Have you heard of the Iruligas? They are the‘people of the night’, who have lived close to this gleaming glass-and-concrete city of ours for centuries, yet are largely invisible. And they are very unlike the ‘people of the night’ of the IT metropolis. Shockingly so, says Shravan Regret Iyer, our in-house vegetarian in the wild!
At ten, he doesn’t blink an eye as he snaps the neck of the rat and throws it onto a pile of dead rodents, headed for the dining table! A schoolboy by day, a rat-catcher by night, Sidda is the youngest member of the Iruliga tribe, the ‘Rat-Eaters of Ramanagara’ who live barely 50 kms from the gleaming glass and concrete that is modern-day Bengaluru but could as well be inhabiting a completely parallel universe that’s as old as time.
“I help my grandfather every night, but nobody really knows in school that this is what I do,” says the boy as he collects dead leaves and tucks it into a pot of clay lined with cow-dung and lights it up. The smoke from the burning leaves in the pot is funnelled by these men into the subterranean warren of underground tunnels to smoke out the rats. They are the Iruliga’, the word ‘irul’ stands for night, and could refer either to their nocturnal habits or the gleaming darkness of their skin.
The closely knit community of some 25,000 people, spread across the south, live as they always have in houses made of mud, clay and dry leaves. Hunter-gatherers, with only a handful straying into the city to find work as labourers in the booming construction industry, most remain dirt-poor and meld seamlessly into the remote villages off the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, deep within the Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary, a protected area that spans the districts of Mandya, Ramangara and Chamarajanagar. This is where the Iruligas live in small clusters of eight to ten huts.
The closely knit community of some 25,000 people, spread across the south, live in houses made of mud, clay and dry leaves.
Hunting for them in Kadankuppe, Ankanhalli, Bannikuppe, Kuthaganhalli, Nalemene, Avarehalli, Gunnur and Vaddarhalli is like finding a needle in a haystack. It’s only after we persist in our hunt for this tribe, and as darkness falls and farmers are driving their cattle home, that a man who said his name is Kempaiah comes up to me and asks “I heard you’ve been asking for me.”
It’s dusk, and this is the time when the Iruliga men step out of their homes and set out to the fields to hunt rats. Despite his reluctance to take us along, Kempaiah finally gives in. He and his grandson Sidda lead us into the fields, pointing to a patch of freshly dug earth which they say is the handiwork of the bears “searching for food.”
The night sky is clear. The moon bright. Ideal conditions for the Iruligas for a rodent hunt. Locating the entrances to the tunnels just below the earth’s surface is an art in itself. An inexperienced hunter can spook the rats and set off an exodus. But Kempaiah and now, his grandson are masters, blocking one exit and then another, and nudging the rats to the only possible opening – the one in which the pot is placed. When the channel is filled with smoke, the pot is removed and a stream of rats begins to trickle out into the open, where the Iruliga hunters are lying in wait.
“The pot itself is unique, something we have fashioned for our hunts,” Kempiah explained, in heavily accented Kannada. “We catch about 30 rats everyday; most are killed by the smoke. The ones that survive, we just break their necks.”
Once they have their catch of the day, the men head home where the Iruliga women begin the process of skinning and cooking the kill.
As we waited outside, Kempaiah – and other members of the community – sing the folk songs that charted the course of their lives; tales of pregnant wives, of lost loves and hunger.
Their talent for hunting isn’t limited to rats alone. They are known for their skills at trapping monitor lizards. This is strictly illegal now, of course, but traditionally, the lizards were captured and kept alive – the Iruligas are masters of the ‘uda kattu’, a method of using the creature’s tail to tie into a knot. They were then hung from the ceilings of the huts and killed for their oil, which has great medicinal properties and is used largely in treating fractures and ailments of the joints.
They also collect honey from the hills that surround their settlement, using a fairly common method of extraction. The beehives are smoked and the honey collected thereafter, in a process that doesn’t harm the bees. All this comes at a great cost, however with two vicious predators – leopards and the sloth bears – are always on the prowl.
Life is hard. As Madaiah, one of the tribesman said, “We don’t have a livelihood, so we earn no money. We can’t send our children to school, but with government support, we try to provide them with a basic education.” Madaiah leads us to a cave about two kilometres away from their settlement to show us a cave where their ancestors lived. Remnants of clay walls that had once served as partitions are still visible today.
Madaiah and Kempaiah showed us a traditional Iruliga burial ground. The corpse is either buried under a heap of stones, in a ritual referred to as the kallu-seve, or left out in the open to be devoured by vultures. Incidentally, Ramanagara is one of the few places in Karnataka where vultures still survive. Madaiah explains, “Our ancestors did not know what to do with the dead, they would dump the body in the open or sometimes times cover it with stones or pebbles.”
Much like their burial of the dead, other ancient Iruliga customs are on the wane.
This is because the tribesmen are left with no choice but to integrate themselves with the mainstream as rules for the protection of wildlife, restrict their way of life. Only the nightly ritual of catching rats for their dinner, an ancient, deeply-revered tradition, remains unchanged.
This story was originally published in Deccan Chronicle Mar 27, 2016, edition