Koya Tribe and Their Culture


Koya language is a dialect of one of the main Dravidian languages ‘Gondi’. Gondi is widely spoken in many areas in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Maharastra, and Madhyapradesh. Koya language falls under South Eastern Gondi (SEG) that is spoken in the Bhadrachalam division of Khammam District, Adilabad district, and the Koraput in Orissa. Koya dialect is also termed as Gommu dialect.

Lifestyle of Koya Tribe: “Koya” tribes are primarily hunter gatherers. They live in thick forests in small hamlets. When we visit a tribal village we don’t see all the huts close to each other. Families that have the same surname build their huts at one place and form a cluster (Gommu). So we observe many such clusters scattered across the village. Though on the face of it, the Koyas look like a divided community since their houses look scattered across a particular area, theirs is a close knit community. They are peaceful and innocent people and do not know deception.  Though their houses are not close to each other, they regularly interact among themselves and maintain cordial relations.

Since they are primarily hunter-gatherers they frequently go on hunting and would bring some carcass of an edible animal which would be subsequently divided among the hunters who participated in the hunting expedition. But with the dwindling of the forest cover and the disappearance of wild animals, they started domesticating fowls, cows, goats, and pigs to cater to their protein dietary requirements. In some tribal hamlets, they find it difficult to get potable water. In such circumstances, they dig pits called “chalamas” and collect water from them. A “chalama” can be dug only in a dry river bed as groundwater can be found closer to the earth’s surface.  Though the forests are devoid of any wild animals even now the tribal people move around the forest to collect various types of forest produce such as honey, tamarind, biri leaves (used in the manufacturing of a kind of Cigar), the leaves used in making Patravali (Many Indians prefer disposable plates made of wild leaves which are called as“Vistarakulu” in local Telugu language) which are popularly known as “Tuniki aakulu”, a particular kind of grass called “Cheepuru gaddi” that is used in making broomsticks, and the forest fruits like Pariga pandlu, paala pandlu, tuniki pandlu (these are wild fruits and are not generally sold in the open market) and Emblics.

They grow “Toddy trees” a kind of palm tree that grows tall with leaves at their zenith. They extract a whitish sap that is known as ‘kallu’ which is a popular intoxicant for them They even collect palm fruit that are known as “munjalu” the whitish juicy kernels which are popular during summer and even many nontribes prefer to consume them to beat the heat. In the agency area, we find a particular kind of tree called “Yippa Chettu” which yields juicy yellowish sweet-tasting flowers known as “Yippa Pokkalu” that fall off from the tree when they are ripe and tribals collect them and dry them to be used in brewing liquor popularly known as “yippa saaraa”. They use a special kind of Jaggery known as black jaggery in brewing this liquor. The tribals consume a lot of this liquor which is hazardous and reduces their life expectancy. Even many of the women consume this liquor and fall prey to various diseases and many of them die young. These trees yield pods called “Yippa Kaayalu” when split into we find brownish-looking nuts that are broken and the whitish kernel is extracted. This whitish kernel is known as “Yippa baddalu” and they extract oil from them. This oil is used as edible oil by tribes. But these days very few tribes use this oil as it does not taste good. But the oil is used in the manufacturing of soaps and biodiesel.

These tribesmen knew agriculture, but their methods, to a great extent are primitive. They adopt a technique called shifting cultivation as part of which, they burn down a part of the forest and grow crops in it for some time. Once the soil loses its fertility they again shift to some other place and repeat the same. This kind of cultivation contributed to the large scale deforestation and thanks to the ITDA (Integrated Tribal Development Agency) which was started by the Government of India exclusively for the progress of the tribes, they started using some modern methods in cultivation like the usage of artificial fertilizers, High Yield Variety (HYV) seeds and pesticides. They even get many agricultural tools like power sprays to control pests and electric motors to irrigate their lands. But as their population is growing their land holdings are getting smaller and smaller and most of the tribesmen are small and marginal farmers. As far as the marketing of their produce is concerned, they sell it in the weekly trade fairs organized in some locations. Tribes carry their produce including the livestock and sell them in those fairs. Even the Government of Andhrapradesh had started an organization called “Girijan Corporation” and is marketing the products made by tribes under the brand name “Girijan”.

Their Culture: Tribes know how to co-exist with nature. In fact they are the children of nature. They have their own Gods, their own language, and their own dance form and musical instruments.

