Beyond the Confines of Religion: A Look at Karnataka’s Syncretic Legacy Through the Celebration of Rajappa Swami’s Urus

I was in Gajendragada in Rona taluk to meet some friends. I passed through Nelajeri, a small village in Yalaburga Taluk. This region is known for its wheat, onions, pepper, and other things found in the rainfed regions of Karnataka. Most of the youth from the village work for a daily wage in the steel industries near Koppala. Nelajeri is a village which, although economically backward, boasts of a rich culture. In fact, this is true for most of the villages in North Karnataka.

While sipping on some chai in a makeshift chai stall in Nelajeri, I enquired if there were any folk singers in the village. A man, who had been sipping chai and smoking a beedi, casually mentioned, “Well, there is Andanappa. He is an expert in singing rivaayati pada.” I decided to meet Andanappa, and went to his house looking for him. He was working in the field. I waited for him on the raised platform in front of his house (Jaguli). It was a very old house.

On both the sides of the door were high, raised platforms, meant for people to sit on. Gunny sacks of grains were placed on both the platforms. Next to the sacks is where the landlord used to sit; the space was marked out for him, with carefully placed pillows. Portraits of Andanappa’s ancestors hung on the walls. Their foreheads were adorned with three horizontal lines drawn with vibhuti (sacred ash), as a mark of honour. As I peeped into the door, I saw a cow shed; a calf was mooing there.

To the right of the cowshed, one could see onions, garlic, and ridge gourds hanging from the ceiling. A little further in, the cowshed gave way to the dining area, which was on a raised platform; beyond this was the kitchen, with walls that had turned black with soot.

As I waited for him outside the house, curiously looking around the place, the vehicle carrying Anandappa came into view. He was six foot tall and was seventy five years old. I could see a prominent white patch on his face. He made his way carefully to the house, cycling cautiously on the narrow road which was already slippery with mud, the bath water having flown onto the road from the bathing area.  

He was taken aback looking at the car parked in front of the house. I introduced myself to him and told him about what had brought me there. He was happy learning that I, an outsider, had come to pay him a visit because of his singing. He immediately made his way to the kitchen and asked that I be served hot rottis (rice pancakes). He offered me a big glass of buttermilk. He then took out an old notebook, dusted it, and began to sing the Rivayat Padagalu, seeing the words from the notebook. His heavy built and soft voice reminded me of  “Kya Karu Sajani, Saajan Na Aave,” a thumri by Badegulam Ali Khan.

It is quite different experience all together when Rivayat padagalu is sung accompanied with various instruments. It can get very tiring for any singer to sing it alone. Anandappa stopped with two songs.

He then informed me about Rajappa Swami’s Urus, which was being organised that month in the village. He asked me to pay a visit during the Urus if I wanted to meet singers from Koppal, all of whom were participating in the event.

One day, about five-six months after this, I received a call from Andanappa. He gave me the details of the Urus, asking me to come for the event and not worry about the food and lodging. I took my scooter and left for the place, reaching it by evening. On my way, I saw people from the surrounding villages making their way to the event, all f them carrying plates covered with cloth, their offering to the deity. Ann is rice, while Daanappa is someone who is generous with charity. As his name suggests, Andaanappa, was a truly a generous host. He had organised my dinner in one of his students’ place. The dinner was quite elaborate, with bisirotti (hot bread), mosaru badanepallya (Curd brinjal curry).

The event began with a procession, at ten in the night, starting from a Kurubas house — Kuruba is a shepherd caste — and culminating at Rajappa’s durgah. One of the elders from the Kuruba families led the procession, along with a poojari (priest) from the Hanuman temple, which belongs to the beda community, a hunting caste. The procession had people from other religions, besides the muslims; people had come to attend it irrespective of their caste and religion. Andaanappa carried a large pole, with silver bracelets hanging at the top; the bracelets were a gift for the singers. Bringing up the rear of the procession were enthusiastic devotees carrying the sacrificial goats. The goats were meant to be offered to Kadoori.

Rajappa’s samadhi, or shrine, is located in a large field right outside the village. The architecture of the place resembles a sufi shrine. The shrine faces the north-south, just like sufi shrines. A mujarva offers fateha. Since Urus is celebrated to mark the death anniversary of Rajappa, I had assumed that it was one of the sufi traditions of the shrine. But, I was surprised to find out that Rajappa, a revered figure in the region who died eighty years ago, was from an oppressed caste. His followers and disciples are mainly dalits, and their samadhis are also around the shrine.

Symbols of Muharram, tiger and a palm, along with Ganapati and Hanuman, were engraved on the main entrance of the shrine. Rivayat Pada related to Muharram were to be sung that day.  At ten in the night, all the singers gathered together. They made their way to the pole with the mic, and then the singing began. The performances went on till morning broke. People sat up the whole night listening to them. Andaanappa had organised the the entire thing. He would invite each singer, encouraging them to perform, and rewarding the winners with silver bracelets.

Kandoori, a meat preparation, is specially prepared for the Urus. At around ten in the night, a mullah sacrificed the goat in the halal tradition. Arrangements to cook the goat meat began in the night. The entire field was aglow with the light of the small fires in the earthen stoves. The place looked like an army encampment. In the wee hours of the morning, a priest, believed to be possessed by a divine spirit, made auspicious predictions of rainfall and plentiful yields. After this, the meal was served. Everyone present was fed generously. Tradition states all the cooked food be consumed before the sunrise. Thus, Urus came to an end with a hearty meal. The final part of the festival was now over, and people made their way back to their villages on the tumtums. By noon, the dargah was deserted.

While Nelajeri also celebrates Urus , it doesn’t have a history of sufi tradition; there is a tradition of Rivayat Pada, but not of Muharram; Muslims participate in the Urus, but there is no traditional Islam; nine in ten of the participants in the Urus are Hindus, but it is not a jhatra; Urus resembles a few customs of Avadhuta tradition, but you cannot find the practice of gurudeekshe, which is a part of the Avadhuta tradition. The question, then, is, in which box of religion should we put Urus, how do we understand it?

None of the people who participated in Urus were interested in knowing the religion that Urus represented. When these people — who have been attending the Urus for many years— are not bothered about the religion of the festivities, the songs sung, and the food eaten, then why am I bothered with it? Am I trying to slot this practice into my ideas of different religions? The Urus of Nelajeri is a people’s religion. It is a religion that has taken its form all by itself. This religion is an amalgamation of sufism, avadhoota, and Islamic traditions of Muharram. There are many such places and communities in the state. The existing frameworks are not enough to understand these worlds. The frameworks set to, politically, look at religion are useless. To look at this world, one has to have an open mind and a different sight altogether, and not the sight to look at things only in the way we were taught to look at them.

I wanted to bid adieu to Andaanappa before I left for Hampi. I hadn’t been able to find him after the Urus and, when I went to his house to look for him, I learnt that he had cycled away to work in his field.