Paniyan Tribe of Nilgiris District of Tamil Nadu

Ravi, Sumana graduated in Photojournalism from Light & Life Academy, Ooty. An ex- Management Consultant, she has worked on several projects to document the diverse facets of Indian culture covering events, people and places. For her, photography is both a passion and a mechanism for documenting stories of her profession.

November 2010, Craft Revival Trust

Any inquiry into Indian culture is definitely incomplete without a study of the country’s tribal communities. India boasts of the largest concentration of tribal population in the world, with tribal communities constituting 8.2% of India’s population. Tribal groups in India are characterized by a distinctive culture, exhibit primitive traits and usually live in geographical isolation in the hilly and forested areas. Their unique way of life is revealed in various ways – their appearance, language, attire, ornaments, habitat, food habits and belief systems. Tribal communities across India are at different stages of economic and social development. While some have adopted mainstream ways of living, others are still in transition and some others are yet to step away from their time-honored lifestyle. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs recognizes 75 tribal groups as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PTGs), due to their pre-agricultural level of technology, stagnant population, low level of literacy and subsistence level of economy. The Paniyan tribes, identified as PTG in Tamil Nadu, are a small population of 5541 individuals. They are distributed mainly in Gudalur and Pandalur districts of the state.
Appearance & Language
The Paniyans resemble African Negroes in their features – short, dark-skinned, broad noses, wavy or curly hair and thick lips. There are many speculations regarding the lineage of the tribe. Popular legend traces their ancestry to survivors wrecked on the ‘Malabar Coast’. However, their origin is still debatable.

The men’s dress typically consists of a waist-cloth (‘mundu’). The women also usually wear single-cloth attire, thrown over their shoulder and knotted across the breast. Women wear ear rings, nose rings and colored beads around their neck. Their ornaments are usually made of base metal. Their ear ornaments are rolled palm leaves, fitted in their dilated ear lobes. This unique ear adornment is made at home by the women and is a skill passed on between generations.

The Paniyans speak a dialect of Malayalam, with a mixture of Tamil, Kannada and Tulu words. They are socially isolated and usually shy to talk to strangers.

Paniyan settlements are usually built at an elevation of 3000 to 4500 ft., and located amidst tea plantations or close to the fields where they work. Their huts are made of bamboo wattle, plastered with mud and thatched with grass. Dwelling in hilly areas, Paniyans run the risk of their settlements being destroyed by wild animals. Attacks by groups of wild elephants are common, and Paniyans need to be prepared for such exigencies.

Recently, most Paniyans have moved to government-built modern houses. These houses are single-roomed. Cooking is typically done outside the home.

Economy & Social Organization
The word ‘Paniyan’ originated from the Malayalam word ‘Panikkar’ (meaning labourer), and agricultural labor was the original occupation of this tribe. Paniyans earned their livelihood by working in fields and on estates of the Chetti landowners. The Paniyans were earlier famous for hunting tigers and panthers. They usually do not have landed assets. Older studies on the tribes of the Malabar describe Paniyans as “agrestic slaves, bought and sold with the land, to which they were attached as slave labourers.”

They are now freed from bonded labor. However, they do not have permanent employment and engage in seasonal casual labor. This added to their economic backwardness, and forced them to look for secondary sources of income. This has also led to women participating in economic activity. Apart from agricultural labor, Paniyans engage in the collection and sale of fuel wood to coal depots and self-cultivation of spices (chiefly pepper).

Paniyans follow community-level endogamy i.e. a Paniyan marries within one’s own community. To regulate this system, they have matrilineal descent groups called ‘illam’. However, Paniyans today do not remember their illam. Monogamy is the most common form of marriage found among the Paniyans.

Food Habits
Rice is the staple diet of the Paniyans. Paniyans are non-vegetarians and relish fish, crab and prawns in their meal. They smoke cigarettes and chew tobacco regularly.

Belief System
Paniyans believe in ancestral and supernatural beings, and identify them with the physical environment. The Paniyan temple consists of layers of stones at the foot of the sacred tree. These stones represent images of the spirits.

‘Kuliyan’ or ‘Kulikan’, the soul of a Paniyan legendary hero is worshipped for prosperity in their agricultural work. ‘Velliyam’, the female soul is revered for fertility and welfare of the children.

Paniyans also worship ‘Kattu Bagavathy’, the goddess of the woods. Due to close proximity to Hindu societies, and also to suit their landlords, Paniyans believe themselves to be Hindu. Today, Paniyans worship various forms of Hindu deities like Mariamman and Kaliamman.


  • Census of India, 2001.

  • Annual Report 2009-2010, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India.

  • www.tribal.gov.in, Ministry of Tribal Affairs website.

  • Paniyans of Nilgiri District Tamil Nadu – A Tribal Cultural Documentation (2003): Tribal Research Centre: Hill Area Development Programme: Government of Tamil Nadu.

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