“Riddles are probably the oldest extant forms of humour”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica. They are also the vehicles of heritage knowledge for every community. They were in vogue from the earliest literary texts of Vedas.
The following riddle from Rigveda is popularly cited (for ex: by Velaga Venkatappayya in Podupu Kathalu, 2008, p. vii).
Dwaanuparnaa sayujaa rakhaayaa samaanam
Vriksham parisha swajaate yoranyah
Pippalam swaadyatti ankyovashnannabhi baaka reti
Thereafter many Itihasas, Puranas, poetic works, stories, Jain and Buddhist texts and Bible mention the riddles and they are more popular among the rural people. The peoples’ memory is rightly emphasised by Devendra Sathyarthi (in “Indian Children’s Rhymes and Chants”, Modern Review, October – November, 1936, p. 39): “The people were the victims of great catastrophes, but none could kill the children’s indigenous games and home spun songs”.
During the evening times of leisure the village elders, boys and girls gather in the courtyard of a village/street elder and pose riddles to each other to uncover the intended meaning. Not only are they humorous in spelling out rhythmically by expressing the beauty of the language and vocabulary, but also carry the knowledge of their environs indirectly suggesting ‘learn to live’. This way the riddles are not only entertaining but also educative.
One of the most ancient races that have been carrying the heritage of riddles is of Kolams. Renowned anthropologist Professor Haimendorf made the following observations on the Kolams (The Raj Gonds of Andhra Pradesh, pp. 32, 38 & 345-48) — “The population that can best claim the epithet ‘aboriginal’ is the Kolams or Kolavars … several thousand members of the tribe are found scattered over the greater part of the Adilabad district from the uttermost corner of Kinwat to the taluqs of Sirpur and Lakshetipet in the east and south. Most Kolams speak a distinct tribal language, but some groups in the west have exchanged this for Marathi while in the east there are communities of telugised Kolams. In their own language, the Kolams call themselves Kolavar, but in Gondi they are called Pujari, in Telugu Mannevarlu, and in Marathi and in Urdu Kolam. Their tribal language known as Kolami is a Dravidian tongue and belongs, like Gondi, to the intermediate group of Dravidian languages, agreeing in some points with Telugu and in others with Tamil and connected forms of speech. The Kolami spoken in Adilabad is unintelligible to Gonds and judging from my limited word lists it seems, at least in vocabulary, to have closer affinities to Telugu than to Gondi… Those outlying groups who have fallen under the sway of either Marathi or Telugu culture and lost with their language many of their old customs occupy a different position; they are in the process of becoming a Hindu caste, and between them and the Gonds there is no feeling of common tribal tradition”.
His observations made some points clear — one, Kolams are one of the most ancient tribes in South India (across erstwhile Adilabad district in Telangana). This is why the Government of India recognised them as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PvTG). Their population is almost stagnant for the past three decades — 1991 to 2021 — oscillating between 40,000 and 45,000 while the population of all other communities in India are increasing. Two, the Kolams speak a language of their own and it belongs to “intermediate group of Dravidian languages”, like Gondi and Telugu. Linguists starting from Bhadriraju Krishnamurti (Telugu Verbal Bases Comparative and Descriptive Study, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1961, p. 269) recognised Kolami as one among the 11 languages belonging to the Central Dravidian branch of proto Dravidian language. Third, the Kolams living on the borders are losing their language and culture to those of Marathi and Telugu. This is a threat to their ancestral heritage. Fourth, the Kolam vocabulary is more akin to Telugu than to Gondi. Well-known linguist P. S. Subrahmanyam concludes that the Kolavagotti (language of Kolams as they call it) imbibed many words from Telugu. Therefore it can be presumed that their homeland might be the Telugu land itself (Draavida Bhaashalu, 1977, p. 42 & Kolavagotti, jstor, 1998).
However, other scholars like M. Rama Rao (Temples of Tirumala, Tirupati and Tiruchanur, TTD, 1999, p. 3) trace the roots of Kolams to the down south, i.e. Tirumala Hills called Vengadam in the remote past: “Vengadam was inhabited by an uncivilised tribe of hunters known as the Kalvar. Their chieftain was Pulli, who was a fierce and powerful master. He and his people spoke a language which was different from the language of Tamilaham. The Vengadam hill was known to many poets of the Sangam age as famous for its forests, for its elephants, for its streams and for its drunken bouts”.
It appears to be true, because the word Kalvar is similar to Kolvar; kal meaning offshoot. There are still some villages by name like Kollam Penta and Komman Penta (in Nallamala forests in Nagarkurnool district) that suggest their migration from south to north through the hinterland of Telangana, during the times of far histories.
The word kollam and even kolam also means rangoli. Rangoli is elaborate among the Kolams and festivals can not happen without them. And, kolam was very popular with the people of Indus valley civilizations, some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. This way the ancestry of the Kolams goes back to proto-historic times and their language stands as a link between the south and north Indian regions.
