One Night with Snake-Snatchers!

(I’m really content that this write up of mine got published in The Hindu’s, youth supplement, NXg today.)

Irulars are a tribal community ethnically belonging to Negroid race of Africa dwelling mainly in the southern part of India. They habitations are mainly located at Kanchipuram, Nilgiris and Villupuram districts of Tamil Nadu. Their language, Irula, is an amalgam of both Tamil and Kannada. The name Irular means the people of darkness in Tamil. It could mainly because of their dark complexion and also could be their important events are traditionally happens in the darkness of night. Their main occupations were snake and rat catching besides trading of snake skin and forest products such as honey, beeswax and forest wood. The Irula economy had received a death blow since the government started enacting laws to prevent snake skin trade and to preserve the forest regions. But things seem bright nowadays as number of communal enterprises has come up along with the spread of education among Irulars. Their story is a motivating one filled with struggles against the invasion of modern civilization and reinventing their own way of life.

On the moonlit night of 27th February 2010, around 20,000 Irulars have gathered on the shores of Mahabalipuram beach to celebrate the 24th Maasi Magam Peruvizha, an annual cultural and religious event which starts in the evening and ends at early morning of next day. It was organized by Irular Tribal Women Welfare Society (ITWWS) to bring communal harmony and to showcase their distinctive heritage and culture to the public.

“Half of our six and a half lakh strong community has not been provided with voter identity cards, community certificates and land records. This festival addresses these issues in public while increasing our self dignity and enhancing a feeling of belonging among us. Here everyone is gathered with great hope for a better tomorrow” says K.Selvi, coordinator of ITWWS.

Basically Irulars are Hindus, but the elements of their traditional ethnical religion are still visible in their lives. This festival has a myth behind it too. It is celebrated to welcome back Kanniyaman, Irulars’ God of Nature into their lives as She abandoned them because of their sinful and reckless way of living. After the attainment of Poojas or rituals, they strongly believe that the blessings of the deity will start showering again in their lives.

The event was colourful with folk songs, dance, skits and drama which propagated Irular community’s grievances besides spreading anti-tobacco and alcohol messages; motivating speeches by community leaders and even community marriages and religious rituals. An herbal medicine stall was set up to give out their unique herbal medicines which cures diseases ranging from skin disorders to diabetes.

In the early morning of next day, on the shore Irulars started erecting small shacks made up of neem stems and leaves for rituals and also built up with sand several Seven Steps to invite Kanniyaman back into their lives. “It is our fiesta” says Mani, an Irular. “This kind of events brings togetherness among our community and strengthens our bonds. On top of all, the money saved by conducting community marriages can be diverted to the education of future generation” adds this snake catcher turned mason.

Some of the Irulars who gathered there commented that today their community is taken seriously by government because of the rise in their educational and economic status. “With the help of voluntary organizations and government we are getting educated and learning new skills to make money to survive. We have produced highly qualified professionals to scholars. Mobilization of human resource, spreading awareness of laws and orders related to us and more political involvement among us is few of the solutions for problems surrounding us.” comments Suder Olie Sundaram, president of Scheduled Tribe Irular Federation (STIF)

The celebrations and rituals came to a gentle end when the morning sunshine started slowly sweeping over the shore. They exchanged pleasantries while the elders and priests passed on the blessings they received from their main deity, Kanniyaman. The sea of masses started dispersing as the roaring sea started licking on most of the Pooja items they left on the shore which is considered auspicious among Irulars.

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