KODAVAS THROUGH THE AGES
By Maj Gen Codanda K. Karumbaya, SM (Retd)*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.