Kodava Martial Traditions: Interview with Chendanda Poovaiah

in Interview
Published on: 29 December 2018

Jyothi Jayaprakash

Jyothi Jayaprakash is a doctoral scholar at the Department of Theatre and Performance, School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has completed an MPhil on 'Birth and Ambivalences of Modern Kodava Theatre', based on fieldwork in the Kodagu district of Karnataka and focused on the works of Kodagu’s first poet and playwright, Haradas Appacha Kavi.

Chendanda Poovaiah, a competitive shooter and an authority on the now extinct traditional Kodava sport of hunting, Koodu Botte, speaks to Jyothi Jayaprakash about the martial traditions of the Kodavas (translation of an interview conducted in 2017)

Jyothi Jayaprakash: The Kodavas have always been known for their military prowess. Do you think that the idea of Kshatriyahood is strongly present in the cultural fabric of Kodagu?


Chendanda Poovaiah: As you know, when a boy is born in a Kodava household, a bullet is shot into the air. When a girl is born, they clang brass plates/cymbals as a sign. Festivals like Kailpodh signify the end of cultivation activities and the beginning of the hunting season, where every youngster in the village goes for Koodu Botte/collective hunting.




J.J.: As a Kodava, how early did you start using a gun?


C.P.: I was as young as seven years old when I first started using a gun. In fact, the gun was taller than me! There is no specific age for handing over the gun to a youngster. I started off with .22 rifle and then I used a 12 bore for some time. But later, even for hunting I used a .22 rifle. I have even shot wild boars with .22 rifle long ago. As Kodavas, we have been on so many hunts by now that I can’t keep track.



J.J.: What is the significance of the Kailpodh festival?


C.P.:  Puthari is our harvest festival which is always celebrated exactly 90 days after Onam. Kailpodh is our version of the ayudha puja (weapon worship). The cattle/oxen that we used for plowing the fields are oiled and massaged thoroughly and left to graze. They graze in the forests for three months and we bring them back for Puthari to thresh the paddy. Our main work is over and that’s when we start the hunting season. It is also a form of protection of the crops. So the people go around shooting at pigs and other animals that might harm the crop. That is why there is thokk (gun) puja and ayudha puja. Agricultural implements are also cleaned and puja is performed.


J.J.: When is the festival of Kailpodh usually celebrated?

C.P.: Kailpodh is usually celebrated between mid-August and mid-September in different parts of Kodagu. This was brought about by the Raja, because, his soldiers would all be on leave if it was only one or two days. So the 10-day festival was introduced so that all the soldiers wouldn’t be on leave at one time. 



J.J.: The rest of Karnataka celebrates ayudha puja in October. Do the Kodavas celebrate that too?


C.P.: No. The Kodavas don’t celebrate that ayudha puja. For us, ayudha puja is during the Kailpodh festival. After the puja, the guns are handed over from elders to youngsters to go for the coconut shooting competition.



J.J.: Is the coconut shooting competition held in every household?


C.P.: Yes, it is called thengekk bodi beppa, which literally translates as shooting at the coconut. Every Kodava family will have it in their ainmanes or ancestral homes, and sometimes in their own homes. Every member of the family including women and children can participate in this competition.



J.J.: Does the Kodava Sahitya Academy or the Kodava Samajas conduct annual shooting competitions during the festival?


C.P.: Sometimes the Kodava Samaja conducts shooting competitions even for school children, with sometimes more than 150 shooters. People come from all over Kodagu to compete in these events. To secure first place, you should shoot a minimum of seven times on target. I’ve personally won first place in competitions held at Maldare and Chembebeleyur!



J.J.: What kinds of guns are used for these competitions?


C.P.: Earlier, shotguns were being used. Now .22 rifles are used, since it’s more of a sport and test of marksmanship. Earlier, the prize awarded to the winner of the competition was the lead spot in the hunt which is the most important point where the animals are surely bound to pass through. The trap laid here belongs to the winner. The takka, or a senior man, is the captain of the hunting party and will place the traps efficiently. The hunting dogs are held until the takka returns after setting the trap. After this, the hunting dogs are let loose and they drive the game towards the trap. The people in charge of the dogs don’t carry guns, they carry a knife. If you don’t have a knife, you’re not allowed into the hunting party. But one gun must  be with the dog holders because the game might sense danger and when the dogs chase, they might run away from the trap and towards the men.



