Bunts – An Historical Portrait
by Padubidri Ramesh Shetty
Profound inquiries by our younger generation of Bunts, seeking to understand the narrative of the Bunt Community, encouraged me to make an effort to compile a short brief and present them with an introduction to Bunts heritage. Heritage matters and it is their right to understand this narrative. And it is also their right to know the checks and balances of our Bunt community.
I have made an extensive search to gather relevant materials to compile this brief narrative. A list of reference books is listed at the end of this article. I express my thanks and gratitude to all those authors for their well researched and authoritative contributions.
For someone from outside the Bunt community it will be helpful to know the perspective and impact of the Bunt community in the larger context of Indian society. A short introduction in the following paragraphs is an attempt to place and identify the Bunt community in the hierarchy of Indian society.
Indian civilisation has been acknowledged as one of the oldest and best in the world and primarily consists of the Indo Aryans of north India and the Dravidians of South India, the latter being the original inhabitants of the country. Dravidians are linked to the Indus Valley Civilisation.
Indo Aryans are the most diverse group of people in the north. They are made up of Assamese, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kashmiri, Konkani, Marathi and Punjabi. Most of the ethnic groups in South India are of Dravidian origin. Major ethnic groups of Dravidian origin in South India are Kannadiga, Tuluva, Malayali, Telugu and Tamil.
During the middle age South India was dominated by three Dravidian kingdoms. They are Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas. These three kingdoms have been shown to sponsor the growth of literature, music, arts and to have done extensive trading. Eventually these three kingdoms gave way to Vijayanagara empire which dominated all of South India, including Tuluva region.
Vijayanagara empire collapsed in 1646 and it was during this period Tuluva people started establishing their own sovereignty over Tuluva region. Although Tuluva region went through Muslim and European hegemony for the last seven to eight centuries the people of the region maintained their semi independence and managed to preserve their tradition, culture, beliefs and practices intact and unbroken.
Tuluva region spreads through Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts in Karnataka state and Kasargod district in Kerala state. The estimated population of Tuluva region is about 3.5 million (Udupi and DK districts). Major ethnic groups are Billavas, Mogaveeras, Bunts, Jains, Devadigas, Brahmins, Vishwakarmas, Bairas, Konkanis, Christians and Muslims.
It is estimated that the Bunt population living in the Tuluva region is about 450,000. The total Bunt population spread across the world is about 1.2 to 1.3 million. The influence and contribution of the Bunt community to the Tuluva region is admirable. Bunt community helped to maintain peace, prosperity, stability and harmony in the region.
Bunts, it is said, originally belong to a warrior class. Being the martial race of Tuluva region they served the ruling chiefs, which brought them considerable benefits and allowed them to become land owners and nobles of the region.
Around 15th century, Bunts had consolidated themselves as a land owning feudal caste group. Bunt families controlled several villages and lived in a Manor house. Several villages were generally united under a single Bunt Chieftain and Chieftains, had considerable autonomy despite being vassals to the ruling kings.
2. Speculation on Origin of Bunts
The origins of the Bunts are baffling and documented evidence is not available. Whether they were indigenous or, immigrants to Tulu Nadu (coastal Karnataka), is cloaked in mystery. They follow a Dravidian social system. The community of Bunts also referred to as Nadavas, form an important and integral part of the political, economic, social and cultural customs of Tulu Nadu.
It seems the word Bunt is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Bhata’ meaning powerful man, the Tulu equivalent is ‘Bunte’ or ‘Bunteru’ which means protector. Bunts are also referred to as ‘Nayaka’, ‘Shetray’ and ‘Nādava’ which means leader, nobility and landlord respectively in Tulu. The word Bunt was universally accepted during the 1940’s to give a united face and a common identity embracing different surnames and geographical locations.
Historian Edgar Thurston in his book “Caste and tribes of south India” (1909) described the Bunts as follows – “Men and women of the Bunt community belong to a beautiful race of Asia. Men have a broad forehead and a parrot nose. Mostly they are of fair complexion. Even today they are of independent nature, short tempered, self respecting and have a muscular body, which tells about the history of belonging to warrior families”
Who are the Bunts? What is their origin? No one has been successful in establishing the anthropological origin of Bunts. Many theories have been put forward about the origin of Bunts. There was the Aryan link, Mediterranean link, Spartan connection, a martial race, Dravidian ancestry etc.
Professor Shivaram Shetty advocated a theory that Bunts were originally “Koshar” people, a highly civilised community, living in Sindh River Valley during 2500 BC (Harappa Civilisation). They migrated to the south of India through the coastal sea route after the Aryan invasion.
Eventually, Koshars established minor kingdoms along the west coast. Over the centuries these minor kingdoms were swallowed by powerful kings, but they managed to hold their land and some authority over the people of small villages.
Bunt traditions, culture and religious practices have some resemblance to the Dravidian civilisation.
Dr.Kayyar Kinhanna Rai thinks Bunts have Kshatriya (Royal) lineage.
According to S. D. L. Alagodi, the Bunts originally belonged to the warrior class. Being the martial race of Tulu Nadu, they served the ruling kings which brought them considerable benefits and allowed them to become the landed gentry of the region.
K.V.Ramesh suggests that Jaya Bhutala Pandya (345 BC) was the first Alupa ruler of Bunt extraction
It is almost certain that about 2000 years ago, there were kings in Tulu Nadu, some independent and some under the suzerain of overlords like Alupas, Kadambas, Chalukyas and Hoysalas. There were constant skirmishes and fighting, and the ‘Buntaru’ or warriors were important stabilizing segments of the population. In due course the Bunts succeeded in becoming owners of lands.
Hopefully, some credible theory, based on scientific evidence, will emerge in the near future to authenticate the origin of Bunts.
3. Bunts population
As per the 2010 censes Bunts make up only 12% of the South Kanara population. It has been estimated that the total Bunt population is about 1.2 to 1.3 million, spread all over the world.
Again, the estimation of geographical spread of the Bunt population is that Kasargod to Byndoor – 450,000, rest of Karnataka – 225,000, Mumbai – 425,000, rest of India and foreign countries – 200,000.
Majority of Bunt community members are either struggling middle classes or those few below the poverty line. The community reputation has been built on the successes and achievements of few Bunts and they assured the Bunt community a place in the history.
