Eco-spirituality in the face of climate change: Learning from the Kaani (Kani) community of Kanyakumari District – Tamil Nadu & Kerala


Davidson Sargunam (Nagercoil) & S Suja (Associate Professor, Women’s Christian College, College Road, Chennai)


The Kaani tribal people live in 48 Tribal Settlements in the deep jungles and forests of Kanyakumari in the Western Ghats. They live in consonance with Nature and derive everything from nature for their sustenance and livelihood. They are animists and spirit worshippers with staunch belief in Benevolent and Malevolent Spirits. They are deeply anchored in their spiritual values and belief systems. Spirituality is the fabric that forms the complex web of linkage to the cosmos. Their eco-spirituality is inextricably linked with forest ecology and bio-diversity through their traditional culture.

Owing to the impact of climate change–the taste of nature’s wrath, the tribal people are destined to face a host of challenges in the agricultural, food security, economic, social and cultural spheres. By the impact of globalization, free trade and the communication revolution non-tribesmen are gradually invading the indigenous areas and intrude into their spiritual realms by introduction of their Gods, Goddesses and deities. They systematically and surreptitiously exploit their economy and devalue the indigenous culture. They clandestinely deprive their traditional spiritual culture and fervour making them vulnerable to external oppressive, exploitative forces.

Key Words: spirits, cosmos, nature, Western Ghats, globalization, exploit, biodiversity


Mountains are among the regions most affected by climate change. Rising temperatures, disappearing glaciers, increasing weather hazards and loss of biodiversity are destabilising the delicate balance of mountain ecosystems and the food security and livelihoods of mountain people. Mountains are also home to many of the world’s indigenous cultures and languages. They are rich but fragile repositories of biodiversity, water and ecosystem services containing nearly 50 per cent of the world’s biodiversity hot-spots and providing freshwater resources for half of its population.

Climate change is a threat to all these communities and landscapes, although to different degrees. At stake are unique agricultural traditions and crops that have evolved in mountain bio-cultural systems. Six of the world’s 20 main food crops originated in the mountains, and a large number of domesticated animals including sheep, goats, yaks, llamas and alpacas. In many mountain regions, indigenous and traditional peoples already face drastic changes in their food and agricultural systems.

Climate change, caused by human actions is having a huge negative impact on the world’s most vulnerable people who have done the least cause for climate change. It is making poverty worse, floods more frequent and famines longer. It is making life more difficult for those already surviving in hostile environments on the margins of the habitable world. It is changing weather patterns upon which countless human and animal and other creatures’ lives depend and rendering generations of ancestral knowledge about the environment useless.

Indigenous traditions, closely tied to their bioregions for food, and material resources for clothing, shelter and cultural activities tend to have their environmental ethics embedded in their views. Ritual calendars are derived from the cycles of nature, as the appearance of the sun or the moon or the seasonal return of specific animals and plants. Indigenous communities have a very light environmental foot print compared with industrial societies.

“The spiritual traditions of indigenous mountain peoples are rooted in a deep respect for all forms of life and the relationships between them,” says Krystyna Swiderska of the International Institute for Environment and Development.

“The cultural and spiritual values of indigenous peoples are critical to developing appropriate strategies to climate change adaptation in agriculture” says Alejandro Argumedo, Director of Association, ANDES.

The Kaani tribe

There are people of indigenous religions 228 million in 2000 at the global level with a share of world population 3.8 per cent. According to the 2001 census, in Tamil Nadu the Kaani tribe comprises about 1% of the total population (6, 51,321) and there are 36 tribal communities listed in the 2001 census report, among which 6 are primitive tribes. The Kaani tribal community is one among them in Tamil Nadu.

In olden days they lived in tree top houses and caves. They live in small huts, built up of bamboo and wild grass. The walls are made of flattened bamboo and floors by mud.  There are no separate rooms in the huts. The hut has a single room, which is called ‘Padi’, ‘Kanikkudi’, ‘Kanipatti’.

The existence of nature-man and spirit continuum is highlighted in the life of the Kaani tribe. The existence of spirits in nature has entirely different concepts from other religious communities and the Kaani tribal people are Animists. They believe in the invisible spirit or supernatural powers and call the spirits as deities with different names. Animals, ponds, trees, rivers, stones, cliffs or mountains are the residences of spirits.  It is their firm belief that the tribe lives constantly under the vigilant eyes of spirits. The divine is pervading everywhere: it is in anything and everything, and can spring up at any moment (Harper 1957).  This concept of animism is developed from the association of specific trees, plants, animals, stones, and other objects with local divinities (Elmore 1913; Whitehead 1921).

