Am from Shivalli…

Ideally, that is how I would like to introduce myself when anyone asks me where I am from. I generally resort to saying am from Karnataka or from Mangalore depending on whether am in a mood for a deeper conversation on that day. And then I smile and listen to how the other person says I don’t look like a South Indian at all. If it is someone who is familiar with how women from Konkan region look like, they will then admit that I look like someone they know, someone from Mangalore or Belgaum. But more often than not, people immediately say, I look like a Punjabi , because of my loud voice. Or a Gujarati because of the name. Or a Telugu, because of the surname. And then cringe in my mind. Why? Why don’t I look like a South Indian? Each of these attributes are because I am a Mangalorean. To be precise, a Shivalli Brahmin. Well, not many have even heard of this community.

Am missing home. And by home, I don’t mean my parent’s place or my own place here in Hyderabad. I am definitely missing Mangalore, especially my native place Ujire. Well, that place is almost a Tara for me, so to say… that place where I go to reaffirm that I belong to some place, and the place that reminds me that there are more of my kind. The loud, Tulu-speaking, boisterous , fun-loving crowd.

Well, its not hard to be thinking of your native and mother tongue when you are some sort of a minority among all the Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and Mallu speaking friends, colleagues and relatives. And when your native place is atleast 16 hours away from where you stay now. And the only people who speak your mother tongue are reachable through phone, and you don’t see them all that often. And you have to answer questions about the lack of written script for your  mother tongue. (Well, there IS a Tulu script, there apparently is a Mahabharata written in Tulu , one epic poem, and one Tulu movie even won a National Award)

Oh yes… I am missing the usual Tulu banter. All those phrases used in vernacular Tulu. I can still translate them and use them in Telugu or Kannada, but its not the same. Phrases like Chittu puli saibe , Ninno tare , Kebitu gaali potunu, Ninku marlu, Botri marayre, Beedi naayi which appear in vernacular Tulu do not mean the same when translated. Tell me if any of these make any sense to you – The guy selling oranges, Your head, There is air in your ears, You are mad, No, man, street dog. No, right? But use them to any Tulu-speaking person, and you’ll see the wide grin or may be even an incredulous look on his/her face.

What with people migrating all over India and the world, there are a lot of people who don’t live in the place that speaks their mother tongue. For popular languages like Telugu, Tamil, Punjabi, Gujarati, Malayalam etc, you will find someone speaking the same language including the same dialect in most Indian cities. But for Tulu, this is never the case. In the rarest of the rare cases that I actually found anyone speaking Tulu, I’ve noticed immediately that it is not the same dialect that I am used to.

Language is important in making a person feel at home or not. Other such parameters are food and people. All of which I don’t get to see as much as I would like to.

Mangalorean cuisine is different in terms of the ingredients , the vegetables and the style of cooking. There are a lot of yogurt based dishes, and there is almost zero usage of lentils. Almost all dishes have fresh coconut in them and there a lot of no-cook recipes too. There is a ton of difference in our staple breakfasts and the rest of the nation’s. In short, like all other regional cuisines in India, it is totally different and quite rare to find even in restaurants. Kodakene, Kodyelu, Saaru, Bajji, Rotti, Shavige, Gatti, Dose… These are staples in a Tulu household, and are unheard of in any other part of this country.

And then the people.

We, Tulus are a very loud community by nature. We laugh and talk in a very loud, boisterous tone. We make a huge spectacle out of everything. Words generally reserved for adult usage flow freely when we talk. Almost nothing is not suitable for children’s ears. Words like pinkan and pukuli which literally mean ass are commonplace in our conversations. There are just no inhibitions. Men have loud , crude jokes in the presence of an entire audience, and no one considers it rude.

At lunches, all the men remove their shirts, and sit in a straight line, showing off their pot-bellies and Janivaras . All of them utter the words ‘Govinda Govinda’ at once , and start on to polish off the sumptuous food off the plantain leaves, in one particular pre-decided-from-atleast-900-years order. (If you do not eat food in that order, your lineage is immediately questioned. ) And all of them get up from their lunches at the same time, always after the eldest man in the entire lot is done.

