On first sight, says Lakshmanan, he was appalled at their condition. “They had nothing. The education and health conditions of the people were very bad. They had no community certificates,” he says. Lakshmanan left with a heavy heart, only to come back again and again.

He accompanied members of the Tamil Nadu Pazhankudi Makkal Sangam, a movement that worked for the welfare of tribal people, when they visited the tribal settlements. Once, with some senior members of the movement, Lakshmanan spent three days walking all the way from Thondamuthur near Coimbatore to settlements across the Western Ghats, studying the Irulas and the problems they faced.

He gradually picked up the Irula language, the key to gaining their acceptance. “Unless you speak their dialect, you're an outsider,” he says. He witnessed their rituals, listened as they sang with the wind, saw them dance by the fire at night. He saw the sufferings they endured at the hands of powerful men from the plains. The poet in him took it all in, and he wrote verses when he came back home.

In February 2010, an anthology of these poems titled Odiyan, meaning evil spirit, was published by Manimozhi Pathippagam. The book recently won an award instituted by New Century Book House and Tamil Nadu Kalai Ilakkiya Perumandram in Ettayapuram. Despite being lauded by Tamil readers, Odiyan is in fact not entirely a work in Tamil. It is written in the Irula language, a language, according to Lakshmanan, with no script.

While there are Tamil explanatory notes with each poem, a few poems into the book, one can actually understand them without the annotations. Many Tamil words have permeated the language. Lakshmanan finds this distressing. The influence of other languages has left the Irula tongue diluted and many traditional Irula words are not known to the present generation of Irulas, he laments.

If an Irula maintained a journal to scribble his thoughts in when he was alone, it would probably take the shape of the poems in the anthology. His cry for attention, his mockery of the plains people who have brought him more bad than good, his take on the education his children receive, an Irula woman's bewilderment at the rituals widows are subject to in the plains… every verse in the book reflects the musings of an Irula.

The book, explains Lakshmanan, is the first in the Irular Desam series. “I have plans of writing two more books on their songs, stories, riddles and rituals in prose,” he says. For this, Lakshmanan will work with a team of two Irula men and a woman. He has also made a documentary film about the evolution of the Irulas with advocate R. Murugavel and writer C. Balamurugan. “We are yet to edit the footage spanning 18 hours,” says Lakshmanan. For the documentary, the team travelled in motorbikes across the Western Ghats for 15 days, stopping at tribal settlements and interviewing people and shooting with a hand-held camera.

Lakshmanan is also making an album of 15 Irula songs, which he hopes to release by next year. “The album will have songs sung by Irulas to the accompaniment of their traditional instruments,” he explains. “It's an effort to document the fine arts for the future generation of Irulas. Today, only about 30 Irulas from across the 200 settlements near Attapadi can play instruments such as the ‘peke',” he says.

Lakshmanan believes that without the tribals there would be no forests. He says of the Irulas, “They are pure at heart. They wear no masks. They speak their mind. You know, they call the elephant ‘Raja', and refer to it as ‘avar'. For them, God, the bear, the tiger, the elephant, the forest…are all the same.”

The Irula way of life

A typical day for an Irula begins at 10 a.m. They head to their agricultural fields to work or the woods to gather honey, tamarind and wild berries. They will be back at about 5 p.m. It's then that they cook their raagi puttu and greens for dinner. The Irula society is matriarchal. Even during a casual stride across the hills, it's the wife who leads her husband. Once in a year, the village gathers to pay homage to the dead. Called “kanji seeru,” the ritual happens during the night. People feast on a salt less horse-gram dish and dance into the night. Irulas are extremely polite, with a keen sense of observation and a good memory. They are superstitious. A snake crossing one's path or the call of the saguna kuruvi, for instance, are considered bad omens.