Traditions of Amma Kodavas: Interview with Kasturi Govindammayya

in Interview
Published on: 10 October 2017

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.

Kasturi Govindammayya, a prominent spokesperson for the Amma Kodava community in Kodagu, is in conversation with Jyothi Jayaprakash (translation of an interview conducted in 2017)

Jyothi Jayaprakash: The population of Kodagu does not consist of the Kodava community alone. How many Kodavattakk speaking communities/moolanivasiya (Kodavattakk-speaking original inhabitants) are there originally?


Kasturi Govindammayya: There are about 24 communities. A few of them have now become extinct.



J.J.: Starting from the Kaveri myth, to several local stories, there are many theories pointing to the origin of the Amma Kodava community of Kodagu. What is your take on this?


K.G.: So many people have written about our community. But I don’t believe a lot of it is true. Because, you will see in the Skanda Purana, in the fifth adhyaya (chapter) from sloka (verse) 40 to sloka 50, at the time when Kaveramme (Mother Kaveri) rises as a river and flows away, there was no such thing as ‘Kodava’, or any other community. There were only a) deshakara (countrymen), and b) pattama (Brahmins).


Kaveri thus flows away all the way to Siddapura near Guyya village. She is stopped there by Sage Agastya who pleads with her to stay. Here, in anger, Agastya asks the deshakara and pattama to decide who is correct: he or Kaveri. Here, listening to the deshakara—mind you, deshakara, not Kodavas—Agastya gets really angry. Seeing Agastya’s rage, the clever deshakara tell him, 'Look, we are just toddy drinkers, so don’t ask us. Ask the learned pattamas, they will give you your answer.'


The pattamas, their egos thus inflated, proceed to analyze the situation and pronounce their judgement: 'O sage, what you did is wrong. You had given Kaveri your word, and now you have left her alone. Besides, seduced by her beauty, you have gone to river Kanake. Thus, by all means, Kaveramme is correct.'


Seething with rage at this judgement, Agastya curses the pattamas. In the sloka it goes something like this:



You, who have been a hundred in number,

May you be reduced to six!

You, who have been revered for performing pooja

May you never be revered for your services!

You who have been the epitome of prosperity,

May that prosperity never be yours again!



The curse takes effect immediately. Now they had lost their caste. Even the deshakaras wouldn’t respect them. Thus lamenting their plight, they fall at the feet of Kaveramme.


'O mother, we spoke our mind and stood by the truth. Look what has happened to us! What should we do now?'


To which Kaveri says:


May you have a new caste!

As long as I roam this land,

May at least one generation of you be present!

I may not be able to revoke the rishi’s curse

But, as long as I live, I bless you with prosperity!


Thus, the pattamas thought hard, and decided that since they have been reinstated because of the mercy of amma (Kaveri), we shall henceforth call ourselves Ammanga/Ammas. Mind you, not Amma Kodava, but Ammanga.


J.J.: What are the other stories you have heard about the origin of the Ammas?


K.G.: If you go through the books, lots of scholars have written about the Amma community. One story goes that, once a girl was abandoned in the forest because she became mature (attained puberty) before she could get married. This was deemed a misfortune. A Kodava man marries her and the children born out of their union are known as Amma Kodavas it seems. But no, this story is absolutely wrong!



J.J.: What does the Pattole Palame (Chinnappa 2003, an extensive collection on Kodagu’s oral tradition and cultural landscape) say about Ammas?


K.G.: In the Pattole Palame too, there is a mention of the Amma Kodavas. It is believed that the term, 'Amma Kodavas', existed as far back as the days of the Lingayat kings. But I am arguing that we are Ammanga, not Amma Kodava. Throughout Kodagu you will find references to Kodava Maappila, Kodava Airi, Kodava Peggade, Kodava Hajama. But nowhere will you see the term ‘Kodava Ammanga’. In all the slokas you will see the words, 'Ammanda Kodavanda puthari namme' (the Puthari festival of Ammas and Kodavas). This means that the Ammas have been around from the earliest period. Yet now not everyone would accept that. I will tell you why that is. The Amma population is dwindling. There is the factor of the curse. Intellectual levels levels come down. The reverence accorded to the Ammas for offering prayers (performing pooja) has also been taken from them. Mainly owing to their small population, the Ammas do not have a large support base The Kodavas accept the Ammas labeling them as their ‘sub-castes’. But no, the Ammas are not a ‘sub-caste’. I have written a book called Kaveri Palame, which refers only to Ammas, with evidence from the slokas and puranas, which is awaiting publication.



