Shrikanth Shetty is a writer and an expert in the history and culture of Tulunadu. In this interview, he sheds light on the concept and institution of Guttumane homes (Courtesy: Ashwini Jain)

In Conversation with Shrikanth Shetty: How Guttumanes Dictated the Sociocultural Being of Pre-Colonial Tulunadu

in Interview
Published on: 20 July 2020

Ashwini Jain

Ashwini Jain is a content writer at SDME Society, writing for websites, blogs, social media, magazines and English dailies. A postgraduate and two times university gold medallist in journalism and mass communication, her interests are research and writing.

Shrikanth Shetty is a writer and expert in the history and culture of Tulunadu. He is also an activist who has initiated a youth conclave, Panchajanya, for conservation of heritage and an environmental campaign, Indrani Ulisi in coastal Karnataka.

His blog, Sidilu (sidilu.blogspotcom), which elaborates hand-picked aspects of Tulunadu has a focused and interactive audience.

Tulunadu has a diverse culture; its built heritage includes guttumanes (homes), which are over 300 distinct physical structures around coastal Karnataka. These homes dominate the collective identity of Tulunadu and cradle most practices that mark its ethos. Even today, every community practice—religious or otherwise—that unites a village in Tulunadu is organised under the leadership of the guttu household of that village.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted by Ashwini Jain on October 5, 2019, in Udupi at the interviewee’s house, and sheds light on the concept and institution of guttumanes. The original conversation was in Tulu and was translated into English.

Ashwini Jain: What are guttumanes? How and why did they come into existence? 

Shrikanth Shetty: Guttu was a major part of the larger administrative system that existed in Tulunadu for centuries until the colonial period. The system functioned like the panchayat system that we have today, with a few additions. The hierarchy of administration consisted several institutions—beedu, constituting the royalty; guttu, consisting administrators; baava, which was an immediate subordinate to guttu; parari, which was the oldest establishment of a village; arantadi, which was the preceding royalty [if any]; magandadi, which was also subordinate to guttu, controlling the village it was situated in; devasya, which adhered to the religious practices of a village; barke, which catered to security and war related necessities; and bhandardill, which acted as a warehouse for most valuables of the village including weapons and religious jewellery. 

These institutions that evolved over time coordinated with each other to administer a village or a group of villages in Tulunadu. Initially, every community in Tulunadu had its own leader, like tribal communities everywhere. With the advent of agriculture, there arose the need for different communities to coordinate, which led to the strongest of them all to assume power. Eventually, the leadership was given a structure that prevailed in the area for more than 10 centuries, as is known through documented history. Guttumanes were the first of the entire administrative system to take concrete form. Guttu was recognised as the central infrastructure that housed agricultural utilities and carried out judicial proceedings. 

AJ: Why do you think these homes were predominantly owned by Jain and Bunt communities?

SS: Jains have lived in Tulunadu since the fifth century, making them the native inhabitants of the land alongside a few other communities such as Billavas and Mogaveeras. A few centuries later, the Bunt community, though not bracketed precisely back then, migrated to the area, and brought along the agricultural system from north Karnataka and North India. Agriculture demanded collaboration of communities and a system of administration, and, naturally, the experts in the agricultural sector, who were the Bunts, assumed leadership over the agreement of the natives of Tulunadu. This leadership evolved to become guttu households. Jains took over as royalty, which was right above the guttu in hierarchy. 

However, there are no recorded documents to verify this account. This widely held belief is also countered by the fact that there are other communities that own guttu households even today. There are many experts who believe that the strongest communities back in time assumed power, and not necessarily a particular religious community, such as Jains or Bunts. The strength was based on financial stability, manpower and administrative excellence; this is reflected in the ownership pattern of guttu households even today, as most homes are owned by Bunts and Jains, and about four of them across Tulunadu are owned by other communities such as Billavas, Mogaveeras and Koragas. Both concepts regarding the ownership pattern of guttumanes are accepted, and hardly debated.

AJ: What were the responsibilities of guttumane owners? How were they carried out? How did they ensure participation of the rest of the population?

