By P.T. Bopanna*

Though the government has categorized Kodavas (Coorgs) as Hindus, Karnataka’s warrior community is a modernized indigenous group which is outside the fold of Hinduism.

The debate triggered by Tamil Nadu minister Udhayanidhi Stalin’s statement that Sanatana Dharma is a principle that divides people in the name of caste and religion, has led to a nationwide debate on the issue of Sanatana Dharma.

Sanatana is loosely defined to mean ‘eternal or unchanging’, often employed by those Hindus who view their faith as timeless, and believe in   reincarnation, karma, and the Vedas.

Looked at from this yardstick, Kodavas are outside the purview of Sanatana Dharma because they do not believe in the concept of rebirth and such other parameters.

Dr Sowmya Dechamma, Fulbright scholar and Professor at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Hyderabad, in a research paper titled ‘Of Death, Rituals, and Songs for the Dead: Kodavas and their Histories’, says: “Nowhere do the songs mention any kind of transcendental discourse or philosophise about death. This has to be noted because Brahmanic Hindu philosophy is very concerned about rebirth and philosophises the aftermath of death in a major way, the concept of heaven and hell being a small part in it.

“In fact, the song for the dead urges the deceased not to be reborn. But these songs for the dead of the Kodavas not only do not mention ‘the other worldly’ things, but instead mention what matters in the lifetime, the materiality of living and living well, the problems, pleasures, ‘small’ traditions, ‘small’ resistances, ‘small’ heroics and ‘smaller’ histories.

“Yet at other places, the song for the dead tells us about the crops that are grown, the labour that goes into agriculture, about harvesting, and the fluid gender roles that do not conform to the conventional inner/outer domain, about life-histories, histories of the community and so on.”

Interestingly, Kodavas do not have the caste system, and Brahmins do not officiate in their functions. In fact, till the 1941 census, Kodavas were not part of the Hindu category.

The government of Karnataka has bracketed them under the ‘Other Backward Classes’ (OBC), which falls under the Shudra/low category under the Hindu caste system.

Since the Kodava community is unique, the government has followed the policy of ‘bind it serially’ in the Hindu OBC list, since they find Kodavas ‘a little different’ – eating pork, but are not Christians, and are not Muslims, and therefore they are Hindus! 

Further, the Karnataka government during Siddaramaiah’s first tenure, forced the Kodavas to embrace the saffron brigade after he decided to celebrate the birth anniversary of 18th century ruler Tipu Sultan, who had forcibly converted Kodavas into Islam.  

Siddaramaiah’s vote bank politics radicalized the Kodavas to such an extent that the members of the community became the foot soldiers of the Hindutva brigade.

The radicalization in turn, diluted the original faith of the Kodavas in ancestor and nature worship. The radicalized Kodavas embraced Brahminical Hindu practices like homa, astrology and consulting Brahmin priests for guidance in their day to day life.

This writer remembers that over 60 years ago when he lived in Kadangamurur village near Virajpet in Kodagu district, the only time the area priest visited Kodava households was during the harvest festival of Puthari, when he would sprinkle holy water inside the ancestral house. Except a few families living near the village temple, Kodavas hardly visited the temple.

However, nowadays, Kodavas have become a religious lot and temple-hopping is a common practice.

The once proud community which was broad-minded and cosmopolitan, is gradually turning communal and fanatical. This is contrary to the very essence of ‘Kodavame’ (Kodava way of life) which is what that makes this community so unique.

*Photo of P.T. Bopanna, Bengaluru-based journalist and author.

Source: Are Kodavas (Coorgs) Hindus? by P.T. Bopanna, Rolling Stone Publications, 2018. The paperback copy of the book is available on Flipkart:


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