Keeper of Kota tongue: Meet the priest who created a script for a TN tribal language

Poosari Kanagarajan, whose formal education stopped with Class 8, has published two books in Kovmozhi in an effort to preserve the language.
Keeper of Kota tongue: Meet the priest who created a script for a TN tribal language
Keeper of Kota tongue: Meet the priest who created a script for a TN tribal language
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In quick strides, supported by a walking stick, Poosari AR Kanagarajan crosses the uneven terrain to greet us at his son’s house in Pudhu Kotagiri. It’s a cool April afternoon and the temperatures is below 16 degrees thanks to a steady drizzle in the Nilgiris. But 73-year-old Kanagarajan has no sweater on, not even a scarf. “I would invite you to my house, but outsiders are not allowed to enter a poosari’s house. It’s an ancient practice,” he explains.

Dressed in a crisp, white veshti and a matching thundu wrapped around his shoulders, clad in the traditional Kota style, Poosari Kanagarajan, a Kota priest, tells us of his scholarly pursuits. In spite of discontinuing his formal education after Class 8, he has authored and published two books on Kovmozhi, the language of the Kota tribe.

But his most remarkable achievement is that he developed the script for Kovmozhi by himself, for the language had no formal script of its own – it was only used in the spoken form by the Kota tribe.

The Kotas of the Nilgiris

Among the major (TN) tribes of Nilgiris – Irulas, Todas, Kotas and Kurumbas – the Kotas are usually found on the upper elevations, along with the Todas, and never on the plains. Kanagarajan recalls that in 1910, the entire tribe was displaced by the British from the present Nehru park region in Kotagiri (near Johnstone Square).

“We were sent to a low-lying area – more like a ditch (Kuzhi). In 1960, heavy rains resulted in the land splitting in two. A huge rift was formed. I remember it even now. If you were to drop a stone, it kept going deep inside, like an unending well,” he says.

Following this, the Kotas were then allocated lands spread across seven villages – Keezh Kotagiri, Pudhu Kotagiri, Kunda Kotagiri, Trichigadi, Kollimalai (near Ooty), Sholur Kokkal and Mel Gudalur Kokkal. In each village, the way the language is spoken is different. Kotagiri itself derives its name from the Kota tribe.

“When the Tamils came here, they named this place ‘Kota-giri’ which means Kota’s Mountains. Also, in Kovmozhi, we call our streets ‘Keri’ and every village has three keris – melkeri, keezhkeri and nadukeri. Perhaps Kotagiri also comes from Kota-Keri,” explains Kanagarajan. These Keri's are also exogamous we learn. 

The language of the Kotas under threat of extinction

Most Nilgiri tribal languages do not have scripts. Kanagarajan’s profound love for his language and culture, along with a fear of their disappearance, encouraged him to record them in books, and to preserve and propagate them better.

“In Kovmozhi we use the word ‘angadi’, which means shop in Tamil. Now why would the Kotas, who lived in the mountains, have use for a word that described ‘shop’?” he asks.

While researchers like Murray Barnson Emeneau have studied the culture and language of the Kota tribe in detail, it is the first time that a Kota linguist has emerged. The fact that he has not even completed his high school education makes it all the more remarkable. There also happens to be a Ph.D. scholar from the Allu Kurumba tribe, who is currently working on documenting the Kurumba language.

Kanagarajan’s first book, published after multiple trials and errors in 1985, is a guide to the basics of Kovmozhi. His second book, a Kovmozhi dictionary, was published in 2016.

In the prologue to his first book, Kanagarajan writes, "50-years ago, except the Kotas, nobody else understood Kovmozhi. But today, more people are easily able to understand this language. The reason is that more Kov youngsters are studying English, Hindi and Tamil in their schools and are fraternising with the others coming from different communities. This has resulted in mixing other language words with Kovmozhi. Few words are no longer understood by our youngsters these days. Many Kovmozhi words have gone out of use. If this situation continues, Kovmozhi might soon be forgotten. This book is a part of my effort to help protect our language.”

Kanagarajan is also working on his third book, which will be a compilation of all the cultural practices of the Kota tribe. He also has plans to bring out a fourth book called Kovmakkhalin Mudhal Saadhanaiyalargal (The Kov Peoples’ First Achievers), with photographs and short profiles of contemporary achievers from the tribe.

