Billawa Community

The Billawa, or Ilava (Tulu: ಬಿಲ್ಲವ , Kannada: ಬಿಲ್ಲವ) people make up one of the largest Hindu communities of the Tulu ethnic group in India. They are also found in the Kannada-speaking Kundapura region of Karnataka and some parts of Kerala, including the Kasaragod District. The Billawa were primarily engaged in martial arts (garadi) and practised Ayurveda; the community was reformed under Sree Narayana Guru’s teachings.

It is believed that Billawa and ilava are derived from a proto-Dravidian word. The word “Billawa” is a variant of Villavars (archers) – a warrior caste of the Dravidians who ruled most of India during ancient times. Villavars founded the Chera kingdom, and the Chera king was addressed as Villavar Kon. The word billu means “bow” in Tulu. Martial-arts academies of Billawas are known as garadi. Reading, writing and instruction in archery and the martial arts were the main activities of these Garadi – similar to Kalari, which is practised by the Ezhava (an intermediate caste) community in Kerala . Thus the word Billawa (fighters) could be derived from billu (or Villu) in the Tamil language. Billawas are descendants of the ancient Villavar warriors. They are also known as Biruvas; this strengthens the name derivation from the Dravidian/Tulu root “bow”. Tulu words for bow are billu or biru.

Tulu is the main language spoken by the Billawas. In some areas of Karnataka, Billawas also speak Kannada and identify themselves as “Kannada Billawas”. The dialect spoken by the Billawa people is known as “common Tulu”. There are also subgroups within the Billawas (the Thiyyabillas or Malaylali Billawas in the South Canara district) who are considered part of the Malayalee community. The coastal regions of Karnataka and Kerala had a very active martial-arts tradition, and many Billawa families still continue this tradition. This helped them develop a community identity. They built Garadis similar to Kalaris in Kerala in honour of their folk heroes Koti and Chennayya. The Tulu term Garadi is derived from the Kannada word Garodi, which means “gymnasium”. These garadis became major religious and martial-arts centres of the Billawas throughout the coastal areas of Karnataka. Though this tradition was common to their equivalent caste in Kerala, due to rigid caste rules they lost their independent religious/martial-arts traditions. Maliyali Billawas speak the Byari language and their Kula (god) is Baghavathi. The Billawas believe in ancestral worship.

Like the Theyyam in Kerala, Tulu regions have Nema (a type of spirit worship), and the Billawas are important part of this native worship. The twin warriors Koti and Chennayya, Koraga Thaniya and Bobbariya are the most common daiva (gods) worshiped by the community. Tuluva paddanas are sung narratives which are part of several closely related singing traditions, similar to Vadakkan Pattukal (Northern ballads) of northern Kerala and which may be considered ballads, epics or ritual songs (depending on the context or purpose for which they are sung). The community has special occasions in which it is traditional to sing paddanas. They will sing the Paddana of Koti-Chennaya during a ceremony on the eve of a marriage. Women who sing the song in the fields will sing those verses appropriate for the young heroes.
The Billawas have a matrilineal system and a highly centralised community. Marrying one’s sister’s daughter is strictly prohibited, except for a few cases among the Belthangady Billawas. Aliya Kattu (nephew lineage) is a system of property inheritance and other associated traditions practiced among Tulu/Malayalee Billawas in coastal Karnataka and Kerala.

Yakshagana (Tulu/Kannada: ಯಕ್ಷಗಾನ , yakṣagāna) is a dance drama popular in coastal and Malenadu regions of Karnataka. It is believed to have evolved from pre-classical music and theatre, and was taught in Billawa garadis. Shri Anada Kuthpady (pen name Yakshananda Kuthpady), from the Billawa community, was awarded the “Yaksha Kavya” State Level Award for his contributions to Yakshagana in 2000. [5] Among prominent Billawa Yakshagana performers are Shri Sanjiva Suvarna of Yakshagana Kendra, MGM College, Udupi, [6] the traditional badagu thittu artist Shri Airody Govindappa, the hasya kalavida (comedian) Shri Seetaram Kumar Kaleelu, the tenku thittu bhagavatha Shri Ravichandra Kannadikatte (Mangaladevi Mela) and Tonse Jayant Kumar.

The Billawa community has several subgroups, based on language and culture. People involved in nagaradhana are known as Baidya, and those involved in spiritual worship (Nema) are Poojary. These subgroups are part of two major groups known as Malayali and Tulu Billawa. Malayali Billawas are also called Thiyya Billawas (or Belchadas). Poojary (sometimes spelled Poojari) means “worshipper”. In the past the Poojary played an important role in Bhuta Kola (Nema), a practice seen amongst tribal communities in Tulunadu. This subgroup is responsible for building temples and other places of worship, and their worship is known as poojas.

Malayali Billawa are the indigenous inhabitants concentrated in an area between north of the Chandragiri river in Kasaragod, south of the Kalyanpura river (in Hejamamdi) and – from west to east – between the Arabian sea and the Sullia region. There are 18 important Bhagavathi Kshetras, in addition to many Tharavadu(family) shrines throughout the Kasaragod, Mangalore and Udupi districts. Although the ruling deity of the community is Bhagavathi, there are also temples dedicated to Vishnumoorthy, Wayandu Daiva and Korathi; the latter two are believed to be incarnations of Lord Shiva and Shakthi, respectively. Chaitanyas such as Kallurutti, Panjurli, Guliga and Naagadevan are forms of worship in the community, and Kola, Thamblia, Kaliyatha and so forth are performed regularly to invoke the gods’ blessings. The community is divided into eight Illams; they trace their origins to Amruthamani (who was born out of Lord Shiva’s grace) and seven others born to the Sapthamathas through the Lord’s divine blessings. This means that Thiyas are the progeny of Lord Shiva. Marriage within the same Illam is taboo (Sagothra).