SS: The areas of responsibility of guttumane owners are five-fold. Firstly, guttu households identified a leader who delivered justice over disputes within the village. The judicial proceedings of the village were carried out in an open quadrilateral space [chowka] within the guttu house, which was also a consistent architectural style of the house based on this responsibility. Justice was delivered in the name of the deity believed to guard the village, which was a simple yet effective way of ensuring that the verdict was accepted and implemented by the seekers of justice, the villagers. 

Secondly, guttu households collected revenue from tenants. The tenants either cultivated their land for chaaligeni [a part of the produce] or moolageni [lease from the land]. The revenue system included collection of taxes from commoners, and part of the produce was delivered to those on higher levels of the hierarchy, consisting larger guttus and the beedu.

Thirdly, these households were responsible for the security of the village. They fostered a small army within the village that held the borders and maintained order. In case of a larger dispute with an invader, these households were asked to produce a specific number of fighters who fought for the king of the area. They built special garadis [gymnasiums] for this purpose which functioned as the practice ground for such soldiers. They were given titles based on the number of men a guttu produced; for example, Saavirdal was a guttu that could put forward 1,000 soldiers, Aindal could produce 500 soldiers, Murndal had 300, Irndal had 200, Noordal had 100 soldiers, and so on.

Fourthly, guttumane members sustained the religious system of the village by establishing and maintaining temples and garadimane [places of spirit worship]. They also funded and managed religious and cultural events that united the village, such as kambalakoridakatta, and so on.

Lastly, guttu households were responsible for ensuring basic facilities for the village such as water sources, simple transport, roads and irrigation systems, under the supervision of the king. The revenue collected was utilised for these purposes as well as for disaster management. One of the reasons guttu infrastructures were so huge was so that the village population could be accommodated in case of a disaster.

AJ: Why was it important that these establishments be architecturally different from the rest? Also, what were the distinguishing factors?

SS: It was not necessary for the structures to be architecturally different. However, the main reason they were architecturally different was because guttu households were the only establishments whose inhabitants ‘owned’ land during those times. The rest of the population was either nomadic or they lived on taxed land and, hence, could not construct embellished homes. Guttu establishments were thus largely accommodative to make space for yearly supplies, granaries, weaponry and a daivakone [places of spirit worship]. They also had accommodation for daily labourers, an open quadrilateral space for judicial proceedings, and so on. 

Guttumanes housed both a temple and a daivakone. This led to the architecture becoming incorporative of elements such as illustrative pillars and doors, space or rooms for orderly placement of materials of worship, doors opening towards specific directions as necessary for temples and daivakone, and so on. The daivakone and the temple could not be facing the same direction, or even be directly facing each other, which led to separate small rooms to be constructed on either ends of the house to accommodate the two religious spaces.

The guttumane infrastructure was built using mud or burnt clay, a mixture of molten jaggery and limestone which became cement, and large chunks of wood and massive stone pillars for support. The walls of the establishment were about one foot thick, which ensured safety of the residents from natural disasters and invaders. Right in front of the house was a large patch of agricultural field where the traditional sport of kambala used to be conducted; this patch of land also has several tombstones, indicating that it was also the cremation ground for members of the guttu. 

The front door, aanebaagilu [elephant door], is massive and is made of strong wood, following which there is an open quadrilateral space with stone or mud flooring. All other doors are smaller in size, though equally strong, and are situated over high thresholds. The pillars of guttumane have great aesthetic value; each pillar is situated on a square base with a danda [a trunk like structure that decreases in width from the bottom to the top]. The danda is topped with a number of smaller structures namely the kalasha (wooden structure shaped like a chalice), padma (wooden structure shaped like the base of a flower), palaka (cylindrical wooden structure) and bodhige (wooden structure resembling a large inverted ‘W’), which are decorative elements of the pillar. The pillars are topped with tole, a structure made with the highest quality wood that supports the roof. The roof is usually tiled, but before Mangalore tiles were introduced, they were made of dried grass and clay.

AJ: What roles do these homes and households play in cradling the cultural practices of present-day Tulunadu? Could you talk about a few notable practices? 

