Source: Boverianda Chinnappa & Dr.Boverianda Nanjamma Chinnappa, with excerpts from their foreword to the book ‘Are Kodavas (Coorgs) Hindus?’ by P.T. Bopanna
Kodavas are an ancient tribe, who were primarily ancestor and nature worshippers. Like most primitive tribes, they deified their ancestors; they respected the forces of nature that governed their lives, and worshipped the deities who they believed embodied or controlled each of these forces.
Over time, with the spread of Hinduism in South India, Kodavas, like other tribal groups, assimilated some of the Hindu beliefs and forms of worship, although they did not accept Brahmins in their rituals or adopt the caste system of Hinduism. Their deities too were absorbed into the Hindu pantheon.
However, the fundamental Kodava customs and cultural practices survived because of their immensely practical and pragmatic nature, which made them easy to comply with. Also, because the codes of conduct and traditions of Kodava faith were transmitted orally down generations, with no ‘gurus’ or ‘dogmatic documents’ to dictate customs, they were not frozen in time, and remained flexible enough to meet the needs of changing times..
In the words of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakishnan: “It is essential to every religion that its heritage should be treated as sacred” to help “transmit culture and ensure the continuity of civilization.”… “A living tradition influences our inner faculties, humanizes our nature, and lifts us up to a higher level. By means of it, every generation is moulded in a particular cast which gives individuality and interest to every cultural type.”
Kodavame, the Kodava way of life in all its facets, is a precious heritage handed down to us Kodavas by our ancestors. We hope that it will be practiced and preserved for generations to come, so that our unique identity is not lost, and that it will continue to add to the rich diversity of faiths in India.
KODAVAS THROUGH THE AGES
By Maj Gen Codanda K. Karumbaya, SM (Retd)*
In the absence of a script of our own, our early Kodava ancestors have not been able to leave behind a record of our history or an explanation of our simple religious faith. Over a period of time, both our history and our faith have become distorted. After several centuries of our existence, we became disunited and allowed ourselves to be ruled by others. These rulers with the connivance of the priestly class, who had the ability to write, distorted our history and undermined our true faith, to serve their own interests.
Kodavas are neither Hindus, nor is our language a dialect of Kannada as we are made to believe. We are the only tribe in India without the Scheduled status, which is accorded to other tribes in India. Our customs, traditions, religious beliefs, dress and food habits are different from those of our neighbouring communities.
As our numbers are small and dwindling, we need to be given the minority status under Article 29 of the Constitution, even more deservedly than Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and Jains. It is a fundamental duty, of every citizen of the country, under Article 51A (f) of the Constitution ‘to preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture’. To brand us as Hindus, when we do not even follow their caste system, concept of gods and forms of worship, is unjust and unconstitutional.
Kodagu is as sacred to Kodavas as Mecca is to Muslims. All our Ainmanes (ancestral homes), Kaimadas (shrines dedicated to our ancestors) and Jamma lands (ancestral lands with hereditary tenure) are in Kodagu. Therefore a special provision needs to be made for Kodagu under Part XXI of the Constitution, just as was done for Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and Sikkim to preserve and protect our culture.
Origin of Kodavas
The story that has been repeatedly told to us, that we Kodavas are the descendants of Chandraverma, is fictitious and needs to be rejected straight away. On the other hand, among the many other theories of the origin of Kodavas, what Prof Ponjanda S. Appaiah has stated after two decades of research based on historical, anthropological and linguistic studies appears to be a plausible one.
According to Prof Appaiah, our ancestors were part of the war-like Brazani Tribe originally hailing from the Kurdish area of present-day Turkey, Iran and Iraq, which is a hilly region like Kodagu. They entered India during 320 BC in the pre-Islamic era, as a part of the Iranian contingent which had joined Emperor Alexander’s invading army. In those days, when the army advanced, the families of fighting men too moved behind them, as camp followers. After Alexander turned back, some tribes in his army who had no energy to get back to their homeland, stayed back in India.
It has been established that a tribe called Drogpas migrated North along the River Indus and settled in the Kargil area for several centuries. Our ancestors, who are believed to have taken a southerly route along the Western Ghats in search of better prospects, eventually settled in Kodagu which was then an un-named, inhospitable and extremely rugged hilly region. En-route, they worked as mercenaries in different kingdoms, before the surviving twelve families, reached Baithoor in the present Kerala State, sometime during the 3rd century AD. An ancestral shrine (Kaimada) dedicated to the eldest person of this small group still exists there.
The astounding similarities between the Brazani Tribe and our own, even though separated by vast space and time, are too striking to be brushed aside by any historian. Yet, they have been ignored. Both the tribes are terraced paddy cultivators and rice is their staple food. Surprisingly, our weapons like ‘Odi Kathi’ and ‘Piche Kathi’ are similar to their weapons and have unique designs, which are not found elsewhere. Our traditional dresses (especially those worn by our bride-grooms) and the folk dances of our men and women are remarkably similar to theirs. Even the jewellery worn by our women like ‘Kokke Thathi’ and ‘Pathak’ have a close resemblance to theirs.
Kodagu as Homeland
After centuries of a nomadic and risky life, our ancestors longed to have their own homeland, where they could settle down and be masters of their own destiny. The hilly region in the Western Ghats, next to Baithoor in Kerala was chosen by them as their final homeland. The word Kodagu, derived from our own Kodava language, in which ‘Kodi’ means ‘high’ and ‘Adagu’ means ‘settlement’ was an obvious and exciting choice, as the terrain was similar to what we had left behind in Kurdistan. These two words, ‘Kodi’ and ‘Adagu’ joined together became ‘Kodagu’. We the original settlers of ‘Kodagu’ came to be called variously as ‘Kodavanga’, ‘Kodavaru’, ‘Kodavas’ and ‘Coorgs’. The popular belief derived from Kannada literature that the word Kodagu was derived from the words ‘Kroda Desha’ is incorrect.
