Uncertainty over the future of this 800-year-old semi-nomadic tribe of Karnataka looms large owing to changing times and growing modernisation. The Helavarus have been losing their societal relevance when it comes to recording family genealogies.
Right across from what is now the defunct stadium of Honnali town in Karnataka’s Davangere district, one can see yellow-coloured tents scattered sparsely on a large open field. A 15-minute walk outside the defined limits of the town is all the pain one has to take to witness what locals refer to as ‘human computers’.
For the residents of Honnali, these white-clad men with pink turbans, riding on bullock carts into their town once a year is not a rare occurrence by any means.
Bullock carts, oxen and yellow tents are the tell-tale signs of this semi-nomadic tribe of Karnataka. Traditionally known as Helavaru, which in Kannada roughly translates to “narrate”, the members of the community go about narrating histories of almost all families in villages of Davangere, Chitradurga, Dharwad, Gadag, Belgaum, Bijapur, Bagalkot, Haveri, Bellary and Uttara Kannada said Dr. K M Metry, professor at the Department of Tribal Studies, Kannada University, Hampi.
The traditional caste profession of the community entails recording births, deaths, marriages and other familial issues in an encapsulated manner. It must be noted that they have been recording genealogies since the time of celebrated social reformer, Basavanna in the 12th Century AD.
However, the 800-year-old caste profession of this community is threatened during the present times. An amalgamation of changing the societal structure, modernisation, dawn of the age of computerisation and the ever-growing need for educating the children have left the future of this community in a state of uncertainty. What was once considered to be a respectable caste profession is now being given up by many.
For Kaveri, 20, travelling with her family, this is her first year as a traditional Helava woman.. Kaveri, who still remains largely uneducated as a result of constant shifts throughout her childhood, said that she is very excited to see her uncles go about narrating family histories in Honnali. “I am excited to learn and see my uncles and elder brothers roam around in the town,” added Kaveri.
Kaveri is a part of a 20-member group which had travelled from Hubli, Dharwad to Honnali taluk of Davangere on bullock carts and small tempos right after Ganesh Chaturthi of 2017.
Yallappa, 56, who is a second standard dropout, had learnt the trade from his father when he was young.
Explaining the process of archiving, Yallappa, in broken Hindi mixed with Kannada, while referring to the book of records under his possession, said, “We go from one house to another on oxen and write down new additions or subtractions within a family after narr
ating the family’s histories in a song-like manner.” This they refer to as ‘VamshaVriksha’ or more commonly, family trees.
This book contains family histories that have been written over years in a condensed manner. The Ettina Helavas are the only ones to write down the information
Yallappa added that the data that they have recorded have played important role in the court of law during property-related cases. The Hindu, in a 2013, article quotes a High Court judge who refers to such a claim.
Yallappa and his son, Siddesh, 24, clad in all white dhotis and kurtas, wrapped the books containing family histories in pink shawls and went about their way. Siddesh said that this is their source of livelihood for the months that they will be travelling.
“Sometimes we get food-grains, money and even cattle from the houses we go to, this helps us sustain for the months we are here,” said Siddesh.
This, they practice for about four months in a year.
When they are not roaming about, the male members of the family work as daily-wage labourers or farm-help which pays very low added both Yallappa and Siddesh. The women in the tribes while roaming around mostly take care of the household and cattle.
Uddamma, 74, who is the elder-most member of the group, said that they have been coming to Honnali for years and that they try and select the same location to set up their tents each year. Uddamma added that they build makeshift toilets that they cover with sarees for bathing and other purposes.
The Helavaru Community dates back to hundreds of centuries, a fact that Yallappa spoke about at length while explaining the dynamics of the community. Dr Metry explains that there are different idiosyncrasies within the ethnic group as well. Ettina Helava, Gube Helava, Cape Helava, Mandala Helava and Adavi Helava, Ghanti Helava are some of them.
He added that Ettina Helavas are the ones who ride on oxen while going from one house to another. Interestingly, Ettina Helavas are the only ones who record data in a written format, whereas, all others do it by virtue of retention.
The community not only narrates family genealogies but also sing folk epics like Nanjayyana Kathe, Magadi Kempegowdalavani, Helave Gowda and dodda belli-cikka belli added Dr Metry.
What plagues the community:
Deemed to be walking encyclopaedias by modern researchers, technology has had little effect on this ethnic group. Pointing out to a couple of photographs glued neatly next to the names of people, Yallappa said that for better memory and recognition, they now ask for pictures from different houses that helps them retain information better.
Even though they use a vehicle, bullock carts remain the principal mode of transport while travelling long distances, added Yallappa.
Yallappa and other members of the group who have been leading this semi-nomadic lifestyle expressed concern by saying that the number of men who are learning the trade has reduced considerably.
Ravi, 22, Kaveri’s brother said, “There are children back home in my village who are either reluctant to learn or are purposely not being taught by their parents.”
Such is the threat faced by the community in the modern times. A concoction of eroding relevance coupled with growing concerns over children’s education as well as a quest for better livelihood is prompting many people belonging to the community from giving up their caste profession.
Conversations with the family who have travelled from Hubli to Honnali reveals that people mostly give up the profession on account of losing importance and lowering social status of those who are engaged in the profession.
