By Roona Uthappa Ballachanda*
Ever wondered why Kodavas and Kodagu are so much at the mercy of outsiders?
Most activism that we see among Kodavas these days is focused on being defensive, on protecting ourselves from external onslaught, rather than on working together to prevent such blitzing in the first place. People are no strangers to the fact that succumbing to outside pressure, persuasion and plots has been an integral part of Kodava history.
As the native inhabitants of a beautiful land, we have done precious little to save this land from the greedy eyes of those who only wish to milk it for all its worth. Worse still, many Kodavas have also participated in this shameful act, be it as innocent victims, ignorant dupes or wily crooks looking to increase their personal wealth.
Be that as it may, the question remains: how did this happen and why is it still happening? And what does this have to do with religion?
The answer lies in a complex web of nature, nurture, education, social and political ties, religious beliefs and the psychological characteristics of the Kodava people. Whew! How do we even begin to unravel that one?
Living in geographical isolation for centuries, grappling with the elements of nature, fighting the straightforward battle for survival in dense forests inhabited by wild animals enabled the Kodava to grow strong and self-sufficient.
However, the ability to deal with the machinations of man was not very well developed among Kodavas. This is only natural – after all we learn best to deal with those things that are a normal part of our background.
The Kodava upbringing for centuries was very cloistered, both due to their isolated environment and clan living with close bonds of kinship. In fact, all historical accounts of clan living point towards a sheltered way of life where a few people assumed responsibilities for the welfare of all, and leadership was everything.
If you had a good clan leader, followed the clan rules, and allowed older, more experienced people to be responsible for your well-being, you lived a good life. Maybe this was a way of compensating for the extremely rough natural conditions of the district. What’s unfortunate is that this concept became so ingrained in the Kodava psyche that when outsiders came to Kodagu and assumed a leadership position, we let them.
We knew how to wage war against Tipu’s overt attacks but were clueless about the far more sophisticated attempts to subdue us that were used by Veeraraja who started the Haleri dynasty in Kodagu. Although in retrospect, the monarchy brought peace and stability for a while by putting an end to the constant infighting of the local Nayakas and helped unite Kodagu against the invasions of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, it still doesn’t mitigate the fact that when faced with smart strategizing, Kodavas were helpless.
So, the tale continues. Tipu openly fought with the aim to convert Kodavas to Islam and the warrior Kodavas vehemently opposed it. Christian missionaries preached zealously about the benefits of becoming a Christian believer and the proud Kodava ignored it.
Hinduism, on the other hand, used a subtle, assimilative approach. It gradually incorporated our deities, beliefs, rituals, songs, dances and our rivers, hills, ancestors and spirits into Hindu mythology and philosophy. The naïve Kodava swallowed it hook, line and sinker. We let it fill the gaps in our spiritual needs, made misguided efforts to fit into the Hindu caste system by calling ourselves or allowing us to be called Kshatriyas and subconsciously cultivated a certain degree of detachment towards our original Kodava faith.
The British swept in, camouflaged as saviours. They experimented with coffee growing, destroying priceless forest land in the process, before realizing the wisdom of native methods of plantation, while we watched mutely from the sidelines. The Kodava hunted only during certain seasons and had rules to minimize wildlife damage. Nevertheless, we didn’t think it necessary to prevent the kings and British officers from casually emptying our forests of wildlife in their pursuit of grandiose pleasure.
We enriched our language with borrowed words and beggared it by letting go of unique Kodava words rooted in our land, climate and culture. We enthusiastically sought education and accepted it happily when Kannada and English were established as the medium of instruction in our schools, where the Kodava language did not even merit a place as a subject. And, once alien written languages came in, they brought their own influences, further ripping away the ‘Kodava-ness’ of a Kodava child. This also drastically reduced the possibility of the Kodava language growing and developing, with an erudite literature of its own.
Then came Indian Independence and the birth of democracy in India. After a brief period of respite, when Coorg (Kodagu) was an independent state with home-grown administrators, it went on to become an integral part of Karnataka State. This had its advantages as the people of Kodagu gained access to a wider geographical area for jobs, but it also served to increase the number of people intent on looting the natural wealth of Kodagu. Moreover, another layer of identity cloaked the Kodava – that of a Kannadiga.
So, now, we are Kodavas, Hindus, Kannadigas and Indians. Which identity takes precedence? How should we live? Can we be everything? One thing? Nothing? This is important, because what we think of ourselves will have a huge influence on how we live our lives, our loyalties and our priorities.
Do I consider myself a Kodava and fight for the survival of Kodagu? Or do I consider myself an Indian and ignore any depredations that take place in Kodagu, because my fellow countrymen and women have a right to go anywhere and do anything they want within the country, as long as it is legal and lawful?
Do I, as a Kodava fight for the survival of Devarakadus because they are my sacred groves, my place of worship? Or, do I as a Hindu, turn a blind eye to illegal encroachment or government sanctioned deforestation of these groves, as there are plenty of other temples around, where I can seek proximity to God?
