Mundas: A product of Parashurama’s fury – VIII
by Jayasree Saranathan on 27 Apr 2014 2 Comments

The word ‘Munda’ is found in the name of many villages throughout India and it is generally believed that ‘Munda’ is the name of the community. But the fact is that the so-called Munda people do not call themselves Mundas! They have a different name for themselves. “Munda” is the name by which they call the chief or head of a village. Even the Oraon people call their chief Munda and from this title, the entire community was given the name ‘Munda’ – by others in the past couple of centuries. The same word Munda is used in Tulu speaking regions to mean a raised land. The same word refers to any village and is present throughout India.


The same word means shaven head in Sanskrit. It is strange to find researchers connect this Sanskrit meaning to the name Munda of a community they consider totally indigenous and pre-dating ‘Aryanism’. Does it mean that these people were influenced by the ‘Aryan Brahmins’ in taking up the word Munda to refer to their chief? If so, a question arises why this name Munda is not used to designate chiefs in “Aryan” or Sanskrit speaking / knowing regions and why it is used only by these tribal people. Assuming that Munda is a Sanskrit word used by these people to refer to the chief of the village, what word is “Manki” which they use to refer to the chief of a group of villages? For them, the head of a village is called “Munda”. The chief of Patti is “Manki”.


The next higher level of village in the Munda groups is called “Patti”. A Patti comprises of many villages and the head of the Patti is called “Manki” by the Munda people. [In Tamil, Patti refers to the place where cattle are housed or raised. Since cattle wealth gave rise to prosperity, Patti became prosperous and needed to be regulated and governed. Thus from Patti, came terms such as Pat, Patna, Patnam, Patta, Pattam, Patta-nayaka etc.] 


Even this word “Manki” is present in ‘Aryan’ literature. The story of a man called “Manki” is narrated by Bhishma to Yudhisthira in Mahabharata {1}. It revolves around ‘Manki’s efforts to multiply wealth by buying cattle for use in agricultural operations, before finally renouncing all desires and attaining Brahman-hood. Bhishma ranked him along with Bali, Prahalad and Namuchi. Interestingly like Munda, the name Manki  exists in the coastal region of Uttara Kannada!


These two names of importance in Mundari culture – namely, ‘Munda’ and ‘Manki’ seeming to have Sanskrit basis, have a presence in the coastal region of the Peninsular India that was cleared by Parashurama to pave the way for new settlers. They seem to tell the story of an Indian past which was not necessarily pre-Aryan or non-Aryan, but a culture that was indigenously Aryan and had both Sanskrit and local language as the two eyes. The exact decipherment of the word “Munda” can perhaps be traced to the Toda people of the Nilgiris! The Toda people call their village “Mund” {2} and have a connection with the west coast of Peninsular India.


Toda connection


Today the Todas live in isolation in the higher regions of the Nilgiri hills. However genetic studies show that they are closer to the Brahmins of Kerala! {3}. Though there is no legend on their origins, this information takes their previous habitat or origins to the West coastal regions. Edward Eastwick in his “Handbook for India” Part 1, 1859, observed that Todas “regard the brahmans with contempt”. This is strange given that there is hardly any contact with Brahmins and that Todas are living in isolation. The hatred might be the result of a past enmity when they were living in the coastal regions that resulted in displacement to the Nilgiris. Based on the genetic studies it can be surmised that the Todas were once Brahmins living on the west coast but segregated from the main clan due to some skirmishes. Adding strength to this conjecture is the name that the Todas have for themselves. According to Eastwick, the Todas called themselves as “Toruvar” - a term phonetically similar to Tuluva or Tuluvar! Infact Tulu Nadu was called as “Toualava Rajya” in olden days.


Yet another link comes from the buffaloes they keep. Genetic studies on buffalo breeds of South India show that Toda buffalos and South Kanarese buffalos are of the same origin. “Few mutations in two of the haplotypes of South Kanara buffalo were found to have contributed to ancestral haplotypes of Toda buffalo suggesting the possible migration of buffaloes from Kanarese region towards Nilgiris along the Western Ghats. Considering the close social, economic and cultural association of Todas with their buffaloes, the study supports the theory of migration of Toda tribe from Kanarese/Mysore region along with their buffaloes” {4}. This affinity of the Todas with Kanarese / west coast cannot be ignored in the study of “Munda”.


Mund, the village


The Todas call their hamlets “Mund” – a name that must have stuck with them from days of yore. The village is called “Munder” in Tulu language; in Kannada “Mundukur” or “Mundkur”. It is reasonable to assume that from Mund, the village, the name of the chief or headman of the village came to be called as “Munda”!


Even the name of the Toda habitat, Nilgiri (Neela giri) is found in the legend of Mundari speaking Savaras. A Savara king was making secret visits to Neela giri for worship. Neela giri was the old name for Puri! Are these mere coincidences or indicative of a common origin of these people who had split and migrated to different places?


The etymology of the word “Munda” referring to village is not in Sanskrit, but in Tamil! ‘Mund’ that refers to land either as village or as a raised one has the basic component “MaN”, the Tamil word for mud. It also refers to land or world. There are many words in Tamil derived from MaN - “Mandar” is a soldier; “Mandala maakkaL” is the king of the land. As a ruler of “MaN” – the land or the world, the king is called as “maNdaleekan” or “maNdalakan”. While “maNdala maakkaL” refers to kings, a slight difference in the spelling as “maNdila maakkaL” refers to the authorities who rule segments of the land or kingdom. The word (for the ruler of a land or segment) seems to have changed as Mandila >Manda > Munda. It must be remembered that Munda people call their chief of the village as “Munda”.




