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ETHNONYMS: Cohatur, Kohatur, Kotar, Koter, Kothur

[Editor's Note: In this article the established spellings of Kota words have been retained, along with diacritical marks, to facilitate reference to M. B. Emeneau's seminal publications on the Kota language.]


Identification. The Kotas are one of several small communities thought to be indigenous to the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu in south India. The Indian government classifies the Kotas as a Scheduled Tribe. Their name "Kota" (Kota) was given by outsiders. They call themselves Kov. Although the Kotas are few in number they have wide visibility in the urbanizing Nilgiris. Once looked down upon as servants and eaters of carrion and buffalo flesh, the Kotas have managed to succeed in a number of occupations outside their traditional domain. They often work as head postmasters, doctors, Government employees, and bankers and in other professional positions. Educational standards are also rising. No doubt the Kotas' success in a modern Indian setting is somehow related to the jack-of-all-trades character they always seem to have maintained. By shunning service relationships with the Badagas and Todas they have also removed the source of what they considered ill treatment on the part of these two local communities.

Location. They occupy seven villages distributed rather widely throughout the Nilgiris District. Each village is situated near present or former settlements of Badagas, Todas, or Kurumbas.

Demography. By their own estimates in 1990 the Kotas number 1,500less than one-quarter of one percent of the district population of 1981, and an even smaller percentage today. Of these roughly 1,500 Kotas, probably fewer than 100 live in cities outside the Nilgiri District. Epidemics and other unstable health conditionsand, possibly, endogamous Marriage practices among so few peoplehave resulted in relatively stable population figures over the past 150 years. Kota proverbs and songs indicate a strong concern for this lack of growth. Present sanitary conditions and general standards of living in the village are higher than those of other tribes and are continuing to improve. The population is also growing, but not dramatically.

Linguistic Affiliation. Kotas speak the Kota language or Ko-v Ma-nt, a Dravidian language closely related to Toda and also having strong linguistic affiliations with very early Tamil and Malayalam. All Kotas speak Badaga and Tamil also, as historically they have had to communicate with outsiders in languages other than their own.

History and Cultural Relations

While some scholars and members of Nilgiri communities maintain that the Kotas were placed in the Nilgiris to render services for their neighbors, the Kotas believe themselves to be autochthons. They describe a god who created the Kotas, Todas, and Kurumbas and taught them the skills they traditionally practiced in the Nilgiris. For the neighboring Communities the Kotas provided music, iron articles and silver ornaments, baskets, pottery, and a variety of other specialized goods and services. With the change to a monetary and Market economy these services are no longer required, and the vast increase in the Badaga population has made close reciprocal relationships impossible. The knowledge of many of these traditional practices among the Kotas is gradually being lost, and as yet no internal motivation has surfaced to replace lost contexts or encourage the maintenance of these arts and crafts.


