Lifestyles of our Sankethi ancestors in Karnataka
By M. Keshava Swamy
The Kannada-English Dictionary of Dr. Kittel defines the term Sankethi as “a sect of Smartha Brahman in Mysore (state) speaking a corrupt form of Tamil.” People of Sankethi origin living abroad will understand this statement aright only against the background of the infinite variety of Indian Demography. A few thousand by the size of their population, they are tantamount to a small speck in clear skies or a twig afloat in the sea amidst 900 million in India. But they have a local habitation as well as a name; a local reputation far in excess of their number.
Geographically, Sankethis confined themselves to the four western Districts of erstwhile Mysore State (now Karnataka state). These are the so-called Mallnad districts, hilly regions with more than moderate rainfall, rich with forest and farmland, with weather, very much as in Bangalore, temperature rarely ever going beyond 100F; namely, Mysore, Hassan, Kadur (Chick Magalur) and Shimoga. By occupation they were all farmers cultivating palmnut, coconut, banana and betel leaf; by manual labor; carrying their produce by head loads to the weekly market (Santhe); living a precarious life with hardihood and courage. As late as half a century ago, in living memory, they cured their palmnut (very hard labor that is!) by participation of the whole family, or families; they stitched yellow (ripe and dry) banana leaf which had a wide market. Their homes were tile-roofed, cowdung-paved, enclosed by mud walls, with attachments for cattle; and with large back yards for manure, for growing flower or vegetables. Many houses were quadrangle type, the center of the quadrangle open to sky. Their dresses were simple, like the times, with Dhothy and Saree, and some small upper garment. Some of the more orthodox men never wore stitched garments at all, but covered their torso with some shawl.
Noted as they were, by other castes around for their life of hardihood and independent living, they were remarkable for their orthodoxy. Even in the 20th century they remained specimens of the ancient Brahman tradition of subordinating material gain to moral religious consideration; of keeping both form and content of Indian culture; of devoting themselves to Sanskrit studies and Karnatik music. They were particularly devoted to the task of preserving oral tradition of Vedic learning. They were deservedly admired by their fellow countrymen for these things. And as there is titters for their rashness, bold rebuff to insult, self-importance and a dominating tendency. They were given, to the game of cards or dice, to frequent pinches of snuff, with in an abandon. Their dialect amuses un-understanding hearers not only for its curious mix of Kannada and Tamil but also its organ-music filling the ears with loud retroflex L, D, N’ and trilled R.
This last point brings us to the question of the original home of the Sankethis. This dialect of Kannada – Tamil hybrid is curiously situated in the heart of the Kannada state far away from Tamilnadu border. The linguistic evidence definitely points to tamilian origin, but it is not a case of Tamilians drifting gradually across the border. It is a case of group migration. A curious blend of history and legend traces the Sankethis to Trichur and Thirunelveli districts in the far south of Tamil Nadu. It is said that a thousand families emigrated together from their homes to shelter themselves from a curse and came to live in this land safely. A saintly, scholarly lady called Nacharamma was insulted, and so, it is said, she cursed the whole town, with the proviso that if they went far away they would come to no grief. It is said that those who lingered declined or perished while those who came to Karnataka lived in peace. Even today the local residents of the place in Tamil Nadu show us the ruins of Shapathur (accursed town) and a well into which Nacharamma is said to have thrown herself in the moment of embarrassment.
The mystery aspects of the legend apart; (1) the traces of Malayalam in the Sankethi dialect, (2) some Brahmans going by the name of Sankethi in the far south, an extent legend over there of a migration remembered in oral tradition, (3) the plausibility of ready tracing the name ‘Sankethi’ to Kerala history – these three facts lead us to assume that Sankethis originated in the bilingual districts of Trichur. The curse is one plausible reason for migration, rather powerful in those days of faith. In historical times, the more common reasons for migration were famine and religious persecution. The Muluka Nadu Brahmans of Karnataka came running south to the Kannada country for fear of the Mulk i.e., the muslim rule of Golkonda. The history of Kerala tells us that during Muslim rule, for fear of confiscation or heavy taxes, many Hindu farmers pooled together and made over their land to the village temple, as temples were allowed some security or concession. And the farmers who did so became a Sangha. And from the word Sangha came Sanghethi, Sankethi by Malayalee etymological evolution. Or, as the land arrangement was a secret private arrangement in the village, the group of farmers who shared the Sanketha (Skt. for code word, secret understanding) became Sankethis. This view might suggest that Sankethis had a brief sojourn in Kerala during their prolonged migration to the bilingual districts remained for certain periods under Muslim rulers of Kerala. This view is supported by the fact that Sankethis were invariably farmers unlike other Brahmans. It is also supported by the surmise in an old tradition that Sankethis came to this state via South Canara and Coorg, by the west, unlike all other Tamilians.
