Wednesday, December 26, 2012

On Havyaka Brahmins, in Himal Southasian

When I first heard that Havyaka Brahmins were contemplating bringing brides from amongst the Kashmiri Pandits, I burst out laughing. After I was done mocking them, I realized it was a serious issue. The shortage of girls of marriageable age, due to many reasons, is a story I hear all the time in family gatherings. (Did I mention that I was born a Havyaka Brahmin myself?) When I started to research for the first person account, I was faced again with the supremacy attitude that I am repulsed with. What came out was nothing short of a rant against the prejudices and rigidity of the community. I half-jokingly told ma that I hoped the article would get me ex-communicated!

So Himal Southasian, among my favourite places to read, and to write for, decided to publish the story. Read it here. And because I would like people to also read the original, here below is the complete, unedited rant.



On the day that the Mayans prophesized the world would end this December, my little

cousin got married. He is 23, going on 24. He still likes sleeping on his mother’s lap and enjoys being pampered by us older cousins. He is still a kid, even if he is legally allowed to marry. I could predict the pattern; he will get married and within two years, be a father.

The family is very well off, the lineage a respected one in the region. But the urgency
springs from the fact that he lives with his parents and looks after the vast family estate about 20 kilometers from the nearest big town. Even one of these was enough to keep him off the eligible bachelors’ list; all combined was a disaster that was mitigated by a frantic search for a bride high and low. His mother started looking the day he turned 21. His now wife is two years younger.

This is the latest, albeit rare, triumph that I am hearing about in my community. Here
is my full disclosure: I was born into the Havyaka Brahmin community, the coastal
Karnataka wing of a sub-caste of Brahmins that is, supposedly, perched on the top rung of an already tall order. The Havyakas have their own dialect, a version of old world Kannada. The cuisine is distinctive from those from the kitchens of other sections of Brahmins, with coconut shreds in nearly everything- a regional influence that- and an array of traditional recipes for jackfruit, raw banana and breadfruit. Again, cultures are different; the Havyakas of central Karnataka have another dialect, different cuisines and lesser rigid practices. The Havyakas are Rama worshippers and owe allegiance to a religious order in central Karnataka, headed by a portly guru who has his share of corruption charges and illicit relationships whispered about from the hallowed halls of many a rumour mill. Ideally, the Havyakas wouldn’t inter-marry with other Brahmins, everyone else is a “step down”; though the liberals would go as far as to seek, forge alliances with the Trimathasthas, in which the Havyakas, along with the Shivalli Brahmins and the Kota Brahmins, make up the trinity of Brahmin elitedom.

This rigidity, apart from attitude shifts, is what is giving the community much grief, I observe, perversely, I have no shame in admitting. My grouse arises from the regressive ideas about women that the community I was born into has, so rooted that the dialect assigns only a neuter ‘it’ to the female gender. This from those of the learned class! I mock the irony every time an uncle or the son he is bringing up to be just like him makes a flippant comment on women. Sometimes social obligations stifle my urge to let loose some feministic outcry. I hate that.

So the point is that a very large number of Havyaka boys and men remained unmarried, for reasons such as these: not in glamorous enough professions, a skewed sex ratio and if they still live with their parents, girls these days couldn’t be bothered to put up with the in-laws, referred to in certain circles as Rahu-Ketu, the inauspicious ones.

Though in keeping with several Indian communities a son would be the apple of his parents’ eyes, daughters are well loved too. There has never been a known case of female foeticide or infanticide. So I couldn’t explain the reason for the skewed sex ratio. Though traditional professions were agriculture, the culinary sector and priesthood, the silicon valleys of the world are where you would find more Havyaka people these days. The ones who continued family traditions and became farmers, chefs and priests and scholars in temples have the hardest time finding girls willing to marry them. If the prospective groom lives in a village, then he might as well sign away his dreams of a family. And so a race, a pure Aryan one at that, is on the verge of extinction, says M G Sathyanarayana.

M G Sathyanarayana is a man on a mission to almost singlehandedly “save” the community from going the Parsi way. When I call him, he is in Varanasi, sourcing girls to bring back to Sullia, some 4,000 kilometres and 43 hours by train away, in the coastal district of Dakshina Kannada, Karnataka. I don’t tell him of my connection with the community, though half way through I sense that he is desperate to ask me which caste I belong to. He proceeds to give me an introduction to the Havyakas and I pretend to make notes. The economics of the trade follow. And I near bristle with indignation and outrage at how matter-of-factly he explains the whole business of sourcing the brides for the boys back home. Though I want to smirk at the state of those that were intolerably chauvinistic, who I grew up watching at every community gathering, as a woman, it offends me to be made part of the purchase deed.

