Suma Vishnudas (Courtesy: Vasundhara Krishnan)

In Conversation with Suma Vishnudas: Paniya Practices and Lifestyle

in Interview
Published on: 18 September 2019

Vasundhara Krishnan

Vasundhara Krishnan holds a Bachelors degree in Humanities (Hons.) from Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Society and Culture from IIT-Gandhinagar. Her key areas of interest are regional histories, film studies and cultural studies.

‘Once Sold as Bonded Labourers, the Paniyas of Wayanad Still Suffer in Our “Progressive” Society’

Suma Vishnudas works as a social scientist at MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Wayanad, Kerala. She has previously worked as a journalist for Kairali TV in Kerala and as a research associate at Centre for Development Studies (CDS) in Trivandrum. She has a Master’s degree in journalism and is now pursuing a PhD in anthropology. Vishnudas has worked with the Paniya community, a major adivasi community of Wayanad, Kerala, for a programme she produced for Kairali TV.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted by Vasundhara Krishnan on December 23, 2018 at Kozhikode, Kerala.

Vasundhara KrishnanCould you describe the experience of working and interacting with the Paniya community?

Suma Vishnudas: As I grew up in Wayanad, I have been familiar with the Paniya community since childhood. Being from the locality has certainly been of advantage to me. I know Paniyabhasha [the Paniya language] and can manage interactions in the same though I am not very fluent. 

The first time I went to the Paniya colony in Thekkumthara village in Wayanad to make the documentary [for Kairali TV], I did not have a cameraman with me, so I handled the camera myself, which was a new experience. Being a woman, it was easy for me to build a rapport with women and older people. They [the Paniyas] were comfortable with having me around; they let me enter their kitchen and help the women in cutting vegetables for cooking and all. There were also times when I made one of the younger people from the community use the camera and make videos. Since I used a digital camera, I was also able to show them the pictures and videos I captured. This helped in building trust between us, and helped them get over their suspicion of being recorded. 

For me, I personally think that they did not feel any invasion of privacy after a point though they were hesitant to have a stranger in the house at the beginning. 

V.K.: Could you tell us about the legends surrounding the origin of the Paniyas that are popular within the community? Do they pass on such legends to their children even today? 

S.V.: They believe they are descendants of Ippimala muttasi [grandmother of the Ippi hill, near Banasura peak at Wayanad] and Ippimala muthappan [grandfather of the Ippi hill] who lived in the hills. ‘Mala’ translates to mountains. The Paniya community considers itself to be the desecendants of this couple who came down from the mountains. 

However, there are variations to this story. In Pakkam, Kuruva Island, Wayanad, the story of the origin of Paniyas is associated with another community, the Kurumars. Some Paniyas in some other parts of Wayanad also believe that the community of Chettiyars brought them from the forests for work. 

V.K.: Please tell us about the festivals of the Paniya community? Have there been any changes in their festivals over time? Do they also celebrate other popular Hindu festivals, such as Onam or Vishu?

S.V.: They have their own traditional festivals. Paaka theyyam and Koothadi theyyam, for example, are kinds of theyyams [ritualistic performance that is popular in Kerala]. In the theyyam, the performer is worshipped as goddess because he is seen as an embodiment of the divine.  

They also have a ritual called kootathara, which involves paying respects to the souls of the departed. Just like for death, they have rituals for every important event that takes place in a person’s life. Kettkalyanam, which is a part of marriages, and thirandukalyanam, which is a celebration of puberty, are two other rituals practised by the Paniyas. 

And yes, these days, they also observe festivals such as Onam, which is celebrated all over Kerala. Their idea of Onam also follows the story of Mahabali, the demon king from the netherworld, whose yearly homecoming marks the festival. It is difficult to trace when exactly they started the practice but it has been going on for sometime. 

Near Thirunelli, another part of Wayanad, the Paniyas also celebrate Vishu, the Malayalam New Year, by applying yellow colour on each other and dancing to music. 

V.K.: Kambalanatty, the traditional ritual of paddy replanting, is one of their important cultural practices. Could you elaborate on it? 

S.V.: Natty [kambalanatty] is indeed one of their important rituals specific to the community. The fields in Wayanad were swamps before they were filled in and converted, and that is where the landlords needed a lot of labour. Since the planting of paddy had to be done before the rains, a lot of people had to rush to the fields. The natty [planting] used to happen in one go, in acres of fields.

These Paniya labourers did not always belong to one janmi [landlord]. They were sometimes shared between landlords and brought in depending on the task at hand. These transactions were also done through a moopan [headman of the Paniya community], who acted as a mediator between the Paniya labourers and the landlords. 