We have no historical evidence to ascribe a date for this migration. The earliest evidence in land records, of an Inam, or a gift of a village (for the enjoyment of lands as well as revenue), namely Hemmige to Sankethis by the Vijaya Nagar king is dated 1448. Distributions owing to Muslim rule may be dated prior to 1400. It is impossible to say how long before this date Sankethis came to their present dwelling. Land records and linguistic evidence may help a researcher to trace the date and route approximately. But it will be a trivial discovery making no difference to the history of India. After all it was a bit of the mainstream culture of India moving to another place in the lap of Bharatha Matha. But it can be more worthwhile to see how these people contributed to the life and culture of their new home, Karnataka;– new home i.e., their Age Old New Home.
Settled for good in Mysore province, they never looked back to Tamil Nadu. They severed all contact; they retained not even a memory of their origin. Their Tamil assimilated more and more Kannada till at last it became more Kannada than Tamil. They forgot the Tamil script; they mastered Kannada classics like Naranappa’s Bharatha Katha Manjari or Lakshmisha’s Jaimini Bharatha and recited them in classical tunes of Karnatic music. They retained their taste for music; and to this day, apart from professional levels to which many have risen, the singing of shlokas by armatures can become a treat in itself at their dinner parties. Hard working men as they were, they evidenced a zest for elaborate dinners and were competitive eaters – to the delectation and jeers of other castes. They made it a custom of honoring Avadhanis (i.e., methodical reciters of an entire Veda) and Shastris (i.e., scholars in Sanskrit literature) and scholars of classical music at functions like weddings. The nomenclature of Avadhani or Shastry was not to be assumed as a name or surname, but to be obtained as a degree awarded by senior scholars at a gathering after a brief test. Sankethis were never impelled to venture beyond their ‘Sequestered way of life’ which consisted in classical scholarship, (religious) orthodoxy and agriculture.
Yet even in their hermitage life, they were sought after and given gifts of land from time to time :- Villages like Vaddara Halli, Hondana Halu, Marithamana Halli, Krishna Pura, Mathur, Hosahalli, Lingada Halli and Vidyaranya Bara came to Sankethis as gifts for recognition. Apart from receiving, they are known to have built temples and tanks. In rare instances in which they took to royal service they attained distinction – one glaring example being Thippaiah who served three successive rulers in erstwhile Mysore; under Tippu Sultan as officer of Jails, under the third Krishna Raja Wadiyar as Officer in Charge of his early education, and as Bhakshi (palace officer) he continued in the reign of the British Commissioner. Rama Shastry of Kowshika won distinction as a teacher to the young Rev. Jagadguru of the famous Sringeri Mutt. At the turn of the twentieth century with the coming of the era of public examinations, Sankethis easily passed out to become Sanskrit and Kannada pundits in educational institutions. One by one they left for towns and cities to become clerks and teachers, at first, and then, lawyers, engineers and doctors, and then businessmen and industrialists. Now they are everywhere in India and abroad. The Sankethi population works out to about 1/3,000 in Karnataka, 1/50 of Karnatak Brahmans but they are always a dozen rank holders at school and university exams every year. That is a picture their march with the time to which they took seriously only the other day.
