Land Pirates of Tamil Nadu history forgot

The Narikuravas are among the most vulnerable communities, with very low education levels

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The Kuraver belongs to one of the great robber castes of India…they are systematic thieves…they are hereditary (criminals), habitual and incorrigible…
The Land Pirates of India by WJ Hatch, 1928

In 1871, Imperial Britain passed the Criminal Tribes Act that declared many of India’s nomadic tribes, including hunters and forest dwellers, to be criminals. These tribes, as is obvious from the extracts of Hatch’s book quoted above, were a subject of equal parts fascination and equal parts contempt. It’s been nearly a century and a half since the Act was passed: it was repealed by the Indian government in 1952. And while the fascination with the country’s nomadic tribes may have waned, the distrust still lingers, as do the prejudices.

Kuraver in Tamil Nadu is a blanket term of reference for nomadic tribes, with each being differentiated on the basis of its traditional occupation. The Narikuravas were traditionally hunters and even today every hut in the Narikurava settlement in Kalmedu village near Madurai has a wicker basket from which the cheeping of chicks can be heard. “I have lived here for twenty- five years…my childhood was spent wandering from place to place but now we live here,” says Vasanti, a 55-year-old matriarch of the community. She has a roof over her head but no walls to support, preferring a ramshackle hut-like arrangement to staying in a pucca house. That is for the younger generation, she says dismissively. She likes to feel the wind on her face. Bird hunters, foxhunters – she ticks off the traditional occupations of her community, but none of these are followed now. Today, the Narikuravas are better known for selling beads or hawking their tattoo-inking skills (a traditional art they refer to as pachai kuthu) in exchange for a day’s living.

It is not easy to pinpoint a Narikurava settlement’s origins. Vasanti, for instance, refers to her birthplace as a “forest”, but is vague on exact geographical locations. Her settlement in Kalmedu has 100 people and the overwhelming desire is to blend in. “We wear sarees the way women here do, we don’t move around and some of the children go to school. They want to complete their education,” she says, pointing to the ever-increasing crowd which consists mostly of women and children around her. Vasanti speaks with Firstpost in Tamil but the Narikuravas converse with each other in Vagriboli. The Narikuravas say their language, which has no script, is a mix of Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and, perhaps, a smattering of Gujarati or even Rajasthani.

There is little scholarly work done on the origins of the Narikuravas in order to help us understand their history or approach to life better. However, in a 1989 paper titled ‘Rituals of a Gypsy Tribe: The Vagri or Narikuravar’, William J Jackson does try to answer some questions. “Vagri is the term used to identify wandering tribes originating from Gujarat…even today wandering groups of Vagri are found in Gujarat and Rajasthan, hunting and selling small animals.” But Jackson cautions against assuming that all Vagri tribes are similar, in fact most have very different traditions and dialects. Within the Narikuravas, too, there are differences with settlements differentiating themselves on the grounds of whom they worship. Vasanti’s clan, for instance, sacrifices buffaloes on festivals like Dussehra and worship a kul devta, but Arjun Pandyan’s group of fifteen families sacrifices goats and worships Kali.

They are at Chennai’s Marina beach, selling beads and offering tattoos. Nearly all the men in this settlement have the same striking light grey eyes while the women are dressed in colourful long skirts. “We don’t wear sarees. We move around a lot and it’s easier to be in our traditional outfits,” says Lalli, the most talkative of the lot. She speaks fluent Hindi and had already been in Chennai for two weeks when Firstpost met her. Her village is near Vellore and nearly 200-families strong and they split up in groups of ten or twelve during summers. “After this we are headed to Bengaluru. From there we will hit the pilgrimage trail as there are a lot of sales to be done,” she says. They refer to the jungle as their ancestral home but admit that it’s been at least a generation since anyone has gone back. None of the children in this group goes to school. Lalli says their constant movement makes it difficult.

The Narikuravas were granted Scheduled Tribe status in 2016, nearly forty-five years after the recommendation was first made by the Lokur Committee. They are considered one of the most vulnerable communities in Tamil Nadu with extremely low education levels. There is political awareness about their ST status especially amongst the younger generation, but they are at a loss on how to channel it. “I’m the first girl in this settlement to have studied till this level. I want to be a doctor,” says Navameena who is in class 11.

The Narikuravas remain unaware that they were once the subject of great fascination for British anthropologists and rather that you buy a necklace made out of beads from them. But don’t they have glory tales of hunters and a past littered with legends? “Yes, we were hunters, but we’ve also always been nomads,” says Lalli. “We stick to some traditional practices but there are a few among us who are now in favour of putting down roots. They want their children to study, get an office job. However, there are still prejudices against them.”

They may have been de-notified in 1952 but are still viewed with suspicion, with theories abounding about everything from their personal lives to eating habits. “The truth is that we don’t marry outside our community, have very strict rules for both men and women and are well aware of our rights. We have accepted the world but the world needs to start accepting us,” says Vasanti.

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