Six villages of the Kotas host 100-300 people in roughly twenty-five to sixty-five houses; while only a few families still inhabit the seventh village, Kala-c (or Gudalur Kokal). The houses are arranged in rows, called ke-rs, which correspond to exogamous social units. Kota villages are called ko-ka-l, literally "Kota leg," or the place where Kotas planted their feet. The pattern of settlement is believed to have been determined by a cow who led the Kotas through the Nilgiris and stopped in various places to indicate various sites for the Villages. The following are the seven Kota villages listed in the order some Kotas believe they came into existence (Anglo-Badaga names as commonly rendered are given in parentheses): Me-na-r (Kunda Kotagiri), Kolme-1 (Kollimalai), Kurgo-j (Sholur Kokal), Ticga-r (Trichigadi), Porga-r (Kotagiri), Kina-r (Kil Kotagiri), and Kala-c (Gudalur Kokal). In earlier times Kota houses were wattle and daub with thatched roofs, but these have been gradually replaced with modern houses identical to those of their Nilgiri neighbors. These newer houses are of whitewashed cement and brick with gabled roofs, made of corrugated zinc and/or baked clay tiles, or flat cement roofs such as those found on the plains. The number and arrangement of rooms has also changed in recent times. An old-fashioned Kota house consists of a front room, containing a raised platform on the left for sitting and sleeping and a hole in the floor for pounding, a kitchen, located to the right of the front room and containing a wood stove along the wall opposite the arched entrance, and a back room for bathing. Each room and parts of each room have particular names and functions. The walls have special crevices for oil lamps and wood, and other articles are often stored in rafters above the kitchen. In the past Kotas had no toilets and special huts were built for women to stay in while menstruating. Some of the earlier modern Kota houses are also built according to a relatively uniform pattern. These houses contain an entrance hall where shoes and other articles are kept, a small room on the right for entertaining guests, a main living room beyond the front room with a bedroom attached to that, and finally a kitchen with a bathing area in the rear. Some of these houses represent remodeled houses of the older type.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Kotas, being agriculturalists, usually grow enough beans, potatoes, and carrots to suit their needs. Other vegetables and rice are purchased in the market. In earlier days the Kotas cultivated millet or relied on their Badaga neighbors for regular supplies of grain in return for their services. Now most Kotas own some landeven if they live in a nearby cityand cultivate tea, a commodity that fetches more than four times the price of any other cash crop. The Kotas, like most of India's cultivators, use chemical fertilizers with little concern for the effects on their health or the environment. Kotas keep buffalo and cows for producing milk, butter, and curds, but they no longer keep buffalo and never keep cows for meat or sacrificial purposes. Domestic dogs and cats are not uncommon and chickens can be seen about the village. Other animals used for food are usually purchased. Sheep raising and beekeeping have also been reported. The Kotas' traditional staple was a type of millet known as vatamk (Italian millet). This food is a must on ceremonial occasions today, but on a daily basis Kotas prefer rice. Idlis and dosais the common light meals throughout the south of Indiaare rarely served. A typical day's menu comprises two to three meals of rice (or other grain) eaten with udk, a thick soup of pulses and vegetables in a tamarind broth flavored with chilies, salt, and other Common south Indian spices. A meal is sometimes supplemented with an omelet, fruits, papadams (fried or grilled breads similar to tortillas), and pickles, especially if guests are present. Although the Kotas are not vegetarians they seldom eat beef. Mutton or chicken are regularly offered to some of the Hindu deities the Kotas have introduced into their villages. Raw vegetables are seldom eaten at meals but people commonly eat leaves and other vegetation while out walking or working in the fields. Alcohol abuse is a problem in some Kota villages but is not as widespread as among some of the other local tribes. Opium use is common but secretive. The government provides opium rations to the tribes but illegal cultivation also occurs. Other drug use is virtually absent. Cigarette and beedi (a small, leaf-rolled cigarette) smoking is common. Chewing tobacco is distributed at certain festival times but few people take it habitually.

Industrial Arts. Kota men have traditionally specialized in blacksmithing, silversmithing, roof thatching, basket making, wood-and leatherworking, and musical-instrument making. The skill for these crafts is often passed from father to son but almost anyone, except for priests in some cases, can do these jobs. Women make pottery for domestic and ceremonial purposes. In earlier times Kotas are said to have extracted ore from rocks quarried in the area; nowadays iron is purchased from the market in bar form or in various unrefined shapes, such as an unsharpened saw. Carpentry is still practiced but few artisans can carve with the skill displayed on old Kota door frames and on the stone pillars in front of their temples. A few artisans still produce fine hand-carved rifle butts and double-reed instruments (kol ). Baskets are usually purchased from the market or from wandering merchants, but Kotamade baskets called kik are necessary on certain ceremonial occasions. Hides from goats and oxen are necessary for the production of their drums, the tabatk, e-rtabatk, kinvar, and do-par. Their long curved horns, called kob, used to be fashioned of buffalo horn. Now they are made of brass and Purchased from the Coimbatore Plains.

Trade. Until the 1930s the Kotas maintained a close interdependent relationship with the Todas, Badagas, and Kurumbas. Each Kota village was located near settlements of other communities and each household had specific Members of these communities on whom they depended and who depended upon them. Kota music was an essential at Badaga and Toda funerals and commonly performed on festive occasions as well. The Todas supplied dairy products and the Badagas provided grain and cloth. Kurumbas, who were feared for alleged witchcraft, were often village sentries and healers and also provided forest products for the other communities. Partly because the Kotas ate buffalo fleshand reportedly even carrionthe Badagas and Todas looked down upon them, but the Kotas did not and do not accept the lowly position accorded them. They used to sacrifice buffalo at their own funerals and accept sacrificed buffalo as payment for their musical and other ritual services at Toda funerals. To explain this some Kotas claim they were originally vegetarians compelled to eat meat because the Todas had no other means of paying them for their services. Today, to show their rejection of this locally despised practice, the Kotas neither play for Toda funerals nor sacrifice buffalo themselves. In addition to those with the Todas, Badagas, and Kurumbas, some minor trade relations also existed with other Nilgiri tribes, but these transactions received little attention in the early colonial and anthropological literature. Items from the plains were procured from itinerant Chettis directly or through Badaga mediaries. Kota music has been largely replaced by Irula, Kurumba, Tamil, or Kanarese bands and sometimes by semi-Western bands or recorded film music. Musicians are remunerated in cash, food, and drink. Kotas are occasionally hired by Tamils and are usually paid more than other tribals for their services.

