CULTURE: The Irular festival not only showcased tribal traditions but also highlighted the community's attempt to retain their culture while integrating with society.

On the moonlit night of February 27, around 20,000 Irulars gathered on the shores of Mahabalipuram beach to celebrate the 24th Maasi Magam Peruvizha, an all-night annual cultural and religious event. Organised by Irular Tribal Women Welfare Society (ITWWS), it was an attempt to showcase their distinctive heritage and culture.

Missing amenities

“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 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 religion are still visible in their lives. This festival welcomes back Kanniyaman, their goddess of nature, into their lives. Legend has it that the goddess abandoned them because of their sinful and reckless way of living. This festival is a way of appeasing her anger and recovering her blessing.

Folk songs, dances, skits and drama talked about the community's grievances besides spreading social messages such as the need to avoid alcohol and tobacco. There was also a stall to showcase their unique traditional herbal medicines.

Early next morning, the Irulars started putting up small shacks made of neem stems and leaves on the beach for rituals and also built seven steps to invite Kanniyamanback into their lives. “It is our fiesta,” says Mani, an Irular. “It increases togetherness and strengthens our bonds. Also, the money saved by conducting community marriages can be diverted to the education of future generations,” adds this snake catcher-turned-mason.

Some of the Irulars gathered there felt their community's increasing literacy levels and economic status has helped them. “With the help of voluntary organisations and the government we are learning new skills to survive. Mobilisation of human resource, spreading awareness of our laws and more political involvement among us are some solutions for our problems,” comments Suder Olie Sundaram, president of Scheduled Tribe Irular Federation (STIF)

The celebrations and rituals came to a gentle end when the morning sunshine slowly swept over the shore. While the youngsters enjoyed themselves, the elders and priests passed on the blessings. The people started dispersing as the roaring sea slowly took away the poojaitems left on the shore, a sign that the Irulars consider auspicious.

Irular Fact File

Irulars are a tribal community who live in southern India, mainly in Kanchipuram, Nilgiris and Villupuram districts of Tamil Nadu. Ethnically they belong to the Negroid race. Their language, Irula, is a mix of Tamil and Kannada.

The name Irular means ‘people of darkness' in Tamil. This could refer to either their dark complexion or the fact that their important events traditionally take place in the darkness of night.

Their main occupations were snake and rat catching besides trading in snake skin and forest product such as in honey, beeswax and forest wood. The Irula economy began to decline after the laws to prevent snake skin trade and preserve forest regions were enacted. But things have improved after the spread of education and alternative livelihood options were made available. Their story is one of struggle against the invasion of modern civilisation and a reinvention of their own way of life.

Justin is a II year P.G. student of Mass Communication at Madras Christian College.