The due veneration of their ancestors occupies an inevitable place in the tribal religious belief and they staunchly believe in Malevolent and Benevolent spirits. The world of the tribe is linked with sacredness, religiosity and reverence for nature. Nature  lives in cosmos, earth, land and all that are in it are considered as sacred and that they live in consonance with nature. The history, stories, legends, myths and rituals are like a sacred scripture around which their life revolves.

Photo courtesy Davidson Sargunam >>

The tribal community worships the spirits as Kalattu Thampuran, Mallan Thampuran, Kaatarutha Thampuran, Keelz-malai Thampuran, Kala-pei, Vadakka–pei, Ellaikal-samy, Kalli-kutty, Auyirra valli, Karumpaandi, Mallan-karung-kaali, Thampuran, Sathan pottyie, Puli-chaavu, Aray-illa etc. They periodically conduct ‘Koduthi’ which is a ritual to appease the spirits by offering banana, flattened rice, betal with areca nut, tobacco, turmeric and the toddy of a wild palm (Arenga wightii), during the Tamil month Karthigai, that usually falls from mid-November to mid-December.

The Kaani tribal people grow some specific plants as sacred in the vicinity of their houses and temples as Aegle marmelos, Aerva lanata, Azadirachta indica, Cassia auriculata, Cynodon dactylon, Ficus bengalensis, Ficus religiosa, Gomphrena celosioides, Limonia acidissima, Mangifera indica, Mimusops elengi, Ocimum tenuiflorum, Pongamia pinnata, Syzygium cumini and Vitex negundo.

Ritual has a major role in environmental ethics among the Kaani tribe. They maintain religious or ritual representation of resource management. Before cutting a tree, they perform a Pooja, by the clan priest-magician name ‘Pilathi’ to the Spirits with the belief that they are killing a tree with a life and the Spirit residing in the tree should not revenge them. While constructing a hut with forest wood, they perform another ritual by the ‘Pilathi’ that the spirit should allow the inmates of the hut to live in peace and harmony.

Impact of climate change on forests

Apart from timber and fuel production, the wide range of services supplied by the forests includes non-timber forest products, such as fruits and mushrooms, providing wildlife habitats, soil and water protection, biodiversity conservation, tourism and recreation opportunities and medicinal plants.An increasingly important service of the forests is carbon sink and preservation.

It is likely that changing temperature and precipitation pattern will produce a strong direct impact on both natural and modified forests. The climate change-induced modifications of frequency and intensity of forest wildfires, outbreaks of insects and pathogens, and extreme events such as high winds, may be more important than the direct impact of higher temperatures and elevated CO2. The damage from the extreme events such as a severe drought can be further aggravated by increased damage from insect outbreaks and wildfire.

The response of forestry to global warming is likely to be multifaceted. On some sites, species more appropriate to the climate will replace the earlier species that is no longer suited to the climate. Also, planted forests can be relocated to more regions with more suitable climates. In general, people expect planting and associated forestry operations to tend more toward higher latitudes, especially from some tropical sites, should they warm substantially.

Ethical Consumption

Religion has a strong role in restraining consumption for the Kaani tribal people that they abstain from consuming cow’s milk. Cow is regarded in India as a sacred animal and extracting its milk for human food is a great sin against God. They question that is it fair on the part of humans to consume God’s milk. They are not beef eaters, that eating God’s meat is equally a great sin against God. They are not in the habit of domesticating cows. Many of the Kaani tribal people abstain from consuming wild pork, as wild boar is not a clean animal as it forages on dirt and muddy areas.


Agriculture is a major occupation of them cultivating tapioca and a host of a dozen tubers, pine apple, banana, sapota, mango, guava, lime, lemon and other horticulture crops. They do the agriculture in hill slopes and forest lands after weeding out the under-growth. They cultivate rubber, banana, areca nut, coconut, coffee, pepper and other spices. Their agricultural pattern purely depends on the two monsoons, South West and North East. The drinking water need is fulfilled by drawing the water flowing down from rivulets and oozing from the mountains. There is no systematically managed, protected water supply scheme in the forests for the tribal people. When monsoons fail, severe drinking water scarcity prevails. Due to the impact of climate change, drought prevailed for the last three years and they could not perform their agricultural operations.

Nuts from a palm tree harvested for local consumption
Photo courtesy Davidson Sargunam >>

Food Security

Owing to the impact of climate change, food security is threatened as agricultural operations could not be carried out. The tribal people while harvesting their produce consume the produce for them and sell the remaining food materials to others. The drought condition aggravated resulting in water scarcity for agriculture. They have to trek for many kilometers to secure a pot of drinking water. The degradation of rivers, forests, water and other eco-processes also result in loss of traditional tribal food as wild honey, mushrooms, tubers and greens, which they collect and hunt from the forests. Tribal Foundation, an NGO provided open wells and synthetic water containers on war-footing to meet their drinking water crisis in some of the Settlements.

