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'Kallikai', The Treasure Left Behind By Ancestors Of The Paliyar Tribe

'Kallikai', commonly known as Cactus, is a popular food item and a medicinal plant in the Paliyar households. Adivasi Awaaz creator, Murugeshwari, writes about this much valued plant in the Paliyar community.


The Paliyar tribe is traditionally known as a nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribe, although in the recent decades they have taken to agricultural practices and settlements. They originally belong to the south western Ghats covering Kerala and Tamil Nadu. They still reside mostly in the forest regions. Usually, when we talk about Kallikai, the first thing that comes in the minds of people is that it is poisonous. But that is not true for all varieties of Kallikai. Some of them are non-toxic. One such variety is used by the Paliyars both for consumption and for its medicinal properties. This variety is usually found in rocky terrains. The Paliyars claim that this Kallikai is a treasure left by their ancestors.

'Kallikai', popularly known as Cactus, consumed by the Paliyar tribe; Source: Murugeshwari

Vellaiyammal, a member of the Paliyar tribe, in conversation with me referred to some of the medicinal properties of the above mentioned Kallikai. It is good for blood sugar, has many nutrients, is rich in protein, vitamin C and calcium, helps in reducing cholesterol and is good for the immune system. Hence, it is used by the elders in the Paliyar tribe to regulate their blood sugar and aid their immune systems, while the young consume it to obtain proteins and vitamins. Kallikai is mostly consumed by the Paliyars who reside in the mountain regions of Kodaikanal, due to its availability. It is found deep inside dense forests in hilly and rocky regions.


When and How Is Kallikai Gathered?


The Paliyars do not consume Kallikai, all year round. They have specific months for its consumption. It is found abundantly during the months of Panguni (Usually March-April), Chitrai (Usually April-May) and Vaikasi (Usually May-June), according to the Tamil calendar. Hence, it is picked and gathered during these months.


The Paliyars, even today depend on the forests for their survival. They are still engaged in their traditional occupation of collecting and selling forest honey. Hence, entering into the forests to collect its produce is not alien to them. Usually, when men go to gather honey, they also keep a look out for Kallikai . Else picking Kallikai is also done separately by the Paliyars. Women, during their menstruation are not allowed to pick or collect Kallikai as the Paliyars believe in the purity of Kallikai and also offer it to the gods. This is one example of tribal life not being free from patriarchal practices, contrary to the popular view. One can find lots of Kallikai offered to forest deities in temples such as Palichiamman, Perumboothanachi, Mandutheivam, Kallathunachi etc.


Elders of the Paliyar tribe, discussing about the benefits of Kallikai; Source: Murugeshwari

What Happens Once The Kallikai Is Collected?


According to Marimuthu's grandfather, "Once we get Kallikai from the forests, the first and foremost thing is to clean it with water. After that, the skin is removed."


The pulp of the Kallikai thereafter, is boiled and a small amount of salt is sprinkled on it. Its taste at this juncture is bitter.


It is then boiled further and later the water is drained.


Separately, a pan is taken to heat some sesame oil, mustard seeds, onions, wild tomatoes and chillies. Other ingredients can be added as well according to the requirements in taste like Karri Patta, black pepper, etc.


Thereafter, the boiled Kallikai is added to the above prepared mixture and cooked. Some salt too is added to it.


Kallikai, is now ready to be eaten.


Often, Kallikai is prepared with turkey, berries and bamboo shoots. The process is simple. While cooking the Kallikai in oil with onions, chillies, mustard seeds etc., turkey, berries and bamboo shoots are also added and cooked.


Kallikai being offered to forest deities; Source: Murugeshwari

According to the Paliyars, Kallikai, is rich in iron content and its consumption once a year keeps them free from several illnesses. They claim that it is specially beneficial for pregnant women and new mothers, due to its high iron content. While the globalized world has moved to food items that are readily available in a short time, the Paliyars have stuck to their traditional diet, involving many plants, herbs and forest produce, that is very different to the food culture we are accustomed to, presently. Not only are these food items interesting to consume but also have several health benefits. The Paliyars believe that everything provided by the forests and the earth have medicinal properties in them and hence are an important part of their food culture and way of life.


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

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