People and their Tradition


Pandalur was believed to be a sacred place of the indigenous tribal communities such as the Paniyas, Kurumbas and KattuNayakkans. They had a well-defined social structure and culture, they also had distinctive outfits, weapons and jewelry. Each of the tribal groups has a traditional chief and some of them were believed to be spiritual leaders and these men are said to have supernatural powers; they could give blessings, heal sickness and foretell the future. They were brave, strong and good hunters. Honey, roots found from the forest and wild meat were their main source of food and they utilized all available natural resources found from the tropical rainforest for their daily life requirements.

Paniya Tribe:

The name Paniya means “Laborer” which is derived from the Malayalm Language, the majority of Paniya community is scattered in the present Wayand District of Kerala and Nilgiri District. The Paniyans' origin is unknown, some researchers believes them to be of African descent because of their dark skin, curly hair, large earlobe, and broad nose. Paniyaswere used as bound laborers by the upper class communities and landlordsalso by the Mappila (Malabar Muslims ) settlers of the plateau for a very small ransom.

During the Vishu festival Paniya families form different parts of Pandalur and Gudalur taluks gather at the Pandalur Devi Temple ( also known as VishuAmbalam ) During this gathering marriages are arranged by parents of brides and grooms. It was believed in the olden days that their Employers specially the Chetty landlords found their prospective workers during this annual festival, They would give a small amount of money to the Paniya family leader called Nippupanam (Engagement / Advance money) , on receiving advance from the employer they are agreed and owed to work for them as bonded laborers at least for one year (until the next annual feast in the temple).

After Independence this practice completely disappeared. The majority of the Paniyas broke away from their masters and started working as casual laborers. The enforcement of laws such as Bonded Labor Abolition Ordinance of 1975 by Govt. Tamilnadu , the government policies on tribal welfare and the interests of NGOs , community service societies and human rights activists helps to wipe out these kind of slavery practices.

In the earlier days theydid not easily socialize with other communities, but these days they are the most affected tribal community by cultural assimilation , the new generation even speak Tamil or Malayalam amongst themselves as they don’t want to identify themselves as Paniyas.

They strictly follow Monogamy in their marriage system. The Paniya’s speak Paniya Language, member of Dravidian family and closely related to Malayalam language, which also use some Tamil words.

Kurumbas / Kurumars / Kurumbars:

Kurumbas are one among the six Primitive Tribal Groups in Nilgiris. Like Vedars, Kurumbars also believed to be the ancient inhabitants of the hills. These nomadic tribes normally lived in the slopes as small groups of 4 or 5 families and these small settlement/village called Motta or Mattam . The village was under the control of the Headman called Moopan who have the highest authority in the community. The Kurumbars are basically forest dwellers, Nature provided their livelihood as they dig up roots for food, collect honey and other forest produces. Bush meat wastheir main source of food as they were good hunters. They were experts in catching game in nets or hunting them using bow.

In ancient days Kurumbars were the inhabitants of the “Thondaimandalam” area as the area was full of forests, they were overthrown from “Thondaimandalam by Athondai Chakravarthy who established his regime. To commemorate this victory he named the place after himself. It’s believed that the Kurumbars migrated from Thondaimandalam to Western Ghats.

For centuries ,Kurumbas were isolated from the main land and fully dependent on the forest. They living as small mobile group inside the forest. Due to their savage state they were the least civilized community among the tribal community and they were very arrogant and mischievous. The researchers believe that the name “Kurumba” derived from the Tamil word “Kurumbu” which means mischief. Kurumbas have distinctive culture, language and rituals. They strictly follow endogamy and monogamy to regulate their marriage systems and Polyandry is considered as sin.

Based on the living habitats , social design and ethnicity they are devided in to Five divisions

  • Allu kurumba / Pal Kurumbas
  • JenuKurumba / Then Kurumbas
  • Betta kurumba (Betta = Hill)/ KattuKurumbas
  • Uralikurumba /Vettukurumba
  • and Mullu Kurumba

The Mullukurumbas and UraliKurumbas lives only in the lower ranges of the forest and the foothills . These two divisions of Kurumbas are inhibited in Gudalur and Pandalur taluks of Nilgiri district.

MulluKurumbas:

The name Mullukurumba derived from the Tamil word “Mullu” which means thorn, or from the Malayalam word “Mula” which means Bamboo. Bamboo has great importance in their culture and occupation. Mullukurmbas are bowmen and hunters and they have a patriotic history. They were part of the Pazasi Raja’s army who fought in Wayanad against British Power, even after the death of Pazasiraja (1805AD) the MulluKurumbars fought against the British Army.

A large group of MulluKurumba community settled in Kappala and Erumadu areas of Pandalur Taluk, Their way of life, nature and indigeneity were disturbed after the Europeans intrusion to the plateau. The Cultural assimilation was accelerated by the intrusion of settlers , developments and unscientific execution of government policies on tribal development which move these indigenous community from their natural habitat to new settlements out of the forest in the name of Schooling, Wildlife protection etc.

