“Rats are the greatest thieves I’ve ever seen!”

M. Susila is laughing as she tells us this. She is a resident of Chenneri village in Tamil Nadu’s Kancheepuram district where paddy fields stretch into the horizon as far as the eye can see. This agricultural worker has extensive knowledge of the ways of rats in paddy fields, herbal medicines and more. 

A member of the Irular tribe (also referred to as Irula), Susila’s community is one among six tribes listed as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) in Tamil Nadu. “We consider rats as our god,” says the 46-year-old. “We never kill those that earn us our food. We put them in our nets and leave them at lake beds to find a home away from the fields.” Catching rats and snakes in paddy fields is an additional income for some of the 110 Irular families in this village.

“We aren’t called to catch them [rats and snakes] as often anymore,” she adds. “Paddy fields are now fitted with electric wiring so rats die in the current.” Susila and other women from her community now work as agricultural labourers, ploughing and clearing weeds. They also get Noor naal velai (100 days of work) under MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005). In May 2022, the average wage rate for MNREGA workers in Kancheepuram district was Rs. 246 per day.

Susila (left), her aunt, cousin sister, Selvi and Selvi’s mother ((far right) meet near Susila’s home after finishing their work for the day. Right: Susila uses her hexagonal crowbar to dig out stocks of grain stored by rats underground. Photos by Prithvisree

Irulars number 1,89,661 in Tamil Nadu, according to this 2013 report. Many in the community do not like to be associated with rat catching, but Susila brushes it off and says, “A rush of energy flows through us when we are called to catch rats.” 

She goes on to explain how rats plan and prepare their passage through a paddy field.  They do it  in such a way that allows them to stock five or six kilograms of grain underground; it is usually stacked in rows and columns. “You will only see two holes dug by a rat – the entrance and the exit. So it is a challenge to find the holes in a field. We carry nets, metal bars and other tools with us when we head out to catch them,” she says. 

To force the rats out of their hiding place, the catchers either smoke them out or dig holes at particular points to create a disturbance underground.  “I remember my aaya [grandmother] bringing back a bag full of rice after catching rats in the fields,” she says.

Susila says that at one time they could hunt reptiles and chameleons, scorpions and snails. “My aaya would encourage us to practise catching snakes by learning to hook dead ones,” she says, as she extends her hands to demonstrate how the hook would trap the snake. “Not everyone knows how to catch a snake anymore due to a lack of practice and interest,” she says.

Pointing to the hill behind her village, Susila says, “I also learnt to pick the right fruits and edible herbs from my aaya.” As we walk along she points out the medicinal uses of many plants along the way: The Elumbotti plant (Ormocarpum cochinchinense) is known for its use in treating bruises, sprains, sore joints and broken bones. It is also used to relieve joint pain, haemorrhoids, gout and asthma. 

The plant is a major source of income for the community. In its powdered form it sells at Rs. 300 a kilogram. Women sell it in local markets and directly to households around the neighbouring villages. 

“This is the plant that is used [as an antidote] for snake bites,” she says, picking off a stem from a nearby pambukolli plant. Susila walks with her hands open, lightly brushing through all the plants to her sides. Smiling gently, she says, “These are just a few plants. Come with me to the forest and I will identify every plant there for you. All of us [Irulars] can!” 

Susila was enrolled in school when she was a child, but couldn’t continue with her education as her parents’ financial and health condition required attention. “My parents were not doing well then and I was raised by my chitti [mother’s younger sister]; they are the ones who took care of me until I was six or seven years,” she recalls.

Yam is a favourite food in the community and even today Irulars depend on tuber vegetables. Susila is preparing the firewood (right) at the cooking area outside her house. Photos by Prithvisree

Soon after she dropped out of school, Susila started working to help her family: she would take the goats grazing, collect firewood and lay cow dung as flooring for households that paid her Rs. 20 per task.

Yam was a favourite food in the community and even today they depend on tuber vegetables when funds run dry. Susila is making velli-kodi kizhangu (yam) ready for herself and her cousin Selvi (she uses only this name). These yams are found near lake beds where they grow in plenty. Other types of yams like kotti-kizhengu, shetty-kizhengu and maravalli kizhengu are the preferred varieties of yam among the Irulars. 

Susila explains how the yams are harvested: “the village men dig deep with great care until the fat roots are exposed. One must exercise great caution while handling the protruberances on the yam as they can cause severe rashes. The edible part is cut leaving the top portion of the root on the ground so it can grow again.”

Both Susila and Selvi collect plants from the forest which are then used in medicinal mixes and sold in local markets. But bringing material from the forests is not always allowed. “There were so many times we had to fight to prove our identity to the government officials as Irulas,” says Susila. Despite showing officials valid proof, Susila adds, “Since we don’t wear our headgear and other traditional accessories, they don’t believe us. They make us sing our community’s songs, and only then we are recognised as Irulas.”

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Editor's note

Prithvisree (she uses only her first name) was a final year undergraduate student of Journalism at Madras Christian College, Chennai when she interned with PARI in 2022. She says, “PARI introduced me to the lives of people like Susila and other Irula women, who are frequently underrepresented in the media. I felt strongly that the community's commitment to their cultural practices was a story that must be told.”