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Why Do Paliyar Tribals Leave Their Homes And Build New Ones During Termite Infestation?

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Translated from Tamil by Nisha Felicita

Did you know that the Paliyar tribe living in the Anamalai range in the Western Ghats leave or vacate their homes and move to new homes when the houses have a termite infestation? The reasons behind this are worth learning about and reflect the beliefs and culture of the Paliyar tribe.

The Paliyar Tribe

Paliyar tribals have been living in the dense forests of the Western Ghats, including in Anaimalai and Thirumurthimalai in Coimbatore and Tirupur districts, for many generations. There are more than 1000 families living in about 30 villages in these 2 districts. Apart from this, they also live in Kodaikanal, Dindigul and the Kurangani hills in Theni district. They are recognized and categorized as a Scheduled Tribe in the neighbouring state of Kerala but are unfortunately removed from this list in their native state of Tamil Nadu. The Paliyar tribals have been fighting for their due recognition and rights as tribals for the last 44 years. 

Beyond the long list of issues including discrimination, the Paliyar tribals still do not have the official documents for their own houses and agricultural land. They live in these regions without basic amenities and infrastructure such as roads, electricity, medical facilities and public transport. In addition to collecting minor forest produce such as honey, tubers, herbs, etc. from the forest, they also cultivate millets, groundnuts, maize and beans without the use of any chemical fertilizers, using only natural farming techniques and still largely follow their traditional way of life.

During Termite Infestations, Tribals Leave Houses To Build New Ones

The houses of the Paliyar tribals are built in a simple and traditional manner by the members of the family. In families that don’t have men, the family’s male relatives will help construct houses. When a house is found to have a termite infestation, the Paliyar tribals abandon the houses to build new ones. In spite of the tremendous effort and time that has been put into building the houses, the tribals don’t think twice before moving out of it and building a new one. 

Apart from termites, many other creatures like snakes make themselves at home in Paliyar houses. When this happens, not only do the Paliyars move-out, they also consider these houses as a place of worship and turn it into a temple.

Abandoned termite-infested Paliyar tribe house in Kattupatti village on Thirumurthy hill.

Vijaya and Saroja, two women from the Kattupatti village, which has 48 families residing there, tell us about this practice that exists even today, “Although the language we speak is Tamil, it is also unique in its own way. We are people with a unique culture and lifestyle. Houses in our village have been plagued by termite nests for the past 20 years. We try to seal these houses with wax and cow dung, but the termite nests always come back suddenly and unexpectedly, too.

If termites infest our house, as taught and followed by our elders and ancestors and as per our tribe’s belief, they will cause diseases to our children and elderly, so we leave the housekeeping our safety in mind. We don’t destroy the houses we build if termite nests are found in them. We don’t harm any creatures inside it, including the snakes that take refuge there.”

Abandoned termite-infested house of the Paliyar tribe in the Mavadakku village in the Thirumurthy hill district.

“We worship deities such as Mariatta, Kali, Vairapattan and Poonatchi amman, and when the termites and snakes that take refuge in our homes, we worship them as well. When we worship their nests, we offer eggs, coconut, a banana leaf with a green spot under it to them. We also offer them Pongal. The whole tribe is involved in this worship. Many tribals dance, and we believe some of them are possessed by the spirits. If there is something wrong that needs to be corrected, these tribals tell us about it.

When the termite nests show up at our house, we will build our new houses near the old ones itself. We build houses with locally available soil, bamboo, wood from the Golden Shower or Konrai tree (Indian labrunum or Cassia fistula) and make beams to hold the structure together. For the roof, we use grass, sugar and date palm grass and sometimes even hay. We currently use tile and iron sheets for roofing. 

There are five houses in our town and four such houses in the village in the nearby district have been abandoned due to this reason. We don’t use any of the material from the old house to build a new one, we look for new material.”

Traditional houses of the Paliyar tribe on agricultural land.

“The whole family comes together to build a new house as soon as possible. The community also gets involved, and there are no fights among family members about space or anything else. Even a child from our community knows how to build these houses.”

Sadayan and Selvi live in Kattupatti and seek refuge in tree houses when they can’t use their own house.

Using Tree Houses As Refuge

Sadayan and Selvi, a couple from the same village of Kattupatti tell me about the treehouses, which are also used to sleep in, “We use the house mostly for rest at night, in which along with us, our sheep, cows and chickens also sleep. There is no discrimination when it comes to this. When there are floods or when our house can’t be used anymore, we sleep in the temporary tree houses or hammocks (Paran in Tamil) that we have built on top of the trees on our farming land. We do the job of keeping a lookout for wild animals throughout the night. We make sounds with tin cans, or split a bamboo stick in two and bang them together to make loud noises.”

Treehouses built by Paliyar tribals

We set up these treehouses atop trees like the Malabar kino (Pterocarpus marsupium), Rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) and Jamun trees (Syzygium cumini). We layout the fig tree leaves on top of it. When we do this, the chances of getting struck by lightning are far less.  Sometimes when we have to keep watch of our farmland during cultivation of crops like groundnut, ragi, maize, millets, we take refuge in these temporary tree houses. Women do not sleep in these tree houses when they are sick or are menstruating”, they add.

Such are the practices of the Paliyar tribals when it comes to leaving their houses due to other creatures using it as their home. 

Do you know of any similar practices among tribal communities?

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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