Irula - History and Cultural Relations

Many of the lowland Nilgiri Irula live near impressive megalithic sites, so the question of whether they could possibly be descendants of inhabitants living in ancient times naturally arises. Particularly among the hoe-using Irula of the Nilgiri slopes, there are farming practices that may represent neolithic survivals. Our earliest description of the Nilgiri Irula in English, by Francis Buchanan who visited them in 1800, briefly provides an overview of how the Irula then survived. The descendants of these Irula ultimately were to be affected profoundly by the spread of plantation agriculture (mainly tea and coffee) by the British. Many lowland Irula, having more frequent contacts with urban centers, probably have long been a part of the lowland cultural continuum and changing civilization. The Irula are best understood as being primarily either lowlanders with many lowland ties or Uplanders with both upland and lowland ties. The lowlanders, users of the plow and even cultivators of wet rice, often live with the members of other castes involved in similar agricultural pursuits. Because the upland Irula formerly lived on the forested outer slopes of the Nilgiris, they did not develop ties as close as those that existed between the upland Badaga, Kota, and Toda. However, they often lived with or close to the Kurumba (powerful magicians and doctors, in both the Alu and Palu groups), and they still do. After plantations spread over formerly forested outer slopes, most of the upland Irula became plantation laborers with ties to a plantation infrastructure. Many uplanders thus came to lead a dual existence: plantation laborers by day and Irula hamlet dwellers by night. Today, an efficient bus service enables lowlanders to travel more easily to lowland urban centers. While some uplanders may occasionally walk the long distances down and up that are necessary to visit lowland urban centers, it is generally far easier for an uplander to travel to a nearby upland urban center. Yet kinship and ritual ties still keep the upland and lowland Irula in close contact with each other.

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