Visit the remote villages of Chikkakumathi and Kumathi, and you are greeted by huge stone anthropomorphic figures and megalithic stone tombs that speak of the evolution of the human race. Home to the Myasa Beda tribals, who have lived here for centuries, worshipping nature and living off the land and forests, these villages of Chitradurga district have seen the trappings of modernity pass them by. For as long as anyone can remember here, the vast grasslands of Chitradurga have supported cattle grazers, who have led a life of seclusion, far away from the buzz of towns and cities. But now many here fear their idyllic way of life could be under threat with the government allotting about 1,000 acres of the Amruth Kaval grazing land used by around 80 tribal hamlets in Molakalmuru for a Science City. Sadly, their gods too are in danger of becoming extinct because many of the tribals are now beginning to worship ‘Esu Swamy’ under the influence of local Christian priests.
The question worrying the more educated among the tribals is will they ever recover from this double blow of their gods coming under threat and their grazing land fast declining. “When the fields disappear, we will lose our cattle and our pastoral rituals. Even now our tribal deities are making way for Hindu idols and other gods. This is definitely the end of the Myasa Beda tribal culture,” mourns Shivappa Nayaka, an elder of the tribe in Jagalur. Going by historians the word ‘Myasa’ is derived from the Telugu/Kannada word, ‘Meyisuva,’ meaning cattle rearing, while others quote the copper inscriptions from the Vijayanagar era to claim that the kings of the time deployed muscled Myasa men as ‘khasa misalu pade’ or a reserve force.
The tribe has sub-sects like Yanamalavaru or buffalo owners, Eddalaru or bull owners, Pulavaru or flower growers and Malalavaru, or fishermen. The Myasas do not eat fowls or drink alcohol and will not even sit on mats made of leaves of the date-palm, which provides toddy in the region. While Kampala Devaru is the prime deity of the tribe, it also worships the earth, moon, sun , holy bulls, and articles like the shanku, surya nandana alagu (dagger) and the kori nishane (flag), which it believes were gifted to the community by Lord Vishnu after he fell in love with a young tribal woman, Chanchu Lakshmi and married her. The semi-nomadic tribe takes the holy articles with it wherever it moves, in a special box and installs it in a hut called the Gubba or Gudlu when it settles in a place. In recent years, the box with the holy articles has been shifted to a temple-like structure to protect them from fire, wind and rain. The community even has its own priests called Mundasu Dasaru.
But last year some outsiders reportedly attempted to install the idol of Sheshashayana Mahavishnu in the Gudlu of the Kampala Devaru and even appoint Brahmin priests. But they were thwarted by the Myasa Beda Budakattu Samskruthi Samrakshana Samithi, an organisation formed by the educated tribals to protect their culture and tradition. There was talk then that the move to bring in Hindu idols and Brahmin priests was meant to counter the growing conversion of Myasa tribals to Christianity by missionaries.
Seeing his way of life and culture slipping away, 90-year-old Palaiah of Chikkakumathi, a tiny village in Molakalmuru remarks in a voice laced with sorrow, “Maybe I’m the last Vaarada Dasaiah, ” referring to the holy title given to a Myasa Beda tribal, who every Saturday blows the shanku before Kampala Devaru and prays for the welfare of the tribals. His family prepares the sacred ‘prasada’ for the gods every festival and distributes it among the devotees.
His worries are real as his son, Boraiah, who he expected to succeed him, has stopped visiting the Gubba or Gudlu huts where the holy articles of the tribe are placed and worshipped every Saturday. He instead goes to church in a nearby village to pray to ‘Esu Swamy’ every Sunday and has named his newborn son, John, skipping the tribal names.
Boraiah is not the only one going to church now as a large number of tribals too attend it every Sunday, impressed by the success of Christian priests in curing their diseases, says Prasad, a tribal youth from Chickajogihalli, where hundreds of tribals go to church for Sunday prayers. There are also lookalikes of the Gubbas on the outskirts of every tribal hamlet with photographs of Esu Swamy adorning their walls in Kudligi, Molakalmuru, Challakere and Jagalur taluks, where till recently no photograph of even a Hindu god was found in tribal homes. Says Myasamma, (90) , who has never worshipped any God other than her tribal deities, “I have now let my family members keep a photograph of’Esu Swamy in the house because my two sons were cured of acute joint pain after worshipping him.”
She, however, clarifies, “It does not mean we have stopped worshipping our own tribal deities.” Her grandson, Thippesh has placed a sticker of a Christian Cross on his bike, besides of the ‘cross swords’ symbolising the valour of his tribe. “People have even stopped naming their kids after our gods and cultural heroes. They are using Christian names. Once we forget our indigenous names, we could forget our culture,” laments Revanna, chief priest of the Kampala Devaru temple. While some here accuse Christian priests of exploiting the illiteracy, hunger and ailments of the tribe to convert its people to Christianity others like him believe that worship of Hindu gods is also threatening its way of life. While tribals living in villages still don’t worship Hindu gods and continue to pray to the cultural heroes of the tribe, dead elders and ‘devara ettugalu’ or holy bulls, besides the sun and the moon, those who have migrated to urban areas have started to worship Hindu gods, he says.
“I feel that conversion to Christianity and the acceptance of non-tribal Gods will cause the Myasa Beda culture to die. Once their gods vanish, they are bound to lose their unique features and culture,” warns Prof. Virupaksha Poojarahalli, who teaches history at the Hampi Kannada University and has studied the Myasa Beda tribals. Angered by the growing missionary activities in the hamlet, a church in Yarrenahalli village in Molakalmuru was recently ransacked by a section of the tribals. And some have returned to their old gods fearing social boycott. Dr G Papaiah, president of the Myasa Beda Budakattu Samskruthi Samrakshana Samithi says his organisation will soon launch a campaign in every hamlet to appeal to tribals not to embrace Christianity. “We are not barbarians. We have a rich indigenous culture, tradition and history. We know that every individual is free to decide his or her religion in this country. But our innocent tribals are being lured with freebies and miracles. I appeal to Christian missionaries to stop this practice. If they do not listen, we will approach the government to ban this forcible conversion,” he stresses.
The Myasa Bedas are not a small community. Estimated to be around 10 lakh strong, they are found from Anegundi, the cradle of the Vijayanagar empire near Hampi to Mysuru , besides living in the hamlets of Molakalmuru, Challakere and Hiriyur taluk in Chitradurga, Jagalur in Davanagere, Kudligi, Sandur and Kamalapura villages in Hosapete taluk in Ballari and Rayadurg and Kalyanadurg in Andhra Pradesh. “The government cannot afford to ignore us, “warn the more educated among them, who are determind to preserve their culture despite the threat from the Science City and “foreign religions.”