C. Maheswaran, who has worked for years with tribals, explains why it is important that they preserve their way of life

Mention tribals and C. Maheswaran’s face lights up. Not just because he is the director of the Tribal Research Centre, Ooty, but also because he admires their way of life, their traditions and customs.

“How much they communicate without speaking! Their culture is gender sensitive; everyone has equal rights. And most importantly, because of limited contact with the outside world, their innocence is intact,” he says.

And to think Maheswaran’s tryst with tribals began as a game of academic one-upmanship in college! While pursuing his masters in linguistics at Annamalai University, he and another classmate were vying for the top honours. That was when his guide, Dr. G. Srinivasa Varma, suggested he do something different. So he opted for field work, observing and documenting the Pachaimalai Malayalis in Thurayur block near Tiruchi. That marked the beginning of an enduring bond with the people of the forest.

“When I did my PhD in linguistic anthropology, the relationship was sealed forever. The linguist in me was amazed at their dialect that has survived time. Their Tamil has snatches of Sangam Tamil. For instance, a perennial waterfall is called paazhi in Sangam Tamil. They call it paali,” points out Maheswaran, who hails from Chidambaram.

He also decoded the Kui language, spoken by the Kui-Kandha tribe of Odisha. “It was thought to belong to the Central Dravidian group of languages, but I found that their dialect followed the old Tamil structure, with influences of Odia. The core was Tamil.”

A memorable meal

Maheswaran has fond memories of his work with tribals. In the early 1990s, he was part of a team documenting the Anamalai Kadars. The tribe has a bamboo-oriented culture — from utensils to hunting equipment, everything is made of oda moongil. “From morning to evening, the tribes people silently watched us as we went about our work. Finally, one of them gathered the courage and asked us why we were there. We explained our work and also told him we wanted to know the tribe’s food habits. That evening we were invited to join the Kadars by their campfire. It was a memorable meal. Wild tubers, honey and cereals were mixed and stuffed inside bamboo and cooked over fire. When the bamboo was burnt and ready to split, they opened it and served us the most amazing cakes! Tribals can go from strangers to friends in minutes,” he recalls.

Maheswaran is also involved in inclusion studies. He studies communities that claim tribal status and checks them based on various parameters. Sometimes, these meetings turn out to be poignant reminders of the harsh reality tribals face.

“Recently, we were verifying the claims of the Pulayan tribe in Kodaikanal. They had been delisted in 1972 and given Scheduled Castes status. After the field trip, a tribal lady came up and asked me if I felt they were tribes or not. When I said yes, the lady shot back: ‘How come some educated people came by many years ago and struck us off the list?’ I had no answer.”

Maheswaran is also known for his excavations in the Kongu belt as and for his research on the tribal mask-making tradition. “Tribals use the mask as a tool to transform themselves into someone else when they don the role of a medium. It’s a lovely tradition that thrives across the country.”

Besides research, the scholar also delivers lectures on tribal culture to students, primarily in cities. This, he says, is his attempt to bust the myths surrounding tribals. “In cities, they think that tribals degrade the forest and strip it of vegetation. In reality, they are examples of sustainable living. They take only as much as they need,” he says.

Maheswaran looks forward to the day when tribals are provided enough resources to allow them to continue their life in the hills and plains and pursue a culture as old as time. “A life full of dignity, the way Jawaharlal Nehru wanted. He said we must ‘leave them alone’, a phrase misunderstood by many to mean isolated.”

Maheswaran narrates another incident. “I visited the home of a tribal youth during my research on Kui. His mother was so impressed that someone from the outside world had made the attempt to learn their language that she went inside, removed the silver waistband she was wearing, and placed it in my hand. I still cherish it. That, for me, represents the tribal way of life.”

The Nilgiris holds special fascination for Maheswaran as all the six particularly vulnerable tribal groups in Tamil Nadu — Toda, Kota, Kurumba, Irula, Paniya and Kadunaickaya — are found here. He has studied 14 tribal groups in the State

He has identified several prehistoric sites and a number of hero-stones belonging to the medieval period in Coimbatore, Nilgiris, Erode and Dindigul districts

He has published 15 books and many research papers on tribals.

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