We can eat Dose for all three meals in one day. And like that for a full week, if needed. For festivals, all of us call our relatives, each of them mostly proprietors of a Udupi hotel in a different place, and talk about our menu for the day asking the same question – ‘Ini jaado special’ knowing the answer very well. And Dose is the prominent item in that. For Krishnashtami, Ugadi and Deepavali, our only festivals. And for birthdays or social gatherings. Dose & Chutney, it is! Its a mass-Dose-preparation-ritual for us, every day.

And the love for sweets , or desserts. There are almost always three to four varieties of payasams at our weddings. Couple of burfis , pelakkai gattis, Kukku rasayanas and paramanna feature in our menus, and dal will be missing in all our menus conspicuously. We just don’t eat Dal, you see. We make up for all that protein by drinking litres and litres of peru (milk) and chai.

All of us are united in our great love for saaru, and the saarus in all our houses taste almost the same. It is like literally everyone’s Mom had the same teacher for cooking in their school. And all of these women stock up on their Byadigi munchis. Goli, gujje, saute and amte are some of our vegetables which make some of the best dishes. Our pickles do not have oil in them and yet last for as long as you want them to and taste like a piece of spicy heaven.

We all love to eat anything with coconut oil. Dose, Idli , Kodyelu or Mudita uppuda with rice taste the best with coconut oil for us. We do not mind if the other person is squirming at the thought of eating coconut oil, for us its the healthiest ever. Oh yes, Parachute coconut oil is highly edible. For the record Parachute coconut oil is different from Parachute hair oil. Thank you very much!

All our social gatherings are because our Swamis or Mathadipathis are visiting our towns, and one rich Uncle is hosting the seer, more often than not in his paryaya. We all flock to him for his Ashirwada and some news about our collective hometown, Udupi or how the Krishna elephant behaved in the recent paryaya.

Almost all of us have grown up with our fathers talking about vyapara (business) which generally is hotel business. All of us have eaten Idlis, puris and masala dosas as breakfast for major parts of our lives, and will still order the same food when we eat outside. We would like to know how different these taste in other hotels, you see.

Almost all of us have memories of how our fathers have chased cars with Karnataka registration with the vain hope that they probably are from Mangalore, and came home with a carful of strangers only because they spoke Tulu. We all have shared our books, our rooms and our memories with kids we’ve never seen before and who will leave the next day, only because their parents spoke Tulu too, and our parents found a common connection in their third cousin’s fifth daughter’s in-laws’ cousin. Oh yes, we all are related. More often than not. And by the mere mention of our surnames, we identify each other which part of Mangalore they are from.

There is no men-will-sit-in-one-room-women-in-another attitude in our community. Everyone is welcome to talk to everyone they like, and all conversations always start with a wide smile and a ‘Encha ulleru, maama/maami?’ followed by a quick ‘Usharullera?’ and a bending down to touch their feet. Elders always ask the same question, no matter which time of the day you talk to them – ‘Ashana aana? Jaado tinderu?’ (literally means – did you have your meal? What did you eat?) and the younger ones rattle out the entire menu.

During festivals or celebrations, there is a mass-community-Namaskaram ritual. Everyone bends down on all their fours to touch the feet of their elders. We do that even if we see them, the elders of the family every day, on festivals, and even if we wear a new dress that day. Basically, there is a mayhem and confusion around Namaskara time, because everyone wants to touch everyone’s feet. We frown upon anyone who cannot get down to their fours and bend. What a sacrilege to not be doing that!

The Tulu girls are generally known to be more gutsy than Tulu boys, who are always mama’s boys, calling their Moms 8 times a day to update them about their days, ending up taking care of their Dad’s Udupi hotels and passing them on to their sons, making tonnes of money in the process. Tulu women are generally very pretty and look not a day older than 35 even when they are well beyond 50, and Tulu boys end up getting a bald head and a slight paunch by the time they turn 30, though I am told that times are changing these days, thankfully for the Tulu girls.

