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The Billava Community: Significant evolutionary trends

The study of historical evolution of Tulu communities is an  enchanting line of work as the strings we encounter in the due course implicitly reflect the evolutionary footprints preserved during the long journey since our early ancestors set their foots in this charming coastal terrain.

Ramanāth Kotekar has recently (2012) published an interesting and useful book on Billavas (in Kannada) entitled “Tulunadina Billavaru” (=Billavas of Tulunadu). We shall review some of the interesting aspects of the Billava evolution in the light of available data. Famous and well known historical heroic persons of the Tulunadu like Koti-Chennaya and Kantabare – Budabare twin brothers hailed from the Billava Community.


Billava diaspora                                                                                    

The Billava community population-wise constitutes the largest socio-cultural diaspora in Tulunadu. Currently, they are one of the most dynamic communities of Tulunadu. Traditionally they were archers, hunters, soldiers, toddy tappers, Spirit worshippers etc, The Billava community in Tulunadu has equivalents widespread in other parts of Southern India, like Namdhari in Uttar Kannada, Halepaika and Idiga in Shimoga and Old Mysore State areas, Tiya or Belchada (in Ullal- Kasargodu sector) in southern Tulu areas and many other analogous castes and communities spread all over India.


Multiple professions

The Billava diaspora consist of at least three major subgroups, such as (a) Billava, (b) Poojari and (c) Baida. Interestingly during the early cultural history they adapted themselves to several professional roles like the following:

  1. Archers, hunters and soldiers (Billava, Idiga, Halepaika).
  2. Gymnasts and teachers at Gymnasia (Garodi).
  3. Priests in Spirit shrines (Poojari).
  4. Traditional herbal medicine developers (Baida).
  5. Toddy tappers.
  6. Landlords (Guthu owners).


We shall discuss some aspects of these professions here below:


Billava: Archer

Archery was one of the earliest creative arts invented by mankind during its evolution from primitive stages. With development of proficiency in archery, the hunters were able to hunt efficiently wild animals for food.


The term Billava means an archer (or a hunter who makes use of bows and arrows). Archery is one of the oldest talents evolved during the hunter stage of human evolution. The word Billava  (billu+ava= person who uses bow), especially the suffix ava or avan (=he) is of Kannada origin. It suggests that the usage of the term Billava became popular during the reign of Kannada Kings in Tulunadu like Kadamba and Chalukya. The Tulu equivalent word for Billava is Biruva where biru means the bow. Thus Biruver is the equivalent word for Billavas in Tulu language.


Bhil : Sage Valmiki

However, the common Kannada word billu (=bow) is borrowed from the ancient tribal word bhil. The Bhil is an ancient tribal community of archers spread in many parts of India but presently living preponderantly in the forests of Madhya Pradesh and surrounding regions.

The famous ancient poet of India Valmiki who is credited with the first compilation of the epic Ramayana hailed from the community of Bhils. The Bhils of Madhya Pradesh consider that the poet Valmiki was a Bhil or hunter-archer.

The ethnonym Bhil stands for bow and thus represents archers who traditionally used bows and arrows dating back to hunter stage of human evolution in the subcontinent. The alternate word for bhil was bhir, bir or biru, which was adapted in Tulu and the group was called Biruva or Biruver. Kannada people adopted the word bhill for bow and the group was designated Billava (or Billawa).


Garodi masters

Further during the course of evolution of cultures, when ambitious men acquired land and kingdoms were built to sway control over larger mass of lands, the archers were appointed by kings and chieftains to guard their territories against the enemies. Sooner the archers felt the need to acquire additional talents to fight the enemies. Thus soldiers trained in warfare were born and institutes (Garodi) to train the soldiers in the martial arts were also evolved.


The archers were also soldiers in the armies and in the due course also acquired the techniques of body building and martial arts. The Garodi (Garadi) were the native traditional gymnasia schools devoted to teaching of various techniques of martial arts such as archery, body building, wrestling, fencing or sword fighting and unarmed combat.

It is widely believed that the modern Karate developed in Japan originated from techniques taught and spread by ancient Buddhist monks of Southern India who migrated to China and Japan for propagation of Buddhism. The ancient form of garadi was karati (as pronounced in Tamil) and the term karate apparently evolved from the southern Dravidian word karati for garadi.