“March” essentially means, in most cases, alienation from the roots of their rural culture. Therefore much of the saga detail will disappear in the melting pot of city life. The hearty eaters till recent times had a partiality for the typical Sankethi Huli-Anna (Puli-Ogare), a typical Kola-Katte, a typical Chomaii and a typical Saaru; they abjured garlic and like other Mysore Brahmans they were complete abstainers. How long will these features last? Their talk abounded in vicarious narrations of eating exploits: such as eating a whole bunch of bananas or a whole jack fruit; stalk, rind, peel and all. Will such exploits repeat or will they get more magnified in story? Exploits of physical strength have been attributed to Sankethi farmers: such as carrying head loads of enormous weight, or of routing opponents; and in one instance, an unskilled, uninitiated farmer is said to have gripped a prize wrestler of the palace in tight hold and overpowered him.
Sankethi men dress very much like the Mysorean counterparts, but Sankethi women’s saree differed from the Mysorean style. It was wound round the body in two or three rounds; it did not present a bunch of plaits in front; it carries a knot on the shoulder and so it was not like the Tamilian style either. The Nacharamma legend would have it that she improvised the knot in the moment of her extreme embarrassment. But it is more plausible that (1) the saree style conveniently obviated the need from an upper garment and (2) it was a saree style of very ancient times, alluded to in Kalidasa’s epic drama ‘The Shakunthalam.’ At any rate, it has disappeared into the past, and now-a-days the women wear the saree in the Mysorean style, and younger people take recourse to a variety of current fashions. They are also marching.
Further on to the twin villages of Mathur and Hosahalli, standing on the banks astride of the Thunga, 8 miles from the Shimoga district town on Bangalore – Honavar Road. Formerly Thriambaka pura, so named after the temple of Thriambaka (Shiva) over here, or after Thriyambaka Raya, minister of Vijayanagar Kingdom who gifted lands to the Brahmans here; the town was recognized as Mathur after a ruinous inundations of Thunga. The Sankethis built the local temple of Lakshmi Keshava, recalling the deity of their affiliation [home -God, lineage god, Ishta Daiva, Mana Devaru, or Mane Devaru] at Kowshika or Belur; one at Mathur and another at Hosahalli.
The religious and cultural atmosphere of ancient India is preserved fully intact here. The day dawns for most of the dwellers with a dip for bath in the river; then comes the Sandhyavandanam and Pooja; then music and poetic recitals, lessons in Sanskrit; noon oblations, then on to evening Sandhya; and so on. A couple of families still keep up the sacrificial fire un-extinguished, in uninterrupted contunuity through the centuries (i.e., elaborate offering of clarified butter to the Fire god); and perform Agni Hothra. This is an ancient form of worship, of which there is no remnent elsewhere in Karnataka or even India. At the time pooja is offered at the temple most men, women and children present; all men clad in Dhothies, bare shouldered, they recite the vedic hymns in chorus — which is a sight to see even for us in India, and it is an influence, an inspiration to any visitor. This little island of living ancient culture is remarkable not only for its calm, unruffled orthodoxy but also for peeks of attainment. The profound Samskrit scholar, Vidvan Subbraya Shasthri is now a Yathi (hermit) named as Advaitha Ananda after his renunciation. Markandeya Avadhani is a reputed Vyakarani – a term which means literally a scholar in grammer but its comprehensive sense implies a far wider scholarhip. Sri H.R. Keshava Murthy is a well known Gamaki i.e., a recieter of (Sanskrit and Kannada) poetic compositions. Of late this modern pocket of ancient India sent ripples in the gloomy, complacement waters of Sanskrit studies and raised eye brows all over the world, when it was revealed that it was a Sanskrit Village i.e., a place where all people, men, women and children talked and carried on business in Sanskrit, a language relegated to languish in dusty manuscripts and declared dead. The possibility of conversing in Sanskrit aroused curiosity and attracted vistors from continents abroad.
With men of distinction it has contributed to India and abroad — Mathur Krishnamurthy, Nanda Kumar, Sathyanarayan Shasthry staffing the Bharatheeya Vidya Bhavan in London; M.R. Narasimha Murthy, on the staff of Indian Institute of Science, recipient of Bhatnagar award; scores of professionals spread over India; and Mr. M.R. Balakrishna, H.S. Ramaswamy and a score of others working abroad. What can be more modern and still Sankethi in tradition?
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