Thursday, 22 August 2019

The forgotten story of a migration: Nacharamma of South India

This is a story of Nacharamma (fictionised by me to some extent), which is not documented in any inscriptions or ancient texts, but has been told by the ancestors of the community, and also been researched by some historians like M Keshavaiah, Dr Pranarthiharan and a few others.

Overview: Around the early 17th century, the Pilgrims set to sail across the Atlantic to become the first settlers of America. Much before this, a small but no less interesting migration took place in the Southern India of a community called the 'Sankethis'.
It was the summer of 1420 CE, in a place called Sengottai, in Tamil Nadu, along the foothills of the Western Ghats bordering Kerala. The place was flourishing with knowledge of the Vedas where Agraharams were set up. One of the prominent communities of learned people was the Sankethi Iyer community, also known as Sangeethi, derived from the name of the place- Sengottai or Shankotta. Another theory says that they were  The group followed Adi Shankaracharya's Advaitha Vedanta.
  
Agraharam in Sengottai, Tamil Nadu

Ancient Shiva temple, Sengottai, Tamil Nadu
Even in such an enlightened society, there were internal politics and differences among the rich and poor. One such poor family was that of Nacharu, who lived with her husband and one son. One day they were visited by a sage who felt pity for the family and blessed them with something called as Jyotishmati Taila, or medicinal oil, which would have the property to kill one, madden another and make the third wise, hoping the latter effect would be produced on the boy,
But the boy it was who died, the man went mad, and the woman became wise. The woman's body became so hot after consuming the drink that she had to jump into a well to cool herself. She was pulled out of the well by the villagers the following day and by looking at her they instantly realized that she has been enlightened with wisdom. The well-to-do village families became jealous of Nacharu and this got cascaded among many learned men in the village. Soon they decided to hatch a plan and insult her in public. They approached her and suggested her to arrange a meal for the entire village as a penance of what happened to her husband and son. She accepted it in all innocence and was also presented a sari to be worn during the ceremony. Soon the wicked plot took shape and while serving ghee and rice, the sari slipped down because of the material much to the humiliation of Nacharu. The whole bunch of people started laughing and made fun of the poor lady.
At this point, the angered Nacharu rose up, and with her miraculous powers, cursed the entire bunch of people to become 'Chandals' if they were seen in the same spot again. Looking at the fury of the angered woman, the people immediately realised their mistake and apologised to her. She also ordered the women to tie their saris tightly round the body and they followed it. Just after this, Nacharu became calm and her eyes were filled with love for the people, and said that the curse was needed to end the patriarchy in the society and it was destined to be from Nacharu's lips. Since she had cursed the place, she decided to vacate the place and move to a newer land. Around 100 families joined her in this expedition. The route she took is still not completely known by the researchers, but looking at the dialect, I would think they crossed over the mountains to Kerala, via Thenmala, Thrissur, Palghat, Wayanad before entering Karnataka near Kodagu and continued their journey till they reached Kowshika in Hassan District of Karnataka (then under late Hoysala empire).  In their course of journey, they were preached life lessons and ways of living by Nacharu, who now had become Nacharamma. Their dialect got transitioned from Tamil to a mix of Tamil/Malayalam and then a strong influence of Kannada. They forgot the old Tamil script and adopted Kannada script to write their unique Sankethi dialect. Some of the dishes carry Kerala influence- for example, Sankethis cook Pulikeri (probably taken from Pulishery in Malayalam); Sankethis are also fond of 'Ottu Shavige', a form of 'Idiyappam', cooked both in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. One sentence which has words from Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada can be - 'Unde Peri Yenaki Gottille' meaning 'I don't know your name'.
The Hoysala era Lakshmi Keshava temple in Kowshika also has an idol of Nacharamma. Soon, few hundred more families fled Sengottai area and arrived at Bettadapura. Since both the groups came separately, they developed different versions of Sankethi dialects, now known as Kowshika Sankethi and Bettadapura Sankethi. In a few years, the Kowshika Sankethi population migrated to different parts of Karnataka like Mattur-Hosahalli, Chilkunda, Periyapatna, Basavapatna, Mosale, Somanahalli, Ananduru. The Bettadapura Sankethis moved more along the Cauvery banks and settled in Rudrapatna, Ramanathapura, Hanasoge, Agrahara, Saligrama, Harave.
A few years later, multiple families came from Tamil Nadu and settled in Lingadahalli in Malnad and Hiriyangala Sankethis in Hassan District. Sankethis have managed to retain their connection with music and Vedas, with several Carnatic musicians emerging from the community. For many years, Sankethi women have been tying the saris as ordered by the legendary Nacharamma, which is called as 'Gandi Saree'. Later Sankethis also got patronage from the Vijayanagar kings, and one inscription has been found at Hemmige in Mysore District, mentioning the grants given by Krishnadevaraya to the Sankethis.
Today, most of the Sankethis have been uprooted from their rural agricultural and Vedic background to urban life. A visit to a typical Sankethi house in Bangalore will greet one with 'Warango' meaning 'Welcome'. Their meal will have 'Chaar Saa' (word combination of Saaru in Kannada + Sadam in Tamil), Pulikeri, Oorvatlu and Gojju. Though the dialect of Sankethi is slowly dying, as more people from this generation are speaking the respective State language wherever they settle in, the legend of Nacharamma remains forever in their mind.

Bridge connecting Mattur and Hosahalli, Shimoga District, Karnataka

Tamboori temple dedicated to music, Rudrapatna, Karnataka


Adukale, meaning 'Kitchen', a Sankethi food outlet in Bangalore

My great grandmother wearing the traditional 'Gandi Saree'

3 comments:

  1. The write-up,by Arun Bharadwaj,on "Sankethi",made interesting reading. It gives vivid pictures of " Sankethi", from the beginning. Thanks to Arun for lovely article.

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  2. Such a nice read... its always important to document our history and know our roots.. you mentioned that not many details are documented, hence this is a really nice attempt for passing on the info to our next generation...

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  3. Thanks for sharing your info. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your further write ups thanks once again.

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