UraliKurumbas:

The Uralikurmbas are also called vettukurumbas, the Malayalam word “vettu” means “to cut” which is derived from their profession of felling trees. They are artisans and ready to do any kind of works. Nowadays Majority of the Uralikurumbasareengaged as labors in the large tea and coffee estates in the area.

KattuNayakka:

As their name implies they are the “Lord of Forest” , they are another nomadic tribes of the plateau. They are one of the earliest known inhabitants of the Western Ghats. Traditionally they were engaged in the collection and gathering of forest produce, mainly wild honey and wax also. They also engaged in hunting of small games and gathering forest produces, fishing and bird trapping. They don’t have a permanent residence, always move around the forest areas. A large section of Kattunayakans still depend on their traditional occupation of gathering forest produce and trading them. The society is controlled by a headman called Karanavar, the community speaks a dialect with mixed words in Tamil , Malayalam and Kannada.

Gowdas(Gawdar / Kaundar /Kawndans):

Gawdas are the other large tribal community in this area who have a similar social structure of Badaga and Thoda community of upper Nilgiris. Researchers and anthropologists believe Gawda’sare one among the major division of Badaga community, and still their origin is in debate. Some believe they are the original sons of Nilgiri soil, but based on the available evidence and studies done by anthropologist’s especially by Prof. Paul Hocking (University of Illinois) concludes that the they were refugees, or migrants from southern part of Mysore and they had migrated at the end of the 16th and early 17th centuries. They depend mainly on milk and milk products and each family had a big herd of cattle’s specially buffalos, same as “Todas of Nilgiris” Buffalos are considered sacred .The new generation of these communities are living modern life and most of their traditions are vanished and now very few of their traditional rituals are practiced during special occasions like marriage and funeral.

Native Tamils:

Great Famine of 1876–78 badly affected the plains of Madras presidency due to the consequence of monsoonal delays, crop failure along with the ruthless economic reforms by British.

Peasants from the plains feared about their future harvests , they abandoned the farmlands and left the villages. Thousands migrated in hopes of finding sustenance elsewhere and many of them dead due to starvation. Tamil peasants from the worst affected areas like Kallakuruchi, Perambalur, Aathur , Selam and Trichy were migrated to South East Nilgiris . Even though The

Hill area equally affected by the famine, people continued migrating to Plantations seeking better fortune as many of the large plantation companies were busy expanding their estates.

The situation was well exploited by the company’s labor supply agents, they trapped labors from the plains by giving them false promises , lending money and providing them advance payments and contracts them to work in the estates. Most of the coolies who got advance from these agents never able to payback the amount even after one or two years of their bonded labor terms. Most of these agents were worked as estate supervisors commonly known as Mastiries or Kanganis. Each KanganiManages 20-100 labors under him and their wages are managed by the Kanganis, not directly by the estate management.

Majority of the Koolies came through railway from Soramangalam railway station of the present Salem district and reach Mettuppalayam, from there they use bullock cart or by foot to reach the estates, few of them came through Palakkad and Wayanad. The new environment opened new opportunities, some of them well adapted to the situation and bring peoples from their villages and become Kangani, this accelerated the demographic movement from the plains of Madras presidency to the South East Nilgiris. David, Chadayan, Kullan ,Ayyan Perumal, Angammal, Muniyammal, Kuppamuthu, Chellappan, Chellamuthu , Vadivel and Kanniyammal are few of the known Kanganis. As the people attracted by the benefits like permanent job, shelter, medical aid and weekly wages, during 1910-1920 a large peasant folks migrated to estates in Mangorage, Attikkunna and Pandalur.

The Malabar Community:

Sri Lankan Repatriates:

The Srilankan repatriates are the unfortunate community, in history twice they were forcefully displaced from their homeland. First, in the beginning of 19th century, as part of fulfilling England’s supply demand of tea and coffee, the Colonial authorities started huge plantation centers in India and Ceylone, Many Tamil natives especially from Salem, Attur, Tanjore, Pudukkottai and Trichy were trafficked by British to Sri Lanka for setting up huge tea gardens. Secondly, after independence, they were forced to leave Sri Lanka as the Buddhist lead government ceased their citizenship and basic rights. In the early sixties the government of India entered into a serious discussion with Sri Lankan government to resolve the thorny issue of citizenship for the Tamil speaking Indian origin labor working in Sri Lankan plantations, after protracted negotiations the historical “Shastri – Srimavo Pact” was signed on October 1964. Based on this, In 1968 the State government of Tamil Nadu introduced the Government Tea Project named Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Limited (TANTEA) which provide decent livelihood to about 10000 Sri Lankan repatriates, the effort and hard work of Dr.Karunanidhi, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was remarkable to implementing this massive project. First It was managed by the Forest Department as a scheme to rehabilitate the Sri Lanka Repatriates. In 1975 the Project was, brought under corporate management in the name of the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Limited. This Corporation is under the administrative control of Environment & Forest Department of Government of Tamil Nadu. After the arrival of the Sri Lankan repatriates, the area witnessed an aggressive growth in the private tea estates.