Culture Summary: Telugu
By Bruce Elliot Tapper
IDENTIFICATION AND LOCATION
Speakers of the Telugu language inhabit Andhra Pradesh State in south India—as of 2014 divided into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana states—as well as border areas of the neighboring states of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. There are also substantial numbers of Telugu speakers in the interior of Tamil Nadu, especially in the central and northern areas. In addition there are small Telugu communities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and countries formerly part of the British Empire—Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Mauritius, Singapore, and South Africa.
Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are located in tropical latitudes (between 12° and 19° N and 76° and 86° E) similar to mainland Southeast Asia or southern Mexico. Important features of the land include a toddy palm-dotted coastal plain extending 960 kilometers along the Bay of Bengal, lush deltas of the Godavari and Krishna rivers, a strip of forested hill country paralleling the coast, and a rolling upland plain strewn with eroded rocky outcrops. The major rainfall is supplied by the southwest monsoon, its winds prevailing between June and September.
The census of India counted 44,756,923 native Telugu speakers in 1971; 50,624,611 in 1981. In 1991 the national count was 66,017,615 (65,900,723 Telugu, 104,686 Vadari, and 12,206 other dialects), of whom 56,375,775 lived in Andhra Pradesh. In 2001 those with Telugu as a mother tongue numbered 74,002,856 nationally and 63,904,791 in Andhra Pradesh. Estimating that at the time of the 2011 census 83 percent of state residents were Telugu speakers, the total would have been approximately 70,270,000.
The Telugu language is a member of the Dravidian Language Family concentrated in the south of the Indian peninsula. Other related major languages are Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam. Telugu possesses its own distinctive, curvilinear alphabet and a voluminous and venerable literary tradition. It is also the primary language of South Indian classical music.
HISTORY AND CULTURAL RELATIONS
Two millennia ago the Telugu region was a stronghold of Buddhism, a legacy of the empire of Asoka (ca. 250 BC). The Andhra Kingdom, with its capital in Paithan (now in Maharashtra), followed. Among the various dynasties that next held sway were the Pallavas, the Eastern Chalukyas, the Kalingas, the Kakatiyas, and the Cholas. The Muslim period saw the establishment of the Bahmani Kingdom and its successor, the sultanate of Golkonda. Hindu Vijayanagar in the southern part of the Telugu region was conquered by Muslims in 1565. European traders—Dutch, French, and English—attracted by textiles and spices began arriving on the scene in the sixteenth century. The British ultimately prevailed in the eighteenth century, acquiring control from the rulers of Golkonda over extensive tracts in the northeast coastal belt of the Telugu region. Later these territories were linked with those they acquired in the south and ruled from the city of Madras. The northwestern part of the Telugu-speaking lands remained in what became the state of the Nizam of Hyderabad, whose foreign affairs and defense came to be controlled by the British. Political trends since Indian independence in 1947 include three decades of dominance by the Congress party. This was followed by the ascent of the regional Telugu Desam party, spearheaded by a former Telugu movie idol, N. T. Rama Rao.
Telugu villages range in size from several hundred in population to many thousand, with larger ones resembling small towns. Frequently, several "hamlets" are affiliated together as a single village. In some cases the constituent settlements have been designated a village by the government for purposes of taxation, economic development, and political representation ("revenue villages"). Typically, the main settlement of the village has the widest variety of castes (or jatis, endogamous groups often associated with particular occupations), with a temple, small shops, tea and drink stalls, a weekly market, a post office, and a village school. Quarters of former Untouchable castes are traditionally segregated from the other houses of a settlement.
Telugu house types vary considerably even within the same village. Differences in construction materials usually indicate differing economic statuses. Dwellings range from mud-walled, single-family houses with palm-thatched roofs to houses made of brick and mortar—or stone in some areas—with flat, cement roofs. All houses have at least one inner room where the family valuables are stored, ceremonial brass vessels (dowry) are displayed, and deities are worshiped at a small shrine. A roofed veranda with cooking nook lies outside this inner room. For the highest castes, for whom it is important that cooking take place beyond the polluting gaze of outsiders, the cooking area is adjacent to the back of the dwelling in a walled compound.
The food grain held in highest esteem is rice, cultivated intensively in the Krishna and Godavari deltas as well as extensively throughout other parts of the coastal zone and in scattered parts of the interior. Away from streams, irrigation is by reservoirs known as tanks. These are formed with earthen dams that hold rainwater in the wet season. Other food grains, grown on non-irrigated lands, are also important. Mung beans, lima beans, and black-eyed peas are widely cultivated, as are sesame seeds and peanuts for oil. Popular garden vegetables, grown for home use and for sale, include tomatoes, eggplants, onions, garlic, chilies, bitter gourds, pumpkins, okra, yams, ginger, and corn. Widely grown fruits include mangoes, tamarinds, guavas, bananas, coconuts, custard apples, sapodillas, limes, toddy palm (palmyra, Borassus flabellifer), cashews, and pineapples. Turmeric root is also cultivated, as is mustard, fenugreek, coriander, and fennel. Cultivation is mainly unmechanized, except for gasoline-powered pumps used by wealthier farmers to aid irrigation. Bullocks or water buffalo are used to pull wooden plows reinforced with iron tips. Crops are harvested by hand. In addition to cattle and water buffalo—which are used not for meat but for dairy products—numerous other domestic animals are raised. These include chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats, sheep, and pigs. Dogs are kept by some villagers for hunting.
