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This article is an excerpt from
Castes and Tribes of Southern India
By Edgar Thurston, C.I.E.,
Superintendent, Madras Government Museum; Correspondant
Étranger, Société d’Anthropologie de Paris; Socio
Corrispondante, Societa,Romana di Anthropologia
Assisted by K. Rangachari, M.A.,
of the Madras Government Museum.

Government Press, Madras


The Billavas are the Tulu-speaking toddy-drawers of the South Canara district. It is noted, in the Manual, that they are “the numerically largest caste in the district, and form close upon one-fifth of the total [244]population. The derivation of the word Billava, as commonly accepted in the district, is that it is a contraction of Billinavaru, bowmen, and that the name was given as the men of that caste were formerly largely employed as bowmen by the ancient native rulers of the district. There is, however, no evidence whatever, direct or indirect, to show that the men of the toddy-drawing caste were in fact so employed. It is well known that, both before and after the Christian era, there were invasions and occupations of the northern part of Ceylon by the races then inhabiting Southern India, and Malabar tradition tells that some of these Dravidians migrated from Īram or Ceylon northwards to Travancore and other parts of the West Coast of India, bringing with them the cocoanut or southern tree (tenginamara), and being known as Tīvars (islanders) or Īravars, which names have since been altered to Tīyars and Ilavars. This derivation would also explain the name Dīvaru or Halepaik Dīvaru borne by the same class of people in the northern part of the district, and in North Canara. In Manjarabad above the ghauts, which, with Tuluva, was in olden days under the rule of the Humcha family, known later as the Bairasu Wodears of Kārakal, they are called Dēvaru Makkalu, literally God’s children, but more likely a corruption of Tīvaru Makkalu, children of the islanders. In support of this tradition, Mr. Logan has pointed out76 that, in the list of exports from Malabar given in the Periplus, in the first century A.D., no mention is made of the cocoanut. It was, however, mentioned by Cosmos Indico Pleustes (522 to 547 A.D.), and from the Syrian Christians’ copper-plate grants, early in the ninth century, it [245]appears that the Tiyans were at that time an organised guild of professional planters. Although the cocoanut tree may have been introduced by descendants of immigrants from Ceylon moving up the coast, the practice of planting and drawing toddy was no doubt taken up by the ordinary Tulu cultivators, and, whatever the origin of the name Billava may be, they are an essentially Tulu class of people, following the prevailing rule that property vests in females, and devolves in the female line.”

It is worthy of note that the Billavas differ from the Tīyans in one very important physical character—the cranial type. For, as shown by the following table, whereas the Tīyans are dolichocephalic the Billavas are, like other Tulu classes, sub-brachycephalic:—


Some Billavas about Udipi call themselves either Billavaru or Halēpaikaru. But the Halēpaiks proper are toddy-drawers, who are found in the Kundapūr tāluk, and speak Kanarese. There are said to be certain differences between the two classes in the method of carrying out the process of drawing toddy. For example, the Halēpaiks generally grasp the knife with the fingers directed upwards and the thumb to the right, while the Billavas hold the knife with the fingers directed downwards and the thumb to the left. A Billava at Udipi had a broad iron knife with a round hole at the base, by which it was attached to an iron hook fixed on to a rope worn round the loins. For crushing the flower-buds [246]within the spathe of the palm, Billavas generally use a stone, and the Halēpaiks a bone. There is a belief that, if the spathe is beaten with the bone of a buffalo which has been killed by a tiger, the yield of toddy will, if the bone has not touched the ground, be greater than if an ordinary bone is used. The Billavas generally carry a long gourd, and the Halēpaiks a pot, for collecting the toddy in.

Baidya and Pūjāri occur as caste names of the Billavas, and also as a suffix to the name, e.g., Saiyina Baidya, Bomma Pūjāri. Baidya is said to be a form of Vaidya, meaning a physician. Some Billavas officiate as priests (pūjāris) at bhūtasthānas (devil shrines) and garidis. Many of these pūjāris are credited with the power of invoking the aid of bhūtas, and curing disease. The following legend is narrated, to account for the use of the name Baidya. A poor woman once lived at Ullal with two sons. A Sanyāsi (religious ascetic), pitying their condition, took the sons as his sishyas, with a view to training them as magicians and doctors. After some time, the Sanyāsi went away from Ullal for a short time, leaving the lads there with instructions that they should not be married until his return. In spite of his instructions, however, they married, and, on his return, he was very angry, and went away again, followed by his two disciples. On his journey, the Sanyāsi crossed the ferry near Ullal on foot. This the disciples attempted to do, and were on the point of drowning when the Sanyāsi threw three handfuls of books on medicine and magic. Taking these, the two disciples returned, and became learned in medicine and magic. They are supposed to be the ancestors of the Billavas.


