Kodagu (Coorg, as the British called it)…
Kodagu (Coorg, as the British called it)…
Kodagu (Coorg, as the British called it), the smallest district in Karnataka, is perched on the Western Ghats at a height of about 1000m above sea level. It is known for its breath-taking scenery – rugged hills, dense tropical forests once teeming with wild animals, lush coffee plantations on hill slopes, green rice fields in the valleys, winding streams and rivers, and cascading waterfalls. About a third of the district is covered by forests fed by monsoon rains that lash the region for nearly four months in the year. The river Kaveri (Cauvery), revered as their mother goddess by the people of Kodagu, takes birth in Kodagu.
There are references to Kodagu in Tamil literature of the Sangam period (2nd Century AD) and in Ganga, Chola and Hoysala inscriptions of the 12th century.
Over the centuries, chieftains owing allegiance to different dynasties ruled over parts of Kodagu. The Haleri Rajas of Kodagu, who were Lingayats by faith and spoke Kannada, were originally Ikkeri Nayakas. It was one of their princes who came to Haleri near Madikeri and cleverly took over Kodagu and gradually established himself as the ruler of Kodagu. His dynasty, called the Haleri or Lingayat Rajas ruled Kodagu from 1600 to 1834. When they were removed by the British, Kodagu (Coorg) was made a Chief Commissioner’s Province. The Indian Constitution recognized Coorg as Part ‘C’ State, entitled to have its own responsible government. In 1956, when the states were reorganized on a linguistic basis, Kodagu became part of Karnataka state.
Kodavas are among the earliest inhabitants of Kodagu. Very little is known about their origins or early history, and none of the many conjectures about their origins have been substantiated. They are an indigenous land-owning community of hunters and warriors, with strong ties to the land and a martial tradition.
Kodavas are a numerically small community with their population numbering about a lakh and a half world-wide. The district of Kodagu, which can be contained in a rectangle that is 100 km by 60 km, is a tiny part of India. The Kodava community is a minority community that has, since the first census in 1871, never been more than 20% of the population of Kodagu. But it is one of the largest communities in Kodagu, and since time immemorial has been a culturally dominant community, giving the district its distinct image.
Kodava cultural traditions and practices were transmitted orally from generation to generation. (It was only in 1924 that Nadikerianda Chinnappa compiled Kodava traditions and folksongs in the Pattole Palame book, which was acclaimed by the University of Mysore as the earliest extensive collection of the folklore of a community in an Indian language.) Yet, the Kodava community has retained its unique culture and maintained its identity and its distinctive way of life over many centuries. This is a culture that has survived despite the inevitable influences of the cultures of the neighbouring areas, despite being ruled by non-Kodavas until Independence (by the Lingayat kings and the British), despite the turbulent periods in its history, and in spite of the demands of modernity in today’s world. There have been inevitable changes, but these have not been significant enough to alter the culture substantially.
The first thing that strikes one as ‘different’ about Kodavas is their traditional dress. The Kodava woman drapes her sari in a distinctive style with the pleats tucked at the back of the waist and the pallu (loose end of the sari) drawn under her left shoulder and secured over the right – a very convenient style, with the hands free for agricultural and other work. On her head she wears a vastra (long veil) tied back at the nape of her neck.
The traditional jewellery worn by Kodava women is also distinctive and is inspired by nature – the moon, flowers, fruits, snake etc. It commonly uses repousse work, where a small quantity of gold is beaten to paper thinness and moulded in the desired pattern, giving it a three-dimensional effect. The typical chains include the kokke thathi (long gold chain of hollow gold beads, with a large crescent-shaped pendant filled with lac, set with graduated rubies, with hanging pearls along its bottom edge, and with the hood of a cobra at its top); the pathak, symbol of a married woman (chain of gold and coral beads on a twisted strand of black glass beads, with a gold coin framed by rubies and surmounted by a cobra hood as a pendant); jomale (two long rows of grooved hollow gold beads filled with lac, strung on black cord). Adorning the Kodava woman’s wrists are the jodi kadaga (hinged bracelet with two hollow gold bands) and pounchi (two or three parallel rows of hollow gold flower buds strung tightly on an elastic black cord). Besides these, traditional jewellery for a bride includes finely crafted silver jewellery for her feet, with individual toe-rings each of a different design, linked with chains to an ornamental anklet. This constrains the bride’s steps and makes her walk slowly.
The Kodava man’s attire is a kupya (long black or white wrap-around tunic) secured with a red gold-embroidered silk chele (sash), into the front of which is tucked a peeche kathi (dagger sheathed in an ornate scabbard of silver and gold, ivory and wood). A white mande thuni (turban) or a red chouka (checked scarf, much like the ones worn in the Middle East) is tied around his head. An odikathi (war knife with a broad blade) is fixed to a thodang (silver girdle) at the back of a bridegroom’s waist. Paintings from about two centuries ago show that, in the past, a kupya could be of different colours, with its seams embroidered by Kodava women who were renowned for their skill in embroidery. Today, men usually wear black kupyas. White kupyas are worn only for special occasions – by bridegrooms, by those who dance at temples, and by those who are possessed by ancestors or spirit-deities. A corpse is dressed in a white kupya. The paintings also show the arms that Kodava men bore in the past – bows and arrows and match-lock guns, as well as the traditional knives (peeche kathi and odi kathi), that are still in use during ceremonies at weddings and festivals.