There are many Manki-Pattis in Mundari speaking regions. There is a place called Manki in Honnavar Taluk in coastal Karnataka. Honnavar transliterates as Ponnavar in Tamil. Ponnavar means ‘cultivating gold’ (for a very fertile land). Thus ‘Manki’ stands for prosperity and growth. This very idea exists in the Mundari use of Manki. The group of 17 villages comprising a Patti, administered by a Manki is treated as common property shared by individuals whose main occupation is agriculture. An annual tax is collected by Manki (Chief) to pay for security of the Patti. Such pattis are known as Manki-pattis by these people.


There is an interesting mutation in the use of Munda and Manki. Munda refers to a village in coastal / Tulu speaking regions. But the tribes of Chota Nagpur call the chief of the village as Munda! Similarly Manki is the name of a place in coastal Karnataka, but these tribes call the chief of a group of villages as Manki. The generic name of a place came to be used to denote the chief of that place by the secluded Mundari people. This connection with coastal Karnataka may even mean that these words have been carried by the Kurukhs or Oraons from their previous habitat to Mundari habitat in Chota Nagpur.


The word “Manki” sounds like Tamil “mandhi” which means monkey! This region being close to Vanara’s regions raises the possibility of this name being related to that. Infact, the name Hanuman could have come from “mandhi” as ‘anu-mandhi’ – the anu related to the episode of him getting his cheeks squeezed like a monkey. The one who already took up a name as mandhi (monkey) came to look like a monkey when his cheeks were deformed and therefore he is Anumandhi and Anuman or Hanuman. {The English words Mud and Monkey do not have proper etymology in English or any other European language. It is plausible that they have their roots in Tamil}.


Another interpretation for Manki is that it closely resembles the Tamil word “Maggi” or “Maggu” which refers to top soil, humus, formed by the decomposition of plant material which makes soil fertile and helps in water retention. It is matter of interest to know how the coastal regions of Konkan and Malabar were reclaimed and retained. A forest cover in this region in the past could help in forming humus cover which could have helped in strengthening the soil and making it fertile. The Tulu coastal regions are known to be under cultivation. This is not possible if it is just a reclaimed land from sea; the previous forest covers had enriched the soil by forming humus cover.


The currently available scientific tool to decipher the time period of the formation of the extension in the west coast is taken from Graham Hancock’s maps based on sea-level changes computed by Glen Milne. The current sea-level was obtained about 7000 years before present. That means the present stretch of land on the west coast between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea did not change in the last 7000 years. Any reclamation of land, naturally or by Parashurama’s efforts, could have happened before 7000 years ago.


Graham Hancock’s maps show that the coast was broader than it is now about 12,000 years ago. The West coast of India was an extended one, having Gujarat fused with the mainland and not as a peninsula. This stretch received good rainfall and therefore was dotted with rain forests. Vegetation thrived in the coast at that time, about 10,000 years ago. 


As sea level rose, most of this extended land west of Western Ghats went under sea water. During Parashurama’s times, the sea level had gone lower, thereby exposing parts of the sunken coast. It is on these regions that new settlements were made by Parashurama, according to legend. The reclaimed and regained lands must be having the earlier forest cover sunk in the ground as humus. This is a probable explanation for why the Manki – meaning “maggu” or humus – is present on the coast. The sea level attained the current level by 7000 years BP. From this it is deduced that Parashurama’s time was before this final level of sea surface.


Tulu from Tamil


This region in the west coast houses Tulu Nadu and Kanara regions. These two words also have their roots in Tamil. “Thulu” is the basal word for ThuLumbuthal in Tamil, which means ‘rising up’ “hopping up” or “brimming” (mEl ezhumbuthal,  thuLLUthal, thathumbuthal). This fits with a region that sprang up from the sea, which is what Tulu and other regions of the west coast are.


This part of the west coast is known as Kanara or Canara. Kanna or Kannam in Kanara is a Tamil word that refers to an extension. The projections in the balcony of houses were called “Kanna saalai” based on the word Kanna to mean projection or extension {5}. The reclaimed land or the land that rose up due to sea-level change in the west coast were probably called Kanna, which later changed to Kanara or Kannara or Kannada. The name Karunada (Karnata) was different from Kannara as per Tamil Silappadhikaram. All these places are merged today.


Pur or Pura in Munda language


The Manki heads ‘Pura’ or ‘pur’, used to designate a city or a town, in Mundari culture signify a larger group of hamlets. The area headed by “Manki” is called as “Paraha” by Mundas; “Pargana” by Santals; “pir” or “Pirhi” by Hos. The underlying word is ‘para’ – a corruption of ‘pura’. This is a Sanskrit word and certainly no “Aryan” or outsider had influenced them. The Mundas were part of the early culture of Sanskrit based Vedic tradition, as we shall see in future articles.



{1} Mahabharata 12-176




{5} Tamil lexicon edited by N.C. Kanthaiya Pillai, page 144


(To be continued…)

The author is an independent scholar; she blogs at Non-Random Thoughts

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