Kerala’s Tribal Cultures and their Ethnomycology

Prithvi Kini


Nestled within the embrace of the majestic Western Ghats, Kerala’s landscapes boast an awe-inspiring fungal diversity, a testament to nature’s ingenuity. From vibrant orchids to elusive fungi, this biodiversity is a global marvel that resonates with our national pride.

This symphony of life is an integral part of India’s rich heritage. Yet, the encroachment of human activity and the changing climate threaten this legacy. The urgency now compels us to stand united as custodians, preserving this irreplaceable gift for our nation and the world. Kerala, a southwestern state of India, is adorned with an intricate tapestry of ancient tribal cultures that have flourished for centuries. These tribes, such as the Irulas, Kurichiyas, and Paniyas, hold the threads of a rich cultural heritage, contributing to the diverse fabric of the region. The annals of history carry records of their existence, revealing a timeless connection to the land and its resources. Tribal communities are widespread across Kerala’s districts, with a significant concentration in Wayanad, Palakkad, Idukki, and Kasargod. These areas harbor the majority of tribes, reflecting their rich cultural diversity. However, Alappuzha stands out with the lowest tribal population among the districts.

Have you ever wondered how Kerala’s ancient tribes discovered the hidden secrets of plants and fungi long before the advent of modern science? This blog is a small peek into the world that they have uncovered.

2 Kurichiyas tribal women (Source: tribes-wayanad/).
2 Kurichiyas tribal women

Imagine this scene: tribes like the Irulas and Kurichiyas crafting their own versions of “green medicine cabinets” centuries ago. How did they know which plants could soothe a headache or which fungi could be the cure for the common cold? It’s like they were the original pharmacists, operating without a prescription pad!

And let’s not forget ethnomycology – the art of understanding fungi. While we’re still trying to pronounce the Latin names of mushrooms, these tribes have been incorporating Malayalam and its dialects for many species of fungi for ages. Did they possess a mystical dance that could unveil hidden mushrooms? Or perhaps, did they engage in a mycology-infused quest? akin to a treasure hunt straight from the heart of our tribal heritage?

Could their harmonious ways teach us a thing or two about sustainable living and preserving biodiversity? Maybe it’s time we took a leaf – or a mushroom – out of their book and rekindled our curiosity about the wild world around us. Who knows, we might even discover that our next breakthrough could be hidden in the forest, right beneath our curious noses!



Tribal Communities of Kerala

Imagine a mushroom buffet straight from the whimsical corners of Kerala! Hold onto your taste buds – there are around 40 different edible mushrooms in town, and about half a dozen of these are like the rockstars of the mushroom world. But here’s the twist: These fungal delicacies aren’t available year-round. They’re like the party guests who only show up after the monsoons hit – both the wild dancers, Edavapathi (south-west monsoon), and the cool breezes, Thulavarsham (north-east monsoon).

Now, let’s play hide and seek with these mushrooms in their favorite hideouts. They’re like little seasonal adventurers – popping up in plantations, hanging out at the edge of forests, strutting their stuff along forest paths, and even throwing shade inside bamboo breaks. Oh, and don’t be surprised if you spot them having a field day in fallow fields, on termite mounds, or chilling by the riversides.

Termitomyces microcarpus (Arikoon), Termitomyces microcarpus on termite mound
Termitomyces microcarpus (Arikoon), Termitomyces microcarpus on termite mound

And speaking of trees, some mushrooms are real tree huggers – you might spot them on tree trunks and snacking on decayed woods in the woods (yes, that’s a mouthful!). The real headliners of this shroom show are Arikkoon, Puttukoon, and Perumkali. These guys aren’t just delicious, they’re like habitat snobs too. Arikkoon and Puttukoon are the life of the termite mound party, while Perumkali prefers to strut its stuff in the open, moist areas, where the ghosts of old termite mounds still hang around.


So, next time you’re in Kerala, keep an eye out for these fungi fiestas. Who knows, you might just stumble upon a hidden mushroom rave in the middle of the forest!

From a paper titled,“Nutritional and biochemical studies of wild edible mushrooms used by tribes of Palghat and Wayanad districts of Kerala” – A fascinating journey into Attappadi’s tribal communities has uncovered a remarkable revelation – the taxonomic identification of wild edible mushrooms. An early documentation from 2018, of the tribal knowledge from the area. There were a total of 19 distinct edible delicacy species had been unveiled, spanning 12 genera, 9 families, and 4 orders. Astonishingly, 17 of these species are entirely new additions to the wild edible food repertoire of the Wayanad tribes, adding a new chapter to their culinary heritage.