When these labourers went into fields, they carried their traditional percussion instrument thudi with them. A thudi is a small drumwithout which no Paniya ritual is complete. Thudi is of divine importance for the Paniyas, and they dance to its beats as soon as it is played. The planting of paddy is synchronised with the beats of the thudi. 

Back in the day, after kambalanatty in the afternoon, the Paniya labourers were given rice by their landlords. After finishing the day’s work, the labourers were given rice and [coconut] oil to cook their food in the evening as well. 

This kind of a ritual celebration is absent today. Today, the event is held as a recreation of an old practice, such as the recent event in October where paddy was planted to retrieve the flooded soils of Wayanad.  

V.K.: Why do you think the Paniyas did not resist this exploitation of labour during kambalanatty, given that the Paniyas were bonded labourers sold to slavery? 

S.K.: See, during kambalanatty, all the janmis came together. They were a very powerful community. It must not have been an easy task to put up a resistance against them without jeopardising the lives of the labourers. 

V.K.: One aspect of your study had focussed on food habits of the community. Are there any special recipes or kinds of food that form the staple diet of the community? Has it changed over time? 

S.K.: One special food item that the Paniyas consume is freshwater crab; however, it is looked down upon by the communities around. Especially, in school, when Paniya children consume this, they are teased because crab is not eaten by other communities. Gradually, the Paniyas are giving up on it. 

Nowadays, they consume very less meat. It is not because they do not like meat but because they are not as available anymore. The Paniyas used to trap small animals such as rabbits, mongooses and small birds to consume their meat. Now, they are not able to get as many rabbits or small birds. I believe this is one reason why meat consumption has come down. 

In the morning, they consume, kanji [rice porridge or gruel]. They usually only have one more meal which is both their lunch and dinner and consists of rice. This habit has come about because the Paniyas usually work in the fields during lunch hours, and are used to eating only towards the closing of the day. This practice has been carried on from generations. However, things are somewhat different today. Children get their lunch from school through mid-day meal programmes. So, the pattern is definitely changing. The public distribution systems (PDS) provide them with rice and sugar and, sometimes, pulses and wheat. 

Earlier, they used to cultivate the food that they consumed. But with privatisation of land, the Paniyas can no longer access these agricultural products. There are not as many paddy fields for them to cultivate on. And as for fishing, there are only a few varieties of fish. Hence, the regular item in their diet is rice and available vegetables.

V.K.: In my visit to the colony at Kottathara in Kalpetta, I had observed that most of the families did not have their own piece of land and are still labourers in the fields of nearby farmers. Of course, not bonded labourers anymore but wage labourers. Is it the same in other parts of Wayanad as well? Is there at least a small percentage of Paniyas who cultivate in their own fields now? Has it changed recently?

S.V.: Yes, you are absolutely right. There are not many Paniyas who own land, even after the abolition of bonded labour. They still work as labourers in various places, including coffee plantations. The women are mostly engaged in domestic work. When temples host festivals, they are called to do jobs such as clearing weeds from agricultural fields and cleaning the surroundings. 

After the Malabar migration [where Syrian Christians from south Kerala migrated to Malabar till the 1980s], the settlers in Wayanad introduced crops such as tapioca and pepper. The Paniyas were still employed as labourers in these fields, hence there has not been any significant change in their means of livelihood. 

Today, some of the Paniya women work in textile shops as salespersons and men take up construction work as well. This is in addition to the employment guarantee that they receive from the government. 

V.K.: Do you think that the community has been discriminated against? If so, is it still continuing? 

S.V.: Back then, yes. They were bonded labourers, and never had the opportunity to own land. The Paniyas were mistreated as well. Today, though the society has progressed the Paniyas are still dealing with prejudice and are kept at a distance. In terms of their social positioning, they still do manual labour and work as wage labourers. 

Because they have been oppressed and exploited as a community and only seen as ‘workers’—the name Paniya itself translates as labour, you see—they do not prefer saying that they belong to the community and do not talk about it, unless asked. 

V.K.: Are there any other striking aspects that you observed while working with the community, especially about their lifestyle? 

S.V.: One thing that I really liked is the way men and women are treated as equals in the Paniya families. The relationship within the household is very democratic. For example, while in cases of marriage Paniyas are endogamous, the girl’s decision matters when it comes to choosing the groom. She would not be forcefully wedded and sent off. 

When men misbehave with women or physically abuse them when they are drunk, the women do not hesitate to hit them back. I have felt that the women are very strong-minded and know their worth.

Their social structure today is different from how it was. The moopan does not involve [himself] in resolving conflicts anymore. However, his presence is essential for rituals such as marriages and burials.