Women's rights: Tamil tribe shows the way
It's a tribe that practices what others preach. A small tribe in Tamil Nadu has a highly progressive system of gender equality that includes property rights for women and simple, low cost, dowry-free marriages.
The 2,000 people strong Kotha tribe has simplified every social milestone in its members' lives into just the bare necessities. The tribe inhabits seven villages in this hill station, also known as the Queen of the Hills, some 650 km southwest of state capital Chennai, the bustling southern Indian metropolis.
A huge marriage bill is conspicuous by its absence here. What is more, no priests or politician presides over it.
R. Vishwanathan, one of the elders of the Kotha tribe, told IANS: "Our matrilineal family ethos ensures that women take all important decisions, including marriage without the interference of priests or politicians.
"After the groom and the bride meet and agree to marry, an alliance is fixed virtually the next minute."
Immediately, the groom's mother adorns the girl with a white shawl - a deed that completes the betrothal. A few days later, the girl is welcomed into her in-laws' home with a small black-bead garland by the groom's mother.
"A token fee of Rs.1.25 is offered to the eldest man in the family marking the completion of the marriage ceremony. Our costs are 100th of what they are in the plains. The number of guests may be as little as 10," he said.
Both the sexes have equal rights over movable and immovable assets and they can choose their life partners.
"In the past, most of our dwellings used to be made of thatched materials. Now there are some concrete houses. Though we have several deities and different festivals, most of us are Hindus.
"After living in the hills for hundreds of years, the commonalities with the people of the plains are very few. We live our lives to the fullest, are choosy about liquor, cook vegetables and meat to certain peculiar specifications that suit the cold climate here and have community dance festivals very often," Vishwanathan added.
T.M. Kullan, retired principal of a government college, who belongs to the Badaga tribe but has knowledge of all the major tribal customs in the region, said: "Most of us can trace back our lineage to some family in ancient Mysore, Mesopotamia or Europe. Though we do not possess a script, our dialect is a mix of Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and English."
"The expenses of marriage, childbirth and funerals are borne by the entire community. Pregnant women are given a good diet so that they can have healthy babies," he said.
Ostracising of widows is unheard of. When breadwinners die due to illnesses or snakebite, the women remarry and give their children the new husband's name. In most tribes, the onus is on the men to maintain the family in some style, said Kullan.
"The biggest is the Badaga tribe followed by Todas, Kurumbas, Irulas, Paniyas and Kothas," he said.
(TSV Hari can be contacted at email@example.com)