Introduction / History
The Muthuvan people live on the border hill forests of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. They are found in the Adimali and Devikulam forest regions of Idukki district. The highest concentration of these people is on the Anamudi hills, the highest peak of the Western Gats. There are two different groups among the Muthuvan and they speak slightly two different dialects. Hence they call each other as Malyalam Muthuvan and Pandi Muthuvan. The Malayalam or Nadan Muthuvan are seen in the Adimali areas and the Tamil or Pandi Muthuvan are found in the Munnar and Devikulam areas.
Muthuvan must have migrated from the plains most likely from Madurai. The root word Muthuku means the back of the body. It is said that when they migrated to the hills they carried their children and their belongings on the back. Even today, Muthuvan carry their children on their back.
The Muthuvan make their settlements in the middle of the slopes of hills. These settlements are from 4 km to 25 km far in the forest. You may have to go trekking through the one-foot path in the forest as much as six hours to see some settlements. The Tamil Muthuvan like to live in clusters and the Malayalam Muthuvan are spread out throughout the cultivable land.
The Muthuvan huts are made of reeds and thatched with its leaves. Some house walls are paneled with wooden braches and mud applied on it. The huts have two separations, one for cooking and common uses and the other for sleeping. The forest and the brooks make their toilets or bathrooms. The government has special grant of Rs.30,000 to 40,000 for these people to build houses. But most of them do not make use of it out of lack of vision for improving the living conditions.
Muthuvan have a two time meal. Ragi and rice are their staple food. In addition to ragi rice and tapioca, they also eat meat of birds and lizard. Drinking liquor was not accepted traditionally. They have learned drinking which was encouraged by outsiders. Chewing pan is an accepted habit. Most of these people do not save money for the future.
Muthuvan gather food and forest products available. Honey, natural spices and some wild flowers called pathiri are the commonly available products. After the pongal( a regional seedling festival) celebration and a special worship for the purpose, they go in teams to the interior forest. This will be for days and weeks together during the three months beginning from March.
The Tamil Muthuvan mainly depend on the forest products and cultivate tapioca and few others cereals. The Malayalam Muthuvan cultivate rice, ragi, banana and maze. They also grow cash crops such as ginger, pepper, cardamom, beetle-nuts and lemon-grass. More often the local traders and merchants reap the real benefits of these cultivations. Muthuvan are short-sighted. They live on a daily basis. They either lease out their land or give the crops on tender. Since they do not know how to bargain, they are the losers. In times of emergencies they run to the local merchants who are kind enough to give them advances thereby buying the rights of harvesting. These lenders will wait for the reaping season and estimate the quantity and fix the prices themselves. Sometime these poor farmers still be on the deficit and debt. The government has some measures of giving loans and advances. Since the amounts are limited and the procedures formal, they find the local money lenders handier and easier. The lacks of foresight of these tribals keep them in consistent poverty not allowing them to come up in life.
Transport and Communication
Only jeeps can travel on the hilly, mud and rocky roads. After a few kilometers from the main roads, most of it is a one-foot path. Things and products are carried as head-loads. Mules and donkeys are used in some villages to carry the luggage. Letters and government notifications come to the local shop keepers who disburse it to them. A few of them are literate. According to the 1991 census records, the literacy rate is 20-30%. Intercommunity communication takes faster. For any important matter which applies to the whole community or village, they gather at the sathram, a common meeting hall.
In every village, there is a common place for meetings and festivals. Worships also take around this ground. Sathram is a big hall located near the ground. Visitors and guests can stay here and keep themselves warm around the fireplace in the middle of the hall.
Like any other tribals, Muthuvan too are animists and spirit worshippers. They worship the forest gods, the spirit of their ancestors who are believed to be the first migrants to the hill forests. Now a days, the Hindu gods and goddesses of the plains are also being worshipped, one of the effect of cultural infiltration.
When the dead are buried, the Muthuvan pray to the diseased to protect the living they have left behind. Death on Saturdays is special and chicken is buried along with the dead. Pongal is the main festivals observed by the Muthuvan community.
Medicine and Healthcare
Muthuvan do not generally go to any hospitals. They have traditional medicines which are very effective. The medicines and the medicine men are confidentially preserved and passed on to the generations. They have herbal solutions for every disease and health needs including family planning.
The law and order in the community is handled by a council of elders under the leadership of the Kani, the headman. The elders select the kani. They have various penal codes for breaking their traditions and moral standards.
Schools and Education
For primary education they have a single school with a single hut class room which will house all the students up to 4th classes, handled by a single teacher. The teacher and the students enjoy the freedom of choosing the subjects and hours of study! Students above the 4th grade will be sent to tribal hostels and tribal schools away in the block or district head quarters. But once they come for vacation, majority of them never return to the hostels. The strange lifestyle and schedule at the hostel, being away from the parents and the village, missing all the cultural and social freedom, all these make them quit the hostels and keep them still close to illiteracy. Like any other people they too feel comfortable to speak their own language and dialect, the 'enavan pech' (Our own speech).
That is why it is important that someone goes to them and teach them write and read their own language. Literacy and education can change their lives and the powers of exploitation and bondage. It can help them think of lives beyond just a day. Knowledge can broaden their minds to the future and start thinking of a life of tomorrow. Wisdom can open their hearts to think of lives beyond the hills and the nature.
* Scripture Prayers for the Muthuvan in India.