Activist and actor Chetan Kumar addressing tribals in Kodagu

By P.T. Bopanna

Activist and actor Chetan Kumar who has crossed swords with Kantara film director Rishab Shetty, had in 2017 led an agitation of tribals (in picture) in Kodagu (Coorg) in Karnataka against their eviction from Diddali reserved forest.

A US citizen and Fulbright scholar, Chetan Kumar is in eye of the storm for questioning epoch-making film director Rishab Shetty’s claim that Bhoota Kola of the coastal Karnataka was part of Hindu culture.

The issue is of relevance to Kodagu because Kodava culture is being saffronised even though Kodavas are not Hindus, but tribals with their own tribal practices. The saffronisation of Kodava culture in the recent years has killed the soul of Kodavaame (Kodava way of life).

For the sake of administrative convenience, government has clubbed Kodavas under the backward classes (OBC) category among the Hindus.

Though Chetan was all-praise of Kantara film, he took exception to Rishab’s claim at a news conference that Bhoota Kola was part of Hindu culture.

In a tweet, Chetan noted: “Our Pambada/Nalike/Parawa’s Bahujan traditions predate Vedic-Brahminical Hinduism. We ask that Moolnivasi cultures be shown w/truth on & off screen.”

With a view to woo tribal and Dalit votes, the saffron party is trying to appropriate tribal culture as Hindu culture. This exercise will wipe out tribal and many other cultures where Hindu deities are not worshipped, but they believe in their own demi-gods and spirits.

In a chapter he wrote for the book ‘Are Kodavas (Coorgs) Hindus?’, Maj Gen Codanda K Karumbaya, SM (Retd), says: “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.

“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.”

In another chapter, Chotteyandamada Sowmya Dechamma, an Associate Professor at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad, who teaches Comparative Indian Literature and Cultural Discourses in Contemporary India, says: “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 the circumstances, this writer feels that unique cultures like Kodava culture should be preserved and promoted, instead of being gobbled up by the so-called Brahminical Hinduism.

For more on Kodava religious practices, refer to the book ‘Are Kodavas (Coorgs) Hindus? by P.T. Bopanna, Rolling Stone Publications, 2018. Paperback copies available on Amazon:

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