From Kashmir to Karnataka
A body of ‘social service’ people, called Kashyap Yuva Brahmin Vedike in Sullia, led by Sathyanarayana, arrived at this idea that since both Havyakas and the Kashmir Pandits were “pure races”, what better way to “save them from their refugee plight” than to buy the fair, beautiful Kashmiri Pandit girls as brides for the boys and men back home! The idea was mooted in March but took off only a few months later. Families that had unmarried boys could register with the association and they would bring in Kashmiri girls to match with the boys. The association was in for a surprise. Sathyanarayana tells me that they discovered some 3000 men between the ages of 22 and 45 who wanted to get married. There are many others who wouldn’t openly admit their inability to find wives. Where the association expected up to 50 registrations, there were 300 that attended the meeting and 180 who registered. “As of now we have 384 men ready to get married to any girl as long as she is a vegetarian. We have stopped taking on more names now until we finish a trial round of marriages,” Sathyanarayana tells me, proudly. In an instant, he manages to objectify women and trivialize marriages, reducing the whole thing to something that reeks of condescension and chauvinism coated with the arrogance of being a superior race that is making great sacrifices to uplift and protect other pure blood.
There is something fundamentally wrong when you approach the act of marriage as a business transaction. And trade it is, when I hear of the economics at play here.

The numbers game
There are approximately 4.5-5 lakh Havyaka families out there, Sathyanarayana tells me. They live primarily along the Konkan coast, from Karwar to Kannur in Kerala, apart from in parts of central Karnataka. He vehemently denies that the sex ratio is skewed, claiming that there are 93 girls for every 100 boys. I cannot prove either ways, the census figures don’t account for this sub-caste. He blames attitude shifts, holding girls responsible for being educated and making their own decisions and thus leaving the cooks and the priests unmarried. I am reminded of a girl who, amidst the theatrics of meeting boys in an arranged alliance, refused to marry my cousin and was condemned far and wide for doing so – imagine a girl saying no!

The Jammu and Kashmir government is promising to rehabilitate Kashmiri Pandits and give them their land and houses back. So now they are a little hesitant to take up our offer, says Sathyanarayana. “But when has the government ever done anything it has promised? We are still hopeful,” he adds, not willing to let go of the Aryans just yet.

Meanwhile he is in Varanasi, getting the papers ready to bring down ten families to meet boys. The train charges for a girl and her parents plus other expenses will come up to Rs 45,000. Each girl will meet at least three boys. Once the match is fixed, the boy’s family has to pay all the expenses.. The other two need not despair, “they will get another chance to see a girl,” Sathyanarayana says, rather benevolently. The idea is to get more than a few girls to marry local boys, so that they wouldn’t miss their hometowns all too much.

But isn’t culture, food habits, language, wholly different? I ask. Sathyanarayana, I imagine, is shaking his head vigorously as he tells me to look at history. “Over 600 years ago, we all came from the same Sindhu Valley, the Kashmiri Pandits and us
Havyakas. We came down to the south with Shankaracharya. We all have the same religious beliefs and customs,” he insists. And the girls will learn and adjust, is the obvious assumption, regardless of lifestyles so different they might as well be from another country. It isn’t that women over the years haven’t adjusted drastically in marriages, but the natural assumption that these women ought to be grateful for getting the chance to do so is what angers me.

His view and that of several, several others in the community is the same. They believe that integration with the other pure Aryan races will help develop the communities and preserve purity. “Brahmins are known for cleanliness, for discipline and intelligence. We have to ensure that the community does not disappear,” he tells me.

Though a Havyaka Brahmin by default of birth, I have no sympathy for the perils that my community perceives itself to be facing. For the slights I have seen passed around by the male elders, for every time I have been referred to as an ‘it’, I want to feel vindictive. But more than that, at a fundamental level, as a woman, I hate the way these dealings are conducted. The buying of brides isn’t uncommon in other parts of the country, the world. It has been happening for generations, in one form or the other. But when you hear the stories from inside the house, listen in on the business dealings and hear of the furtive attempts at clever matchmaking, you cannot help but feel the blow. Of being the perpetrator, and the victim, of the derision of womankind.



Prithvi said...

As a fellow havyak ( guy), your article sure gives me cause for concern! I presume you are from south canara, so is this phenomenon(if you could call it that!) restricted to that part of the coast or is it the same with the north canara havyaks as well? And I have to admit for the most part while reading the kashmiri pandit thing I really thought it was a sarcastic joke, but it isnt is it?

Well, I just happened to stumble upon your blog and great to see a Havyak writing a fine blog as yours

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thanks Prithvi.
I am from South Canara and the story is mainly about the issue there. My friends from your region tell me that though the problems aren't as pronounced as in the south, girls even there are unwilling to marry into village homes and would rather marry an NRI.

No, it unfortunately isn't a sarcastic joke, though I wish it was.

