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The Bunts of Tulu Nadu
by Dr. Neria H. Hebbar Bookmark and Share

The word Bunta in Tulu language implies a powerful man or a soldier.  The community of Bunts (anglicized from Buntas), also referred to as Nadavas, form an important and integral part of the socio economic culture of Tulu nadu, in coastal Karnataka.  They share Tulu nadu with other prominent ethnic groups like the Billavas, Mogeras, Brahmins, Konkanis, Catholics and Jains.  As a community, Bunts are next in number only to the Billavas of Tulu nadu.  They are reputed to be agriculturists par excellence.  Bunts are part of a group called Nadavas, who mainly reside in the northern part of Tulu nadu.  They are thought to have had a common origin and culture as the Nayars of Malabar and Nattars of Tamil Nadu.  As the name Nadava implies, originating from the word nadu or territory, the Bunts are owners of land.  The Bunts of southern Tulu nadu speak Tulu language, a form of language that is used in commerce in the region, called Common Tulu. 

E. Thurston wrote in his Castes and Tribes of Southern India (1955-56), 'This is a caste of Kanarese farmers found only in South Kanara.  The Nadavas have retained four sub-divisions*, one of the most important being Masadi'.  I have no information regarding the caste but they seem to be closely allied to the Bunt caste of which Nadava is one of the sub-divisions.  The name Nadava or Nadavaru means people of the nadu or country'.  They still retain their independence or character, their strong well developed physique, and still carry their heads with some haughty toss as their fore-fathers did, in the stirring fighting days, when as an old proverb had it 'the slain rested in the yard of the slayer', and when every warrior constantly carried his sword and shield.  Both men and women of the Bunt community are among the comeliest of Asiatic races.'

 *Masadi (masadika) is the most common Tulu speaking sub-division of Bunts in Southern Tulu nadu.  Nadavas are Kannada speaking people that live in Northern Tulu nadu from Brahmavar to Baindoor.  Parivara Bunts also live in the northern parts and follow some of the Brahmin customs.  Jain Bunts are those who converted to Jainism during the reign of various Jain rulers, especially Hoysalas.

Origin and Antiquity

Several inscriptions mention Buntas in various connections, earliest perhaps in the 9th century in the Udyavara inscription.  Here a mention of Shivalli Brahmins and the Bantas of Chokipali (current day Chokkadi, near Udipi) is clearly made.  Whether the Nadavas, the Kannada speaking people mostly found in the northern Tulu nadu are the same as the Bunts cannot be established with certainty.  However, in the 20th century there was so much of intermingling of blood through marriage between the two groups that now they have become indistinguishable from each other.  These two communities could have separate origins but with passage of time the two cultures certainly seemed to have merged.  There are no records of the origin of the Bunt or Nadava community of Tulu nadu.  It is strongly felt that they first made their appearance very early in the history of Tulu nadu, and they migrated from Northern regions. 

It is almost certain that 'in the early centuries of the Christian era, there were kings, some independent and some under the suzerain of overlords like Kadambas, Chalukyas and Hoysalas.  There were constant skirmishes and fighting, and the 'Buntaru' or warriors were important stabilizing segments of the population.  In due course the Bunts succeeded in becoming owners of lands that did not fall into the hands of the priestly class, namely Brahmins.' ' South Kanara Mannual, Vol I.

Another group of people with similar culture was the Nayars of Tulu nadu.  They have disappeared as an entity from Tulu nadu but the inscriptions found in Barkur from the medieval period as well as the Grama Paddathi, which gives the history of Brahmin families in Tulu nadu, have made several references to the Nayars.  They seemed to have intimate connections with the Brahmins and acted as their protectors, perhaps brought to Tulu nadu by the Kadamba kings in the 8th century.  Kadamba king Mayuravarma, who is credited with bringing Brahmins from Ahichatra (from the North), also settled Nayars in Tulu nadu.  Yet, there is no written proof for this occurrence and the only mention of the Nayars in the inscriptions comes after the Alupa period (early part of 14th century.)  It is postulated that the Nayars were later absorbed into the social stratum of the Nadava community. 

