribes, who believed that it was the spell of the Kurumba which was at work. ch a notorious reputation survives even today although the closest they came to their sorcery is in their deep knowledge of medicinal plants.  Expectedly they have their very own language which is spoken only among the various sub- groups of the tribe. The five main sub-groups of the Kurumba’s are the jen, mullu, urali, beta and alu or Palu; the most populous of them being the alu tribe. They live in the south and southeastern slopes of coonoor, kotagiri and kundah taluk of the Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu.

Photo 2:  Kurumbas Village of Vellaricombai

A typical kurumbas village is made up of five to six huts scattered on the lofty forested slopes of the nilgiris. Their huts, made from a bamboo backbone with walls made of criss-crossing bamboo strips and grass, are often fortified with mud and cowdung and support a tiled roof. The houses open to verandahs that are used for social purposes. Their unique style of construction is slowly disappearing as many of the kurumbahs now live in government sponsored units that are made of brick and tiled roofs. In early days the kurumba ‘s gathered honey and cultivated small patches of raagi, saami and other  food grains for food and survival. However nowadays the kurumba’s earn a living largely from working in surrounding plantations.

A Muthali administers the village with the help of three assistants; one specialising in agricultural issues, one for marriage issues and one who works as a messenger or spokesman.  A village council also takes decisions especially regarding marriage. After the initial interest shown by the groom’s father, a feast is organised where the girl and boy meet each other. A token of beetle leaves and a sum of Rs.101.25 (traditionally Rs.1.25) is given to the bride’s father to seal the marriage. This fee plays an important role. The husband loses the right to perform the last rights for his wife if he fails to pay this fee during her lifetime.  Women are also  not  allowed  to  participate  in  the  religious rituals.

The kurumba’s share a common musical culture with other tribes of the nilgiris.themes are either devotional or associated with death and marriage rituals. The main instruments used are the bamboo pipes, mono faced drums and the two faced drums. Dance is a popular form of entertainment too. There are two types of dances , one is performed by men while the slower version is performed by women. Like the elizabethan times, only men participated in the plays and they played the the roles of both men and women.

Photo 3: A Kurumbas Elder

The two important festivals are that of the harvest festival, Pongal, in the month of karthika and Sankaranti. On Pongal day the new crop is offered to the god before being shared between the villagers. On the religious day of sankranti they worship their deceased. A yearly worship is conducted on stream banks for those who have passed away during the year. The funeral practices of the Kurumbas called sava seru are also unique. The young are buried in sitting position at the graveyard, while the really old are cremated. Two rites are performed: one for the greater soul on the day of the burial, the other for the departure of the little soul.

As mentioned before, the kurumba’s are known for their magic hands in making medicine where all the constituents are obtained from the forests and the surrounding forms of nature.  Tribal medicine is the acquired knowledge, skills and practices of entire health care, identified and accepted for its use in the preventive and curative aspects of illness and disease to promote total survival of the tribal community. Alu kurumba’s are since ages practicing tribal medicine as popular healers. They always distinguish between sickness, illness and disease. Their belief system is embedded with symbolism and is directly linked to their ancestor’s ethics. Although they became pre-occupied with shifting agriculture, hunting gathering and also labourers on the tea estates, they never left the practice of healing the diseases by using plant medicine.

Photo 4: Medicine preperation (Courtesy – HADP)

The most important tradition the tribe once had and flourished in was art.  In the traditional art form the artist draws inspiration from his life. He also portrays the milestones in the tribal life and draws figures representing god.  The figures are made up of lines and are minimal in style. Lines, independent and concentric, dot and simple geometric figures are the basic elements. The figures also stand free of any depiction of their natural environment. The defining context is the surface on which they are painted. Interestingly, all the colours used are obtained from the forest.  Four colours are used traditionally: Red and white are obtained from the soils, black from the bark of a tree and green from the leaves of a plant. A piece of cloth is used to apply the colours onto the cowdung prepared walls. Nowadays a fresh coat of plaster is given to the wall before painting begins.

However, practicing artists are hard to find and in our search we could identify only 3 of them.  An attempt was also made to locate shops or galleries across Nilgiris and see if any of the Kurumba artworks were sold commercially.  One would expect several outlets would sell these artworks commercially as The Nilgiris attracts over 2.3 Mil tourists annually.  It is a sad testament, that only 1 store carried a few “Kurumba paintings” and those too were made with water colours and distant in skill and style from the true traditional paintings.  The fact that their art is no longer appreciated and popular has led to the decline in kurumba paintings.


There is need for immediate and concerted action to ensure that the Kurumba art or paintings survive and flourish again.  We need to take steps to engage and involve young members of the Kurumba tribes giving them the opportunity to learn and take pride in their traditional art form.  Livelihood concerns of the last few remaining artists need to be addressed urgently so as to ensure that they have the incentive to pass on their skills to the next generation.


Kurumbas silk-cotton picker

Elderly Kurumbas lady

Contributed by:

Tarika Chowdhary (Vidya Shilp Academy)
Sadhika Nanda (Bishop Cotton’s Girls High School)

For further information please contact

One  Earth Foundation
E-mail: raminder14@gmail.com
Tel: +91-80-41616120
Mobile: +91-9008000338