4. Bunts culture, traditions, customs and practices
Indira Hegde’s Bantaru – Ondu Samajo – Sansckritika Adhyayana- first published in 2004 was a comprehensive study about Bunts history, culture, social beliefs and religious practices. It was a research based on materials from historical works, inscriptions, library collections, legends and folklore and by deciphering social beliefs and practices.
The Bunts of Tulu Nadu were originally Shiva worshippers like the rest of the population. Only after the visit of Shankaracharya in the 8th century and the impetus of Vaishnavism after Madhvacharya’s influence in the region in the 14th century did the Bunts, like the others in the region, embrace all forms of Hindu gods. What is more unique to the Bunt community of Tulu Nadu is their reverence of various Daivas in addition to the established Gods of Hinduism. (Dr.Neria H Hebbar).
Bunts followed the Aliyasanthana custom. This is a matrilineal system where the property is inherited through the female line (Aliya Kattu). This helped the family property to remain intact and also supported the joint family system.
But the Yajaman, the head of the family, was always the eldest male member of the family.
The joint family system of Bunts prevailed for several centuries. There was a unity, happiness and togetherness within the family members and a sense of respect and authority in the society at large. The family structure of traditional Bunt families was well defined and understood
Over the years joint families grew larger leading to tensions within the Bunt households. It became difficult to accommodate everyone in the family house comfortably. And in few cases the head of the family became greed and partial. As a result some family members decided to move out and build separate households. These smaller households of the joint family came to be called “Kavaru” which means a branch of the family. When the “Kavarus” increase in numbers, all Kavarus make up a “Kutumba” which means a conglomeration of Kavarus with blood relationship through female lineage.
The Bunt houses, being the prominent and important ones in the village, were known as Guthu, Magandadi, Beedu, Parari, Mane, Bettu, Barke, Bava, Katte etc.
For Bunts, Guthu is an emblem of their social and economic status and as markers of their identity. They represent their households, pedigree, connections, social status, historical memories and badge of honour. Guthu is their castle.
Bunt surnames include, Alva, Ajila, Arasa, Adyanthaya, Adapa, Adhikari, Bhandari, Binnani, Ballala, Banga, Bunta, Chowta, Gambhir, Hegde, Kadamba, Kambali, Kava, Kille, Konde, Punja, Mada, Malli, Manai, Marla, Melanta, Mudya, Nayaka, Pakkala, Payyade, Puvani, Rai, Samani, Santha, Semitha, Shekha, Shenava, Shetty, Sooda, Sulaya, Tolahara.
Bunts were not just the landed gentry. They were traders, entrepreneurs, financiers, professionals, educationists, philanthropists and guardians of worshipping places.
There had been very little racial integration of the Bunt community with other casts of the social structure for many centuries. This was mainly due to the matrilineal system of land ownership, lack of education and also partly due to the stigma attached to the concept of love before marriage.
During the colonial era Bunt Patel’s were the revenue officials in villages. They were also responsible for law and order in villages under their jurisdiction.
The religious conversion of a few prominent Bunt families with surnames such as Alva and Tolar to Christianity during the British time has been recorded.
Bunts are traditional worshippers of deities called Daivas. There is no historical record of how and when they acquired these cultural traits. These are Dravidian practices dating back to 4500 years and retained through even after the numerous invasions and occupation of India.
Bunts were the main promoters of the Brahminic cultures in Tulu Nadu at least from the 14th century onwards. Bunts were the donors of land and money to the Brahminic temples and also helped to sustain Brahminic cultures in the coastal area. Without the Bunts support the Brahmins would have been the poorest section of the society. Nowadays, they take advantage of the Bunt generosity by encouraging the weirdest and outdated religious practices. Of course, some of the blames may squarely put on the ‘new rich’ of the Bunt community.
The primary allegiance of Bunts was to their household Daivas. But they are equally respectful to the Vedic gods.
Every Bunt household have annual and bi-annual rituals to perform to pacify the family Daivas and family ancestors. It has been portrayed that Tulunadu is a playground of countless Daivas and deities. Rev. A. Manner gives a list of 133 Daivas. The most prominent of those Daivas are Jarandaya, Jumadi, Panjurli, Kodamantaya, Pilichamundi, Kanapaditaya, Kalkuda, Kallurli, Bobbarye, Magrandaya, Attavara Daiyongulu etc.
Bunts worshipping ceremonies include Tambila, Nema, Kola, Agel, Naga Mandala, etc. The religious rites of worship at these ceremonies were not only ancient but accurately preserved over the centuries. The perception of the worship is of paying homage to Daivas and deities to avert their displeasure and to seek blessings. There are family Daivas where the ceremonies are performed by the extended family members and close friends, and community Daivas where the whole village is participated in the ceremony. It is a festival that is enjoyed by the whole family with village community with a sumptuous feast.
Lands were set aside to meet the expenses for such rituals. However, after the land reforms act of 1966 these lands were passed on to the tenants. For many families these were the difficult and disturbing times.
(The British revenue collectors and the Christian missionaries saw the Daiva worship as barbaric and uncivilised. For the arrogant and ignorant imperialists, particularly to the missionaries, the belief and worship of Daivas was nothing but the worship of Satan/Devil, the enemies of God, and used this expression for conversion. When the persuasion failed the British revenue collectors and the missionaries resorted to threats. However they did not succeed in their campaign against our Daivas. In spite of their hard efforts the missionaries found that the number of Daivas increased, innumerable fouls were sacrificed and the roofs of Daiva Sanas (temples) were tiled (with Basel mission tiles) and the festivals were celebrated with greater pomp).
The dowry system was very well practiced. But the Bunt women had enormous freedom. Mrs Cousins, an American author said that Bunt women enjoy the most freedom in the world and that they kick out their husbands when the situation demands.
Child marriages were common among the Bunts throughout the 19th century. The custom continued, although rare in the later years, until 1935 when such marriages were banned.
Bunts participated in cock fights on special occasions. They also organised Buffalo races (Kambla) in their villages for everyone to enjoy.
As prominent landlords in the district Bunts always enjoyed an eminent and respectable position in the society. They were a generous community, known to donate lands and money to numerous temples. Bunt families were the traditional and hereditary trusties of the majority of temples in the coastal districts.
Bunts dedicate themselves to the pleasures of spending even if they don’t have any reserves.
Bunts culture and traditions, with its eccentric practices, stand apart even within the complex nature of Hindu society. Bunts remain an enigma for most outsiders.
