The Muthuvar people in the upper catchment of Chalakudy river (tributary of Periyar in Kerala) are unique in more ways than one. Unlike the Kadar people of the region, who were documented in depth by British anthropologists and surveyors, the Muthuvar folk are agrarian. They largely occupy forested valleys in the neighbouring districts of Idukki and Ernakulam. They are skilled honey harvesters and bamboo weavers.
There is something soul nourishing about the trek into the Edamalayar valley. The path is flanked by tall primary rainforest trees, covered in moss and epiphytic ferns. Up and above the canopy one hears the playful giant squirrel and the loud flapping of the occasional Malabar Pied Hornbill. In peak summers, even when the streams run dry, the forest appears lush green and teeming with life. At the end of the steep trek, the forest merges with shade grown coffee, some areaca trees and pepper vines. Then the Muthuvar hamlets emerge in the valley.
If it is the coffee or pepper picking season most women and young men are out in their fields, past reed bamboo thickets and rivulets. All land around their homes is prime elephant habitat. How they have learnt to coexist, minimising human-wildlife conflict, is intriguing. In the past, when slash and burn agriculture was still in practice, this community used to grow paddy and millets on mountain slopes slightly cut off from their hamlets. Back then, they were in tune with elephant migration patterns and knew what areas are safest during the months they raised a crop.
Another common sight in most verandahs, is women weaving baskets and winnows. Ever since our engagement began in the valley in 2017, this is one activity which is seen as remunerative too. The Kannadi Paaya is an intricate weaving style practised by women in the Kadar and Muthuvar communities in this landscape. Since 2018, unconventional Kannadi Paaya sizes were being promoted under sale events called Adavi across south India. Recently, the local Panchayat and Kudumbasree have tried to give a push to the exquisite Kannadi Paaya weaving, a signature weave of the community. In the neighbouring Forest Divisions of Idukki, there are Mannan and Malai Arasar too, who are experts in this weave. While in Idukki they use Teinostachyum wightii, in the Sholayar and Edamalayar forests, our women use the locally abundant reed bamboo or Ochlandra travancorica.
A personal favourite spot during these visits is the large kitchen of Revati, one of our weavers, with a back door facing the rocky eastern slopes, the warmth of the wood stove, and the laughter shared. Apparently the Kannadi floor mat is a favourite spot of this cat too!