“Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs”

Sahitya Poonacha

A walk through the buried history of the Kodavas of Kodagu (Coorg), their colonial past and post-colonial quest for representation.

If we begin with the Kodavas, we must first speak of Kodagu. The hill station tucked away in the Western Ghats of south India which eventually turned into a mnemonic device for the Kodavas. Home to a tribe of warrior clans, never quite well-placed in the caste structure, addressed little in the media, and with little self-reflection by Kodavas themselves. Although, there has been much push in recent times to change this.

While their recorded history goes back to the 10th CE, their oral histories go farther back and have passed down generations. Barely reconstructed, these oral histories are yet to be pursued and are often rejected as hearsay. That being said, this article doesn’t seek to rewrite its history. Moreover, written by a Kodava herself,  it must not be taken at face value. 

“It was the British colonialists after all who called it ‘Coorg’ instead of ‘Kodagu’ and dubbed it the ‘Scotland of India’ a title similarly accorded to Shillong as ‘Scotland of the East’.”

Remnants of colonial history are found in India on every street corner, every household, and this includes the secluded hills of Kodagu. It was the British colonialists after all who called it “Coorg” instead of “Kodagu” and dubbed it the “Scotland of India” a title similarly accorded to Shillong as “Scotland of the East”.

What made and still makes the Kodavas different is that they stand out within the “imaginary” idea of India. As a tribal, egalitarian community divided into clans the Kodavas have existed in Kodagu with their own distinct culture and traditions rejecting the systems in neighbouring regions. 

“Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs. These hills were hard to penetrate, tough to live in, with harsh climate and topography.”

Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs. These hills were hard to penetrate, tough to live in, with harsh climate and topography. Kodagu remains nestled in the hills, a road trip from Bengaluru is the most common and only way to get to Kodagu. The martial Kodavas who possessed a strong sense of community, pride and dominance made it even harder to rule. This could have been a reason even the mighty Chola Dynasty couldn’t get a hold of the region leaving them in the periphery.

We see this continue today as Kodavas try to assert their identity as a different group, that requires autonomy, insulated and still angered by their past in modern India. They’ve had multiple separatist struggles in the 20th CE that are rarely covered by  the media, and a section still demanding homeland status. The historical records to help uncover these movements  curiously sit in the libraries of Britain and a few can be found in the National Library of India.

The Kodava Culture 

Let’s go to the beginning, Kodavas if you ask them their origins see themselves as having an Aryan  connection in heritage, essayed in M.P. Cariappa and Ponnamma Cariappa’s work as well. This is what every young Kodava grows up hearing in living room conversations, what history hasn’t proved or as some Kodavas say, hasn’t ‘yet’. 

For those who aren’t familiar with Kodavas or Kodagu, Kodavas constitute a patrilineal society centred around “okkas”, a clan stemming from a common ancestor. Each okka possesses an “ainmane” or ancestral home where they used to celebrate and congregate. Vast tracts of land were given to an okka or clan, called “jamma” lands, that are jointly cultivated and passed down over generations. The Kaveri Purana as part of the Skanda Purana identifies Kodavas as “Kshatriya-Shudra” (warrior and lower caste), something history and India neither expected nor explained. 

As nature and ancestor worshippers, Kodavas are known to hold the elements of nature in high regard. Many of their festivals are also centred on nature worship, particularly the harvest festival of Puttari and Kaveri Sankramanna marking the date that Goddess Kaveri began her descent. On many festive occasions offerings are made to ancestors. Kodavas eventually came to worship Hindu deities as interaction with those around Kodagu increased. 

Kodavas worship goddess Kaveri as custodians of the river that originates in the Brahmagiri hills. Kaveri’s story is intriguing. For me, a Kodavathi, the worship of a goddess who left her husband,   Brahmin sage Agastya for reasons debated has left an incredible mark. It is believed she left to serve the people, to save the world, and this story fascinated me. One simplified version of the myth, which I heard most growing up, is that Kaveri agreed to marry Agastya on the condition that he wouldn’t leave her alone. 

However, he once turned her into water and kept her in his kamandala (pot) asking his disciples to guard it, so that she wouldn’t leave him while he went to bathe. Recognising the trickery, she left him. As she flowed out of the pot she was unstoppable, even as men and women stood in her path. Legend has it, it was her force that turned the women’s sarees the other way around. Till today, the women of Kodagu continue to wear their sarees the other way around setting them apart from the conventional draping followed by Indian women. The story is powerful. These may be reduced to myths, but it reveals one thing, the attempt to assert an aspect of identity.

“Kodavas conduct marriages with little intervention by priests and worship a Hindu goddess who refused to be tied down. Draping the saree in their own way, and giving women agency in its mythology and culturally to some extent is a powerful story of liberation that fits in very well with the 21st CE aspirations.”

Kodavas conduct marriages with little intervention by priests and worship a Hindu goddess who refused to be tied down. Draping the saree in their own way, and giving women agency in its mythology and culturally to some extent is a powerful story of liberation that fits in very well with the 21st CE aspirations. However, today Kodavas struggle to make their culture felt.

The Colonial History of Kodagu 

“The Haleri dynasty’s entry into Kodagu became the lofty foundation for Kodagu’s recorded history on the map of India, following huge gaps of invisibility until then.”