None of us, Tulu girls have heard the Gayatri Mantra being recited out loud in our houses, and we have not touched or cleaned the God’s pedestal till now, we are not allowed to, but that doesn’t mean we are discriminated. That is for the boys to do during their Gayatri recitations and Sandhya Vandanams, that’s all. Oh, and yes, we do Bhootaradhane and consider the Kolas a huge celebration.

And yes, we all speak one language more than the rest of you non-Tulu speaking folks. Telling people that Tulu is your mother tongue but you cannot speak it is frowned upon. There are so few of us that most of us do not want to not know our mother tongue. Forget passing it on to the next generation, we are doubtful if folks from our own generation will find enough people to speak Tulu with.

No, we are not proud of Aishwarya Rai, but we do mention that Prakash Raj is one of ours. So is Shilpa Shetty. And we are all particularly proud of Sunil Shetty, and more such folks.

You see, my culture is rich. As rich as any of the other cultures in India. Just that, there are so few of us, and so scattered that we are not as famous as the other communities for our idiosyncrasies or general behaviours.

Just because some of us do not live in or near our native place , and are not married to Shivallis, and do not have carry our Shivalli surnames in our names anymore , that does not make us any less of a Mangalorean.

Our hearts still yearn for Tulu, coconut oil and to yell ‘Ninno Pinkan’ (and be understood) out loudly to anyone who might irritate us…


  1. I am so used to my culture being the norm in my world that it is hard to even comprehend how hard it must be to be so isolated from your language and culture in your own country! Here is what I can relate to: the difficultly in finding the illusive masala dosa! I love them, but it's very hard to find restaurants here that serve them. I would love to eat them for breakfast daily!

  2. ~Beth, if you love masala dosa so much, I can tell you the easiest ways to make them at home yourself. :)

  3. That's really great that you hold on to your culture so strongly. Did you know that of the 7000 or so languages in the world, half of them are considered endangered and predicted to disappear in the next 50-100 years? Just as you say, each language has words or ways of expressing things of the world that don't exist in other languages. It's really great how India manages to be one country and have so many different languages and cultures within it, and hopefully these distinctions preserve themselves for years to come. I really enjoyed reading about your community!

  4. ~GCK - Thank you for reading the entire post. :), Quite long, no? :)
    Oh yes, there are so many more cultures like mine in India details of which are not known to many people, and many more cultures/languages on the verge of extinction (the tribals of Andaman is the best example).

    Taking a totally practical stand, I can say that this is all the process of evolution, the stronger ones will survive, and the weaker ones will be in history books, but what totally gets me angry is how people who belong to these dying languages/cultures don't do anything to stick to them, and look down upon them... One doesnt need to practise them everyday, but remembering and acknowledging it is enough, I feel.
    And there are many moments when I wish I belonged to a more known-community, that way, I wouldnt need to explain my food-preferences which are thought of as quirks sometimes... :)
    And then, there is always a sense of belonging, right, something all humans look for... guess , am looking for that more than anything else... :)

  5. A very insightful blog post. So basically the Bunts and the Shivalli Brahmins are the same community?

    (Got here from Twitter, hello! :))

  6. ~Joylita , Bundts and Shivalli brahmins are basically from the same place, have similar food habits and even speak different dialects of the same language, but are not essentially the same community. Brahmins are generally vegetarians, and Bundts are not. They have surnames like Shetty, Rai etc.

  7. The Bunts and their Kori roti, of course. I have heard Brahmins speak Tulu but didn't know about the Shivalli bit. All of it makes sense now!

    I'm Mangalorean (Konkani) too but as is evident from my previous comment quite ignorant about other Mangalorean communities. :)

  8. Totally understand your feelings. I am a shivalli brahmin who grew up in TamilNadu and living in US for many years now. The only time I can speak shivalli Tulu is with my family over phone, when someone visits me or I make a visit to my family in India. My wife being a Maharashtrian does not help much. You truly portrayed the fun nature of shivallis and the lifestyle. Thanks much.

  9. Sundar, am so glad you could identify yourself with this post.:)


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