A Fascinating Guide To The Kodava People Of Coorg

This is the story of the mysterious warrior race of Coorg—the Kodava people. The nature-worshipping people are as famous for their presence in the Indian armed forces and sports as they’re known for their pandhi curry.

The first thing that comes to mind when you say Coorg are lush coffee plantations, mist-laden mountains, and spicy pork curry. Coorg is home to all this and more, but what makes Coorg or Kodagu special is its warm and welcoming people. Of the many communities that are part of Coorg, the one with the most fascinating history is the Kodava community. 

Demographics And Distribution Of Coorg’s Communities

Besides the Kodavas, Coorg is home to several other communities. The 18 other communities are ethnic groups that are smaller in number but speak the same language and follow similar traditions as the Kodavas. Here is a list of the other communities in Coorg.

Amma Kodavas:

The Amma Kodavas are believed to be the original priests at the temples in Coorg. Most of the Amma Kodava families live in the southern part of Coorg now. Like the Kodavas, the Amma Kodava families are also recognised by their family names or okka. The community also follows a few Brahminical customs such as Gothra names or wear the sacred thread. However, there are many among the community who don’t wear the thread or have gothras assigned to them. They are endogamous and vegetarians. However, all other social activities like marriage, attire and celebration of festivals are similar to the Kodavas.

Kodagu Brahmins:

Said to have originally migrated from South Canara districts, the Kodagu Brahmins have been residing in Coorg since the Haleri dynasty. They celebrate the Kodava festivals such as Puthari and Kaveri Sankramana, but not Kailpodh. Kodagu Brahmins are pure vegetarians and wear the sacred thread. They also speak both Kannada and Kodava takk. The Kodagu brahmins follow Kodava customs to an extent. They have a clan system and also have gothras assigned just like the Amma Kodavas.

Peggade Or Kodagu Heggade:

Originally believed to have come from North Malabar, the Peggade or Kodagu Heggade is another of the indigenous communities in Coorg. They have around 100 family names and follow the Kodava habits and customs. They also dress like other Kodavas and speak Kodava Takk.

Kodava Maaples:

The Kodava Maaple sect is a Muslim community residing in Kodagu district of Karnataka. During the rule of Tipu Sultan in Coorg, many Kodavas were converted into Islam and they are called the ‘Kodava Maaple’ or ‘Jamma Maaples’. The Kodava Maaples are followers of Sunni Islam. They refrain from alcohol and eat only Halal. They have maintained their original Kodava clan names and dress habits and speak the endangered Kodavu language. 

Airi (Iri):

Iri or Airi is another sub community in Coorg. This particular ethnic community were carpenters or village smiths in Kodagu. The people of the Airi community also have family names. They speak Kodava Takk and follow Kodava culture.

Other Sub Communities

Other than the communities mentioned here, Kodagu is also home to the Koyavas, the Bannas, the Kodagu Madivala, the Kodagu Hajama, Kembatti poleya, Medas, Malekudiyas, the Kollas and Kavadis among others. The Are Bhashe Gowda or Kodagu Gowda is another community that lives in Coorg. The people of this community speak a distinct language called Are Bhashe.

As mentioned, of the many communities in Coorg, the one with the most fascinating history is the Kodava community. So, explore them in detail.

Where Did The Kodava Tribe Come From?

The history of Coorg and the Kodava people is one that is shrouded in a lot of mystery. If you ask a Kodava about their origin, they’ll immediately tell you they are of foreign descent. And though there is no concrete evidence to back up this claim, they’ll insist that their ancestors were actually part of Alexander’s invading army who decided to stay back and practice agriculture, thus giving birth to the Kodava tribe. But however outlandish the claim might be, one can agree that this ethnic group is a very fascinating one. Their culture, language and customs, so strikingly different from the other ethnic communities of Coorg, are what makes them so unique.

The origin of the Kodava community is still a bit of a mystery, but there are several theories and speculations as to where they really come from. Some of these theories claim the Kodavas are the indigenous inhabitants of the area. Other theories claim they have foreign roots, but these are mere speculations as there is no evidence to back up this claim.

Kodava People
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Origin 

Indigenous origin: According to this theory, the Kodava people were an ancient warlike tribe, who were indigenous inhabitants of Kodagu. This tribe learned and practised agriculture in the area and over the centuries they got civilized and gained prosperity.

Foreign origin: The more popular theory among the Kodavas is that they are of foreign descent. One theory is that they might be descendants of the broad-headed (Brachycephalic) stock who entered into the Indus Valley during the Mohenjodaro period and later migrated down to Coorg. According to Wikipedia, another theory is that the Kodavas are descendants of the Scythians, or they belong to the Indo-Scythian race like the Sakas.

