A day in the Life of a Malayali Cholanaicken tribe- Balan ,Age 32, Nilambur
A concept of a day’s work is not familiar to Balan, he says he and his friends start by 7.30 to forest and there is no specific time to return, it may be a day or two or even for few weeks. Balan, a member of an endangered tribe Cholanaicken in Nilambur forest of Kerala says they are one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes of South India and the only cave-dwellers of Asia. Balan is not like many others of his group; he is educated and has had acquaintances with the main mainstream society. His people still use minimum clothes and are satisfied bathing once in a week. They are God fearing and said they consider hills, trees, elephants and many other things in the nature as Gods. He said if he encounters a wild elephant he would think it as some indication of divine God not just as a wild elephant.
Balan makes it funny when he says “no rooster or alarm to wake me up but when it is 5.30 am up from the ‘paaya(grass mat) I sleep. First thing after that is thanking God for the new day. He prays to God for the safety and security of his clan. Balan is very fond of black tea, not only him but all the 197 members of his tribe living there love black tea, he says. After the black tea he brushes his teeth with a neem twig. Then he goes to the stream and joins his friends to collect ‘kunthirikkam’ (frankincense) and ‘thaen ’ (honey). He even knows such items are called by the forest officials as NTFP. When he was asked
what that abbreviation means he said Non Timber Forest Product (NTFP). Balan and his people practice a kind of barter system to sell the forest products. They usually exchange them with rice, tea powder and ‘murukkan’ at the nearest Forest Station. Sometimes they sell the forest products to others for money and would get more than what they get from the forest station. He and his friends have account books in the forest station to register the value and volume of the products they give to the forest station.
The day I met them they were going to collect honey from forest. They also collect different types of herbs and other medicinal plants (‘kundirikam’ (Frankinsence), ‘kurumthotti …etc) . Sometimes it take 2 to 3 days to return from the forest, says Balan, because it all depends on the obstacles of the route including rare encounters with wild animals. Balan recollected his last experience of encountering a herd of elephants. They carry a basket with them to collect items. They make their own baskets for it. They are very much keen not to carry weight while going to forest because it will be an additional burden when they return. He says they could carry around 80kgs on shoulder in bamboo baskets. They don’t even carry food or water with them but forest provide them their food says Balan. Wild potatoes, tube roots and different types of leaves are their food in the trip. Balan likes fishing very much and he says that this skill of him help them when their mission extends more than two days. Balan drinks water from the streams and brooks in the forest. Cholanaicken doesn’t have a practice of organised hunting; they gather food when they go for collecting forest products. Balan clarifies that when they see a rabbit on their way they catch but they won’t spend much time hunting purposely. Balan doesn’t use watch but he says correctly its 4 o’clock listening to the sound of a Langur from the wild. He says the sounds by certain animals and birds are indicative of specific time which they can discern. Usually Balan and his friends make small tents of tarpaulin (they get it from the nearby town) and lits fire around it at night.
Balan was in a hurry on the day I met because his father, the headman of the tribe is sick and he want to reach there before dark. Though he has a house in the Mancheri colony built by the government he still prefers the natural cave within the forest.
Balan says all his thoughts and aspirations are centred sround his little son – Kannan. He also wants Kannan to study in the school and ST Hostel, in Attappadi, he attended. It’s a government school. Balan is a Forest Guard today and the only one from their tribe to become so, but he continues to practise what he was doing till he became a guard. He does it in a manner that it does not collide with his duties as a guard. With a smile he says- “my home is forest and I love it”.