Kolli Malayalis -the people of BOP
10 May 2013
Kolli Malayali are the original people of the area and today there are around 50 000-60 000 of them living in 275 villages. Last census was carried out in 2001 and no-one knows the exact current population. They have been given a status of scheduled tribals, due to their economic and societal backwardness and they are entitled to certain government privileges and developmental favoritism in order to bridge the gap with other Indian communities. However, most of the people in the area are still living in intense poverty.
The 98% Hindu population and few Christians are getting well along together and there is no history of religious conflicts in the area. Ethnically the people living in Kolli Hills look exactly like the lowlanders, but there are some differences in their appearance. Kollis are generally skinnier and there are very few obese people around, unlike elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, where good portion of upper and middle class seem to be overweight. Many Kolli people do heavy physical work and are used to walking a lot in the hills thus getting more than enough of physical exercise. There are also more unwashed people with unclean clothes. That is likely a consequence of hard laboring and general poverty. They also have rougher faces with more scars indicating of demanding life. Men are wearing more traditional lungis (sarong) instead of trousers, while many women wear loose night dress type outfits or saris.
While people were generally very friendly and curious towards me, there are certain codes of conduct and taboos to be respected. For instance pictures cannot be taken of young women, little babies or religious shrines without permission. Even saying hello to a female can be considered highly offensive and trigger a conflict. I did not experience that in first hand, but were told on several occasions by my assistants to be careful when young women were around, as their relatives and companions might get wrong thoughts.
Even if most people are living in substantial poverty, people appear to be happy and content in their lives. Most of them would not want to live elsewhere even if the opportunity arises, as their identity is strongly associated with their families, communities and to the land of the Kolli Hills.