A History of Kōmaṭi kula – Part 1
Interesting snippets from the book Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Vol. 3. by K. Rangachari et. al.
On the origin of the name
Others say that it is from “gōmat-ī”, meaning the “possessor of cows”, one of the ordained duties of Vaisyas being the protecting of cows. Others, again, say that it is from “gō-mati”, meaning cow-minded. A modern redaction of the Kanyakā Purāṇa, the sacred book of the Komatis, gives this derivation. According to this work, the Komatis did severe penance, and were consequently invited to live in heaven. Their continued absence from this world gave rise to serious trouble, and Vishnu accordingly asked them to return thither for the good of mankind. They, however, refused to do so. Vishnu then called for Siva, and asked him to induce them to return…
Yet another derivation of Komati is go-mati, meaning sprung from the cow in accordance with the above legend, or “cow-gored” in reference to the story that the ancestors of the Komatis commingled in a cow-shed, where a pregnant woman was gored by a cow. The derivation “ku-mati”, meaning evil-minded, is grammatically impossible.
The Komatis everywhere speak Telugu, and are devoted to their mother-tongue. There is a common proverb among them, “”Telugu tēṭa, Aravam adhvānam," meaning that Telugu is easy (has an easy flow), and Tamil is wretched.
The Komatis are a highly organised caste. In each place where they are settled there is a Pedda Seṭṭi, who, among the Kalinga Komatis, is known as Puri Seṭṭi or Sēnāpati. Among the latter, there is also a headman for several villages, who is styled Kula-rāju or Vaisya-rāju. Each Pedda Seṭṭi is assisted by a Mummadi Seṭṭi, who assembles the castemen for the settlement of important questions, by fines, excommunication, etc. There is further a caste guru Bhāskarācārya, whose duties are more religious than social. Komatis have recourse to the established Courts of Justice only as a last resort. They are consulted by other castes in the settlement of their disputes, and it must be said to their credit that their decisions are usually sound, and bear ample testimony to the confidence which is placed in them.
The Komatis are, broadly speaking, divided into two great sections, called Gavāra (Gauvāru) and Kalinga. The former live as far north of Vizianagram, and are then replaced by the latter. The Gavaras or Gauras are said to be so called because, by following the caste goddess Kanyakamma into the fire-pits, they maintained the “gauravam” or social status of the caste. According to another version, they are so called because they revere Gauri (Parvati), the consort of Siva, whose incarnation was the goddess Kanyakamma. The Kalinga Komatis are those who live in the old Kalinga, which extended roughly from Vizagapatam to Orissa. They are forbidden to settle beyond Ramatirtham, a place of pilgrimage close to Vizianagram. Their meat-eating habit has, they say, widened the breach which separates the two divisions.
While the Kalinga Komatis form a fairly compact division by themselves, the Gavaras have become more and more sub-divided. Their sub-divisions are either territorial, occupational, or religious in character. Thus there are Penukoṇḍa and Vengināḍu Komatis, of whom the former belong to the town of Penukonda in the Godavari district, and the latter to the Vegi or Vengi country, the former name of part of the modern Krishna district. Again, there are Trinikas or Traivarnikas (third category people), who are invariably Vaishnavas, and to which section a good many of the Komatis in the city of Madras belong. Lingadhari Komatis are found mostly in the Vizagapatam, Godavari, Guntur and Krishna districts. They wear the lingam in a gold or silver casket. Besides these, there are the Siva, Vaishnava, and Madhva Komatis, of which the last are mostly found in the Bellary district. Of occupational sub-divisions, the following may be noted :— Nūne (oil) ; Nēti (ghee) ; Dūdi (cotton) ; Uppu (salt) ; Gōṇe (gunny-bag) ; Gantha (torn cloth). Lastly, there are other divisions, of which the origin dates back to the time of Kanyakamma, the caste goddess. Thus, there are those who entered the fire-pits with Kanyakamma, and those who did not. The former are known as Vegina, and the latter as Beri, which is said to be a corruption of Bedari, meaning those who fled through fear. All Gavara Komatis are said to be descended from those who entered the fire-pits. Gavaru komatis are now called legally called “Arya Vysya” (Arya Vaishyas).
Legend of Kanyakā
Those, however, who determined to sacrifice themselves in the fire-pits were 102 gotras in number, and they assembled in council, and asked Kusuma Ṡrēṣṭhi to induce his daughter (who was only seven years old, Kanyakā) to die with them. To this she consented, and showed herself in her true form of Paramesvari, the wife of Siva. On this, the Setti chief returned to his caste-men, who asked him to get 103 fire-pits ready in the western portion of the town before the arrival of the king. These were accordingly dug, and decorated with festoons and plantain trunks at the four corners. Then the heads of the 102 gotras assembled, with their wives, in the courtyard of the temple of Nagaresvaraswami, where Vasavambika was symbolically married to the god, in defiance of King Vishnuvardhana.
