Nilgiriology, One Earth Foundation Nilgiris, Tribes of Nilgiris

Father of Nilgiriology: Prof Paul Hockings

Prof. Paul Hockings

Prof. Paul Hockings

Prof Paul Hockings is the Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Illinois, USA. He is also the Adjunct Curator of Anthropology at the Field Museum of Natural History and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Visual Anthropology’.

Prof Hockings has been researching the Nilgiris, particularly the Badagas, since 1962 resulting in a number of authoritative publications including Encyclopaedia of the Nilgiri Hills, So Long a Saga: Badaga Social History, Badaga-English Dictionary, Counsel from the Ancients: A Study of Badaga Proverbs, Prayers, Omens and Curses, Blue Mountains: The Ethnology and Bio-geography of a South Indian Region and Blue Mountains Revisited: Cultural Studies on the Nilgiri Hills.  Prof. Hocking’s massive contribution has paved the way for the Nilgiri studies being classified today as Nilgiriology.
The Nilgiri Documentation Centre will honour Prof Hockings, in absentia, with the The Nilgiris Lifetime Achievement Award 2015 on February 23 when Prof Hockings turns 80.  We are pleased to receive from the Nilgiris Documentation Center and share with our readers an interview with Prof. Paul Hockings

Why is Nilgiris so fascinating for foreign scholars?

There are several reasons. One is the extreme diversity in such a small area: biological diversity, yes, but also cultural and linguistic diversity. A district of just under 1000 square miles has roughly 17 indigenous groups, plus immigrants from all over South India and a smattering of Europeans too; and speaking a dozen Nilgiri languages plus English, Hindi and the major Dravidian languages.

A second attraction is the scenic beauty of the district, which appeals even to the hard scientist, and always provides a pleasant, healthy environment to be working in.

But perhaps the most attractive feature for scholars, Indian or foreign, is the amount of research work that has already been done here. Nilgiri research in the natural and social sciences stretches back two centuries. The bibliography of well over 8000 books and articles on Nilgiri topics is unmatched in any other area of South Asia that is of comparable size. This means that no matter what you plan to study there is already a large literature on the subject. That can mean more reading for the serious student, but at the same time it means that he or she does not have to start from scratch in understanding the topic of research. And the range of disciplines for which there is so much literature is itself large: agriculture, anthropology, astronomy, botany, climatology, costume, epidemiology, forestry, geography, geology, history, linguistics, literature, music, plantations, public health, religions, and zoology.

How significant is Nilgiriology today?

Because of this huge literature, scholars from numerous countries have often chosen to locate their research in the Nilgiris. One remarkable statistic from this district is the fact that its literature includes over 120 master’s and doctoral research theses: again, something that is unmatched in quantity in any other small region of South Asia.

Is the interest in Nilgiris sustained today by the younger generations?

Younger generations of scholars are still interested in working on the Nilgiri, and do so. There is no obvious falling-off in interest in the community. Younger Badagas are sometimes interested in their community’s history, but sometimes not. Those who have migrated to distant parts are often curious readers of the literature on Badagas, as they haven’t received much common lore from their relatives and want to know more about their culture.

Is the focus of Nilgiris studies changing?

In the natural sciences all the latest concerns may be read in today’s research literature, especially in the realm of environmentalism. Since the Badaga community have proved themselves to be forward-looking, and have successfully moved into the Indian middle class through their long-standing emphasis on education and a common desire to adopt urban professions, anthropological studies nowadays tend to view this community as a model for self-motivated development. I certainly hold that view.

Why have you studied the Badagas for half a century?

The main reason for studying the Badagas, from 1962 onwards, was that the neighbouring Toda and Kota communities were known worldwide through the anthropological work of Rivers, Emeneau and Mandelbaum, whereas the largest and economically dominant local community, the Badagas, remained in the shadows. Given that there had always been a complex ritual and economic interchange between these three groups, it seemed imperative that the Badagas’ role in it should be documented in detail. The fact that in the late 20th century Anthony Walker was doing a comprehensive re-study of the Todas made it all the more useful to examine the Badaga case in detail for the first time.

How do you see the transformation of Badagas over the period?

I have spelled out this transformation fully in my recent book, So Long a Saga: Four Centuries of Badaga Social History (Manohar, 2013). The major changes started early in the 20th century when a few Badagas began going to college, a few others started small tea plantations, and potato farming took off as a profitable commercial enterprise. With Badagas taking up positions in law, administration and teaching, their enhanced position in modern society was assured. The control of population growth through the adoption of family planning practices since the 1970s was another, equally important factor in their modernization.

How long an existence qualifies a people/group to be called natives?

This has never been determined by social scientists, and perhaps cannot because it depends very much on how the group behave and what attitudes others develop towards them. In this regard I like to draw a contrast between the English and the Parsis. The English have been in England for about 1500 years and everyone, especially they themselves, consider them as natives there. The Parsis have been in Western India for nearly as long, perhaps 1200-1300 years, yet very many would hold they are not Indian natives and they themselves make no attempt to hide their cultural origins in Persia. The English, in contrast, are unaware of their origin in Schleswig-Holstein. So it is more a matter of attitude than of the actual number of years involved.

How do you define the Badaga society today?

The Badagas do still have a distinctive culture which sets them apart from those of their close neighbours, the Todas, Kotas and immigrant groups from the plains. For an anthropologist two features define Badaga society today: use of the Badaga language, and intermarriage only with other Badagas. Thus there can be little argument about whether some particular individual is a Badaga or not.

Are Badagas natives/tribes/indigenous community?

The term “tribe” was a useful one, universally used by British administrators in India to describe and census categories of the population that were not embedded in the caste system as Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas or Sudras. Tribes tended to have their own territory, often their own language, their own system of leadership, sometimes a distinctive economic base, and certainly a tribal name. All of this helped distinguish a tribe from a caste. But quite recently anthropologists have been abandoning the use of the word “tribe” in India for the equally ambiguous phrase “indigenous community” —  ambiguous, as I have stated, because it is unclear how “native” any particular group is. This however is the term I would now use to identify the Badaga community. Two centuries ago Badagas were already telling inquisitive visitors that their ancestors had come from a small block of villages just to the northeast of Nanjangud after the Vijayanagar Empire broke up. There were even a few Badagas in Melkunda in 1603 who spoke to a Jesuit visitor, Fr. Fenicio, in Kannada, and gave their name as Badegas, “northerners”. Since that crucial move Badagas have embedded themselves totally in the larger Nilgiri society, becoming like a tribe among tribes.

Paul Hockings

16 Feb. 2015


(Our special thanks goes out to The Nilgiris Documentation Center for sharing the interview with Prof. Paul Hockings.)


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