It is also postulated that the Nayars of Malabar originally migrated from the Tulu nadu as noted here:  Manual of Madras Administration Vol II (printed in 1885) notes that the Nadavas are the same people as the Nayars of Malabar and the Bunts of Southern Tulu nadu.  'They appear to have entered Malabar from the North rather than the South and to have peopled first the Tulu, and then the Malayalam country.  They were probably the off-shoot of some colony in the Konkan or the Deccan.  In Malabar and south of Kanara as far as Kasargod, they are called Nayars and their language is Malayalam.  From Kasargod to Brahmavar, they are termed as Bunts and speak Tulu.  To the north of Brahmavar, they are called Nadavars, and they speak Kanarese.'

Prof S. Shivaram Shetty's research shows that a tribe called Kosars wandered into Tulu nadu after the Aryan invasion.  Mercenaries by nature, they first settled in Deccan and established the Shatavahana kingdom in Andhra Pradesh. In Tulu nadu they founded the Alupa kingdom.

During the rule of Vijayanagara Tulu nadu was administered in two parts ' Manaluru rajya and Barakuru rajya.  The people of the community to the north of River Kalyanapur (closer to Barakuru) called themselves Nadavas and spoke Kannada and people south of the river (closer to Mangaluru) came to be known as Bunts.  There seems to have been a close relationship between the Bunts and Jains in Tulu nadu.  Not only are their last names similar in many instances (Ajila, Ballala, Hegde, Banga, Chowta etc.) but they also have similar customs.  Aliya santana is followed by both Bunts and Jains in Tulu nadu, perhaps the only Jain community in India to follow this matriarchal system of inheritance.  Bunts of higher social standing were said to have converted to Jainism, though it is not clear when this conversion predominantly occurred.

After the fall of Vijayanagara Empire, during the rule of the Nayaks, in the 16th century, the Jains of Tulu nadu suffered a cultural recession.  The glory of Jain period was abruptly curbed during the confusion of the take over of Tulu nadu by the Nayaks of Ikkeri.  It is evidenced also by the lack of building great monuments and the bastis (like in Mudubidri).  It is possible that during this period many of the Jains converted to Hinduism.

Professor P. Gururaja Bhatt proposes three hypotheses as to the vocation and the origin of the Bunt community.

They were the builders of nadus (land), and as warriors whose main occupation and chief obligation was to protect the land.

They may have been mainly agricultural people, living in families known as okkalus, thus earning the name okkelme in Tulu (an okkaliga, meaning farmer).

The term Nadava meaning those who reside in the nadu as farmers.  Nadu also means 'to plant', and Bunts could have been primarily farmers who later took up arms and thus were associated with the military class.

The administration of the land (nadu) was with the help of divisions called guttu.  The guttedara was the administrator in charge of the guttu and this power was passed on to members of his family.

Matrilineal Inheritance - aliya santana

Most non-Brahmin communities in the Tulu nadu follow a system of inheritance to family property, in which succession is followed along the female line.  Called aliya santana, it is similar to marumakkatayam that is followed in certain class of people in Kerala.  It is a law that has been followed by predominantly the Bunt community and the Jains.  It is well established that the rulers of the feudatory states (like the Chautas, Bangas, Savantas, Ajilas, and Tolahas), who were mostly Jains, followed the aliya santana system of inheritance.  There is also evidence that the Alupas, before the advent of the Vijayanagara Empire, followed the system of matriarchy.

The law was recognized by the modern courts as far back as the British India in 1843.  The rules of aliya santana were first published as the English translation in 1864, by the German Press Mission in Mangalore (printed in Madras Journal of Literature and Science).

The aliya santana commandments were decreed by a legendary figure of unknown antiquity, Bhutala Pandya (77 A.D.?).  His uncle named Deva Pandya was the ruler, when certain important cargo with a newly built naval fleet was set out to sea.  King of the demons, Kundodara, demanded sacrifice of the king's son if he wanted any protection of the valuable cargo that was sea bound.  The king's wife refused to part with any of her seven sons, and Deva Pandya was distraught.  The king's sister Satyavati, finding her brother lonely and dejected, offered her own son Jaya Pandya for the sacrifice.  The demon Kundodara was impressed with this sacrifice.  He not only spared the young boy's life but also bestowed upon him the kingdom of Jaya Pandya's father Veerapandya in the city called Jayantika.  The demon also gave the name Bhutala Pandya on the brave young man and sat him on a throne.

