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Identification. The Koyas are a subdivision of the Gond tribes of central India. They are most closely related to the Bison Horn Maria Gonds of Bastar.

Location. The majority of Koyas live in Andhra Pradesh, but significant numbers also live in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Their habitat is the alluvial plain of the Godavari River and its tributaries and the forested hills that rise up on both sides of the Godavari River. The hills range from 60 to 1,200 meters above sea level and are cut by numerous short streams that are dry for much of the year but become impassable in the monsoon. Approximately one-third of this habitat is reserve forest administered by the Forestry Department of the state government. The alluvial soils are rich and fertile, but the hill soils are thin and subject to erosion when deforested. Rainfall is abundant but dependent on the monsoon. Koyas recognize three seasons: the hot weather (April-June), with highs regularly above 38° C; the rains (June-November) ; and the cold weather (December-February), when night temperatures are frequently around 4° C. Communication within this area is poor. Only one major road parallels the Godavari River for approximately 160 kilometers, and it is unusable during most of the rainy season. The hills away from the river are reachable only by cart trails and footpaths. The area is also isolated by its reputation as a center for endemic malaria.

Demography. In 1971 there were approximately 344,437 Koyas, of whom roughly 285,226 lived in Andhra Pradesh, 59,168 in Orissa, and the remainder in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Population density varies considerably between plains and hills, with the plains areas adjacent to the main road being much more densely populated.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Koyas speak a Central Dravidian language closely related to Gondi. The language, both in vocabulary and grammar, has been strongly influenced by Telugu, the language of the neighboring Hindu population. Most Koyas are bilingual in Gondi or Telugu, and in the plains villages many are now literate in Telugu. Koya has no literature of its own aside from two books of the Bible translated into Koya and printed in Telugu characters by Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century.

History and Cultural Relations

Despite its relative isolation, the Koya area has been the object of numerous population movements, including those of the Koyas themselves, who are probably migrants from the north. Today increasing numbers of Hindu castes from the south have been moving in and displacing the Koyas, their movement into the area facilitated by the construction of a bridge over the Godavari at Bhadrachallam in the 1970s. Historically, the Koyas were subjects of Zamindars (landlords) holding royal grants from various outside rulers, but apart from taxation and corvée, the Zamindars had relatively little authority and were able to exercise control only over the plains villages, and even there only sporadically. British rule over the area came about as a result of their exploitation of the coal deposits at Singareni and from their attempts to make the Godavari River commercially navigable year-round. Christian influence dates from the 1860s, when missionaries were brought in during the construction of an irrigation canal at Dummagudem. Many Koyas in the area around Dummagudem were converted to Christianity and there is still a sizable population of Christian Koyas in the villages near Dummagudem. Many of the Koyas living in the most accessible villages are now indistinguishable from Hindu castes. Much of their land has been appropriated by non-Koyas and many of their villages now have mixed populations of Koyas, Christian Koyas, and Hindus. Acculturation has been a longterm process, and many aspects of Koya ritual and mythology are now informed by Hindu ideas and practices. Since independence, the Indian government has increased its influence over the Koyas, and its various programs and institutions have brought them more and more into the orbit of Indian culture. Koyas have from time to time attempted to free themselves from foreign domination, and have mounted Numerous rebellions, most of which succeeded only for brief periods. The most recent rebellion occurred in the 1950s, when the majority of Koyas supported the Andhra Communist Party and joined in the violence that marked the relations Between Congress and Communist parties in Andhra at that time. Koyas continue to be resentful of outside encroachment and are especially unhappy about land alienation, restrictions on the use of reserve forests, restrictions on the distillation of drinking alcohol, the unjust protection of rapacious moneylenders, and revenue assessments.


