Irula - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Irula are pantheists who make provision for the presence of spirits in humans and objects. In addition, a recurrent theme in their religious belief is the significance of the male and female principles as symbols of the ongoing creative process. It is rare for an Indian tribal people to be Vaishnavites, but the Irula, like the Beda of Karnataka, are ostensibly worshipers of Vishnu. They have thus gained fame for their temple dedicated to Ranga (also known as Vishnu) on the top of Rangaswami Betta. This is a peak that crowns the eastern Nilgiri slopes and that can be seen from many Irula hamlets and villages. In addition, the Irula seem to have a propensity for the worship of the god Muneshwar and the goddess Mari, both of whom are considered to be Hindu deities. Curiously, however, the Irula of Kallampalayam store their gilt image of Mari and the accompanying ritual paraphernalia in a rock shelter close by. They do this because they believe that the objects are too sacred to store in any structure made by humans. This practice perhaps may be prompted by a need to make Mari a part of the universal spirit that is everywhere. By dint of the accompanying bloody sacrifice, Mari is also related to earth and the fertility of plants springing from it. As Mari is the common goddess of smallpox in Tamil Nadu, the Irula have also worshiped her in that capacity. Like their Hindu neighbors, the Irula now watch nighttime performances of excerpts from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana acted into the early hours of the morning. There are benign and protective ancestral patrician spirits and family ancestral spirits that may be petitioned for assistance; such a petition is called a toga. There are also roaming evil spirits ( pe ), and it is possible for one to possess a human. A virgin female demon ( kannipe ) must be treated with great care by any priest, and near Garkiyur there is a temple into which an Irula priest entices a kannipe for a month's stay (October to November) each year. She is enticed to come with a welcome song on one day, vegetarian food offering on another, and the sacrificial offering of meat from a sambar (an Asian deer) that must be hunted down on the third day. Because the Irula visit the temples of their Hindu neighbors, go on pilgrimages to Sabarimala in Kerala, and worship deities in the same manner as the Hindus, there is clear evidence that the Irula participate in polytheistic Hinduism.

Religious Practitioners. The Kalkatti (stone-offering) patrician traditionally supplies priests, and the priests who serve on Rangaswami Betta come from a family that resides in Kallampalayam. The fact that a tribal Irula serves as priest to Ranga, which is a seeming departure from orthodoxy, is legitimized by a folktale in which an officiating Iyengar Brahman priest is convinced that an Irula should serve instead. The deity images and the ritual paraphernalia used in the recently constructed temple on Rangaswami Betta reveal a mixture of Shaivite and Vaishnavite imagery and symbolism. It thus seems probable that the officiating Irula priest is simultaneously and dualistically catering to Ranga and Krishna worship for Hindus and male principle worship for Irulas. The lowland Ranga temple at Karamadai offers interesting comparisons. In a folktale somewhat similar to one told about a stone associated with Ranga at Rangaswami Betta, a cow drops her milk on a stone in an anthill. When the cowherd discovers what is happening, he in a rage strikes the stone with a knife. He is amazed when blood comes from the stone. In a dream shortly thereafter, the god Ranga appears and asks to be worshiped with the stone as an image at the same place. The stone, a linga, became the centerpiece of worship in the temple that was eventually built on the site. But one of the most fascinating aspects of this temple is a belief that officiating Irula priests there were eventually replaced, ironically, by Iyengar Brahman priests.

Ceremonies. In January the Mattu Pongal festival (one of the main Hindu festivals held in Tamil Nadu), paying special homage to cows, is generally observed by the Irula. They also attend the annual festival at Karamadai, near Coimbatore, which takes place in the Tamil month of Masi (March-April) . The annual one-week festival honoring Mari at Kallampalaiyam, with chicken, goat, and sheep sacrifices, climaxes on the full moon day of the Tamil month of Adi, on or close to 15 August. An Irula priest, wearing the "thread of the twice-born" (a loop of sacred thread hung over the right shoulder), officiates on the top of Rangaswami Betta on every Saturday for two months starting in mid-August. Shortly before the start of this period, the image of Ranga is carried between the Irula settlements and is the focus of worship at each nighttime halting place.

Arts. Irula women are tattooed and enjoy wearing jewelry, including earrings, nose rings and toe rings. Although the Irula do some doodlings on the walls of their houses, for example, there is a lack of any formal decorative art among them. They do however have a distinctive dance form called arakkole atam.

Medicine. Irula hamlets have a few members with an intricate knowledge of the medicinal values of plant species, so lowlanders in particular seek the counsel of Irula herbalists. Irula living near the Marudamalai temple, near Coimbatore, sell herbal cures to visiting Hindu pilgrims. A hospital founded by the late Dr. S. Narasimhan (who also founded the Adivasi Welfare Association) at Karikkiyur, the nearby dispensary at Kunjappanai, and a field hospital at Arayur on the Nilgiri massif have played a significant role in meeting the medical needs of the Irula. The Irula are also increasingly taking advantage of the widespread medical facilities provided by the government, including a mobile medical unit (first associated with the famous Toda nurse Evam Piljain). There is a dispensary with a midwife at Thengumarahada.

Death and Afterlife. When a death occurs, the relatives are informed by a Kurumba. Upon arriving at the place of the deceased, the heads of males are shaved by the jatti. Both males and females dance to music and about the cot upon which the deceased rests. After all those who should attend have arrived, the corpse is carried to the burial ground. Members of the deceased's brother-in-law's patrician bear the prime responsibility for digging the grave, but the Kurumba present also assists. When all is ready, the body is placed in the grave so that it faces toward the north. The local Inula priest (pujari) then gazes at a lamp and goes into a trance. A member of the bereaved family asks him if the death was natural or the result of sorcery. If natural, the grave is filled in right away. If sorcery was the cause of death, elaborate ritual used to be performed; today, however, the priest says a simple and hasty prayer to ease any torment of the spirit and to enable it to depart peaceably. All the mourners then leave. A highlight in the ending of the seven days of ritual pollution among the close relatives of the deceased is the distribution of new clothing by the Kurumba to these relatives. As soon as possible after the funeral, preferably within a month, a stone (often waterworn and from a stream bed, but sometimes sculpted by non-Irulas) is placed in the ancestral temple to give the deceased a place to stay. Because of the belief that, without a stone, the spirit of the deceased wanders around and may become troublesome if it does so for too long, the time issue is understandable. After pouring a little oil on the stone as part of a prayer ritual and leaving food and drink for the spirit of the departed, the relatives leave. Once a year, all those who had a relative who died within the year participate in a final ceremony. Each family purchases a new cloth and rice gruel is prepared. At the nearby river or stream, the gruel is poured over the cloths, which are then set adrift. In addition to honoring the spirits of those who died within the year, the Irula thereby honor all the ancestral spirits of the related patricians. After group feasting, dancing continues into the night.

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