Later another similar demand was made by the demon, when Deva Pandya's ships had run aground in Kalyanapura.  In order to slake the demon's thirst for human sacrifice, the king made another request from his wife to spare one of their sons.  But his wife refused to comply again and publicly renounced all inheritance of the kingdom for her own sons and left the kingdom to live with her parents.  Bhutala Pandya was summoned by the people, who wisely propitiated the demon Kundodara as Mahishasura, and built him a permanent abode in Someshwara.  Kundodara then demanded of Deva Pandya that he should disinherit all his sons and name his nephew Bhutala Pandya as the successor. 

Bhutala Pandya ruled for a period of seventy-five years in peace and his subjects were prosperous.  He had twelve wives with whom he had many children, both boys and girls.  He commanded all his subjects to follow his uncle's example of the matrilineal system of aliya santana, and the laws of inheritance were written, as dictated by the demon Kundodara.  Subsequently, his nephew Vidyadyumna Pandya came to power and the aliya santana system is said to have been followed ever since.  Bhutala Pandya's progeny through aliya santana ruled for seven generations for a total of 259 years.

Of course, there are no historical records of the authenticity of the story of Bhutala Pandya.  The first epigraph referring to the system of aliya santana is from the 10th century, suggesting that the system was followed at that time, when a passing reference was made in one of the inscriptions.  Following this, several epigraphic inscriptions of later centuries refer to the system routinely and the practice was undoubtedly very prevalent.  There is ample evidence to suggest that aliya santana was followed by large segments of the population between the 12th and 16th centuries in Tulu nadu. 

Bali, Kattu, Kattales

Bali represents the lineage of non-Brahmin communities in Tulu nadu.  Bali is the Dravidian counterpart of the Gotra followed by the Brahmins, influenced by the Aryan tradition.  Every family is identified by its Bali.  The name of the Bali may denote a particular personality, community, place or name of a well known divinity.  It is thought that the Balis in Tulu nadu were organized by chiefs, who were called Ballalas.  Ballalas were said to have gained importance in Tulu nadu after the marriage between Hoysala king, Vira Ballala and the Alupa queen Chikkayi Tayi.  Bali sets the rules for marriage alliances as well as adoption procedures.  There cannot be an alliance between the same Balis.  There are more than one hundred thirty named Balis established but eighteen of them are recognized from the days of King Bhutala Pandya.  They are called aliya santana Balis.  A Bunt is identified with his Bali from his mother's family rather than the father's.

There are fourteen Kattus and sixteen Kattales which lay down the rules of aliya santana.  These are commandments of the marriage customs, social positions of each of the Balis, management of family property and the ceremonies to be observed on occasions of births and deaths.  They also enumerate laws of the land.  Rules regarding social behavior and caste are found in the kattales, especially as related to female.  Punishments and acceptance of women who go astray are laid down in elaborate manner.  Rules of widow marriage and marriage of women who have been abandoned or abused by their husbands are detailed in sixteen different commandments pertaining to different ethnic groups of Tulu nadu.  The laws according to kattu and kattale are said to have been enjoined by Bhutala Pandya, as dictated by the benevolent demon Kundodara.

Gods and Spirits

The main deity of worship, long before Vaishnavism spread in Tulu nadu in the 8th century, was Shiva (and Durga as well as members of their family ' Ganesha and Subramanya).  Like in the rest of India, temples built before the 7th century tended to be made of wood and have long perished.  Only when the stone temples became routine after the Chalukyas and Pallavas introduced them in the South, Tulu nadu also saw a burst of stone built temple that have still survived.  However, the majority of the temples standing today were built between 13th and 16th centuries.  The Bunts of Tulu nadu were originally Shiva worshippers like the rest of the population.  Only after the visit of Shankaracharya in the 8th century and the impetus of Vaishnavism after Madhvacharya's influence in the region in the 14th century did the Bunts, like the others in the region, embrace all forms of Hindu gods.