To a certain extent, the very plurality of Indian culture, gives people multiple identities, and life becomes one long balancing act. What helps keep it stable is one’s fundamental identity and place in society. Additionally, indigenous cultures are also deeply committed to keeping the natural environment more or less intact. Cultures that developed organically within the surrounding eco-system are invaluable in preserving biodiversity and ecological balance, ultimately playing a significant role in the continuation of humanity on earth.
The combination of large scale migration and urbanization in India has affected most citizens in one way or the other. Different communities have come up with different ways to deal with this. However the task is less complicated when it involves only symbols, language, rituals and customs.
For a landed community like ours, in a land-starved country like India, the battle for cultural continuity becomes extremely thorny. We are already experiencing this in our fight to protect our Jamma land rights and to prevent the destruction of our forest wealth in the name of development. Nevertheless, we have to find ways to help continue our cultural existence.
There is a huge clamour the world over, to support and protect indigenous peoples, their land, culture and biodiversity. The United Nations has responded by organizing various chapters, forums and committees to research indigenous issues and advise national and state governments on how to protect and help keep alive the varied native cultures of the world. It is up to us to outline those instruments that can help our goals and make use of them to the best of our ability.
If we wish to seek Constitutional assistance, the only viable option is getting the religious minority tag, as there is no such thing as an ethnic or cultural minority according to the Constitution of India. As for getting any kind of autonomy, be it as a state or as an independent region, it appears to be a hopeless cause. Kodavas belong to Kodagu but Kodagu belongs to many different peoples and communities. Moreover, Kodagu is the proverbial golden goose and no political party will be willing to commit political or economic suicide by granting the district any measure of autonomy. Nevertheless, as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Getting independent parliamentary representation and full minority status for Kodavas as allowed by the Constitution are probably the first steps.
Article 29 in The Constitution of India states,
“Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.”
This clause is very broad in its declaration, and gives us leeway to include all our traditional concepts, including customs, rituals, community laws, land tenure systems, traditional methods of village and forest land organization etc., as an indispensable part of our cultural construct.
It can also give us a solid reason to keep our gun rights going. The ‘gun’ is not merely a weapon of violence for Kodavas, it is an integral part of our culture. It is used to announce births and deaths; it has a role in our festivals, and is worshipped during Kailpodh, our change of season festival; it helps us to protect ourselves in our isolated homesteads, and ultimately, is a very important symbol of our martial history and identity.
Our community today is hugely concerned about conserving Kodava culture, ethnicity and identity, and for very valid reasons. But, culture cannot be ‘preserved’ like raw mangoes in brine; it is a dynamic organism, gradually morphing into new forms in the process of providing its followers a strong anchor in human society. Yet, there are irrefutable reasons why any given culture should be allowed to keep its distinctiveness intact while it grows and develops.
Culture and tradition, handed down the generations is the essence of one’s past – it contains priceless ancestral wisdom and provides a roadmap for a person’s journey through life. Our practices of ancestor veneration and nature worship have tremendous metaphorical significance to us as Kodavas. It helps clan members to maintain a strong feeling of kinship as blood relatives and descendants of the same ancestors. It acts as psychological support in times of distress and turmoil. It keeps us grounded in our culture, helps build the foundation of our cultural identity and serves to remind us of our place in history and society.
This is of supreme importance, especially today, because young Kodavas have no way to ‘feel Kodava’, as the Kodava way of life is fast disappearing. Disturbingly, many seem to think that being Kodava is all about drinking alcohol, eating meat, wearing the traditional costume, dancing to the valaga music and feeling insulted at the slightest provocation on behalf of Kodavame.
Even more disturbing is the fact that concepts of ‘racial purity’ and ‘racial superiority’ figure more and more often in the current Kodava discourse. There are no pure races in a country and civilization as old as India and racial superiority is a blatantly dangerous, disgusting and incorrect belief.
History has shown us the painful effects of racial exclusivity notions and we do not want to incite similar activities. But, when a huge void is left behind by the dissolution of the old ways, such things can happen. So, the further away we go from the traditional, clan and nature based Kodava lifestyle, the more important it becomes for us to ensure that the Kodava beliefs and values are developed, protected and practiced at a symbolic level.
Worshipping our rivers and forest deities helps keep in mind their importance in our lives and prompts us to work towards conserving them and their sanctity. It inspires us to protect and preserve our environment. It gives us deep knowledge about the working of the natural world and how best to utilize it for legitimate human need. Whatever other religious practices we may adopt, these two aspects of our culture should never be forgotten. But, is that possible?
To make it possible, we need some emotional distance from all the new religious practices adopted by us in the recent centuries and make a conscious effort to develop Kodava faith and thought.
Getting a religious minority tag would open doors that will be helpful to this cause. Kodava institutions can incorporate research and practices geared towards development and propagation of the Kodava belief system. For instance, many Catholic institutions offer retreats to Catholic students – a time and place to sit back, contemplate and talk about their religious concerns and spiritual dilemmas. At present, we have no avenues for religious or spiritual discussion based on the Kodava faith. We have no place for organized cultural education, dissemination and discussion.
