Deep in the sanctum of his 150-year-old ancestral home, Lokesh Achappa is surrounded by weapons. Dressed in a Kupya, the traditional Coorgi outfit of knee-length black overcoat, a gold and maroon sash with an ornate, carved silver dagger tucked in its folds, Achappa prays to an array of weapons: an antique double-barrel, a .22 mm rifle, traditional daggers and swords, all garlanded with flowers and smeared with sandalwood paste.
Once the ritual is complete, he steps out of the house, and a series of thundering gun shots reverberate across the valley.
Coorg, a district in Karnataka famous for its coffee, is home to the Kodavas, a martial hill tribe with a population of less than six lakh. Historically, the community has shared a deep connection with its weapons. Valiant guerrilla fighters and agriculturists, the Kodavas once defended territories with locally made bow-and-arrows. With the advent of firearms, guns became central to Kondava life. Weapons appear frequently in important social customs: births and deaths in the Kodava tribe are announced with gunfire, every newborn touches a bow and arrow, as initiation into the tribe. At the annual harvest festival of Puttari, one of the most important events on the Kodavas festival calendar, everyone in the valley opens fire.
Weapons are also celebrated at Kailpodh, the annual Kodavas (or Coorgi) festival in the first week of September which marks the end of hardships for the agrarian community – once the paddy has been transplanted. During the festival, Kodavas clean and worship weapons to express their gratitude for the protection they have offered.
“The period is a time for jubilation when distant families get together," local resident Ashik Appanna explained.
With the tightening of gun regulation laws, the ban on hunting, and due to large-scale migration of younger generation Coorgis, many have predicted that the Kodava weapon culture will disappear altogether. Elders of the Kodava community are hoping that festivals like Kailpodh will encourage young Kodavas to return to their traditional shooting skills.
Gun Rights and Regulations
In 1861, the British administrators granted Kodavas an exemption from the Arms Act, for their support to the East India Company in administrative and military affairs.
“Gun ownership is a birthright for us,” said Appanna Bacharinanyanda, an 80-year-old retired lecturer who exhibits antique Kodava weapons and utensils in his front yard every Kailpodh.
Bacharinanyanda says the Kodavas never "misuse" guns. He expresses a deep apprehension over the government’s attempts at over-regulating weapons: “These days authorities have started demanding bribes to grant us the exemption certificate, which is completely unacceptable.”
With the Wildlife Protection Act of 1971, hunting has been prohibited in India. The legislation came as a big blow to the Kodavas, for whom hunting was an integral part of life and survival.
Naveen Bidappa, a young Kodava lawyer, pointed to a photograph in his house of a man named Tiger Thimmaiah. In the picture, Thimmaiah stood next to a tiger he had killed and then tied to a tree.
“He shot 12 tigers, hence the name,” smiled Bidappa.
Since tigers posed the biggest menace for livestock, tiger hunters were once highly venerated figures in the Kodavas society.
“Narimangala (tiger-marriage) was a big tradition in the olden days," he said. “The tiger hunter was married to the tiger he killed, and villagers would offer them gifts and cash as a mark of respect.”
Changing relevance of gun culture
In early September, scores of Kodava youth assembled at a school ground at the Coorgi village of Chettali. Each carried a gun.
Bidappa, a 70-year-old elder from the community, walked into the ground filled with curious onlookers, and shot a coconut hung several yards away to inaugurate the annual shooting competition that coincides with Kailpodh. He hit the bulls-eye with a single shot.
“Shooting skills are in our blood,” he said, shrugging at the crowd’s deafening cheers.
Over the last few years, shooting competitions that were once limited to households have turned into larger events, with an increasing number of shooting enthusiasts showing up from all over Coorg.
“Our aim is to prepare and pass down shooting skills to the younger generation,” Bidappa said.
Over the next five years, local shooting competition organisers plan to develop a shooting range in the village to groom young shooters, and train them for national shooting competitions.
“Festivals such as Kailpodh have found a new meaning in changing circumstances,” he said.
Fifteen-year-old Lakshan Ayyappa is a widely recognised face at Kodavas shooting competitions. He is the great-grandson of Tiger Thimmaiah, but has also established himself as an ace shooter in his own right – he has won more local competition prizes than he can remember.
“My target is to make it for 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” he said. Ayyappa first learnt to shoot at the age of five. He was taught by his mother.
“Whenever I see a new gun, I discuss it with my dad,” he said. “I know everything about its make, calibre, range, the cartridges used. I feel by the time we are born, we are already half trained.”
Like in Punjab, it is usual for Kodava households to send a member of their family to join the military. Many attribute this to early affinity Kodava youngsters develop with weapons.
Shooting is not a male sport in the Kodavas tribe. Kodava women traditionally kept guns to protect their families when the men left for hunting and battle. Everyone from septuagenarian grandmothers to 16-year-old girls participate in local shooting competitions.
The large scale migration of young Kodavas has taken a toll on many of the tribe’s traditions, including the annual celebration of guns. Naveen Putharira, who moved to Bengaluru from Coorg with his family, says his son’s fascination with weapons is limited to the fact that his grandfather keeps a gun at home. He has never asked to use it.
“Progress has been made at the cost of our culture,” he sighed.
Several modern-day sports like shooting and archery have been born of indigenous communities across the world. In India, the attempts at unearthing such indigenous talents have been poor.
A few notable exceptions are people like Laxmirani Manji, from the Santhal tribe in Jharkhand who represented India in archery at the 2016 Rio Olymipcs, and Limba Ram of Ahari tribe in Rajasthan, an Arjuna awardee archer who represented India at three Olympics. If they are given enough support and attention, many modern-day Tiger Thimmaiahs might emerge from Coorg.