Louis B Figaredo uses the case of the Paniyas to drive home the importance of traditional knowledge. This community has for several decades depended on the forests and farmlands for sustenance and because of which respect their respect for the environment is immense. Above: Paniya tribe cultivating paddy in leased land. 

Every community holds the seeds of sustainability protected in the pods of its age-old culture, wisdom, knowledge and experience. Most communities, however, willfully or inadvertently, seem to fail to protect, preserve and pass on this to the new generation and hence pave way for the community’s downfall. There could be more reasons for this: the onslaught of another culture and its domination; the older generation’s lack of seriousness and interest in handing over the culture, wisdom, knowledge and experience of the community to the new generation torchbearers as their predecessors did in their time, to name two examples.

This phenomenon is not confined to any particular country or continent. It is a universal one. Nevertheless, still, some communities may be found on earth as a beacon of hope, which play the role of curators of knowledge of sustainable communities. Paniya, the largest indigenous community in Kerala, is one of such community.

The origin of Paniya community is shrouded in the mist of myths. There are a number of mythical stories about their origin. Among them one story refers to their African Origin. Some anthropologists are of the opinion thattheir short stature, black colour, curly hair, cephalic and nasal indices have evident resemblance to the Negroes of Africa and regard them as a tribe having African roots. The again, most anthropologists consider them as one of the Dravidian tribes having deep roots in south Indian soil. Paniyas themselves believe they are the children of Ippimala Muthappan and Ippimala Muthassi and their root is in Ippimala, which is a mythical hill, somewhere in Wayanad in Western Ghats.

Even though there are different views about the origin of Paniya tribe, there is common consensus on an undeniable fact that they were a in the past a slave community – slaves of land lords of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Mysore.

Perhaps, survival from the soul-numbing slavery and the bitter experiences and memories of those days may be the factor that make the Paniya community to become curators of the knowledge of a sustainable community, so that history will repeat in the case of their tribe at least, as it is often understood that history repeats when the community forgets its past.

Each community’s survival and sustainability depends mainly on its nutritional and health security. Everything else is secondary.

Unlike many other communities that depend greatly on the market to provide them food, Paniya tribe has a three-pronged approach in ensuring their food security which they have been following for generations.

Paniya tribal children with wild edibles

Instead of depending more on the market they concentrate more on wild food collection and cultivation and comparatively less on the market. As a result even to this day they have knowledge about more than 240 varieties of wild food available in Wayanad, an area known as the Green Paradise, the land where more than one third of the geographical area is covered by forests.

The wild food include 85 varieties of edible leafs, 20 varieties of tubers, 20 varieties of vegetables, 24 varieties of mushrooms, 54 varieties of fruits and seeds, 40 varieties of fish, 5 varieties of crabs, and 5 varieties of honey. The leaves Paniya women collect from the wild include Kodangal (Centella asiatica), Muyal Cheviyan (Emilia sonchifolia), Kozhuppa (Portula caolerac), Vassala Cheera (Talinum portulacifolium), Kuppa Cheera (Amarantus blitum), Mullan Cheera (Amarantus spinosus), Kadaladi (Achyranthus asperavar), Vayal Chulli (Hygrophila schulli) among others.

Some of the rich starch providing tubers that Paniya men and women dig out from forests are Venni Kizhang (Discorea hamiltonii), Kettu Noora (Discorea hispida), Kavala Kizhang (Discorea oppositifolia), Nara Kizhang (Discorea wallichi) and Nukappa Kizhang (Discorea bulbifera).

Cooked wild crabs

As different wild edible leaves are available throughout the year it helps the community to consume pesticide- fungicide- chemical fertilizer- free vitamin rich leaves. As different types of tubers are available nine months in a year, it meets the starch need of those who dig out the tubers to a great extent.

Paniyas usually steam bake the tubers and eat it with chutney, made of green chilly crushed in oil with salt or they consume it with honey whenever it is available. When crab or fish is caught from the streams it is a side dish. A single tuber will be big enough to feed an entire family. Women usually possess knowledge about each and every plant, mushroom, tuber, fish and crab, its location and the season of availability and they walk considerable distance in search of the wild food.

