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The Irula of India

[IMAGE] The Irula inhabit the northern districts of Tamil Nadu, a state in southeastern India. Located not far from the city of Madras, they live in a tropical area subject to monsoon rains. Their language, Irula, is related to Tamil and Kannada, which are southern Dravidian languages.

In the Tamil language, the name Irula means "people of darkness." This could refer to their dark-colored skin or to the fact that all important events traditionally took place in the darkness of night.

The Irula were greatly affected by the spread of plantation agriculture during the time of British colonization. The government in Tamil Nadu gave small plots to them, and banks helped finance the growing of coffee and tea in their gardens. The Irula worked on British estates and were considered dependable laborers. However, after the British left in 1947, the Indian government evicted the Irula from the forest reserves, and their promised land area was reduced in size.

What are their lives like?
Originally, the Irula economy was based on collecting food from the jungle and hunting small game. Today, however, most of the Irula are small-scale farmers. Lowland farmers who live in the plains cultivate wet rice. Those who live in the uplands occupy higher and cooler slopes and usually work on plantations for daily wages. A few still engage in the "slash and burn" method of farming, a practice that has been prohibited by the government. Other Irula have obtained work on dam projects and in a wide array of jobs in the general job market.

The Irula obtain most of their food supply from their own garden plots. They prepare almost all their foods with curry. Generally, they will eat anything except beef and the meat of buffaloes. One delicacy is the large monitor lizard known as the viruga.

Irula houses are built together in small settlements or villages called mottas. The mottas are usually situated on the edges of steep hills and are surrounded by a few dry fields, gardens, and forests or plantations. The typical house consists of only one room with an earthen floor, thatched roof, and a front porch. Less traditional houses have tile roofs and stone walls. The people sleep on mats, which they roll up and store in a corner during the day. They always wash their feet before going inside the house, where usually only family members and relatives are allowed.

In some villages different tribes and castes live alongside the Irula, but in other villages the Irula live alone. On the outskirts of the village, they sometimes build small temples, hen-houses, and sheds for sheep and goats.

When compared to the Hindu plains-peoples that surround them, the Irula have preserved a relatively simple, democratic social structure. Their society is a patrilineal one, which means that the line of descent is traced through the males. Marriage partners are selected from within the tribe, but outside the clan. Social control is exercised by a tribal council of men representing the different clans.

Today, typical Irula dress is rarely worn, but tattooing is still frequently seen, especially on the forehead. The women enjoy wearing jewelry, and the men take pleasure in making their own drums and flutes.

What are their beliefs?
Although the Irula are 95% Hindu, elements of their traditional ethnic religion are still part of their lives. Many of them have retained their own tribal beliefs that revolve around the spirit world. "House deities" are very important. They are the inherited clan-gods that are passed down through the male descendants. Bujaris, or priests, are used to contact the supernatural world of deities and spirits.

What are their needs?
Numerous missions agencies are now targeting the Irula, but few Christian resources are available to them. Neither the Bible nor the Jesus film has been translated into the Irula language. Translators and media experts are needed to provide the tools necessary to reach them. Pray that the Light of the Gospel will shine upon the darkness in which the Irula have lived for so many years.

Prayer Points

  • Ask the Lord of the harvest to send full-time laborers to join the few who are already working among the Irula.
  • Ask the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom, favor, and unity to the six missions agencies that are targeting the Irula.
  • Pray that the Jesus film will soon be produced in the Irula language.
  • Ask the Lord to raise up qualified linguists who will be able to translate the Bible into Irula.
  • Ask the Lord to give the Irula believers opportunities to witness to their own people.
  • Take authority over the spiritual principalities and powers that have kept the Irula in darkness for so many years.
  • Ask God to raise up prayer teams who will begin breaking up the soil through worship and intercession.
  • Ask the Lord to bring forth a triumphant Irula church for the glory of His name!

Latest estimates from the World Evangelization Research Center.


  • People name: Irula
  • Country: India
  • Their language: Irula (Korava)
  • Population: (1990) 53,100
    (1995) 58,400
    (2000) 63,800
  • Largest religion: Hindu 95%
    Ethnic religionist 2%
  • Christians: 3%
  • Church members: 1,752
  • Scriptures in their own language: None
  • Jesus Film in their own language: None
  • Christian broadcasts in their own language: None
  • Mission agencies working among this people: 6
  • Persons who have heard the Gospel: 16,300 (27%) Those evangelized by local Christians: 5,300 (9%)
    Those evangelized from the outside: 11,000 (18%)
  • Persons who have never heard the Gospel: 42,100 (73%)
  • Country: India
  • Population: (1990) 850,638,100
    (1995) 935,744,300
    (2000) 1,022,021,300
  • Major peoples in size order: Hindi (High Hindi) 9.5%
    Telegu 7.8%
    Maratha 7.4%
    Bengali 6.4%
    Hindi (Bazaar, Popular) 5.5%
  • Major religions: Hindus 78.2%
    Muslims 12%
    Christians 4.3%
  • Number of denominations: 163

© Copyright 1997
Bethany World Prayer Center

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