The language of the Kodavas – Kodava thakk (language) – has been established by linguists as an independent Dravidian language, with words and vowel sounds that are unique to it. Research indicates that Kodava thakk broke off from the Proto-South Dravidian group of languages about 3000 years ago. Over time it has borrowed words from the languages spoken in the neighbouring areas – Kannada, Tulu and Malayalam. Kodava thakk does not have a script of its own and has been written in the Kannada script ever since the Lingayat kings made their language, Kannada, the court language. However, because of its peculiar vowel sounds, one needs to use diacritical marks when it is written in the Kannada script, to help pronounce Kodava thakk correctly.
Every Kodava is a member of an exogamous patrilineal okka (clan) each of which claims descent from a common ancestor, the karanava, literally the one who was the ‘cause’ or founder of the okka. Every member of the okka is identified by its mane peda (house name or name of the okka).
Okkas are important pillars of the social structure of this small community and there are prescribed customs to prevent the extinction of an okka (which was not uncommon in the early days when men went to battle and many of them died) and ensure the continuity of its lineage. If there are no male heirs and only a young widow or an unmarried girl is left in an okka, there are two ways to preserve the okka and its name. One, called okka paraje, is where the husband of that last lady in the okka assumes the name of her okka, giving up his affiliation to and rights in his own okka. The other, makka paraje is for the husband to continue to belong to and enjoy rights in his own okka (including the right to marry someone to bear him children who would carry the name of his okka), but for the children born out of this union to carry the name of their mother’s okka. Similarly, if there is only one couple left in the okka and they have no children, they can, according to custom, adopt a son to carry on the name of the okka. In the case of illegitimate children, there is a prescribed custom to bring them into the Kodava fold, giving them the name and rights in their father’s or mother’s okka.
In the olden days, all the members of an okka, sometimes numbering over a hundred, lived together in their ainmane or ancestral home, an imposing structure of mud, wood and stone with an attractive kayyale (verandah) adorned with carved wooden doorframes, windows and capitols, crafted by artisans from Kerala.
While many of these ainmanes have been rebuilt, the traditional ones that are still standing are 150 to 250 years old, some even as old as 500 years. Today, even if they do not live in the ainmane, members of an okka gather there to celebrate their festivals and traditional ceremonies.
Each okka owns large tracts of ancestral property known as jamma land, which is lightly taxed, and in the past was neither divisible nor transferable. It includes wet-land for paddy cultivation, as well as pasture and forest land. Traditionally, the jamma land was jointly owned and cultivated by the members of the okka and its produce was shared among them. This helped to keep the okka united and prevented its break up.
The pattedara (head-man) of the okka is its eldest male member, in whose name the ancestral jamma property of the okka is registered. In the past, he exercised considerable authority over the affairs of the okka. These days his role is largely symbolic, although a respected one.
Thakkame (literally ‘the right to speak for’) is the traditional, hereditary role of headmanship for a region or a shrine assigned to an okka. The duties and responsibilities attached to that role follow age-old unwritten rules. Thakkas (headmen) who had this role were responsible for resolving disputes at different levels and they met in the ambala, a roofed structure in the village, where matters were discussed in public.
Kodavas are primarily ancestor and nature worshippers. The karanava, the first ancestor or founder of the okka, is revered as a god. Every ainmane has a kaimada or karana thare (nele) near it, a small shrine or sacred space where prayers and ritual offerings of animals and alcohol are offered to ancestors. Kodavas consider their ancestors as their guiding spirits and their elders as their living guides.
Kodavas worship the elements of nature – the sun, fire and water. Their ainmanes face east, and early morning, before they start their daily chores, elders open the main door of the house and salute the sun in prayer. Every house has a sacred lamp facing east that is lit and prayed to at dawn and at dusk. The lamp is a witness to rites conducted during naming ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. Kodavas worship the sacred river Kaveri, and Igguthappa, the god of rain and crops. Kaveri is worshipped as water and not as an image. Ganga puje, when water is brought from the family well to the house with due ceremony by the bride or the mother of a new-born baby, is an important part of wedding and naming ceremonies. Kodavas also worship Ayyappa, god of the hunt, in primitive forest shrines. Besides these, they worship spirit-deities and village deities such as Bhagavathi, Sarthavu and Bhadrakali as well as other popular gods from the Hindu pantheon, all of whom were adopted from the cultures of the neighbouring areas.
In the Kodava community, as a mark of respect, younger people touch the feet of their elders when they meet socially or during auspicious occasions. Elders invoke their ancestors when they bless those who touch their feet.
Another interesting example of nature worship by Kodavas is their devakad (sacred groves). Kodagu is believed to have the highest density of sacred groves in the world – one or more grove for each village. Over the years, large areas of these sacred groves have been lost to encroachment, resulting in the area being nearly halved in the past 100 years. The latest figures (1991) give a count of 1214 sacred groves in Kodagu, covering about 2500 hectares. Each devakad is sacred to one or more deity. Ancient belief is that the gods hunt in these forests. Hunting and felling trees in a devakad is therefore forbidden, and the trees grow tall and dense, making these groves bio-diversity hot-spots. Traditionally, each devakad is managed by a local committee, with the thakkame (responsibility) given to a particular okka.
Kodavas were absorbed into the Hindu fold as Kshatriyas because of their martial traditions, although they do not follow typical Kshatriya rites. Nor do they follow many Hindu customs and festivals. They do not belong to any matha, nor do they have a guru. Brahmin priests do not officiate at any of their ceremonies related to birth, marriage and death. There are no caste divisions within the Kodava community. Kodavas make ritual offerings of meat and alcohol to their ancestors and to most of their village deities. Neither the exhortations of Brahmin priests who came to serve in some of the shrines in Kodagu, nor the persuasive efforts of the Christian missionaries who came to Kodagu during British rule, induced Kodavas to change their faith.
The article was contributed by Boverianda Nanjamma and Chinnappa