The text and photographs on this page are copyright by Sathya Mohan. He is an ethnographic documentary film maker from India.
The Koyas are one of the few multi-lingual and multi-racial tribal communities living in India. They are also one of the major peasant tribes of Andhra Pradesh numbering 3.60 lakhs in 1981. Physically they are classified as Australoid. The Koyas call themselves as "Koithur". The land of Koithur or the Koya land includes the Indravati, Godavari, Sabari, Sileru rivers and the thickly wooded Eastern Ghats, covering parts of Bastar, Koraput, Warangal, Khammam, Karimnagar and the East and West Godavari districts. This region is situated at a height of 150-300 metres. The Koyas speak the language called "Koyi". It is blended with Telugu in Andhra Pradesh. [Editor's note. The linguistic classification of languages spoken by the Koya people is still uncertain.]
The story of the Koyas goes back to pre-historic times. They seem to have had a highly evolved civilization in the past in which they were a ruling Tribe.
According to the Koya mythology, life originated from water. The friction between the fourteen seas resulted in the emergence of moss, toads, fish and saints. The last saint was God and He first created Tuniki and Regu fruits.
During the eighteenth century, the Marathas invaded and subverted the Koyas along with the Gonds. The continuous pillage and harassment by the non-tribals resulted in the loss of the vestige of Koya civilization. The Koyas were driven to take refuge in the inaccessible highlands. In this period they were depicted by travellers as treacherous savages.
Later Bhadrachalam taluk was handed over to the British by the Nizam. At that time, the taluk was divided into divisions each comprising 225 Koya villages. The whole land was under the mercy of the Rohillas. The last great plundering by them was in 1859 near Parnasala.
There are many endogamous sub-divisions among the Koyas of Bhadrachalam agency, such as Racha Koya, Lingadari Koya, Kammara Koya and Arithi Koya. Each group is vocationally specialized having a separate judiciary system which ensures group endogamy. There are also differences in food habits. Lingadari Koyas do not eat beef and do not interdine with others. They perform purificatory rites to depollute the effects of intergroup marriages. The Racha Koyas are village administrators. They also perform rituals during festivals. Kammara Koyas make agricultural implements. They are blacksmiths and are generally paid in kind. Arithi Koyas are bards. They narrate the lineages. They are the oral custodians of Koya mythology.
Each of these sub-divisions among the Koyas have exogamous phratries having separate totems which are again split into a number of totemistic sects which form the lineage ("velpu") pattern. For example, in Chinthur mandal of Bhadrachalam agency, the Paderu Gatta (phratry) of Racha Koyas worship "Dhoolraj" and their totem is wooden. These phratries have a number of totemistic sects each denoted by a name, totem and worshipped by a group of families having separate names. For instance, 3 Gatta worshippers of Bheemraj are further classified into three groups on the basis of their "Ilavelpulu" (family deities). Marriages between members of the same totemistic sect is prohibited.
The Kinship network among the Koyas assigns every individual a definite place within a system of relationships and defines one's behaviour towards others. Every Koya is born into a phratry and a clan and his position is immutable.
The Koyas have a patrilineal and patrilocal family. The family is called "Kutum". The nuclear family is the predominant type. Usually, sons in a family live separately after marriage, but continue to do joint cultivation (Pottu Vyavasayam) along with parents and unmarried brothers. Monogamy is prevalent among the Koyas. Marriages take place after boys and girls become adults and in marriage negotiations the girl's consent is taken. The preferential marriage rules favour mother's brother's daughter or the father's sister's daughter.
Generally, the mate is selected through negotiations. But other practices of capture and elopement also exist, involving a simple ritual of pouring water on the girl — the water being the symbol of fertility. There is bride price involved in arranged marriages. Marriage is celebrated for three days. It is not simply an affair between two families. It is an occasion for two villages and all the relatives. Every person carries grain and liquor to a marriage to help the bridgroom's family. Marriages take place in summer when palm juice is abundantly available. The Bison-horn dance is a special feature on the occasion of a marriage ceremony among the Koyas.
