“A society turns itself to its landscape, mountain side, river fan or foot hills oasis, until it seems to an outside observer that it could not possibly be anywhere else than it is, could not be otherwise than what it is”   – Geertz

The submergence area of Polavaram project is part of land of Koitor or Gonds or by a variety of other names by which trey are referred by outsiders. The land of Koitor consists of the picturesque hilly and forest region boarded by the Indravati river at the north, covering parts of Bastar (Chattisgarh), Koraput (Orissa), Warangal, Khammam, East Godavari and West Godavari Districts(AP). This region with heights between 150 and 300 meters include Indravati, Godavari, Sabari and Sileru rivers and the Eastern Ghats. The region is what once was called a “Confused triangle of very malarious hills” (Imperial Gazetteer of India, Vol. XII, P.216) of thickly wooded forest which formed part of ‘Sea of forest’ as mentioned in the old Sanskrit poems (IGI, Vol. XVI, P.286). The region is also called as Gondwana. Koya Society, as one of the several simpler tribal societies we have in the country, has a unique culture, language and heritage which gained through the adoptive mechanisms to its unique ecological situation unlike the complex societies, Koya society is more directly affected by the environment than others for it is more dependent on the nature than others. Its culture also has conservation of nature as it core. The dynamic interaction between the nature and the man is reflected in its spirit. Koyas in history have traversed a long path from a ruling race to the present, dismembered, shattered, threatened, impoverished tribe. Imperial gazetteer of India observed that Koitor consisting what they are called now as Koyas, Gonds, Dorli etc., who in large numbers lived on the Satpura plateau, the Chota Nagpur plateau, and the hills of Bastar between the Mahanadi and Godavari, were “formerly a ruling race, the greater part of the central provinces having been held by three or four Gond dynasties form about the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. Such accounts of them as remain, even allowing for mush exaggeration, indicate the attainment of a surprising degree of civilization and prosperity.

These states were subverted by the Marathas in the 18th century, and the Gonds were driven to take refuge in the inaccessible highlands, where the Marathas continued to pillage and harass them, until they obtained an acknowledgement of their supremacy and the promise of an annual tribute. Under such treatment the hill Gonds soon lost every vestige of civilization”, who over the succeeding centuries of Mughal and British rule had become “the timid and inoffensive labourers which they are now”. The Koyas and the Gonds seem to have lost their civilization of higher plain as a result of frequent barbaric looting and plundering by Rohillas and Sudra which is recorded by Mr. Cain and V. Raghaviah. “The last great plundering was in1859 near Parnasala” and the plundering of the Koyas was total and worst, according to Mr. Cain “their houses (were) burned and their property (was) carried off. As a rule, they hid their grains in caves and holes in large trees”. The succeeding period in history today witnessed how they have been dismembered into several kingdoms, states and districts. Their mythology the ‘Poorbham’ – studded with references to Orugallu, Bastar Rajas and towns describes themselves as inhabitants of Godavari valley ranging up to Indravati in Bastar. Koyas are a distinct community, a sub group among the larger family of Gonds – who also call themselves as Koitor and share to a large extent similar mythology, social organisation, language, and religion. Koyas are found distributed in a large area bordering river Sabari, Sileru and Godavari in Koraput (Orissa), Bastar (Chattisgarh) and in four districts of Andhra Pradesh viz., Khammam, Warangal, East Godavari and West Godavari. The Koyas constitute one of the largest tribes in Andhra Pradesh with 3.85 Lakhs (1971 census). They are found concentrated in Khammam (2.34 lakh) and neighbouring Koraput district (96,701) and Bastar along the banks of Sabari, Sileru and Godavari.

The problem of displacement under the proposed Polavaram Project acquires great importance since it is going to affect the Koya population in this part of Khammam, and parts of Koraput and Bastar where the Koya people represent their distinct culture and social organization. The proposal of displacing more than a lakh Koyas in 350 settlements amounting to disturbing more than half of the total population of a tribal community, poses a threat to their very existence as a culturally and socially distinct society. The possibility of cultural genocide of the Koyas is not imaginary when we realize the adverse conditions they are already subjected to date. Any further adverse impact on the fragile social system of the Koitor would result in wiping off a community to live collectively enjoying the heritage and preserve it to guide survival in future for it s younger generations as individuals and a community. Now they are (1) divided into three states (AP., MP, and Orissa), and are imposed by three different official languages and laws of governance of a people who interact almost every day and in weekly shandies (santha), and (2) that they are uprooted and disturbed in the past two decades repeatedly of accommodating Bangladeshi refugees, and Machkund project in Orissa region, Bailadilla project in Bastar and Sileru project in Andhra Pradesh. The proposed Polavaram Project poses threat of uprooting the core area of Koya society and habitat. A brief examination of their society would be appropriate to understand the significance of Polavaram Project’s threat of cultural and social extinction of the Koyas. Proposed Polavaram Project threatens to submerge this very core of the Koya habitat. Out of the officially declared 250 villages coming under submergence 187 villages are from Khammam and parts of Motu and Konta panchayats (170+7+10 respectively) which constitute core unit of Koya culture and habitat the remaining 63 villages in East and West Godavari districts on the banks of the Godavari are also predominantly Koya settlements. However, here the number of non-tribal population is slightly more and the influence of plains culture is visible.

