• Desert Bloom

Coffee & Religion | Coorg, Karnataka

The more I travel, the more I see. I see ways of life that I had no capacity to imagine earlier. Whether it is an experience of the quaint villages of Goa or the sophisticated urbanscape of Bhutan, my understanding of what is “possible” expands with every new lifestyle I encounter.

On our first day in Coorg, we found ourselves sipping some fine coffee at Ajay Muthanna’s home, set within his 45-acre coffee plantation. A rather serendipitous encounter courtesy our amazing common friend Praveen. With the backdrop of loud rainfall and chirping ‘sicada’s, our conversation steered seamlessly from the weather to the climate, from coffee to religion and then some more. Some stories came from him at his own initiative, the rest were prodded by our own questions.

Coorg, the land of lush greenery in the Western Ghats of India, is a district in the southern state of Karnataka. Kodagu, of which ‘Coorg’ is an anglicised version, was an independent administrative state before 1956, after which it was merged with the rest of the Mysore region. Nestled at the border of the states of Karnataka and Kerala, is culturally distinct compared to both these Indian states. The language, food, lifestyle and religious practices of the Kodavas, numbering to only 1.2 lakhs in numbers, make them a distinct cultural group in the diverse composition of Karnataka state and of India. Amongst the many unique markers of Kodava identity, ancestral worship comes across as a focal point. The Kodavas have been following the practice of ancestor worship since as far back as their history can be traced. They became “Hindu” after Lingaites arrived in this small region of Kodagu, built temples and made one clan in each family the head of the temple. A sense of ownership and belonging to the religion would be expected after such an introduction. However, the Kodavas have been able to retain their unique system of ancestral worship.

“While we are Hindu, on paper, because the government did not manage to find another category to put us in and we have no provision to write ‘Kodava’ as our cultural identity”, narrates Ajay, “We have retained our identity and practice of ancestral worship till date.” While the Hindu religion also has an annual 15-day period of ancestor worship to remind one of their family legacy, the ancestral worship of the Kodavas is not limited to a few days or weeks. It is the sole form of worship. “While we still have Shiv temples established by the Lingaites, we do not have any priests till date.”

Religion, here, starts to become a very personal affair.

“From birth to death, we do not see a priest… For us, the Mother is Supreme. When I was born, there was no priest. It was my mother who gave me my name. When I was married, there was no priest. My mother blessed me. When I die, there will be no priest. My children will be the ones to light my pyre.”

Everything that a priest would typically do in a traditional Hindu household is acknowledged as the mother’s responsibility and privilege. Ajay was quick to clarify that this is not to be confused with matriarchal or matrilineal systems. It is as simple as respecting the women in the household.

Over cups of that delicious coffee and some local snacks, we continue our storytelling session by a man who has, in that moment, transformed into an open book generously sharing a wealth of information, all from his lived experience. As we dig deeper into the concept of ancestral worship, the whole bunch of us were very keen to know more about the rituals associated with this tradition. While I am not an enthusiast about religious rituals of any sort, I do believe that rituals are an essential means of giving physical form to your beliefs. Every valuable ideology eventually takes the form of a ritual in our lives. And the ones that the Kodavas associate with their respect for their ancestors is something that I found heart-warming, if not more.

“The way every day Hindus thank God, we thank our ancestors.”

Every year, at the onset of the winter months, the Kodavas gather at their respective Ainmane – the family’s ancestral home, to celebrate the harvest of the first paddy crop. A glowing lamp is symbolic of all the ancestors that the family has come to pay their respects to. The offerings are in the form of their ancestors’ favourite food. From meat to liquor to… perhaps coffee for the coffee-lovers? Kodavas cook and offer their ancestors’ favourite dishes to them on this special occasion.

At an old Kodava house in Coorg (Kodagu)

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of nostalgia, of remembrance, of how attached we feel to certain objects. When viewed through that same lens and with that emotion in mind, the practice of ancestral worship does not feel like something exclusive or alien. It is perhaps ingrained in all of us lovers of nostalgia. These assortment of memories form a sort of spiritual altar in our minds, that we seek comfort in. When I hold onto my grandfather’s old typewriter or to a collection of vintage saris, it is out of my attachment to my family’s history. These objects form the story of how my grandparents migrated to the city, of how my parents completed became respected professionals, of how this series of events gave me the privilege to lead the life I am living today. These objects hold more value for me than any new “idol” purchased from the market. They form a part of my family’s lived legacy. They are precious to the extent of being holy. Don’t we all have our own set of precious objects or simple everyday rituals? These are what constitute our personal temples, our very own Ainmane.

Sometimes, an encounter in an unknown land gives us a sense of familiarity that we never knew we were seeking.

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