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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2021  |  Volume : 65  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 403-409  

Particularly vulnerable tribal groups of Tamil Nadu, India: A sociocultural anthropological review

1 Sceintist-D, Laboratory Division, Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
2 Project Scientist-B, Laboratory Division, Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
3 Scientist-C, Indian Council of Medical Research-Regional Medical Research Centre, Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, India
4 Research Scholar, Centre for Advanced Studies in Botany, University of Madras, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
5 Research Scholar, National Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, University of Madras, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
6 Scientist-F, Indian Council of Medical Research, V. Ramalingaswami Bhawan, New Delhi, India

Date of Submission27-Jan-2021
Date of Decision15-Jul-2021
Date of Acceptance01-Sep-2021
Date of Web Publication29-Dec-2021

Correspondence Address:
Balasubramanian Ganesh
R-127; 2nd Main Road, TNHB Layout, Ayapakkam, ICMR-National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai - 600 077, Tamil Nadu
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/ijph.IJPH_2_21

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“Adivasi” is the collective term for tribes, an indigenous population, and ethnic minorities of India. In general, tribal populations live in harmony with nature and resources within their habitat and largely reside in segregates in an unpolluted and natural environment away from modern civilization. As per the 2011 census, India contains 705 scheduled tribes (STs) and subtribes and 75 primitive tribal clusters. The ST population of Tamil Nadu, India, was found to be 794,697 and broadly spread in 38 districts constituting 36 tribes, among which 6 tribes were grouped as “particularly vulnerable tribal groups” (PVTGs), namely (1) Todas, (2) Kotas, (3) Kurumbas, (4) Irulas, (5) Paniyas, and (6) Kattunayakas, as the number of population in these tribal communities is either declining or remaining static. The state government is offering lots of benefit schemes for the STs, but they have not reached the tribal groups. Health problems of tribal communities have been profoundly influenced by different factors such as social, cultural, educational, economic, and political practices. The tribal peoples are exceedingly disease prone as they do not have access to basic health-care facilities. Therefore, concerned policymakers should focus on the changing health needs of tribal communities. In this regard, the current review article has been focused on the complete details (language, occupation, worship or deity, subdivisions or other names, etc.) of these six PVTGs and also to concentrate on the kind of problems they face while living in the societies. Therefore, the government and nongovernmental organizations need to find a way to improve their livelihoods and health status.

Keywords: Ethnic tribes, India, Irulas, Kattunayakas, Kotas, Kurumbas, Paniyas, particularly vulnerable tribal groups, primitive tribes, Tamil Nadu, Todas

How to cite this article:
Ganesh B, Rajakumar T, Acharya SK, Vasumathy S, Sowmya S, Kaur H. Particularly vulnerable tribal groups of Tamil Nadu, India: A sociocultural anthropological review. Indian J Public Health 2021;65:403-9

How to cite this URL:
Ganesh B, Rajakumar T, Acharya SK, Vasumathy S, Sowmya S, Kaur H. Particularly vulnerable tribal groups of Tamil Nadu, India: A sociocultural anthropological review. Indian J Public Health [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Jan 22];65:403-9. Available from:

   Introduction Top

The term “tribes” refers to a group of people who live in isolated and unpolluted environments, that is, forests and mountains that are far from the highly developed modern civilization.[1] They have a well-defined life with definite rules, morals, customs, traditions, language, and ways of worship.[2],[3] According to anthropology, “tribe” is a system of the social association consisting of a common culture, name, language, simple economy, political system, religion, beliefs, and ancient law.[4] The tribal people of India have been referred to as Adivasi, forest tribes, hill tribes, backward tribes, primitive tribes, and indigenous people (animists) for many centuries. In certain regions, the indigenous people are also referred to as first people, First Nations, aboriginal or native people, or autochthonous people, as they are the primitive or earliest known inhabitants of that region, as compared to the groups that have more recently settled, occupied, or colonized the region.[5],[6]

   Tribal Populations of India Top

India has the largest tribal population in the world and is the second-largest country in terms of tribal population after Africa.[7] According to the 2011 census in India, the tribal population is 10.43 crore, comprising 8.6% of the total population of the country and 15% of the country area.[8] In the Indian subcontinent, there are 705 scheduled tribes (STs) and subtribes living, among them, 75 ethnic groups are classified as “particularly vulnerable tribal groups” (PVTGs).[9],[10],[11],[12],[13]