Thank you for your comments on my blog. Do keep coming back.

Skanda Bhat said...

Accidentally Google landed me down here. . Went through your article with curiosity, being a havyak I do agree to your points. My dad always used to highlight the bad point about addressing a woman as a non-living material in our community!("adu, idu"). Nice to see a havyak girl's point of view. Great..keep it up..

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thank you Skanda.

Sachin Bhat said...

Accidentally landed here while searching the history of Havyakas...great blog..seriously not a joke to write continuously for almost 8-9 long years. all d best n regards.....
just hav a glance wenever free

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thank you Sachin.

Brinell Lewis said...

I am a catholic married to a havyaka imagine my horror at being considered a complete outsider... lol... needless to say the community feels they lost a very good potential husband material when my hubby married me... That's what I heard on my wedding day and can still hear the hushed tones at most of the weddings I go to... Sigh

Shriharsha Bhat said...

All this talk about 'pure race' really puts me off. I married a Catholic and couldn't be more happier. How i wish that these people could just stop worrying about 'marrying in the community' and start worrying more about leading a happy life! I know many havyaka girls who have married out of the community and religion simply because they don't want to go back to village and only take care of the family. Bear in mind, i am proud of my village and i really think there is not other place on earth which is more beautiful. However, after learning and educating yourself so much, why not use it for the benefit of family? We havyakas need to understand that society is not going to help us in times of need, its our family and our close ones. Seriously, i haven't found even an ounce of help or value addition of being a havyaka. We formed the youth wing here in Mumbai, which got disbanded because of corruption by the association president! We live amongst havyaka brahmins who are worried about saving the community but not about humanity.

Deepa Bhasthi said...

I hear you Brinell! I can imagine your horror too. I cannot fathom how it concerns others as long as you are happy in your marriage, but then people talk, no matter what you do. So well, ignoring is the best, and only, thing you could do.

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Shriharsha,given the points in this article, I am surprised I didn't get thrown out of the community! :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Deepa,

Google landed me here :) I totally agree with your pint of view, I am not a Havyak but I am married to one.I am a "Babburkamme" brahmin, I am always looked down in the family gatherings just because I cannot speak the dialect, and also we have lot customs and festivals than the Havyaks. People in Havyak community, at least mine, are not supportive of me following the customs I have been from my childhood. The rigidity is what makes them narrow minded and CANNOT ADJUST with anybody whatsoever!!!!!

Unknown said...

Even I feel the same way when some one uses the phrases, "this boy, that girl, this lady, that person... etc" in English language ;-)...
After reading the whole paragraph, I understand how skewed perspective can one have about his/her own community... :-)

Unknown said...


Unknown said...

Each community has it's own customs, traditions and rituals. So it is quite obvious that parents expect the bride or a groom from the same community. So there is no point in complaining about it. It is in every caste and every religion. I have seen so many parents nowadays agreeing for inter caste low marriages just for the sake of their son/daughter's happiness. We have so many good things to proud about. I did not like the way you have seen our community.
As Govind Narayana said "Even I feel the same way when some one uses the phrases, "this boy, that girl, this lady, that person... etc" in English language ;-)."

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Ashwath, this isn't about customs, traditions and rituals. Neither is it about expectations. It is about the ridiculous idea of a 'pure race', the utter rigidity and refusal to adapt to changing social values. I am a Havyaka myself so this is an insider view as well of the community. Rigidity is what most often prevents us from being critical of regressive practices, be it in this, or any other community for that matter.

As for Govind Narayana's comment, read the whole sentence there. I think you have taken it out of context.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Havyaka guy myself.Let me share my experiences.I find this community to be a highly divided one.There are havyakas residing in multiple districts with each one a different dialect. And they don't seem to get along with Havyakas from another district. Realized this the hard way when I started searching for marriage alliance within this community.No one likes alliance from another district.With respect to rituals I think Havyakas are lot less ritualistic or 'madi' type compared to other Brahmin communities.About pure races not sure of that.There was a time when girls were forbidden from saying no, but nowadays it is pretty common everywhere, more so in Havyaka. Havyaka girls are more 'forward/modern'say people from other communities pointing to higher divorce rates in Havyaka.Girls I find are treated lot better here compared to other communities.'Adu' word is more prevalent in South canara.Searching for marriage within Havyakas, I myself got rejected umpteen times by the girls and still searching for a bride.On every rejection by a girl, I get a nice dressing down from parents for being unable to 'impress' the girl.With age catching up I wonder if Havyaka girl will ever accept me.. Maybe I should try impressing Kashmiri Pandit girls.. :) :)

Anonymous said...