Paddy straw (Volvariella volvacea) or Voikkolkkumma
Paddy straw (Volvariella volvacea) or Voikkolkkumma


(L-R) Favolous, Auricularia, Schizophyllum commune, Auricularia delicata, Favolaschia manipularis
(L-R) Favolus, Auricularia (Kathukkumman), Schizophyllum commune, Auricularia delicata, Favolaschia manipularis

Varieties like Auricularia delicata, Lentinus cladopus, Favolus tenuiculus, Schizophyllum commune, and Favolaschia manipularis, previously absent from records, now grace our tables. This tale unfolds as a journey into Kerala’s edible mushroom secrets, unearthing both gastronomic and medicinal promise.

Collage of mushrooms
(L-R) Cantharellus minor, Russula, Coprinellus micaceus, Lentinus cladopus

Amidst this bounty, Lentinus bambusinus, Coprinellus micaceus, and Cantharellus minor emerged as first-time subjects for nutritional study.
Their flavors and textures piqued curiosity, hinting at untapped livelihood prospects and even groundbreaking drug discoveries.

Providing a glimpse into influential tribes within the ethnomycological landscape, a study titled “Diversity, Use Pattern and Management of Wild Food Plants of Western Ghats: A Study from Wayanad District” from the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation’s Community Agro‐biodiversity Centre in Wayanad, Kerala, offers valuable insights.

Paniyas: The Largest Tribal Community in Kerala


Black and white photo of a paniya tribe woman
Paniya tribe woman

The Paniyas stands as the largest tribal community in Kerala, adding their vibrant threads to the state’s cultural fabric. In their forays into the forests, they’ve discovered an array of mushrooms and fungi that become an integral part of their culinary heritage.

United by their reverence for Kumman—mushrooms. They sing praises to Marakkumman, the tree-dwelling mushrooms as if the forest itself orchestrates a delicate symphony. Yet, it is Mannukkumman, the earthbound fungi, that binds their roots to the soil of their ancestors.

Each variety bears a name that echoes through generations – Valakkumma, sprouting from cow dung and compost, symbolizes the cycle of life and renewal; Vaikkolkkumma, rising from paddy straw, mirrors the dance of harvest and gratitude.

Kathukkumman, akin to human earlobes, is their treasured gem. With the monsoon’s touch, it adorns Murikku trees—a sight reserved for the Paniya. This delicate wonder transforms into sustenance, a sacred thread connecting their past and present.

In this dance with nature, the Paniya commune with whispers of the forest, finding solace in the smallest offerings of the earth. Their heritage blooms like Kathukkumman, reminding us of nature’s power to unite generations and kindred spirits across cultures.

Paniya women, in particular, possess a remarkable memory of seasonal mushroom availability, linked to precise times and distinct locales. This practice underscores their profound connection with nature. However, the current scenario necessitates arduous journeys to remote, less polluted areas for these mushrooms. This dual struggle epitomizes the resilience of feminism and tribal heritage—a testament to their enduring significance. Often seen as the protectors of termite mounds, and finding unique ways to preserve mushrooms.


Kurumbas: The Guardians of the Forest

Meet the Kurumbas, the guardians of the forest in Kerala. These tribal custodians boast an unparalleled connection with the woodlands, fostering a harmony between their way of life and nature’s rhythms. Amidst their daily routines, they come across mushrooms that weave seamlessly into their sustenance practices. Perhaps they’re well-versed in distinguishing the edible from the inedible, cherishing the flavorful goodness of Puttukoon and other forest finds.

Apart from mushrooms, this intriguing community collects tubers and potherbs. They communicate through a blend of Malayalam-Tamil, while women attire themselves in munda cloth and palm leaf-rolled earrings. Rooted in animism, they now revere Bagawati, a genderless deity, and are guided by the Nolumbukaran priests.

Kuruma culture embraces the term ‘Koonu’ from Malayalam to celebrate mushrooms, a prideful inclusion in their family meals. This term references around 14 mushroom species, notably favoring those on soil and termite mounds. Perumkoonu, Arikoonu, Nedumthali, and Puttukoonu (Termitomyces sp.) are cherished varieties. Unlike other cultures, Kuruma women uniquely undertake mushroom preservation by proficiently drying them. These dried mushrooms retain quality until the next season, a technique borne of their culinary ingenuity.

Interestingly, the mushroom collection is exclusively designated for Kuruma women, involving the gathering of safer types like Arikkoon and Puttukoonu, which necessitate minimal processing. Notably, mushrooms earmarked for processing and storage possess reduced mucilaginous substances and softer fiber coatings. These culinary experts immerse mushrooms in turmeric water for a day before smoke-drying them above the hearth.

