The land-locked country sloping down from the Western Ghats to the wave-lashed shoreline in the southern half of coastal Karnataka, lush with waving paddy fields and meandering rivers and streams, alternating with green hillocks and forests, once thick and alive with fauna and flora and chirping birds of all hues is Tulunad, known officially as Dakshina Kannada. In fact, Tulunad extends beyond the present boundaries of Dakshina Kannada and comprises the then Kasargod Taluk in the South. This is the homeland of a proud, tough, yet resilient community, the Bunt’s alias Nadavas, (or Vokkaligas) as they themselves would like to be known in common parlance.
Bunt’s, who speak both Tulu and Kannada, hail from the region called Tulunad which is now better known as the district of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi in the West Coast of Karnataka. Bunt’s are also to be found in large numbers in Kasaragod taluk of Kerala, which was earlier a part of Karnataka.
Where exactly did they come from, what and who are the Bunt’s?
Are they migrant’s from the North who came and settled in Tulunad as agriculturists and became Bunt’s by pledging total loyalty to the local kings?
May be, After all the community has a large number of North Indian sounding surnames- Bhandari, Punja, Naik, Rai to name a few. May be not. For there is a theory that they belong to Vijaynagar King Krishnadeveraya’s Tuluvamsha.
Then, there are others who say that the Bunts themselves ruled the region around Mangalore. ‘Bunta’ in old Kannada literally means a soldier or a warrior.
In the pre-Christ era, there is a reference in the Sanskrit ‘Panchatantra’ to a land in south where Tulu speaking people ruled. According to Govind Pai, the renowed Kannada poet, ‘Alupa’ rulers became Tulu ‘Aluvas’ and Alupa dynasty is synonymous with Naga dynasty and Tulu people are the same as the those Chandra dynasty.
There is a reference to people from Tulunad in ancient greek texts and historical references to Alva clans in Tulunad way back in 150 AD.
According to another theory as researched by Prof S. Shivaram Shetty of Basrur, the Kosar tribe from the North came south after the Aryan invasion. This powerful and martial tribe wandered in the Decan for a few years as mercenaries of the local rulers. While some settled in Andhra Pradesh and founded Satavahana kingdom, some settled in Tuluva region and founded the Aulpa kingdom.
Another interesting feature of the Bunt community is that they speak both Tulu and Kannada languages. North of river Kalyanapura, they are called Nadavas and speak Kannada while south of the river they speak Tulu and are called Bunt’s. Many explanations are offered for this.
It is said that a few centuries ago, the Jain ruler of Tulunad, started ‘rajamata’. A number of locals joined this new sect and were called ‘Nadavas’ as they were locals or people from the local ‘nadu’. These Nadavas rose to prominence in service and army and the heroic and loyal Nadavas were sent to the southern region. Here they found fame and fortune and the leaders of the army were called ‘Bhats’ and ‘Buntaru’. So the people in the north of Tulunad are called Nadavas and in the south ‘Bunts’ according to late Polali Sheenappa Hegde.
According to Prof. Shivaram Shetty, a distinctive feature of Tuluva local administration was the division of the Nadu into guttus. The guttadara had definite functions linked with it and the guttadara (holder of a guttu) enjoyed power of hereditary right. The guttedar belonged to the Nadava community and was called as ‘Bantaru’. He had to help the ruler of the Nadu in times of crisis. So while Nadava denoted a community or caste, the Bunt denoted a position of power.
The rise of Vijayanagara Empire with Tulunad becoming a province of it, brought about political separation of the region-North and South of Kalyanpura river. While north of the river they continued to call themselves Nadavas, those south called themselves Bunts-which denoted a higher position.
Jain and Bunt’s have a close relationship in the Dakshina Kannada region. Bunts were here before the arrival of Brahmanism and Jainism into the region. It is said that many Bunt’s with high social standing were converted to Jainism into the region. It is said that many Bunt’s with high social standing were converted to Jainism and took to that religion many of the Bunt social customs like Aliyasanthana which is not found in Jainism elsewhere. Also Bunt surnames like Chowta, Banga, Ajila, found coinage in Jainism.
Whatever be the historical origins, there can be little doubt that Bunt’s are an enterprising, interesting, proud and unique community with some special social customs. It is without doubt a terrific community to be born in as a women. Its most distinguishing trait is the matrilineal hieararchial system of inheritance and rights. That meant that until very recently most of the property rights vested with the women of the family very like the Nairs of Kerala.
‘Aliyasanthana’ system unlike the Makkalasanthana’ system followed by the rest of the state, meant that family line is traced and continues through the female branch of the family. Simply put, when a Bunt says he belongs to a particular family, he means his mother’s and not father’s, as in most other communities.
In the earlier day’s all member of the family-the Yejman (the make head of the family) or the Yejmanthi (the female head of the family) and entire family including sisters and nephews and nieces, sometimes numbering in excess of hundred, all lived in one house under the patronage of the Yejman and Yejmanthi, Extensive land holding spread all over the region was leased out to tenants on a hereditary basis.
The changes after independence especially the introduction of Land Reforms, and subdivision and fragmentation of landholdings that were left, resulted in changes in the traditional Bunt inheritance rights from matrilineal to a more common Hindu code of rights of the individual.
This drastic break from traditions adhered to over centuries has had both its pluses and minuses. On one side, it spurred the members of the community to look beyond agriculture as a means of livelihood. Loss of Land forced them to look at other professions-service sector, hotel industry, government sector and even business of late.
However, the loss of large farm holding to former tenants also reduced many in the rural areas to levels of penury as has been vividly brought about by the recently concluded Socio-Economic Survery of the Bunt families conducted in the Dakshina Kannada taluk. It has revealed a high incidence of poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy in the hinterlands.
The younger members of the family, who could no longer depend on the largesse of the Yejman or the Yejmanthi to find them a living, were forced to find other avenues for living and there were also forced to look further ashore. So the Bunt Diaspora to other parts of India mainly Bombay, to Bangalore- after Mangalore became a part Karnataka and to foreign countries – UK and USA in particular saw the arrival of a large number of doctors and engineers in the 1960s and 70s.
Those who could afford to go in for higher education did so and went to high posts in government and industry. Those with enterprise and nothing much else took to business especially to hotel industry. It a tribute to the enterprise and initiative of these dynamic people that any south Indian eating house or restaurant in cities like Bombay are called Udupi restaurants, no matter who actually owns them or what cuisine they actually serve.