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Displaced From Their Land, These Tubers Fed The Paliyar Tribe When Food Was Scarce

Translated from Tamil by Nisha Felicita

My ancestors and the generations of the Paliyar tribe after them have been living in the Palani Hills for centuries, and are the rightful owners of that land. My great grandparents and grandparents were self-sufficient and cultivated their own food in these hills, without being dependent on anyone else. The people of the Paliyar tribe in the earlier days used to wander through the hills and forests, looking for an appropriate place to settle down. This place would have access to clean water, where they cultivated crops such as maize, pearl millet, ragi, and millets. The Paliyars have always lived in peace and harmony in and with the forest. However, forest officers often chased them away from their own homes with sticks and stones. Lack of access to their food and water caused severe food scarcity. During these time periods, when they didn’t have access to their cultivated crops, tubers became their staple food. To dig for tubers, either the husband and wife or the whole family or larger groups of family and relatives together go into the jungle. Before they did this, the Paliyars followed certain rituals and traditions. Before going to the jungle, they:

  • Didn’t look into a mirror.

  • Didn’t wear slippers or comb their hair.

  • Were careful not to step on cow dung.

  • Tried not to make any sound while digging for the tubers

Most of these have been passed down from generation to generation and are followed even today. The Paliyars would dig for tubers only in the designated months of Thai (mid-January to mid-February) and Masi (mid-February to mid-March). These are the seasons when the tubers are ripe for consumption and taste sweet. In time periods other than these two, the tubers will still be raw, won’t taste good and wouldn’t have fully grown. Therefore, these two months were designated for harvesting and digging tubers. There are two types of tubers and they are classified as mullu valli kelangu (dry-fleshed) and vethalai/betel valli kelangu (moist-fleshed).

Mullu Valli Kelangu (Dry-fleshed, Diascorea pentaphylla) This variety of tubers have thorns along their branches and stems, and they grow from the ground-up. The branches of this plant will grow on other plants and spread themselves over nearby trees. When the tubers are fully grown, all the leaves appear yellow. Another way the Paliyars knew if it’s the right time to dig up tubers is when the plants visibly bore fruits on the branches. They also are of the opinion that these tubers don’t taste good when roasted, therefore they dug up the tubers and took them home, boiled them in a pot of water and then consumed them. Some tribals also carried the pot to the forest and boiled the tubers there and ate them there itself.

Vethalai/Betel Valli Kelangu (Moist-fleshed, Diascorea alata) The leaves of this variety of tuber look like betel leaves. The name Vethalai (betel) Valli Kelangu comes from the word betel itself. The branches of these plants, just like the mullu valli kelangu plants, spread across the plants nearby and trees. During the Masi month (mid-February to mid-March) when the tubers are fully grown, the leaves appear ripe. The fruits from this plant will appear yellow and ripe, an indication to the Paliyars that the tubers are ready to be dugout. Sometimes, they consumed these tubers by starting a small fire in the forest itself. When our ancestors used to head out in groups to dig out these tubers, sometimes not everyone would find a tuber to eat. In such a situation, people who dug up a tuber would share with the others who couldn’t, to help appease their hunger. This is how the Paliyars would share their food with those who didn’t have any and live happily, peacefully, unitedly and in tune with nature. There are many lessons to be learned from the stories that I hear about my community. A sustainable, self-sufficient and a life full of collective unity was the hallmark of my tribe and we try our best to continue to imbibe these values and carry on the traditions and culture of our ancestors even today.

This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.

This article was first published in Youth Ki Awaaz


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