5. Bunts Bari (Bali / Gotra) system
The Bari system was designed to track down the root “Y” chromosomes of a person quite easily. If a person belongs to a particular Bari then it means his “Y” chromosome came all the way down over thousands of years from the same Bari. As per the Bunt tradition and culture Bunts are not allowed to marry a boy or a girl with the same Bari/Bali. There are about 26 Bari lineages in the Bunt community.
There is a scientific reason for these practices. Two people with the same Bari are considered as siblings, so a marriage and further extension of family may create genetic defects because of the duplication of “Y” chromosome, which means inbred children carry high risk of being born with recessive genetic mutations.
6. The legend of Siri
A few temples managed by Bunt households deify the legend of a Bunt woman called Siri. The legend is that of a brave Bunt lady who stood for the dignity and honour of Bunt women and fought against gender discrimination. Siri is worshipped. Kavathar is the venue of a temple of Siri where the annual festival is held.
The Epic of Siri is an epic poem in the Tulu language. Consisting of 15,683 lines of poetry, it holds the distinction of being the longest poem in Tulu. The epic is essentially a biography of a legendary Bunt princess Siri Alvedi (Alva) and expands to describe the fate of her progeny – son Kumara, daughter Sonne, and grand daughters, Abbage and Darage. The epic declares Siri’s divinity and also that of her progeny and she is worshipped as a Daiva (demi goddess) across Tulu Nadu region, in temples known as Adi Alade. Siri is the patron deity of the Bunt people. The epic of Siri, though in Tulu, is well known in Kannada speaking populations in and around Tulu Nadu. It is recited in parts in a highly ritual style during the annual festival of Siri Jatre. Complete recitation of the epic takes close to about 25 hours. The Epic of Siri has been translated into English by Lauri Honko, a Finnish linguo-folklorist.
Siri Epic has been compared to the Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey in the academic circles.
7. Legend of Agoli Manjanna
The portrait of Bunts will not be complete without mentioning the name of Bunt Manjanna.
Agoli Manjanna was the Bhima of Tulu Nadu. His adventures and achievements were superhuman. He was a noble and helpful person.
He had no education, no special skills, but he was known for his super strength. He used his unique strength for the benefit of the public and for noble causes. He acquired the name of Agoli Manjanna because of his eating habits; he used to go through an enormous amount of food.
Manjanna was born at Katla in Surathkal village. He was not worshiped after his death but he had many followers. A hill was named after him near Kavoor – Manjanna Gudde.
8. Bunt Cuisine
The cuisine of Bunts is famous all over Tulu Nadu and in many parts of the world. Bunts specialise both in vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Among non-vegetarian dishes, Kori Rotti, Ajadina Kori, Bangude Kajipu, Yetti Ajadina, Kane Gasee are well known. Vegetarian dishes include Gullaa Chutney , Pelakaida Gatti, Pāthradde, Neer Dosa, Odu Rotti, Basaleda kajipu, Kumbudada Koddel, Mude Per, Gunda, Gendadadde etc. The Bunt Community are spread widely in hotel and catering business all over the world. They are known for their cooking and managerial skills.
9. Bunt Weddings
Bunt culture is a rich reflection of their noble lineage and though they have progressed with the time, the old-world charm and romance of their heritage lives on in their delightful customs and rituals that are part of their life even today. Their weddings are no exception.
Bunt’s wedding is the most important event in the Bunt society.
Traditional Bunt wedding is a fusion of two families.
It is normally an arranged marriage between the two families and supposed to strengthen both families status in the society. Sometimes it can be a matrimonial lottery.
The engagement ceremony (Nikshaya), if the horoscopes match, is normally held at the bridegroom’s house, a few elders from both families attending. A silver platter with betel -leaves, betel -nuts and some flowers carried to the Grooms house by the Bride’s family. An elder from one of the families introduce the two families to each other. The exchange of betel -leaves and betel -nuts is a confirmation of alliance and the elders are a witness to that. The date and time of the forthcoming wedding is confirmed in consultation with an astrologer.
Generally there is a small gap between the engagement ceremony and the wedding.
Madirengee (Mehndi) ceremony is held separately at Bride’s and Groom’s houses. This is on the previous day of the wedding. This ritual involves applying ‘Mehendi’ on Brides palm, finger tips, arms and feet. Relatives and friends will join the fun and go through similar ritual. Similar function is held at Grooms house as well.
Ritual bath ( mangala Snana) ceremony is held separately at both homes a day before the wedding. The bride is liberally applied with oil, turmeric and coconut milk by the female elders of the family. Then the blessings are offered. Bride’s sister-in-law or any other elderly lady of the family leads the bride to her bath. After the sumptuous bath the bride completes the ritual by wearing a new silk sari, gold ornaments and bangles. The bride is then escorted to the “Puja” room for a brief prayer and then on to the “tulsi katta” for further prayers. Similar rituals are held at the Grooms house as well.
Murtha Ceremony is held a day before the wedding day and is performed at the Bride’s house. This is an important function as per the Bunt tradition. It starts with the prayers to God and to “Thulsi Katte”. The Bride is then dressed with a silk sari, “mallige” (Jasmine flower) plait , a gold “Patti“ around the waist, a gold Vanki on the arm, and a gold Mundale on her forehead and taken to a decorated chair to be seated. A “Harivana” (silver plate) filled with raw rice mixed with “haldi” (Turmeric) and “Kunkum” (Vermilion) and a whole coconut on the top is placed in front of the chair.
A female member of the family distributes red and green glass bangles to all women. The eldest Sumangali (married lady) of the family decorates the second toe of the bride’s feet with a golden/silver ring. Five of the Sumangali’s place red and green bangles on Bride’s hands in a sequence. One black bangle is also set in the sequence to keep the evil spirits away. These Sumangali’s also decorate the Bride’s hair with Jasmine flowers. Then an “Arthi” is offered to the Bride. Finally, Sumangali’s apply “Haldi/Kumkum” on Bride’s forehead and bless her.
A simple Muhurtham ceremony is also performed at the Bridegroom’s house on the previous day or on the day of marriage.
Wedding, in the olden days, was a simple ceremony, although, wedding day was an important date. Normally, wedding was organised by the Bride’s parents.
