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Last Updated: Friday, 22 August, 2003, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
'Rats are a real delicacy'

By Charles Haviland
BBC correspondent at tribal festival in Salem

Name the two creatures you'd least like to encounter on your kitchen floor, and it's likely the snake and the rat would come near the top of the list.

Veeramani (centre, grey hair) of the Irulars
Rats taste like mutton, say the Irulars
But the Irular people of northern Tamil Nadu, India, have no such phobia.

"We get licences to hunt snakes and extract the poison to use in medicine for snake bites," said Veeramani, an Irular leader.

As for the rats, they devastate crops - till the Irulars come to the rescue.

"We dig up the entrances to rat burrows, set alight a pot of straw with a hole in it - then we blow the smoke into the burrow and the rats die," Veeramani enthused.

And Irulars feast on the rats they catch. The meat is a bit like mutton, Veeramani explained calmly.

"It takes 20 rats to create one kilogram of meat, so it should be seen as a real delicacy," he said.

Forest produce

All this I learned at a meeting of representatives of India's estimated 70 million indigenous tribal people, known as Adivasis.

"People come and loot and steal and occupy our lands."

Munda tribe

Despite their numbers they live on the margins of society, often displaced from their traditional land.

A major gathering of 36 different tribal peoples took place recently in India's southernmost state, Tamil Nadu.

It gave me the chance to find out more about their ways.

If you haven't been put off by the rat meat, I'll tell you about the Sholaga people from the hill country.

One showed me how to catch wild hens in the forests.

You squat in the shade, and when your prey is near, you do this, he said - leaning his head to one side, he prodded his tightened neck skin very rapidly, making a sound uncannily like a hen clucking.

That lures the fowl into your bamboo trap.

This is traditional knowledge.

There were endless stocks of it on offer at this gathering of 5,000 Adivasis or tribal people in the industrial Tamil town of Salem.

Chinnaputti of the Sholaga people
For digging the earth, we get arrested

Some live on the plains as shepherds or cattle herders.

But again and again I heard of forests, and people's displacement from forest land at the hands of government officials or plantation owners.

Talking to just a handful of tribal people from across India, I heard of a whole catalogue of forest produce which people used to live on but, mostly, can gather no more.

Mongoose, rabbit, porcupine and lizards; ginger, turmeric and honey; incense and sandalwood.

"Our mothers sang songs in the forests, our children lay on the forest floor," lamented a Sholaga woman, Chinnaputti.

"Now, for digging the same earth, we get arrested."

Old rituals

At night, Salem was lit up by each people's spectacular song and dance display, and deafened by the slightly over-powerful amplifier.

The Munda people of eastern India put on a frenzied show, prominently featuring bows and arrows and spears - weapons not traditionally used for hunting, but for fighting other people, the drummer coolly explained to me.

In an Irular dance, one youth was clad in a fetching pink dress with jasmine in his hair, while another swung a live monitor lizard around by its legs.

Sekar of the dancing troupe
Song and dance went on all night

Meeting such people and witnessing their rituals in today's India is a fascinating experience.

In a country of ancient cultures these are the oldest of all.

Today's politicians argue about whether the northern Aryans or the southern Dravidians settled the country first and whether there was once a temple on the site of a mosque destroyed by a mob 10 years ago.


In fact, it was the Adivasis who came first, as I was reminded by two cheery brothers of the Kani tribe, stocky and woolly-haired, from India's extreme southern tip.

We reckon we've been here 50,000 years, they said.

Today many Adivasis have become Christians, and the gathering's organisers, the Church of South India, want to give tribal rights greater national prominence.

Jacob Belly is a churchman and expert on Adivasi issues. His parting message to me was stark: "We are the criminals.

"We've taken their land, their mountains and their rivers, and we've treated them like our property."

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