The temple of Nagaresvaraswami has several inscriptions on slabs, built into its prakara, and elsewhere. One of these is on the gateway inside the prakara walls. It opens with a glowing description of the powers of Nagaresvaraswami in giving blessings and gifts, and refers to Penugonda as one of the eighteen towns built by Visvakarma, and presented by Siva to the Komatis as a place of residence. The object of the inscription appears to be to record the restoration by one Kotha- linga, a Komati whose genealogy is given, of the great town (Penugonda), which had been burnt to ashes by a Gajapathi king. He is also stated to have made grants of tanks, wells, and pleasure gardens, for the benefit of Nagaresvaraswami, for whose daily offerings and the celebration of festivals he provided by the grants of the villages of Mummadi, Ninagepudi, Varanasi, Kalkaveru, and Mathampudi, all included in the town of Penugonda. Various inscriptions show that, from so early a time as 1488 A.D., if not from still earlier times, the temple had become popular with the Komatis, and got intertwined with the statements now found in the Purana. Rai Bahadur V. Venkayya, Government Epigraphist, writes to say that the Teki plates found in the Ramachandra-puram taluk of the Godavari district, and published by Dr. E. Hultzsch, may refer to some Komatis. The edict contained in it was, according to Dr. Hultzsch, probably issued about 1086 A.D., and records the grant of certain honorary privileges on the descendents of a family of merchants belonging to the Teliki family.
Mārkaṇḍēya Purāṇa (Sanskirt) and Kanyakā Purāṇa (Telugu)
There is an episode in the Mārkaṇḍēya Purāṇa which parallels the Telugu version of Kanyakā Purāṇamu.
That about the end of the 14th century A.D., the story of Kanyakamma was popular is obvious from the Telugu version of the Markandeya Purana, which was composed by the poet Marana, the disciple of Tikkana, the part author of the Telugu Bharata. In this Purana, the following episode, which bears a close resemblance to the story narrated in the Kanyaka Purana, is introduced. A king, named Vrushadha, while on a hunting expedition, killed a cow, mistaking it for a “bison”. He was cursed by Bhabhravya, the son of a Rishi, who was in charge of it, and in consequence became a Ṡūdra, by name Anaghakara. He had seven sons, a descendant of one of whom was Nābhāga, who fell in love with a Kōmaṭi girl, and asked her parents to give her in marriage to him. The Komatis replied much in the same manner as Kusuma Sreshti and his friends did to the ministers of Vishnu Vardhana in the Kanyaka Purana. Their answer will be found in canto VII, 223, of the Markandeya Purana, which contains the earliest authentic literary reference to the name Komati. In effect they said “Thou art the ruler of the whole of this universe, Oh ! King ; we are but poor Komatis living by service. Say, then, how can we contract such a marriage?” The king was further dissuaded by his father and the Brahmins. But all to no purpose. He carried off the girl, and married her in the rākṣasa form (by forcible abduction), and, in consequence, in accordance with the law of Manu, became a Komati. He then performed penance, and again became a Kshatriya. It would seem that this episode, which is not found in the Sanskrit Markandeya Parana, is undoubtedly based on the incident recorded in the Kanyaka Parana.
Marriage, Polygamy and Widowhood
The Komatis employ Brahmins for the performance of their ceremonial rites, and recognise a Brahmin as their guru. He is commonly called Bhaskaracharya, after the individual of that name who lived at Penukonda prior to the sixteenth century A.D., and translated the Sanskrit Kanyaka Purana into a Telugu poem. He made certain regulations for the daily conduct of the Komatis, and made the 102 gotras submit to them. A copy of an inscription on a copper plate, in the possession of one Kotta Appaya, the Archaka or priest of the Naga- reswaraswami temple at Penukonda, is given in the Mackenzie manuscripts. It records a grant (of unknown date) to Bhaskaracharya, the guru of the Vaisyas, by the 102 gotrams, according to which each family agreed for ever afterwards to give half a rupee for every marriage, and a quarter of a rupee for each year. Such doles are common even at the present day to his successors. These, like the original Bhaskaracharya, who is considered to be an incarnation of Brahma, are house-holders, and not Sanyasis (religious ascetics). There are several of them, in different parts of the country, one for example being at Penukonda, and another near Hospet, who makes periodical tours in state, with drums, silver maces, and belted peons, and is received with every mark of respect. He settles disputes, levies fines, and collects subscriptions towards the upkeep of his mutt (religious institution), which is also supported by inām (rent-free) lands.