Nature worship is predominant in these tribes. They have their own pantheon of gods and goddesses like Mutyalamma and Poleramma. They perform festivals known as ‘Jataras’ as part of which they sacrifice fowls and other animals like goats. During these Jataras tribes get fully drunk, eat meat, and dance. Any important event in their community-whether it is marriage or funeral or Jatara they invariably consume meat, get fully drunk, and dance. Women sing “rela” songs which start something like “rela rela rela rela re re re rela…” and men beat special kind of drums that are huge in size called “Dolukoyyalu” and wear a special costume with turbans attached with bull horns. Some decades ago Koya men would attire in a small loincloth known as “Gochi” and women would wear a sari, but the way they would wear it was entirely different from the way the ladies from the forward communities wear, and very few women would wear jackets. But these days there is a sea change in their lifestyle. They started wearing synthetic saris in the way they are worn by the ladies of the other communities and the men especially the youth, became fashion buffs and started wearing jeans, tee shirts, and even sneakers. Some educated youth are able to get government jobs and are enjoying a reasonably good standard of living.

In the olden days if any member of the family would fall ill they would take him to a witch doctor known as “wejjivadu” and he would treat the patient in such a way that it would frighten the patient and the decease would aggravate. These witchdoctors smear themselves with a lot of vermilion and turmeric, hold neem branches and batter the patients with them. Some of the tribes are getting converted into Christianity as the missionaries are concentrating more on tribals. Proselytization has been happening on a large scale as the missionaries get a large amount of funds from foreign countries. The tribals who convert into Christianity consult the preachers who visit tribal hamlets at regular intervals for advice if any family member falls ill. So as far as health is concerned the tribals are not able to use the facilities created by the government, instead are losing their lives by entertaining superstitious attitudes. But the situation is slowly changing and these days they visit Primary Health Centers (PHCs) run by the government to receive treatment.

Education and modernity: In many tribal households there is tremendous amount of consciousness about the importance of getting their children educated. To fulfill this need, the ITDA had opened many tribal schools, where at least primary education is imparted. Many students including girls, after passing out from their schools go on to study intermediate and even undergraduate courses in the nearby educational institutions run by government.  As their incomes and consequently their purchasing power started growing, they are trying to match the living standards of the other forward communities. In this effort they buy many household appliances including many electronic gadgets. But when they go to nearby towns some unscrupulous vendors display and sell the sub standard products at exorbitant prices. As the tribes are not brand conscious and their awareness levels are low, they easily fall prey to these swindling traders.

In tribal community we rarely find domestic violence. Though men get fully drunk very often, they rarely harass or beat their wives. Men and women mingle freely in festivals and freely interact with opposite sex. But they remain loyal to their spouses to a great extent. If anybody maintains extra-marital relationships, the village elders pull them up and impose a penalty called “Tappu”. If they don’t pay up they would be ostracized from the community. In marriage ceremonies the village heads called “patels” play a lead role and officiate the proceedings of the ceremony. But these days many educated tribes started identifying themselves as Hindus and inviting the Brahmins to officiate the marriage ceremonies. The younger generation among the tribals is very concerned about their children and observing family planning.

Political Views: Most of the tribes subscribe to the communist ideology, though they are not very clear about the concepts like socialism, egalitarianism or dialectical materialism. Some of the tribal households even go to the extent of   hosting extremists like naxalites. Many tribes become scapegoats in the war between Police and Naxals.

So this is the life style of Koya speaking tribes in brief. As it has already been mentioned, these primitive tribes were primarily hunter gatherers, that means they, to a great extent depended on nature for their existence. This primitive nature of this tribe had a profound influence on their language.

Their Language:

All most all primitive tribals have very limited needs, and not educated. Their main activity is survival through finding food. So they did not find any need to develop a sophisticated language to meet their inter-personal communication requirements. May be that is the reason the Koya language has very limited number of expressions which could be termed as its own.

If we want to analyze the word power of any language we need to analyze their daily activities and based on their activities we can make out their requirements of interpersonal communication. After the tribals adopted modernity they started using many words which they borrowed from Telugu. The modern society made them change according to the changing times and they required many more expressions to put across their ideas. But some decades ago when they were still leading primitive tribal life of hunter gatherers their daily activities were limited and the expressions they needed for the purpose of interpersonal communication were also limited.

So if we analyze their activities some decades ago, the menfolk after they wake up would take their weapons (bows and arrows) and enter the forest. They search for wild animals and hunt down if they run into one and bring the carcass to their hamlet and divide it among themselves. In addition to hunting, they would also gather many things that are edible like wild fruit, honey, leaves useful for different purposes, cut trees for their wood, and even collect some herbs that have medicinal qualities. By evening they reach home and bake their meat on the fire and finish their supper. They even collect sap from palm trees called “Kallu” and get intoxicated and dance for some time before they would go to bed. Even the women would enter the forest and collect things like firewood, and fruit and take care of their children.

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I'm a news junkie and a compulsive blogger. I learn as if I was destined to live forever. My ideas always keep evolving. I got published in The Hindu, The New Indian Express and Telangana Today.
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