Ode to Exploration: Irula
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.
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.
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.
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.