Note: This article is an introduction to my proposed new book.
By P.T. Bopanna
Are Kodavas (Coorgs) Hindus? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’! If one defines Hinduism as a way of life, then Kodavas are Hindus. If one looks at Hinduism from the rigid caste-centric angle, then Kodavas are not Hindus.
Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), former President of India, who was one of the most erudite Hindu scholars of all times, had said: “Hinduism is not a religion, but a commonwealth of religions. It is more a way of life than a form of thought. The theist and the atheist, the skeptic and the agnostic may all be Hindus if they accept the Hindu system of culture and life. Hinduism insists not on religious conformity but on a spiritual and ethical outlook of life. Hinduism is not a sect but a fellowship of all who accept the law of right and earnestly seek for the truth.”
The concept of Hinduism as propounded by Dr. Radhakrishnan was lofty and incorporated the essence of the ancient Indian civilization. But in the present era of ‘Mandal’ and ‘Kamandal’ politics, it is caste which determines the Hindu identity.
Kodavas are a unique race of people who live in Kodagu (Coorg, as the British called it), the smallest district in Karnataka. Very little is known about the origin of this community of warriors who have lived on the slopes of the Western Ghats of South India from time immemorial. This land-owning community known for its martial traditions, has a distinct culture that is strikingly different from that of the neighbouring cultures.
If caste is used as the yardstick to ascertain whether Kodavas are Hindus, then this small community numbering less than two lakh, are certainly not Hindus because they do not belong to any Hindu caste and there is no caste system among the Kodavas.
Another important factor which characterizes the Hindu caste system is the belief in the supremacy of Brahmanism. Judged from this yardstick too, Kodavas are not Hindus because there is hardly any role for Brahmins in the various Kodava ceremonies related to birth, marriage and death. It is the elders in the community who conduct all rituals.
Kodavas are basically ancestor and nature worshippers. Every Kodava is a member of a patrilineal okka (clan) that has descended from a common ancestor. The Karanava, the first ancestor of the clan, is revered as a God, and Kodavas worship the ancestral spirit, their Guru karona. While their ancestors are their guiding spirits, Kodavas consider their elders as their living guides. The youngsters greet their elders by touching their feet three times and the latter invoke their ancestors when they bless them.
Every ancestral home (ainmane) invariably has a kaimada, a small shrine nearby, where prayers to ancestors are offered. The ancestral homes face the East, and Kodavas start their daily chores by opening the main door of the house and saluting the sun in prayer. And idol worship is non-existent. A lamp (bolcha) or hanging lamp (thook bolcha) is lit, both at dawn and dusk, to invoke the blessings of the ancestors. The lamp is kept in the nellakki nadu bade (central hall in the ancestral home). The sacred area around the lamp is empty and no idol or photograph adorns the space. The same goes for the space where meedi (offerings to the ancestors) is kept. Most of the important decisions are solemnised in front of the lamp. However, in recent years in some ainmanes, framed photos of Hindu gods are kept in these sacred spaces. There are no idols in the kaimada, the central place of ancestor worship, where the annual ritual of Karonang kodpo is held in memory of the ancestors. A few kaimadas have figurines resembling humans, to represent their ancestors.
To sum up, Kodavas believe that there is a direct link between the living and their ancestors.
Kodavas worship river Kaveri as water and not as an image. During Kaveri Sankramana to celebrate the birth of the river, goddess Kaveri is symbolically represented by a decorated coconut or cucumber.
Another major deviation from mainstream Hinduism is the practice of meedi offerings for ancestors which consist of food items, including non-vegetarian dishes like pork, the signature dish of the Kodavas. Along with the food, liquor is also offered to invoke the blessings of ancestors. This practice is inconsistent with the rigid notions of ‘pollution’ practiced by orthodox Hindus.
Though Kodavas had maintained their own religious identity of ancestor and nature worship, things began to change after 1600 AD with the advent of the Lingayat or Haleri kings in Kodagu. The Haleri Rajas built Hindu temples and appointed deva thakkas (temple headmen) to propagate their faith among the Kodavas. Tulu and Kannada-speaking Brahmin priests were brought from outside Kodagu to perform pooja at these temples.
Over the years, temples dedicated to deities such as Bhagavati or Muthappan have come up in Kodagu. These deities were mainly imported from Kerala. Igguthappa, the god dedicated to rain and harvest, was also one such import from Kerala.
Kodavas also worship a few spirit deities like kulika, Pashana murthi, etc. who were imported from Tulunad or Kerala.
In today’s circumstances, it is essential that we maintain our Kodava identity, instead of trying to embrace mainstream Hinduism where we do not belong. The belief in ancestor and nature worship is much more rational and scientific, compared to belief in myths and rituals which are alien to Kodava religious practices. It is best we remain Kodavas and not Hindus.