Cultures of Food – Indigenous Practices of the Palani Hills

A feasibility study on the Intangible Cultural Heritage mapping of the early inhabitants of the Palani Hills was undertaken by the INTACH Kodaikanal Chapter. The main focus of this was on two communities, which are considered as the original inhabitants of the Hills: the Paliyans and the Puliyans.

The study will lead to in-depth research to document their historical background, livelihood, heritage, and the various ICH elements of the communities, specifically the indigenous knowledge systems and their present day status.

 

The Paliyans have been mentioned in the ancient Sangam literature. A more objective study was conducted in the 1960s by an American anthropologist, Peter. M. Gardner, who categorised them as “hunter gatherers”. For centuries, they have been hunting and gathering in these hills for their sustenance combined with other strategies like collecting forest produce like honey, fruits and berries for trade. The Paliyans considered work as watchers on forest estates and plantations as a convenient pursuit because it was easily combined with food collecting and hunting. The transformation from living in semi nomadic settlements to settling down in villages is crucial to understand the changes within the Paliyan community. Like hunter gatherer communities around the world, the Paliyans worship the spirits of their ancestors and forest gods.

 

The Puliyans are also among the earliest settlers or ‘original inhabitants’ of the Palani hills. According to scholars, the Puliyans were settled agriculturists and might be the first builders of hill terraces in these hills. Some say that they are consulted on matters of medicinal herbs, tiger poisons and methods of driving out evil spirits. For this project, two Puliyan villages were studied. The Puliyans of Karadiparai have no land holdings and even today hugely depend on forest produce, especially the collection of pasam (a kind of moss). They continue to depend on collection of forest produce.

 

Although the Puliyans and the Paliyans seem well assimilated into mainstream society, they continue to hold on to certain aspects of their traditional way of life. The sacred practises of the two communities are still deeply tied to their forest. A holistic study with an emphasis on their use of medicinal plants, foraging practises and their changing relationships with the forests is being taken up as a second phase of the project by the Kodaikanal chapter.

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