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Business Brahmins (The Gauda Saraswat Brahmins of South Kanara)

Business Brahmins (The Gauda Saraswat Brahmins of South Kanara)
Item Code: NAM956
Author: Harald Tambs - Lyche
Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9788173049026
Pages: 362 (5 B/W Maps)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.0 inch X 6.0 inch
weight of the book: 635 gms
About The Book

Village studies have dominated anthropological writing on India for a Iong time, though more recently, much has been written on the big cities. This study is original in focusing on a small-town bourgeoisie.

Udupi, in South Kanara (north of Mangalore), was just a famous pilgrimage centre, then an administrative unit, until the Gauda Saraswat Brahmins arrived there in the 1890s. They were instrumental in creating a flourishing market and town, and their businesses still form the core of the local economy.

Written like a piece of local history, this book tells the story of the town from the perspective of these ‘Business Brahmins’, but it also presents an analysis of kinship, religion and community in a Brahmin caste which, in some ways, does not correspond to the received ideas of Brahmin orthodoxy.

As Konkani speakers from Goa, they constitute an ethnic minority as well as the main part of the local bourgeoisie. This blend of caste, class and ethnicity nevertheless merges into a strong and integrated identity, while its various aspects lead the author to take a critical attitude to those who would reduce the complexity of social stratification in India to a single model of the ‘caste system’.

Udupi is a small town and easily identified, so no attempt has been made to mask the main actors, by using fictitious names. The author feels that any criticism that may emerge of them is amply compensated for by documenting their important role in building and developing the lively urban community that Udupi is today.

About The Author

Harald Tambs-Lyche studied anthropology in Bergen and at SOAS, London. He has worked on Indian immigrants in Britain (London Patidars, 1980), on the social history of Saurashtra, India (Power, Profit and Poetry, 1997) and on its contemporary social organization (The Good Country, 2004). He has edited The Feminine Sacred in South Asia (1999), and, with Marine Carrin, People of the Jangal: Reformulating Identities and Adaptations in Crisis (2008). With Marine Carrin he also wrote on Scandinavian missionaries to the Santals, An Encounter of Peripheries (2008).


Mangalore, some 700 km south of Mumbai, is a port known at least since the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written in the first or second century of our era. Its description of the roadstead formed by the confluence of the Netravati and the Gurupura rivers and shielded by a narrow tongue of sand, is still valid today. Like the Malabar coast, Mangalore was known to early European traders for pepper and other spices, grown in the foothills of the Western Ghats. Though these mountains reach some 3,000 m, trade routes did cross them and Mangalore was an important port for the Vijayanagara empire (fourteenth to sixteenth century), as it must have been for its predecessors. Other ports, of varying importance, line the Kanara coast between Mangalore and Goa.

According to legend, the narrow stretch of land between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea was created when the Brahmin warrior Parashurama, seeking refuge after killing the Kshatriyas, threw his axe from the top of the Ghats. The sea receded. Whatever the myth, the coast has risen in recent geological periods, and sand and loam deposited by the rivers ensures that the land is still encroaching on the sea.

We may distinguish three zones of the country, differing in ecology, economy and social form (Kamath, 1982: 12-14). The coastal belt is characterized by fishing and coconut farming. Farther inland, we arrive at the rice fields, scattered between low hills, until we reach the foothills of the Ghats. Here, plantations of areca, pepper, and other spices take over. A number of rivers, overflowing during the heavy rains 1 but much reduced in the dry season, flow from the Ghats to the sea. Their inlets often divide into rivulets, where islands continuously form, so most harbours have changed constantly through the times. This complicates the history of the coast, as ports once important have lost their access to the sea, while others have come up. The merchant communities have moved in consequence.

South Kanara is not a poor area. It is densely populated and has been exporting rice at least since the sixteenth century,’ though it imports rice today. Most roads, where merchants and armies passed, ran east to west, along the dry ridges. The north-south route meandered between coast and inland, crossing the rivers inland on fords or, very rarely, bridges, with ferries across the wide estuaries. North-south communications, then, were largely by ship along the coast, as far as important commerce or military movements were concerned. Typically, Tipu built forts to the east along the valley from Mangalore towards the Ghats. He also fortified harbours where there may be no water now, since the coastline has changed.

The relative isolation of each village cluster is less obvious today than it must have been before modern roads were built whenever one leaves the route, the difficulty of the terrain is obvious. The forest is dense, the country hilly, and the rivers impassable during the rains. The forest constituted a real barrier to communication, so each traditional village was something of ‘a world in itself. Some villages were close to the roads, but most were away from them, in the forest. The area, then, represents a paradox: considerable commerce coexisted with an isolated countryside. We understand why no medieval empire bothered to take direct control of such villages: they could be left to themselves, provided the road was safe. The intermediary vassals known as the Tulu kings (Bhatt, 1975), may have provided the solution of nominal over lordship at minimal cost. It seems clear that the survival of the Tulu language - often seen as the most archaic of the present Dravidian languages - is related to this isolation.

Known as Tulunadu - the land of the Tulus - the countryside is linguistically and culturally distinct from neighboring areas. It includes most of South Kanara and the adjoining Kasaragode district of Kerala, Tulu was seen as a minority language and was not taken into account when Indian state boundaries were adjusted to the language situation; the official languages are Kannada, and Malayalam in Kasaragode. The northern border between Tulunadu and the Kannada-speaking areas runs along the various rivers which join the sea at Kallianpur, and coincides with the boundary of the dominant Bunt caste.