NATURE – MAN – SPIRIT COMPLEX AMONG THE KOYAS

Forest based life and culture of conservation Koya society is a product of the dynamic interplay of nature and their adaptive mechanisms to ensure sustained process of lief in the otherwise inhospitable ecological conditions. Their belief system, rituals, myths, social systems and settlement pattern are greatly influenced by the forests. The importance forest occupies in Koya society may be discussed in terms of five areas viz., forest as a source of food and drink, fodder, shelter, income and employment, and as a source of herbs and medicines.

Though Koyas are agriculturist by profession their dependence on nature for food and drink is by no means small-owing to small land holdings and low yields owing to simple methods of cultivation their dependence on wild and edible roots and fruits, palm juice, hunting and fishing is significant as it provides most to their food supplies. There is seasonal variation in the food habits of the Koyas in accordance with changes in the products of nature. Palm juice considered as a gift of nature by the Koyas is consumed after a village ceremony to Goddess Muthyalamma. Palm Juice is not just a beverage but a complete food for almost four months (January to April). Palm juice is seldom sold in Bhadrachalam as well Motu of Orissa and Konta of Madhya Pradesh agency areas. Every family owns a few palm trees ranging from a few to a hundred. The palm leaves and fibers are also used for construction of houses and fences and making ropes. Rarely one finds settlement of a village not surrounded by palm trees. Similarly Mohuva (Ippa) trees are important to Koyas not only as source for liquor required for personal consumption as well as for ritual ceremonies and social functions but also for extracting oil form Ippa seeds used for cooking. Ippa trees are community assets and groups of families collect Mohuva flower from the nearest trees after Ippa Puvvu Pandaga is performed. Ippa is also a source of income and a few families in every village are engaged in brewing and selling liquor. Each Ippa tree provides around five hundred rupees income per annum in the form of flower and seeds. Roughly one finds two trees per family (Bharath Bhushan M 1989). Many roots and tubers available in nature serve as food to the Koyas. Koyas know ways to make even the inedible roots fit for consumption. Keski dumpa, karsi dumpa and a large number of roots are part of the Koyas’s food. Especially it is these roots that provide sustenance to Koyas during drought. Fruits form supplementary food to the Koyas. Almost every family has a mango tree and lots of Tuniki Kaya in the forest deserves mention among the fruits. Koyas know more than fifty birds and several animals in the jungle (Bharath Bhushan M.1990). While shooting and catching birds with a variety of traps is a regular activity, hunting is now less frequent and is compulsory in ‘Bhoomi Panduga” (seed festival). Hunting is necessary for Koyas to protect themselves, their cattle and crops. They are skilled hunters and have several methods of individual and group hunting. Wild boars, deer, rabbits and few others are hunted though the game has declined considerably because of the non-tribals hunting with guns has increased. Fishing is done in still waters and on the banks of the river with big nets (8ft. x 8 ft.) which is dipped and lifted and also by a variety of taps made of bamboo in flowing water. ‘Juvvadi’ and ‘Thompel’ are a few among these traps that every family has. Fishing in tanks is regulated and is done only prescribed days when the entire population of a village or villages indulge in it. Koyas are very fond of fish. For Koyas on banks of river Godavari and Sabari, fish is a regular item in their dish.

