The Malayalis as a Tribe
The Kollihills are primarily inhabited by the Malayalis (= hill people), a Scheduled Tribe (ST) according to the Government of India. The Malayalis are in fact scattered throughout the hill regions of Tamil Nadu. They are the largest single ST in the state, with a population of 201,242 in the 1991 Census. This compares to a total ST population of Tamil Nadu of 574,194 in the same year. In 2011, the Malayalis were 40,479 strong, a large proportion of the tribal population of Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu.
Although the history of the Malayali is somewhat unclear, they were, by their own admission, once part of the agricultural Kongu Vellala caste, originating in the coastal area of Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu. In the 16th century, they moved, or were driven from their lands, and went to the Kolli, Panchamalai and Kalrayan Hills of the Eastern Ghats.
The tribe, also known as Kollimalayalis, is a fine race and live in about 250 hamlets of 14 traditional Nadus (village republics). They are clannish and still forming a far more homogeneous community. Traditionally, they have lived in perfect harmony with nature. However, their practice of shifting cultivation in the early half of the 20th century has been the main reason for the unnecessary destruction of forests around the tribal habitations.
Unlike other tribes, the Malayalis resemble the plains folk even in the manner of dressing. The deities they worship are deities of the plains. Ancestor worship is common. They do not look upon their children as a burden but as an asset. They are brought up as hardy, better walkers and load carriers. But today, nearly 250 km of paved roads on the hills and tens of thousands of two wheelers, this tradition has disappeared.
The Malayalis were not considered tribal, in the sense of being the initial inhabitants of India. Rather, ‘in the centuries after their occupation of the hills, they acquired tribal characteristics’. That is, the Government of India declared them as ST, considering their mountain habitat of several centuries and their acquisition of some tribal characteristics.
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