Water and livelihoods in the Nilgiris – Part II

Women of the Toda tribe Source: Google
Women of the Toda tribe Source: Google

The upstream district of the Nilgiris is the source for many major rivers of the southern peninsula. Once home to the colonial administration, much of the region’s landscape has been shaped by the development priorities of the colonial State. Some of the legacies have been a network of hill roads, the heritage site of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and most markedly, vast tracts of eucalyptus and wattle interspersed with tea and coffee. These land use changes also paved the way for the exploitation of the Nilgiri waters for the generation of hydroelectric power.


Lesser known and written about is the fact that the district is home to several indigenous people whose livelihood interactions with water have been shaped by the water flows. These people, in turn, have shaped this landscape. In this post, we continue the earlier post based on Hill Water and Livelihoods : A report on Nilgiris Water Resources by the Keystone Foundation. We feature from the report some interesting observations and cultural practices around water.


Badagas and water


The Badagas are the largest indigenous community of the Nilgiris. Their  settlements, mainly on hill tops, depended entirely on upper spring sources close to Shola forests and grasslands. This water is considered to be pure and the water sources are protected and worshiped once a year in a ritual called the Halla Paruva (Water Worship). In the Halla Paruva, an offering of milk is poured into the water source and the first crop of millet is cooked with water from the source and served as paruva (ritual meal). This ritual is done prior to the North Eastern monsoon to receive abundant rainfall during the season.



View Indigenous People in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve in a larger map

In most Badaga villages, one finds that an underground source or Huttu (emerging) neeru (water) has been protected for drinking water. This is a sacred place - out of bounds for outsiders, thereby reducing the risk for external contamination. Bothayya, an elder and headman from Ajjur village is also the Poojari (priest) of a temple. According to him, the location of the settlement was determined subsequent to locating a spring source emerging out from sembare kal - a type of red soil. The sighting of this stone in the ground is the signature of Huttu neeru or emerging spring. He says that to invoke the rains, a special pooja is conducted in the month of May, which is done by looking at all the four directions and the clouds. During this period, there is also another interesting water ritual - connecting the cows (buffaloes in the olden days) and water. This is called uppuattu habba, in which the cattle are given salt water in uppukal or salt stones. According to him the ritual of Halla paruva and the salt ceremony are part of the whole rhythm of life cycle.


The Badagas are a predominantly agricultural community and the location of agricultural fields reflect the social stratification. The Badagas have mostly better access and facilities to water than the Thoraiya Badagas (a sub group). For agricultural purposes, water is first utilized by the Badagas and then made available to the Thoraiya Badagas. Communities of Thoraiya Badagas and Sri Lankan repatriates are located in relatively lower elevations. Their water source is from the valley, which is also the water source used by Badagas for their agriculture. With changes in and non-availability of sufficient water from upper spring sources, Badagas have also had to depend on lower valley sources for their drinking water.


In the Badaga village of Alakare, where the water is still known for its delicious taste, some of the earlier customs are in evidence. Water at Alakare emerges from an underground spring or Baavi, close to a Shola. A beautiful temple marks the water source. In the past, families used to maintain water channels from the origin to the settlement by removing blockages and desilting. This community effort led to everyone taking responsibility for the water system.


Today, this practice has been discontinued with the Government bringing in piped water and the water channels having become State-owned property. The management is different, with few salaried people doing all the work. The government water supply is often insufficient in summer; and the old Baavi is used then. Among the community sanctions imposed on the use of the Baavi water is that no water is to be tapped at night. All those wanting water are to store it by the day. Throughout the night, the springs recharge so that there is sufficient water for the whole village the next day.


Todas – buffaloes and water

Bikkepathimand is a Toda settlement located in a thick Shola forest in the upper plateau. Ooneri Kuttan, an elderly Toda from the village, talks about the relationship between the Toda and buffaloes. Revered by the once pastoral community, the buffalo is a leitmotif (guiding motif) in the secular and sacred lives of the Todas. Ooneri looks back at the change in the landscape and the shrinking habitat for the buffalo for water and grass. “Earlier, even BadagasMembers of the Toda community Source: Keystone Foundation used to keep them, but tea, other occupations and land-use change made them opt out”. According to him, the Nanjanad area was a zone of large swamps - almost 20-30 kms wide and so long that  the crossing would take time. “These areas had good clean water sources from springs and grass that our buffaloes fed on”. Government policy according to him, introduced pine, wattle and blue gum and dried up the swamps. “With dryness - the land developed cracks - and our buffaloes were unable to walk on these pasture lands with the risk of slipping inside the swamp mud”.


Alukurumbas and Bettakurumbas - bamboo pipelines & banana leaf rain water harvesting

The Alu Kurumba are a forest dwelling tribal group who have moved as tea estate labourers towards road fringes over the last two decades. Many of them still frequent their homes within thick forests, where they cultivate annual crops such as coffee and jackfruit. Members of Alukurumba community Source: Keystone FoundationThe Alu Kurumba in Pudur Kombei village recall how their drinking water used to come in bamboo poles, used as pipes to bring in water from uphill mountain springs. Today, they find it more convenient to use PVC-pipes and plastic buckets for water supply.


A similar practice by the Betta Kurumba from Vaacikolli village of Devarshola town panchayat is the use of banana leaves for collecting rain water from the rooftops. Their regular water supply is from a water hole nearby.


Alukurumbas - trees as indicators of water

Wild willow or Baige tree - is a good indicator of water according to several villages. They believe that their roots attract water and form springs in the vicinity. In Bellathi kombei village beyond Manjoor, the Alu Kurumbas dig holes for water near these trees.


Bettakurumbas - dead & live waterMember of the Bettakurumba community Source: Keystone Foundation

In the village of Kurumba Medu near Yellamalai, the Bettakurumbas still practice the tradition of drawing water from a spring or a swamp. They do not fetch water from the wells as they consider it “dead” water. Though there is a well close to the village, nobody uses it. They go far down the valley for fetching water in vessels from the springs.


Paniyas - women and water

In most parts of the district, the source of springs is a sacred place out of bounds for women due to menstrual taboos. However, in a Paniya village in Melambalam, it is a Moopathi – a lady priestess who does the ritual pooja to raise the water table of the well. The community remembers that in earlier times, her husband used to perform this pooja. While the community is unclear about how the practice of the woman as moopathi evolved, elders surmise that it is probably more to do with younger men not knowing how to conduct the ritual.


Part I of this series presented Keystone Foundation's analysis on how the state of water in the Nilgiris is closely linked to the land use in the region.  See Part 3 - Working with Spreadsheets.

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