What is more unique to the Bunt community of Tulu nadu is their reverence of various spirits in addition to the established gods of Hinduism.  Daivas or bhutas as they are referred to do not have a set form of physical representation.  Symbolically a piece of rock is sanctified and considered as bhuta.  Figurines made of wood or metal, often crudely carved, are also used as symbols of bhutas, similar to the gods in many impoverished temples.  Planks of wood or stone pillars with a niche and a conical or a flat stone on its top also are symbols of the spirit.  Some of the stronger spirits have more elaborate stone pillars and may even have temple-like permanent abodes called bhuta stanas.  These shrines are not elaborate, but are simple structures usually single cells with projecting thatched roofs.  A number of weapons, made of wood or metal, are kept in the bhuta ' stanas. 

Some of the powerful bhutas have ornaments made from oblations of devotees.  These ornaments (called abharana) are displayed during the yearly festival (called kola or nema), when the spirits are propitiated by the devotees.  Dancers belonging to certain castes adorn make-up and dance to the tune of recitations called Pad-dana.   These songs tell the story of the particular spirit and its relationship with the people that it protects.  Each bhuta has its own unique costume and style of make-up.  The spirit dances away at night to the beat of drums and other wind instruments, and it is not unusual for the dancer to go into a trance and be overwhelmed by the spirit.

The Bunts and other communities seek protection from these good natured spirits.  The bhutas are classified as belonging to the whole village, or to a particular community or caste, or a family.  Some bhutas are favored by certain communities, e.g. Bobbariya has a special place in the heart of the Billava community of Tulu nadu.  Some of them are off-shoots of the more famous gods of Hinduism, e.g. vishnumurti and berme, who are identified with Vishnu and Brahma.  Others are spirits of departed souls who were prominent figures in the community and had done good deeds while they were alive.  Yet some are derived from animals, like the panjurli (pig) and Pili-chamundi (tiger).  There are hundreds of spirits named in Tulu nadu.

Worship of the bhuta or daiva gives Tulu nadu a distinct flavor.  It is thought that before bhakti Hinduism was introduced to the region, the spirits were the main deities worshipped by the local people.  Shaivism was the main religion and spirits are naturally associated with Shiva, as he is the overlord of all the spirits.  With the advent of Vaishnavism, the spirits attained a secondary role to the numerous other gods of Hindu pantheon.  Yet, these spirits did not lose their place in the history of Tulu nadu, as they are worshipped even today.  Other castes, especially Brahmins, also accepted the spirits as lesser divinities and facilitated their worship by the non-Brahmins of Tulu nadu.  It is not uncommon to see the yearly ceremonies for the bhutas conducted in the households of Brahmin landlords, attended by the local village people.


The Nadava and the Bunt community of Tulu nadu is a mostly affluent community that has seen many changes in their centuries of habitat in the region.  Originally thought to have migrated from Northern regions, or even brought by the kings as soldiers and protectors of land, now they are mainly landlords and cultivators.  They are similar to the Nayar communities of Kerala and the Nattars of Tamil Nadu. 

The Bunts blend their worship with the gods of the Hindu pantheon as well as the spirits called bhutas.  They follow a system of matrilineal inheritance called aliya santana, where the property rights are conferred to the nephew of the owner.  Interestingly, legend of Bhutala Pandya tells us that the system of aliya santana was enjoined by a none other than a bhuta (demon Kundodara).  Despite the woman's prominent position, the hauteur Bunt man is an alpha male, and is reputed to confront his adversary with aggressiveness and valor, perhaps a trait of his erstwhile warrior role.

In Tulu nadu the Bunts form an important group of the collage of a multi-ethnic society.  Like the Jains, they were rulers of Tulu nadu in the erstwhile history of the land with sovereignty over large segments of the populace.  Most landowners leased the land to tenants.  Trouble arose in the community after the Land Reform Act enacted in 1974.  Many large land owners lost their lands to the tenants (land to the tiller) and the socio-economic structure of the prominent community of Bunts changed irreversibly.

Large joint families with the male head of family (Yejman) and his female counterpart (Yejmanthi) and their extended families ' sometimes numbering in the hundreds ' lived in single large homes, with the income from the farm holdings to support them.  When the laws were changed and the families could not be sustained in such large numbers, the social structure also began to change.  The centuries old matrilineal system of inheritance was abandoned and the Bunts are now adopting the traditional Hindu form of inheritance.

