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Halvakki Vakkals - Living by Giving

Inhabiting the Konkan region, the Halvakki Vakkals have an intriguing, if somewhat shrouded past. Today they dabble in faith and herbal cures which, judging by the vast number of patients, is a thriving occupation.

The priest one of the temples of the Gokarn Complex sits on the cowdung-plastered floor of his low-ceilinged, freshly white-washed house and offers to read our horoscope. He is a polyglot, he claims and proceeds to utter sample phrases in Sanskrit which he described, not very modestly, as the purest, Hindi with a distinguishable southern slant; Konkani which differed somewhat from my Goan variety; and English-a brand which would assure professor Higgins a lifetime tenure. He wisely presumed that we would not understand Kannada or the other languages of Tamilian stock, all of which and their many regional dialects he knew well, or to use his own words, the bestest.

In which language would we like our past disclosed and future unraveled? We propose, instead, we talk about the myths and legends of the Kanara and he could charge us a fee for it if he had to. He felt offended at the suggestion. Which good son of his good mother will take money to tell you his own mother’s story? He asked with what we thought was not mere mock indignation.

Anyway… when all world was water, Gokarn was created. Go means cow and karn ear and from the ear of the cow were the holy men born. Gokarn is to the Gowd Saraswati Brahmins a very holy land. Here came their ancestors in the last lap of their long track from the silted Saraswati river across the Gangetic Plains, through the coastal strip of the east and then, across the forbidding Palghat Pass, into the west coast and then on to Goa, the promised land created by the hammer-wielding god, Parsuram.

The Halvakki Vakkals of Karwar, about 55 kilometers away from Gokarn, had an even more glorious myth about their origins and of the land of their forbears. They were living on the land much before anyone else. They made the seeds from which milk-white rice is grown. Mike-white in their language languages is halu, and rice is akki and that is how they came to be known as Halvakki Vakkals, the famous of white rice.

The Halvakki Vakkals might not have been as princely as they fancy themselves, but like all tribals, they certainly are the elite-that-was; before they were subjugated by the more powerful ethnic groups who arrived later. In their case, it was the Aryans who, forced by historic circumstances, raided the Indian peninsula. As elsewhere, the new elite was less than keen to understand their customs and ethos. The Kanwar Gazette of 1883, edited by James Cambell, taunts them as the likely progeny of Having Brahmins and Havakki mothers. F. Buchanan, who wrote in the 1800s Journey Through the Northern Parts of Karnataka, perceived in them “a Malyali connection”. E.Thurston, the author of The Castes and Tribes of South India, though the Halvakkis were cousins of the Budubudike described in the Mysore Census Report of as gypsy beggars and fortune tellers from Maratha country who pretend to consult birds and reptile to predict future events. The Mysore Census Report elaborated: The charlatan soothsayers duplicated the chirping of birds through a small kind of double-headed drum which is sounded by means of the knotted ends of strings attached to each side of it. Quite complkicated, to say the least, but certainly ingenious.

But Sousa and P.Fernandes had a different opinion of the Halvakkis. It was said, they recorded, that eleven of them went to the forest on a Ganapathy day to collect fruit and flowers and not being able to count beyond ten, they kept missing one every time they took a head count. So they presumed that Ganesha (elephant-headed Hindu god) had spirited one of them and in disapproval of the divine misdemeanor, gave up his worship. More sinned against than sinning perhaps. But truly, the Halvakki Vakkals are a very united community and fiercely protective of their land and their rights to it, which to their mind are eternal and ought to be recognized as such. Several of them have gone to court to resist the acquisition of their lands. They were extended offers which many would consider irresistible, land for land and a new settlement, complete with a school, a health center and a shopping complex. But as the Halvakki Vakkals say, their bodies are part and parcel of their land; the land is a gift from the gods. Their favourite totem which continues to be venerated, even after their conversion to Hinduism, is an unhusked coconut and they worship daily the basil plant. But now they also accept Venkatramana of Tirpuati, a manifestation of Vishnu, as their collective pride was revived by the famous Vaidya Shivu Gommu Gauda. Gauda, a pejorative in Goa, is an honorific as far as they are concerned. They suffix their names with it to establish their pedigree. Once, only the headmen had a right to use it. Their Gaon cousins were less fortunate in their endeavour to gain social acceptability.