Division of Labor. In agricultural tasks the women ordinarily weed the fields, then the men till the soil, both sexes harrow and furrow, and finally women usually sow the seeds. Wood-and metalworking and the playing of musical instruments are the exclusive domain of men. In religious Ceremonies both the priests and their wives, as well as other functionaries, have specific duties. Women's duties include collecting clay, making pottery, collecting water, preparing food for cooking, and cooking (though men also do cook). Men and women are further differentiated by the tunes used for their dances and by the dances themselves. Men always dance before women, and at the closing of larger festivals a day is devoted to women's singing and dancing. This is considered an auspicious ending (mangalam ).

Land Tenure. The Kotas claim they have owned the land near their villages from time immemorial. Now they have also bought new lands some distance away from their villages. When Tipu Sultan's reign touched the Nilgiris the Kotas had to pay land tax to one of his ministers. Even today the rock can be seen in Kolme-1 on which the Kota king and Tipu's minister sat while conducting their transactions. Fields are terraced or sloped and marked by boundaries of fencing, vegetation, embankments of soil, or other available means. Because land tends to remain with the family, the records of ownership also provide valuable genealogical information.


Kin Groups and Descent. Each village comprises three exogamous divisions organized in three sets of house clusters called ke-rs. The clans do not extend beyond the village, though ke-r names may be common to several villages. Each ke-r shares a common ancestor, but only a few elders can recollect the relationships among the various families beyond two or three generations. Members of these ke-rs sometimes play specialized roles in ritual and compete against one another in ritual games. The ke-r as a spatiosocial entity is also highlighted in "green" and "dry" funerals (discussed later), where music and particular ceremonies are conducted while the corpse lies on a cot in the ke-r in which he or she lived. Although there is a strong connection between exogamous divisions and occupation of space in the village, some exceptions are possible. If space is a problem, sometimes a house is built in a ke-r other than a man's own; in this case the man still belongs to his natal division. The change in space does not alter his kin affiliations. Another system of kin groups revolves around the notion of family or kuyt. This classification seems to be largely defunct as a system of ritual differentiation except in a few villagesa situation further complicated by the fact that a kuyt size can range from a family of three or four members to the members of an entire ke-r. The head priests (mundika-no-n ) and headmen (gotga-rn ) usually belong to particular kuyts. Other principles of succession are less rigid.

Men belong to their father's ke-r, kuyt, and village; women, after marriage, belong to those of their husband.

Kinship Terminology. Kota kinship terminology, like most Dravidian systems, classifies relatives into those who are marriageable and those who are not. Because a father's brothers are classificatory fathers, the children of brothers cannot marry. Likewise the children of sisters cannot marry. Cross-cousin marriages, however, are common and indeed preferred. The following are a few Kota kinship terms of reference (sometimes kin are addressed by different terms): pe-ri-n father's father, mother's father; pe-rav father's mother, mother's mother; ayn father, mother's sister's husband; av mother, father's brother's wife; an elder brother; kara-l younger brother.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. One cannot marry parallel cousinsthat is, mother's sister's children or father's brother's childrenbecause they are classificatory brothers and sisters. And Because ke-rs are patrilineal and patrilocal units, this means Kotas are generally forbidden to marry anyone born in their natal ke-r. Kotas, like most communities in south India, prefer marriages between close cross cousins; but because most marriages are not arranged, young people have some leeway in choosing acceptable partners from other ke-rs or from other Kota villages. Traditionally the boy asks the girl's father for permission to marry. The father must ask his daughter whether she wishes to marry the boy, and if so, the boy must give a token 1.25 rupees to the father. Nowadays the girl's family may give money or goods to the married couple, but dowry is not part of the traditional system. In fact the entire ceremony is very simple. Unlike most south Indian Communities music is not played, except to welcome the wedding party to the village. Some Kotas now host large receptions and broadcast film music to celebrate their weddings, but this is acknowledged to be a recent innovation.

Each of the three ke-rs or "streets" in each Kota village is exogamous. A man may marry a second wife if the first wife does not bear sons. In earlier days polyandry was also practiced. A bride generally moves to the ke-r of her husband, but now houses are being built in other ke-rs or even outside the confines of the ke-rs in a village, and a number of Kotas live in other Indian cities. In these situations patrilocality loses its relevance. If a husband dies, a young widow may sometimes remain in the household of or live with support from her husband's family. Divorce is common and no stigma is attached to it. Sometimes a divorced wife will live alone and sometimes she will remarry. Usually the children remain in the father's family and custody.

