Are Kodavas Hindus?
By Dr. Sowmya Dechamma
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.
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