The most popular theory among the Kodavas is that they are descendants of the Indo-Greek soldiers, who came into India with Alexander the Great. It is believed that these soldiers then moved down south and settled in the hilly region now known as Kodagu or Coorg. These Indo-Greeks are then believed to have married the native women and produced the race called the Kodavas.

Puranic Theory: Another theory about the origin of Kodavas is from the Hindu Puranas. According to the Skanda Purana or Kaveri Purana, the fierce race of Kodavas are descended from a Chandravanshi Kshatriya called Chandra Varma. He was on a pilgrimage to several holy places in India when he came upon Coorg or Kodagu district, the source of the river Kaveri. He settled here and became the first King of the Coorg principality. His children and their descendants cultivated and populated the land and these people apparently came to be called the Kodava race.

However, the consensus among historians is that the Kodava people have been in Kodagu for centuries and are probably the oldest settled inhabitants of the area. In fact, a Kannada poet from 1398 CE called Mangaraja mentions the Kodavas in his lexicon. He described them as warrior people with a fondness for hunting game for sport.

Kodava Culture

The mystery behind their origin aside, the Kodava people and their very different culture are equally fascinating. The people of Kodagu have kept their very intriguing culture intact over the years. Their festivals and all manners of celebrations are celebrated in pretty much the same way as it was for centuries, save for a few modern trappings.

Kodava Society

The Kodava community of Coorg is a patrilineal society. The people of the Kodava community identify themselves by their family names or okka (family groups). Each okka has an ainmane (ayyangada mane meaning ‘house of elders’or ballayamane. This is a large ancestral home, where all the family members lived originally. These ainmanes are scattered across agricultural and forested holdings in Coorg. Now, these ancestral homes of Kodavas are mainly used for meetings and gatherings. Currently, there are over 1,000 Kodava family names or okka in Coorg.

Kodava Attire 

The kodava attire for men.
Photo courtesy: Chaitanya Thammaya

Their attire is one among the many things that the Kodava community has kept unchanged over the centuries. Though they might now be considered ceremonial Kodagu attire, it’s worn with pride.

The typical attire of a Kodava man is called a kuppya chale and peeche kathi. The kuppya is a black wraparound robe which falls just below the knee, and the chale is a red/magenta silk sash embroidered with gold thread. This sash is wrapped around the waist and secured on the left. The peeche kathi is an ornamental silver dagger, which is tucked partially into the chale on the right side, with ornamental chains tucked at the back. The men also wear a white turban on their heads called the mande thuni. These days the kuppya chale and peeche kathi are considered ceremonial attire and are worn only at festivals or weddings.

The women wear saris called kodava podeya (meaning Kodava sari) and an embroidered veil on their head, cinched at the back, called the vastra. What’s unique is that the pleats of the sari are tucked at the back, while the pallu is draped over the right shoulder and secured with a brooch. Again, the kodava podeya and vastra are also considered ceremonial attire, though many an elderly Kodava grandmother can still be found cooking up a storm and ruling the roost in her kodava podeya.

Kodava attire for women.
Photo courtesy: Chaitanya Thammaya

Kodava Language

The people of the Kodava community speak a completely different language known as kodava takk. This Kodava language, which is considered to be the original language of the Kodagu district is considered to be an endangered Dravidian language. Linguistically, kodava takk is a mix of most South Indian languages, and is influenced by Tamil, Tulu, Kannada, and Malayalam. Since the language didn’t have a script of its own, it was traditionally written in the Kannada script. However, the linguist Gregg M. Cox developed a new script called the Coorgi–Cox alphabet to write the endangered language.

While kodava takk is still spoken by many in Coorg, the younger generation, especially the ones who live abroad or in metropolitan cities have lost touch with the language. In a bid to ensure that that the language lives, Talk Pariyana was created. Talk Pariyana is a platform, which encourages the younger generation to listen to stories or anecdotes in kodava takk and interact in the language.

Kodava Festivals

While most modern-day Kodavas consider themselves Hindus, they don’t celebrate any of the major Hindu festivals. They were originally worshippers of natural elements and their ancestors, called the Guru Karana. The Kodavas worship several deities, chief of them being Kaveramme, or the goddess of the river Kaveri who is considered their patron goddess, the Kuladevi. Being nature worshippers, the festivals of the Kodavas centre around agricultural activities, their weapons and agricultural implements.

