By Mahesh Nayak Bovikan
Mangalore, Dec 4, 2010: Tracing the origins of an ethnic minority through centuries and centuries of unrecorded history can be more of a wild goose chase than an authentic study. This is what Dr. B. Surendra Rao takes pains to clarify even before commencing the narrative of his scholarly book, ‘Bunts in History and Culture’, which was released last month by Karnataka Lokayukta Justice N. Santhosh Hegde (who himself happens to be a Bunt).
Bunts are no doubt one of the most prominent communities of ‘Tulunadu’, a figurative geographical entity which stretches from Kasargod district of Kerala to as far north as the predominantly Kannada speaking Byndoor in Udupi district. Today their population hovers around 15 lakhs and many of them have settled in far off places like Mumbai and, even abroad. Though they are now famous as doctors, engineers, lawyers and businessmen (and a few celebrities like Aishwarya Rai, Shilpa Shetty and Suniel Shetty too), there was a time when they ruled the roost in coastal Karnataka donning the turban of feudal landlords and claiming warrior status.
It is this yawning gap between their past and the present that the book seeks to uncover. The project incidentally is not the author’s whim. It has been a passionate pursuit of World Bunts’ Foundation Trust, and more particularly that of eminent former neurologist Dr. K.R. Shetty, who officiates as its Project Director. Explaining the initial instigation for starting on the book project, Dr. Shetty says, “When I went out to meet our community people, I was confronted with questions regarding the community’s past and I realized that I had no genuine answer to give.” Hence it was decided to commission an authentic book on the community’s history and culture based on hard research, to be funded by the World Bunts’ Foundation Trust.
In order to avoid self glorification and also to make the book more objective, it was decided that it should be authored by a person from outside the community. As a result, Rashtrakavi Govind Pai Samshodhana Kendra, based at MGM College, Udupi was selected to undertake the research work and eminent historian Dr. B. Surendra Rao, who retired recently as professor of history at Mangalore University, was engaged to be the author.
The painstaking research involved in such an ambitious project was done over a period of more than five years and the research team visited over 200 traditional ‘guttu’ houses, dug out hundreds of old documents, records and references, interviewed scores of knowledgeable people and also sought expert opinion from professionals ranging from architects to archeologists. Scholars like Dr. K. Chinnappa Gowda, Registrar of Mangalore University, Dr. K.V. Ramesh, former Joint Director General of Archeological Survey of India and Aerya Laxminarayana Alva noted litterateur too were prevailed upon to give inputs. “At one point, the task looked so daunting and impossible that we seriously considered about abandoning the idea,” says Dr. K. R. Shetty. So uncompromising was the dedication to truth.
The final outcome however seems worth the effort. The book, spanning 360 pages is divided into 10 chapters, with each chapter devoted to one aspect of the Bunt identity. Chapter One, for example, dwells on the difficulties involved in coming to a reasonable conclusion regarding the community’s origins. In it you learn how there are people who believe that Bunts could be imports from the Mediterranean region, and of Greece, and particularly of Spartan descent for reasons like their matrilineal orientation, presumed prevalence of thalassemia gene (which is clarified to be a myth) and the worship of serpents and spirits. Some also trace the community to the Bantu people of Africa, merely because the name rhymes well and others assert that they could be of north Indian descent on account of sturdy build and fair complexion.
Through elaborate cross references, even quoting DNA surveys conducted by others, Dr. Surendra Rao dismisses all these as mere speculation not supported by material evidence. Wading through reams of data like a keen scientist – or perhaps a hard nosed detective – he finally arrives at a badly damaged 8th century inscription from Udyavara by the Alupa ruler Aluvarasa II, which he accepts as the earliest epigraphical reference to Bunts. Even here he is not sure if the word ‘Bunta’ contained therein refers to a caste or a class. With similar uncompromising zeal, he uncovers various other aspects of Bunthood, even minutely dissecting the ‘Guttu Universe’ as he calls it, and microanalyzing the folklore and legends like Siri, Devu Poonja and Agoli Manjanna.
Traversing through the Bunt heritage in this manner, the author comes to the modern age, documenting their contributions to the freedom movement and after, to conclude at Land Reforms Act, which robbed this community of landlords of vast tracts of agricultural land in the early 70’s and forever changed its traditional claim to identity. Explaining his stance on the book, Dr. B. Surendra Rao strongly emphasizes that he has written the book merely as a historian and not to please anyone. “The Bunts are a dynamic community as they have been able to adapt to change over the centuries. Our study has traced the roots of the community from as far back in time as evidence permitted and we have concluded at the sweeping impact of the Land Reforms Act, which is the most discernible landmark in the evolution of this agricultural community,” he says.
‘Bunts in History and Culture’ is well worth a read and could serve as a useful reference book for those who appreciate evidence based approach. It is well researched and honestly presented with cross references to justify every conclusion made. The book is also interspersed with many pages of colour photographs of various ancient Guttu houses, monuments, artifacts and portraits of great men and women who have made a mark, all of which serve to evoke memories of the community’s grand past.
It may not read like a gripping novel or have smooth flow of a story book, but, despite being technical in its approach, it is easily accessible to the lay reader, and with some patient effort, can be clearly understood. As Dr. K. Chinnappa Gowda, Registrar of Mangalore University, pointed out during the book release function, an author’s greatest attribute while dealing with this kind of work is his objectivity and non-prejudiced approach and ability for achieving balanced conclusions. In his attempt to chronicle ‘Bunts in History and Culture’, its author Dr. B. Surendra Rao has done just that and is bang on target.
The book is priced at Rs. 500 (US $30) and can be procured from leading book shops in the city or contact the publishers:
Rashtrakavi Govind Pai Samshodhana Kendra, MGM College, Udupi 576102
Tel.: 0820 2521159, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
World Bunts’ Foundation Trust, SRS Home, Mangalore 575003
Tel.: 0824 2494205, E-mail: email@example.com