ETHNONYMS: Alu-Kurumbas, Betta-Kurumbas, Jenu-Kurumbas, Kurubas, Mudugas, Mulla-Kurumbas, Palu-Kurumbas, Urali-Kurumbas
People identified as Kurumbas have been reported across a wide area in south India. Major settlements, however, are found in the Nilgiri area located between 11° 10′ and 11°30′ N and between 76°25′ and 77°00′ E, at the junction of the Eastern Ghats and the Western Ghats. There the Kurumbas occupy the thickly forested slopes, glens, and foothills of the Nilgiri Plateau. The Nilgiri groups are seven in number: the Alu-(milk), Palu-(milk), Betta-(hill), Jenu-(honey), Mulla- (net), and Urali-(village) Kurumbas, as well as the Mudugas (no etymology). Each is a distinct ethnic group differing from the others in dialect, religious beliefs, and other cultural attributes. The 1971 Indian census counted 12,930 Kurumbas. In 1981 the Nilgiri District census reported 4,874 Kurumbas, most of whom are Muduga. Together the Kurumba groups compose the smallest proportion of the Plateau population there, and the poorest.
Of the four tribes that occupy the Nilgiri Plateau, legend says that the Toda, Kurumba, and Kota tribes were brought into being simultaneously by a parent creator. There were three brothers who either transgressed against the parents or quarreled among themselves. As a result their father, a supernatural, assigned to each a different function in life and ordained that the three would exchange goods and services. The descendants of these three brothers became the three tribes and thus the three peoples have been bound in a Common fate since the beginning of time.
Traditionally the Kurumbas have subsisted as hunters and gatherers. Living in jungles on the steep edges of the Plateau, they practice shifting cultivation and the foraging and trapping of small birds and animals. Early settlements were usually isolated, with Kurumbas living in caves or rock shelters, in dwellings near forest clearings, or in houses or huts in small hamlets interspersed with garden patches. Bananas, mangoes, jackfruit, maize, and chilies were the usual garden produce. Today, with increasing population and deforestation, the Kurumbas have been forced to lower elevations of the plateau and subsist primarily by working on tea or coffee plantations.
Historically the Kurumbas have had a cooperative relationship with the other tribes that includes the exchange of goods and services. Kurumbas supply the tall poles used in Toda funeral rites, three types of baskets used by the Badagas, and often music for Badaga and Toda festivals. However, the activity for which the Kurumbas are best known has been the provision of sorcery. Traditionally each Badaga commune appointed a specific Kurumba man to act as guardian and watchman to certain constituent villages. This was a lifelong appointment that passed from father to son. In addition to guarding, the watchman took part in the sowing and harvest festivals as an adjunct priest ( kani-kuruma ). A number of other magical roles are played today by the Kurumbas. In the diviner ( kanigara ), exorcist ( devvagara ), and sorcerer ( odigara or odia ) roles a Kurumba, with the help of herbs, spells, and roots, can bring sickness or death to the enemy. The therapist ( maddugara ) functions as a medicine man and curer. As a wizard ( pilligara ) the Kurumba may turn himself into an animal. As a result of their knowledge of sorcery, the Kurumbas were feared; the other tribes frequently banded together against them. A number of massacres of Kurumbas were Reported throughout the 1800s. These massacres were in retaliation for supposed deeds of sorcery inflicted on particular Individuals or communities. Kurumba watchmen, however, no longer patrol the village fields, and the other tribes no longer fear the Kurumba as in the past. Their tradition for sorcery remains but personal fear is now little felt by neighboring tribespeople.
Today the question arise as to whether the Kurumbas are descended from ancient Nilgiri ancestors who were primarily gatherers or from far more recent farming immigrants. Their language belongs to the South Dravidian Subfamily. In general the groups have a clan organization that is exogamous and patrilineal. The tribes practice endogamy. Cross-cousin marriages frequently occur. Traditionally there are a number of offices within the tribe including the village headman ( maniagara ) and priest ( mannugara ). The headman and assistant headman's offices are hereditary in the male line, while either a male or a female may be a priest or sorcerer. Traditional religious beliefs involve an ancestor cult with an emphasis on pollution and purity, which parallels other such beliefs upheld in Hinduism generally. Today young people are embracing both Hinduism and Christianity in addition to the traditional beliefs.
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SARA J. DICK