Vinod Chellan is a research scholar at Cochin University of Science and Technology (Cusat) and an Mphil holder in Applied Economics from the same institution besides being a postgraduate and graduate.  But he is not your typical student with high academic degrees in hand. In fact, people like Vinod are all too rare. 

He is the first man from Cholanaikkan, a primitive caveman tribe in Nilambur forest, to enroll for PHd in Cusat. Vinod is a brilliant scholar but much, much more. He graduated with high marks and obtained post-graduation and Mphil, all for the first time from this ethnic group. “Perhaps, you will be hearing this kind of news for the first time?” Vinod wonders. 

“I might be the only member of Cholanaykan to obtain a degree, but my brothers and sisters have already set the trend by gaining at least some level of formal education,” he says. Before me, they were sent to school too. My elder brother  studied in Model Residential School in Wayanad district and became a tribal promoter. My second brother went to a school in Manjeri and now is a guard at Karulayi forest station. They all know the importance of education.”

Vinod near his forest settlement in Nilambur forest

The 24-year-old carries out his research on Cholanaikkan and Kattunaikkan tribes, the two primitive cave-dwelling communities facing extinction now. He says the two tribes have been living in the forest for eons, but they hardly move out of the forest unless it is absolutely necessary. “Other than for medical assistance and rice collection we never go to town.” 

Cholanaikkan is a reclusive tribe which is one of the oldest communities in Asia. And if reports are to be believed they would be the last hunter gatherer ethnic group in South Asia too. Their children go to Ashram school (single-teacher schools) but they usually drop out before finishing primary school and never go back in most cases.

The community rarely contacts mainstream human settlements and mostly love to live deep in the forest, collecting honey and selling it to people outside. “We live off the money earned through selling honey and other forest resources.  That is the only job we do to make a living,” Vinod says adding that they hunt small animals too which is part of their culture and lifestyle.

Vinod was born as a third child in a family-of-10 which lives in a cave deep in Nilambur forest, cut off from the main human habitat for about 30 km. He was not the type who will seize on an opportunity to study when there is one. In fact, he never liked formal education as it is too stressful for him. He never liked when teachers beat him for not studying because that is an infringement of his freedom. 

“The system, I do not like. Even now, I hate to be in an institution which restricts my free movement. I struggled initially to adjust to a life outside the forest and to even speak Malayalam, let alone English. But gradually I learned to live among other men. But I still find more comfort at home in forest,” he says.

About 20 years ago,  Kerala Institute of Research Training and Development Studies (KIRTADS) picked up Vinod from the comfort of forest and sent him to Model Residential School, Manjeri, where he completed his primary education. “It was KIRTADS director N Viswanathan Nair who took me out of the forest. When my parents were asked about it, they were pretty much okay with it.”

Vinod beat all odds to join Cusat for PhD in Kattunaikkan and Cholanaikkan tribes

He passed his high school with decent marks from Indira Gandhi Memorial High School. He was preparing to go for higher studies when he fell homesick and went back home to assist his family in collecting forest resources. For Vinod, forest offers immense peace of mind and pleasure while town life is too busy and demanding. “It is difficult to live in town without money,” he says.

“Nobody bothers about money in the forest. We take what is in the forest and live happily. Nothing can match the feel of forest.” But that is not the only reason why he went home; he loves his home more than anything and wants to do the same even if he clears the all important civil services examinations, his ultimate goal.

Vinod returned to school to finish his Plus Two and College, being pressed by forest officers and other officials. He joined Cusat for MA in Applied Economics after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper and went on to take MPhil before enrolling for PhD. Despite all this, he needs to go home. 

“My family is where my home is. I still love the forest and the people there. There is absolute freedom for you. That is why I still want to go back. When I feel so stressed out, I go to the forest and spend two or more days there. The moment you step into it, you become a rejuvenated man,” he says

Vinod is a married man now and stays with wife outside the forest where he can have enough internet reception for his studies. Though jungle is a captivating world, his wife, who is from the Kattunaikkan community, wishes that Vinod wins a job and settles outside the forest. “That gives him more stability in life. He can help the tribal members in many ways, the number of which is now dwindling,” his wife says.