Koya settlements are located near sources of dependable water supply such as ponds, streams, or a common well. Villages vary in size from three to more than sixty houses, but most often they consist of between thirty and forty houses with populations of approximately 200 persons. Larger Villages are usually characteristic of the riverine plain, and smaller ones of the hills and jungle. Villages are sometimes nucleated, especially in the plains, but they are more often composed of scattered hamlets containing two or more houses occupied by members of a minimal lineage and/or by in-marrying affines. Koya houses are constructed of wood, thatch, clay, and wattle. Houses of wealthy families are larger, have several rooms, thick mud walls, and deep, well-maintained thatch roofs. Poorer families live in small, one-room houses with wattle walls and roofs thinly thatched with palm fronds rather than thatching grass. The average house has two rooms, a loft and a veranda. One room contains the hearth where the family cooking is done, and is strictly Reserved to members of the family and minimal lineage. The ancestor pot, in which offerings are made to the ancestors, is kept near the hearth. Grain is stored in large baskets lined with mud and cow dung and kept in the loft. Houses are Usually windowless and are ventilated only by an opening under the eaves and by open doors. Scattered about the rooms and hanging from the rafters are the Koya family's few material possessionsclay pots for storing water, brass pots for carrying water, woven baskets, winnowing fans, brooms, a drum, bow and arrows, a spear, a small metal box for valuables, wooden stringed cots, mortar and pestles, grinding stone, hoe, sickles, and an axe. Bags of seed grain, drying gourds, tobacco, chilies, garlic, balls of twine, and bits of cloth dangle from the rafters and roof beams. Night light is provided by a small kerosene lamp or by a shallow saucer containing an oil-soaked wick. Adjacent to the house is a bathroom constructed from four unroofed thatch walls. A pigsty, goat shed, and open-air sheds used for sleeping in the hot weather stand near the house. Kitchen gardens for growing herbs, gourds, squash, beans, tomatoes, corn, tobacco, greens, and root vegetables are planted next to the houses and are sometimes fenced to protect them from chickens, which run free, and from other wild and domestic marauders. Culturally, houses are divided into two areas: the inner rooms where only family and close kin are allowed entry, and the veranda where strangers and guests may gather.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. A village consists of four culturally defined areas: houses and hamlets; cultivated and fallow fields; wasteland; and sacred places. Permanent fields are located near the water supply, below a dam, for example, where rice can be grown in fertilized and irrigated paddies. Away from the water source are the dry fields watered only by the monsoon where millets and legumes are grown. Each family typically has fields in both areas. Permanent wet field cultivation requires not only land but capital for plows, oxen, and hired labor at critical planting and harvesting times. It also necessitates extra labor in keeping up the dam, embankments, and irrigation channels. In the hills and jungles there are no permanent fields. Crops are grown in small clearings for two or three years; the clearings are then allowed to revert to jungle. The soil in these abandoned plots regenerates itself in about fifteen years and the plots can then be cleared and planted again. Axe, hoe, rake, and dibbling stick are the only tools required for this swidden cultivation. Koyas living in the permanent field areas of the riverine plain are nostalgic for this form of cultivation. They connect it with their tales, myths, gods, rituals, and freedom from moneylenders and government agents. As the Hindu population in Koya territory increases, Koyas are forced more and more to shift from swidden agriculture and subsistence production to permanent field agriculture and market production. Rice and tobacco are the main cash crops. Millets and legumes are the major subsistence crops even in the plains villages. Koyas cannot afford to eat much of the rice they grow. Koyas are herders as well as cultivators and pasture fairly large herds of cows, buffalo, and goats on the wasteland and in fallow fields. Cattle are kept for their dairy products, meat, fertilizer, and ritual uses. Goats are hardy, require little attention, and are important as sources of milk and meat. Wherever opportunity affords, Koyas supplement their food supply by hunting and gathering, and one of their chief complaints against outside government is its restriction of access to reserve forests, which Koyas regard as their own. Honey, roots, tubers, leaves, leafy plants, fiber, fruits, salt, spices, herbs, wood, nuts, fish, and small game provide a substantial addition to the diet and are the source of a variety of useful products that would otherwise have to be purchased from itinerant traders or in local weekly markets. Hunting, though much restricted, figures largely in Koya imagination, and a ritual hunt is an important part of the annual spring planting sacrifice performed for the village mother, even though the forest is somewhat outside her realm, being ruled instead by the "Lords of the Jungle," and the "Lord of Animals," who are the husbands of various disease goddesses. Inclusion of these jungle and animal deities in the planting ritual points again to the importance of swidden cultivation in the minds of Koyas.

Industrial Arts. Blacksmithing and weaving of baskets and mats, along with twine making, are the principal manufactures. Blacksmiths still make and repair traditional iron implements and tools such as plowshares, hoes, sickles, spear points, and wheel rims, but most other metal products are purchased from Hindu peddlers.