In the wedding hall, the stage (mantap) is decorated with bunches of aracnut, mango leaves and jasmine flowers. As a tradition, the Bride comes to the hall first, decorated with Kancheevaram sari, jasmine studded plait, a gold belt around her waist, a ”vanki” on her arm, green and red bangles and gold bangles , a “mundale” on the parting of her forehead and a pair of diamond stud in her ears. Before entering the hall, Groom’s sister will wash her feet with water. Traditional trumpet is played with much fanfare as the Bride enters the hall. . The Bride is escorted to the stage by the Groom’s sister and is seated on the right side facing the audience.
Then it is the Groom’s turn to enter the hall with similar fanfare. Before entering the hall, Bride’s brother will wash his feet with water and Groom’s brother-in -law will lead him to the stage. He will be seated on the left side facing the audience.
A “Harivana” (a large round plate) with raw rice mixed with haldi and kumkum and a silver “chembu” (a special pot) filled with holy water, positioned on the top, is placed in front of the Bride and Groom. A bunch of coconut flower and a whole coconut are also placed on the harivana. A well lit “sanadige deepa” makes up the whole requirement.
The Bridegroom’s mother presents a set of gold jewellery ornaments on a silver plate along with new silk sari, fresh flowers and haldi/ kumkum to the Bride.
The Pujary (priest) lights the sacred fire and a “Homa” (Sacred fire sacrifice) is performed chanting Vedic hymns. The Brides brother puts fistful of raw rice in the hands of his sister and the Groom which they offer to the sacred fire.
“Dare maipunu” is the most sacred function of the marriage ceremony. The Bride’s parents, in the presence of her maternal uncle, his wife, and other elder members of her family perform this ceremony. A brass “chembu” (vessel with a jet) filled with holy water (Theertha) is held together by the Bride’s parents and paraded to all elders of both families for seeking their blessings. An antique gold coin is placed on Bride’s palm which is supported by Groom’s both hands underneath the palm. Bride’s parents pour the holy water from the “chembu” over couples hands. This ritual is known as “Dhare”. The “Mangala Suthra” ( a gold necklace with black beads), which is already blessed by the elders, is joined around the Bride’s neck by the Groom. The Groom will slip the wedding ring to Bride’s right ring finger. And Bride then slides a gold ring on Groom’s finger.
The Bride and the Groom have to take seven steps around the sacred fire. The Groom holds the Bride’s hand and together they walk around the sacred fire seven times. With each round the Bride has to tip over a small heap of rice with her right foot and repeat the seven marriage vows along with the Groom.
An “Aarthi” is offered to the couple by the Sumangalis. Then all guests and relatives bless the newly married couple.
“Neer Maipunu” ceremony is performed outside the hall by the steps. Bride and Groom are escorted from the stage to the entrance of the hall. They pray to Sun god. The Bride’s brother will wash the Groom’s feet. For this honour the Groom is expected to reward his brother-in-law very handsomely.
The Bride and Groom re-enter the hall where Bride’s mother offer tender coconut to the Groom. Groom and Bride share the tender coconut water which signifies a commitment to share everything in their life.
“Ponnu Vochid Korpini” is the last ceremony before the sumptuous feast. Ladies from the Bride’s family offer the Bride’s hand to the Groom’s mother. The group sing series of songs in praise of the Bride. At times, this can be emotional. The Groom’s family will accept her with honour and as their own daughter and not a daughter-in-law. And they are happily married.
The modern Bunt weddings are a different issue altogether and invariably no relevance to the traditional Bunt wedding. The ceremony extends over many days, involving an enormous amount of money and has become an entertainment showbiz.
10. Evolution of Bunts through the centuries
One should observe with great interest how such a minority community managed to exercise such an authority, gain enormous respects and exhibit great leadership on the whole area of the coastal districts, extending from Kasargod in the south and Byndoor in the north; and to take those qualities with them where ever they went and excel in their chosen fields.
That is probably the reason for the recent surge in the interest to study the Bunt history and culture.
To record the Bunt history, archives are not available and no attempts were made to document the history in a logical manner until 1960’s. Most of the data available and presented by various authors are based on some ancient inscriptions, notes by the British officials during the colonial period and the word of mouth paddana’s (Folk Songs) passed through many generations. It is almost certain that in the early centuries of the Christian era, there were kings, some independent and some under the suzerain of overlords like Kadambas, Chalukyas and Hoysalas. There were constant skirmishes and fighting, and the ‘Buntaru’ or warriors were important stabilizing segments of the population. In due course the Bunts succeeded in becoming owners of lands.
11. Role of Bunts during the Middle Ages
Bunts role in the society during the first millennium is not very clear. A study of the political and social conditions in the west coast would reveal the role of Bunts during the middle ages covering the period of Alupa Kingdom, Kadambas and Chalukya Dynasties (345 BC to 1200 AD), and then during Hoysalas (1250-1350), Vijayanagara Kings (1336-1646), Keladi Dynasty (1499-1763).
As a warrior class, the Bunts attained their greatest glory during the rule of Vijayanagara Emperors (1336-1646) belonging to the Tuluva Dynasty which was founded by a chieftain Bunt called Tuluva Narasa Nayaka. The glory was further enhanced by Krishnadevaraya by extending the kingdom to whole of south India. During the rule of Vijayanagara, Tulu Nadu was administered in two parts – Mangalore State and Barkur State. We can still see the glory of Vijayanagar kingdom in Barkur by the beautiful temples they built during that period. After the fall of the Vijayanagar dynasty the Bunts again concentrated themselves in Tulu Nadu where they took to large scale agriculture in the vast area of land they still possessed and also served as administrators and warriors in the various minor Hindu and Jain kingdoms that controlled various parts of the region from time to time.
Handady Bunt family (1492) gained prominence due to their agrarian and entrepreneurial success, and also due to the political influence they had gained. Shankar Hegde from Handady was an officer under the Vijayanagara rulers.
Vijayanagara and Keladi period (1336-1763) witnessed a strong participation of the Portuguese in the commercial activities which was a big boost for the landlord-traders, and it certainly helped the growth of the Bunt power and influence in the region.
Portuguese historian’s documents reveal that in 1530 Portuguese destroyed the trading power of Ratna Shetty from Mangalore who put up a strong resistance and damaged the enemy fleet in the river. Legend says Ratna Shetty had so much power and influence during that period and he had also some connections to the king of Calicut. To provoke the wrath of the Portuguese shows him that he was a man of real substance.