The term Poojari (=priest) stands for the traditional priest of Spirit worship ceremonies. The tradition of Poojaris devoted to Spirit worship evidently dates back to period before the expansive spread of Vedic Hinduism and worship of Hindu Gods in Temples in the subcontinent. In Garodis of Tulunadu, the principal deity is Bermer, a Spirit God widely worshipped in Tulunadu before the dominance of post-Vedic manifestation of Hindu Gods like Kumara, Shiva, Ganesha, Vishnu and Durga.



Baida or Baidya (later became Vaidya in Sanskrit) were the traditional Indian tribes that specialized in the study of forest herbs and the administration of pastes and decoctions derived from plants and herbs for curing various ailments. In fact the modern science of Ayurveda was evolved and founded by the tribe of Baidas.


Toddy tappers

The origin of the art of toddy tapping is not clear though it is generally believed that Thiyya and Ezhavas introduced the coconut palm cultivation and the techniques of tapping and brewing variety of toddies in the West Coast of India. In the Karavali, since long times, toddies extracted from the Palmyra palm (toddy palm) and the Coconut palm were in popular demand.


Bari system in Billawas

Ramanath Kotekar (2012) reports existence of the following 16 baris and additional 4 Koodubaris in his work cited above.

1. Suvarna ( Also known as Somanna, Chomann, Somannaya, Soma bannaya etc)

2.Amin ( Amananna,Ammanna,Amaranna, Ammana Bannaya)

3. Kotian (Kotianna, Koti Bannaya)

4. Kukkian (Kukkabannaya)

5. Karkera (Karamberanna, Karamberannaya,Kairanaya,Karkatanna, Karka banaya)

6. Mundan (Muyatanna, Munditanna, Mundittannaya,Munditta bannaya, Mundyan)

7. Bangera (Bangeranna, Bangaranna, Bangar bannaya,Banger bannaya).

8. Anchan (Alankanna,Alenchanna, Alenkanna,Alanka bannaya).

9. Kabera, Karbera (Kaberanna, Kaberannaya, Kabaranna, Karber,Kabera, Kabarabannaya)

10. Mulyeranna(Mulyarana,Mulyarannaya)

11. Kundar( Ginderanna,Gundanna, Gunderannaya, Kundaranna)

12. Sanil(Chanilanna, Kundachanna, Chanale,Chanlannaya)

13. Salian, Palan(Chalyanna, Salyanna, Palanbannaya, Palan,Salan, Salyan)

14.Gujatran(Gujaranna, Gujarannaya,Gujjarabannaya)

15.Pulyatan(Bolle Aitanna, Aitanna, Bollotatanna,Bollota bannaya,Balyatanna, Baleranna, Pulyotanna, Pulyotan)

16. Kirodian, Mabian(Uppianna,Uppanna, Uppannaya, Upparanna, Uppan,Bagyotanna, Mabanna, Mabu bannnaya, Mabian)


Koodu baris

17. Pergade

18. Bunnan (Bannana?)






Other commonly prevailing surnames:  Billawa, Baida, Poojari etc.


Common Tulu surnames

Many of the bari surnames prevailing among Billava community are not exclusive to them but are common among different Tulu Communities like Bunts, Mogaveera etc. One of the corollaries of this fact is that Caste-Communities are relatively of recent origin compared to age old bari surnames. One of the important custom of the Tulu ancestors was to marry outside their bari (surname folds) since marriages within the fold of blood relatives were found to produce weaker or unhealthy off springs.

The surnames not found in other communities may have been expunged or modified or even renamed due to historical circumstances. Even many of the older surnames may have been obliterated owing to varied circumstances during the course of history.


Evolution of Tribes

Early undocumented history of this subcontinent is littered with profusion of tribes that vied with each other for basic amenities and comforts of primitive kind. Numerous episodes of tribal invasions followed one another. The tribes that came later along the timeline into the territory considered themselves as more evolved, civilized and advanced compared to the pre-existing natives and eventually the former dominated, subdued and marginalized the latter. This type of history has been repeated many times along the timeline of historical evolution

There are no evidences for the existence of many earlier tribes in this land except for their preservance in ancient place names!