Steam baked wild tuber

When women go to collect wild food they take along with them their own children and children of their neighbours. Children identify edible leaves, berries, fruits, mushrooms etc., from poisonous ones by watching the elders collect them and cook them. They may be ignorant of the botanical names, the family and genus to which various edible wild foods belong, but they learn the food-value of wild food which will ensure their food and nutritional security.

They have the habit of saving and preserving a portion of the wild food for future consumption when it is available in abundance. For example they dry mushrooms hanging suspended over the fireplace, keep the juice of wild mango in bottles for preparing curry and store the nuts of wild jack fruits and other nuts and let children learn how to preserve the wild food for later use. Here a smooth transfer of knowledge from one generation to another generation takes place to ensure the sustainability of their community.

Mushroom hung over fireplace to dry

In the same way as transferring the knowledge of wild food, other parts of the culture of the tribe, its language, rituals etc., are passed on to the new generation. Unfortunately this does not take place in many communities.

The wild foods Paniyas collect and consume are not mere food: they are also medicines. The old saying that ones food should be ones medicine is true in the case of Paniya community. Almost all the wild food they consume has medicinal value.

Some of the foods are: Wild Cucumber (Cucumis silentvalleyi), wild Ash Gourd (Lagenaria siceraria), wild Bitter Gourd (Momordica diocia), wild Snake Gourd (Trichosanthes cucumeria), wild Asparagus (Asparagus fysonii) wild Arrow Root(Maranta arundinacea), Pada Kizhang (Cyclea peltata), Bamboo shoot etc.,

Moreover they have knowledge about more than 300 varieties of plants, shrubs, climbers and trees that have medicinal properties, which they use for treatment of various illnesses. Most women can identify medicinal plants as they identify edible wild plants and know the uses of those medicinal plants, shrubs and climbers.

This ensures their health security. There are tribal healers in Paniya community who willingly pass on their knowledge about wild medicinal plants and its medicinal properties and uses to their sons, daughters, nephews and nieces. Unlike modern day doctors and Vaidhayas, the tribal healers do not charge for their treatment, but receive what the patient give willingly and voluntarily. They consider treatment as a service to the community, not as a profession to make money.

Apart from collecting wild food, Paniyas cultivate different varieties of paddy, vegetables, plantains and Tubers as part of their food security. From the time they were slaves when they cultivated land for the landlords, they have in-depth knowledge about cultivation. Their knowledge about traditional paddy seeds and different types of its cultivation is amazing. They have knowledge of more than 50 varieties of paddy which can be used in different seasons and micro agro-climatic conditions. They have knowledge about drought-tolerant paddy seeds, flood-tolerant seeds, pest-resistant seeds. They also know about the aromatic variety of paddy like Gandakasala, Jerrrakasala, Kaima and medicinal varieties such as Njavara and Chomala. They are knowledgable about paddy that can be harvested in 90 days known as Thonnuram Thondi, and paddy harvested in 180 days time. Some of the elders of community claim that their forefathers had the skill to call the clouds and make it rain and stop it as per the need of cultivation.

In the 21st century no one has witnessed any Paniya elder bringing rain using their cloud calling skills, but even to this day Paniyas make offering to Idivettu Daivam (Thunder God) before any auspicious event, like a wedding, so that it will not rain during the ceremony. The Paniyas claim that it works.

Most of the Paniyas have land but do not have paddy fields. So they lease out paddy fields and cultivate it using the manpower of both men and women. They do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides for cultivation. On the other hand they prepare the field with green leaves and cow dung and fight the pests with bio-pesticides. This produces healthy rice for consumption.

They cultivate vegetables like pumpkin and ash gourd differently from other community. They let pumpkin and ash gourd climbers grows up trees to bear fruit. When the time of harvest arrives, it is an amazing scene to watch pumpkin and ash gourd appear like beads of rosary hung from the trees in their homestead. This form of cultivation saves both space and time and they keep the harvested pumpkin and ash gourd for later use and consumption. It is worth taking notice that the Paniya community’s efforts to ensure their food security using wild food and traditional seeds also conserve and preserve the biodiversity which is essential for the survival of humanity.

As the Millennium Development Goals are running its last lap and the preparation for the post 2015 Developmental Agenda is round the corner, it is worth considering and copying the age-old food security knowledge of the indigenous communities like Paniyas, not only for the sake of food security but for the conservation of the Bio-diversity, which is in constant threat.

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