Domestic Unit. Three generations sometimes live in the same house, especially if the house is big enough. But more commonly today, a young couple will move into a house of their own. The youngest son is likely to remain in the Household of his parents because he inherits the house when his Father dies (ultimogeniture). Four to five persons to a house is a probable average.

Inheritance. Land and property are usually divided evenly among a man's sons or specified male or female heirs, but the youngest son inherits the house.

Socialization. Women give birth either in a hospital or in a special hut called kunpay. The child is named about ten days after birth. This ceremony, which is considered in some ways more important than a marriage, is attended by the whole Village and relatives from other villages. An elder tells the child his or her name while feeding it water and a few crumbs of cooked millet (ta-ym ayk ). Then a lock of the baby's hair is placed in leaves and cow dung and the whole thing is tossed away. Head shaving is another rite of initiation. At the age of 16 all but a tuft (kot ) of hair is shaved off a boy's head, and all but a rim (mungot ) of hair is shaved from a girl's scalp. Ear piercing of several boys and girls of different ages usually occurs in the context of other festivals such as those honoring Hindu deities. Tattooing was a traditional practice, which, along with head shaving, is uncommon among modern Kotas. Children attend school from the age of about 6 to the age of 16, although an increasing number of men and women are completing higher studies. Young children usually stay around the village with their parents, relatives, or neighbors and help with household work when they are old enough. As marriages are not arranged, boys and girls are given some leeway to develop friendships, which may later develop into Marriage. In the 1930s there were still special youth houses called erm pay where young married and unmarried couples would sing, play music, tell stories, and become intimate with one another. Such houses are not in evidence today. Families living outside the seven villages maintain strong links with their village and the children of these families continue to learn the Kota language as a first language and Tamil as a second. Although Kota lullabies are sung to children there are no special Kota songs children themselves sing. Like many other Indian children they like to sing popular Tamil and Hindi songs and imitate film actors; their games include those common to the subcontinent and uniquely Kota games; some games are played only during particular festivals.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Kotas are socially differentiated by families, clans (or ke-rs), and villages. The precise manner in which these differentiations are articulated varies from Village to village. Certain families and/or clans share particular ceremonial responsibilities while others may or may not play particular ritual roles. Oral history indicates the nature of these responsibilities, and the assignment of ritual roles also varies with time. The Kotas do not perceive their community as divided by anything like Hindu castes (jati), so although social differentiation exists there is no formal hierarchy. Ritual responsibilities are not necessarily seen as a form of social power. Little formal differentiation exists at the village level, though each village has what might be called a "reputation," which may have social ramifications when villagers meet. For example, Ticga-r is famous for women's song and dance, the "dry" funeral is famous in Me-na-r, and the Kamatra-ya festival and instrumental music are famous in Kolme-l.

Political Organization. Each village is led by a headman or treasurer called gotga-rn; in Me-na-r there is also a gotga-rn for all the seven villages. Whenever a dispute arises the gotga-rn calls a meeting (ku-) and adjudicates. Within a village the gotga-rn and elders decide when festivals are to be held and how to solve problems in the community.

Social Control. Justice is meted out within the larger Indian judicial system, but local decisionsespecially those relating to the enforcement of Kota cultural dictatesare handled by the village ku-t.

Conflict. There is no solid evidence of warfare in the Nilgiris involving the Kotas and other tribes. They claim, however, that the ritual drum, e-rtabatk, was originally used in battle.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Kotas consider themselves Hindus and no Kotas have gone on record as converting to any other Religion, although one or two marriages have reportedly occurred between Kotas and Christians. The major Kota deities are A-yno-r (father god) and Amno-r (mother goddess). A-yno-r, also called Kamati-cvara or Kamatra-ya in some villages, is identified with the Hindu god Shiva. Some villages have a "big" and "small" A-yno-r (Doda-yno-r and Kuna-yno-r), but there is only one version of the goddess. Kana-tra-ya is a deity in the form of a stone and is found only in Ticga-r. Generally, Kota deities have no anthropomorphic representation, although once a year faces of silver ornaments are pasted onto the front of the A-yno-r and Amno-r temples. Today temples for the Hindu deities Krishna, Rangarama, Munisvara, Badrakaliamman, and Mariamman have also been erected by the Kotas, each in response to a particular need or supernatural event in the village.