Ama, Amara tribes  (Amin)

The bari surname Amin appears to have been derived from the tribal name of Am tribes of ancient African Origin. Surnames like Ammannaya, Ammanna-bannaya, Amaranna, are considered equivalents of the Amin bari surname. Apart from Ama tribes, Amara, Amem, Ambala etc migrant tribes of African origin had ancient settlements named after them in Karavali (and contiguous area) as indicated by place names such as Amtadi, Amtur, Amai, Amembala, Ambala Mogaru, Amara Mudnur, Amaravati, Amara Kantaka etc.


Ana tribe (Anchan)

The bari surname Anchan (An+cha+an) appears to have been derived after the An tribes. An, Ancha, Andhra etc tribes had ancient settlements named after them in places like Anagodu, Anagundi, Anadka, Andheri, etc.


Banga tribe (Banga, Bangera)

The bari surname Banga or Bangera is found extensively among variety of communities of the Karavali and in place names such as Bangadi. The Banga and Bangal  tribal names have been imparted to the regional names of Bangal (West Bengal) and Bangladesh region of Indian subcontinent.


Bolle (Bolletan), Pulyatan)

Bolle (Bellar, Gora) or white tribes could have been possibly named after their skin colour. Signature villages named after them Bola, Bolar, Bolur, Bellur, Belve etc (also Goregaon etc in Maharastra) are suggestive an historical episode when white skinned tribes arrived and settled in various parts of Indian subcontinent.

The Pulyatan surname has been considered equivalent of the Bolletan bari. The term Pulya in Tulu represents dawn or early morning. Though the origin of this word is not clear, probably it means light and represents an alternate name for the light or white skinned tribes.


Gujar (Gujaran)        

Gujar represents specific tribes migrated from the Gujarat region in general. However another theory suggests that Gujars were the original immigrants from Georgia region of Russia into India. Anyway Gujar surname predates Tulu Castes as we can find common Gujar bari among Billava, Bunt and Mogaveers.


Kabe tribe (?)*         

Kabera surname appears to have been derived from the Kabe tribes. The place called Kabatar near Balkunje appears to be the signature village for the tribe.


Karamber( Karamber)*

Karambar could have been a tribal name associated originally with ancient Munda group of Austro-Asiatic tribes. We have several villages and hamlets known as Karmabar in different parts of Tulunadu. Karam is also a word associated with Munda tribes.


Karki  (Karkera)

The bari surname Karkera appears to have been derived after the tribal name of Karki. There are   a few hamlets in the Karavali named after the Karki tribes. One such Karki village is near Honnavar, Uttara Kannada district.


Kirodi  (Kirodian)*


Koti (Kotian)

The bari surname Kotian appears to have been derived after the tribal name of Kota or Koti. There are several places named after Kota tribes such as Kota, Koteshwara, etc.


Kukke  (Kukkian)*

The bari surname Kukkian appears to have been derived after the tribal name of Kukke. The tribal place name Kukke is associated with the famous pilgrimage center Subramanya on the foothills of Sahyadri ranges. The other places like Kukkaje,Kukkipadi,Kukkujadka,Koukradi, also vindicate the tribal name. The term Kukke means basket made from wild creepers. Possibly the term for traditional basket ( kukke) was derived from the name of the tribes that specialized in basket weaving.

There could have been certain relationship between Kukke and Toda tribes in the Karavali. One of the Spirit deities of Tulunadu is known as Toda-Kukki-naar.


Kundar (Kundaran, Ginderan)

The surname Kundar or Kundaran commonly found among Billavas and Mogaveers is apparently associated with those ancient tribes engaged in smelting or melting precious metals such as gold and silver. The term Gindi is commonly applied to the metal silver or a vessel fashioned out of silver. It appears that, later smaller pot like vessels (gindi) used for carrying liquids were also fashioned out of other metals like copper brass and bronze.


Mabian (Mabanna, )*

Mabu was a common tribal name in earlier years and some of the ferries such as Mabukala were named after the person or tribe called Mabu. Presently Mabian and Uppianna surnames are considered as equivalentssuggesting that these two tribes were closely related in earlier period.