In 1560 Shetty families from Basrur and Kundapur region clashed with Portuguese because they did not want to submit to the bullying tactics of the Portuguese.
Other prominent Bunt houses during the medieval period were Yedthare, Nandalike Chavadi, Shirva Nadibettu, Ichlampady, Puthige, Ulipady, Bambrana, Bellipady, Yedmakaje, Nitte, Jeppu, Badila, Kudla, Magandadi and many other famous Bunt houses along the coast.
During the Vijayanagara empire Mangalore Rajya was virtually managed by Kodial, Badila and Gudde Guthus.
Bellipady built up a formidable reputation and claimed to have supervised 36 villages in four Taluks and managed 24 temples in the 18th century.
Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan (1763-1799), Kings of Mysore, never disturbed the Bunts and they were left on their own with their normal way of life and with their joint family system.
Bunts remained a prominent land owing community, worshiping their family Daivas, supporting and managing village temples and acting as village guardians. Aliyasantana system of property inheritance prevailed throughout. Head of the family was responsible for the welfare of all family members.
12. Bunts during 18th century
In times of peace Guthus were busy conducting the annual rituals in which all communities within the village will participate and enjoy themselves. This was considered to be necessary for the health and happiness of the entire population of the village.
In case of any external threat Bunt households were expected to fight. Every house in the village was to provide at least one able bodied person and they all assemble in the courtyard of the Bunt household. The Yajman of the Bunt household decides on all the proceedings and decides on the deployment of the soldiers.
After the fall of Tipu Sultan, the East India Company emerged as the fiduciary for the coastal districts. And few years later India became the colony of Britain.
The start of the British rule of the district in 1799 forms a watershed in the history of the region. The British rule was based on a more definitive system of control of revenue and police.
Districts collectors, appointed by the colonial power, were empowered to appoint native public servants to collect revenue. Many Bunt leaders were appointed as heads of villages. They also became judicial officers of their respective villages.
Colonial Officers of the 19th century accepted and supported the Bunt way of life and their customs, because they needed the support of the Bunt landlords. The British observed that Bunt remains a Bunt in success as well as in failure.
Bunt landlords became crucial for the British in the context of the national movement for political freedom. Colonial rulers tricked Bunt landlords to their side. Honorary titles like Rao Bahadur and Dewan Bahadur were conferred on a few selected Bunts. But, unfortunately for British, these were offset by a vigorous group of Bunt freedom fighters who staked all they had for the cause of India’s freedom.
A few prominent Bunt families in the coastal districts became big land owners as the years rolled by in the 18th century. This was done either by acquiring government land through the connivance of government officials, or by taking possession of land pledged as guarantee to loans advanced, or by new purchases from the intending sellers.
Bunts were not just the landlords. Traces of a number of trading houses called ‘Bhandasale’ belonging to ancient Bunt families were found along the coast. They stand up as witnesses to the trading activities of the Bunts in the late 18th and early19th centuries. Some of them became very prosperous.
As a result of high level trading activities Bunts saw plenty of cash flowing into their treasury. Many of them resorted to micro finance to add to their income. Micro financing brought in more cash to the big Bunt landlords and traders.
Bunts and Jains were traditionally wholesale traders. The aggressive competition from Bunt traders resulted in the decline of fortunes of Jain traders. Jains were also persecuted by the Keladi Kings. As a result many Jain landlords and traders migrated from South Kanara villages to upcountry trade centres like Hassan and Mysore. Their properties were put up for sale. Bunts purchased their lands. Many new manorial houses of Bunts built in the second half of 18th century were located in Jain land holdings. Bunts turned into agrarian capitalists.
The 18th century was the best of times for some Bunt families. But for a number of Bunt households it was a bad time. They lost their fertile lands and property to unscrupulous money lenders. The reckless borrowing of money by the Yajaman’s (head of the family) to satisfy their own personal needs or to fight silly legal battles and by becoming defaulters resulted in the forfeiture of their family lands. Couple of Bunt families in Pangala lost their house and land holdings to Pangala Nayaks of Konkani origin.
Migration of Bunts to other parts of India and overseas was rare before the 19th century. During the 1890’s there was a study migration of a few Bunts to Mumbai in search of new opportunities. The young Bunts who migrated to Mumbai became entrepreneurs over the years. And they invited the other young Bunts from their villages to come to Mumbai to work for them. Hence the ‘Mumbai Chalo’ movement started and this resulted in the enormous economic prosperities of some of the Bunt families in the South Kanara district. There was also an enormous increase in number of modern and sophisticated rich Bunts in Mumbai.
13. Bunt Manorial Houses
Many of the prominent Bunt houses are over 600 years old.
Until the beginning of the 20th century Bunt landlords lived in fairly large thatched houses. Their mud walled houses were built on raised grounds with a panoramic view of paddy fields and coconut groves. The walled compound was fairly large and within the complex there was a well to provide water, a Thulasi Katte, a long detached shed to accommodate cows and buffalos, a detached shed to house chickens and Katta Kori, a small outbuilding to house family Daivas, a storage area for paddy and rice and a large open area either in the front or to the right of the house. And on the backyard was forest land.
As the Bunts got richer either by increased land holdings, or by trade, or by the cash received by the members of the family who migrated to the cities, Bunts started restructuring their family houses. The introduction of Mangalore tiles in 1866 was an additional incentive to have tiled roofing and a modern house.
The grandeur and reputation of many Bunt houses are reflected in their architecture, a mixture of old and new. Some of the houses are palatial. They reveal the life style of Guthus, the culture they had inherited, the image of power they projected in the society.
14. Bunts in the 19th and 20th century
Bunts have been traders since the beginning of the 16th century. Some Bunt families became fabulously rich. They were competing against Jains, Arabs, Dutch and Portuguese traders. Mulki port was buzzing with export trades.
As farmers produced more, trade increased and with it the general prosperity of the people. Bunts were the principal beneficiaries of the development. Many Bunt houses around this area of Mulki prospered during this period.
The boom time in trade during the second half of the 19th century accounted for the fabulous wealth of a legendary Bunt trader-cum-landlord Sahukar Kalappa Shetty(1862-1899) of Mulki. He was a merchant prince and also a philanthropist. His wife Koosamma became heiress to his property. She was a visionary. Under her care the family developed into a progressive unit, claiming few freedom fighters and also the first woman graduate – Shambhavi Punja (1924) from the Bunt community. Mahatma Gandhi visited Koosamma’s house in Mulky in 1934.