Kodagu, in those days was an inhospitable hilly region lashed with torrential rain during the monsoons. This sustained a dense forest with varieties of wild animals, birds, reptiles and insects, where no man ventured to go. Our ancestors, having been agriculturists and soldiers, knew the use of wrought iron implements. With the help of the Poleyas and the Yeravas in the neighbouring areas, who did not have a basic knowledge of agriculture and lived off the forest, our ancestors gradually moved inland, divided the land between the growing number of families and started the unique Okka system which is a way of life that is quite different from that of the Hindus.
Each okka (patrilineal clan) had its own Ainmane and Kaimada. As Kodava women were fewer in number, some Kodava men married women from the neighbouring areas like Kerala, Dakshina Kannada (South Canara) and Mysuru and absorbed them into our community. Braving all hardships, Kodavas gradually converted Kodagu into a prosperous region with terraced paddy fields and cultivated much sought after condiments like pepper and cardamom. They traded their produce through the sea-faring Mapillas of Malabar who became their trusted partners.
As the region prospered and security improved with the presence of Kodavas, Kodagu attracted many labourers, agriculturists, artisans, traders, and holy men from other communities in the neighbouring areas, among whom the Gowdas were prominent. Kodavas, presumably during the 15th Century AD, acquired firearms (muskets), which became as important to them as their famed Odi Kathi, and they treated their firearms with utmost reverence. The gun thereafter, played a prominent role among the Kodavas in warfare, hunting and rituals.
Kodavas do not follow any social religion that believes in Almighty Gods who are thought-reading, sin-punishing and prayer-answering interventionists. We are a simple tribal community, who consider Nature as our God. Nature is both Creator and Creation of which we are a part. It is more important to understand Nature and its manifestations such as the sun, moon, earth, water, flora, fauna and fellow human beings, so that we can live in harmony with them. We were branded as atheists, Mlechas and Kafirs, out of frustration by followers of social religions who could not understand the rationale of our faith, which is more in consonance with the astounding modern scientific discoveries. We do not have a Holy Book of our own like the Geetha, Bible or Koran. There is no such need for us, as Nature itself is our greatest book. Nature, our God, is everywhere, in everything and there is no place in the entire Universe, where there is no God.
We consider our ancestors as our Gurus (teachers) in whose memory we have built Kaimadas (ancestral shrines) near our Ainmanes (ancestral homes). Our ancestors are our role models. They believed in hard work, honesty, righteousness and family values. The right to defend ourselves against attacks from our enemies and the simple pleasure we get with our family members and friends after a hard day’s work, have always been part of our ethos. Lighting a lamp in the Nellakki Nadu Bade (central hall) of our homes every morning and remembering our ancestors, gives us tremendous peace of mind and all the inspiration necessary to live our lives in a meaningful and fruitful manner. We do not need to learn the art of living from so-called ‘God-men’.
We have two main festivals – Kailpolud (that marks the end of the sowing season and the beginning of the hunting season) and Puthari (harvest festival), which are related to the seasons and paddy cultivation cycles. The month of Kakkada (mid-July to mid-August) is considered to be inauspicious for the simple reason that any festival in that period would interfere with the paddy transplanting work that must be done then, when the monsoon is at its heaviest and the paddy fields are full of water.
The river Kaveri as we know it today has existed from time immemorial as a natural geographical phenomenon. The Kodavas originally called the river ‘Thayoor Pole’ meaning ‘Motherland River’, since it originated in Kodagu and flowed across our land. Being nature worshippers, we have always venerated this life-sustaining river. During the month of October, when the monsoon fury is over and the river water is in its purest form, it has been customary for Kodavas to collect water from the highest spring that feeds the river Kaveri and use it for our rituals.
The mythological story that Agastya’s wife Kaveri turned into a river to serve mankind, however interesting and convincing it may seem to some, directly impinges on the Kodava belief in Nature. This river, Nature’s creation, has existed for centuries, long before Agastya or the Kodavas set foot in Kodagu. Without this river, how could the copious monsoon water which the land received, drain out of Kodagu?
Kodavas must believe in truth and not continue to be fooled. The so-called ‘Theerthodbhava’ (annual re-birth of the river), cannot be true, as any geologist with basic knowledge can testify. It is ridiculous to claim that the river’s water erupts once a year at the Kundike, the pond from where the river Kaveri takes birth, precisely on the date and at the time predicted by Hindu priests.
During the month of October in Kodagu, it is usual for bubbles to pop up in water bodies like the Kundike due to the release of air pockets in the underground vents through which the spring water emerges. Such phenomena are seen in many parts of the world. That some Kodavas still believe in Theerthodbhava, sadly exposes our submissive acceptance of what the Hindu priests tell us and our lack of scientific temper. We should worship Kaveri water in its natural form and not in a human form, that too in an alien dress. We need to restore our faith in what is true rather than placing our trust in mythological stories, written with ulterior motives.
Similarly, we should be bold enough to liberate ourselves from Igguthappa Mahime (story of the glory of God Igguthappa), imposed on Kodavas by Linga Raja of the Haleri dynasty through Apparanda Bopu Diwan and the Paradanda Thakkas (hereditary headmen), nominated by him, just to commemorate success in his elephant shooting expedition. Let us not forget that between this Raja, his elder brother and his son, thousands of Kodavas were killed in cold blood. Kodavas existed before Igguthappa was introduced to us and we can continue to exist, practicing the faith bequeathed to us by our Karanas (ancestors) who lived much before Linga Raja.
Blank Pages of History (3rd Century AD to 17th Century AD)
The outstanding role played by Kodavas, during the initial 1500 years of their history in transforming Kodagu into a habitable land and a rice bowl in the region, before they came under the Rule of Haleri Rajas, has been successfully blanked out by historians, especially by those who were commissioned to write the Rajendraname and HukumNama by the Haleri kings. Based on some temples and inscriptions found in Kodagu, it has been ascertained that before the coming of the Haleri Rajas to Kodagu the region was ruled by the Gangas, Chalukyas, Cholas, Changalvas and Hoysalas.