Intriguingly, how do Kuruma women determine the suitability of mushrooms for extended storage? What spurred the development of their unique preservation practices amidst evolving culinary trends? These captivating questions uncover the intricate layers of Kuruma’s mushroom-related traditions, showcasing their profound connection with nature and the enduring role of women in safeguarding cultural culinary legacies.


Kattunaickans: The Honey Gatherers

Photo of a boy from kattunaika tribe holding honey comb
Kattunayakan boy

Picture the Kattunaickans, deft honey gatherers who traverse the wilderness in search of golden sweetness. In their pursuit, they stumble upon mushrooms like Arikkoon and Perumkali, sprouting forth from the very ecosystems they roam. One of sustenance, connection, and a trove of mushrooms, known as ‘Anavae’ in their dialect. These 33 fungal species, each with a scientific name and a habitat tale, hold not just nourishment, but an invitation to ponder our place in the natural world.

Divided into three categories – the ‘Maranavae’ found on tree barks, ‘Huthaanavae’ on termite mounds, and ‘Mannanavae’ gracing the forest floor – these mushrooms paint a vivid portrait of diversity and adaptation. Enter the scientific realm, where ‘Huthaanavae’ belongs to the Termitomyces genus, attesting to the profound relationship between the fungi and the termites’ industrious homes.

The ‘Maranavae’ mushrooms, named after their arboreal companions, beckon us to the enchanting dance of symbiosis. Mushroom names are derived from their host trees—’Njeralanavae’ from Syzygium cumini, ‘Jalanavae’ from Dalbergia latifolia, and ‘Kavalanavae’ from Erythrina indica. This practice bridges nature and culture, prompting us to ponder our own heritage and relationship with our surroundings.

Yet, as we marvel at this harmonious existence, a stirring arises within. Do we, ensnared in the modern world’s frenzied pace, miss the essence of life’s communion? The Kattunaikkas’ reverence for these forest treasures provokes introspection. Are we forfeiting nature’s bounty for momentary conveniences?

Diving into the intriguing world of mushrooms, the community’s fascination lies with the Termitomyces species. Among these, the enigmatic Vellanavae boasts a milky white hue, the Ummanavae a delicate pale white, and the impressive Huthanavae, a large off-white variety. What’s captivating is their connection to termite mounts. Remarkably, these mushrooms are deemed safe, negating the need for elaborate preparation prior to consumption. Even youngsters fearlessly indulge in raw samples. Ummanavae and Vellanavae thrive in dense clusters, in contrast to the solitary or scattered growth of the Huthanavae. Intriguingly, the Mannanavae sprout from the soil, categorized by their solitary ventures or group endeavors. Within this community, a diverse assortment of about 15 such mushroom types finds its way to their plates, each offering a unique growth pattern. The names themselves evoke curiosity, inviting us to explore the mysteries concealed within.

Among the Kattunaikka community, the mastery of distinguishing toxic from edible mushrooms rests primarily with women, relying on cues like odor and color. How do they cultivate this skill and pass it down through generations? Remarkably, this ability isn’t limited to proximity; they can detect these fungi from a distance, showcasing an intimate knowledge of their surroundings. But who else in the community participates in this intricate tradition?

It’s fascinating that the practice involves not only women but also other members of the community. How does this collective engagement reinforce the cultural significance of mushroom collection? When harvesting mushrooms from tree trunks, the emphasis on selective harvesting to ensure regrowth is admirable. How is this wisdom imparted to the young ones, especially the enthusiastic Kattunaikka children?

Furthermore, the allure of some mushroom varieties being palatable even when consumed raw adds a unique dimension. How does this tie into the community’s relationship with nature and its culinary heritage? The multifaceted involvement and knowledge sharing within the Kattunaikka community exemplify a harmonious blend of tradition and practicality.

In the heart of this blog, stand 2 tribes, (Muthuvans and Kaani) nestled at the crossroads of border states. There may be a lot more that I am missing, but Like the enigmatic mushrooms that transcend conventional categories, these tribes straddle both Kerala and Tamil Nadu, embodying a narrative that persistently challenges the significance of the lines we draw on maps. Their roots run deeper than the ink of borders, existing long before we etched the concept of land ownership. They are the true inhabitants of the woods, guardians of ancient secrets whispered by trees.

To overlook their existence is to miss a vital piece of this intricate puzzle that weaves humanity and nature. What are these borders? Who are we without them?  These tribes remind us that our connection with the land precedes borders, awakening a yearning to explore the bonds we share with the wild and the wisdom they offer.