   Tribal Populations of Tamil Nadu Top

The Government of India has identified to have 36 STs residing in 38 districts of Tamil Nadu and they are listed in [Table 1]. According to the 2011 census, 794,697 STs were living in Tamil Nadu, of which 401,068 were male and 393,629 were female. The rural and urban population of ST is 660,280 and 134,417, respectively, and the percentage of ST population in Tamil Nadu is 1.1% of the total population.[5]
Table 1: Total list of ethnic scheduled tribal groups in Tamil Nadu, India (36 tribes)

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   Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups of Tamil Nadu Top

There are 36 groups of STs in Tamil Nadu, out of which six tribal groups, namely (1) Todas, (2) Kotas, (3) Kurumbas, (4) Irulas, (5) Paniyas, and (6) Kattunayakas, are characterized as PVTGs by the Government of India and they live mainly in and around the Nilgiris district.[3] When the number of tribal people of certain groups decreases or remains unchanged, they are called PVTGs. The rest of the tribal communities distributed throughout the country are called “dispersed tribes.”[5] The complete details and cultural patterns of the PVTGs are shown in [Table 2].
Table 2: Characteristic ethnological features of particularly vulnerable tribal groups in Tamil Nadu, India

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The word “Toda” is derived from “tud,” which is the sacred tree of Todas.[14] Todas are known by many names such as Todas, Toras, Tudavans, and Todar. They speak “Toda” as their mother tongue, a part of the Dravidian family, associated with Tamil and Malayalam. Traditionally, Toda is a small pastoral community but now practices commercial agriculture, especially cultivating vegetables such as cabbage and potatoes.[15] Todas are known for their embroidery. Todas are an exotic kind, fair skinned, and their eyes are light, ranging from brown to gray. The Todas worship mountains and hills for two important reasons, (i) grass hills are important for buffalo and (ii) they strongly believe that the hills are the abode of the Gods. The Malleaswaran hill is located in the Attappadi Valley, South of Nilgiris. This steep hill is associated with the Hindu God “Shiva” and is worshiped by “Todas.”


The name “Kota” is derived from the Dravidian root word “Ko” meaning “the mountain.” The Kota tribal population resides in just seven villages, namely New Kotagiri, Kil Kotagiri, Kundah, Kollimalai, Gudalur, Trichigadi, and Sholur in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu.[16] Kota is also known by different names such as Koter, Kotharu, Kothewar, and Kohatur[17] and they speak the language of Kota, combined with the vocabulary of Kannada and Tamil.[18] Kotas are skilled healers who use their herbal medicine in their treatment. They are also known for their traditional pottery and carpentry. They claim to be blacksmith by profession and they make agricultural equipment and war weapons.[19] They are considered to be the oldest population in the country and they strictly follow their traditional customs and ethnomedicinal practices.[20] The Kotas worship fire, the moon, and the nature, and perform their Pujas in front of the peepal tree.


Based on the organization of the clan, hill residence, beliefs, and the linguistic system, Kurumbas are divided into five distinct groups in the Nilgiris district. They are Mullu Kurumbas, Jenu or Teen Kurumbas, Alu or Palu Kurumbas, Urali Kurumbas, and Betta Kurumbas. Among these five Kurumbas communities, Alu Kurumbas are experts in traditional medical practices.[21] The Kurumbas have remained hunters and gatherers of food and are well versed in the technique of collecting honey. The Kurumbas are known for their paintings and witchcraft. Wild fruits, wild tubers, and small forest products are their main food.[22] Nowadays, due to population growth and deforestation, Kurumbas are forced to move to the mainland and work as agricultural workers/laborers on tea and coffee plantations.[23] Kurumbas speak the language “Kurumba,” it is a combination of words from Kannada and Tamil, one of the primitive South Dravidian languages. The main deity of the Kurumba tribe is “Bhairava” named after Lord “Shiva.” They worship birds, trees, snakes, rocky hills, and animals along with other Hindu deities.