1. Kailpodh (Kailpoldh) [The Festival Of Weapons]

The Kailpodh (Kailpoldh) or the Coorgi Festival Of Weapons of the kodava people
Source: Coorgexpress.com

The festival of Kailpodh is celebrated on the 3 September, every year by the Kodavas. On this day, all the weapons in the house, the agricultural implements and vehicles are cleaned and decorated with flowers and worshipped. The family prepares a feast of kadambuttu (steamed rice balls), pandhi Curry (pork curry) and akki payasa (rice pudding), which is also offered to the gods and ancestors with alcohol. 

2. Tula Sankramana Or Kaveri Sankramana [Festival Celebrating The Birth Of River Kaveri]

This festival, which falls on 17 or 18 October is celebrated by the Kodavas to mark the birth of the river Kaveri. The sacred river, which is the lifeblood of Coorg, originates in the Brahmagiri hills. At home, the Kodava people perform a ritual called Kani Puje, where they perform puja in front of a decorated cucumber or coconut. This decorated cucumber or coconut symbolises the goddess Kaveri. Kaveri Theertha (holy water from the birthplace of river Kaveri) is served to everyone present.

3. Puthari [The Harvest Festival]

The Puthari or harvest festival celebrated in Coorg by the Kodava community
Source: newskarnataka.com

Puthari is the harvest festival of the Kodavas, which marks the beginning of the rice harvesting, and is celebrated in late November or December. It is a festival that is celebrated by most of the communities in Coorg and not just the Kodavas. On this day, the people of Coorg bring in the first of the harvest to their homes and offer it to the gods and ancestors and pray for prosperity.

Read More: A complete guide to the vibrant festivals of Coorg

Kodava Cuisine

Kodava cuisine has much more to offer than the very famous pandhi curry and kadambuttu. Of course, the people being paddy cultivators, rice forms the main part of their diet. Rice is eaten in several different ways—otti (rice tortillas), paputtu (steamed rice and coconut cakes), noolputtu (rice string hoppers), thaliya Puttu (fermented and steamed rice cakes) and kadambuttu (steamed rice dumplings) are some of the most popular ones. 

As mentioned before, the Kodava tribe loved hunting games for sport. The game meat was cooked and eaten. Now since hunting is banned, they eat pork, chicken, fish and mutton. Sweet dishes like akki payasa (rice pudding) are a treat reserved for festivals or days of celebration. The Kodavas also consume a wide variety of locally grown vegetables and fruits like coconuts, jackfruit, plantain and mango. The seasonal and rare wild mushrooms and bamboo shoots are a delicacy that the community enjoys during the monsoon.

Read More: The most delectable dishes from the Coorg cuisine you simply must try

Folk Dances And Music 

The Bolak Aat dance
The Bolak Aat dance. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Kodava community has several folk dances, most of these are performed in the ‘mandh’ during celebrations or on festivals. BolakaatKombaatKolaatKathiaatPeeliaat and Chowriaat are all folk dances performed by men. Most of the dances performed by the men resemble martial arts practices. The Kodagu dancers wear traditional Kodava clothes and dance in a large circle. Most of the dances require the dancers to carry weapons like sticks for the KolaatPeeche Kathi and Odi Kathi (the ceremonial dagger and sword) for the Kathiaat

The ummathaat is performed by Kodava women. The women wear red saris, traditional Kodava jewellery like kokkethaathi (a gold necklace with an ornate half-moon shaped pendant), jomaale (a double-stranded black thread chain with alternating gold beads), and tie a red vastra on their heads. They dance in a circular motion with a swinging rhythm, with cymbals in their hands. The women dance around a white sari clad, pot bearing woman in the centre, who is supposed to represent the goddess Kaveramma.

But the most popular dance form is called the kodava-aat (Kodava dance) seen at Kodava weddings. There is no synchronisation to the kodava aat like the other dance forms. It’s just Kodava men and women busting out some graceful moves to the tuneful music of the Kodava Valaga at weddings. 

Contribution Of Kodava People In National And International Sports:

Ashwini Nachappa (track and field athlete)

Born in 1967, Ashwini Nachappa is an accomplished former track and field athlete. She represented India in three South Asian Federation Games. In 1984, Ashwini won two silver medals, in 1986 two silver medals and in 1988 she bagged three gold medals. She received the Arjuna Award in 1988.