Economic Impacts

The impact of climate change has resulted in economic crisis that they had to borrow money for their routine expenses and for emergency expenses from usurious money lender, who charge exorbitant rates of interest. Some money lenders exploit them by securing all their rubber and other agricultural produce by giving them advance money. All their agricultural produce are secured by the moneylender at a very cheaper rate than the market value. The tribal people could not get redemption from the money lenders even after 10 or 15 years, for the money they borrow. The income derived from herb collection is also lost as herbal biodiversity is dwindling in the forests and hills. To maintain their survival, they have to resort to coolie labour in the private plantations in neighbouring State of Kerala.

Social Impacts

“In coming decades, climate change will motivate or force millions of people to leave their homes in search of viable livelihoods and safety,” said the report, supported by the UN University (UNU), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Bank, Columbia University and the non-governmental organization CARE. Environmental degradation can also be the cause, rather than the effect, of the migration of a large number of people, for example in the case of environmental catastrophes, land degradation and drought. Large-scale resettlement schemes can also result in huge numbers of the population being uprooted. UN agencies and International Organization for Migration (IOM) have adopted terms like “environmental migrant”, “environmentally displaced person (EDP),” and “environmentally motivated migrant” to describe those who experience environmentally induced migration.

Consequent to the impact of climate change, many tribal people migrate seeking coolie labour in neighouring Kerala State, neighbouring districts in Tamil Nadu and towns to meet their expenses for economic and social survival. Migration results in leaving the aged persons and women and children at home, who have to do the odd works, which are usually done by the menfolk. The cultural and traditional values are gradually lost by the impact of migration.

During the last two decades, greedy non-tribesmen intrude into the Tribal Settlements with the surreptitious intention to encroach the rich forest lands, illegally marry tribal women or keep them as concubines to clandestinely secure the rich lands allotted to the tribal people by the government authorities. The non-tribesmen indulge in destroying the ecosystem by plunder and looting the forest resources as valuable timber and forest resources. They have introduced their Gods, Goddesses and deities and brainwash the tribal community with religious fanaticism to translate into action their ulterior motives. Consequently, the tribal people are gradually losing their traditional eco-spirituality and allied aspects. The tribal people are made to celebrate the religious festivities of the non-tribesmen and made to renegade their rich traditional hoary culture. Acculturation and cross-culturation occur owing to these intrusions and the tribal culture is systematically devalued and relegated to the background.

As there is no proper documentation of their rich culture, there is dire threat of extinction of it, which is a rich repository of ethno-botany, oral traditions with songs and stories, dialectical language, dance and eco-friendly tools and equipment to counter man versus animal conflict.

Concerted efforts using multimedia to document the rich repository of the eco-spirituality and the traditional cultural heritage of the Kaani tribe would serve as an asset to posterity.



  • Suresh Awasthi, Performance Tradition in India, First Reprint 2009, National Book Trust, New Delhi-70
  • Gary Gardener, 2002, Invoking the Spirit, Worldwatch Paper, Washington, USA
  • Alice Mckeown, Vital signs 2010, worldwatch Institute, Washington, USA
  • Andreas Nehring, Ecology: A theological Pesponse, 1993, Gurukul Summer Institute, Chennai-10
  • Basil Pohlong, Culture and Religion,2004, Mittal publications, New Delhi-59
  • Davidson Sargunam, S. et al., 2013, Biodiversity for Economic Security, Proceedings of the National Conference on Biodiversity-Green Strategies for Sustainable Development, GK Publishers, Chennai-45
  • Davidson Sargunam, S. et al., 2011, Economic Value of Forests and Economic Development of the Kaani tribe of Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu ,BRICS, Economic Shift, Excel Publishers, New Delhi-67
  • Davidson Sargunam, S. et al, 2010, India Vision 2020- Sustainable Development of Land, Forest and Bio-diversity resources of Kanyakumari forests incorporating Kaani tribals in the Development


Text and photos courtesy Davidson Sargunam (received by email 4 July 2015)

1.2 Climate Change: The Indian Context
India is facing the challenge of sustaining its rapid economic growth while dealing with the issue of climate change. India is highly vulnerable to climate change, not only because of high physical exposure to climate-related disasters (65% of India is drought prone, 12% flood prone, and 8% susceptible to cyclones) but also because of the dependency of its economy and majority of population on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, forests, fisheries, tourism, animal husbandry, and fisheries. Climate change is expected to increase relative stress on water resources due to the decline in rainfall, with impact on water availability (per capita water availability is expected to decrease from 1820 m3/year in 2001 to 1140 m3/year in 2050) and agriculture/food security (60% of crop area in India is under rain-fed agriculture). Any adverse impact on water availability due to recession in certain pockets would threaten food security, cause die back of natural ecosystems including species that sustain the livelihoods of rural households, and adversely impact the coastal system due to sea level rise and increased frequency of extreme events. The poor, especially the marginalized groups including women and children, will be the most affected by these changes. In addition, achievement of vital national development goals related to other systems such as habitats, health, energy, and infrastructure would also be adversely affected.