Surely, these Hindu dynasties invaded Kodagu and established bases here, only to collect paddy and other farm produces forcibly as booty; but the countryside was ungovernable and was in full control of the local people. While these invading armies erected victory stones or built temples wherever they went, they hardly remained on the land and administered it. Some semblance of governance was brought about during the period of the Vijayanagara Empire that included Kodagu in the mid-14th to the mid-16th century. Nayakas, many of whom were locals, were appointed, to collect paddy and other farm produces on their behalf. The mutual rivalry between these Nayakas and the lack of unity among the Kodavas at that time sowed the seeds for our subsequent failure as a united and independent people.
Achu Nayaka’s Failed Rebellion and Consolidation of the Rule of the Haleri Dynasty
In 1728 AD, Kodavas in South Kodagu, under the leadership of Achu Nayaka (belonging to the present Ajjikuttira Okka) rebelled against the then ruler, Siribai Veerappa of the Haleri dynasty, who had gained ascendency in North Kodagu by playing one Kodava against another. The rebellion collapsed after its leader, Achu Nayaka, was treacherously ambushed and wounded near the entrance to his fort, while returning from ‘Koot Bote’ (a collective hunt) and then taken to the Raja as a prisoner by a Kodava Karyakara (army chief) named Paradanda Ponnappa. For this service, Ponnappa was promoted as a Diwan and vast captured property was handed over to Ponnappa’s son to start a new Okka. Later, the very same Raja, got Paradanda Ponnappa killed for becoming overbearing, and subjected his family to Kuthi Nasha (destruction of the entire Paradanda Okka)! Kuthi Nasha became a powerful tool thereafter for the subsequent Rajas to subjugate the people and demand absolute obedience.
Siribai Veerappa, having thus got control of the whole of Kodagu, divided the land into 12 Kombus and 35 Nadus. He decreed that his newly acquired kingdom, Kodagu, would have one MahaThaayi (great mother, Kaveri), that each Nad would have a Maha Deva (God Ishwara), each Oor (village) a Povvedi (goddess Bhagavathi), each Keri an Ayappa (god of the hunt), each Oni a Naatha (snake god) and each Okka (clan) a Pooda (a lesser God, a spirit-deity). He then appointed ‘Deva Thakkas’ from gullible Kodava families to construct and run temples to these gods so as to impose Hindu beliefs on the Kodavas. This step resulted in undermining our original faith and bringing about a major distortion to it.
The practices of Kodavas consulting astrologers, performing poojas through Brahmin priests and believing in the classification of time as inauspicious (Rahu Kala) and auspicious (Gulige Kala) etc., are some of the Hindu customs which were imposed on Kodavas from this period, the 18th Century onwards. The same Raja, also appointed Thakkas (hereditary headmen of administratve divisions) – Desha Thakkas, Seeme Thakkas, Nad Thakkas and Oor Thakkas from loyal Kodava families to administer Kodagu.
He proclaimed that all the land owned by the locals was his; but gave back the bulk of the land to the Okkas as Jamma Land with hereditary ownership and a nominal tax, under the proviso that these Okkas would, in return, supply a portion of their produce to meet the Palace requirements, agree to do Palace duties by turn and get mobilized during wars, when summoned through the Thakkas. It is ironical that the present government thinks that the Jamma lands did not belong to the locals and that the same was granted to them by the Rajas (read the government now), out of their generosity!
Achu Nayaka’s failed rebellion was the turning point in the history of Kodavas, and this has not been adequately highlighted by historians. We Kodavas were effectively subjugated, made to forget our past, and serious attempts were made to undermine our faith. The Thakkas served the interest of the Rajas and not that of Kodavas. When thousands of Kodavas were killed by the last three Rajas in cold blood, these Thakkas were conspicuous by their silence. The claim that the Thakka system, which is based on loyal families appointed by the Rajas in the 18th century AD, is an original Kodava custom, is wholly wrong.
Rule of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan (1780 to 1791 AD)
Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, who became rulers of Mysore by deceit, wrested Kodagu also by force and deceit. Fuelled by their desire to carve out an empire that gave them access to ports on the west coast and to Islamise the whole population, they exterminated in cold blood many families of Kodavas who had resisted their periodic attacks. Many more, including women, were taken as prisoners, again by deceit, and forcibly converted to the Islamic faith. This was the biggest setback for Kodavas and the darkest period of our history.
Severely depleted in numbers, the Kodavas were so infuriated that not only did they rescue Vira Raja from captivity, but they also rallied under him to drive Tipu’s army out of Kodagu on their own. It was only later that they rendered all help to the British, in order to eliminate Tipu Sultan once and for all. Tipu was a religious bigot and a ruthless empire builder – not the foremost freedom-fighter as made out to be by so-called historians. In order to make up their depleted numbers, Kodavas took into their fold like-minded families from other communities in Kodagu.
End of Haleri Rajas Rule (1834 AD)
Having made use of Kodavas to regain and retain their throne, the last three Rajas became increasingly cruel and autocratic. The bulk of Kodavas led by Diwans Cheppudira Ponappa and Apparanda Bopu helped the British to overthrow the last ruler, ChikkaViraraja, and bring in British rule. Kodavas also helped the British in successfully quelling the rebellion that followed, which was an attempt to bring back the rule of Haleri Rajas in Kodagu.
British Rule (1834 to 1947)
The British, no doubt exploited and ensured their colonial interests; but they were more humane and better administrators than the Haleri Rajas. Even though they treated people of all communities equally as per their merit, they trusted the Kodavas more. Many schools were started and Kodavas, who showed great interest in being educated, got better jobs and prospered. The justice system was strengthened and there was rule of law. Kodavas entered the All India services and distinguished themselves in different fields like the military, police, medicine, forest, and revenue and the true merit of Kodavas became known. The British introduced coffee cultivation in Kodagu in a big way, and coffee became a major cash crop. While they allowed Jamma tenure to continue, they started granting Jagir lands with individual ownership to those who served them well. This contributed to weakening the joint family (Okka) system that had existed for several centuries.