J.J.: The Ammas are also a moolanivasi, following customs similar to the Kodava. What are the Amma customs that are different from the Kodavas'?


K.G.: We have many differences. Intermarrying with the Kodavas is strictly forbidden. Of course these days there are love marriages, but generally we don’t. Then we have the concept of thaali (the sacred matrimonial thread). At a wedding, this is brought by the groom to the bride during the dampati muhurta. And the thaali is sprinkled with holy water. For our marriages, and every other rite and ritual, a Brahmin priest has to officiate whereas this is not so for the Kodavas. The groom ties the thaali, whereas among Kodavas the mother of the bride ties the sacred pathak (married woman's necklace) around the bride’s neck before the official wedding.



J.J.: The thaali is an important ornament signifying a married woman. When is the thaali removed?


K.G.: If the wife dies before the husband, she is cremated along with her thaali, as she is still a sumangali. This is retrieved from the pyre the next day. It is then held to be a sacred item that keeps away evil, from both children and adults. If the husband dies before the wife, and the death occurs at home, then the thaali is removed from the wife’s neck, placed in the mouth of the deceased husband and some holy water is sprinkled into his mouth. Supposing the husband dies somewhere outside the house, then his body is brought into the house, and the same practice is performed.



J.J.: What other customs are unique to Ammas that the Kodavas do not have?


K.G.: The Ammas have the upanayana ceremony, the wearing of the sacred thread, which the Kodavas do not have. Earlier, like the Brahmins, the Ammas also used to conduct upanayana for young boys. But as poverty set in, this affair became really expensive. So, nowadays, a few days before the man’s wedding, a Brahmin priest is invited home, and the upanayana ceremony is formally conducted and the sacred thread is worn by the man. The sacred thread is very important for the man. Until his wedding day, he wears a single thread. After the wedding, this becomes a double thread, signifying the union of the husband and wife. If the thread gets frayed over the years, a new thread is donned on the auspicious occasion of sankramanas/sankrantis.


Another difference is that we celebrate the Onam festival of Kerala. The Ammas celebrate Onam whereas the Kodavas do not. The Kodagu festival called Puthari is celebrated three days after Onam festival. There is a story to this. It is believed that Onatamme, the goddess of Onam festival, came to Kodagu from Kerala. She met Lord Iggutappa who is the god of rain, and advises, 'Exactly three months after my festival, celebrate Puthari here!'


Another important differentiating factor is that the Ammas require a Brahmin purohit (priest) for every custom. For marriages, as mentioned earlier, the priest is present. The groom not only brings the thaali, he also brings a sari-and-blouse set for the bride. After the sprinkling of holy water, the bride has to dress in this attire. The style of sari wearing is not the Kodava style or the Kerala style, but the Kannada style, which is a big difference from the Kodava procedures.


For death ceremonies, the Brahmin comes the next day and performs purification rites. Even for maada (a small ceremony to end ritual mourning), the priest is present.



J.J.: Do the Ammas have the dowry system for marriages?


K.G.: No, they don’t have a dowry system. The Amma marriage ceremony is a mix of Amma and Kodava traditions. So there is no dowry as such. Instead, we give clothes, household items etc. These days, people do give cars and expensive gifts. But no, the Ammas do not have a dowry system.



J.J.: What about property division? Do the women of the house get a share in the property?


K.G.: No. Girls do not get property. They are entitled to the property of their husbands. But now, the women fight for their rights.



J.J.: What is the total population of Ammas today?


K.G.: Hardly 5,500 to 6,000.



J.J.: The Kodavas have Kodava Samajas, buildings where Kodavas get together for weddings, functions and meetings. Is there an Amma samaja like the Kodava samajas?


K.G.: Yes, we do have one in Ponnampet. In Madikeri, we have a Kaveri Ammanga Samaja where we celebrate puthari, Onam and sankramana. We did begin to construct a building but the project got stalled halfway.



J.J.: What about Government reservations? Are the Ammas entitled to any benefits of reservation?


K.G.: Yes, we have 2A reservation. So, we do get some benefits for education and sangha samsthe directorship etc. On the basis of that, I am a director in one of the mahila organizations here.