Agriculture among the Koyas generally includes a small portion of podu and sedentary cultivation. Around four out of every five families have land in one form or the other dry/ wet/ podu. The land under cultivation to the total area in the agency area is small. The landholdings are small. For instance, in Chintur mandal the land under cultivation of each household, including wet, dry and podu, is around 6 acres out of which more than half is dry. The size and type of land under cultivation among the Koyas requires involvement and cooperation of kinsmen or friends. Camatha vyavasayam (Joint cultivation) where in a landless family joins along with their plough and bullocks on other’s land is not uncommon. The yield is shared between the families owing land and those contributing labour. Festivals like Bheemuni Panduga (festival of rain god), Bhoomi Panduga, Pachha Panduga provide the moral strength to Koyas who have small landholdings which are rainfed. Crops of Koya agriculture include rice, sorghum (gummu jonna, Konda jonna), hill millet and pacha jonna and a few pulses. Sorghum is the staple diet of the Koyas. Livestock and land are symbols of one’s status among the Koyas. Livestock – cattle, cows, oxen , goats, pigs- provide security to the Koyas as they are not only productive assets on the agricultural farm but also one’s wealth with which one can exchange for other’s labour one requires on the farm or for building or repairing the house, performing ceremonies and to host feast. All Koyas have livestock of one form or the other and the forest around them provide fodder and other material for their sheds. Shelter of a Koya does not mean only a house where they reside, but also includes a lot more things reflecting the requirements of peasant community. The houses built of material that is totally available from his surroundings has two to four rooms, a verandah for their residence with provision for kitchen, ‘Pelli gondhi’ (portion of the room where offerings to their ancestors are made), attic for storing grains, etc., and separate shelter for goats and pigs. Besides, it has a room for keeping fodder, firewood, agricultural implements, etc. The site of the house is usually on one’s cultivable land or in a small bunch of houses closer to their lands. The houses constructed with participation and help of friends and kinsmen last for more than five years, while roof is repaired every 2 – 3 years. The house of Koyas – a combination of wood and land – is designed aesthetically to suit his functional requirements. Forests provide employment and income to the Koyas. Collection of beedi leaf during May to June provides around twenty rupees a day. A large number of Koyas get considerable incomes from collection of minor forest produce like Mohuva seeds, tamarind, gum, honey, broomsticks, leaf plates etc. What they earn from minor forest produce is an important source of income to the Koyas.

The ‘Buggivadde’/ Vejjodu’ (the traditional medicine man) and herbs and plants constitute the institution of medicine still in vogue in most of the Koya villages. Allopathic medicine and its delivery system has not reached most of the tribal villages. They use several types of herbs and plants as medicine. Forest produce, their crops and the herbs provide them food and nutrition, besides the shelter they have made out of it. Nutritional standard and general well being among the Koyas is better than Rural Hyderabadis according to studies by National Institute of Nutrition. Their culture and social organisation evolved out of their interaction with the nature, ensures conservation of natural resources and sharing of the nature’s produce. The festivals and practices they observe have the function of mechanisms by which nature is worshipped, indiscriminate exploitation of resources is avoided, collective management of resources is maintained, and equitable distribution of natural resources is ensured. Conflict over natural resources is controlled to a great extent by their system of culture and social organisation. Koyas in the area proposed to be submerged have a social organization in which four hierarchical orders of vocationally specialised groups are present with Lingadari Koyas at the apex followed by Racha Koyas, Kammara Koya and Arithi or Dolu Koya. These distinctions are observed in areas of ritual status only. Otherwise there is little distinction among them in regard to ownership of land and other resources. All the four starts are integrated into a system of exchange of services wherein the Lingadari Koya performs purificatory rituals in the case of inter strata marriages or with sudras and non tribals, the Kammara Koya rendering the black smithy, and Dolu or Arithi Koya being a traditional bard with their mastery over the knowledge of lineage and degrees of prohibition which they narrate on important events in the life cycle of Koya (especially death, marriage), while the Racha Koyas numerically largest group is the general Koya often endowed with village administration, justice and performing rituals in regard to festivals. Though these groups are characterized by endogamy, vocational specialisation (as mentioned above), separate judiciary system, hierarchy and limited differences in food habits (only Lingadari Koyas are different from the rest as they do not eat beef), they all share similar lifestyle in general irrespective of the group distinctions all tribals are equally proficient and engaged in cultivation, toddy tapping, carpentry (house construction, agricultural implements, etc.), fishing etc.

