When Dr M Regi and Dr Lalitha Reji, a doctor couple hailing from Kerala, decided to backpack across the country for a year to document the most sensitive areas desperately in need of medical help, they encountered the unique Lambadi community, a nomadic tribe living in Sittilingi in Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu.
Residing near the foothills of the Kalrayan and Sitteri hill ranges, this remote tribal community was cut off from the rest of the modern world. They are called the ‘Malavasis’ or ‘Hill People’ who found their living through rain-fed agriculture.
The doctor couple was shocked and troubled at the sheer lack of healthcare facilities in the area. During times of any medical emergency, these people would travel to Salem or to Dharmapurimore than 50 KM away.
That’s when they decided to stay and make affordable healthcare available to Sittilingi’s two lakh people and give them a source of livelihood to live a life of dignity and earn recognition for their traditional craft.
Bringing Relief to the Lambadi Tribals
After completing their medical training, Dr M Regi and Dr Lalitha Reji stated working in a hospital in Gandhigram where they encountered people who had travelled miles for the treatment of preventable illnesses like diarrhoea and childhood pneumonia.
Rattled by the lack of healthcare access, the couple decided to delve into the country’s primary healthcare setup by visiting many villages and taluks. This is when they came across the community of Lambadi tribals.
What pushed the couple further to help bring relief to these people was the fact that this hamlet recorded an Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) of 150 per 1,000 babies, the highest in all of India!
It has been 25 years now and the couple is still moving forward with their project, Tribal Health Initiative (THI).
“We had no money to buy land, so we set up a small clinic on government land, nothing more than a small hut built by the tribals. We worked out of this hut for three years, conducting deliveries and minor surgeries on the floor,” informs Dr Regi
Today, the duo has come a long way from the thatched hut to a 35-bed full-fledged hospital, equipped with an ICU and ventilator, a dental clinic, a labour room, a neonatal room, an emergency room, a fully functional laboratory, a modern operation theatre and other facilities like X-Ray, Ultrasound, endoscopy, and echocardiography, like any other modern hospital.
Due to their incessant efforts, the IMR in Sittilingi has now reduced to 20 per 1,000, one of the lowest in India.
The Beginning Of ‘Porgai’
But the doctor duo didn’t stop at that.
The couple decided to venture into preserving the history and cultural heritage of the tribe by reviving the dying art of Lambadi embroidery.
“With healthcare off to a good start, our next goal was to help the women revive their traditional craft of Lambadi embroidery. That was the beginning of the Porgai Artisans Association.
This unique embroidery art form is an amalgamation of pattern darning, mirror work, cross-stitch, overlaid and quilting stitches with borders of ‘Kangura’ patchwork done on loosely-woven dark blue or red handloom base fabric.
Often mistaken as Kutchi (Kachhi) embroidery because of the mirror work, the shells and coins are unique to this type of embroidery, with the stitches being different.
‘Porgai’, which stands for ‘pride’ in the Lambadi dialect represents self-sufficiency and independence for the farmers, artisans and the community as a whole.
“We had a rich tradition of hand embroidery which our ancestors did on the clothing and other day to day articles. In course of time, when we stopped wearing the traditional dress, the craft was lost for more than two generations,” says Neela, a part of the community.
“A majority of Porgai’s products are made from organic cotton grown in our own villages. This cotton, untrammelled by pesticides and unpolluted by chemical fertilisers is then hand-spun, hand-woven and dyed with natural dyes by cooperatives,” explains Dr Reji.
“Whether it is subtly embroidered Kurti or a cushion cover brightly emblazoned with traditional Lambadi designs when you buy a Porgai product, you are bringing home a world that values human passion and individual skill,” explains Reji.
Porgai products have also drawn students from fashion designing schools as well. At least half-a-dozen interns from Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai have worked with the tribal women, helping them retain the ethnic embroidery work while trying to improvise on the design aspect and make them trendy.
Dr Regi observes, “Just building and running a hospital isn’t enough. Whether it is eating healthy chemical-free food by adopting organic farming or promoting entrepreneurship among women, the key to a healthy community is dependent on upliftment in different fields.”
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)