SS: As a part of their primary responsibilities, guttumanes established and maintained religious institutions. Most cultural practices in Tulunadu have originated from these places of worship ranging from bhoota kola [spirit worship] to koridakatta [cock fighting]. There is evidence to believe that war arts such as kalaripattu and mallakambha also were a major part of the routine in Tulunadu that were led by guttumanes.

When a bhoota kola or a related religious proceeding happened at a guttu household, the entire village were obliged to attend the event. The spirit, or the daiva, that was personified in the worship generally recognised the owner of the guttu as his representative for the village and entrusted him with responsibilities, which enabled the owner to complete the responsibilities without opposition from the rest of the village. Also, owing to the lack of infrastructure elsewhere, cultural events such as yakshagana, an extremely popular folk art of Tulunadu and Karnataka, funded by the guttu households, also took place in the courtyard of guttumanes. When an event of the sort took place, a feast was sponsored by the Guttu household for everyone who attended it.

A major way through which guttumanes sustained the cultural identity of Tulunadu is through a system called ajalu, which required a particular village to adhere to the law of the land, respect the guardian spirit of the village, and remain loyal to the village leadership. As a result of ajalu, Tulunadu, till date, follows regional religious practices and cultural events. The guttu of that particular village still heads those events. Though people attend religious events of other villages, each village mandatorily has its own set of practices.

Bhoota kola was and still is the most common annual event. It is based on the belief that every village in Tulunadu is protected by a guardian spirit who is paid his respects through kola [worship] in the presence of the entire village. 

Kambala, a popular sport where buffaloes are raced on a marshy field, is both an agricultural and cultural practice. It is performed before the monsoons arrive to prepare the agricultural fields as well to symbolise of the earth becoming fertilised. Tuluvas [natives of Tulunadu] believe that the agricultural yield is a result of a fertilised land. Guttumanes still fund these events, and they take place on the land owned by them.

Aatikalenja, that takes place just before the monsoon, and mankaali seve, which is celebrated during Diwali, are seasonal practices. Both involve dancers wearing an organic costume made of coconut and areca nut leaves and swaying to the beats of paaddhana [a Tulu folk song style]. These dancers and their entourage first arrive at the guttu of the village and then tour the entire village collecting some meagre material stock.

AJ: You have often spoken about maternal lineage in Tulunadu and have connected it to a few women in the past who administered guttu households. Can you elaborate on the concept?

SS: Maternal lineage was a feature of the guttumane households and has continued to prevail in Tulunadu even today. As opposed to property division systems elsewhere, Tulu households divided their property among daughters, and made them the head of the household. Though men assumed leadership of the village in most cases, there are ample instances where women played the role. For example, Lakshmiakka from Marakada Guttu, Baadu Madedi from Mattar Janana Guttu, Boobu Ballalti from Katpadi Guttu, Koosamma Tohalti from Sooralu Tolaharu Aramane and so on. These were women who took up the leadership of the village, according to documented history. Even guttumanes were passed on to the female heirs, and the system of maternal lineage has been prevalent ever since. Women in Tulunadu never had to fight for equal rights in property.

AJ: What are the factors that caused the decline of the power held by these households? 

SS: Colonisation was naturally the key player in the decline of power of guttu households. When the British came to power, they took over the revenue system and curbed the authority of guttu households. The proceedings of these households were controlled to the extent that they required the permission of the British authorities to appoint the next leader of the village. When a handful of rulers and guttu owners rebelled against British imperialism, the Arms Act was imposed in the area in 1878, restricting these households from maintaining weapons and training young people in war arts. The soldiers were then transferred to the British army. Loss of strength and wealth considerably diminished the influence of Guttu households.

Post-Independence, their influence was completely curbed. Guttu households still had control over large parts of land, but the Land Reformation Act of 1974 took that privilege away from them. Land was distributed equally amongst the villagers, which was a positive development, but marked the end of the guttu administration era.

The power that guttu households hold today is limited to the religious sector where there is least interference from the law. They still fund the religious proceedings of the village, however, they play no administrative or developmental role in the village.