“We’ve got a pilot, a doctor, a postgraduate with an MA degree. My granddaughter herself is a Bharathanatyam dancer, who has won awards in many competitions.”

Blacksmith turned priest turned linguist

Kanagarajan has served as the village priest (poosari) for about 40 years – a position, respected and venerated by the village folks, retiring only two years ago.

Kota villages have two priests – one for each god. Their gods have no forms and their temple shrines house the ‘agal vilakku’ (earthen lamp) that’s constantly burning to signify the gods. There's the Father – Aynore – and the Mother – Amnore. It was only recently that they began embracing Hindu gods like Shiva and Krishna. While trying to interpret their culture, the Tamils attributed Aynore-Amlore to Shiva-Parvati, which may explain the influences of Hinduism among Kotas.

Seen on the covers: Kota Temple (left) and old photograph that was taken in the year 1883 (right)

“Not everyone can become a poosari. You have to be called (by god). And once you’ve been called, you’ve got to give up whatever it is that you are doing. I was a blacksmith before this. The current poosari was with the Taluk office,” he says.

In 1968, when Kanagarajan was in his early 20s, he was employed by the Income Tax Department in Karaikudi. “But I served very briefly, for a little more than a year. I had to come back because of my legs – I have osteoporosis,” he says. He then went on to work at his co-brother’s workshop in Ramchand. Soon, he opened his own workshop in which he worked with metals and wood for close to 12 years before being called to become the poosari.

Throughout our conversations, Kanagarajan is very forthcoming and eloquent. He describes in great detail about the traditional practices and customs of the Kotas, their festivals, games and more. At no point does he need prodding. Always twirling his thick white moustache and patting down his grizzly white beard, Kanagarajan explains his fervent interest in languages.

In his early twenties, Kanagarajan subscribed to English grammar books, which he devoured with great interest. “Ask me anything from English grammar,” he says with a smile. He even encouraged his wife to take up reading in her free time. “I often told her that only by reading will you learn more.”

He also shows us his Hindi picture books, adding that he can also understand Malayalam and Kannada to some extent. He also tells us of his love for the fiction stories that were published in Tamil magazines like Kalkandu, Rani Muthu and Ambulimama.

He brings out his collection of books, packed in plastic pouches and neatly arranged inside cardboard boxes. Among the titles we could make out, there were books on Vivekananda’s teachings, a copy of the Bible, an illustrated cover bearing the name Siva Puranam, English grammar books of varying sizes and several other books in both english and Tamil.

Efforts to preserve the language and culture of the Kotas

Kanagarajan first began by writing several pages in the basic Kovmozhi script. He then tried photocopying these pages, which did not turn out as expected. Later, a friend introduced him to computer scanning. Using Tamil typing tools, he entered words in Tamil and left blank spaces where the Kovmozhi words would be written. He filled these spaces with his handwritten words, then scanned the pages and finally took them for printing.

The arduous process proved successful, and once he was satisfied with the outcome, Kanagarajan took to distributing his books among the villagers for free. He also insists that all the tribe members speak only in Kovmozhi during their fifteen-day annual festival. “If someone were to use other language words, they would be corrected. This way, they learn more Kovmozhi words,” he explains.

Pointing to his son’s house, Kanagarajan proudly says, “This house was built by my son. I instructed him and he did it – right from laying the foundation to electrical work and plumbing. We had no help from anyone else.”

Perched on a small elevated piece, surrounded by the misty blue mountains and greenery, the house in white is a humble one-storey building with brick walls and a tin roof.

There’s a sense of pride and accomplishment in his voice; and rightfully so. The Kotas (Kotas/self-identified as the Kovs), an indigenous tribe from Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris, are expert blacksmiths, potters and musicians and are often regarded as “jack of all trades”. Although not agriculturalists themselves, the ethnic tribe sustained itself by exchanging tools and vessels for milk, grains, vegetables and the likes.

Today, in addition to their language, the Kota craft and skills are on the verge of extinction. The tribe has explored beyond just black-smithery and pottery. Kanagarajan’s son for instance works with the Military Engineering Services (MES) and his grandson is currently employed with L&T. Before we leave, he points to his books and says, “I’ll have to box them up again. The youngsters don't read Tamil anymore. They prefer books in English.”

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