Kodavas, who were well versed in Kannada (the official language of the Haleri Rajas), like Appaneravanda AppachaKavi and Nadikerianda Chinnappa started writing plays based on or documenting our history, culture, customs and traditions, in the Kodava language (using the Kannada script) and in Kannada – but unfortunately it was only as practiced by later Kodavas who had already come under the domination of the Haleri Rajas.
Even our Balo Paat (folk songs) start with the Haleri Rajas’ period, and do not touch upon the earlier fourteen centuries of our history and traditions. Some of the later Kodava historians too have failed to carry out meaningful research of our glorious past, and our true faith. Sadly, with some exceptions, they have inundated us with literature that influence the younger generation and make them believe in mythologies and accept alien rituals and customs as our own.
Some recent authors have done a strategic mistake by studying the temple rituals in remote villages in Kodagu, and claiming that they are old Kodava customs which city dwellers are forgetting! Unfortunately, those villagers are more vigorous in following the imposed customs forced on us by the Deva Thakkas appointed by the Rajas during 18th/19th Centuries. It is an anomalous situation where these Brahminised Kodavas, aided and abetted by the Thakkas and modern politicians who have their own selfish agenda, are misinterpreting our original faith, and trying to convert us into Hindus! As the days pass, it will become increasingly difficult for us to revert to our earlier faith which is more in consonance with recent scientific discoveries and with universally accepted modern concepts of human behaviour.
Merger and After
It was quite a fall from being an independent Coorg State (1950-56) to becoming just a small neglected district of a big State. Since its merger with Karnataka in 1956, there has been a steady decline in the status of Kodagu and Kodavas. The majority communities like Vokkaligas and Lingayats have assumed political power in Kodagu by sheer numbers and have benefitted at the cost of others. The bulk of the other non-Kodavas have been classified variously as Minorities, OBCs and SC/STs, and they are enjoying special benefits. Kannada is being imposed on Kodavas and the use of English, which is the only international/inter-state language that can fetch us good jobs, is discouraged.
The well-being of Kodavas and our sacred homeland, Kodagu, can only be ensured if the present misconceptions about our history and our true faith are removed. Only by this awareness can we convince ourselves and others that we are not Hindus as made out to be, but a distinct tribal community with our own language, faith, customs and traditions. Even if we are not found eligible for Scheduled Tribe status because of our comparatively better education and economic state, we are more eligible than others to earn the Minority status. Kodavas are the original settlers of Kodagu. Kodagu and Kodavas need Constitutional protection to preserve our unique culture and traditions. Such a step is necessary in the national interest.
*Maj Gen Codanda K Karumbaya, SM (Retd) was born and educated in Madikeri, Kodagu. He was commissioned into the Army in 1958. He actively participated in the 1965 Indo-Pak war in the Rajasthan/Sind sector, where he was wounded. In the 1971 Bangladesh war, he was awarded the Sena Medal for gallantry. He retired as Deputy Commandant of the Indian Military Academy in 1991. Maj Gen Karumbaya has written extensively on matters relating to Kodagu and contributed articles to newspapers and web portals.
ARE KODAVAS HINDUS?
By Dr. Sowmya Dechamma
Are Kodavas Hindus? This at one level is a rhetorical question to which answers can be multiple and contradicting. For me, this question raises several other connected and important questions. Why does this question come up again and again in the public and private domains of Kodava lives? This question is not new. It has always been present in one form or the other from the times of colonial ethnographers/administrators like Rev. Moegling, Rev. G. Richter and Lewis Rice, who documented the lives of Kodavas, to the times of Indian Sociologists such as M. N. Srinivas.
While it was essentially outsiders who discussed this issue in the past, since the last twenty-five years or so, it is we Kodavas who raise this question and discuss and debate it amongst ourselves. The fact that the question of Kodava religion continues to be alive gives credence to the issue and shows that it is still relevant.
This write-up therefore only seeks to extend and add to the debate. Some issues raised here have already been raised in the past. Nevertheless, for purposes of clarity and argument, I make them again, substantiating them from my own observations and those of others.
Let me also point out that this question of whether a particular community belongs to a particular religion is not at all new and is not specific to Kodavas alone. The first person known to have raised this issue was Bertrand Russell, the famous British Philosopher and writer who gave a talk “Why I am not a Christian” in 1927, which later came out as a book. Much later in 1995, Ibn Warraq, wrote the book “Why I am not a Muslim”.
Almost around the same time, Kancha Ilaiah, intellectual and sociologist from Telangana wrote the now famous “Why I am not a Hindu” in 1996. Tracing his community practices to the shepherd caste he belongs to, Ilaiah made a compelling argument as to why ‘backward castes’ and Dalits cannot be considered as belonging to the Hindu fold. In fact, this debate as to whether ‘untouchables’/Dalits are Hindus or not was/is a fiercely contested one since the times of Gandhi who systematically produced a discourse around the issue.
It is useful to have some basic understanding of religion itself before we come to the term Hindu. How do we understand religion? In very broad terms, every religion is supposed to express a unique set of values. Around the world, a broad classification of religions is based on Semitism (descendants of Shem, son of Prophet Noah, which includes Christianity, Islam and Judaism) and non-Semitism (which includes all other religions of the world). Each of the Semitic religions is based on a single book, while the non-semitic ones are not. In fact, since the early colonisers did not comprehend the religions of the East, they came up with books for those religions which did not have any: the Bhagavad Gita for ‘Hindus’, the Tripitaka for Buddhists and such. That Brahmin men and aristocrats were the only ones allowed to learn and read Sanskrit and that the Gita, written in Sanskrit, never formed a part of the day-to-day life of Hindus says enough about how the Gita was constructed as the holy book only much later on in history.
It is by now well known that the word ‘Hindu’ does not belong to Sanskrit or the Dravidian languages or to any other languages of India. It is a Persian term used to refer to people beyond the ‘Sindhu’ river and never referred to a people belonging to a particular religion until the medieval times. It was with the Europeans crossing the sea and coming east that they started classifying people, categorising them into knowable, controllable units – be it religion, caste, region, language, or otherwise.