There were several ports along the coast from Kundapur to Kasargod and many Bunt families were actively involved in wholesale and export trade of agricultural produce which again cultivated by Bunt families. It was a golden period for Bunts.
Cash was flowing in to the cash boxes of Bunt landlords. Surplus cash needs to be invested. They became money lenders and got into microfinance business. This brought in additional income, but also gave an exposure to the financial management. Yedthare (founded in 1450) was one of the wealthiest Bunt joint families in the northern coast of Kanara. They traded in a big way. They also owned vast tracts of fertile agricultural land. This is just one of the examples. Many Bunt joint families along the coast became very rich.
Many wealthy Bunt families became serious philanthropists. They started building schools in their villages, helped renovate temples and looked after the poorer section of the community. They had built fine Manor Houses for the benefit of the joint family members.
The newly built houses for the extended family members, by the Yajaman, were never called Guthus. They were Nela Ille, Doddamane, Mudu Mane, Padu Mane, Hosa Mane, Thenku Mane etc.
15. Education of Bunts
John Sturrock of British Colonial representative of South Kanara observed in 1881 – “Bunts were not keen on availing themselves of European education. They were not only not keen but also indifferent”
Many Bunt youngsters thought that the rigours of modern education were irrelevant to them. They did not feel the need for modern education. They did not want to take up government jobs. A few of them were happy with the role of Patels in the villages. The Joint family system supported their livelihood and their arrogant ego.
Bunts were at the bottom of the scale in education as per the 1901 census, compared to the other sections of the population in South Kanara.
Education was a low priority for Bunt Households until the beginning of 20th century. Most of the villages had no schools. Brahmin tutors were employed in the households. Initially only boys were allowed to attend. But in course of time special classes were conducted in the premises of the house which included girls.
Standard elementary schools in the region were very few. A Number of high schools in the districts were just a handful. There were only couple of higher education colleges in the district. No regular hostel facilities existed in Mangalore or in any other town in the district for Bunt students from remote villages.
Prominent Bunt leaders realised that education alone could help develop the Bunt community. This was a response to the challenge posed by John Sturrock, a British civil servant, in 1881.
But the expectation did not match the infra structure. Higher educational institutions were situated in major towns which were far away from villages. Transport facilities were inadequate. There were hardly any student accommodation facilities in the towns. For the aspiring Bunts this was frustrating.
At the turn of the 19th century few Bunt families realised that modern education was the key to the future and social advancement. This was evident in the late 19th century when they started supporting education and sponsored schools in villages and small towns throughout the coastal region. They encouraged their children to go for higher education. The Mangalore based Bunt families were in the forefront to utilise the opportunity to go for higher education. They were also the earliest Bunts to join the colonial government service.
Land Reforms Act of 1961 which was implemented in 1966 was a real wake up call for Bunts. It had a far reaching impact on the economic conditions of Bunts and a traumatic effect on many families. The influential land owing community found themselves with the deprivation of their main source of income. Above all they received a big dent on their prestige, influence, authority and ego. But they have taken up the challenge and responded in a highly spirited way.
Mangalore Bunts were the earliest Bunts to realise the importance of higher education. They joined the exclusive clubs of pioneer Bunt graduates along with few from Bombay and Madras. Attavara Laxmiamma (Pammakke) became the first Bunt girl to pass the matriculation examination when she was 15 years old in 1870.
Bunt land owners across the region contributed generously for the establishment of student hostels and schools and colleges in the district. This was a giant step in community work.
Establishment of Bunt student hostels encouraged many Bunts from the remote villages to enrol in colleges for further education. Mangalore Bunt hostel was established in 1907.
Among the earlier Bunts, Kemthoor Kalappa Shetty made his mark in the British colonial government during the middle of the 19th century. His family members became prominent educationists, doctors and lawyers.
Mahalinga Adyanthaya(1888-1966) was the first young Bunt to go to United Kingdom for higher studies in engineering. Along with AB Shetty he was responsible for establishing the Karnataka Polytechnic in Mangalore which had been a big land mark in Kadri.
Many Bunts who migrated to Bombay and Madras during the early decades of the 20th century got educated, overcoming great difficulties, and became engineers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, hotel owners, factory owners, public servants and senior officers in multinational companies.
The economic development of the closing years of the 19th century projected an altogether a new life style for the affluent Bunts.
Few households of Bunts like Ichlampady House in Kasargod district encouraged Yakshagana and other folk arts. The Ichlampady Yakshagana troupe promoted by Kotianna Alva (1827-1927) made waves in the field of Yakshagana for several decades.
Many Bunts excelled in folk arts. There were many talented artists in Yakshagana and Thalemaddale. Kavi Bhushana Venkappa Shetty was a household name along the coast.
16. Bunts in Freedom Movement and Social Work
From Kundapur to Kasargod many Bunt leaders pushed themselves in to the struggle for freedom movement. They also worked hard for furthering the nationalist causes such as, removal of untouchability, eradication of poverty, and promotion and welfare of Dalits.
A few influential Bunts were attracted by the Justice Party supporting the British. Such Bunts were conferred with honorary titles such as Dewan Bahadur, Rao Bahadur etc, by the British, appreciating their support. Quite a few Bunts received these honorary titles and some of them were proud of it. But eventually all of them supported the freedom movement whole heartedly and actively participated in various capacities.
Belinge Krishnayya Hegde, an influential land owner from Hebri, strenuously opposed the Justice Party and through the polls managed to wipe out the Justice Party from South Kanara district. It is sad that he was not given a due recognition by the Bunt community.
Dr Vittal Shetty, as Municipal President of Mangalore, worked hard to get its first electric power supply through a coal based electricity generator in 1933. It was a great achievement. He became the most popular President of South Kanara District Board. Dr Vittal Shetty declined the Rao Bahadur title conferred by the British. Later he was imprisoned by the British in 1942 for supporting the Quit India Movement.
