origin & Language

Origins

Irula tribe of the Nilgiris consists mainly of people who came and settled from the plains of the nearby villages during the Mughal and British invasions. Because all the Irulas now live in several villages of the Nilgiris they do not appear to be a uniform category divided into several groups, like the Kotas. Their religion, customs, and traditional practices vary from place to place. The early settlers of the Nilgiris might have lived in the dark jungles to protect themselves from enemies. And lived a forest-oriented life by collecting forest products and hunting for their livelihood. But these people who lived in the jungles of the Nilgiris for a very long time came out of it in later days and distributed themselves over several villages of the district.

These Irulas are famous for catching snakes and serving as guides in the forest areas. In early days they where food gatherers, now government has given them agricultural lands near their settlements. But they have given most of their lands in lease to other migrants of that area, and are working as coolies and labourers in estates.

Language

Irulas speak a dialect which is a mixture of Tamil and Kannada. Their language varies from one settlement to another. Songs in the Irula language are very interesting to listen. The Irula language does not have any script and they use Kannada and Tamil scripts.

Zvelebil (1973) published a small monograph on the Irula language but Dr.R.Perialwar’s two books, “Phonology of Irula with vocabulary” (Annamalai University 1979) and “A Grammar of the Irula Language” (Annamalai University, 1978), provide good information about the language.(Source: Nilgiris District Gazetteer).

The People

the people irulas

The Irula tribe of the Nilgiris lives in the dark jungles of the lower elevation of the mountains. This might be one of the reasons that this tribe is called as Irula ‘one who come from the darkness’. Another reason is that these people are dark-skinned, so the neighbors may have addressed them thus based on their colour (Irula – in tamil black or dark). Thurston (1975:II:373) states in his book that, “the name Irula, in fact, means darkness or blackness, whether in reference to the dark jungles in which the Irulas, who have not become domesticated by working as contractors or coolies on planter’s estates dwell, or to the darkness of their skin. Though the typical Irula is dark-skinned and platyrhine, I have noted some whom, as the result of contact metamorphosis, possessed skins of markedly paler hue, and leporine noses.” This was observed by him nearly hundred years ago but now, due to their migration to several places in the district and some other factors, has changed their anthropomorphic form.

Some scholars believe that these people may belong to the race of Negroid or Australian. But the language they speak is purely Dravidian – related; other characteristics also strengthen the notion that Irula is a Dravidian tribe.