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India’s Tribal Communities- The Betta Kurumba Tribe of Tamil Nadu

The Betta Kuruba (Betta meaning ‘Hill’, Kuruba meaning ‘shepherd’) tribe lives in the hilly regions of Karnataka and is one of the few indigenous communities of the Nilgiris.

  • Kurumbas are the least civilized group in the district and they mostly live in the hill slopes and feverish places. ( Alu Kurumba, Jenu Kurumba, Betta Kurumba, Urali  Kurumba and Mullu Kurumba).
  • They are the various groups are generally believed to be the descendants of the Pallavas whose rule was at its grandest in the 7th century A.D Losing power to the Kongus and the Chalukyas, the Pallavas were finally driven out and dispersed by the Chola king  Adonai.
  • They settled in scattered settlements in the Nilgiris and Wayanad, Coorg and Mysore.
  • It is the Kurumas of the Nilgiris whom we say the Kurumba.
  • In many ethnographic accounts on the tribe, the numbers vary from as few as three to as many as seven.

POPULATION: 32,000

RELIGION: Hinduism

LANGUAGE: Betta Kurumba language (Beṭṭa Kurumba) is a Dravidian language closely related to Tamil.

CULTURE: 

CHILDBIRTH: 
  • The parents take the newborn child to the temple in the month of Thai  (January-February).
  • The name is given either by the parents, elders or by the temple priest.
  • This is done after offerings are made to God.
  • A feast is arranged a week after the child’s birth, for all those who helped in the delivery of the child.
  • Mostly non-vegetarian dishes, either pork or meat, are served for dinner.
  • After a month or two after the child’s birth, the whole village is given a  feast by the particular family.
ADOLESCENT RITUALS 
  • A girl attaining puberty is isolated from the rest of the family and kept in a remote hut set apart for this purpose.
  • As these girls are said to possess theettu, none can touch them, or the members of their family.
  • This lasts for a month. Afterwards, the girls are taken back to their homes, presented with new clothes and entertained to a grand feast.
MARRIAGE: 
  • Consanguineous marriages like cross-cousin marriages are preferred among the Kurumbas as nearly half of the men marry, either mother or uncle’s daughter, paternal aunt’s daughter or sister’s daughter (in the order of preference).
  • Wedding, presently, among Kurumbas has become extremely a costly affair, as it exists among other castes.
  • The parent of the groom spends a few thousand rupees on the celebrations and the bride’s parents are expected to spend the equivalents on clothes, jewellery and household utensils.
  • The guests at the wedding bring cash contributions to the couples, considered as a loan, or returnable at later.
  • In some areas, a wedding is a simple ceremony consisting simply of tying the tali without any ritual and feeding a small family group.
  • A newly married couple often stays in the same house along with the groom’s parents for several months or years.
  • Shortly before the birth of the child, the woman returns to her parent’s house where stays at least for three months after birth.
DEAD OR DISPOSAL: 
  • The dead are buried on the first or second day after death.
  • They are laid on their backs, head to the south, feet to the north, and face turned to the east.
  • At the burial ground, a pot of milk is broken over the grave above the head; on the day, water is poured over the grave.
  • Both these actions are considered to be cleaning the sins of his relatives  and following this grand feast is served.
  • The following day, the families are fed a meal with meat, from which it has abstained since death.
  • However, these elaborate ceremonies are not performed after the deaths also vary from settlements to settlements depending of course, on the capacity of the family to spend.

LIVELIHOOD: 

