Visiting the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society

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On the way to Mamallapuram (also called Mahabalipuram), if you look closely, you will see a sign to turn off for the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society — ITWWS — facility. We were taken there recently, and were pleased to discover it.

The Irulas are an ancient tribal population who have lived on the outskirts of Indian society for the last few thousand years, and are now mainly known as snake and rat catchers.

Rat catchers are important to South Indian farming efforts, where about 1/4 of each year’s crop falls to rats. Snake catchers also provided, in olden times, a valuable function, ridding areas of dangerous snakes. And money was made by selling the snake skins. Today the snake catchers provide a more important service, providing snake venom, used as a base for snake bite cures in anti-venom serums provided by hospitals to victims of snake bite. About 30,000 people die each year in India of snake bites. We first learned about the Irulas from a TV documentary that showed their snake catching and told about their modern practice of ‘snake farming’, where they keep the captured snakes and milk the venom every six months to sell to the Indian government. This approach is both safer for the tribespeople and more profitable than the older approach that just milked the venom one time before the snakes were destroyed the the skins sold.

From “Irulas – The Snake Catchers” on suite101.com:

The Irulas are a tribal community found in the southern parts of India. According to anthropologists, these people belong to the Negrito stock, whose ancestors came from Africa. The ethnic relatives of these people are now found in small pockets in the Indian mainland and in Andaman and Nicobar islands.

Until recently, the Irulas used to live in the forest and had minimal contact with the neighboring villages. They sold forest products like honey, beeswax and firewood.

The principal languages of the Irulas are Tamil and Telugu. The name Irula is believed to have been derived from ‘Irul’, Tamil for darkness. Some believe this word was applied to this tribe due to their dark complexion, while others are of the opinion that it was used because the Irulas appeared in the past to other people as dark silhouettes in the forests.

The original occupation of these people was rat and snake catching. They traded the skins of the snake for money. However, with the government of India enacting laws to prevent trade in snakeskins, the fragile Irula economy received a jolt. Many of the Irulas quit their ancestral profession and took to modern means of employment like working in rice mills and in fields. This resulted in the exploitation of these people by unscrupulous rice-mill owners. As these people are illiterate, their lands were appropriated by landlords and they were left destitute.

However, things look brighter today. Communal enterprise has established snake farms, where snakes are not caught to be killed for skin but are caught to be milked for their venom. This venom is used to prepare antivenin and other drugs. The Irula earns more by selling venom than what he did by selling snakes. The Irulas also catch rats which they sell at laboratories and at zoos.

The story of the Irulas is a motivating one. It is a story of a community who is struggling against the threats posed to their way of life by modern civilization, thereby reinventing it.

In addition to Tamil and Telegu, cited in the above quote, the Irulas have their own language, spoken in several dialects. There is no written form of this language. It is used to preserve and tell the ancient stories of the Irula people. The present population of Irulas is about 200,000.

This article is about one of these communal enterprises based on the cultivation, production and sale of natural herbal products by Irula women. The Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society (ITSSW) was formed in 1986 and, per www.ITSSWIndia.org, has over 350 people as primary members of the General Body. About 99% of the members are from the Irula community. All the members are women.

The Society works to improve literacy, health and sanitation, women’s rights, protection of the environment and forests, and increasing political participation of the Irulas, as well as the preservation and revival of traditional Irula knowledge, wisdom and culture. All of these activities improve the lives of their families and the Irula community.

The map below shows the area of Thandarai, where the IYWWS facility is located. It is not shown on the Google Map, but is between Chengelpattu (Chengelpet) and Tirukkalikunram (Tirukazhikundram)

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A small sign marks the turnoff to the ITWWS center in Thandarai, between Chengelpet and Mamallapuram.

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After a short drive we arrive at the facility.

Signs painted onto stone slabs provide information about ITWWS, and its objectives, projects, achievements, awards and supporters. Note that they have a number of significant supporting organizations in Europe, India and Australia. I think the Society does a good job here in promoting their efforts.