There were many Bunts actively involved in the National Freedom Movement during the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s. The list is big but it is worth noting some of the names. K.K.Shetty, N,S Kille, Nadibail Venkappa Rai, Udupi Ramayya Shetty, Agari Lakkappa Rai, Leelavati Rai, Badila Anantha Rai, Karianna Shetty of Padubidri, Marappa Pakkala, Kurkalu Ganapayya Shetty, Lokayya Shetty, Vittal Das Shetty, K. Honnayya Shetty, Polali Sheenappa Hegde, Kaidel Thimmappa Shetty, Kayyar Kinhanna Rai, B Narayan Rai and many more Bunts courted arrests and went to prison for supporting the freedom movement. Bambrana Devappa Alva Was a congress leader and worker, also worked in Harijan uplift and rehabilitation program, and earned the honourable title – Kumble Gandhi.
Harijan uplift program continued to be of interest and Bunts remained in the forefront. D.B. Anthayya Shetty, as secretary of Harijan Seva Sangh in Udupi worked hard to establish hostels for Harijans, to eradicate untouchability and to lead the ‘temple entry’ campaign. Similar program was undertaken by Dr. Heroor Venkappa Adappa.
Individually, many Bunts had participated in the national movement at various stages and in various capacities. They were brave and they and their families knew the risks they were taking. It was also significant that Bunt Sanghas responded daringly to nationalist impulses and projects. This seems to have strengthened the institutions of Bunt Sanghas.
17. Advent of Bunts Sanghas
Sensing the urgency to create community awareness to modern education Bunt community leaders decided to meet and outline a program for establishing Bunts Students Hostels and Bunt Sanghas at various places. In 1907 thirty seven prominent Bunts from various regions of South Kanara such as, Mangalore, Kundapur, Udupi, Karkal, Uppinangadi, and Kasargod met in Mangalore and decided to go ahead to establish these two important Institutions. Mangalore Bunts Hostel was established in 1907 and in May 1908 the first General Body meeting of the Bunt Sangha held at Karangalapadi under the president ship of Justice Attavara Ramayya Punja.
The first set of office bearers were elected after this General Body meeting for the Bunt Sangha Mangalore; President – Attavara Devappa Punja, Vice President – Kodial Guthu Krishna Sulaya, Secretary – B. Mahabala Hegde, Treasurer – Attavara Balakrishna Shetty.
It was also decided to have a permanent Body who could meet on a regular basis to promote Bunt culture and traditions. Mangalore Bunt Sangha became instrumental in establishing similar bodies in many cities and small towns across India. Bunt Associations are also functioning well in countries like USA, United Kingdom and in the Middle East.
There was a sudden surge of growth and development activities of Bunt Sanghas in South Kanara in the last decades of the 20th century under the president ship of K.Sathishchandra Hegde.
18. Recent developments and achievements
A.B.Shetty was the first Bunt to become a minister in the then Madras and Mysore governments. He also founded the Vijaya Bank in 1931 along with other Bunt leaders of the time.
Bunts occupied many cabinet ministerial positions in various governments at national and state levels. There were about 14 Bunts who became ministers at various periods. Even now there is a minister from Bunt community in the Karnataka government.
A large number of Bunts were elected to the legislature both at national and state levels since 1947. Supreme Court Justice K.S.Hegde became the Speaker of the parliament.
Bunts can really boast to have produced more than seven Chairmen of nationalised banks.
Three Bunts became the Supreme Court Justices. There were few High Court Chief Justices and more than 9 Bunts became Justices of High Courts. Many Bunts became prominent lawyers in Mangalore, Bangalore, Madras, Mumbai and Delhi.
Supreme Court Justice Jagannath Shetty became the Chairman of the Indian Public Service Commission.
Supreme Court Justice Santhosh Hegde became the Lokayuktha in Karnataka and Justice Vishwanath Shetty is the current Lokayuktha of Karnataka.
Dr. Venkat Shetty co-founded the Nair Hospital in Bombay, along with Dr. A.C. Nair, which later developed into a well known Medical and Dental college complex way back during the 1930’s. He remained the Chairman of the Institution for 20 years.
Bunt entrepreneurs became legendary captains of hotel industry in Mumbai during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The word Shetty came to be identified with hotel industry. The financial source of these captains became the economic back bone for the coastal district.
Bunts also had more than a fair share of gangsters (Dons) over the years. Some lost their lives in gangland rivalry; few came out of it legally and became businessmen and good citizens. None of the Dons got into active politics.
Quite a few Bunts became Coffee and Tea Planters during the early decades of the 20th century when the British started leaving their estates.
Although Bunt landlords and entrepreneurs had plenty of money at the turn of the 19th century, no one had the strategic vision, or the drive, or the skills, or the contacts to think big. As a result South Kanara remained an industrially backward region for the early part of the 20th century when the major business houses emerged in India.
However, those Bunts who migrated to Mumbai ventured into manufacturing and Thimmappa Bhandary, an engineer in metallurgy, was one of the first Bunts to be a successful entrepreneur. He was followed by many young Bunts who made big names in manufacturing and earned accolades.
Back in South Kanara many Bunts ventured into modern industry and managed highly successful companies. Badila Dooma Rai seem to have been the first Bunt to start a tile factory in Mangalore.
During the second half of the 20th century couple of Bunts in Karnataka made big names in the construction sector, including some major hydro electric projects and tunnel drilling, road building and dam construction. They became the household names in Bunt families. Several other young Bunt men with excellent managerial skills also joined the band of public works contractors and became very successful.
Quite a few Bunts became successful Builders and Property Developers.
Few prominent Bunts engaged in establishing educational trusts to manage and operate medical colleges, nursing colleges, engineering colleges, technical institutions, hotel management colleges, business schools, law colleges and arts and science colleges. Their contribution to the society is valuable and very much appreciated.
Kaup Muddanna Shetty pioneered horticultural ventures in a big way.
In the services sector Bunts have done extremely well. Many Bunt bus operators became fleet owners during the transport industries boom years. Few young Bunts got into logistics and are managing large international shipping and cargo companies. We have an enterprising young Bunt who owns one of the major cargo companies in the world.
Bunts contribution to rural health care during the first half of the 20th century forms a golden chapter in the history of Bunts. Equipped with diplomas such as LCP, LIM, LMP etc. they moved to far off villages in the old Hyderabad, Mysore, Madras and Bombay provinces and provided much needed medical care to the rural population at a time when there were shortage of doctors in rural areas. They were highly respected for their valuable services to the rural community.
