The word ‘Paniyan’ is derived from ‘pani’ which is a Malayalam word, meaning work. The people of this tribal community are majorly labourers and their past history also suggests the same. In fact these Paniyan are amongst those tribal people who have worked as bonded laborers in the ancient period. Naturally, these Paniyan tribes have got life long bondage with the tribal employees. Though the detailed information of the origin of this Paniyan tribe is still vague, some tales relating to this tribal community signify a little about the lineage of this tribal group. Thick lips, dark complexion and curly hair are the physical appearance of the Paniyan people. There is a resemblance between the Paniya people with the people of Africa and as per some scholars, the Paniyan people are of African origin. According to some scholars, Kapiri (Africa or the Cape) is the land of origin of the Paniyan tribes.
The Paniyan tribes are mainly concentrated in the northern part of the Western Ghat, Wayanad District, the eastern regions of Kozhikode (Calicut), Malappuram and Kannur districts. Some are found in Gudalur and Pandalur area of Nilgiris District of Tamil Nadu and in southern part of Kodagu District of Karnataka.
The chief occupation of these Paniyan tribes is to work as farmers in the field of rich land owners. In the ancient periods, they have worked as bonded laborers. In the contemporary period, Paniyan tribes own their individual lands and also produce crops like rice and ragi. The Paniyan females and children generally take part in digging roots of the forests or ‘pot herbs’. It is heard that some of these Paniyan tribes, especially those employed by the rich landlords deliver the coffee beans to their landlords. Apart from being employed in agricultural works, some are also engaged in Tea and Coffee estates.
These Paniyan tribes have developed unique style of making their houses. A Paniyan village comprises of rows of huts all constructed from bamboo with thatched roofs. These houses of Paniyan tribes are either single- or double-storied. At the time of rainy seasons, the Paniyan tribes migrate to nearby rivers and cold regions. However, at the end of the season, these Paniyan tribes return to their original village homes. They live together in colonies. Some of the Paniyans are the followers of Christianity.
Maximum of these Paniyan tribes use a dialect of the Malayalam language. However, the Paniyan tribes who work in the lands also speak the beautiful language of Kannada. The dialect of the Paniyan people is Paniya language.
Just like any other tribes of the region, these Paniyan tribes too held the institution of marriage in a high esteem. Usually, the Paniyan marriage is arranged with the aid of parents of both the bride and groom. The family of the groom chooses a bride. The whole marriage ceremony is quite simple and is carried on by the village priest, better known as chemmi. As part of the ritual, 16 coins and new dresses are given to the chemmi, who again give these items to the parents of the Paniyan bride. Although monogamy is the common practice, instances are no rare when a Paniyan man marries more than one wife.
The Paniyan tribes have a plethora of religious practices and rituals, which they follow with lots of reverence and devotion. Several sacrifices and also worship of diverse animal gods and goddesses are feted though occasionally. Kuli, Kadu Bhagavadi are worshipped with great reverence by the members of this tribal group. Moreover, the Paniyan tribes also revere Hindu gods and goddesses. In some parts of the Paniyan village, the shrines of this deity have been built and offerings are being given to appease her. They also believe in spirits and worship natural objects to stay away from evil forces.