Muthuvans: The Story Weavers

Photo of women from Muthuvan tribe
Muthuvan tribe

The Muthuvans, skilled storytellers of their tribe, possess a unique ability to weave narratives that entwine the rich landscapes of Kerala. As they explore the wilderness, their tales might incorporate the mushrooms and fungi they encounter. The likes of Arikkoon and Perumkali become not only sustenance but also inspiration, embedding themselves in the stories that form the backbone of their cultural tapestry.

Kaani Tribe: The Culinary Kings

In the heart of the Kaani tribe’s traditions, a profound relationship with nature’s bounty emerges through a repertoire of unique mushrooms. Pleurotus sajor caju, known as Vellathazan Kumizh, and Termitomyces heimii, revered as Natarajan putru kumizh, are just a glimpse of this harmonious connection.
Termitomyces microcarpus, Ari Kumizh, Volvariella volvacea, Uppu Kumizh, and Auricularia auriculata, Murukkan Kumizh, form a constellation of edible treasures, each bearing a distinct cultural significance.


Early mornings witness the tribal people venturing into the wild, bamboo or reed baskets in hand, to collect these delicacies. With care bordering on reverence, the gathered mushrooms undergo a meticulous cleansing process, immersed in fresh water 2-3 times. Pounded in wooden mortars alongside rice, they transform into a blend steeped in tradition.

This medley is then simmered to perfection, a harmonious union of mushrooms and rice brought to life by the gentle caress of water. Eager to evoke a symphony of tastes, spices, salt, and wild green chilies are introduced, infusing the dish with a melody of flavors and aromas.

The final creation graces the table served alongside cooked rice and tapioca, a testament to the intricate relationship between sustenance and nature’s offerings. In a final touch, tribal artisans adorn their culinary masterpieces with grated coconut, a nod to timeless culinary wisdom. This elaborate process showcases not only their culinary artistry but also their deep-rooted respect for the land and its gifts, weaving a narrative of sustenance and harmony.


Ethnomycology in India: A Deep Dive

Across the globe, tribal people have recognized the value of these forest gems as dietary staples and potent healers. In Kerala, ‘Adivasis’ reside amidst the lush landscapes of the Western Ghats, their lives intertwined with the ancient rhythm of the forests. Cholanaikkans, Kurumbas, Kattunaikkans, Kadars, and Koragas, these primitive tribal groups, embody a cultural heritage as diverse as the mushrooms they forage. Cholanaikkans, named “Cavemen of Kerala,” dwell in Nilambur Valley’s forest. Living in rock shelters known as “aale”, their unique identity emerges from cave-named distinctions, adding -nu to names. Their distinct identity, denoted by cave-assigned names, remained hidden till 1971; gaining notice in 1977. With just 176 in number, mingling with Kattunaickan and Pathinayakkan tribes, this underscores the need for further research to unveil their story.

Regrettably, the Cholanaikkans, Kadars, and Koragas remain silent about fungi and mushrooms in my search. However, skepticism shrouds this conclusion, leaving a lingering sense of sorrow. It’s a poignant plea for individuals to reach out, imploring their grandparents to unlock the hidden vaults of knowledge. The shadows of doubt cast upon the absence of information evoke a melancholic realization. Yes, they all use them, but for what purpose? How are they valued? What are the names? The prospect that invaluable insights about the forest’s treasures might slip through the fingers of time paints a somber picture. This unfulfilled quest underscores the urgency to bridge the generational gap, yearning for a connection to ancestral wisdom before it fades into the mist.

Centuries of wisdom passed down through generations, have granted these tribes an innate understanding of the forest’s bounties. Their knowledge of the edibility and healing properties of mushrooms is a blend of folk taxonomy and indigenous lore. Yet, as modernity creeps in, this ancestral wisdom risks fading away. Auricularia auriculata, Agaricus bisporus, Boletus edulis, Ganoderma lucidum, Lentinus edodes, and L. squarrosulus – these names carry the weight of tradition, the echoes of ancient remedies. These medicinal mushroom species, once integral to the tribal communities, now stand at the precipice of being forgotten.

Diving deep into India’s cultural tapestry, we uncover a captivating realm of ethnomedicinal wealth – a repository of traditional mycological knowledge. Indian ethnic groups have embraced this ancient wisdom, harnessing the power of wild mushrooms for over 283 species out of the global tally of 2000. This journey dates back to antiquity, as the ancient medical treatise, Charaka Samhita (3000±500 BC), whispers tales of mushrooms’ dual role as sustenance and medicine.