They have the phratry and clan system. There are five exogamous subdivisions with separate totems of each. They have complex system of phratry, clan, lineage (Velpu totemistic exogamous division), and family organisation. It is similar to that of Gonds of Adilabad. The Koya marriage and kinship institution are distinct in regard to providing the freedom to individual while integrating into the group. Though nuclear family is the predominant type with married sons living in a separate house they continue to do ‘Camatha vyavasayam’ along with brothers and parents. Monogamy is the mot prevalent form and preferential marriage is mother’s brother’s daughter. Forms of marriage, like by capture, and by elopement are also present occasionally while the general practice of marriage is by negotiation. Women enjoy equal freedom in selection of the mate as well as in seeking divorce. They typical bison-horn head dress dance and songs of both sexes together in large chains is characteristic of their marriage. Marriage among Koyas is celebration for three days with people coming from the villages of bride and the groom in addition to the relatives of the boy and the girl. They would sing and dance far into the nights. Marriage takes place in March – the season of palm juice. Marriage is not an affair of two families but two villages. Marriage negotiations starting with imagery phrases like “pandu mande pachu valte” (the bird lands where there is the fruit and hence we are here) reflect their world view that is rooted in their distant past blended with nature. The village of a Koya is small with families around 40 to 50. Every village – a socio, political and cultural unit – is part of a larger social and territorial unit called ‘mutha’ a cluster of villages linked by economic, political and kinship ties. Though earlier each village consisted of members of a single clan now it is a multi clan community. Similarly the customary law of the Koyas allowing Pedda (headman of the village) to exercise control over all the agricultural lands and other assets with the villagers merely enjoying usufructuary rights has changed. The traditional village organisation based on communal ownership of all resources has changed into individual households owing land. Al these changes took place with the disappearance of Muthadari system. However, it is not surprising to find the influence of the past continuing to date in several respects. Many families still do not have separate land titles. Several families or all brothers continue to cultivate lands which have only one title. The village organisation consists of hereditary position of Pedda, Pina pedda, Vepari and Pujari. Pedda usually holding the position of Pujari also controls social, political and religious activities in the village. The family that originally founded the village and established the Mutyalamma or Devara occupies the position of pedda in the village. The village organisation addresses to all problems – petty disputes and bad conduct etc., besides performing ritual and religious ceremonies. Rarely disputes go tot the notice of the police station. Economic offences are rarely observed in the villages. Every village is a part of a Mutha – a cluster of villages – which is kinship unit. This Mutha headed by ‘Samiti Poyee’ desertion of extra-marital offences, desertion of marital bond by married women, adultery and inter – divisional marriages threatening the kinship institution and social harmony. Marriage to non tribals is considered a grave offence and such members or their parents are made to pay heavy penalties to the village Panchayat. Women having any premarital or extra marital relationship with non tribals are considered impure and are never married by tribal males. However, extra marital and premarital relations with in the community and divorce are not considered offences. Remarriage is always possible. Elopement is accepted and legitimised among them once the penalty is paid and the crime admitted.

The Samiti Poyee addressing to a large number of villages ranging upto 50 and above is assisted by Poyees and Veparis of all the village Panchayats in the Mutha. The Koya caste judiciary, samiti poyee, and Pedda (representing respective social institutions) hold the society together. Kinship network binds every village to other villages. Each clan has a Velpu vadde who worships the totem of the clan and preserves the Velpula Patam (a huge cloth containing pictorial symbols depicting history of the clan). The village of the Velpu vadde is the centre of the clan deity. Velpu vadde like Samiti poyee has a structure consisting of several assistants. The staves and other items of Velpu kept in containers are preserved in the hills to be free from all pollutions. There are several places in the forests and hills that are considered highly sacred and important in their religion. Their language called Koyi, has no script. It has a rich folklore, songs and stories. Their songs have a high degree of visual imagery and scope for creative spontaneity to make them relevant to changing contexts. They have ‘Poorbham’ – the story of the origin of man and growth of Koya social and kinship system- a historico–mythological ballad which is sung by Dolu Koya for the entire night. Koyi is spoken in parts of Bastar, Koraput, Khammam and East and West Godavari districts. Women in interior villages have little knowledge of Telugu compared to men folk. Koya settlements on the banks of Sabari and Godavari rivers in Koraput, Bastar, Khammam districts form the core of the Koya habitat. It is this part of Koya habitat that forms majority of the Koya population which is still the repository of its distinct rich cultural heritage – language, ritual, customs, mythology etc. It is this part of their total habitat that is essentially a Koya land with very few outside elements demographically. Konda Reddies, another tribal community, officially recognized as a primitive tribal group also lives here in villages proposed to be submerged. Haimendorf has widely written about the Konda Reddis of these villages. Konda Reddies, numerically small, live in harmony with the Koya neighbours.

The Koyas are like small children in the lap of nature who separated from their mother would be like fish out of water. Their complex social organisation, culture evolved through millennia, song, dance and ritual invoking the spirits of nature are now threatened by development projects.