Listed as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group by the Ministry of Home Affairs
One of the major tribal groups in Tamil Nadu, the population of the Irula tribe is 105,759 (Census of India, 1981). Some of them also live in Kerala and Karnataka. In Tamil Nadu, their concentration is more in the north western districts of Tamil Nadu especially in the Chengalpet district.
The other districts with considerable population of the Irulas are North Arcot, South Arcot, Coimbatore, Dharmapuri, Periyar and Nilgiris. They speak the Irula dialect, Irula Basai.
According to Irular history, the term ‘Irula’ means means being capable of finding one’s path in the darkness, which is a key characteristic of the Irulas. Born in nature”s lap, Irulas share a symbiotic relationship with Mother Earth. They reside in the hills of northern Tamil Nadu and are one among the six oldest Adivasi tribes. Irulas are natural specialists in Traditional Herbal Medicine and healing practices.
According to the tribe, for thousands of years, they served the Chola dynasty, a 3rd century BCE empire (one of the longest-ruling dynasties in history) as night guards before the empires’ demise.
The Irulas settlement in Maayanur is about two thousand years old. The Irulas walked across the Bandhipur sanctuary and set up a camp at this place since there was a river running by at this place. They found this place so secure that the camp became a permanent settlement.
They began by serving as Kings guard and moved on to specializing in catching venomous snakes and rodents. They specialize in cobra antivenin, where they milk a cobra to produce an antidote for snake bite. Irulas began moving to cities in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka once there was a requirement of snake bite cure.
The Scared Irular Pillar: The Pillar, Irulas believe, was the first pillar their ancestors erected, 2,000 years ago, and every time an Irula was ready to be sworn into the Kings’ Army as a night guard, it was here he took the oath. For thousands of years, Irulas served the Chola dynasty as night guards.
Irula is a Dravidian language spoken by the Irulas who inhabit the area of the Nilgiri mountains, in the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. It is closely related to Tamil and is one of the Tamil languages. It is written in the Tamil script.
Traditionally, the main occupation of the Irulas has been snake, rat-catching, and honey collection. They also work as labourers in the fields of the landlords during the sowing and harvesting seasons or in the rice mills. Fishing and cattle farm is also a major occupation.
The women are very knowledgeable with regard to the plant species, particularly the medicinal varieties. This knowledge has been passed on from many generations and some of the women are ’Vaidyas’ (traditional doctors).
In January 2017, Masi Sadaiyan and Vadivel Gopal from the Irula tribe of Tamil Nadu were brought in, along with two translators, to work with detection dogs to track down and capture invasive Burmese pythons in Key Largo, Florida. The Irula men and their translators were paid $70,000 by the State of Florida, and captured 14 pythons in less than two weeks.
The profession of the Irula people took a toll on their health resulting in heart, skin, eye and respiratory problems. The Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 had an adverse impact on their livelihood as forest access, food gathering and hunting became difficult due to restrictions. The Irulas had to move out of the forests and were forced to work as bonded labourers. They had to live in mud huts with straw roofs and dirt floors.
Anti-Venom Production: Across the world, about 30,000 to 40,000 people die annually of snake bite, and of these, 25% or about 10,000 people die in India. Anti-venom serum is made by immunising horses with gradually increasing doses of snake venom, which, in turn, is always in high demand because it is the most effective cure to treat potentially fatal snake bites. Here, it is also important to note that large numbers of snakes are needed to collect venom in the quantities required for anti-venom production.
Irula Snake-Catchers Industrial Co-operative Society: This is a cooperative that has its members catch poisonous Indian snakes, extract venom and release such snakes back in to the wild. The homogeneity of cooperative members lies in their belonging to the Irula Tribe and the cooperative helps the small tribe stay together who receive the socio-economic benefits from doing what they do best, in a cooperative way.
An Irular is great at catching snakes, and it was during when India did not have a specific legislation of wildlife protection, that many members of the Irula tribe were misled and used to procure snake-skin that were sold at high prices in informal markets. The cooperative organised the combination of courage and talent and put it to fruitful use, Life saving in many cases considering the illnesses snake venom extracts can cure.
Irulas celebrate Shivaratri. On the Shivaratri day, they make it a point that Irulas from all over the world gather here. They chant bhajans and prayers of lord Shiva, their chief deity throughout the night.
Childbirth: Normally, delivery is considered to be the second birth for any woman. But as far as irular tribes were considered, deliveries were conducted at home with the help of a local old lady who had attended the delivery. After the birth, the child is bathed in warm water. The mother confines herself to the seclusion hut for 10 days during which she takes hot water bath after applying a turmeric paste and coconut oil on the body. On the 10th day, she is removed to another seclusion hut, where she remains for 80 days during which she is prohibited from doing any manual work even in the kitchen.
The Irular thus observes 91 days birth pollution. The naming ceremony is performed on that day. On the other hand, if the labor pain develops she would pour little amount of castor oil in her left palm and touch it with the right hand fingers, at the same time uttering some words of prayers.
Death: One’s death will be proclaimed to everyone. These communities followed the death ceremonies are the body will be kept in a typical tent on a bamboo platform in a posture where both the legs had to be drawn backwards and tied. The closest relatives bring water from the tap. Water is drawn after uttering the name of the dead person three times without looking left or right. Ground saffron or turmeric liquid mixture is sprinkled over the body. Visitors spread white dhoti (cloth) over the body if the death is male and colour cloth in case of female.
Irula’s refrain from eating rice and consume millets, unlike the common habit in South India. This is because the millet-based food was ideal for the climate and was the best fit for their rigorous lifestyle.
A typical Irula house is made entirely of stones and mud. Most houses don’t have doors, so the homes look welcoming to guests. The households have hunting dogs as pets, and a separate house for their goat and sheep.There are about 50 families in a typical settlement. Schemes like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan have helped in improving Sanitation in Irular Settlements.
Marriage is considered as a sacred and an important event in the life of any individual. Among the irula tribes, men or women were allowed to marry according to their wish and marrying more than one man or woman was not considered as a crime. The marriage is fixed for girls within age limit of 12-18 whereas boy’s age is form 14-24. People from the same clan within the irula tribe do not intermarry.
Marriages are fixed within family by the parents.Marriage ceremony takes place in the front of the home or in village temple.The conformation of the marriage is called the groom tie the yellow rope of thali (marital necklace) along with two black beeds as the bride.