If you live in the Palani Hills, 'Kombai' is a word that will often hear. One interesting aspect of agriculture practiced in the Upper Palanis included the use of kombais. Villages in the Upper Palanis (above 1500 meters) usually have an assigned region called the Kombai. The Kombai is generally at a lower altitude than the village, with warmer weather and a good water source. In some cases it constitutes marsh land ideal for paddy cultivation. Since many of the villages were located at higher altitudes, land closer to the village was unsuitable for crops like finger and foxtail millet and paddy which were the main crops grown in the past. And so, people would walk to their Kombai where conditions were favourable to grow these crops. For instance Pallangi village is at an altitude of 1650m and the Pallangi kombai lies between 1400m and 1000m.
However things have changed drastically in the last 30 to 40 years. According to Shanmugam, a Mannadiar from Vilpatti, previously, crops like paddy, finger millet, little millet and foxtail millet formed the bulk of their produce. However in more recent times cash crops like carrots, potatoes and radish have taken over their fields. Shanmugam explains that cash crops can be harvested several times in a year, thereby providing a better income. Since the cash crops can be grown closer to the villages at higher altitudes, the kombai regions remain mostly unused.
For instance, Amuda, a resident from Poombarai, explained that although her family owns 2 acres of land in the Kombai and only 1 acre near the village, the kombai remains fallow at most times because it takes them 2 hours to walk to their land which makes it impractical. Residents of Poondi shared that they feared attacks and destruction of their crops by wild animals like the gaur (Bos gaurus) and wild boars (Sus scrofa cristatus) in the kombai.
However, in the past 40 years, much of the Kombai lands which were left fallow by the traditional communities are now being bought over and farmed by people from the nearby plains. Coffee, hill banana,beans and silk cotton are some of the crops which are cultivated now, with elephants, gaur and wild boar paying regular visits to these farms.
The seemingly harmless, beautiful national bird of India - the peacock is a frequent crop raider in the foothills of the Palani hIlls. Muruguvel, a farmer in kudhareyar dam village says the peacock numbers have increased over the years and there has been an increase in the incidences of peacocks destroying crops in the region. Peacocks eat a wide range of foods including berries, seeds, small reptiles and insects. Muruguvel shows me the sacks of peas seeds he had sown in his farm and peacocks destroyed almost a quarter of the seeds sown, by either eating them or digging them up in search of insects in the ground. According to a report in The Times of India in 2012, peacocks on an average destroy about 10 percent of the crops in Coimbatore district.
Unlike the wild boar and gaur, peacocks raid crops during the day. Between the birds and the animals, farmers in Kudhreyar have to watch their fields at all times to protect their crops.
1. Dhruv Athreye in February 2018 began a survey of mammals in the Palani Hills and is publishing notes of his field work.