“Paliyars, the aboriginal tribes, live in the clad of western ghat falling in the districts of Madurai, Theni, Dindugul, Tiruppur, Virudhunagar,and Tirunelveli.” (paliyartribal). They believe in peaceful coexistence with nature and hence lead a simple life dependent to a large extent, even today, on the forests. The forest produce forms an important part both for their domestic consumption and their economic survival. One such forest produce is the ‘Honey’.
Adivasi Awaaz creator Ramrajan, belonging to the Paliyar tribe discusses the traditional occupation of honey extraction by the Paliyars, in the following article
Honey is a sweet semi fluid substance produced by bees, mainly the honey bees. It is one of our favourite food items. While honey is a much loved food item all over the world, rarely do people take the time to think about its extraction. The final product is easily available in stores. In most cases the final product sold in the market is not in the original extracted form. It is usually adulterated. Honey has been one of our traditional food items and honey extraction has been one of our traditional occupations. For generations, the Paliyars have been involved in the practice of extracting honey from forests both for domestic and commercial consumption. The Paliyars have historically survived on honey and other forest produce, before being introduced to modern food items.
Honey extraction not only demands an immense amount of hard work but also involves certain risks. The Paliyars, especially those dwelling in, and near the forests live in poor socio-economic and political conditions. While they practice honey extraction as their traditional work, they are also aware of the fact that not many means are available to them to earn a living. Hence, honey extraction is an important aspect of the community. The forests are worshipped and protection is sought, before the Paliyars enter into it for extracting honey.
Types of honey:
மலைத்தேன் ,அதாவது பெருந்தேன் (Mountain honey or large honey)
# அடுக்குத் தேன் (Layer honey)
# கொசுந்தேன் (Mosquitoes Honey), there are many types of honey.
Mountain or Large honey:
Mountain honey is found only in dense forests with large trees. Each tree usually carries five or six honeycombs. It is extracted during the summer months of Vaikasi, Chithirai, and Ani.
During these months when the sunlight is abundant and bees are flying in the forests for food, the Paliyars enter into the forests and track these bees. They follow the direction in which the bees are going and finally reach the trees where they dwell.
After locating the honeycombs, the Paliyars, usually in groups of four or five, begin the process of collecting honey. They climb these large trees for honey extraction. After the honey is collected, some members of the tribe return home, while others stay in the forests. Their stay can be of two days or for a week. During this time they collect more honey to sell it commercially. The first collection of honey in the Paliyar tribe is used solely for domestic consumption. That is why some members return to the village on the same day, while a few stay back.
How is the Mountain Honey collected?
After the hives have been located, the Paliyars place large logs under the hives and light it on fire. The smoke from this fire causes the bees to fly away from their hives. A member of the group immediately climbs the tree and reaches near the hive. A sickle is used to slash away these hives from the branches of the tree.
Prior to lighting a fire and climbing trees, vines from the forests are chopped to create ropes and tie earthen pots to them for collecting honey from the hives. The person climbing the tree leans near the honeycomb and after slashing the hives, collects the combs in the earthen pots that are tied to vines. He then lowers these vines slowly to the people standing under the trees.
What are the risks involved in the process of extracting Mountain Honey?
While the process of extracting honey might seem simple, it has its own risks. Foremost among them, is the sting of these giant bees which can be fatal. The venom in the sting released by more than 5-6 bees into a person can also lead to death of that person. Secondly, climbing these large trees is not an easy task and on top of that the climber has to lean towards the hives for slashing and collecting combs. The hives are usually found on heights in these large trees. A small mistake and the fall from those heights can be fatal for the climber.
There are no safety nets, ropes, etc., involved in the process of extracting honey. The Paliyars try to cover their bodies with temporary masks, plastic shields etc., in order to avoid the sting of the bees. However, these are not very efficient techniques. The risks are definitely minimised but the Paliyars still are at the risk of being stung by bees.
The layered honey is more common and can be found in stone pits, tree pits, and soil pits. These layered bees are slightly smaller than the mountain honeybees. Hence, one does not need to put a large amount of fire smoke to extract this layer of honey.
How is Layered Honey collected?
A small fireball is made at the end of a stick, with old clothes, cotton and oil, to chase the bees away. A few Paliyars have also used the smoke from cigarettes and ‘bidis’ to chase away the bees. However, in such cases the smoke has to be held in close proximity to the comb so that it enters into it and causes the bees to fly.
Once the smoke has caused most bees to leave their combs, the honeycombs are slashed with sickle. These slashed honeycombs are collected in an earthen pot. As these hives are found within the reach of people, it is not very difficult to locate and extract honey from them. While the collection of layered honey is not as perilous as collecting mountain honey, it is still risky.
What are the risks involved in the process of extracting Layered Honey?
While the risk of falling from large trees is eliminated in the collection of layered honey, it still is risky due to the sting of the bees. The bees are neither as big nor is their sting as strong as the mountain honeybees. Still, if multiple bees sting a person, it can lead to fever, swelling and pain.
Notwithstanding the risks involved in honey collection, the Paliyars have been extracting honey for decades. Not only is this honey used for domestic consumption and commercial use, it is also used in multiple indigenous medicines. Hence, honey is an important item in the cultural life of the Paliyar tribe. It is not just limited to their food culture, but also finds a place in medicinal use. It also sustains them economically. Although, the price received by the Paliyars for collecting and selling honey is not enough or fair. The final products sold in the markets after adulteration are highly priced, but the people putting in the labour and hard work, the people struggling to make their ends meet and the people risking their lives for this occupation do not receive a fair compensation. It is interesting to note that the people involved in vulnerable and high risk occupations, usually belong to indigenous societies or to societies at the lower strata. While on the one hand, traditional occupations such as extracting honey should be preserved and appreciated, the government should take steps to protect and lower the risks for people involved in this occupation.
This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.