J.J.: Is there an organization representing all the Kodavattakk-speaking communities?


K.G.: Yes, we did have one in Virajpet. But the main problem is the lack of unity. Without a political background or support, it is difficult to accomplish anything.



J.J.: The gun is an important marker of Kodava identity, and the Kodavas are allowed to carry firearms without a license. Are the Ammas also exempted from acquiring a gun license?


K.G.: Yes, every Amma household has a gun and are we also exempted from acquiring a gun license.



J.J.: Do Ammas still serve as priests in Kodagu temples?


K.G.: Yes, in Ponnampet, Achiyanda Aiyappa temple; Madeva temple in Kothur; Eshwara temple in Chelaat, Ponnaala, during Puthiyodi therey, Ammas still serve as priests.



J.J.: What festivals do the Kodavas celebrate which the Ammas do not?


K.G.: Both communities celebrate most of the festivals of Kodagu. However, the kailpodh festival which is an important festival for the Kodavas is not celebrated by the Ammas. Kaveri sankramana and puthari festivals are celebrated. We also celebrate Bisu Sankramana. In South Coorg, Bisu is celebrated the same day as Kaveri Sankramana, during October, where as in North Coorg there is a specific date set aside for Bisu Sankramana, during April.



J.J.: What is the social status of the Ammas?


K.G.: During the earlier days, since the Ammas were Brahmins, every Amma household used to house the god’s bhandara (jewellery box). They are the takkas/village heads. Whatever happens in the village or in temple matters, the Ammas were the first authority. Recently, due to migration, and job opportunities abroad, all the ainmanes (ancestral houses) of the Ammas have been destroyed to build better homes. And most bhandaras have been deposited at the bank treasury. The only one Amma house still holding on to the bhandara is Naayammandamane, my ancestral home. The jewels are used for the gods when the Ammas conduct the pashana murthy therey (annual spirit propitiation festival). In that therey, the spirit of pashana murthy summons someone who is born in the Brahmakula. The Ammas are born in the Brahmakula and are entitled to receive the first prasada from the spirit. At the Igguthappa temple at Padi, earlier only Ammas were allowed entry, nowadays everyone is allowed to enter.



J.J.: During recent times, do you think the Ammas are slowly beginning to copy the Kodavas?


K.G.: Not really, you cannot call it copying as such. The Ammas also wear the kupya chele (traditional attire for Kodava men). Earlier, during the times of the king, the kupya was worn by the soldiers for ease of movement. That attire continues to this day as the kupya chele, and most communities wear it. The Ammas are pure vegetarians, whereas the Kodavas are meat-eating. But yes, nowadays with social intermingling, there are several aspects of the Ammas’ lives that have changed. Some even consume meat and alcohol.


Unlike earlier, now everyone is friends. Earlier and even now, many Kdoavas, even if they are elderly, would call the Ammas 'Maava' (uncle/father-in-law), 'Maayi' (aunty/mother-in-law), and touch the Amma’s feet for blessings.



J.J.: The Kodava Sahitya Academy in Madikeri has made some progress in encouraging the development of language and literature of Kodagu. Does the Academy have provision for membership from other Kodavattakk-speaking communities?


K.G.: The Academy was established in 1994 when Veerappa Moily was the Chief Minister of Karnataka. I had written a letter to Veerappa Moily then stating that it is not Kodava Academy, it is Kodava bhaashika Academy, which means it is not just for Kodavas, it is for all Kodavattakk-speaking communities. Since the majority is Kodava, there are more of them in the academy. But every community has one assured place in the academy. But yes, there is a sort of hegemonic attitude at play at many levels when it concerns the Kodavas and other Kodavattakk-speaking communities.



J.J.: Kodagu has been under the spotlight for a while now with some groups demanding a separate statehood. What is your opinion?


K.G.: A separate state would not be a bad idea if all the communities come together and are treated equally, given equal respect. If we have to progress, all the communities must come together. Every community is claiming rights and ownership over Kodagu, over Kaveramme, over Kodava customs and others. This will not help in the development of Kodagu. We should shed all our inhibitions about caste and come together as one. It is not Kodava samskriti, it is actually Kodagu samskriti.



Chinnappa, Nadikeriyanda. 2003.  Pattole Palame: Kodava Culture, Folksongs and Traditions. New Delhi: Rupa Publications.