Trade. Most trade is carried out at weekly markets held in villages accessible by good cart tracks or roads. Itinerant Hindu peddlers bring cloth, oil, metal pots, and sundries to trade for cash or produce, usually the latter. Koya women also sell vegetables, twine, baskets, mats, and forest products independently, simply spreading their wares on a cloth in the Market area. Where there are large Hindu villages nearby, Koyas trade these items with the Hindu merchants and shopkeepers in the bazaar.

Division of Labor. Koya society is divided into three hereditary, endogamous occupational groups: blacksmiths, bards, and funeral drummers and singers. These groups have no lineages of their own and assume the lineage name of a patron. Bards are not genealogists, but they sing the traditional lineage history and mythology during the lineage sacrifices. Funeral singers are panegyrists who sing songs of praise for the deceased and his or her family during funeral ceremonies. Blacksmiths, bards, and funeral singers are only part-time specialists, and they make most of their livelihoods from cultivation. Except for blacksmithing, plowing, hunting, village governance, and sacrificing, which are restricted to men, the sexual division of labor is not strict. Women do most of the cooking, washing, rice husking and pounding, weeding, and rice transplanting, but both sexes share in child care and in such activities as harvesting, fishing, gathering, twine making, basketry, and mat making. Women do much of the smallscale marketing of vegetables, forest produce, and household manufactures. Children are actively employed by age 4 or 5 as baby-sitters, rice huskers, food gatherers, errand runners, and crop watchers. By age 6 or 7 boys herd goats and cattle, and by age 10 they help in plowing, planting, and harvesting.

Land Tenure. Villages contain several different local Lineages, one of which is usually recognized as the founding Lineage, and all others are regarded as in-marrying affines. This practice may point to an earlier system of lineage territoriality, but nowadays rights to land are based on title and revenue is assessed on individual rather than corporate holdings.


Kin Groups and Descent. All Koyas belong to one of five unranked exogamous patrilineal phratries called gotrams. Although Koyas agree that there are five phratries, they do not agree on their names, and different areas use different names. Each phratry is associated with a unique set of deities and a traditional sacred geography in the Bastar region. At five-year intervals, the phratry gods are brought down from Bastar and taken in procession through the whole Koya country. Phratries are subdivided into numerous named exogamous patrilineages. There is no agreement from area to area or even from village to village about the phratry affiliation of different lineages. Many of the lineages are named for plants and animals, and there is a vague kind of totemism in some cases. An icon associated with a lineage god is kept in a village having a preponderant population belonging to its lineage. Such icons take the form of metal spear points. They are kept hidden in secret places near the "god shed," which houses other paraphernalia used in the lineage rituals. God sheds are usually located on the village outskirts. Lineages are neither political nor territorial units. Each is subdivided into many local branches scattered throughout the Koya area. They convene at a ritual center once a year to perform the lineage sacrifice, but apart from that have little in the way of corporate character. The local lineage consists of members of a lineage resident in the same village and tracing descent to a common named ancestor. They are sometimes multifamily landholding groups, but these are more often divided into separate-family residential groups.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology is Dravidian, distinguishing between cross and parallel relatives in Ego's generation and in the two generations above and below Ego's.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Phratries and lineages are exogamous but have no preferred pattern of spouse exchange. Bilateral cross-cousin marriage is preferred and occurs among actual genealogical first cross cousins in approximately 18 percent of Recorded marriages. Polygyny is permitted, but it is infrequent because of the high cost of bride-price. Widow remarriage is not stigmatized. The junior levirate is encouraged, but widows are just as likely to marry a man from another family. Koyas have considerable freedom of choice in mate selection and pay only a token compensation to the mother's brother in the event that they do not marry a cross cousin. Most first Marriages are postadolescent. Postmarital residence is preferentially patrilocal, but bride-service is common and families without male heirs will often adopt a resident son-in-law. Divorce and remarriage are relatively easy and fairly frequent. The defecting spouse must pay compensation to the deserted spouse's family and pay a fine to the village council if it adjudicates the divorce.