However, now the two observations of Professor Haimendorf – losing of Kolam language and culture to their associated dominant peoples and its affinity to Telugu – prompt us to study the language of the ancient race of Kolam. As such, five years ago I started encouraging Athram Mothiram to collect folk songs of his own tribe Kolam. Initially he did not find ‘great things’ in the folklore, but as I went on convincing him on the importance of his ‘community memory’ which is entering the endangered zone, he finally utilised an opportunity and recorded the riddles spelt out in leisure time by Kolam students studying classes 3rd to 10th in the Government run residential school in Endha, Utnoor Mandal, Adilabad District, during the closing months of 2019.
Further, few months earlier Athram Mothiram participated in another similar evening session in a Kolam village Choupanguda, Wankidi Mandal in Kumram Bheem Asifabad District with six teenagers and a youngster – Athram Ravi (12), Anasuya (15), Kova Renuka (15), Sidam Kavita (15), Kova Prasad (13), Kova Bheemrao (26) – and recorded the riddles (altogether 112).
The riddles in their language Kolami are labelled sitah and are posed randomly in an enthusiastic flow. Yet, earlier scholars tried to present the riddles in a systematic manner and a scholar on the subject Archer Taylor divided them into five groups – animal related, human related, tree related, things related and non comparable riddles. But a primary study of the riddles of the Kolams leads us to divide them under the following categories:
1. House, food and health related riddles
2. Forest and environment related riddles
3. Agriculture related riddles
4. Culture and education related riddles
Till recent times, the Kolams lived upon food gathering, hunting and a primitive agriculture stage. Therefore, we find more number of their riddles (62) revolving around the things related to the ways of acquiring food in the forested environs (25) and from their primitive cultivation (18). Since they are strong believers in appeasing their deities by playing musical instruments during their fairs and festivals, we come across those things in the riddles (4). Education is a relatively latest addition to the social system and this is also evident in their riddles (3).
The house related riddles are about house plastering, swing, clothesline, door, pot hanging ring, wooden pillar, sweeping, termites, bore pump, lamp, ladder, dog tail, neem fruits, umbrella, andugu tree, oil presser, log and thorns. Food related items include popcorn, spatula, custard apple, tamarind fruit, egg, castor oil, mahua flowers, fire ash, bean support log, stove, cake piece, pan, millstone rawa, bitter gourd, match stick, fire, salt, onion, brinjal, nutmeg and maize. Human related things are shade, spit, nose, cry, leather sandals, old people, kid, comb, navel, eyes, nails, teeth, tattoo and lice. Forest related riddles are about Vemapli tree, Buduma fruits, Morri nuts, Aare leaf, wild bitter gourd and bamboo shoot. Birds like sparrow, gijigaadu and peacock and terrestrial animals like rats, ants, porcupine, boar, scorpion, chameleon, squirrel, fishermen – fish, burrowing quail and partridge appear to be humorous riddles. Environment is reflected through the riddles to unfold the intended meanings of stars, valley, stream, air and moon. Agricultural equipment is expressed through the riddles on machan, paise, axe, ship, causeway, goad, blacksmith, cart axle. Cattle related riddles include the meanings of cow, cow udder, tail and the crops include millet, sesame, fangs, cotton, groundnuts and maize. There are riddles that talk about musical instruments like Dol, Kaalikom, Dandaari cap and flag. Book and pen are also dealt in few other riddles. The above words are very close to Telugu vocabulary.
To cite a few riddles: the Kolami riddle “iduput mudipi” can be translated as “idupulo mudi” in Telugu; another Kolami riddle “thutthur thummeng, netthur thothed” can be translated as “thurrmane thummedaku netthuru ledu” in Telugu; the Kolami riddle “sikding ver thod, jinkskung jaaga thod” can be translated as “chikkuduku veru ledu, jinkaku jaaga ledu” in Telugu. A general observation of the Kolami words let us find them with similar spelling and phonetic sound of the Telugu words. For example: the Kolami word gol is gollu in Telugu; chimni is same in both the languages; neenda in Kolami is needa in Telugu; satri in Kolami is chatri in Telugu; cheeme in Kolami is cheemalu in Telugu; the Kolami word pelaa becomes plural word pelaalu in Telugu. Thus, there are slight differences between the two languages, especially in respect of prepositions and verbs. Most of the Kolami words end with nasal sounds which can not be written so easily. This appears as one of the reasons for the absence of script for the language.
Several scholars made considerable efforts to understand the language and vocabulary. Emeneau’s classic work (1955) presents a detailed grammar, vocabulary (with cognates for Dravidian words and identification of loans from Indo-Aryan and other sources), a discussion on the relationship of the language with the other ones of the Dravidian family, a chapter on the features of the Adilabad dialect as found in P. Sethumadhava Rao’s work (A Grammar of the Kolami Language, 1950) and a few texts. Other tribal languages Naikdi and even Naiki of Chanda can be considered as dialects of Kolami for all practical purposes, say linguists P. S. Subrahmanyam.
Thus, Kolami is not only related to the Telugu language but also to other tribal languages and carries historical community memory through the folklore like riddles. All the dialects of the language Kolami are on the edge of disappearing now. If their folklore is not studied and recorded, the humankind will lose the much needed diversity. I hope this benign effort will serve the interests of the scholars on the subject to take up further works like this to preserve the endangered community’s heritage memories.
(The author is a Scholar on Telangana history and culture)
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