Helavarus: The Other Side
Some 20 km from the town’s stadium lays a village named H. Kadadakatte where lies a large settlement of people belonging to the Helavaru community. This village, comparatively nearer to the banks of the Tungabhadra river and surrounded by lush green farmlands, houses families who have now given up their caste profession and are engaged in other activities.
Right outside the village panchayat office sits an elderly man with a green scarf wrapped around his neck. T. Nagaraja, 68, is a member of the community as well as a Panchayat member.
Reminiscing the old days, he said that he has seen his father engage in the caste profession, however, he has never done the same. “In fact, other than one family in Kadadakatte, everyone else has stopped leading the semi-nomadic lifestyle,” added Nagraja.
Another member of the community, Shivkumar who is a farmer said that people are giving up on their traditional trade since it is not needed anymore and that people do not respect them the same anymore. “It’s better to do other things and earn money rather than begging,” added Shivkumar.
The members of the community have completely let go of their traditional lifestyle of roaming about for four months a year, instead, they work as coolies, farmers, businessmen and some working as professionals in big companies as well.
Shivkumar added that those who attain education move out of the caste trade in order to lead a better life. Talking about the future of the community, both Nagraja and Shivkumar said that they are unsure as to what will happen.
Right next to the Panchayat office is the residence Shekharappa S. Inside the vibrantly-coloured house lined with brownish tiles, a feeble Shekarappa rested. He had been engaged in the profession for as long as he can remember, however, old age and declining health has led him to stop his yearly visits to other parts of Karnataka.
Talking about how he learnt it at a young age, he said that his father had taught him to write the alphabets of Modi Script as a child which he used to practice every day, even before starting school. Modi Script or Modi Lipi is a kind of script used to write in Marathi and Kannada.
However, he added that his children are professionals working in Bangalore and one of his grandchildren is an academician. “I am sure they do not understand our tradition,” added a worried Shekarappa.
The changing societal impact
Close to 350 km from Honnali, M S Helawar, a Bangalore resident had a similar story to tell. Helawar, an advocate and member of State Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes Development Board said that he had heard of his grandfather leading the traditional life, however, his father chose to give it up.
He said, “Back in the day of Basavanna, Helavas performed an indispensable function in the society of data gatherers and recorders, a job that has largely been taken up by modern-day government.”
Delving deeper into the caste issue, he said that the biggest cause of trouble for the community is that it is yet to be included in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list.
“Helavaru Community, which falls under OBC category has been denied equal opportunities like those of the STs and we have been fighting for the upliftment of status for a long time,” added Helawar.
Helawar who has also been a former member of State Commissions for Backward Classes said that over the years he has received requests from members of the Helavaru community living in Bangalore to legally change their caste names.
Nagraju Guruji, the present President of Akhil Karnataka Helavaru Samaj in Bangalore said that he has been fighting for the upliftment of the community for three years now and that 60 per cent of the work has been done. “Even though the numbers of those engaging with the traditional profession is on a decline, efforts must be made to preserve it,” added a hopeful Nagraju.
The Present Situation:
Much similar are the thoughts of Dr. Harilal Pawar, Director of Publishing at Kannada University in Hampi, who has written a series of books and thesis papers in the 1990s on this unique bunch of people.
Placing the community in a modern socio-economic context, he said that people in today’s society are not interested in making use of their services. “In this day and age where we have the government doing their job, like the census, people are losing interest,” added Dr. Pawar.
Answering the question as to why the community is ending their caste profession, he said that there are two reasons for the same. “All parents want their children to go to school, and so does the Helavas. Times have changed and everyone needs to get educated…if they live like nomads for four months, how their children will get educated?” questioned Dr. Pawar.
This he added, can perhaps be resolved by placing their children in hostels where they can study.
He added that earlier, villagers were welcoming and used to usher the arrival of the Helavas with great joy, a tradition which has been largely lost due to changing lifestyles.
The community had an indispensable role to play in the past where they were deemed as a highly educated and important community of the society. Their function as narrators of family histories was needed at the time since there were no institutional systems in place.
“People were interested to know their family trees and such information has been used in courts of law previously,” said Dr. Metry.
However, with the dawn of modern techniques like that of government census, birth, death and marriage certificates, much of the Helava’s caste profession has been taken up by the government. Their profession is still entertained in villages where literacy rates are low, for example in Bijapur. In other parts where people are more literate, such traditions are not regarded as important claimed Dr. Metry.
Even though there exist no concrete studies on the present population of the community and those who are actually engaged with the caste profession, Dr. Pawar said that during his time of research in 1991, the population was around 40,000 out of which a large chunk of people were engaged in the caste profession. He feels that it has now been reduced to a mere 30 per cent of the total population.
However, a 2007 book titled Helava Samaja presents the population of the community as 81, 958. Three villages in Honnali have 168 families with a total population of 635. Dr. K M Metry said that these figures are just estimates and ground reality might differ. He is also of the opinion that not more than 4,500 people are engaged in the profession in the present times.
A mixture of changing the socio-economic environment, coupled with modernity and technology has left these semi-nomadic archivists of Karnataka in a state of flux where their future as a tribe is being questioned by researchers and the community itself.
As Dr Pawar put it, the onus lies upon the people of the community to make efforts of preserving their traditional occupation and centuries of history.