The Threatened Tribe Of The Irular

Since time immemorial, the Irular tribes of southern India lived in harmony with nature. They were people of the forest, taking only as much as they needed. That is, until recent times.

The Irular are renowned worldwide for their skills as Snake Hunters, the one practical livelihood for which the tribe is qualified. This livelihood, along with the very survival of the Irular as a cultural entity, has been placed in grave danger by the Indian Forest Act of 1927, which has seen some 75,000 Irular evicted from their natural home. The bill was introduced to protect the wildlife and regulate movement and transit of forest produce.

Despite this, industrial cities such as Mahindra continue to develop, affording multinational companies great opportunity to bypass this law. With the eviction of south Indias tribal peoples, the nature is vanishing increasingly.

More than half of the Irulars live in the Chengalput district of Tamil Nadu. They are the only people allowed to enter the forest under the current laws. Hunting rats for consumption is only allowed in certain areas. Killing snakes is prohibited and only a very few Irular have permission to catch snakes in order to procure the coveted antivenin the snakes produce.

Once a symbol for Indian culture, today the snake hunters are fighting for survival. In my work I have concentrated on the life of the Irular village Kollamedu, a community seriously affected by India‘s rapid change.

Originally descended from hunters and gatherers, Kollamedu is one of many Tamil Nadu communities whose traditional way of life has been encroached on by Modern India. Indigenous customs such as the festival of Adi Vasam have become extinct in the wake of India’s rapid modernisation.

Many of the younger generation have been forced to take menial jobs; construction workers, housekeepers etc, as their tradition has afforded them few modern qualifications. Some Irular villages are too remote from civilisation even to reach this compromise, and they are unable to make a simple living.

The Caste system remains etched in India’s collective unconsciousness. These echelons of society in India can be illuminated by their respective diets. The Irular, with their diet mainly of insects and small animals such as rats, stand at the bottom of this system. Additionally, because of their dark skin and frizzy hair, they are excluded as untouchables by the general population.

Without help from outside the culture of the Irulars is close to non-existence.

text: Frey Lindsay photos: Alina Emrich