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Kuruba, Kurumba, and Kumlbi


The three sound very similar; but it could be a deceptive similarity. Or, does it really point to a common ethnic origin? Some early scholars like Thurston, have found strong evidence of a common origin of the first two; but they also find significant differences between them [Thurston, 1909: Castes And Tribes Of Southern India, Vol IV, 155]. However, none has yet pushed the envelope to include the kumlbi. Is it because there is no connection between the last and the previous two? Or is it simply because the core areas of kumlbi inhabitation have historically fallen outside the British domain? The early, and by far the major, ethnographic work on the kuruba and kurumba communities of the Nilgiri Hills and Wayanad Plateau was done by the British ‘travellers, administrators and planters’. The major treatises on ‘tribes’ like those by Enthoven, Russel, Risley and Thurston that were published at the turn of the nineteenth century, largely covered the British possessions. All that they touched was probably the kumlbi diasporas within the limits of these territories.

Thurston has the following entry on ‘kunbi’: ‘Recorded, at times of Census, as a Bombay cultivating caste. It is also a sub-division of Marathis, generally agriculturists, in the Sandur State.’ [Thurston, 1909: Vol IV, 118]. Sandur is in Bellary District, Karnataka, which was indeed within the Brhatkomkan, as described earlier, and about 300 kilometres to the east of the core areas of kumlbi habitation. Russel has an extensive discussion on kunbi: ‘The great agricultural caste of the Maratha country numbering nearly 1,400,000 persons in 191 1 in the Nagpur, Chanda, Bhandara, Wardha, Nimar and Betul Districts of the Central Provinces.’ They are believed to have come into these territories from Gujarat in the eleventh century [Russel, 1916: Tribes And Castes Of The Central Provinces Of India, Vol IV, 16]. Russel also has an entry on kurmi: ‘The representative cultivating caste of Hindustan or the country comprised roughly in the United Provinces, Bihar and the Central Provinces north of Nerbudda.’ Russel is of the opinion that kunbi and kurmi are just two names for the same ‘caste’: “There is little doubt that various groups of Kurmis settling in the Maratha country have become Kunbis, and Kunbis migrating to northern India have become Kurmis.” [Russel, 1916: Vol IV, 56]. Enthoven discusses at length the kunbi found in the Marattha territory; he calls them ‘landholders and husbandmen’, more or less the same designation that Thurston and Russel assign to them. But both kunbi and kurmi seem to be very different from the kumlbi, and do not appear to be kumlbi diasporas prima facie; or vice versa. Enthoven’s use of the word ‘landholders’ for the kunbi is interesting; the term ‘patidar’ that the karni of Gujarat use for themselves means just that – landholders. This could have important implications; we shall discuss that later.

Enthoven, however, does refer to the kumlbi diasporas; he writes: “Kale Kunbis are chiefly found in the Khanapur taluka of the Belgaum district and in the villages of the western part of the Supa petha in Kanara. They are also called Konkani Kunbis. They belong to the same class as the Kunbis of south-west Goa, whence, it is believed their ancestors migrated in the sixteenth century on account of religious persecutions. … Their home tongue is Konkani.” [Enthoven, 1922: The Tribes And Castes Of Bombay, Vol 2, 311]. This account of kumlbi diaspora may not be exactly true; particularly about the kunbi in the ‘Supa petha in Kanara’. Supa petha could be a continuation of the kumlbi territory in Goa, as the two are contiguous, and were politically separated in recent history [The Writing On The Rock, 21 Oct 18]. Thurston too refers to what appears to be a kumlbi diaspora. He names the ‘caste’ kudubi. These are found according to him in two talukas, Kundapur and Moodbidre, of South Kanara district. They are supposed to be divided into five clans: are, goa, jogi, kodiyal, and kariya. Of these the are, goa and kodiyal are found in Kundapur and the other two in Moodbidre. While are and jogi speak Marathi, goa and kariya speak Komkani. But together they are called kudubi, the clan names being attached as the prefixes; e g are kudubi. The way they are  distributed between the two talukas and the languages they speak, it appears that they constitute a single community which migrated into South Kanara at some point in time, in one or more waves from some territory to the north. Kundapur and Moodbidre are about 250 kilometres and 350 kilometres, respectively, to the south of the core areas of kumlbi habitation. While Kundapur is on the coast, Moodbidre is in the foot hills of the Sahyadri. The goa kudubi say that they emigrated from Goa to South Kanara owing to the oppression from which they suffered; Thurston does not clarify whether this refers to the same sixteenth century religious persecution that drove Enthoven’s kale kunbi to Supa petha. The two terms – Enthoven’s kale kunbi and Thurston’s goa kudubi – seem to be referring to the same community [Thurston, 1909: Vol IV, 99].

But what is interesting in Enthoven is the parallel that he draws between the Marattha kunbi and the kanbi in Gujarat (patidar), and further with the komkan kunbi and the kale kunbi of Kanara; he considers all these regional denominations belonging basically to the same ‘caste’; except the patidar of Gujarat [Enthoven, 1922: Vol 2, 284]. However, the same connection is not extended to the kuruba and kurumba of the Nilgiri Hills and Wayanad Plateau. Enthoven does discuss the kuruba and kurumba; according to him they constitute ‘the most important elements in the early population of South India’; “They appear as Kurumbans in Tamil and Malayali, as Kurubas in Kanarese and correspond to the Dhangars of the Marathas and of Northern India.” [Enthoven, 1922: Vol 2, 317]. This, however, does not seem to refer exactly to the kuruba / kurumba of the Nilgiri Hills and Wayanad Plateau. Thurston mentions briefly a ‘caste’ by name kurni, weavers of sheep wool blankets by profession, and mainly found in Telugu areas of Deccan. It seems to be related to the kunbi / kurmi, but from the description, it is not possible to conclude certainly that it does [Thurston, 1909: Vol IV, 130].

Taking into account the entire discussion up to now, it appears that the range of communities under all the denominations considered above – kumlbi, kunbi, kurmi, kudubi, kurni, kanbi, and possibly kuruba and kurumba of the Nilgiri Hills and Wayanad Plateau – have a common or similar origin. It is possible that they owe their origin to a single community at some point in history. But we cannot come to such a conclusion without further evidence.

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