J.J.: Kodavas give equal importance to women in all areas of life. In a highly masculinized festival such as the Kailpodh, what is the role of Kodava women?


C.P.: There is equal importance for women. In fact, no distinction is made between men and women. If the eldest member of the family is a woman, she carries out the puja and hands over the guns to the youngsters for the shooting competition. All through the years, women have been participating alongside men. Of course, recently, women have been granted their own category in shooting competitions.



J.J.: Are there any distinctions between the daughters of the house and the daughters-in-law?


C.P.: The daughters-in-law are, in fact, the actual women of the house. The daughters of the house go to their husband’s house and there they are given full rights to the household. There are some rules to this too. For example, if there is a programme conducted in a balyamane (ancestral house), the daughters of the house are allowed to sit at the kaimada (shrine to the clan ancestor) whereas the daughters-in-law may not. But it is the daughters-in-law who have the responsibility for the whole house, and not the daughters.



J.J.: Of late, hunting has been banned by the government. How do the Kodavas keep their affinity with the gun alive?


C.P.: These days we are training to teach the youngsters to shoot with an air rifle so that they can at least have a feel of the gun and not lose touch with it. Going to a firing range and using a .22 rifle is a very expensive affair. So we train them with air rifles and target shooting, and then depending on their interest they can move on to .22 rifles. Twelve-bore shooting with trap and skeet is also very, very expensive. In the last 15 years or so, we have had competitions in the 12-bore category only three times.



J.J.: Is there any association for gun rights in Kodagu?


C.P.: Yes, we have the Coorg Rifle Association which is trying very hard to revive the sport of shooting. We are advising Kodavas to get air rifles, so that we can train the youngsters to use guns. The Coorg Institute of Dental Sciences in Virajpet held the first air-rifle shooting competition, about four years ago. It was very economical since we just needed a wall and 10 meters of shooting space. So with the use of air rifles, it’s very easy to carry out these competitions.



J.J.: The gun is an inevitable marker of Kodava identity. Do you think that this perception is hard to maintain?


C.P.: Earlier, Kodavas used to go hunting, mainly to protect their crops from wild animals. But now, we do not go hunting anymore. In a way, it is very sad that the actual use of the gun is no longer there anymore, and therefore the feel of the gun is lost to the new generation. Nowadays the gun is only used for ritual/customary purposes such as at birth and death ceremonies. Even in big cities like Bangalore and Mysore, we only occasionally hear ceremonial gunshots.



J.J.: Don’t the Kodavas need any permission to use the gun for ritualistic purposes?


C.P.: For the Kodavas, it is specified that you’re entitled to carry a weapon subject to state restrictions, throughout the Indian union. For example, in Jammu and Kashmir, you cannot carry a weapon, even if it’s part of your culture, because the state restrictions do not allow it. During the days when hunting was permitted, it was possible for the Kodavas to use the guns without prior permission. Since the restrictions came in place, you can use it only for competitions.



J.J.: Do you need permission to use your gun for competitions?


C.P.: For competitions, the organizers acquire the necessary permissions. As a Kodava, I am allowed to carry my weapon.



J.J.: What about for shooting animals these days? What kind of permission do you need?


C.P.: Forget game shooting, even if you want to use your gun for protection of your crop, there are so many restrictions. The law of today makes it very difficult. You can only shoot wild boars now. And even if you do shoot a wild boar that is harming your crops, then you have to inform the forest officials about it. You have to take it to the forest officials yourself and they will auction it after inspecting the dead body. That is the rule. So, because of all these restrictions, no one takes the trouble to shoot anymore. For elephants, you can shoot to scare it, but not hit it. Again, even if you have a gun license you are entitled to only one box of cartridges every year. Kodagu has thick jungles and ample wild life. It is difficult to grow your crop under these circumstances.