The Gonds are a Dravidian tribe of Central India. They are very closely related to my own linguistic community, the Telugus. Both belong to the South Central branch of the Dravidian language family. The word tribe associated with them is misleading. While my people, the Telugus have two states (Telangana and Andhra Pradesh), and a well-documented history of their own, the Gonds are often seen as a ‘primitive’ group. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The lopsided focus of historians and nation states on the written word and classical languages obscures the achievements of ethnic groups whose past and culture are preserved in marginalized oral traditions.

The Gonds are one of the largest tribes of South Asia. There might be as many 10 million Gonds in India. Their language, Gondi, along with Telugu, Konda, Kuvi, Kui, Manda and Pengo forms a distinct group within Dravidian. Some linguists hold that Gondi subsumes multiple languages within its fold. During the 13th and 14th centuries CE, Gonds emerged as a major force in the region known as Gondwana (covering most of present day Central India). They cleared forests, established kingdoms, and built great cities, forts and shrines. Gond principalities like Garha-Mandla, Chanda, Deogarh, Kherla and Nagpur were prosperous enough to attract the attention of medieval historians and adventurers.

The Sultanates of Delhi, Malwa and Deccan were the first to cast an envious glance on their fortunes. The biggest challenge would come in the form of the Mughals who made deep inroads into Gond territory. Their armies made light work of Gond resistance, using a combination of firepower and tactical ability that saw them conquer the rest of South Asia without much ado. It was the Maratha commanders (once loyal to the Mughal Emperors) who dealt the final, fatal blow. They devastated Gond kingdoms, extinguishing them by the 18th century. By the time India freed itself of British rule, the glories of Gondwana had been all but forgotten. It was considered no more than a vast wilderness inhabited by exotic tribes.

I am very interested in Gond history and culture because it holds the key to understanding the origins of the Telugu people. Among the Dravidian speakers, it is the Telugus who have undergone the greatest degree of ‘Aryanization’ (a process by which Austroasiatic, Dravidian and Sino-Tibetan communities in South Asia were exposed to Indo-Aryan culture, and adopted Indo-Aryan speech, beliefs, customs, and ideas of political and social organization). Telugu speech and religion were heavily modified. Their Dravidian roots (both linguistic and cultural) now lie concealed beneath an Indo-Aryan veneer. But a study of the Gonds can reveal what they would have been like before the arrival of Indo-Aryans. I will begin with the Gondi conception of the cosmos.

The Sun: It is known as Lingo, Pordu, Purbal, Bera, Vera, Din, Dinad or Suryal in Gondi speech. I will be focusing on the word ‘Pordu’ for now. It has its roots in the Proto-Dravidian ‘Poẓd’ meaning Sun. ‘Poẓd’ evolved into different words that are signify terms associated with the Sun.

  • Pengo language: Padna/Podna (meaning Sun)
  • Konda language: Podu (meaning Sun/Day)
  • Gondi languages: Pordu/Pord (meaning Sun/Day/Hour/Time)
  • Telugu language: Poddu (meaning Sun/Day/Time/Morning)
  • Kolami language: Pod (meaning Sun)
  • Tamil language: Pozutu/Poztu/Potu (meaning Sun/Time/Moment)
  • Malayalam language: Pozutu/Pazutu/Potu/Pol (meaning Sun/Day/Auspicious Time/Moment)
  • Kannada language: Poztu, Portu, Pottu, Hottu (meaning Sun/Time)
  • Tulu language: Portu/Poltu (meaning Sun/Time/Daylight)
  • Kodava language: Podi (meaning the ritual cutting of paddy during the Rice Harvesting Ceremony)
  • Kota language: Port (meaning Sun/Time)

While the word ‘Suryudu’ (derived from Indo-Aryan ‘Surya’) is the most widely used one in the Telugu language (for referring to the Sun), ‘Poddu’ survives in the form of terms denoting Morning, Dawn, and Daybreak. This is just one example of how the study of Gondi culture can throw new light on the heritage of the Telugu people. I have also obtained a list of additional terms derived from Proto-Dravidian ‘Poẓd’:

  • Telugu language: Appudu/Ippudu/Eppudu (meaning that Time/this Time/what Time)
  • Kannada language: Pottar (meaning Daybreak)
  • Kodava language: Bodi (meaning the heat of the Sun)
  • Kota language: Ort (meaning good luck)

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons, and shows the flag of the Praja Rajyam Party, a political organization formed in 2008 by a Telugu actor-turned-politician, Chiranjeevi. He merged it with the Indian National Congress in 2011. The Sun has been frequently used as a symbol of revolution and local aspirations by parties representing the South Indian states (which are inhabited by Dravidian speakers). The state of Tamil Nadu has a tradition of producing parties fiercely opposed to the cultural and political hegemony of the North (identified with Indo-Aryan speakers in general, and Hindi people in particular). This phenomena has been called Dravidian nationalism. Parties such the Dravidar Kazhagam, and its successor, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam used the symbol of the Rising Sun (Udayan Suriyan) to rally Tamils. The youngest of all South Indian states – Telangana, carved out of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh in 2014, was the result of a massive people’s movement built around the region’s unique culture. One of rallying cries for the agitation was the song ‘Podustunna Poddumeeda Nadustunna Kaalama’ (Time that Runs on the Edge of a New Day) which includes the word Poddu (here, a reference to Morning). Another example of the interesting parallels between the political outlook of South Indian nationalities.