When you enter the facility there is a large building with a colorful sign showing something about the Irulas and the efforts of ITWWS.

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The Irulas are identified as a “Mother-based community (Matriarchy)” and snake catchers. ITWWS is shown as active in ecological conservation and collecting forest products.

This building was put built with funds donated by the Ford Foundation in New Delhi. The funders are clearly identified and credit given to them for their help.

The ITWWS logo is on a wooden plaque shown below. It is a nice design showing a woman’s hand (wearing bangles, so you know it is a woman) holding a plant with leaves and roots. This shows ITWWS as a woman’s group that is supporting plants and nature.

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We approach one of the main buildings of the facility, walking through wooded areas.

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Here is the facility.

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It is for the main ‘production’ group of the Society, the Irulas’ National Products Corporation.

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The various buildings were all donated by supporters. Funds for this building were donated by the New Entity for Social Action, from Bangalore.

It houses the primary production facility of the corporation, the Irula Herbal Centre. 

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Here the various herbs that they use in their products are stored, mixed into the herbal products and packaged for sale. You can see from all the different jars and containers here that quite a number of herbs are used in their products.

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Next to the production room is a building with four offices: an herbal ‘library’ with several hundred herbal samples, a staff room, records, and finally research and development. 

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This photo shows a part of the herbal sample room. Shown are less than 1/2 of the total number of samples stored here.

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Again, credit to a supporting organization.

Next to this set of offices is this mound with a number of circular holes. We are told that this is a snake nest. They are left undisturbed by the Irulas, who see snakes very differently than do most people.

We are taken next to a growing area, where new herbal plants are started. They plant, grow and harvest at this facility most of the herbs that they use. This way they both insure the quality, and preserve the herbal species that they use.

A growing area for plants.

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One of the workers (definitely not a woman) stands among the plants he cares for.

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The Society is proud of its identity, using it as the design for the ventilation holes in this building’s roof. 

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As we walk through an herbal growing area, the dense plant cultivation reminds me of the spice farm we saw in Goa, with many different kinds of plants growing together, some as trees, some as shrubs, some as ground level plants. This seems well thought out, and makes full use of the growing environment. I am sure it is much better for the environment and the plants than the monoculture approach you mainly see in American agriculture.

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The leaves of this tree provide a traditional cure for snake-bites. I would prefer the modern anti-venom serum myself.

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This is, I think, a meeting hall.

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In front of the meeting hall is a thing often seen in India, a design of flowers floating in water. These designs have a name that I do not know. (Maybe someone can help with this). The design seems based on the ITWWS logo, showing its three leaves.

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Here is a drawing of a woman catching a snake. Don’t try this at home!

The drawing below shows rat catching, using a terra cotta pot. Not shown is the contemporary Irula approach of fumigating the holes with poison, a practice very dangerous for the workers, who end up breathing in the poison.

      

Again, credit to the funding organization.

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A poster, showing one primary focus of the organization, that of ending poverty among the Irulas.

As we leave, we look again around the herbal forest grown by the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society. The man in the dark blue shirt is Dr. P. Ravi Chandran, the organizer and host for our trip.

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The good Doctor gave Carol and me an education during this trip about how some successful Indian non-profit service organizations succeed at their efforts. Three key elements are: organizing as a Society rather than a Trust (where all the assets are essentially owned by the president or director of the Trust), the use of Society programs to raise funds to sustain the efforts of the group, and the effective use of funds from donor organizations (which are, in turn, made possible by organization as a Society, which is like a US non-profit corporation, controlled by its members, rather than a Trust, owned by one individual).

We are grateful to the Doctor for what he has shown us and taught us during this trip. 

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One Response to “Visiting the Irula Tribal Women’s Welfare Society”

  1. pumdv Says:

    Irula is actually meaning Dravidian old tamil, the pronounciation is actually II AA EE OO UU( Vovels), all it is more like OM converted to AUM. These are the ancient people from whom all others developed and they are removers of irul or removers of darknes and that is why all gods in India are depicted as controlling snakes.

    The blog is a means to show light from darkness like Arunachala.

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