Birth, marriage and death are the three important aspects of life and each event is celebrated on a grand scale in Koya society. The funeral ceremony among the Koyas is strikingly peculiar. The corpse is carried on a cot accompanied by the kinsmen and villagers including women. They symbolically offer material objects like grains, liquor, new clothes, money and a cow's tail by placing them on a cot besides the corpse and the whole cot is placed on the pyre with the feet towards the west. They generally burn the corpse. The corpses of pregnant women and children below five months old are buried. They have a ceremony on the eleventh day after the death which is called "Dinalu". At this time they believe that the spirit of the dead comes back and resides in the earthern pot called "Aanakunda". The occasion of death is a common concern in which all the relatives share the burden and expenditure of the family of the deceased. After the ceremony is over, they sing, dance and have feasts.
The Koyas are thickly populated in the Chinthur mandal of Bhadrachalam agency in Andhra Pradesh. This area is part of the thick forest region that extends along the left bank of the Godavari river.
The major forest species are teak, bamboo, maddi and cashew. The minor forest produce includes beedi leaves, gum, honey and tamarind. Sorghum is the staple crop and rice and tobacco are grown along the river banks. There are 89 Koya villages and a small town in this mandal with density of population being 123 persons per sq.km. Agriculture is totally dependent on rains. Owing to small land holdings (the average land-holding per family is 2.0 acres wet and 4.1 acres dry land) and no irrigation facilities, above 55 percent of the families continue practicing slash and burn (podu) cultivation, while 10 percent of the population are landless. Due to the limited availability of land for cultivation, total dependence on rain for irrigation and the growing population pressure over the Koya land, the agriculture of the Koyas has become predominantly a subsistence way of farming. The ecological surroundings — especially forests — provide the Koyas with food, beverages, fodder, shelter and medicinal herbs.
Though the Koyas are farmers by occupation, most of their food supplies are drawn from the forest. Roots and fruits form their subsidiary food. They eat Keski dumpa and Karsi dumpa, which are the common roots available in this region. They cut these roots into pieces, keep them in running water for three days and boil them to make them edible. During drought years the Koyas go in groups into the forest to collect these roots in large quantities.
The Koyas also collect various forest products to supplement their meagre agricultural returns. They sell these products in the weekly shandy and buy other required commodities. There is no other monetary transaction among the Koyas except in the shandy.
Their staple diet is sorghum. They grow several varieties of sorghum (Konda Jonna, Pacha jonna, etc.) and a few pulses. Rice is also grown in a few wetlands. Podu — the slash and burn cultivation — is the traditional mode of agriculture for the Koyas. They clear the jungle on hillslopes, burn the trees and grow crops in the ashes. In the past, they used to cultivate a piece of land for two to three years and leave it fallow for eight to ten years. Now, the fallow period has been reduced to two to three years due to the restrictions on podu and the increase in population among the Koyas. Most peasant families among the Koyas practice podu. They regard slash and burn cultivation as a necessary evil and resort to it solely for their survival.
The overall land under settled cultivation is barely seven percent. Rice is generally preferred in wetlands, although few families have recently started cultivating some commercial crops. On the whole only 0.4% of the agricultural produce is sold. In the majority of cases, the rate of yields do not even meet the requirements of the farmers.
The size and nature of the land and environmental conditions made agriculture labour-intensive, demanding co-operation of the kinsmen and the villagers in undertaking agricultural operations. Joint cultivation, known as "Pottu Vyavasayam" is a common practice among the Koyas. Landless families go with their agricultural implements and join those who own land. The yield is shared between the landowner and others who have contributed labour. This practice ensures unity within the group and avoids further division of land holdings.
The Koyas are expert hunters and the good hunters are looked upon as heroes. For the Koyas, hunting is an essential skill for food as well as for defence from wild animals in the forest. On the occasion of the "Vijja Pandum" (the festival of seeds), Koyas go hunting in groups.
Fish is another important food for the Koyas. In villages near rivers, quite often fish is a meal for every family. They ensure fair share of fish to all. The Koyas use various types of nets tied to bamboo poles which are used in still waters.
During the toddy palm season, every Koya family lives mainly on palm juice for almost four months. For them palm juice is not just a beverage, but also a complete food. On average, every Koya family owns at least four to eight palm trees. Palm juice is consumed three to four times a day in large community gatherings known as "gujjadis".
The Koyas consider the palm tree as a gift of nature and to secure this gift they worship the village Goddess "Muthyalamma".
On all social and religious occasion, liquor plays an important role among the Koyas. The "Ippa Sara" or the mohuva drink is purely an intoxicating beverage. The Koyas consume mohuva liquor to get relief from the physical hardship of the day and to withstand extreme variations in the climate.