Scholars like James Scott have very impressively pointed out how the colonial rulers and later the modern nation state have always desired to rule by categorising and by legitimising unknown things/people using various methods. This is best manifest in the census which began in India under the British colonial rule in 1871 which categorised all kinds of people under a particular religion, language, caste, or tribe even though they did not belong to that category, simply because the group they belonged to was a small one that was unknown or had not been categorised. And most often, such small groups were clubbed with the majority category.
Thus, not only Kodavas but many other small communities got classified as Hindu even as Census officials noted and recorded the distinct practices of these communities. Justifiably, post-colonial cultures have questioned the means and methods that were used by the colonisers to understand the varied cultures in India and in other countries. How can people belonging to other cultures define and categorise us – is the question that has bothered post-colonial cultures. Extending this, Kodavas (or any other community) can also ask – can others interpret, analyse, and define us better than ourselves? How has our own understanding of ourselves been shaped by our interaction with others?
In order to ask the question ‘Are Kodavas Hindus?’ we first need to ask – what is Hinduism? It has already been noted that Hinduism first came to being as a term used for people living beyond the Sindhu river and not as belonging to any religion. This later on took the colour of religion. What are the central features of Hinduism? From the known, recorded times, the Brahmin caste system has been one of the defining features of Hinduism, the other being idol worship.
What is the Kodava relationship with caste? I would argue that Kodavas do not belong to the caste system that is prescribed and practiced by Hindus. One important factor that characterises this caste system is the belief in the ritual supremacy of Brahmins.
The non-involvement of Brahmins in any of the rituals or ceremonies of Kodavas is common knowledge to all Kodavas. Among Kodavas, it is the elders who conduct all auspicious and not-so-auspicious rituals, whereas for all Hindu castes, it is only the presence of a Brahmin that sanctifies any ritual, since it is believed that only he can mediate between humans and their supreme beings.
This brings us to the question of Kodava gods. Like many small religions, neither Kodava folklore nor their practices refer to any one supernatural being, who is not visible to the eye, as their god. It is either the ancestral spirit Guru Karona or other spirits like Kulika that govern our cosmology. It is these spirits that we invoke in every one of our practices, day-to-day or occasional. Neither is any of the Kodava festivals based on a god. It is around our lived experience, and around our livelihood that the festivals of Kailpod and Puthari are based, not on any god – Hindu or otherwise. Even Kaveri Sankramana, which many have noted is a recently introduced festival, revolves around a river whose tributaries are the lifeline of Kodagu.
One only needs to pay a little more attention to note that idol worship is non-existent among Kodavas. If one looks at the place where the thook bolcha (sacred hanging lamp – that is lit daily) is kept and where all important events in the family are solemnised) or the space where meedi (offering to the ancestors) is kept, one would notice the striking emptiness of these spaces. To my knowledge, no idol or photograph adorns this space, although there are a few exceptions these days among those influenced by the popular cultures in the surrounding areas and by Hinduism in particular. This is also true for kaimadas (ancestral shrines) which perhaps were central to our worship of ancestors, now reduced to an annual affair during the Karonang Kodpo ritual. Most kaimadas are open and empty except for an oil wick lamp. Occasionally, in some kaimadas, one finds figurines vaguely resembling humans placed there to symbolize ancestors male or female – although even this distinction is not clear in the stone figures. Renovated kaimadas these days sometimes flaunt the picture of a Hindu god in the wall tiles used, but the space for worship is essentially open and empty with no idols of any god.
What this means to me is that for Kodavas, the relationship between ancestors and the living is direct, unmediated by anyone. Our ancestors are as much a part of us as we are part of them. It is only in the last two decades or so that in a few Kodava houses of nuclear families one sees a separate room for Hindu gods. None of the older houses or ancestral homes has such a room set apart for prayer to gods. On the other hand, the ainmanes or ancestral homes of Kodavas have a kanni kombare, a room set apart as sacred to their ancestors, to pray and make ritual offerings to them. Also to be noted is the fact that Kodavas make animal sacrifices and liquor offerings to spirits such as Kulika, and to their ancestors in the usual meedi offerings. They offer whatever they have for their meal that day to their ancestors – from pork to vegetables to water to liquor. This does not fall under the rigid notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ that defines Hinduism and its caste practices.
In caste Hindu practices, although some castes do eat meat and savour liquor, offering them to gods is not done since such offerings are considered to be essentially impure. Neither do caste Hindus eat meat or have liquor during any of their festivals, unlike Kodavas. Some do, but not on the main day of the festival.
That begs the question – do Kodavas belong to any of the Hindu castes? One popular claim is that Kodavas are Kshatriyas or the warrior caste, the second in the hierarchy of the Hindu caste system. This is a claim that many of the shudra castes too have made in recent times. How do we understand this?
A little history of the common perception of a Kodava and a Kodava man’s physique: in the popular memory of both Kodavas and Kannadigas, Kodava men are thought of as warriors and this automatically leads to the assumption that they belong to the warrior caste. This misconstrued warrior identity is because of the supposedly good martial skills of Kodava men who ‘served’ under the kings who ruled Kodagu. Although the geographical and political entity of Kodagu has been changing over time and under different rulers, Kodagu has never been ruled by an ‘insider’, a Kodava. We are organised in terms of clans and have clan heads, like most tribal communities of the world. Interestingly, Kodagu has always been ruled by ‘outsiders’ including the Lingayat kings who made Madikeri their seat of power and ruled over Kodagu for over 200 years. The people of Kodagu have been small scale agriculturists with hunting and gathering supplementing subsistence farming, until the arrival of coffee plantations with the British. As to their physique, as in any thickly-forested hilly terrain with harsh climatic conditions, the people of Kodagu adopted means of survival that made their minds and bodies sturdy and best suited to rigour.