Billava Toddy-Tapper.

The Billavas, like the Bants, have a number of exogamous septs (balis) running in the female line. [247]There is a popular belief that these are sub-divisions of the twenty balis which ought to exist according to the Aliya Santāna system (inheritance in the female line).

The caste has a headman called Gurikāra, whose office is hereditary, and passes to the aliya (sister’s son). Affairs which affect the community as a whole are discussed at a meeting held at the bhūtasthāna or garidi.

At the betrothal ceremony, the bride-price (sirdachi), varying from ten to twenty rupees, is fixed. A few days before the wedding, the maternal uncle of the bride, or the Gurikāra, ties a jewel on her neck, and a pandal (booth) is erected, and decorated by the caste barber (parēl maddiyali) with cloths of different colours. If the bridegroom is an adult, the bride has to undergo a purificatory ceremony a day or two before the marriage (dhāre) day. A few women, usually near relations of the girl, go to a tank (pond) or well near a Bhūtasthāna or garidi, and bring water thence in earthenware pots. The water is poured over the head of the girl, and she bathes. On the wedding day, the bride and bridegroom are seated on two planks placed on the dais. The barber arranges the various articles, such as lights, rice, flowers, betel leaves and areca nuts, and a vessel filled with water, which are required for the ceremonial. He joins the hands of the contracting couple, and their parents, or the headman, place the nose-screw of the bridesmaid on their hands, and pour the dhāre water over them. This is the binding part of the ceremony, which is called kai (hand) dhāre. Widow remarriage is called bidu dhāre, and the pouring of water is omitted. The bride and bridegroom stand facing each other, and a cloth is stretched between them. The headman unites their hands beneath the screen. [248]

If a man has intercourse with a woman, and she becomes pregnant, he has to marry her according to the bidu dhāre rite. Before the marriage ceremony is performed, he has to grasp a plantain tree with his right hand, and the tree is then cut down.

At the first menstrual period, a girl is under pollution for ten or twelve days. On the first day, she is seated within a square (muggu), and five or seven cocoanuts are tied together so as to form a seat. A new earthenware pot is placed at each corner of the square. Four girls from the Gurikāra’s house sit at the corners close to the pots. Betel leaves, areca nuts, and turmeric paste are distributed among the assembled females, and the girls pour water from the pots over the head of the girl. Again, on the eleventh or the thirteenth day, the girl sits within the square, and water is poured over her as before. She then bathes.

The dead are usually cremated, though, in some cases, burial is resorted to. The corpse is washed and laid on a plantain leaf, and a new cloth is thrown over it. Some paddy (unhusked rice) is heaped up near the head and feet, and cocoanut cups containing lighted wicks are placed thereon. All the relations and friends assembled at the house dip leafy twigs of the tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) in water, and allow it to drop into the mouth of the corpse. The body is carried on a plank to the burning-ground. The collection of wood for the pyre, or the digging of the grave, is the duty of Holeyas. The wood of Strychnos Nux-vomica should never be used for the pyre. This is lighted by placing fire at the two ends thereof. When the flames meet in the middle, the plantain leaf, paddy, etc., which have been brought from the house, are thrown into them. On the fifth day, the ashes are collected, and buried on [249]the spot. If the body has been buried, a straw figure is made, and burnt over the grave, and the ashes are buried there. A small conical mound, called dhūpe, is made there, and a tulsi plant stuck in it. By the side of the plant a tender cocoanut with its eyes opened, tobacco leaf, betel leaves and areca nuts are placed. On the thirteenth day, the final death ceremonies, or bojja, are performed. On the evening of the previous day, four poles, for the construction of the upparige or gudikattu (car), are planted round the dhūpe. At the house, on or near the spot where the deceased breathed his last, a small bamboo car, in three tiers, is constructed, and decorated with coloured cloths. This car is called Nīrneralu. A lamp is suspended from the car, and a cot placed on the ground beneath it, and the jewels and clothes of the dead person are laid thereon. On the following morning, the upparige is constructed, with the assistance of the caste barber.

