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The Bunts of Tulu Nadu
|by Dr. Neria H. Hebbar|
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.'
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.
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