I stumbled ipon your blog accidentally. I see a lot of people (getting married to Havyakas or Havyaka guys getting married to a non-Havyaka). Let me give you another view. I am a Havyaka girl married to a no-Havyaka brahmin. And yes, let me be cleae here. I did not marry an outsider because I thought all Havyaka boys are worthless or less educated. Also, today I am happily married an my parents are equally happy for me only because my family did not think they were losing me or I am going out of the community. It's only because they wanted me to be happy. After marriage and knowing both the cultures as well as philosophies (adhvaita and vishistadvaita), I can say that Havyakas are far better and advanced in their approach and thinking than many other sub-sects of brahmins. At least, its my experience and view. While I do agree with some of points, let me tell you that not all regions address girls/women as it. In my region nobody adrdresses girls as it. Also, as some of the readers rightly mentioned, its divided by regions. But tell me one thing, who's not different that way. I do agree that getting Kashmiri girls for the sake of saving the race is wrong. But some of the things mentioned in your blog is very misleading. I have realized a lot of values after seeing so many other communities (my family has a good mix of people including non-brahmins from all parts of the world), I can say that Havyaka community has its own charm and speciality. We need to look at both good and bad to analyse anything which I thought was missing in your blog. You had only negative things to say about Havyakas which I do not agree. But overall, good writing. Kudos to you for writing some of the things so boldly.

This was purely my points of view, observation and experience.

Anonymous said...

Hey deepa, google landed me here as well. I'm a havyaka myself. I remember being questioned or ridiculed about since childhood on how I would address both men and women by "it / adu ". I somehow got used to releating into the give respect and take respect mantra. Works almost every time infront of you.

Unknown said...

Wow....interesting write up....and very interesting reactions. I think havyaks, like the rest, come in all shapes and sizes. I would not generalize and make any sweeping statements. Am a north canara hegde brought up far far away from my roots in New Delhi. And yes....nang havyak bhaashey maataadul bartu. Lol.The havyaks i have met were mostly from north canara. I found them very upfront in their dealings with others, although there were exceptions. But most of them were not the conniving conspiring types, mind you. As far as adu idu goes, i did find it objectionable in my younger days. But then with time i noticed that in real life in the havyak family there was no gender discrimination whatsoever, and the girls were hugely encouraged to study, excel, build up their careers etc. No pressure of marriage. So eventually, to me, adu idu just become a figure of speech and nothing more than that. It didnt bother me anymore.
Havyaks do have a bit of a problem with dark skin, so well that is something i dont like, but i guess its best i do not react too much to that.
I am Aparna Gangoli, and no I am not a bengali, although i have spent nearly all my life clarifying that. Lol...there have been times when i have been too exasperated to clarify and once when someone asked me if i am related to sourav ganguly, I said with a straightface," Ofcourse. Cant u see the frigginging resemblance"!!!!!!Lollllls. Anyways.
Lovely getting to know ur views on this forum. Cheers!!

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting blog! I am a Havyaka woman with roots in Dakshina Kannada. I spent most of my childhood in Bangalore, spent sometime in DK and living in the US now.

As a child, growing up in a city, I did find a few aspects stifling (extreme obedience for elders, girls doing whatever their parents wanted them to- graduate, marry, have children). This is true of many villages in India, so I never classified it as unique to Havyakas or Havyakas in DK. My parents weren't like that at all! I was encouraged to study, work, succeed, travel, etc.

All of this has changed today. Almost every girl in my extended family (in DK) is a post graduate. Girls have the freedom (selective freedom, just like most other communities) to accept or reject proposals that their parents bring. Of course, they are making choices that work well for them. Lower areca prices, labour issues, etc have made plantations a less attractive option.
Due to this, all Havyaka men in the region arent able to marry Havyaka women. I know of men who have married outside the community ( eg: Konkani) after formally communicating with village 'Gurikkara'.

I am married to a Brahmin from Bangalore. I find some ideas in my husband's community regressive and think that there is a lot more gender equality in Havyakas than many other communities. As a child, I didnt like girls being called adhu, idhu. Today, it seems more like an idiosyncrasy of the language than a real issue. Real issue would be if girls are treated as adhu, idhu!

With continued education, urbanization and issues with agriculture, we will see more changes. I forsee bigger challenges for the community in villages. Many have changed with the times, others will be forced to, due to circumstances. There will always be a small group with rigid views and ultra- conservative rhetoric. Well, they exist in every community.

Anonymous said...

I'm from Malnad region. From my observation people in our Havyaka community far more divided than we wish to believe. Disclosure I'm married.

Bridges in our community are expecting too much from groom. Girl who earns less than 3LPA wants someone with 20L+ salary who is well settled.

Girls and their parents are sort of taking marriage expectations to whole new level.

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled onto this page while researching our (Havyaka) history. Who would've thought I'd find myself on a blog entry about marriage? Now hold up, aren't Havyakas believed to have originated from Ahichhatra, U.P. during the 3rd century AD?