The houses are built within one's own agricultural land. These are rectangular in fashion and are built of the material that is available from the forest. These houses are constructed on an elevation of two to three feet with walls made of bamboo, plastered with mud and roofed with palm leaves. The houses are highly functional and meet the requirements of a farmer's family. They are leak-proof, quite warm during winter and cool during summer.
Most of their festivals are related to agricultural operations. Kolupu is one such occasion which comes during November. The Koyas worship the Earth-Goddess "Bhudevi" and they enlist the co-operation of the Goddess by offering animal sacrifices during the festival. They believe that sowing seeds that are soaked in sacrificial blood brings them good crops.
The Koyas deify their ancestors and worship them on all social occasions. All the clan members join together to worship their ancestors.
The Koyas believe in four guardian deities who are supposed to control the four directions. The Koya pantheon consists of various gods and goddesses who are the symbols of various forces. Among them Bhima, Muthyalamma, Sammakka and Sarakka are worshipped by non-tribuals of the surrounding regions as well.
The sense of supernaturalism is strongly rooted in the Koya's concept of nature. They worship personal spirits which are thought to animate nature. They also believe in evil spirits that are dangerous to the harmony of group life. The traditional medicine man "Buggivadde" and the sorcerer "Vejji" are supposed to ward off all kinds of evil spirits.
The Koyas celebrate festivals indicating the onset of particular seasons for tapping palm juice, collecting mohuva flower, beginning agricultural operations, hunting and fishing.
Through their cultural practices, the Koyas exercise communal control over their means of production. They collectively manage their natural resources, ensuring equal opportunity to all.
Every koya village is a socio-political unit and also a part of a larger social and territorial unit called "Mutha", a cluster of villages linked by economic, political and kinship ties. In the past, a Koya village consisted of members of a single clan only. Now it has transformed into multi-clan composition due to various factors such as growing population pressure on the land, non-tribal migration, alienation of tribals from forests and massive industrial deforestation.
The customary law of the Koyas ensures communal ownership of natural resources administered by the village headman known as "Pedda". The pedda is the senior-most person who first settled in the village and established the village Goddess. The position is held by descendents of the same family. Pedda controls the social, political and religious activities in the village. The village panchayat consisting of the other members (Pina pedda, Vepari, Pujari, etc.) deals with minor problems. Sometimes the pedda holds two or three positions in a panchayat. The village panchayat is the final authority over all issues in a village. The overall judicial system of a cluster of villages is maintained by the "Samithi Poyee", a judicial head who is assisted by the people known as "Veparis". Issues are dealt with in co-operation with the village panchayat and this makes every village a part of a wider cluster known as mutha and is held by tribal norms.
The political system of the Koyas is slowly accommodating the process of colonization of agency tracts by non-tribals. The traditional systems of mutha and panchayat are slowly losing their autonomy. Among the Koyas there has been an increase in landless population in recent years. Many of the landless are becoming agricultural labourers. In Chinthur mandal, about ten percent of the population work as wage labourers in the forest for more than six months a year. Though the Koyas have the tradition of safeguarding their forests, due to the conditions of alienation from the land and forests, they are now slowly being reduced to wage labourers, engaged in cutting and loading of timber, firewood and bamboo for industrial requirements. This work is purely temporary and does not provide any steady income. There are several changes occurring in the subsistence pattern among the Koyas. The changes in occupational pattern from agriculture to wage labour are leading to changes in their social traditions.
There are also servere disturbances in marital life due to non-tribal exploitation of women. The panchayat system now is generally weak in arresting non-tribal intrusion and exploitation. There is a process of low productivity trap in agriculture of the Koyas which is a consequence of a complex set of phenomena. The population pressure, the limited availability of land for cultivation, total dependence on rain for irrigation, industrial deforestation and the modernization and "development" process have all affected the autonomy of the Koyas and the integrity of the traditional social system is fast being broken down and is rapidly fading away.
But through generations of trial and error in the face of adverse conditions of the climate and the cultural contact with non-tribals, the Koyas have evolved a unique pattern of adaptation to the environment through their various internal social arrangements and belief system. With every change in the productive technology and economy there will be a corresponding change in man's dependence on nature and with every change in the relationship between man and his environment there is a change in the man to man relationship. Again, with every change in man's relationship to nature there is a corresponding change with man's relationship with his supernatural world.
Photography and text © 2004, Sathya Mohan P.V. All rights reserved.