Religious Practitioners. For ceremonies relating to their indigenous deities the Kotas have two types of priest. The mundika-no-n, the primary priest, leads the Kotas in all important community activities. The other priest, the te-rka-ran, acts as a vehicle through which god (so-ym ) communicates with the people. The te-rka-ran effects such communication by becoming possessed and responding to questions, which are usually posed by male elders. Possession occurs in established spatiotemporal contexts for which instrumental musicians (kolvar ) play particular tunes (kol ) and rhythms (da-k ). The deity "chooses" the te-rka-ran initially through causing him to be possessed and speaking through him. Then the mundika-no-n is named by the deity via the te-rka-ran. Although there is a special te-rka-ran family (kuyt) in some Villages, the te-rka-ran may also belong to a different family. The mundika-no-n can only come from the mundika-no-n family.

A village should have a te-rka-ran and mundika-no-n for each of their two or three indigenous Kota temples. For one reason or another several villages have been unable to replace all their priests in recent years. A peculiar feature of Kota Priesthood is the participation of the wives of the priests. In fact these women are so important that a priest can no longer hold office if his wife dies. In major ceremonies not only the priests' wives, but also the gotga-rn's wife and those of the other ceremonial helpers (ca-tranga-rn ) play instrumental roles. Whereas most practitioners are adults, young boys are essential in several ceremonies. For example, in death Ceremonies a young boy called tic vec mog acts as head priest and, among other things, lights the funeral pyre. The Kota priests for widely recognized Hindu deities are not related to the te-rka-ran or mundika-no-n and have no ritual interaction with them. However, sometimes the wives of these priests, like those of their counterparts, play an integral role in the Rituals performed by their husbands.

Ceremonies. The major yearly festivals are the Kamatra-ya festival, which takes place in December or January and is three to thirteen days long depending on the village; and the annual varalda-v or "dry" funeral, which usually takes places before Kamatra-ya (recently this ceremony has been discontinued in some villages). Other festivals include Pabm, Ye-r ca-tram, Vei aytd ca-tram (agricultural festivals), and the milk ceremony (Pa-1 ca-tram). This latter festival, seen as one of the most solemn, is not celebrated with music or dance. Ceremonies are enacted along Hindu lines for recently introduced Hindu deities, although the actual ca-trams or rituals are often revealed to the concerned priest during trance. There are yearly festivals for each Hindu god worshiped by the Kotas but not for each indigenous Kota deity individuallyexcept for Kana-tra-ya in Ticga-r. His festival is associated with the bringing of rain. While Kotas from outside villages may sometimes attend, there is no occasion that requires the attendance of all Kotas and no festival that is celebrated exactly the same way in two villages.

Medicine. The Kotas have indigenous remedies for such ailments as broken bones, diarrhea, boils, and weariness. Many of the plants used in Kota medicine are becoming difficult to find because the Nilgiri ecology has been altered drastically in the last half-century. Kotas, like many educated Indians, have access to and place their trust in allopathic medicine, partly because it is associated with the West, Science, and upward mobility. At this time no system of "faith" healing seems to be in existence, but stories are still told of various afflictions that were in fact signs that the deity wanted to speak through the patient, wished a temple to be built, or had some other request. Kotas do not consider themselves adept at magic but have traditionally feared the Kurumbas and Irulas for their sorcery. They still believe themselves to be the "guinea pigs" on which the Kurumba sorcerers test their spells.

Death and Afterlife. The ordinary or "green" (pac ) Funeral is a rather simple ceremony led by a small boy known as the "fire-keeping boy" (tic vec mog), who is from the deceased's family. Kotas are cremated in a special place called the dav nar (death region), and a portion of the forehead bone is saved if the village of the deceased performs the annual "dry" funeral, or varalda-v. Each step of both the "green" funeral and the "dry" funeral is highly articulated by means of special musical tunes played on the double-reed instrument, kol, and rhythms on the barrel drums, do-par and kinvar, and the frame drum, tabatk. The tunes themselves are called du-kd kol (sad tunes), ke-r kol (badness tunes), or da-v kol (funeral or death tunes). These tunes should not be played except at funerals. The "dry" funeral is an event of up to ten days, which is seen to remove karmandram, inauspiciousness or evil caused by death. Only after performing this festival can the yearly cycle of festivals begin. Due to the expense involved, and, possibly, an unwillingness to emphasize death-related rituals in front of Hindu neighbors, villages are Beginning to discontinue the ceremony or to celebrate it only in extreme cases, such as after a priest has died. Before going to the dav nar or varalda-v nar (death region), the ceremonies are carried out in the ke-r in which the deceased lived.

See also Badaga; Toda


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