Ode to Exploration: Irula

The Secret Viper, 1801

The Secret Viper, 1801

 

The Irula collection explores one of India’s oldest indigenous communities, the Irula tribe and their marveled relationship with the most venomous creatures of the continent, the snake. Commonly recognized as the snake people of the south, the indigenous Irula tribe is known for their ancient and intimate knowledge of the land and its inhabitants. Their skills form a vital yet nearly unseen part of India’s healthcare system through venom extraction.

 
Irula men, Neelgerry Hills, 1868

Irula men, Neelgerry Hills, 1868

Irula men, 1871-72

Irula men, 1871-72

 

Although the origins of ‘Irular’ or “Irula” remain unclear, some surmise the word stems from ‘Irul’ meaning darkness, in reference to the dark skin complexion of the people, as the Dravidian speakers themselves believed to have originated from the darkness. Additionally, ‘Irul’ can be translated to the word ‘night’ in Tamil. According to the tribe, for thousands of years, they served the Chola dynasty, a 3rd century BC empire (one of the longest-ruling dynasties in history) as night guards before the empires’ demise.

 
SNAKE, John Bernard Flannagan, 1938

SNAKE, John Bernard Flannagan, 1938

 

As centuries passed, the Irula began to specialize in rat and snake catching. Today, the tribe is well-known for its snake-hunting skills. Anti-venom created from the venom they extract from these same snakes has significantly impacted the treatment of snakebites in India, as the anti-venom produced is used to supply hospitals across the country. Such expertise has been able to generate much needed income for the tribe who are official members of the Irula Snake Catcher’s Co-Operative, an organization founded by wildlife conservationist, Romulus Whitaker.

 
Small Vipers,  Journal Bombay Natural Hist. Society , 1973

Small Vipers, Journal Bombay Natural Hist. Society, 1973

 
 
Venom extraction

Venom extraction

 
The Irula Snake Catcher’s Co-Operative

The Irula Snake Catcher’s Co-Operative

 
The Hindu Chennai , Cure, the Irula way, 2004

The Hindu Chennai, Cure, the Irula way, 2004

 
Some refer to them as skilled snake hunters while some may think they are just another dying tribal community. However, not many are aware of the Irula community’s ability to identify various medicinal plants and prepare cures for several ailments.
— The Hindu Chennai, Cure, the Irula way, 2004
 
 
 
Saw-scaled Vipers

Saw-scaled Vipers

Thangaraj Sadaiyan, Snake Catcher

Thangaraj Sadaiyan, Snake Catcher

 
Venom extraction

Venom extraction

Following the 1972 Indian import and export ban of exotic and reptile skins, the Co-Operative was established to support the marginalized snake-catching tribe through utilizing their special skillset to supply medical industries with venom for anti-venom treatments. The process typically includes the catching of wild snakes, the extraction of their venom, and finally their release back into the wild.

 
Thangaraj in our Anjuna belt bag in Toffee

Thangaraj in our Anjuna belt bag in Toffee

 
 
 
Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu, India

Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu, India

 
Thangaraj in our classic Cherai in Lapis

Thangaraj in our classic Cherai in Lapis

No matter who calls for help, I reach as fast as I can. It’s my life’s calling, ... I love them... I think I have been sent by God to do this.
— Vava Suresh, Spurned by the Snakeman, India Today; New Delhi
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