In the second half of the 20th century Bunt doctors reached their highest peak in fame and respect. We have world famous heart surgeons, cardiologists, radiologists, neurologists, general surgeons, ENT surgeons, orthopaedic surgeons and outstanding physicians and ophthalmologists.
Bunts love the health care business. Our famous Bunt in the Middle East, is a symbol of success, who owns and manages a huge health care business which is also listed in the London Stock exchange. He also owns an international foreign currency exchange business and probably is the first Dollar Billionaire Bunt.
There are many hospitals in Bangalore, Mangalore and other cities in Karnataka that are owned and managed by enterprising Bunts. One of the Bunts also ventured into a Care Homes business and built and managed a group of Care Homes in the United Kingdom, providing a valuable service to the community. Their contribution to the welfare of the society has been very well recognised.
It was the Bunts adventure and the leadership which turned Mangalore, Moodabidre, Nitte and Derlakatta into an educational and cultural hub of international repute.
Bunts are also shining in the IT sector. And we have few clever Bunts in the Actuarial discipline. Few Bunts also became successful Investment Bankers.
Many Bunts have become professors in their specialist fields. There are more than 10 Bunts who became vice chancellors of Universities in India. There are also few Bunts who are faculty members in prestigious Indian, European and American Universities and Directors of Research Institutions. Bunt community also have highly recognised and successful research fellows in Stem Cells technology.
Bunts were also in the IAS and IFS cadre, including an ambassador. Bunts made fair contributions to the armed forces. Group Captain Dinesh Chandra Bhandary was awarded Vir Chakra for his gallantry during operations against Pakistan in 1971. Wing Commander Prabhakar Hegde was the first Bunt to be awarded with Vir Chakra. We had few Air Marshals, Wing Commanders, Major Generals, Brigadiers and Squadron Leaders in the armed forces. We also had few IGP’s in the police forces.
Few Bunts were awarded Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibushan which was another remarkable achievement.
We have a Bunt who has been awarded an MBE by the Queen of England for his services to the British Intelligent Service.
Bunts were in media as well. Two Kannada papers were started by Bunts, Navayuga and Mungaru, in Mangalore. But both were closed down after a decade. There are quite a few successful Bunt journalists working for national news papers. There are few Bunt authors as well.
Indian film world, including Bollywood, claims handful of Bunt actors, producers and directors. There are many Bunt talents in this industry. We also had few Miss India and Miss World. There are two shining stars in the galaxy of music directors. We have few young Bunts who are budding actors in the United States and earned few accolades. What more can we expect?
Vijaya Bank was founded by eminent Bunt leaders in 1931. It developed into a national banking institution of repute. A big breakthrough for the bank came when the legendary Sunder Ram Shetty took over the reins of the bank as Chairman and Managing Director in 1970. The bank prospered and along with it, the Bunt community prospered. He promised to give at least one job to every Bunt family in Vijaya bank and he kept his promise. Bunt young men and women occupied positions in Vijaya bank from the lowest to the highest levels of the organisation. He changed the course of Bunt life like no one else did.
19. Getting back to the roots
Guthu, as an institution has played out its purpose. But its memories survive in rituals and in the family and cultural practices.
Bunts always make an attempt to stick to their roots. The disintegration of the Bunt joint family system gave way to the nuclear families. But the sentiments, of belonging to the Bunt family have always been there.
To revive the old nostalgia Bunts are getting together whenever they can and where ever they are. Many Bunt houses have started organising an annual reunion in their old family houses and have an enjoyable few days together packed with feasts and entertainment. There are also other occasions they can meet during the family Daiva worshipping ceremonies, such as Thambila, Kola, Nema, Agel, Naga Mandala, Kambla, etc.
The Associations and Sanghas of Bunts that have been established in various cities in India, Middle East, North America and United Kingdom provide good opportunities to meet the community members, to exchange views and share their experiences. The Bunt Sangha gatherings are getting very popular and the attendance is normally high.
Historically, Bunts have been known for their adaptability to the changes taking place. This is very significant as Bunts are very sensitive to retain their linguistic and cultural inheritance. When the new order came they could fit themselves nicely with natural ease and confidence. The community maintained their identity right from the middle ages through various kingdoms, through the foreign occupation of the country, through the freedom movement and through the changes taking place after independence, and through the cultural, social and economic changes taking place due to modern education.
Bunts dynamism to negotiate with the continuously changing modernity, without losing their cultural and traditional links to their village origins, explains their success in the changing world.
For the future, through leadership and examples, the development of our community is a priority challenge to all members, especially to our younger generation. This development should meet the aspirations and expectations of our forefathers and can be achieved only with the active participation of all members of the community.
Genes don’t change in history. If our ancestors had genes in their bodies for great adventures and achievements I don’t see why we can’t inherit the same from them. It is up to us how we construct our future as a traditional and an integrated community and at the same time retain our individuality.
We must embrace greatness and forsake trivialness, enrich ourselves with virtues and create long lasting success as a legacy for our future generation. This should be our mission statement.
When we gather together as a community we do not just toast the success and achievements of the few, we must always remember the vast majority within our community who are not fortunate enough to be very comfortable.
There is no greater wealth than wisdom, no greater poverty than ignorance and no greater heritage than culture. We have a great culture and we have a great tradition going back to few millennium years and no matter how much we are influenced by the transitional modern trends, it is up to us to make sincere efforts to keep it within the boundaries of good taste and governance.
The future should see us and our children working together to extend the frontiers for mutual benefit and the strength of the community. Unity and sharing of our strengths will multiply our advantages. The Bunt community should move forward confidently and play an important role in the society we live. However, we should always remember our roots and retain our wonderful culture at all times with appropriate adjustments.
What more our younger generation can aspire than this great heritage. That is how we build up a socially cohesive community.
Ramesh Shetty, MA, LLB, ACMA, CGMA, MCMI
Ex President – Bunts Sangha, United Kingdom.
Reference books used for this article
- History of Bunts – Dr.Krishnananda Hegde (excellent research work and the presentation)
- Bunts in History and Culture – Mr. B. Surendra Rao (Excellent book and very analytical)
- Caste and tribes of south India – Edgar Thurston
- Studies in Tuluva History and Culture – Gururaja Bhat
- The Mask and the Message – K. Chinnappa Gowda
- Epics in the Oral Genre, System of Tulu Nadu – Dr. B.A. Vivek Rai
- Siri Epic – Lauri Honko (Finland)