The religion, too, is particular, and early British observers felt the bhuta cults (Bruckner, 1995; Carrin and Tambs-Lyche, 2003) were reminiscences of Buddhism rather than a Hindu phenomenon. In fact, these cults for centuries coexisted, not with Buddhism, but with Jainism. Bhutas - or daivas - are clearly distinct from deities of the pan-Indian pantheon, though they are often said to be the gana (people, assistants) of Shiva. The rajandaivas or ‘royal bhutas’ are linked to traditional chiefdoms, usually headed by a Bunt family, though some were still ruled by Jains when the British arrived. The annual festivals (nema) of these deities are still important though the chiefdoms are gone. To their patrons, these rituals serve to confirm their continued importance, and maintain the unity of the local society of which they used to be the chiefs (Carrin and Tambs-Lyche, 2003). No Brahmins officiate in the bhuta cults. The small-scale chiefdoms were separated by forests and represent, for India, a rather ‘primitive’, almost ‘tribal’, level of social and political integration. There was also a tradition of Tulu kings, but it does not imply a clear picture of political conditions at any specific time, though there existed a hierarchy of terms for political domains. Today, these distinctions are of limited importance, but the myth of the Tulu kings are part of the common heritage of present-day Tulu speakers.

The latter see themselves as culturally distinct from people of surrounding areas, and today, there is a new stress on the specificity of being Tulu. This movement, concentrating on language, religion and literature, tends to treat Tulunadu as a kind of mini-nation, its frontiers defined in terms of cultural content. A salient fact here is investment in the bhuta cults. New masks and jewellery are being made for them, and attendance at the nemas, the annual rituals of the ‘royal’ bhutas, is increasing. This is a recent change, for at the beginning of the 1980s, these cults were in decline. It was difficult, then, to find mediums who still remembered and were capable of the bhuta epics, the paddanas; in effect, mediums were dying out. Tulu ethnicity, then, is manifesting itself as a cultural revival, where the language occupies a central place. The latter has no official status, and had - until recently - little written literature. This has changed radically since the 1970s, but the new writing is strongly turned towards folklore and folk culture. The paddanas sung at bhuta rituals, which have been collected and commented, are important for the development of Tulu literature. The traditional theatre, Yakshagana, also plays a role. Such theatre exists in both Kannada and Tulu language, but there has been a new wave of plays written in Tulu.

The link with the bhuta cults imply that Tulu society tends to be seen in the image projected by the nemas: a paternalist structure where the old landlord families represent the traditional justice that the bhuta incarnates.

The Tulu movement is ethnic rather than regional, for Tulu speakers cannot be said truly to control their region. Konkani speakers dominate Mangalore city, the other towns, and the tertiary sector in general. So far, however, the movement has not developed a particular anti-Konkani stance.

The groups affected by this discourse on Tulu identity mainly have a rural base traditionally tied to agriculture. Central here are the Bunts, former chiefs, warriors and landowners. The most important Tulu- speaking caste among the peasantry are the Billavas (bowmen), whose traditional occupation was coconut farming and toddy production, but who became the predominant labour force in the rice-growing villages led by Bunt chiefs.” Several castes of specialists - from Brahmins to untouchables - may be added to this cluster of com- munities, all of them Tulu speakers.

At an even earlier date, the small Jain kingdoms” were themselves controllers of trade: but they flourished before the present rice zone had been drained and cleared. Thus they must mainly have controlled the roads along the ridges, leading to their plantations in the foothills of the Ghats. They tended to be vassals of larger states, such as Vijayanagara. Later, from the fifteenth or early sixteenth century, valley lands were cleared by the Billavas, moving inland from the coast. But the rights in the land were allotted to the Bunts, who thereby became vassals of the Jain kings. As rice production expanded, the Bunts effectively became chiefs of their villages, and the kings had little power to control them. It seems, indeed, that it was the land reclamation, led by the Bunts, which spelt the end of the Jain kingdoms. In the seventeenth century the Ikkeri Nayaks from the north, a dynasty that had been vassals of the Vijayanagara empire, extended their rule to the coastal regions. The Jain kingdoms lost whatever independence they had and the Bunts became, in effect, the local chiefs under Nayak rule in South Kanara.

No merchant caste is included in the Tulu group, except the jains. Though they have indeed been active in the traditional export trades, their relation to the Tulu ethnic movement is ambiguous. The pre-dominant merchant community of the area today is the Konkanis, or the GSB. Their language is Konkani, an Indo-European and not a Dravidian language, their religion is a variant of Vaishnavite Hinduism - a minority are Shaivite - with few links to the bhuta cults; and they tend to be seen as ‘immigrants’ from Goa. They are patrilineal, while the Tulu speakers were - and to some degree still are - matrilineal. Some Konkani families do in fact patronize bhuta cults, in their capacity as landowners. But it is more or less taken for granted that landowners in Tulunadu should propitiate the bhutas, since their cult is seen as metonymic of landownership. Here, indeed, the owner is seen, ideally, to ‘belong to the land’ and not vice versa.

Close to the GSB, culturally, are the Catholics, whose most important families were converted from that community. Nobody includes these ‘Konkanis’ among the Tulus, and in the popular view, common also among folklorists and historians, Tulu society represents the ‘original’ strata of the population, to which later newcomers, such as the GSB, have been added. It is the GSB community that is the subject of this book.

  Acknowledgements 7
  Introduction 11
1 The Road Travelled 31
2 Arrivals 58
3 Udupi becomes a Town 92
4 Udupi Grows: From 1910 to 1947 119
5 Udupi and its GSB Families, 1947-1980 146
6 Since 1980: The Present and the Future 171
7 Lions and Foxes: Jointness and Splits 198
8 Kinship and Alliance in a Small-town Bourgeoisie 224
9 Religion and Ritual 254
10 Class, Caste and Ethnicity in the Age of Hindutva 292
  Conclusion 323
  Bibliography 343
  Index 355

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