From the well documented times of Lingayat kings (1600– 1834), Kodavas have at best been dewans, and mostly foot soldiers for the king. Despite being outside the framework of the Hindu caste system, the ruling powers have always found it convenient to bracket Kodavas as Hindu warriors for purposes that are obvious – to be used as soldiers and to consolidate their power against the enemy both from ‘outside’ and from ‘within’ Kodagu.
In addition, the Lingayat kings had a system of hittibitti chakri, a system that almost amounted to bonded labour. Under this hittibitti chakri system, every family in Kodagu, Kodava or otherwise, had to work for the king as a soldier, as a guard, or do any other job ordered by the king. And, like all monarchs, the Lingayat kings punished those not complying with this decree, death being the severest punishment. This hittibitti chakri forced some Kodavas to take up arms and volunteer as soldiers, gradually adding to the notion of Kodavas as warriors.
This notion of Kodavas as warriors was also concretized by the colonial government, which exempted the jamma landholders of Kodagu from the Indian Arms Acts of 1861, 1878, and 1924 so as to use their services in Kodagu where there was no regular military or police force then. This exemption continues even today, making the possession of arms much easier for all jamma land holders of Kodagu. So the gun-wielding Kodava man has become ‘the image’ of Kodavas.
The colonial discourse that was prevalent in the late Victorian and early twentieth century also added to this history of ‘Kodava as warrior’. Very many Kodavas have also bought this theory of Kodavas belonging to a martial/warrior race. This has resulted in the Kodava symbol consisting of the peeche kathi (a dagger tucked into the sash of the traditional dress of a Kodava man), odi kathi (a broad-bladed sword) and the gun – all too obviously male warrior-like.
The myth of Kodavas as belonging to some warrior caste is not only baseless but conveniently supports M.N. Srinivas’s theory of sanskritisation uncritically. That the first commander-in-chief of independent India, K.M. Cariappa, and Gen. K.S.Thimayya, one of the earliest army chiefs, are both Kodavas has further added to this myth.
Interestingly and contradictorily, the government of Karnataka categorizes Kodavas, the dominant community of Kodagu, as belonging to Other Backward Classes (OBC) (III A). Since classifying of OBCs happened only after independence, grouping of people who are classified and defined as OBCs becomes very problematic.
At present there exist three prominent notions of community among the Kodavas: (1) that Kodavas are a tribe, albeit socially more mobile than other tribes; (2) that Kodavas belong to Other Backward Classes but not necessarily Hindu; (3) that Kodavas are an upwardly mobile community despite marked differences from that of the Brahminical Hindu. When a community defies definition that frames it within the Brahminical order, the state apparatus finds it convenient to ‘bind it serially’ in the OBC Hindu list, thereby saying that although communities such as Kodavas are ‘a little different’–they eat pork for instance–but are not Christians, and are not Muslims, and therefore they are Hindus. And precisely because they are different, they need to be down in the order but not outside it; this difference needs to be assimilated into the very end of margins as a ‘different Hindu’ defined by the state/hegemonic groups.
Patriarchy combined with caste marks another major feature of Hinduism. One of the main beliefs among caste Hindus is the desire for a son so that one could be cremated by the son and son only. This is the only way Hindus believe one will be free from this world.
If one observes the death rituals of the Kodavas, we see that the first right to light the pyre goes to the husband or wife of the deceased and then only to others. The son is seen as just another member of the family who would assist in the rituals along with the husband /wife /daughter/ parent of the deceased. That the wife can and is entitled by custom to light the pyre of her husband is something that is utterly against all norms of Hinduism.
In addition, the fact that Kodavas are buried in times of rain or when death befalls children or when the person dying or his/her family so wishes, is another pointer that shows how unlike Hindus Kodavas are. They do not have Hinduism’s fixation with cremation. Kodava practices are fluid and not dogmatic. Another notable difference is that widowed Kodava women are not considered inauspicious. Following tradition, they remarry and so do women separated from their husbands, with rituals prescribed for such re-marriages – something that traditionally caste Hindus were totally against.
There are a whole lot of contentions about practices of marriage among Kodavas in pre-colonial times, but to a large extent Kodavas have been patrilineal, where landed property is inherited only by male heirs. Before the free market, and before coffee plantations expanded, there was hardly any property to distribute in Kodagu. Now, despite Kodava practices in relation to women being more democratic, there are traces of Hinduism’s chauvinism creeping in, and that is a matter of concern.
One argument that supports the Hindu claim of Kodavas is the presence of temples in almost every village of Kodagu. This is not at all surprising. From the colonial times as recorded in the Archaeology of Coorg to M. N. Srinivas’s Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India, it is pointed out that almost all temples of Kodagu date from around the time of Lingayat Kings. This implies that temples, especially those dedicated to major Saivaite gods were built around that time. There are also innumerable temples of ‘minor’ gods like Bhagavati, Muthappan, etc.
These gods, whether Hindu or not, have “travelled” from Kerala and “came” to Kodagu over time. It is also pointed out that the presence of Tulu-speaking and Kannada-speaking Brahmins in some of these temples show that these Brahmins do not belong to Kodagu but were brought over by the Lingayat kings to establish their own religious and other interests in Kodagu. This, as we see in history, has been a device used by kings to expand their influence territorially as well as in socio-cultural terms. However, despite the presence of all these gods and more, Kodavas have quite steadfastly retained the practices of their native rituals, ceremonies and festivals and this points to the resilience of smaller religions.
Another feature that most societies, whether western or eastern, have is that of a hierarchical structure among the communities that speak the same language and inhabit the same region. This is also found in Kodagu where Kodava speakers are not just Kodavas but include Heggades, Ayiris, Hajamas, Malayas and Amma Kodavas among others. The relationship among all these communities pretty much resembles caste structures of Hinduism. What we need to remember is that this is an evil replica of the caste system outside the fold of Hinduism. But most of these communities’ practices do not resemble Hindu practices.
