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Introduction / History
The Irula inhabit the northern districts of Tamil Nadu, a state in noutheastern India. Located not far from the city of Madras, they live in a tropical area subject to monsoon rains. Their language, Irula, is related to Tamil and Kannada, which are southern Dravidian languages.
What Are Their Lives Like?
In the Tamil language, the name Irula means "people of darkness." This could refer to their dark-colored skin or to the fact that all important events traditionally took place in the darkness of night.
Living in caves, they used to hunt and procure forest resources. They were descendants of Romani. Subsequently they began to live in huts made of bamboo and slowly learnt the art of cultivation. Irulars had to look on helplessly when licensed contractors were going on a deforestation spree. Due to scarcity of bamboos, they began to build huts with soil and stones. When the hills were occupied by the people of the valley, Irular drew back to interior woods.
What Are Their Beliefs?
When natives made inroads to their settlements, Irular shifted their forest bases from one to another and in this process cultivation too underwent transition. Ragi, mustard, grains and pulses are the main cultivation. There are Irular landlords, who own 5 to 10 acres of land. But due to shortage of rains, cultivation of grains is becoming less. They used to change the land of cultivation although they don't shift their houses. Even this practice is under revision now. Cattle production is another source of income. Wild resources like honey, frankincense, firewood and the like are also collected. Earlier rice was consumed only during festivals. Now due to the lack of cultivation, rice has become their staple food. Beef is not consumed by Irular. But meats of chicken, goat, pig and fish are favourites. They cook once a day for supper.
There are many Irular customs and observances involved from the birth to death of a person. When pregnancy approaches a tent is erected near the woman's house. Elderly women who are well versed in magic are to attend the pregnant woman. When the child is born, the child's aunt takes a glass of water and sprinkles it on the child. For seven days nobody will go out of the tent and none will be allowed to enter the tent. Food will be sent to occupants in the tent.
On the seventh day child will be named and it is a big ceremony. The name will be the name of grandfather or grand mother. Rangan, Nanjan, Marutan, Kalimuthu, Kalithamma, Vaduki, Muruki are some common names. For three months relatives other than the immediate parents, should not touch the child. Those three months are taboo or termed as unholy. Those days the mother should eat and take rest without doing any work while the father will attend to all work.
Marriage is fixed for girls within the age limit of 12 -18 whereas boy's age is from 14-24. People from the same clan within the Irular tribe do not intermarry. Marriages are fixed with in the family by the parents. Bride prize has to be given to girl's house in the form of cash or cattle. Marriage is arranged in the presence of tribal chief. The marriage ceremony takes place in the ancestral home where the village god is installed. An elder called Guruvan presides over this. Marriages that do not have the acknowledgement of a local panchayat are considered invalid.
One's death will be proclaimed to everyone. The village elder will walk with a stick stretched forward. This communicates the death. The body will be kept in a typical tent on a bamboo platform, in a posture where both the legs had to be drawn backwards and tied. The closest relatives bring water from the river. Water is drawn after uttering the name of the dead person three times without looking left or right. Ground saffron or turmeric liquid mixture is sprinkled over the body. Visitors spread white dhoti (cloth) over the body if the dead is male and colour cloth in case of female.
Relatives and others who gather will settle civil as well financial disputes. If the dead is a married woman, seven persons from seven clan remove the thali (marital necklace). Later they rejoice and dance giving thanks to the god for preserving them till then. This rejoicing is known as Shapparayattam. Mourning and weeping is not done in the house. Body will be buried after 3 days. Till then the Shapparayattam continues. Body that is wrapped in linen is buried in the pit dug, where there will be a furrow to place the head. This is to avoid the falling of mud on the head! After the burial it is customary that food is served on the banks of the brook.
Irular who comes back after the burial, warms his feet by setting afire grass (straw), which is pulled out from the roof. A full pot of water is kept at the entrance of the house. Caster or jingly oil is dropped into this water with a thin stick. First drop is dripped by invoking the name of the dead person and the second drop by uttering the name of the father. When the two drops joined, the head of the family touches it and applies it on his forehead. Before entering the house, occupants need to bathe. This ceremony is referred to as Nizhalkoothu.
In appearance, the widow or the widower has to live as they saw each other at last before one's death. This is observed so as to recognise each other after the other too died. This demonstrates that the Irular believe in life after death.
Irular who live on the mountains believe that there is a life after death. But death that separates them from these mountains should lead them to eternal light instead of darkness. Many Irular's lives have been enlightened so far. But if you pray, many more lives will come to light.
What Are Their Needs?
In general moral values as a community are high. But murder, liquor consumption, chewing beetles, strife, cheating, using abusive language has influenced them recently. Although the Irula are Hindu, elements of their traditional ethnic religion are still part of their lives. Many of them have retained their own tribal beliefs that revolve around the spirit world. "House deities" are very important. They are the inherited clan-gods that are passed down through the male descendants. Bujaris, or priests, are used to contact the supernatural world of deities and spirits.
* Scripture Prayers for the Irular in India.
Ask the Lord of the harvest to send full-time labourers to join the few who are already working among the Irula.
Ask the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom, favour, and unity to the missions agencies that are focusing on the Irula.
Ask the Lord to give the Irula believers opportunities to witness to their own people.
Ask God to raise up prayer teams who will begin breaking up the soil through worship and intercession.
Ask the Lord to bring forth a triumphant Irula church for the glory of His name!