The International Day of the World’s Indigenous People is observed every year on August 9 (today) to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population. This event also recognizes the achievements and contributions that indigenous people make to improve world issues such as environmental protection.
Indigenous peoples, or Natives, are ethnic groups who are native to a land or region, sharing a cultural identity that has been shaped by their geographical region.
Indigenous peoples globally are concerned that their cultures are being lost from discrimination and pressure to assimilate into their surrounding societies.
It has been well documented that the Todas, Kotas, Badagas, Kurumbas and Irulas are the established indigenous communities of the Nilgiri uplands and their unique ways of life and interdependence have been one of the most documented subjects in Asia.
Of late, however, there is a tendency to doubt the status of the Badagas as an indigenous community. According to a view Badagas were immigrants fleeing from Muslim persecution in Mysore in the past. There is absolutely not a shred of evidence, either documentary or oral, substantiating it. In fact, there has never been any persecution of any Nilgiri communities by Muslims on record.
Some even believe the Badaga migration took place during the reign of Tippu Sultan. The first written documentation of the Nilgiris dates to 1602 while Tippu was defeated in 1799. Though Nilgiris was under Tippu for many years, he had nothing to do with the place or the people except for putting up two look out posts on the hills. There is no evidence of his ever visited the hills.
The 1602 document left behind by the scholarly Father Finicio who came with a large entourage from Calicut speaks of the upland communities including the Badagas in clear terms. Badagas numbered about 500 then while other communities were much less.
Some research scholars speculate that the Badagas could have moved to the hills gradually in batches starting from around the middle of 1500. Such conclusions are drawn based on the evidence of paid local informants to the European writers after Nilgiris was opened up by the British.
Such research are at best for academic purpose and have no relevance for Nilgiris are its people. When around the middle of 1500 America, Europe, UK and most other nations and our own country and states had not been born, the need to locate where the Badagas or other tribes of Nilgiris came from or when is absurd.
The elaborate documentation of Nilgiris over the past two centuries shows how the five communities had lived in harmony, without any violence marked by a unique system of barter and interdependence while maintaining their respective identities and cultures.
As an anthropologist described it, “To the assertion that war is an inalienable feature of all human life, the Nilgiris case presents one refutation. There was no knowledge of the Scriptures to bolster it; no Brahmins to legitimize it; no Kashtriyas to rule over it: yet the social order functioned well for centuries”.
The Nilgiris and its indigenous communities continue to remain a Pleasant Puzzle. Let us leave it that way.
Nilgiri Documentation Centre
Photo: The five indigenous communities of Nilgiris in 1875 from the book by J.W. Breeks, the first Commissioner of Nilgiris.