Fair-skinned, educated and Westernized, they are the Parsis of the south. And their numbers too are declining— from 175,000 in 1992 to 125,000 in 2010 (Bureau of Economics and Statistics). Kodavas, or Coorgis, are concentrated in Coorg, Karnataka, which the British turned into a major district of coffee plantations. The land is also known for its mist-cloaked hills scented with honey, cardamom and oranges.
Kodavas are more numerous than India’s Parsis, Bahá’ís and Jews but that’s no solace. “We might vanish by 2030,” says Chepudira M. Thilak Subbaiah, president of the Kodava Samaja Bangalore that held its centenary celebrations in early November. “Young Kodavas are educated workaholics and don’t care about families. They don’t want more than one child.” According to Subbaiah, Bangalore has the largest population of Kodavas (35,000) after Coorg (70,000).
Parsis of the south: Scenes from the centenary celebrations of the Kodava Samaja Bangalore earlier this month. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.
“The concern is not so much of losing at a numbers game,” says Sarita Mandanna, whose debut novel Tiger Hills was set in Coorg at the turn of the 20th century, “but the risk of losing an entire way of life, and the land as we once knew it.”
Kodavas are warrior-caste Hindus but their festivals and rituals are different. They have no priest, no holy fire and no dowry in weddings. They are great pork eaters. They worship Kaveri, the river that originates in Coorg. With a literacy rate estimated at 80%, their vocabulary is a mix of Persian, Sanskrit, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu. Almost everyone has an estate—it could be 1 acre or 500 acres. Some say they migrated from the Kurd region in West Asia, others claim they are descendants of Alexander’s army. Traditionally a martial race, they have produced army icons like K.S. Thimayya and K.M. Cariappa. Other notable Kodavas are athlete Ashwini Nachappa and VJ Nikhil Chinappa.
Explaining the reason behind the dwindling numbers, the Bangalore-based author, Prof. P.S. Appaiah, says: “Until 1950, families had at least half a dozen children each. After the government introduced family planning, the Kodavas showed the most enthusiasm. General Cariappa himself would tell us not to go beyond two children. He said that we couldn’t afford to make India a jam-packed stadium.”
The Kodavas have been known for their well-knit joint families. “With better education and exposure, Kodavas are opting for smaller families, a trend that’s evident in most of educated India,” says Mandanna. “With land no longer jointly held within a family, but being parcelled into smaller acreages, it’s no longer viable to support a large brood of children.”
Young people are moving to cities like Bangalore, Mysore and Mumbai, where many have found their calling in the IT industry. “Many Kodavas are finding it hard to find suitable life partners within Kodavas, which forces them to marry non-Kodavas or stay as singles,” says Kishor Cariappa, moderator of KodaguCommunity.com, a site where people discuss topics ranging from marrying outside the community to Kodava cuisine.
A woman married to a Kodava is not considered a Kodavathi, but the children of the marriage are Kodavas. “Not so if a Kodava woman marries outside, in keeping with traditions observed in most of the country,” says Mandanna, whose sister married a Tamilian Brahmin. “Marrying within the community has its advantages in terms of a shared cultural background, but it is no guarantee of happiness, and I think a lot of the older Kodavas have come to recognize that.”
Despite the alarmists, there is no scare of extinction yet. “We are not going down like the Parsis,” says Mumbai-based art director Dipti Subramani, a Kodava who married outside her community. “I think we can maintain our present numbers.”
How can they be increased?
“We’re asking people to have more babies,” says Subbaiah. “Instead of criticizing young people marrying non-Kodavas, we must open our arms to people from other communities and not treat them as ‘outsiders’,” says Cariappa. However, some have other concerns. “If the Kodava population too goes up,” says Appaiah, “imagine what will be India’s fate.”