We do have the ‘Kodava Samajas’ with their associated club houses, but when you walk in there, all you get is the strong stench of stale cigarette smoke and alcohol fumes, with attendant card tables and other such props for enjoyment.
Where are the libraries? Where is the space for Kodava children to learn at the knees of their elders? We no longer live in our ancestral homes in our villages, where culture was absorbed by osmosis and practiced from birth to death. Nuclear families in towns and cities are the norm now. How will younger generations of Kodavas learn anything about Kodava culture or contribute towards its growth, if there is no space for it in their lives? How can Kodava thought and faith develop, how can Kodavame endure into the future if there is no focused effort to create and circulate knowledge through classes, workshops, retreats, books and libraries?
Observing Kodava rituals, performing our dances and celebrating our festivals can only take us so far. In fact, all that we practice today are remnants of our past, with a dwindling number of participants. The chief reason for this is the deep disconnect between the ancient Kodava and the modern Kodava.
Kodavame developed to a certain level and then became stagnant because Kodava people began to disperse in many different directions. And a new type of Kodavas came up – modern, urbanized, liberated and utterly clueless about how to maintain their Kodava self in the face of all the enticing new concepts around them, leading to the gradual loss of their traditional lifestyle. Additionally, education brought with it an inquiring mind, a questioning attitude and skepticism towards the esoteric and mystical, towards anything that is not based on empirical evidence.
As more and more Kodavas join the educated crowd, increasingly disregarding long-held religious beliefs, the more urgent it becomes for us to have public debates and discussions in an encouraging atmosphere. Cultural confusion may seem harmless at the moment, but in the long run, it can have serious repercussions on both the individual and society. If we don’t have a strong sense of self, if we don’t take the time to spell out what makes us who we are and what is important to our identity, we won’t be able to protect ourselves against external influence and aggression. And if the Kodava is destroyed, Kodagu will follow soon enough.
The religious minority tag will give us a strong leg to stand on, both in legal battles as well as in community endeavors. To get the religious minority tag, the Kodava belief system must be recognized as a religion first, and Kodava people should be willing to give up their accepted non-Kodava faith, if they have one. In other words, we need to unlearn what we have learned over the past few centuries. Is this feasible? Anyway, for all its flaws, the beauty of democracy is that people have complete freedom to follow the faith of their choice. So, establishing a Kodava religion and deeming it a minority one, need not necessarily prevent people from continuing to believe in what they believe at a personal level, in addition to their original faith.
Getting a separate identity as a distinct religion will have a psychological effect on the community. It will create a deeper consciousness in the minds of the Kodava people regarding their heritage and this will go a long way towards protecting cultural continuity, which is of utmost importance to the continued existence of humanity on earth. Also, as a religious minority group whose identity is based on land ownership, we can ask for laws to safeguard our sacred groves and our traditional land tenure systems. We will be in a stronger position to fight against laws that seek to dispossess us of our revered lands, or stop our traditional methods of worship, etc.
How do we go about doing this? There is no facility in the Indian legislature or judiciary to create or recognize a religion. So far, history had taken care of that. So, the Kodava bid to be recognized as a separate religion must start with work from within. The community should come together to establish the Kodava way of life as a distinct religion on its own; based on nature and ancestor worship, our sacred groves and forest shrines which are our temples, and get it recognized by the legal and political system of the country.
Recently, the Jains succeeded in getting a Religious minority status by proving that despite similarities with Hinduism, they are a separate religion. Our approach should also be along similar lines, as the Kodava belief system too has similarities with Hinduism but it has a different origin as well as rituals and practices contrary to established Hindu customs.
The constitution declares that we have a right to conserve our culture. Research and scholarship shows that continuation of diverse cultures is very important for the continuation of humanity. Experience has revealed that the fragmentation of the Kodava way of life has had a huge negative impact on the environment with far reaching consequences.
A lot of cohesive energy is being spent on passionate pleas to save Kodagu and the Kodavas but what we also need is a pragmatic analysis of reality and focused action that takes recourse to the expertise of scholars and the laws of the nation. We should also keep in mind that the Kodava case is unique and we cannot afford to look for solutions in established practices alone. We should carve a legal or constitutional path that can tackle the varied needs of a cultural minority like us and maybe set a precedent for other such communities to follow. And, in the process, for once in our collective history, be an agent of change rather than merely a victim of it. With the blessings of our ancestors, let us invoke our warrior days of old to fight this battle for survival… and come out victorious!
* Roona Uthappa Ballachanda (in picture) is a freelance writer and editor who was born and raised in Virajpet, Kodagu. She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Mysore, a Master of Social Work degree from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, USA and a Writing Certificate from Exeter College, University of Oxford, UK.
This article is sourced from the book, ‘Are Kodavas (Coorgs) Hindus?’ by P.T. Bopanna, Rolling Stone Publications, 2018.
Link to Kindle edition: