Irula tribals embrace a new faith

By Annu Kaushik |

At the first glance, Muthukumar’s house would seem like any other household in Vembedu, an Irula settlement 3 km from the Meyyur village in Thiruvallur district, Tamil Nadu, expect for a Bible and a calendar given by the local church.

Muthukumar (25), a wood-cutter by profession and a father of two converted to Christianity last year. He resorted to ‘faith healing’ after prolonged ill effects of a snake bite. His grandfather’s traditional medicines didn’t help him so he turned to prayers.

The Irulas are a marginalized tribal community who earlier relied on snake hunting for their livelihood. In the neighbouring Kanchipuram district, they have some support from the Irula co-operatives.

The Vembedu settlement houses five Christian families which is not unusual as on the way to Meyyur village, three churches function. According to the 2011 census, Christians formed close to six per cent of the total population of the Thiruvallur district.

Muthukumar’s sister-in-law, Mariamma was the family’s first convert. “This church was built because Meyyur is too far for us,” said Mariamma pointing to a rectangle shaped structure built from bamboo and haystacks. The structure did not even remotely resemble the traditional architecture of a church which in its most basic form has a main hall, an aisle and a bell fry.

The pastor provided them with a kit of basic toiletries, including toothpaste and oil, every month.

She converted to Christianity 15 years ago when doctors were unable to heal certain reproductive problems that she was going through. According to her, the pastor’s prayer healed her.

There are a total of five Christian families in the village, all belonging to the Protestant sect.

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Mariamma’s entire family- a daughter and two sons converted to Christianity. She maintained that the conversions were not ‘forced’. “It was only during Christmas that the pastor got us goods like food etc. but we weren’t offered any money,” said Mariamma.

She holds the pastor, Ashok Kumar, himself a Scheduled Caste (SC) convert from Meyyur village in high regard. She mainly seeks medical help from him since the nearest hospitals are in Uttikottai, 18 km away and on Red Hills, 25 km away.

The Christian families claim that there was animosity between them and other Irula families in Vembedu, initially after the conversions but it never escalated into violence.

The Meyyur village, where the Panchayat is located, has five churches and more than 20 Christian families.

Sharanya Kumar (23) is enrolled in a B.Ed course. Her grandfather converted to Christianity years ago and now her brother Ashok Kumar (27) is the pastor. The main church of the village is maintained by their family and her mother has purchased a piece of land to build another church. Their diocese is the Church of South India.

According the Sharanya, people take up Christianity on their own and many Muslims and Hindus of the village also come to attend the Christmas mass.

Her family denied providing any ‘privileges’ to the Christian converts in the area maintaining that they themselves were middle class and did not have much money to give anyway.

The church in Vembedu doubled as a prayer make-shift prayer-hall and classroom. An educated youth named Nagaraj was sent every day to the settlement to give free tuitions to school children by the church. But the tuition is only meant for the Christian children. As you leave the children are asked by their teacher to be prepared for the Bible lessons that will take place the next day.

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