Marriage is always infant. A Brahmin purohit officiates. Each purohit has a number of houses attached to his circle, and his sons usually divide the circle among themselves on partition, like any other property. Polygamy is permitted, but only if the first wife produces no offspring. The taking of a second wife is assented to by the first wife, who, in some cases, believes that, as the result of the second marriage, she herself will beget children.
Two forms of marriage ceremonial are recognised, one called Puraṇōktha, according to long established customary Purāṇas, and the other called Vedōkta, which follows the Vedic ritual of Brahmins.
Wedding ceremony lasts five days in the Madras Presidency:
- Day 1: the contracting couple have an oil bath, and the bridegroom goes through the upanayana (sacred thread investiture) ceremony. He then pretends to go off to Kasi (Benares), and is met by the bride’s party, who take him to the bride’s house, where the mangalyam is tied by the bridegroom before the homam (sacrificial fire).
- Day 2: On the second day, homam is continued, and a caste dinner is given.
- Day 3: On the third day, the gotra puja is performed.
- Day 4: On the fourth day, homam is repeated
- Day 5: The pair are seated on a swing, and rocked to and fro. Presents, called “kaṭnam”, are made to the bridegroom, but no voli (“bride-price”) is paid.
In the Northern Circars (Bellary, etc.), and part of the Ceded Districts, the Vedoktha form of marriage now prevails, and its usage is spreading into the southern districts of Mysore.
[See the book for description of seven-day Purāṇōkta marriage]
Widow remarriage is not permitted among any factions of the caste, which is very strict in the observance of this rule. Except among the Saivites, a widow is not compelled to have her head shaved, or give up wearing jewelry, or the use of betel. In the south of the Madras Presidency, if a little girl becomes a widow, her mangalyam is not removed, and her head is not shaved till she reaches maturity. Vaishnava widows always retain their hair.
Sacred thread and Religious Affiliation
The Komatis wear the sacred thread, and utter the Gayatri and other sacred mantras. In Telugu dictionaries, the Komatis are given the alternative names of Mudava Kolamuvaru (those of the third caste), Vaisyalu, and Nallanayya Toḍabiḍḍalu (those who were begotten from the thighs of Vishnu). As already stated, there are among the Komatis ordinary Saivites, who daub themselves with ashes; Lingayats or Vira Saivas, who wear the linga in a silver casket; Ramanuja Vaishnavites; Chaitanya Vaishnavas, who are confined to the Kalinga section; and Madhvas, who put on the sect marks of Madhva Brahmins.
The Traivarnikas are a special class among the Vaishnavas. They imitate the Vaishnava Brahmins more closely than the rest. They, and their females, tie their clothes like Brahmins, and the men shave moustaches. Unlike the Saivites and Lingayats, they eat flesh and fish, and drink spirituous liquors. They will eat in the houses of Sātānis, whereas other Komaṭis do not eat in any but Brahmin houses. But it may be observed that Velamas, Balijas, Kammalans, Ambattans, Vannans, and many other castes, will take neither water nor food from Komatis. This, however, does not prevent them from purchasing the cakes prepared in ghee or oil, which the Komatis sell in petty shops.
Community and Charity
The Komatis are best known as merchants, grocers, and money-lenders. In the city of Madras, they are the principal vendors of all sorts of imported articles. Most of the Komatis are literate, and this helps them in their dealings with their constituents. They are proverbially shrewd, industrious, and thrifty, and are often rich.
If a Komati fails in business, his compatriots will come to his rescue, and give him a fresh start. Organised charity is well known among them. Each temple of Kanyaka Parameswari is a centre for charity. In the city of Madras the Kanyaka Parameswari charities, among other good objects, promote the development of female education. In 1905, the Komatis established a Southern India Vysya Association, with the object of encouraging the “intellectual, moral, religious, social, industrial and commercial advancement of the Vysia community”. Among the means employed for so doing, are the helping of deserving students with scholarships for the prosecution of the study of the English and vernacular languages, and organised relief of poor and distressed members of the community by founding orphanages, and so forth. The affairs of the association are managed by an executive committee made up of prominent members of the caste, including merchants, lawyers, and contractors.
The Komatis have the title Setti or Chetti, which is said to be a contracted form of Sreshti, meaning a “precious person”. In recent times, some of them have assumed the title “Ayya”.
The Blind Komati and Vishnu.
A blind Komati prayed to Vishnu for the restoration of his eyesight, and at last the God appeared before him, and asked him what he wanted. “Oh! God”, he replied, “I want to see from above the seventh storey of my mansion my great-grandsons playing in the streets, and eating their cakes from golden vessels”.
Vishnu was so astonished at the request of the blind man, which combined riches, offspring, and the restoration of his eyesight in one demand, that he granted all his desires.
See “Tales of Komati Wit and Wisdom”, C. Hayavadana Rao, Madras, 1907