A small vessel, filled with water, is placed within the Nīrneralu. The sons-in-law of the deceased receive a present of new cloths, and, after bathing, they approach the Nīrneralu. The chief mourner takes the vessel from within it, and pours the water at the foot of a cocoanut tree. The chief Gurikāra pours some water into the empty vessel, and the chief mourner places it within the Nīrneralu. Then seven women measure out some rice three times, and pour the rice into a tray held by three women. The rice is taken to a well, and washed, and then brought back to the car. Jaggery (crude sugar) and cocoanut scrapings are mixed with the rice, which is placed in a cup by seven women. The cup is deposited within the car on the cot. The wife or husband of the deceased throws a small quantity of rice into the cup. She turns the cup, and a ladle placed by its side, upside [250]down, and covers them with a plantain leaf.

The various articles are collected, and tied up in a bundle, which is placed in a palanquin, and carried in procession, by two men to the upparige, which has been constructed over the dhūpe. Nalkes and Paravas (devil-dancers), dressed up as bhūtas, may follow the procession. Those present go thrice round the upparige, and the chief mourner unties the bundle, and place its contents on the car. The near relations put rice, and sometimes vegetables, pumpkins, and plantains, on the plantain leaf. All present then leave the spot, and the barber removes the cloths from the car, and pulls it down. Sometimes, if the dead person has been an important member of the community, a small car is constructed, and taken in procession round the upparige. On the fourteenth day, food is offered to crows, and the death ceremonies are at an end.

If a death occurs on an inauspicious day, a ceremony called Kāle deppuni (driving away the ghost) is performed. Ashes are spread on the floor of the house, and the door is closed. After some time, or on the following day, the roof of the house is sprinkled with turmeric water, and beaten with twigs of Zizyphus Œnoplia. The door is then opened, and the ashes are examined, to see if the marks of the cloven feet of the ghost are left thereon. If the marks are clear, it is a sign that the ghost has departed; otherwise a magician is called in to drive it out. A correspondent naively remarks that, when he has examined the marks, they were those of the family cat.

In some cases, girls who have died unmarried are supposed to haunt the house, and bring trouble thereto, and they must be propitiated by marriage. The girl’s relations go in search of a dead boy, and take from the [251]house where he is a quarter of an anna, which is tied up between two spoons. The spoons are tied to the roof of the girl’s house. This represents the betrothal ceremony. A day is fixed for the marriage, and, on the appointed day, two figures, representing the bride and bridegroom, are drawn on the floor, with the hands lying one on the other. A quarter-anna, black beads, bangles, and a nose-screw, are placed on the hands, and water is poured on them. This is symbolical of the dhāre ceremony, and completes the marriage.

The pūjāris of all the bhūthasthānas and garidis are Billavas. The bhūtha temples called garidis belong to the Billavas, and the bhūthas are the Baidērukulu (Koti and Chennayya), Brimmeru (or Brahmeru) Gunda, Okka Ballāla, Kujumba Ganja, and Dēvanajiri. The Baidērkulu are believed to be fellow castemen of the Billavas, and Koti and Chennayya to be descended from an excommunicated Brāhman girl and a Billava. The legend of Koti and Chennayya is recorded at length by Mr. A. C. Burnell in the Indian Antiquary.77 The bhūthas are represented by idols. Brimmeru is the most important, and the others are subordinate to him. He is represented by a plate of silver or other metal, bearing the figure of a human being, which is kept within a car-like stone structure within the shrine. On its left are two human figures made of clay or stone, which represent the Baidērukulu. On the right are a man on horseback, and another figure, representing Okka Ballala and Kujumba Ganja. Other idols are also set up at the garidi, but outside the main room. They seem to vary in different localities, and represent bhūthas such as Jumadi, Pancha Jumadi, Hosabhūtha, Kallurti, etc.

[252]Brimmeru has been transformed, by Brāhman ingenuity, into Brahma, and all the bhūthas are converted into Gōnas, or attendants on Siva. In the pardhanas (devil songs) Brimmeru is represented as the principal bhūtha, and the other bhūthas are supposed to visit his sthāna. A bhūthasthāna never contains idols, but cots are usually found therein. A sthāna may be dedicated to a single bhūtha, or to several bhūthas, and the number may be ascertained by counting the number of cots, of which each is set apart for a single bhūtha. If the sthāna is dedicated to more than one bhūtha, the bhūthas are generally Kodamanithāya, Kukkinathāya, and Daiva. All the arrangements for the periodical kōla, or festival of the bhūthasthāna, are made by the pūjāri. During the festival, he frequently becomes possessed. Only such Billavas as are liable to be possessed are recognised as pūjāris. As a sign of their office, they wear a gold bangle on the right wrist. Further details in connection with bhūtha worship will be found in the articles on Bants, Nalkes, and Paravas.

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