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The Nilgiri district is home to 6 primitive tribal groups.  These are Todas, Kotas, Kurumbas, Erulas, Paniyans and Kattunayakans.  These groups share a dynamic and interesting relationship with each other.  Gopala Krishnan (1995) Gazetteer of India stated ” Many official and non official reports have appeared about the tribal people of the district (Nilgiri).  A number of scholars like Rivers, Francis and Thurston have written about the various aspects of life of the people of the Nilgiris.  In the recent past, much has added by Emeneau, Paul Hawkings, Anthony Walker and others.  The tribal people of the Nilgiri district have been changing……although the non tribal population are in a majority and the tribal population are in minority, the district is known for its geographical specialties and tribal inhabitants.  The presence of several tribes in the district enhances its anthropological importance.  The percentage of scheduled tribes in the district is 3.31, while it is 1.07 at the state level.”

Gopala Krishnan further adds that among the non tribal groups there are scheduled castes. Malayalis, Parsees, Sindhis, Marvadis, Muslims, Kannadigas, Badagas, Wynad Chettis and Mauntadan Chettis in the district.  Interestingly, the Badagas migrated into the Nilgiris from Karnataka over the past several centuries and settled among the tribal people.  With rare exceptions, the people of Nilgiris have lived very peacefully with each other.  The simple economy of the district and traditional division of functions among the tribes and other castes had enabled them to live together amicably.  But many changes have taken place over the last century impacting the inter relationship between the various tribes and castes.

The Nilgiri District Gazetteer (1995) mentions that ” The symbiotic relationship among the tribes and others which existed till the first quarter of the twentieth century has undergone severe strains subsequently with the advent of modern education, market and other forces.  The Badaga (non tribal), the Toda and the Kota were exposed to intense conflicts in the process of change……The influx of a large number of Sri Lanka repatriats had added a new dimension to the socioeconomic structure of the district.  Though only 5860 Sri Lanka repatriate families were set apart for settlement in the district, at present over 15000 such families are in the district.”

The inter ethnic relationships of these groups can be understood on the basis of their residential place and distance from each other.  A tribal spacial distribution study reveals that on the higher altitude (1750m+) the Todas and the Kotas exist, just below in the middle range(1000-1750m) the Kurumbas and Eruluas are inhabiting, whereas at the foothills of the Nilgiris, the Panyans and the Katunayakans are to be found.  This distribution reveals that because of close living there has been a dynamic inter ethnic relationship between the Todas, the Kotas and a few Kurumbas.  At the same time the Kurumbas and Erulas maintained strong ties and at the foothills the Panyans and the Katunayakans had contact with each other.

The Badagas who live in the middle to higher altitudes have had strong relationships with the tribes who reside in these regions.  There is little evidence of relationships between the Panyans/Katunayakans and other tribal groups.  The Kurumbas are the only tribe who among their five subgroups have had strong inter relationships with all other tribal groups.  Their spacial distribution is as follows; Alu Kurumbas live at higher altitudes, Beta and Jenu Kurumbas live at lower altitudes of the Nilgiri hills whereas Mulu and Uralli Kurumbas reside at foothills of the Nilgiris towards Wynad at the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.


An Irula Elder

Kota Tribal Men

Paniya Tribal women dancing

Irulas Dancing

A Kota priest

Toda Mund (ca. 1890) near Ooty


Toda Mund in Avalanche area (recent)

The Todas

The Kotas of Nilgiris

Pics. Courtesy: NDC & OEF

One  Earth Foundation
E-mail: raminder14@gmail.com