When there still were tigers and cheetahs, they draped themselves with their skin and it huge down their backs. Writing in the Madras Census Report of 1891, H.A.Stuart stated that Gauda and Gaudo are really two distinct castes, the former being Cavarese and latter Uriya. The mind boggles at the vicissitude suffered by their ancestors. Even the etymology of their caste-name was scrambled by history. Dr. Gustava oppert contends in his original Inhabitants of Bharatvarsha, that the word Gauda might not be derived from the Sanskrit word go, meaning a cow, but possibly from gauda, a Dravidian word meaning a mountain.

But Vaidya Shivu Bommu Gauda’s story is worth listening to. Two hundred years ago, his ancestor was sitting in his freshly harvested paddy field when a sanyasi suddenly appeared before him and asked him for a medicine for his ailments. You are mistaken, replied the humble peasant. I know of no medicine for any ailment. But the sanyasi insisted andurged him to follow him into the forest. Once there, he introduce him to rare roots, barks, herbs, resins, spices, pods and seeds. And he put them together in the famous Belambar magic oil for paralysis and rheumatic pains. Shivu Bommu Gauda says his great-grandson, the present dispenser of the magic oil, treated and cured Mahatma Gandhi when he went to Ankola, five kilometers from Belambar, for the second Salt Satyagraha in 1927. The greatful co-villagers erected an idol like memorial for the Vaidya and it is held in great reference even today.

The fame of the magic oil has spread far and wide-Bombay, Bangalore, Goa, and even further. The old hut has been replaced by a concrete structure, known as the Memorial Hospital. It has 17 rooms which are always full and the waiting list is impressive. So are the cures claimed by Bommu Shivu Gauda, the present Vaidya. Among those cured are some famous industrialists and mine-owners. On the day we were there, we met an Arab who was going back to Oman, after seven days of treatment. He had come on a stretcher and was now walking, with a painful limp no doubt, to the cab waiting to take him back to Oman.

Once, as written in Madras Mail in 1907, there was a Halvakki Vakkal whose predictions were couched in the chants he recited. The chants had been gleaned from the warble of the feathered songsters of the forest. It prognosticate peace, plenty and prosperity to the house, the birth of a son to the fair, louts-eyed housewife and wordly advancement to the master whose virtues were as countless as the stars, the power to annihilate enemies and the tempting prospects of coming joy in an unknown shape from an unknown guest.

Belambar now holds the tempting prospect of return to health and near normalcy to patients tormented by excruciating pains in the joints and the fear of permanent disability after a paralytic storke. A famous cardiologist and a busy neuro-surgeon we spoke to, though that the oil message might help, being a physiotherapy of sorts but the actual formula of the oil massage might help, being a physiotherapy of sorts, but the actual formula of the oil perhaps had nothing to o with he so called magic. If at all, the oil might contain skin irritants which, through rubefaction, activate peripheral circulation and give the kind of relief liniments are known to provide temporarily. But they thought that the Shivu Bommu dynasty-the names, their order alternated every new generation have remained unchanged for 200 years-probably thrives on its capacity to motivate faith cures in the patients who have in any case nothing to lose.

Perhaps. We saw at Belambar Lakshamana, hardly 20, from Shirwad who was till the day of his fall from a tree, four days before we saw him, a very promising shehnai player. He delighted people at wedding ceremonies and now he was an invalie. But his father was full of hope. See, he told us, he can speak. Indeed, Lakshamana uttered some sounds. They were unintelligible to us and perhaps he would never be normal again. But how does one tell it to doting relatives and admiring fans who see no reason not to hope for the best?