There are hardly any relationships, may it be of inter-community marriages or other social relationships, between these communities, except for occupational ones that revolves around power of land holders (Kodavas or others). The practice of Poleyas playing drums (valaga) at almost all rituals of Kodavas points to some traces of caste Hinduism in Kodavas practices. That most Poleyas are Kannada speakers points to the possibility of them being another group which the Lingayat kings brought with them.
Let me also put this straight. There are major, dominant religions and there are small, local non-dominant religions. Not belonging to one of the major religions does not mean that one ends up belonging to another major religion. If one is not Hindu does not mean that one is Muslim or Christian.
The best examples are from the native religions of America or Australia that have been in existence much before the white people colonised these continents. Iroquois, Pueblo, Mi’kmaq, Navajo, in Northern America, the many Aborginal tribes in Australia, and the Maoris of New-Zealand are a few among them. In the same way, religions of tribes in India, may it be Santhal, Ho in the Eastern belt, Lushai, Khasi, Angami, Bodo (and 250 others) in the North-eastern belt or our own neighbours Eravas, Kurubas – cannot be classified as Hindu just because they do not practice Christianity or Islam. Of course that we have treated them as inferior and almost like slaves in the past points to the Kodava structures that are feudal, classist.
The cosmology and ways of life of the Kodava, Erava and other ‘small’ religions are entirely different from those of dominant religions, and it is time we recognise ‘small’ religions for their own worth. Whether these religions want to call themselves simply by their own name (Navajo or Kodava or Erava) or whether these communities want to be considered as a distinct tribe is the people’s own choice and to a large extent a governmental construct. There is nothing small in belonging to a small religion, especially when these smaller religions are relatively more democratic, less dogmatic and open to changes for the better. It therefore works well for the Kodavas to be Kodavas and not Hindus.
See Nathaniel Roberts book To be Cared for: The Power of Conversion and Foreignness of Belonging in an Indian Slum, Navayana, New Delhi, 2016, pages 111 to 151, for these debates involving Gandhi and Untouchables.
See for more details — Scott, James. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press and James Scott, John Tehranian and Jeremy Mathias. 2002. The production of legal identities proper to states: The case of the permanent family surname. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 44 (1): 4-44.
This part on the (mis)construction of Kodavas as belonging to a warrior caste is taken largely from my earlier paper on “The Model Minority: Problematizing the Representation of Kodavas in Kannada Cinema”, in Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Volume 13, Issue 1, 2012 (5-21).
Chotteyandamada Sowmya Dechamma, Associate Professor at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad, is a Fulbright scholar.
Apart from teaching Comparative Indian Literature and Cultural Discourses in Contemporary India, her research interests include Minority Discourse and Kodava Language and Culture.
She has visited the University of California, Santa Cruz as a Visiting Scholar in 2005. She was a Commonwealth Fellow at the University of Southampton during September 2010- March 2011, and was awarded the Indo-Hungarian Education Exchange Programme for teachers during 2010. She has co-edited a book titled Cinemas of South India: Culture, Resistance, Ideology, 2010, published by Oxford University Press and has published articles in various journals
KODAVAS: NATURE WORSHIPPERS
By Dr.Veena Poonacha
Located on the slopes of Soma Male peak in Kadiyatnad, Malethirke is one of the many forest shrines that dot the picturesque landscape of Kodagu. My visit to this sacred site of worship was a reminder of the ancient religious traditions of the Kodavas, who are described in 19th century ethnographic writings as a hardy mountain tribe with warlike traditions.
Historical accounts, since the 16th century, have long highlighted this aspect of their culture.2 In more recent historical memory, one can recall the contributions of soldiers like Field Marshal K. M. Cariappa, General K.S. Thimayya and scores of other unknown soldiers who have lived and died for their motherland.
This is not the history that I want to unearth. As a sociologist, my search is to understand the deeply embedded cultural ethos of the people – to unravel those aspects of their religion and cultural traditions that define the community.
What I found was a cultural ethos that celebrated the interconnectedness of all life forms – the land, the birds, animals and plants. No doubt, the religious life of any community is complex and comprises many elements: apart from the philosophical/spiritual dimension, it includes ethical standards governing human behaviour, as well as rites/rituals related to life-cycle events of birth, marriage and death.
These different aspects of a religion are interconnected and reveal the belief system of the followers. The religious practices of the Kodavas are broadly located within the Hindu fold and yet they are different. They do not follow any of the religious prescriptions that govern the lives of mainstream Hindu communities.3
Unravelling the socio-religious practices of the Kodavas, reveals cross-cultural influences. Such processes of acculturation are inevitable and no culture or community can deny such influences. A case in point is the worship of Goddess Bhagavathi in every hamlet or village in Kodagu, indicating the influence of Kerala culture. Similarly the 17th century Omkareshwara temple in Madikeri reveals the influence of the Great Religious Traditions of Hinduism and is a latter day insertion into their religious beliefs. Undoubtedly these disparate strands of religious practices and belief systems have a long history and are now integral to the Kodava culture. I do not, however, wish to discuss cultural transmission and influences on cultural practices.
My quest was to find the essence of the Kodava religious ethos – an essence that has remained intrinsic to the culture, despite the march of time and the inevitable impact of socio-economic change. I feel that Kodava culture is defined by the symbiotic connection that they have with the land and all its flora and fauna. This connection is inevitable in a community dependent on agriculture.4 The idea of the sacredness of the land is evident, not just in the idiom of their songs and dances, but also in the depiction of the sacred through the conceptualization of forest shrines in sacred groves (devarakadu).5
These shrines, set amidst impenetrable forests on rugged mountainous terrain overlooking lush green valleys, indicate the roots of an indigenous culture that has been in existence since perhaps pre-historic times. It is a culture that is slowly disappearing as the Kodavas, succumbing to the lure of materialism, sell their land. Despite such erosion of religious beliefs, the continued existence and living worship at these forest shrines, attests to the pull of an ancient belief system. Adoration of the divine principle in the forest shrine indicates a belief in the wholeness of life and the need for human societies to co-exist with nature. It enjoins a veneration of all life forms – the birds, the plants and the animals.