Chenanda C. Machaiah (Boxing)

Known as one of the earliest International Indian boxers, Chenanda C. Machaiah has represented India in 1976 at Montreal, in the Asian Boxing Championships at Jakarta (1977), in the Indo-USSR Tournament in USSR (1977), in the XIth Commonwealth Games at Edmonton (1978) and in the 8th Asian Games at Bangkok. He has won a total of 6 international medals including one gold and has received the Arjuna Award in 1978-79.

Machanda Rohan Bopanna (Tennis)

Born 1980, Machanda Rohan Bopanna is an Indian professional tennis player from Kodagu. He has 19 career titles in his name and was also awarded the Ekalavya Award by the Government of Karnataka in 2005 for his achievements on the court.

Aiyuda Robin Uthappa (Cricket)

Born 1985, Aiyuda Robin Uthappa is an international cricketer from Kodagu in Karnataka. He was also part of the India U-19 team during 2004 ICC U19 cricket world cup and in Ranji trophy season in 2006-07, he scored a massive 857 runs in just seven games.

Kuttanda Joshna Chinappa (Squash)

Joshna Chinappa is a famous professional squash player from India. She was the first Indian to win the British Junior Squash Championship title in 2005 in the under-19 category and is the current record-holder of most national championship wins, with 18 titles.

Machettira Raju Poovamma (Athletics)

Indian sprinter Machettira Raju Poovamma was born in 1990 in  Gonikoppal, Karnataka. She won a silver medal in the 400 m and a gold medal in the 4 × 400 m relay at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games. Povamma bagged two gold and a silver medal in the 2012 Asian Grands Prix. She also won a gold medal at the 2013 Asian Grand Prix in Bangkok and won the gold medal in women’s 4×400 metres relay at the 2014 Asian Games along with Tintu Luka, Mandeep Kaur and Priyanka Pawar.

Maneyapanda Muthanna Somaya (Hockey)

Born in 1959, Maneyapanda Muthanna Somaya is a former Indian field hockey player from Coorg, Karnataka. He won the Gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games and was bestowed the Life Time Achievement award by the Petroleum Sports Promotion Board in 2007.

Mollera P. Ganesh (Hockey)

He is a former Indian professional field hockey player who also captain and coach of the Indian team. He has participated in India in World Cup, Olympic Games and Asian Games where he has received two bronze and 3 silver in total. He is also a recipient of the Arjuna Award.

Ashwini Ponnappa (Badminton)

A well known Badminton Player, Ashwini Ponnappa has represented India internationally in both the women’s and mixed doubles disciplines. She has participated in World Championship, Uber Cup, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Asian Championship and South Asian Games. She has bagged 6 Gold, 4 Silver and 4 Bronze Medals in total.

Ajjikuttira Trishul Chinnappa (Golf)

Born 1993 in Coorg Karnataka, Ajjikuttira Trishul Chinnappa is a professional Indian Golfer. His career highlight has been the All-India Amateur Championship triumph.

A Perfect Mix Of Old And New

Throughout Kodagu’s history, you can find mentions of the Kodava people for their bravery. The people of this ancient warlike race have stood guard for several different empires including at the Mysore, Mangalore and Malabar boundary posts. In today’s world, Kodava people show their bravery in the Indian Armed Forces. And in all the years, they’ve never lost touch with their roots, customs and culture. They have embraced the new ways of the world without forgetting the old, and both past and present are woven well into the Kodava community’s ways making theirs a very intriguing culture.

If you ask me, a Kodavathi, the best description for my people would be as party people, who work very hard and party even harder! They toil all year round in their coffee plantations and paddy fields. But come festival or celebration time in Kodagu, you’ll see a completely different side of the Kodava community. There’s plenty of joy and merriment, food and drink and dancing to be had, and no one is left behind. The story of where we came from originally or where our guests are from doesn’t bother us then.

What is believed to be the lineage of the people of Coorg?

The Kodava people are the native inhabitants of Coorg. They are considered a patrilineal Ethno-lingual tribe from the region of Kodagu.

How is the culture of the people of Coorg?

The Kodavas have a unique and strikingly different culture as compared to that of the neighbouring cultures.

What is the story about the origin of the people of Coorg?

There are several theories about the origin of the Kodava people. According to one theory, it is believed that Kodava people or people of Coorg are of Arabic/ Greek origin. However, there is no proof to corroborate this theory. Another theory and a more believable one suggests that the Kodavas are indigenous inhabitants of the land.

What are the people of Coorg famous for?

The people of Coorg are famous for their unique culture, hospitality and their valour. The Kodavas are a martial race and the tribe has numerous tales of valour throughout history. A significant number of Kodavas have served in the Indian defence services.

Also read: 7 of the best hill stations to visit in Karnataka

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