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The Pouliats and The Pouliches

THE present article, which I have drawn from Abbé Raynal, presents two pictures of the debasement of the human race, which, perhaps, History has never paralleled.

“There is a tribe amongst the Indians which is the refuse of the rest. The members of it are employed in the meanest offices of society. They bury the dead, carry away dirt, and live upon the flesh of animals that die natural deaths. They are prohibited from entering into the temples and public markets; neither are they allowed the use of the wells, that are common to all their inhabitants. Their dwellings are at the extremity of the towns, or consist of solitary cottages in the country; and they are even forbidden to appear in the streets where the Bramins reside. As all other Indians, they may employ themselves in the labours of agriculture: but only for the benefit of the other tribes; for they are not permitted to have lands of their own, not even upon lease. Such is the degree of horror they excite, that if, by chance, they were to touch any one not belonging to their tribe, they would be deprived, with impunity, of a life reckoned too abject to deserve the protection of the laws. Most of them are employed in the culture of rice. Near the fields where they carry on this work, there is a kind of hut, into which they retire when they hear a cry, which always comes from a distance, to give them notice of some order from the person on whom they depend; to which they answer, not coming out of their retreat. They take the same precautions whenever they are warned, by a confused kind of noise, of the approach of any man whatever. If they have not time to hide themselves, they fall prostrate on the ground, with their faces downwards, with all the marks of humiliation which the sense of their disgrace can suggest.
“Whenever the harvests do not answer to the avidity of an oppressive master, he sometimes cruelly sets fire to the huts of these unhappy labourers; and if they attempt to escape the flames, he fires upon them without mercy! The condition of these wretched people is horrible in every respect, even in the manner in which they are forced to provide for their most urgent wants. In the dusk of the evening they come out from their retreats in bands; they direct their steps towards the market, at a certain distance from which they begin to bellow! The merchants approach; and they ask for what they want. They are supplied, and the provisions are laid on the very spot where the money destined for the payment of them has been previously deposited. When the purchasers can be assured that they shall not be seen by any one, they come out from behind the hedge where they had concealed themselves, and carry away, with precipitation, what they have acquired in so singular a manner.”

After contemplating this dishononrable picture of man, (a degeneracy in human nature which probably the reader could hardly suspect) he may deepen the philosophic reverie by what the Abbé gives us in continuation.

“Yet this very tribe of Pouliats have an inferior one among themselves, called Pouliches. These last are forbidden the use of fire; they are not permitted to build huts, but are reduced to the necessity of living in a kind of nest upon the trees, or in the forests. When pressed with hunger, they howl like wild beasts, to excite compassion. The most charitable then deposit some rice, or other food, at the foot of a tree, and retire with all possible haste to give the famished wretch an opportunity of taking it without meeting with his benefactor, who would think himself polluted by coming near him.”

To clear up this curious information, which stretches to the utmost the belief of the reader, the Abbé presents us with an excellent philosophical argument. “This extreme disgrace,” he says, “into which a considerable part of a numerous nation is plunged, has always appeared an inexplicable circumstance. Men of the utmost sagacity have never been able to conceive, how a people, humane and sensible, could have brought themselves to reduce their own brethren to so abject a state. To solve this difficulty, let us be permitted to hazard a conjecture. In our half barbarous governments, dreadful torments, or an ignominious death, are allotted to those criminals who have disturbed, in a greater or less degree, the peace of society. May we not therefore reasonably suppose, that, in the soft climate of India, a more moderate system of legislature may have been satisfied with excluding from their tribes all kinds of malefactors? This punishment must appear to them sufficient to put a stop to the commissions of such crirnes; and it was certainly the best adapted to a country where the effusion of blood was always forbidden by religious as well as moral principles. It would certainly have been a very proper circumstance, if the children had not inherited the infamy of their parents: but there were unsurmountable prejudices which militated against this reinstatement; a family never being received again into a tribe after it had been once expelled from it.”

The solution of the Abbé is ingenious and probable: but the Mosaic threat of vengeance extending to the third and fourth generation, is uncongenial to the mild spirit of humane philosophy. Yet is this threat on record in those Commandments which are said to have been written by the finger of God himself. Surely this cannot accord with the unwearied benevolence of a paternal Deity! Let us rather acknowledge, with a sigh, that there are multitudes of the human race who really believe themselves to be the property of a small number of men who oppress them. The image of the Creator is so debased in some parts of the globe, that it may be said, the hand of the oppressor has effaced every mark of its original greatness.

Editor’s Notes

Pouliat seems to be a French rendering of the term Pulaya, ‘one of the main social groups found in Kerala, Karnataka and in historical Tamil Nadu or Tamilakam. They belong to the Dalit caste,’ and, depressingly, ‘in general still suffer discrimination, and their life expectancy, nutrition levels and child mortality rates are closer to Sub-Saharan African indicators than Keralan standards.’