Domestic Unit. The extended family is the main unit of cooperation, reproduction, and socialization. Many compromise family units arise from contingencies of the life cycle. Extended families split up after the death of the father or soon after the marriage of the youngest son.

Inheritance. The estate is subdivided equally among the male heirs and a portion is set aside for the dowry and Marriage expenses of any unmarried female children. One of the brothers continues to live in the family home with the surviving mother and her unmarried children. Other married male children construct new dwellings within the compound or in a new nearby location.

Socialization. Authority within the family is determined by gender, age, and competence. The eldest male, as long as he remains competent, has authority over all the others in most family matters, but his wife or widowed mother supervise all work done by females and younger children. When the father dies or becomes incompetent, the eldest son assumes authority unless he is immature, in which case the father's eldest surviving brother will take control until the son is old enough. Children are seldom directly instructed in proper behavior or in how to perform tasks. They learn by direct observation and imitation. What little instruction they get comes almost Entirely from older siblings and grandparents. Discipline for infractions is swift and certain and, in that coming from older siblings, often physical.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The elements of Koya social Organization are the family, the village, the phratry, and the lineage. Koya society is basically egalitarian, especially in the hill Villages where there are few differences of rank and status other than those of age and personal reputation.

Political Organization. Although Koyas speak of themselves as a distinct group, no overall political organization holds them together. Traditionally they have had regional governing bodies consisting of the council of twenty-five Villages under the authority of a headman and his assistant. The council's main functions were to oversee revenue collection and to try intervillage disputes.

Social Control. Social control is effected through the Family, the lineage elders, and the village council. The council tries all cases involving villagers with the exception of murder or crimes against the state. Disputes over land inheritance, Divorce, wife stealing, and payment of bride-price comprise the majority of cases. The council hears evidence, questions Witnesses, and imposes fines on those whom it finds guilty.

Conflict. Apart from the village disputes noted above, most conflict today involves Hindus who encroach on Koya lands or use unfair practices in their dealings with Koyas. These cases are referred to the Indian judiciary and are almost always decided against Koyas.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Koyas believe that numerous supernaturals influence all things and events and can be summoned to aid humans if they are propitiated by sacrificial offerings of animals, grain, and liquor. Many Koya deities are female, the most important being the earth mother, the smallpox goddess, and the goddesses of the lineages and phratries. Male deities, such as the Lord of the Jungle and the Lord of Animals, are consorts of these goddesses. Ancestors are also deities, as are many natural objects.

Religious Practitioners. Sacrifices are carried out by the village priest and the lineage priests. Shamans divine the source of uninvited supernatural interference and prescribe remedial sacrifices for it. Sorcerers are illicit practitioners who compel supernaturals to attack one's enemies.

Ceremonies. At the center of every ceremony is a sacrifice in which the deity consumes the essence and leaves the consecrated substance for humans to feast on.

Arts. Apart from singing and dancing and the drawing of decorative designs on the floor with rice powder, Koyas have little in the way of artistic expression.

Medicine. Koyas think most disease is caused by malevolent deities, and when an illness cannot be cured by home remedies, they consult the shaman. They also have recourse to Hindu Ayurvedic practitioners, and in rare cases they will visit a government-run dispensary.

Death and Afterlife. Koyas do not believe in Heaven or Hell, and they also do not profess to believe in reincarnation, even though some of their practices imply it. When someone dies, his or her spirit lingers about the ancestor pot, patrols the sky over the village, or wanders about the village interfering with daily life, sometimes benevolently.

See also Gond


Hajra, D. (1970). The Dorla of Bastar. Anthropological Survey of India Memoir no. 17. Calcutta: Government of India Press.

Ramaiah, P. (1981). Tribal Economy of India. New Delhi: Light & Life Publishers.

Subrahmanyam, P. S. (1968). A Descriptive Grammar of Gondi. Annamalai University, Department of Linguistics, Publication no. 16. Annamalai.

Tyler, Stephen A. (1968). Koya: An Outline Grammar. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tyler, Stephen A. (1972). "Fields Are for Planting: Notes on Koya Agriculture." In Proceedings of the Seminar on Tribal Studies, edited by D. P. Sinha. New Delhi: Government of India Press.



views updated May 18 2018

Kōya (Japanese Buddhist): see KŪYA.