Know Tamilnadu Tribes – Kurumbas of Nilgiris

The Kurumbas, who live in the mid-ranges of the Nilgiris or “blue-mountains”, entertain a confusing and mysterious identity. Several factors add to the popularity of these tribal people. Like the mountain ranges, the word “kurumba” is found in the adjoining states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. The tribes themselves are sometimes called Kuruba” and sometimes confused with other tribes of similar names like Kuruman.

The Kurumbas are generally believed to be the descendants of the Pallavas whose rule was at its grandest in the 7th century. Losing power to the Kongus and the Chalukyas, the Pallavas were finally driven out and dispersed by the Chola king Adondai. They settled in scattered settlements in the Nilgiris and Wynad, in Coorg and Mysore.  It is the Kurumbas of the Nilgiris whom we refer to when we say Kurumba.  The tribe is divided into several groups. In the many ethnographic accounts on the tribe the numbers vary from as few as three to as many as seven. The various groups are the jen (or shola nayakkars”), mullu, urali, beta and alu or palu. The most populous of who are the Alu Kurumbas.

The Alu or Palu Kurumbas, (alu means milk in Kurumba language while pal means milk in Tamil) live in the south and southeastern slopes of Coonoor, Kotagiri and Kundah taluk. Traditionally the Kurumbas played the role of sorcerers and priests not only for their own tribe but also for other Nilgiri tribes like the Badagas and Irulas. So effective were their powers that the Kurumbas were respected and often punished for illnesses and death in other tribes, who believed it, was the spell of the Kurumba that was at work. Several such instances were reported in the 19th  century, when Kurumbas were massacred by other tribes. It is also said that the Kurumbas derive their name from the Tamil word for mischief  kurumbu”. Such a notorious reputation survives even today although the closest they come to sorcery is in their fine knowledge of medicinal plants.

Houses and Food Habits

A typical Alu Kurumba village or motta (or kombhai) is made up of five to six huts scattered on the steep wooded slopes of the Nilgiris. Individual huts stand alone on a flattened piece of land and are home to a nuclear family. Constructed from a bamboo backbone with walls made of criss- crossing bamboo strips and grass, they are often fortified with mud and cowdung and support a tiled roof. A small partition, a metre deep and a metre high, divides the interior space into the kitchen and the living or sleeping room. The kitchen or ittumane (food house) has a narrow one-foot high ledge running the length of a wall. This ledge holds the fireplace and the utensils. Steel vessels have replaced the traditional bamboo vessels and leaves used earlier. The sleeping room or vagamane serves for all other purposes. The houses open to flattened verandahs or thinnamanne that are used for social purposes. Many of the Kurumbas now live in the government settlements that are brick houses with tin roofs.

The Kurumba ancestors gathered honey and cultivated small patches of raagi, saami and other grains for food and survival. The present day Kurumba however earns a living primarily from working in the plantation. Small patches of coffee and raagi are still grown in the villages though. Coffee and tea are popular drinks. Even children as young as five are given black sweetened coffee to drink in the mornings. Jackfruit, another plant growing in abundance in the Nilgiris is also eaten in generous quantity in its raw and cooked form.

With most of the kurumbas working in the plantation, they have to leave home in the morning and return only after five in the evening. This allows them only two meals (ittu) a day. The meals consist of rice (replacing raagi) and a curry. The Kurumbas eat fish, chicken, and goat meat. Chewing tobacco and drinking alcohol, irrespective of gender, are also popular.

Music and Dance

The kurumbas share a common musical culture with other Nilgiri tribes. Bamboo pipes (kolu and  bugir) and mono faced drums (tambatte) and two-faced drums (are) are the popular instruments. Themes are either devotional or associated with death and marriage rituals. In dance there are two kinds: the gandesaattam is performed by the men while the slower version yennattam is performed by the women. However, it is only the men who take part in the theatre or Kuthu. Staged by the firelight or under the moonlight, both the female and the male roles are played by the men alone. Themes are religious and social with a penchant for comedy.

Ornaments and Clothes

The Kurumbas are said to wear silver and bronze jewelry. However, during the fieldtrip to Vellarikombai village we noticed only a minimum of jewelry and that of the plastic bead kind. Married women wear tali, which is very often just a plain yellow thread, the pendant or beads having broken off. Soap is used to wash them where soap nut was once used. The Kurumba women are said to have had a few parallel lines of dot tattooed on their foreheads traditionally. We however did not see anybody with tattoo art on them.

The traditional Kurumba clothing was a piece of cloth wrapped under the arms. The cloth is folded on top giving a padded effect and reaches up to their knees. The men wore a loincloth. Now the men are dressed in trousers and a shirt when they go out of the village, and wear a lungi at home. The women wear a sari and the girls are sometimes dressed in a kameez.

The Political and Social Organisation

A muthali or ejaman administers the village with the help of three assistants; one specialising in agricultural issues, one for marriage issues and one who works as a messenger or spokesman. A village council or urkuttam also takes decisions especially regarding marriage.  After the initial interest shown by the groom’s father, a feast is organized where the girl and boy meet each other. A token of beetle leaves and a sum of Rs.101.25 (traditionally Rs.1.25) is given to the bride’s father to seal the marriage. This fee plays an important role. The husband loses the right to perform the last rights for his wife if he fails to pay this fee during her lifetime.

The Alu Kurumbas are divided into two endogamous groups: the Nagara (black cobra) and the Bellaga (white cobra). These two are further divide into exogamous clans or kulams. Although the kurumbas accept love marriages and marriages outside their tribe, marriages between people of exogamous clans are strictly frowned upon and the couple may be fined or boycotted.

The Kurumbas are patrilineal people with property going to the son. Girls can retain their kula or clan identity after marriage. This allows them to return to their parent’s home after the death of their husband.

The Art

The Kurumba art is an expression of its socio-religious fabric. The art is traditionally practiced by the male members of the temple caretakers, or priest to the Kurumba village. The women of the family contribute to the decorations at home in the form of borders around the door and windows and kolams on the floor. Other Kurumbas are not allowed to practise the art.The canvas for the painting is the outer wall of the temple and the house. The figures representing their gods and the kurumba man expresses Kurumba beliefs and the milestones of the village and the tribe. The artist also draws inspiration from his life. The figures are made up of lines and are minimal in style. Lines, independent and concentric, dot and simple geometric figures are the basic elements. The figures also stand free of any depiction of their natural environment. The defining context is the surface on which they are painted.

Four colours are used traditionally: Red (Semm manna) and white (Bodhi manna) are soils, black is obtained from the bark of a tree (Kari maran) and green from the leaves of a plant (Kaatavarai sedi”). A piece of cloth is used to apply the colors onto the cowdung prepared walls. Nowadays a fresh coat of plaster is given to the wall before painting begins

Posted on March 7, 2012, in Attractions, Editors Corner and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Hi, the above article is interesting. I would like to get further insight to your experience.
    Is there a contact number on which I can reach you ?
    Also, I am looking for tribal villages off Kodaikanal to visit on a field trip.

  2. i would like to some more insighy of this tribe

  3. This was extremely helpful for n many ways
    Keep researching

  4. Wonderful and interesting to know about this tribe. These topics are extremely useful for further research.

  5. Strange you have put a photo of Paniya women to illustrate this article.

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