Source: Introduction to “Bulwark Against Falling off the Map: State Action Plan on Climate Change, Andaman and Nicobar Islands 2013”, Government of India, Supported by United Nations Development Programme (Draft – November 2013)
Date visited: 21 March 2021

Medicinal Plants

Medicinal Plants constitute an important component of the plant resource spectrum of Kerala. Recent analysis shows that out of estimated 4600 flowering plants in Kerala, about 900 possess medicinal values. Of these, 540 species are reported to occur in forest ecosystems. Over 150 species of plants that are either indigenous or naturalized in Kerala are used in the Indian system of Medicine like Ayurveda and Sidha. The rural folk and tribal communities make use of about 2,000 species of lesser-known wild plants for various medicinal uses. About 60 to 65% of plants required for Ayurvedic medicine and almost 80% of plants used in Sidha medicine are found in the forests of Kerala. […]

Only the indigenous people, the Kani tribe, knew of the anti-fatigue properties of the Arogyapacha plant (Trichopus zeylanicus ssp.travancoricus), which they ate during long treks in the hilly Western Ghats region. The Kani tribe is traditionally a nomadic community, who now lead a largely settled life in the forests of the Agasthyamalai hills of the Western Ghats in the Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala. Tribal healers, known as Plathis, have knowledge on the medicinal properties of the flora and fauna of the region, and they passes this knowledge to the next generation orally. […]

Convention on Biological Diversity aims to conserve and use biological diversity in a sustainable manner. It mandates that its signatories respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of local or indigenous communities and encourage the equitable sharing of benefits.

One method that is being used to document the knowledge and skills of local communities related to biological resources is through Community Biodiversity Registers. The register process seeks to document the knowledge of conservation, as well as economic uses of biodiversity resources that rest with India’s local communities. This is being developed by local communities in collaboration with high school and college students, and local NGOs. All information accumulated in the register can be used or shared only with the knowledge and consent of the local community. The community, when consenting to the access, can charge fees for access to the register and collection of biological resources. Decisions on how to disburse the funds are to be made through village community meetings. There is concern about the Biodiversity Registers in case the process has the effect of placing knowledge hitherto regarded as secret by communities in the public domain, and that once this is done it would open the way for corporate and research interests to freely access and use the local knowledge about the biodiversity resources. […]

The increase in demand could have led to excessive extraction of the biological resources, if the following measures were not taken:
– Raising awareness among all stakeholders
– Supporting and creating local institutions for sustainable extraction
– Legitimising the property rights of communities over the use of biological resources and associated knowledge where were negotiated and defined at the local level.

The effective protection of intellectual property is a necessary condition for generation benefits, but it is not a sufficient condition for benefit sharing. Several additional measures are needed to supplement the role of intellectual property rights in benefit sharing over biological resources and traditional knowledge.

Ultimately, the initiative has empowered the Kanis to protect, preserve and maintain their knowledge, and the sustainable use of biological resources had resulted in benefiting the local and global community
Last Updated (Tuesday, 07 September 2010 17:05)

Source: “Medicinal Plants”, Kerala Forest Department, 8 January 2010
Date Visited: 7 August 2022

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

Illustration (detail) © Vipin Sketchplore (The Wire, 11 July 2021) >>

As the mighty river flows, so does the natural music of the pain of environmental change. […] Songs have always chronicled social, political, historic, geographical, cultural and environmental change. Many popular singers have responded to the climate crisis. | The Changing Climate In The Songs Of The Brahmaputra (The Wire) | United Nations on climate change >> >>

“It was assumed that tribal people have same health problems, similar needs and hence the uniform national pattern of rural health care would be applicable to them as well, albeit with some alteration in population: provider ratio. The different terrain and environment in which they live, different social systems, different culture and hence different health care needs were not addressed.”– Abhay Bang, Chairman, Expert Committee on Tribal health (2018 Report of the Expert Committee on Tribal Health)

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“Indigenous leaders from around the world will join government officials, scientists, activists, and NGO representatives at the U.N. climate summit in Scotland to highlight the role of Indigenous peoples in providing climate mitigation and adaptation solutions.”

Source: “Indigenous leaders to push for land tenure rights as climate solution at COP26” by Sandra Cuffe,, 27 October 2021
Date Visited: 24 May 2024

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