In history, western world knows only two divisions as commoners and nobles, despite the professions they follow. We, in India, have many artificial caste distinctions or divisions, based on hereditary occupations of individual professional sometimes -groupable under the traditional classes of Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. The Brahmans, who are in highest rung of Vaidika Chaturvarna, have also divisions, supposed to be 84 or so. These artificial divisions, known in Portuguese language as ‘Casta’ (probably taking cue from Kayastha of Bengali), are made known to Europe by Portuguese. Further, in Southern India, there are high (right-hand) and low (left hand) divisions within a caste itself. The English borrowed this word ‘casta’ and invented the word ‘caste’. The description of castes makes an interesting reading in Hobson-Jobson Dictionary (Pages 170 t0 173). Glossaries of Anglo-Indian words and phrases are gleaned (and edited by the Authors) from the writings of foreign explorers, Arabian and European marine traders, colonial officers and European missionaries. Some books record skewed views, skirting a subject partially, but they give some insight into the history of Tulu Nadu. There is no entry in this Dictionary for ‘Melanta or Melānta’, who were very much a vibrant social group in Tuluva history.
With this introduction, we try to describe the less known story of Melāntas, who are spread in coastal areas upto Kasargod and interior places like Bantwal, Puttur, Sulya, etc.
In global map, the Melanta as a surname is widely and thickly spread. It is a matter of another study whether they relate someway or not to the Tuluva Melaantas.
'Melanta or Melānta’ etymologically means ‘Mel-banta’ (ಮೇಲ್ ಬಂಟ), i.e. a handy-servant or attendant or forefront servant or a warrior in any movement. He worked as a serf to a grandee, a village sabha (societal gathering), a feudal chieftain or a king.
Presumably, they might have come from Hassan and Kodagu with Gouda Chieftains of Hoysala Kingdom when they conquered coastal areas which were under Alupas. They are mostly concentrated in coastal villages beyond Mangaluru, say Kasaragod Taluk of South Kanara and now Kasargod District of Kerala after the State reorganisation in 1956, based on concentration of language-speakers. The border areas are normally an area of bilingual speakers. It is also likely they followed the legendary Bhargava Rama during his sojourn to Tulu Nadu from North.
Presently the Melānta is a predominant sub-community within Mogaveeras and Bunts, doing menial jobs. They pursue ancestral profession of fishing, palanquin carrying, body-guards and farming. What is ethnical link between Mogaveera Melanta and Bunts Melanta? It is a matter fit for future genetic studies.
Each Mogaveera Patna used to have a Melānta to do hair-cutting and shaving for the community people (Now the system is stopped after absorbing them into main stream of Mogaveeras).
Further, he was supposed to perform all types of religious rituals from birth to death. This is an exercise of purification - on child birth, first menstruation of a girl etc. He was to act as messenger of the village Sabha to inform activities of the village to householders and the duties assigned to individual householders (in rotation in the case of large villages) in matters of mangala snana or kalasa snana, i.e. pouring of sacred water in new and small earthen pots (= mutti) on the head of a girl on attaining puberty or during ‘sese muhurta’ of bride or bridegroom in the case of marriage. He informs the households (who are on rotational list) to accompany marriage procession (dibbana) of a girl. The custom is similar to what is practiced traditionally by other castes of Tulu Nadu. He was paid by individual household for this priestly service. Community Gurikaras (Village traditional leader) and elected members of Village Committees must be present to see through the customs.
In the case of death, he proclaims the death and turn of the households to be present for assisting in funeral work. He also informs the members of the Bhajana Mandali, to sing devotional songs during funeral procession. He is the priest in all last rites of a departed soul.
This practice was in vogue mostly in southern part of Dakshina Kannada (Mangalore Hobali). In Udupi side, Mogaveeras use Madivalas for such rituals. Melānta families, other than the family anointed for the ceremonial duties, are engaged in fishing profession.
They speak Tulu. Those who are of erstwhile Kasaragod Taluk of South Kanara speak Tulu or a mixture of Tulu-Kannada-Malayalam at home and study in Kannada schools whereas after State-reorganisation, they study Malayalam in schools also. Region up to Northern Part of Malabar was called as Tulu Nadu during the history. So, people identify themselves with Tulu Nadu, i.e. extended Karnataka.
Earlier, it was a social taboo on a Mogaveera boy marrying a Melānta girl. As a result, Melānta girls North of Mangaluru were married of to Melānta boys South of Mangaluru.
I was a privy to a funny situation, which arose in 1956. Panambur and Tannirbhavi villages were liberal and there was less discrimination. Melāntas were allowed 'saha bhojana or paNkti Bhojana (Eating together, sitting with each other in a row) there. This was not liked by some villages. In 1956, a girl from our village (precisely, of Heggade House) married off to a Tannirbhavi boy. Fearing a clash in the 'saha-bhojana', the village committee ordered that one male per house should accompany the 'dibbana' (marriage Procession, going on foot in those days). It would be a big Dibbana as Hosabettu is a big village. My eldest brother asked me to go as he was busy. I was forced to go. He gave his vastee. I felt uncomfortable with the slipping vastee as I was not used to wear mundu or vastee. Luckily, no untoward things happened there.
During annual celebration of Kola or Nema of the village deity, the Melānta would trumpet or proclaim loudly the duties assigned to each household. Each household must give ‘siri’ (tender coconut fronds to be used for preparing sacred dress of Divine Spirit Dancers), tender coconuts, pingara (inflorescence flower of arecanut tree). He announces the Households appointed for bringing sacred leaves (mango leaves, kepula flower and leaves and other medicinal leaves and flowers for decoration and erection of pandals over and around the sacred seat of Daiva Bimbas, persons to be present during Bhandara Procession from Bhandara House to the Shrines of Daivas, and holders of Hilalu (Stand with a cup for holding lighted oiled-cloth). (Read Post-250/20.08.21010 – From Olasari to Varasari on annual worship ceremony of Divine Spirits)
Melānta on village duty used to get a part of fish catch, besides the wages fixed by the village sabha. He gets paid by householders in kind and money for the priestly work done at households.
Now, Melāntas are absorbed into Mogaveera Community (some time in 1980’s), thanks to the sagacity of leadership of Community Federation, the Mogaveera Mahajana Sangha.
Melānta of Bunts
They are engaged in farming as tenants. We are not aware whether they used to do the duties as Mogaveera Melāntas.
In Tulu Daivaradhane customs, there is always a 'Banta (=attendant) Daiva' to each principal Daiva. They are called as Banta, Melanta or Melantāya. It is supposed that they are ‘Ganda Ganas’ (Valient warriors or fierce fighters) always in the vanguard of the army of Lord Shiva.
Melāntas among Brahmins
Melanta Sept is also noticed among the Brahmin community. It is said that Brahmins arrived in Tulu Nadu right from the beginning of Alupa rule. They were given gifts of land to increase the fertility of land by using it for cultivation. ‘Shodganga’ quotes, from an Epigraph, the names of Brahmin clans of Udupi. They are: Varamballi, Ungrapalli, Adiga, Hebbara, Asranna, Ballala, Basura, Bayiri, Hande, Hathwara, Goli, Bhatta, Herale, Holla, Joisa, Kalkura, Karantha, Kedilaya, Manja, Mayya, Melanta, Navada, Puranika, Tantri, Somayaji, Urala, Madhyastha, Vaidya, Tunga, Upadhyaya, Nidambura, etc.
The subject ‘Melānta’ needs more study. This article is based on readily available information – verbal and on record. Readers are welcome to add additional information available at their reach.