The traditional farmer status of the Bunt community has also transformed into a wide variety of different vocations.  The Bunt diaspora has spread to areas outside Tulu nadu, especially to Bombay, where they have made a name for themselves in the hotel industry.  The entrepreneur Bunts also excel in business and other service industries.  

More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar
Views: 11112
Article Comment very interesting,this has cleared some doubts about my own family traditions.
sathwik jain
Article Comment page 179

No 38.

Nanjangud Taluk

1. Svasti sri vijayabhyudaya Salivahana saka 5 varusha
2.1434 sandu ......srimukha samvatsarada Phalguna ba svasti jitam
3.bhagavata gata ghana gaganabhena sthira simhasanarudha sri nahaajadhiraja ra
4.ja parameswara sriman mahamedini ,miseyaraganda kathari saluva sriman dekshina samu
5.dradhipati Narasimha varma maharajadhiraja tut putra pituranvagata YADAVA kulamba
6.ra dyumani samyuktva chudamini sakala vanahi brind sandoha (santarpana)paranarisahodara
7.sauchavira(sarvavira) parakramadhara sakala desadhisvara mani makuta charanaravinda kathari
8.trinetra srimat krishnavarma maharajadhiraja prudhvirajyam geyinottiralu dakshina de
9.sadhi vijayavagi dittayisida vira Krishnarayara nyupadim srimanu mahapradhanam Ya
10.ju sakheya khandava gotrada Apastambha sutrada srimanu Saluva Timmarasaru dakshina
11.varanesi Gajaranyakshetra Rajaraja purvada Talakadali sri mahadevadevo
12. ttama kirti Narayana devarige thayurasthalada kavahaliyolaganegado ........

Translation -----------

Be it well.In the victorious and prospering Salivahan era 1434 year s having expired while the year srimukha was current, on the 5th lunar day of the dark half of Phalghuna.Be it well.Victory to the Adorable(padmanabha)who resembles the sky free from clouds.While illustrious Krishnavarma maharajadhiraja seated on the stable throne, the prosperous king of kings, lord of kings, champion over those who wear mustaches in the great earth, kathari saluva(dagger and kite ) , eruler over the southern sea,Narasimha mahadhiraja's son ; asun to the fragment that is the Yadava race of which he is a lineal descendant: :..............................Under the orders of vira Krishnaraya, whole he was pleased to go on a victorious expedition to the to the south:the illustrious mahapradhana(chief minister) Saluva Timmarasa of yaju sakha khandava gotra and apastambha sutra made agift to the best of the gods kirtinarayana devaru of Talakadu which is Rajarajpuram...............

Note ----

-It belongs to the reign of Vijayanara king Krishnaraya and is dated S.1434srimuka This data correspond to March 15, A.D. 1514; .........The pecular feature in the historical portion of this record the king Krishnaraya is here styled krishnavarma maharajadhiraj as is also the case in two other inscriptions of th same Talu.(E.C.-III Nanjanguda 190 and 195 of 1512 and 1513 A.D)............

Annual Report of the Mysore Archaeological Department for the 1930
University of Mysore ,
chennuboina venkateswarlu
Article Comment The Parivara Bunts never followed Aliyakattu ,they are spread from Kasaragode,Puttur,Manjeshwar,Virajpet,Sullia,Kadaba,nothing much is written about them .They are a smaller group in the Bunts community.
Article Comment Well written, Sir.
Rajkishan Poojary
Article Comment i have a unique perspective on our race.I believe the original lineage does not belong to the Indian subcontinent at all.i truly believe we were warrior mercenaries who came from from the seas who fought for anyone in exchange for land and gold after all, land is what was given away by the jain kings depended on these skilled warriors to fight against each other in minor battles of dominance ..the AXE that symbolizes TULU nadu (i know the whole parashurama theory) ...but i also have another version ,check out every single mercenary tribe throughout world history and the AXE has always been the weapon of choice and of cOURSE SPIRIT WORSHIPING PREDATES any "gods" in any religion.and the unique architectural styles of the ancestral homes of the bunts and also along KERALA.look more like they come from greece rather than indian....with the very distinctive "nadumundhil" where warriors practiced is also very similar and raises questions as to the origins....theses are just thoughts swimming around in my head and i do not intend to hurt any religious sentiments...
Athul Rai
Article Comment Indeed there cannot be any certainty of the facts as expressed by few comments here.. but the circumstantial evidences and the generational passing of many traditional informations and practices (Kattu Kattaley , Paddna`s) had to be believed.. Another Nagavamsha theory strongly believed due to the Naga Banas commonly seen in Coastal Tulunadu - also others Billavas and other Castes (except the lower castes).

