Stories from a sacred land

A fascinating picture of the people of Coorg, their origins, history, myths and traditions, writes Nalini Menon.
Updated on Oct 14, 2013 11:50 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByNalini Menon

A fascinating picture of the people of Coorg, their origins, history, myths and traditions.

The Vanishing Kodavas
By Kaveri Ponappa
Eminence Designs Pvt Ltd
Rs. 7500 PP360

Where the Coorgs came from, the enigma of their customs, social traditions, laws and dress are questions that have been debated ad infinitum. The Vanishing Kodavas by Kaveri Ponnapa is a work that not only answers these questions but also sheds light on the events that fashioned the people’s traditions and made them unique.

To do this, Ponnapa uses official records, correspondence, colonial accounts, the recorded history of the Rajahs of Kodagu or Coorg and the oral histories of the Kodava people themselves. The hauntingly beautiful backdrop of the wild, beautiful hills with their gurgling streams, dense forests, and abundant wildlife and flora serves as a canvas for stories about a people who made the hills of Coorg their home, and who, through their violent history, managed to preserve their ancient social customs, dress and way of life.

Replete with 300 colour plates, the book, which took Ponnapa 15 years to research, contains a wealth of information. Chapters tell stories of bygone eras, of myth and legends, of the tragic history of the people, of songs composed by warriors for whom routine violence was a way of life and of marriage rituals that were not only esoteric but also created to save a clan from extinction.

The reader is taken to a land that became almost sacred to its people --- evident in the small, open-air shrines and large tracts set aside for worship – and into the heart of festivals dedicated to forest deities where trance and possession figure and oracles link the people to both their ancestors and their gods.

This is a book about a people who named the trees, shrubs, creepers and medicinal herbs, a people who created a rich oral tradition for themselves, worshipped their ancestors before all gods and danced before the spirits of the forest, and for whom upholding personal honour and that of one’s ancestry at all costs was the Kodava code.

Until recently the only source material for most contemporary accounts of Kodagu history were official manuals and gazetteer accounts. These were authored by missionaries and official historians of the East India Company and almost completely distorted the history of the Kodavas and obliterated the memory of the loyalty and affection the people felt for their kings.

The Vanishing Kodavas seeks to correct this image. It explores the unique role the tiny kingdom, ruled by Lingayat Rajahs, supported by a Council of Kodava Chieftains, played in the rise of the East India Company in southern India and focuses on a fast disappearing culture.

In The Vanishing Kodavas Ponnapa has created a volume of work that the reader will read, put away and revisit another day. Few writers can boast of making their work relevant to a general readership as well as to those for whom it will serve as a base for further academic studies.

Nalini Menon is a senior journalist

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