The spotlight of ethnomycological exploration shines brightly upon India’s North-East. Among the vibrant tribes like Garos, Adivashis, Bodos, and Rajbangshis of Western Assam, seven mushroom species stand as cherished vegetables. G. lucidum emerges as an herbal hero, combatting ailments like asthma. In the mystic land of Sikkim, local folk healers craft herbal elixirs with cordyceps, a potent remedy for a spectrum of afflictions – from cancer to colds.

Venturing further, the tribal tapestry expands. Nagaland’s ethnic tribes infuse wild edible mushrooms into their culinary heritage. Down South, the Kaani tribes of the Kanyakumari district dance with flavors like P. sajor-caju, T. heimii, and more, embodying the fusion of taste and tradition. Amidst the verdant Similipal forest, tribal communities nourish themselves with Russula, Termitomyces, and Pleurotus – a feast that heals maladies and weaknesses.

The saga continues through the undulating landscapes of Assam, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh, where wild mushrooms reign as nutritional saviors. But as we immerse ourselves in this mycological saga, questions arise: What untold stories lie within the mushrooms of the Northeast? How have generations of tribal wisdom influenced their use? Can these remedies hold the keys to modern ailments? As we tread the path of ethnomedicinal exploration, India’s tribal heart reveals a profound synergy between nature and healing, poised to captivate curious minds and inspire modern medicine alike.


Road Ahead: for Preservation and Innovation around fungal diversity

The road ahead in fungal diversity preservation and innovation presents a compelling blend of tradition and modernity. Firstly, steps toward preserving tribal knowledge and practices (A) are vital to safeguard centuries-old wisdom about fungi. Many indigenous communities possess a deep understanding of fungal diversity, utilizing mushrooms for food, medicine, and cultural rituals. Collaborative efforts between scientists and indigenous practitioners can lead to ethically responsible ways of documenting and sharing this knowledge, preventing its loss and aiding conservation.

Secondly, bringing ethnomycology and entheomycological into the mix holds exciting possibilities.
Picture this: Scientists delving into how tribes have been using fungi for ages – be it in medicine, religious and shamanic practices, cleaning up the environment, or even farming. It’s like connecting the dots between old-school wisdom and today’s problems. This fusion isn’t just about boosting our scientific know-how; it’s also a nod to the rich tapestry of cultures out there. We’re talking about a 2-for-1 deal – advancing our smarts while giving a tip of the hat to diverse traditions. Cool, right?

In India, the government has taken a few steps to safeguard indigenous wisdom. Tribal Research Institutes (TRIs) have been established nationwide to serve as reservoirs of information on tribal communities. National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) is a proponent of the “re-documentation” of tribal cultures and social practices, with the aim of transcending the colonial lens that has influenced existing scholarly literature. These collective endeavors embody a comprehensive approach that embraces indigenous perspectives, seeking to empower tribal communities in the endeavor to conserve fungal diversity. Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) endeavors to prevent the misappropriation of traditional Indian medicinal knowledge by maintaining its records within international patent offices. This is a start, certainly, but we have a long way to go, as far as on-ground research surrounding fungi is needed.

Where does it begin? Where does it end? How do we continue our efforts – only time will tell.

The preservation of ethnomycological knowledge rests not solely on academic institutions or government bodies, but also requires the active engagement of private organizations and citizen scientists. The intricate relationship between communities and fungi cannot be underestimated, and their preservation is a collective responsibility.

As Kerala rapidly transforms into one large bustling metro, it is imperative to acknowledge the few remaining pockets where traditional ethnomycological wisdom is still preserved. These enclaves hold invaluable insights into the symbiotic connection between humans and fungi, which can offer solutions to modern challenges.

The key lies in fostering a harmonious coexistence, where private entities and citizen scientists collaborate with local communities to document and safeguard this knowledge. It is crucial to create a space where sharing is encouraged, ensuring the longevity of ethnomycological wisdom for generations to come. By embracing this responsibility, we can bridge the gap between the past and the future, enriching our understanding of nature and our place within it.

P.S. Call any photojournalists, researchers, or any other anthropologist reading this. If you have any more information to share, or perhaps photos, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via, would love to include any more information here that you may find. 


About the author

Prithvi Kini

Co-founder at Nuvedo, foodie, health & nutritionist enthusiast, yoga practitioner, and mental health advocate she spent her time studying and observing the therapeutic and healing benefits of mushrooms. Calling herself a startup catalyst, venturing into the agriculture space through a sustainable business model she hopes to build the right awareness about fungi and food for future generations. Her greatest vision for Nuvedo is for people to bring back control of their food and diet through mushrooms. At Nuvedo, she ties back to communities of farmers and is hoping to build India’s mushroom revolution.

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