A large chunk of Kodagu’s history starts and ends with the dynasty of the Haleri kings back in the 17th century an off-shoot of the Ikkeri Nayakas[i], who managed to make Kodagu their home and that’s when the Kodavas entered the dynamics and politics of Southern India. The Haleri dynasty’s entry into Kodagu became the lofty foundation for Kodagu’s recorded history on the map of India, following huge gaps of invisibility until then. 

Curiously, the Kodavas never had a Kodava ruler. Regardless of the ruler, it was the Kodava identity that had to repeatedly sustain itself through cultural preservation. Kodagu’s history of course has left its own impression and scars on Kodavas and has pushed them to stay the course. This is especially seen in the community’s memory of Tipu Sultan, who ruled the Carnatic between 1782 and 1799 from Mysore. The contest for Kodagu in some ways presented itself here. Often dubbed the “Tiger of Mysore” and alternatively a “temple desecrator” has been somewhat of a contested history. 

For Kodavas, they see this attempt to assert dominance as a traumatic, dark, blood-soaked past that India has undermined. The reconstruction of Tipu’s rule in sources has either glossed over his feud with Kodavas or has revolved entirely around this bit. Either way, the reconstruction has not been reliable, with unconfirmed  numbers, underreported facts, and some confusion. You might recall the protests in the district against celebrating Tipu Jayanti in recent times.

“This tug-of-war was actually playing out between the Haleri dynasty and Tipu Sultan which brought in the British colonialists into the mix, the greatest opportunists world history has seen.”

This tug-of-war was actually playing out between the Haleri dynasty and Tipu Sultan which brought in the British colonialists into the mix, the greatest opportunists world history has seen. Although, one should notice it was the Kodava identity that truly got caught in this triangular power struggle, trapped in the hills with little say over what happened to their status.

Mercara Fort
Image by Sahitya P Poonacha (2016)

“Chikkaviraraja was the last Haleri king for Kodagu, known to be impulsive and ruthless. Dubbed as the “Mad King” he was the only Haleri ruler in Kodagu who was wary of British control, when he tried to shake them a short-lived war was the result, after which Kodagu would officially be in the hands of the East India Company.”

Still, Kodagu in its  strained relationship with the Haleri dynasty in the 19th CE, would come to be signed off to the British in 1834 by Chikkaviraraja. Chikkaviraraja was the last Haleri king for Kodagu, known to be impulsive and ruthless. Dubbed as the “Mad King” he was one Haleri ruler in Kodagu wary of British control, when he tried to shake them a short-lived war was the result, after which Kodagu would officially be in the hands of the East India Company.

On the colonial front, they still enjoy some privileges, like being the only community allowed to carry arms without a license, an 1861 colonial exemption that came in place. This owes to the fact that Kodavas worship weapons. 

“The moment the British East India Company took over Kodagu, was the moment Kodavas once more had to wait for Indian independence.”

The British East India Company saw profitability in the hills for plantation agriculture. They acquired the martial clans that would then become associated with India’s defence for generations to come. Post-independence the community would eventually be home to national heroes such as General Thimmayya and Field Marshal Cariappa. The moment the company took over Kodagu, was the moment Kodavas once more had to wait for Indian independence.

Postcolonial Identity

Independence has been at the heart of Kodagu’s history, liberated in mythology by their goddess. Even as a small hill station Kodagu holds much diversity, Muslims, Gowdas, other communities and smaller tribes have coexisted through their own myths and timeless tales. Today, Kodavas try to preserve their  culture, through their shrines, ainmanes, jamma lands passed down generations and their revered padathi or traditions. All to some valaga beats, and celebrations like Kailupodhu where weapons and arms are worshipped. 

In the 21st CE, these traditions sustain in new forms even as many Kodavas have moved out of the hills. Many Kodavas continue to maintain their sprawling coffee estates, paddy fields. Notable Kodavas join India’s defence forces and contribute in various sectors. Kodagu meanwhile, now welcomes tourists from all over the world to find new ways to showcase and preserve the hill station. 

“The history of the Kodavas remains hidden deep within its forests, its rivers and its people. From this account and many others what becomes certain is that Kodava’s history remains partially uncovered and needs unbiased reassessment. Kodavas see themselves as unique, this can’t simply be sidelined as ‘pride’.”

The history of the Kodavas remains hidden deep within its forests, its rivers and its people. From this account and many others what becomes certain is that Kodava’s history remains partially uncovered and needs unbiased reassessment. Kodavas see themselves as unique, this can’t simply be sidelined as “pride”. Perhaps there is  a reason for it we haven’t explored. Why does this warrior tribe demand homeland status and self-rule?

The answers are in its history and this is the colonial baggage the community carries with it through generations beyond independence. Therefore complex power struggles are not simply a thing of the past. Lest we lose all this history to the trappings of development and more political dialogue. In 2020, ironically British chef Gordon Ramsay found something noteworthy about Kodavas’ Pandhi curry[ii] on his show with National Geographic and that’s hardly a brush on the surface.

[i] The real origin date of the Haleri dynasty is uncertain, but dates to the mid-17th century according to the Rajendraname. [ii] Pandhi curry is a pork delicacy loved by Kodavas.

Sahitya is a journalist and a writer with a voice. Finding time to pursue an academic interest in minority positioning in mainstream media between chasing leads and searching for stories that need telling.

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