Written by Murugeshwari and translated from Tamil by Nisha Felicita
Adivasi and tribal food relies heavily on the herbs, plants and trees available in the forests. They are well versed with the native flora and fauna. One such resource from the forest which tribals in Tamil Nadu use in their day to day lives is fungus. Did you know fungus is used as a fragrant condiment that can be used in food preparation every day? It is usually added as a fragrant ingredient while preparing chicken, mutton, garam masala and biryani. In our village in Kodaikanal, fungus is a big part of our food culture.
In the mountains known as the Princess of Hills, Kodaikanal, reside the people belonging to the Paniyar tribe. They worship the thick forest, tall mountain ranges, rivers, their ancestors and the forest goddess. One of their occupations also includes collecting/harvesting fungi. A tool called fungi chisel is used to collect them.
The Paniyar fungi harvesters begin their journey into the forest at 9 in the morning. In order to avoid getting lost in the forest, the person leading the group will use pieces of young branches/twigs to mark the way as they move along. As the group enters the forest, they divide themselves and continue separately to collect tree fungi. The types of fungi that are collected are seen growing stuck on trees, like the bael tree (Bengal quince), fig tree and marking nut tree.
To spot and recognize those who go deep in the forest to collect tree fungi, the call of “Oye!” is used. This process of collecting tree fungi includes climbing around 10-20 trees every day. Men and women usually collect around 5 kilos and 2 kilos of tree fungi a day respectively.
Trees cannot be climbed during the rainy season, as there is a danger of it being slippery. This being a remote village, the chances of urgent medical attention are very low, hence the fungi harvesters have to keep their safety in mind before climbing trees. Apart from tree climbing, there is always the imminent danger of being bitten by a venomous snake, scorpion, centipede, and/or being attacked by a wild buffalo, elephant or leopard. To protect and heal themselves from wounds acquired during this process, the Paniyar people use medicinal herbs indigenous to this region.
The tree fungi collected from the forest will be sun-dried for 3-5 days, followed by which they clean the tree fungi of tiny impurities and later divide them based on their quality. This cleaning and separating process will bring down the 5 kilos of collected tree fungi to 3 kilos. Moreover, this tree fungi picking can only be done 9 months in a year, since it rains for 3 months. During the time when they can’t collect tree fungi, they will work as agricultural labourers. These are the times when they rely on the money that they make working small jobs.
The fungi harvesters take on the good, the bad and the dangers of the tree fungi picking occupation and carry on with it as their means of livelihood.
The tribals live their lives believing in the forest and the forest nourishes their lives in return. It’s crucial to protect the forest that protects the lives of these tribals and the wildlife that lives in it.