Mulya ( Mulyarannaya)

Mulya or Kulals are associated with the art of earthen pot making. The Pot making was considered as one of the amazing discoveries of the early civilization. The wheel used for spinning and fashioning the clay into vessel was modified further and wheels for carts were supposed to have evolved from the potters wheel. On the other hand pot variously known as Kadya, kumbha, kalasha, muri or murle etc was used as an auspicious representative emblem of divinity since the early period of civilization. Subsequently the symbolic kalasha was also incorporated as pinnacles atop the stoopas and temples.

The presence of Mulyaranna bari surname suggests that a part of Mulya people were incorporated into the fold of the Billava diaspora during the course of historical time line.


Munda (Mundan)

Munda or Austro-Asiatic tribes were preponderantly distributed in various parts of Tulunadu during pre-Dravidan period. Numerous Munda signature villages in the coastal belt such as Mundkur,Mundur, Kallamundkur, Mundar, Mundagar, Mundadka etc signify the prevalence of Munda tribes in early Tulunadu. Several streams of Munda tribes were incorporated into the Billawa and other Tulu communities during the course of time.


Uppi (Uppianna), Mabian)*

Apparently the surname Uppi is associated with ancient salt makers living in estuaries of river. The equivalent name Mabian or Mabu is associated with boatmen who helped people to cross the river along ferries in the coastal rivers. For example, we can find Mabukala in River Seeta. The Mabukala appearing in the Siri paDdana could have been somewhere Kadandale in  Shambavi (or Mulki) River.



Sanil (or in some areas Kundacchanna) surname has been derived from the ancient tribe that had the totem of squirrel. Chanil in Tulu represents the squirrel.



The Salian surname has been derived after the ancient totem tribe of spiderThe term ‘talya’ or the ‘Salya’ refers to the ancient totem of Spider. Possibly it also signifies the ancient community of weavers that fashioned cloths during the antiquities. This is one of the common surnames among various Tulu Communities.


Sora tribes (Suvarana)

The surname Suvarna appears to be a recent modification of the ancient surname Soran connected with Sora tribes of Austro-Asiatic Munda tribal group that was widely spread in parts of ancient Tulunadu also. The name of Sora tribe has been preserved in several signature village names such as Sornadu, Sorga, Soor-ikumeru, Sooralpadi etc. And Sooru or Sooranna was a popular personal name in Tulunadu until recently. The edible tuber extensively used in cooking in Tulunadu, “ Soorana Kande” (=the Tuber of Sooru) probably was associated with the tribe of Sora or Soors. Possibly, the name of River Swarna has been named after the tribe of Sora.


Bunna (Bunnan,Bannan)


Shirodi (Shirodoan)*


Jatti (Jattanna)*

*Surnames with asterisks are generally found  exclusively in the Billava Community.

Hosabettu Vishwanath suggested that the clan (bari) Pullamachutti/Pulamachi Thiyya is possibly equivalent to ‘Suvarna’ of  Tulu Baris ( Post-312).  Palm/coconut trees are classified under ‘pullu’ (grass) variety (Refer Post-278:  Pula & Pola & their derivatives).  The Billava bari ‘Pullyotan/Pulyotan/Pullyotanna’ may refer to group of Billavas engaged mainly on drawing toddy from Palm/coconut trees and paddy cultivation.

Tulu Bari Surnames and Communities

Some of the common inferences we derived in our earlier analysis in this blog are perfectly applicable to this analysis also.

1. Tulu Communities traditionally have dual identity system which has survived even at present. Dual identities refer to (a) Surnames [Bari, Bali or Gotra] and (b) Community tag.

2. The Surnames predate present day pattern of Communities and Castes. In another way, the surnames were the original sects or the early form of genetic groups to begin with. Marriage relations between identical bari (surnames, sects) were prohibited since our ancestors found out very early in the course of evolution that (a) the marriages between close kith and kin may result in weak .disabled or diseased progeny and (b) alliance with external tribes begot genetically stronger and better quality of generations.

3. Communities in Tulunadu evolved from the absorption and merger of tribes and sects that existed in this land before the arrival of Tulu speaking people. Earlier Tribal signatures are preserved in the form of surnames surviving even at present.

4.The existence of similar surnames in different Tulu Communities reveal that people originally belonging to a particular bari surname subsequently divided themselves into different communities for specific reasons like adoption of a specific profession or matrimony. In other words present caste/communities were formed recently and long after the formation of surname based sects.

By Ravi ( Tulu Studies)

About Pavanesh D

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