Unconvincing is the Migration theory from the Northern India to Coastal Karnataka ..researchers must have given this idea with the Structural aggressive nature of Bunts similar to Greeks/ Sumerian/Spaniards / Aryan warrior clans who used to travel with invading armies and then colonise large areas and settle down post expansions.. ..

We normally hear hymns and shlokas during temple pujas- that the Sea has receded as per the vow of Parashurama and strong traditional belief is prevalent in Kerala(God Own Country) that Coastal Kerala including Tulunadu up to Gokarna is Parashuram Shrishtii (Major Tsunami effect thousands of years ago../later stone age/ early Copper age) There are many practices like thiayyam of Kerala similar to Bhuta Kola..Kathakkali though sign language with a back ground Singing of the story..Yakshagana appears to be in similar form with dialogues and added flavour of aggressiveness of forceful leg movement and Jumping. and the AATI Kelanja (Visit of Bali to Villages is similar to the practice of Kerala`s Maveli(Mahabali_) during AADI masam??
Uppala Rajarama Shetty
Article Comment Its difficult for me to think that Bunts were land lords, because during my childhood, 50 years ago I saw that bunts were basically 'okkelaye' meaning cultivating lands of upper cast on GENI basis and he hardly has any ownership of lands. There were few bunts who had their own lands but these were also bought from upper caste with money and power of few Bunts but their numbers were very few comparing upper cast land lords!. But after Land Reform Act things have changed fore ever for GENEI daris benefited not only to Bunts also other casts in entire coastal area.

We can see the progress today with Education, Banking, Hospitality Industry. We people from the coastal area are forefront in national and international level. We are proud of being born in Coastal Karnataka.
Article Comment Whatever the difference of opinion after reading only the Almighty knows the truth of Bunts, one fact is they have survived history's cruel facts, with fierce ditermination. I'm Proud of Our Lineage.
aanand rai
Article Comment kadambas have been said as bramhins in their inscriptions.Sri krishnadeevarya is as per his inscriptions yadava.
chennuboina venkateswarlu
Article Comment sir, i want clear information about the caste of srikrishnadevaraya. that somebody saying thai he belongs to kuruma, naidu, shetty.

what is the correct answer .if there is any book for it.
Article Comment Well written and very Knowledgeable -thanks
jagdish alva
Article Comment few information is totally false no bunt will agree. bunts where not land lords or agriculturists... Bunts belong to the Serpent Lineage (Nagavanshi) of Kshatriyas, which is different from nairs. it was tribe called ‘Kosars’ wandered into Tulu Nadu and other part of south india after the Aryan invasion in the north. these tribes are still exist in the north east part of india, nepal... The word Bunt is derived from the San-skrit word 'Bhata' meaning powerful man.
Kadamba Kings, Krishnadevaraya etc... belong to bunts.
v shetty
Article Comment mr. akvk could u explain me how bunts migrated from kerala to tulunadu??? huh??
v shetty
Article Comment sir, i want to know one think clearly,whether aliya santhan rules are practised in court in todays date in mangalore, yes or no
umesh shetty
Article Comment these informations are fully false...if migration happened from north to south then can u please explain the spread of christainity..? it actually started from kerala and spread accross india (it was from from south to north). please dont update wrong information.There is no evidence about the origins of nair's but it did exist before 1st centuary. The europeans traders came to kerala for trading even before 1st centuary and no wonder why most of the keralite are fair and huge. And its clear that bunts migrated from kerala to tulunadu.
Article Comment Dear Sir,
While going through the Nambiar families of Kannur, the origin of few families like Vengayil, Kalliat, Erumbala etc are well written. But so many Nambiar familiy origin is missing. Is there any chance that some of the Nambiar families migrated from Tulu Nadu? I would like to invest my time on this is somebody can give me some direction. Can anyone give me Dr,Hebbar's Email id? My id is JAY@BLG.CO.ID
Article Comment why jains follow aliyakattu in tulunadu ?
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