Such an inclusive worldview is not unique to the Kodavas, but is characteristic of indigenous religious and cultural traditions across the world and is perhaps best encapsulated in an epistle written by Chief Seattle in 1854:6
“The air is precious to the red man. For all things share the same breath – the beasts, the trees, the man, they all share the same breath. What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to man. All things are connected….whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of earth.” (cited in Kundtson and Suzuki 1992: xv).
Although separated by land and sea, the ideas expressed in the epistle encapsulate the essence of Kodava ethos. Their commitment to the ethics of caring for the earth is epitomized through the representation of the forests as sacred spaces.
The Malethirke forest shrine, like others that dot the land, is a simple open-air structure that does not boast of the architectural splendour evident in the other south Indian temples of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Kerala. Temples, especially in parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, have a profusion of exquisite carvings, sculptures and frescoes, indicating the genius of human hands. The skill of the artists and artisans in erecting these magnificent structures fills one with awe.
Yet, would it be wrong to suggest that the representation of the sacred in anthropomorphic form (evident in the sculptures and frescoes) indicates a concept of divinity that privileges the human over all other forms of life?
Additionally, does the composition of the temple indicate a philosophy that sees salvation as attainable by transcending the natural world? In contrast, the simple forest shrines indicate a belief in the immanent divinity of nature and the interconnectedness of all life.
This sense of sacredness of the forest shrines is evocatively depicted in the description of the Malethirke shrine in Silent Sentinels: Traditional Architecture of Coorg:
“The shrine does not have the formal characteristics of Kerala Dravida style, barring a linear axis and the hierarchical progression from the profane to the sacred. The approach to the deity is by a lane….The entire site is characterised by a high level of sensitivity to the landscape. The rising cliff face behind the deity, with its tall overgrown trees and filtered sunlight, brings with it a sense of scale that for many observers conveys a sense of the presence of a higher power.”(2005: 113-117).
The Kodavas were hunters and agriculturists in the distant past. There is nonetheless a code of conduct governing both these occupations. Hunting was restricted to certain seasons and was proscribed in forests designated as devarakadus.1
Similarly, the traditional farmer approached the cultivation of the land with a sense of veneration. This reverence to nature and its bounty, a characteristic feature of indigenous communities, stands in contrast with the worldview shared by modern societies.
These societies, fuelled by rapid industrial expansion and overutilization of natural resources, suffer a disconnect from the natural world. This worldview grows out of a mechanist conception of the earth. The conceptualization of the world as inanimate has evolved out of the progress of scientific knowledge since the 17th century.
The corollary to this belief system is the illusion that the human being is at the top of the evolutionary chain. This assumption entitles human societies to exploit the earth and its resources. In contrast, the ecologically sensitive worldview of tribal communities calls for the conservation and preservation of the natural world. It recognizes that the indiscriminate destruction of planet earth will ultimately destroy us. We need to reclaim this wisdom for our survival.
I had the opportunity to visit the Malethirke shrine with my cousin Swaroop Appiah, and friends Alice Clark and Charles Taylor on January 3, 2017.
Ferista, a historian, remarks that a battalion of Kodava soldiers fought in the Battle of Talikota that marked the end of the Vijaynagara Empire (cited in Srinivas 2003)
The Kodava community is not classified within the caste system. Moreover there are no priests to officiate over any of their life-cycle rituals.
For instance, the Kaveri Purana celebrating the river goddess Kaveri and the Desakett Pat begin with an invocation to the land (Nadikerianda Chinnappa 1924, translation 2003).
I need to clarify that there are other aspects of the religious and cultural traditions of the Kodavas that also reveal their cultural ethos, which I have not touched upon here. For instance, the home is a sacred space for the Kodavas, an aspect that is evident in the sacredness of the Ainmane (ancestral home). Similarly, reverence to their ancestors is also an intrinsic part of Kodava culture. It is the blessings of the ancestors that are sought at the beginning of every auspicious function. The more formal worship is centred on the worship of Igguthappa, God of Agriculture, the River Goddess Kaveri, and local deities like Aiyappa, God of the hunt, and Muthappa, the rebel God and hunter.
Chief Seattle was the leader of the Duwamish tribe in Washington territory who is supposed to have written this epistle when there was a move by the American state to purchase the land.
There are traditional sanctions against the indiscriminate use of weapons among the Kodavas. On Kail Polud festival day that marks the beginning of the hunting season, the members of each Kodava Okka (clan) take up their arms with deep veneration. The eldest member of the clan enjoins his family members to cautiously use their weapons, with these words: “Give way to the charge of a tiger. Avoid the rush of a boar. Do not provoke your foe. But should he attack, face up to him and fight. Always stand by a friend. Do not anger your king, and never forget God.” (Nadikeranda Chinnappa 1924, translation 2003)
Knudtson, Peter and Suzuki, David. Wisdom of the Elders. Stoddart: Canada. 1992. Pp. xv.
Nadikeranda Chinnappa. (1924) Pattole Palame: Kodava Culture–Folksongs and Traditions. Translated by Boverianda Nanjamma and Chinnappa (2003), New Delhi, Rupa and Co.
Srinivas, M. N. (1952) Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India. New Delhi, Oxford University Press.
Somaya, Brinda et al. (2005). Silent Sentinels: Traditional Architecture of Coorg. Mumbai: Hecar Foundation. Pp. 2013-17.
*Prof. Neravanda Veena Poonacha retired as Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.
With a Ph.D. in Sociology from SNDT Women’s University, she has contributed significantly to the growth of women’s studies scholarship, through her research, publications and teaching.
She has been awarded research fellowships by the Australia-India Council in 2008, and by the University of British Colombia, Canada in 1997. She was a visiting faculty in the University of Regina, Canada.
Her publications include From the Land of a Thousand Hills: Portraits of Three Women of Coorg (Kodagu) in South India, 2002. She was awarded a PhD degree in 1991 for her thesis Women in Coorg Society: A Study of Status and Experiences through the Use of Proverbs, Folksongs, Oral Histories and Genealogies.