  • The Betta Kurumba homeland is, therefore, organized into numerous clan territories,  each of which belongs to a specific clan.
  • The boundaries of these teṭṭe are typically marked by rivers or streams.
  • Some are well known and large rivers, but other boundary markers may consist of small streams that are hardly known to recent settlers, but which are significant to the Betta  Kurumbas.
  • In each teṭṭe, there are one or more hamlets, in which a group of families build houses  (previously made of bamboo and grass) surrounding a central community hall.
  • The Betta Kurumbas are free to move from one metiri to another, and the hamlets,  although they consist primarily of kinsfolk, are not restricted exclusively for the use of one family.
  • Although the metiri are in fixed locations now, the Betta Kurumbas moved their metiri frequently during the British era because their work for the British consisted of clearing forest land to establish teak plantations, and at the same time, they cultivated ragi (a  millet) for themselves in the space between the teak saplings.
  • The Kurumba ancestors gathered honey and cultivated small patches of raagi, saami and other grains for food and survival.
  • Coffee and tea are their popular drinks.
  • Even children as young as five years are given back sweetened coffee to drink in the morning.
  • Besides, jackfruits, another plant growing in abundance in the Nilgiris are also consumed in generous quantities in its raw and cooked form.
  • With most of the Kurumbas working in the plantation, they have to leave home in the morning and return only after five in the evening.
  • This allows them only two meals (ittu) a day.
  • The meals consist of rice (replacing raagi) and curry.
  • They eat fish, chicken and the flesh of animals.
  • Moreover, chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol irrespective of gender are popular.
  • The villages of the Kurumbas in the Nilgiri hills are called mottas.
  • They consist generally of only four or five huts made of mud and wattle, with thatched roofs scattered on the steep wooded slopes of the Nilgiris.
  • Individual huts stand alone on a flattened piece of land and are the homes to nuclear families.
  • Moreover, constructed from a bamboo backbone with walls made of crisscrossing bamboo strips and grass, they are often fortified with mud and cow dung and support a  tiled roof.
  • A small partition, a meter deep and a meter high divide the interior space into kitchen and living or sleeping rooms.
  • The kitchen isittumane (food house) has a narrow one-foot high ledge running the length of a wall.
  • This ledge holds the fireplace and the utensils.
  • Steel vessels have replaced the traditional bamboo vessels and leaves used earlier.
  • The sleeping room or vagamane serves for all other purposes.
  • The houses open to flattened verandahs or thinnamanne that are used for social purposes.
  • Many of the Kurumbas now live in the government settlements that are brick houses with tin roofs.
  • They work in the plantations.

RECREATIONS: 

  • The Kurumbas share a common musical culture with other tribes.
  • Bamboo pipes (kolu and bugir) and mono faced drums (tambatte) and two-faced drums are the popular instruments.
  • Themes are either devotional or associated with death and marriage rituals.
  • In dance, there are two kinds: the gandesaatam is performed by the men who take part in the theatre of Kuthu.
  • Staged by the firelight or under the moonlight, both the female and male roles are played by the men alone.
  • Themes are religious and social with a penchant for comedy.

ART AND BELIEFS: 

  • Kurumas art is an expression of its socio-religious fabric.
  • The art is traditionally practised by the male members of the temple caretakers, or priest to the Kurumba village.
  • The women of the family contribute to the decorations at home in the form of borders around the door and windows and kolams on the floor.
  • Other Kurumbas are not allowed to practice the art.
  • The canvas for the painting is the outer wall of the temple and the houses.
  • The figures representing their gods and the Kurumba man express Kurumba beliefs and the milestones of the village and the tribe.
  • The artist also draws inspiration from his life.
  • The figures are the basic elements.
  • The figures also stand free of any depiction of their natural environment.
  • The defining context is the surface of which they are painted. Four colours are used traditionally: Red (Semm manna) and white (Bodhi manna) soils, black is obtained from the bark of a tree (Kari manna) and green from the leaves of a plant (Kattavarai sedi).
  • A piece of cloth is used to apply the colour on to the cow dung prepared walls.
  • Nowadays a fresh coat of plaster is given to the wall before painting beings.
  • The Kurumbas profess Saivism.
  • But they do not maintain temples of their own.

IMPACT OF MODERN WORLD: 

A region that, since the nineteenth century, has experienced wide-ranging cultural and political changes, including extensive immigration by people from other parts of India.

  • These peoples now celebrate different social festivals like Shivratri etc.
  • Live in Pakka houses
  • Eat-in utensils made up of steel rather than bamboo
  • Wear modern clothes
  • Now have access to education, health, water and electricity.
  • Started plantation of tea and coffee after 1945
  • Now become permanent settlers and do not migrate as old times