By Roona Uthappa Ballachanda
Kodavathi actress Nidhi Subbaiah recently announced her plans to get married. She sounded ecstatic in her description of their relationship and her fiancé’s proposal and one would assume that people would be happy for her and leave it at that.
However, many members of the Kodava community reacted in a shockingly unkind manner, almost as if Nidhi would be single-handedly responsible for decimating the community and culture by marrying a man of her choice, who happens to be a non-Kodava.
The alleged reason being that the Kodava culture is a patrilineal culture and so any children from this marriage would be non-Kodava too.
How easy it is to forget facts in the heights of passion! Kodava culture may have been patrilineal for the most part but it is not and never has been absolutely patrilineal. Nor was it ever stringently patriarchal.
The Kodava culture was not influenced by the general Hindu belief that a woman is a “guest in her maternal home” who will one day get married and go away to her husband’s house.
So, Kodava marriage rites have a clause that says a married woman still holds certain rights in her maternal home. The Kodava culture did not subscribe to the general belief prevalent in most cultures, Hindu or non-Hindu that the bride is someone to be given away as a “daan” as in ‘Kanyadaan’ or someone to be “given away” by a male member of her family, preferably her father.
Instead, Kodava wedding ceremonies are more about creating a new relationship between the bride and the groom and their families. And, let’s not forget, widow/divorcee remarriage has always been a common practice in the community.
As far as lineage is concerned both men and women have the right to carry forward the family name. It can be done in two ways. If there are no sons in the family, the daughter can take a husband into her clan just as a wife would go to her husband’s clan. The husband can become a complete member of the wife’s family by taking over her clan name. Or, just their children can continue their mother’s lineage. (By the way, today this is also a legal right in a democratic country like ours).
In these modern ‘educated’ times, a natural extension of this kind of wise pragmatism would have been a more liberal attitude towards the taking on of clan names upon marriage; to be left to the discretion of the married couple and their family.
Maybe even gradually evolve from a one sided patrilineal system to an ‘ambilineal’ process which would truly benefit every individual and consequently the community as a whole. But no, corruption is the natural result of close contact with other cultures so we had to drag our women down a little to keep her on par with her counterparts in other cultures.
To make matters worse, Kodava women choosing a partner outside the community are being called ‘dogs’ – and very incorrectly at that, may I add?! – Or is ‘declared dead upon marriage’. Name calling women and killing them metaphorically, while at the same time defending a Kodava man who marries a non-Kodava woman appears to be the trend in some Kodava social media groups these days.
“I can only pray that the metaphorical killing doesn’t metamorphose into actual killing some horrifying day in the future. After all, the inhuman practice of ‘honor killing’ is still prevalent in certain societies today. And, I am sure such a heinous practice did not begin with someone waking up one day and suddenly deciding to kill women who supposedly bring dishonor to the family. It would have begun with the gradual deterioration of a woman’s standing within their culture, culminating in the idea that her life has no value outside of their cultural context.”
A close study of the historical narratives of Kodava culture reveals that the community did not place any extraordinary emphasis on the origin of birth of a person. Whatever the roots of Kodavas may be, the only reason the community has grown and survived so far, despite the numerous massacres, invaders and would be conquerors that Coorg has seen over the centuries, is because of assimilation.
Hermann Moegling, who lived and worked in Coorg, while writing his memoirs, published in 1855, put it very succinctly, “The spirit of clanship is exceedingly strong among the Coorgs…they call it now a regard for caste. But this is a complete mistake. They have no notion of caste in the Hindu sense of the world. For strangers are received among them and naturalized without difficulty, and such as have been, excommunicated, are received back without much ado.”
A few years later, Rev. G. Richter in his Gazetteer of Coorg, published in 1870, while remarking on the contrasting looks of Kodavas, ranging from Caucasian to Mongoloid, dark skin to fair, says, “Even within the memory of the present generation, strangers were received by and incorporated with the Coorgs.” He then goes on to write, “The renown of the Coorgs lies certainly not in the purity and antiquity of their genealogy, but in the union and strength of so many discordant elements into one compact body or clan that bravely fought on every occasion of danger for the honor and safety of their adopted country…”
The Kodava history, many elements of our culture, and the narratives of people who have had close contact with our ancestors discloses to us that ancient Kodavas took pride in honor, integrity, loyalty to clan and country, and a general belief in treating human beings, whether man or woman, Kodava or non-Kodava with dignity and humaneness.
This is quite unlike the more recent generations of Kodavas, many of whom unfortunately seem to think that our dignity and future lies in us bragging about ‘kunjis’ and ‘kutties’, on a person’s height, complexion, the all-important shape of the nose, and a Kodava woman’s husband’s identity.
About the author: Roona Uthappa Ballachanda is a writer, and has an MSW degree from Southern Illinois University, USA.