The Irula community is the second-largest tribal group in Tamil Nadu and they usually live near the mountains of the Western Ghats. The name “Irula” is derived from the Tamil root word “Irul” meaning the darkness of night.[5] This may refer to their dark skin or the fact that all major rituals were traditionally performed in the dark at night.[24] Irulas, they call themselves Erlar or Poosari, whereas their neighbors call them Irulas, Eralollu, Pujari, and Shikari. Irulas speaks the language “Irula” as the mother tongue of the Dravidian family. It is very closely related to Tamil, Sholaga, Yerukala, and other forms of Tamil. The Irulas in the Nilgiris district strictly follow endogamy. Endogamy is a method of marriage or practice where the marriage is performed within the same community, that is, the bride and groom must belong to the same community, and their society is characterized as patriarchal.[25] Trapping snakes and rats are the primary occupations of Irulas. They also consider fishing as their minor occupation.[26] As the Government of India banned the act of trapping snakes, the community of Irulas gave up the acquisition of their clan and began working as a daily laborer (coolies) in the fields of landowners during the period of sowing and harvesting.[27] Irulas have special cultural and religious practices with the worship of the Goddess “Kanniamma.”[28]


The word “Paniyan” literally means a “worker.” It is a modified form of the Malayalam word “Panikkar” (laborers), they live on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu.[23] The Paniyans speak the language “Paniya” combined with Malayalam and Tamil. Their primary God is called “Kali,” and they also worship the “Banyan trees.”[29] The appearances of the Paniyan tribes can be described with their broad, dark skin, short noses, and curly or wavy hair. Hence, they are generally believed to be of African descent. The main occupation of the Paniyan tribes is working as laborers on tea and coffee plantations, cattle rearing, engaging in agricultural activities, identifying and harvesting medicinal plants and tubers, and collecting and selling firewood. However, the traditional occupations of the Paniyan tribal group are hunting and gathering. Currently, the Paniyas earn their income by working in the fields of the Chetti landowners.[10]


The word “Kattunayakan” literally means “Chief of the forest,” which is derived from two words “kattu or kadu” which means “forest” and “nayakan” meaning “chief.”[10] The Kattunayakan tribes are recognized by names such as “Sikarinayakan” and “Kadu” or “Shola Nayakans.” They are recorded under the Irula, Golla, Thottiyan, and Korava divisions. They are traditional hunters and gatherers of forest products and are skilled in collecting wild honey and wax.[30] The Kattunayakas speak mixed languages such as Tamil and Telugu and they also speak other languages such as Kannada and Malayalam as they are nomadic people.[31] The Kattunayakan tribes mainly live in the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala and are considered to be the modern representatives of the ancient “Pallavas.” The Kattunayakan tribes generally appear short, dark skinned with protruding foreheads.[32] Kattunayakas worship the Goddess “Jakkamma” and “Mallaiyar,” as the Gods of the mountains. To the west of Kadakalu village is the Jakkamma temple and the Mallaiyar temple is on the road to Dindigul and Karur in Padiyur.[8] They also worship God “Shiva” in the name of “Bairavan” and like instrumental music, songs, and dances.[29]

   Health Status of Tribal Populations in India Top

Health is a prerequisite for human development and is an essential component of the well-being of humankind. Health care is one of the most important of all human endeavors to improve the quality of life, especially of the tribal people. Health problems of tribal communities have been profoundly influenced by different factors such as social, cultural, educational, economic, and political practices. Unsanitary conditions, ignorance, and lack of personal hygiene are also the main influencing determinants for their ill-health.[6] In India, most of the tribal peoples who reside within or nearby the forest areas depend on the medicinal plants which are available in their local environment, tends to cure various ailments such as cold, cough, indigestion, dysentery, fever, headache, jaundice, joint pain, skin disease, stomach ulcer, toothache, nausea, female infertility, anthelmintic, psoriasis and wound healing.[33],[34] Furthermore, many studies have found that utilization of modern health-care facilities is very poor among tribal populations owing to differences in infrastructure, human resources, supplies, and spatial distribution.[2]

Due to the lack of health-care facilities and easy availability of medicinal plants in their local environment, traditional healing is often the first contact of treatment options among these tribes.[35] In recent days, these tribes are facing threats of a high degree toward modern medicine opting out from traditional healing to modern treatment. Their misery is compounded by poverty, illiteracy, ignorance of the cause of disease, a holistic environment, and poor sanitation. Therefore, they do not come to avail modern system of medicines, and alternatively, herbal medicine or indigenous is their first preference of treatment which is obtained through local people. This leads to the lack of intervention for many diseases such as communicable diseases, noncommunicable diseases (NCD), hereditary genetic diseases, vector-borne diseases, and occupational diseases.[36]

Communicable diseases

The people in their daily life consciously or subconsciously modify the environment and ecological aspects of their habitat, which in turn increase the risk of communicable diseases. The communicable diseases are transmitted from an infected person to a healthy person by direct or indirect contact through infectious agents such as bacteria, protozoa, viruses, parasitic worms, and fungi through indirect agents such as breathing, sputum, stool, saliva, and urine. Several communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, hepatitis, sexually transmitted diseases, malaria, filariasis, diarrhea and dysentery, jaundice, parasitic infestation, viral and fungal infections, conjunctivitis, yaws, scabies, measles, leprosy, cough and cold, and HIV/AIDS are more prevalent among the tribes of India due to lack of sanitation and personal hygiene. They frequently become victims of repeated epidemics of the above mentioned contagious diseases.[13],[37] A seroprevalence study on Irula tribes of Marakkanam, Tamil Nadu state, reported that certain bacterial and viral infections such as leptospirosis (61.1%), hepatitis B virus surface antigen (11.11%), syphilis (9.72%), typhoid (8.33%), hantavirus (6.9%), and HIV (2.77%) were highest among them.[26]

Noncommunicable diseases

NCDs are the major public health issues for tribes in most countries and a major challenge for health-care systems. Rapid urbanization has led to changes in daily activity, diet, and lifestyle leading to NCDs such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, neuropsychiatric disorders, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer. Thus, NCDs have surpassed communicable diseases in the global prevalence in the last decade.[38] Within the Indian context, tribal populations restricted to rural areas are associated with poverty, illiteracy, and malnutrition. Thus, they are assumed to be untouched by NCDs which are lifestyle-driven diseases. However, recent studies have produced evidence for the increasing trend of NCDs among tribal populations.[2],[39] A study carried out among the tribal population of Tamil Nadu observed a high prevalence of hypertension (16.7%) and diabetes (3.1% in males and 4.2% in females).[2] In a study done by Radhakrishnan in Yercaud, the prevalence of diabetes was found to be 5% in males and 5.5% in females.[40] The prevalence of tobacco utilization was revealed to be higher (more than 60%) among both males and females among the tribal population.[41] The WHO on its website affirms that the heavy use of tobacco is one of the main contributing factors toward the growing incidence of various cancers.[42]

Hereditary genetic diseases

Hereditary genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia, alpha- and beta-thalassemia, and glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) deficiency are highly prevalent among the tribal peoples due to the consanguinity and endogamous marriage practice and it is one of the major health problems in these tribes.[36] Hemoglobinopathies is a common term that includes all inherited genetic hemoglobin disorders associated with the structure and function of hemoglobin. These hereditary genetic disorders of Hb are regulated by a single gene and are passing on from one generation to the next.[43] Hemoglobinopathies are of two categories according to the pathophysiological mechanisms: (i) those caused by a hereditary structural modification in one of the globin chains leading to abnormal physical properties of the Hb, for example, SCA (qualitative changes) and (ii) hereditary deficiency in the production of one or more Hb chains leading to ineffective erythropoiesis, a variable degree of anemia, and hemolysis, for example, thalassemia (quantitative changes).[44] Thalassemia is categorized generally into two types: (i) α-type when the α-globin formation is deficient and (ii) β-type when the β-globin production is incomplete. If α-globin chains are not formed in sufficient quantities, there will be an increased level of β-globin chains (α-thalassemia); if β-globin chains are insufficiently synthesized, then α-globin chain production will go high (β-thalassemia).[45] G6PD deficiency is also a genetic abnormality that results in an inadequate amount of G6PD in the blood.[46],[47] In India, more than 30 million people are carriers of the thalassemia gene. Annually, 10% of global thalassemia children are born in India.[48] The prevalence of sickle gene in the tribal populations as reported from different Indian states is 24% in Chhattisgarh,[49] 8.2% in western Odisha,[50] 6.9%–18.65% in southern Gujarat,[51] 9.2% in Rajasthan,[52] 0%–24% in Maharashtra,[53] and 1%–40% in Tamil Nadu.[54] G6PD deficiency is present in about 15 million tribes who reside primarily in high-incidence malaria zones in the states of Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, and Tamil Nadu.[55]

Vector-borne diseases

According to the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme, several types of vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya, Japanese encephalitis, kala-azar, and lymphatic filariasis[56] are more prevalent among tribal groups who are highly susceptible due to the climatic diversity favoring the growth and proliferation of the parasites and vectors.[57] Falciparum malaria is one of the biggest illnesses being faced by tribal population. About 95% population in the country resides in malaria-endemic areas and 80% of malaria reported in the country is confined to areas consisting 20% of the population residing in tribal, hilly, difficult, and inaccessible areas.[58]

Occupational diseases

An occupational disease is any chronic ailment that occurs as a result of work or occupational activity. It is an aspect of occupational safety and health. Owing to the diverse ethnic background, culture, habitat, and behavioral habits, tribes are expected to have occupational and/or community-specific risk factors. Occupational health diseases faced by tribal communities revealed that the peoples who were involved in work-related activities such as the cultivation of vegetables, embroidery, pottery and carpentry, blacksmiths, hunters and food gatherers, painting and witchcraft, rat and snake catchers, fishing, and collection of honey and wax are exposed to multiple health issues and the prevalence of diseases varies from season to season. There are limited studies available related to occupational health diseases among tribes in India. Velvizhi and Gopalakrishnan[59] reported that various health hazards such as catfish sting, oyster lesions, mouth ulcer, crab bite, rabbitfish bite, hair bleaching and skin darkening, fingernail cavities and black or infected nails, skin softening, skin rash, leg, knee, and back pain, shivering and fever, stomach ulcers, lightning, and thunder strikes faced by Irular tribal fisherwomen while groping for shrimps and fishing in the Pichavaram mangrove waters, Chidambaram, Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu. Another study reported that the seroprevalence of leptospirosis and hantavirus may be attributed to Irular tribes (Marakkanam, Tamil Nadu state, India) for their professional exposure to a rodent that they catch in the open field, and syphilis, hepatitis B virus, and HIV prevalence may be related to their sexual behavior and social customs.[26]

   Conclusion Top

Although some of the tribes of Tamil Nadu are now modernized to an extent, they still adapt their traditional and basic cultural practices, such as their primitive system of marriages, customs, worship rituals, community events, daily beliefs, and medicinal practices, that are still existing among them to date. However, the primitive tribes or the highly marginalized tribal communities still lead their lives isolated from the general population, and they do lead their livelihood with nil or basic requirements. Tribal populations are exceedingly disease prone as they do not have access to basic health-care facilities. The health problems need special attention in the context of the tribal communities of India. Therefore, tribal health should be given priority and adequate health-care infrastructure should be developed in tribal areas to cater to their health needs. However, adequate steps must be taken by the government to prepare and implement sustainable and holistic livelihood schemes for these tribes, as well as to ensure that the schemes reach the grassroots level of these vulnerable tribal communities for their social and economic well-being and upliftment, rendering them adaptable to the current living conditions. Accordingly, the review article emphasizes the importance of the efforts of the government and nongovernmental organizations to develop sustainable life support for PVTGs on a long-term basis.


This review article is part of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) extramural research study (NIE/IHEC/201901-02) after obtaining necessary approvals from the Institutional Human Ethics Committee (IHEC) and Scientific Advisory Committee of ICMR-National Institute of Epidemiology, Chennai.

Financial support and sponsorship

The corresponding author received funding from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) extramural research grant for the study titled “Prevalence and severity of haemoglobin disorders (haemoglobinopathies and glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency) and the measures of multi-morbidity and morbidity burden of selected hemoglobinopathies among tribal population of Tamil Nadu.” ICMR Extramural Research Grants No. Tribal/CFP/4/2018-ECD-II Dated 14/05/2019 (IRIS ID No. 2018-3075).

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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  [Table 1], [Table 2]


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