In addition to rice, important commercial crops are sugarcane, tobacco, and cotton. Chilies are cultivated throughout the state for sale. Fishing is important along the coast as well as in inland tanks.
Telugu society with its Hindu caste system has a highly developed tradition of family transmission of manufacturing and food-processing skills. Among these are blacksmithing, carpentry, goldsmithing, cotton and silk weaving, basket making, pottery, and oil pressing. Many villagers weave their own baskets, make their own rope from palm fiber, and thatch their own roofs.
Village markets selling fresh vegetables, meat, spices, cloth, and bangles are typically held one day each week. Generally, one particularly large weekly market on a main bus route serves as a magnet for an entire rural area. Women of farmer castes often bring produce from their families' farms, and their husbands engage in petty trading, offering chickens for sale. Potters and sellers of bangles and clothing also offer their wares. Professional merchant castes maintain small provision stores, which are open daily in the villages.
DIVISION OF LABOR
To a great extent, women's time is taken up with child rearing and food preparation. However, among the middle and lower castes women engage in strenuous physical agricultural labor such as transplanting rice shoots and harvesting. In towns women work on construction sites, carrying heavy baskets with cement or bricks or breaking rocks. But among the higher castes there are restrictions on women going out of their homes or even appearing in public unescorted. In Telugu society labor is most strikingly divided by caste. Castes are economically interdependent endogamous groups often associated with particular occupations or crafts—barbering, washing, and oil pressing, for instance.
Land is held by households and passes patrilineally along the male line, in equal shares between brothers. Land is not owned by all families but rather held mainly by members of farmer castes, as well as by members of higher castes who employ lower castes to cultivate it. Food is traditionally distributed throughout the rural population via exchange of grain or cash for services. Landless lower-caste members of society who cannot support themselves in the village economy frequently migrate to urban areas to work for wages. They usually maintain ties with their home village.
KIN GROUPS AND DESCENT
An individual is a member of the following groups: (1) a family residing in a household generally headed by the eldest male; (2) an endogamous subclan or branch of a patrilineage; (3) an exogamous clan (sharing a patrilineally transmitted family name); and (4) an endogamous caste with a particular hierarchical status, customs of diet, prohibitions on food exchange with other castes, and often a traditional occupation. Descent is patrilineal.
Dravidian kinship terms are used; the terminology emphasizes relative age. For example, terms differ according to the ages of the speaker and the person spoken of; there are separate terms for "older brother" and "younger brother." The terminology also divides relatives into marriageable and unmarriageable categories. On the one hand, one calls one's parallel cousins "brothers" and "sisters." They are not considered to be potential spouses. On the other hand, one's cross cousins are designated by terms implying that they are potential affines.
MARRIAGE AND FAMILY
Life-cycle rituals vary greatly between castes and subregions. All serve to define social statuses, marking the transitions between immaturity and adult (married) status, as well as between life and death. They also serve to define circles of interdependent relatives and castes. Weddings stand out as the most elaborate and significant life-cycle rites. They are highly complex, involve huge expenditures, last several days, and entail the invitation and feeding of large numbers of guests.
Marriages are monogamous, polygyny having been prohibited since Indian independence. Marriages are generally arranged by parents and relatives, though potential mates may get to meet each other or may already be acquainted if they are related or live in the same village. Marriage with cross cousins is common, and a man's maternal uncle is viewed as a preferred donor of a wife. Wives are considered responsible for the well-being of their husbands and are felt to be at fault if their husbands die before they do. The theme of the inauspiciousness of widowhood recurs in many ritual contexts. Marriages are generally patrilocal.
The fission of individual households is a gradual process, beginning with a man's sons marrying and bringing their wives to live with him and his wife. Eventually, separate hearths are established, followed later by a division of lands. A sharing of tasks around agricultural field huts near their lands is the last tie to be maintained. Different castes have varying attitudes toward divorce. The highest in status prohibit it entirely. Next down in the hierarchy are castes that permit divorce if no children have been born. These are followed by castes permitting divorce relatively unrestrictedly. Agreements are reached regarding the return of marriage gifts and property. Formal written documents of release are drawn up and exchanged by the parties, leaving them free to remarry.
The basic unit is a nuclear family. A household, defined as those who share food prepared at a common hearth, is led by a household head. During the course of its development, a household can include additional members—spouses and offspring of sons, or widows and widowers.
Property, such as land, is divided equally among brothers, though the less economically-established youngest son also often inherits the family home.
Infants and small children are raised by the women of the household. Older siblings and other cousins also often tend children younger than themselves. Children are encouraged to accompany their parents everywhere and begin learning sex-specific tasks and caste occupations from an early age.
Andhra Pradesh, one of the largest states in the Republic of India, is led by a chief minister and a governor and has an elected legislature. Its capital is Hyderabad (remaining the mutual capital following the division into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in 2014). The primary organizing principle of Telugu society is hierarchy, based on age, sex, and social group. Each endogamous caste group reckons its relationship to other castes as either one of superiority, equality, or inferiority. While these relative rankings produce a hierarchy, this is in some cases a matter of dispute. To some extent the relative positions are perceived to be achieved on the basis of mutual willingness to engage in various sorts of symbolic exchanges, especially of food. Caste members do not accept food prepared by a caste they consider to be inferior to their own. In addition, castes maintain distinctive diets—the highest refuses to eat meat, the next level refuses to eat domestic pork or beef, and the lowest eats pork and beef. There are clusters of castes of similar status—such as farmers—that accept each other's food, as well as pairs of similar-status castes—such as the two major former Untouchable castes—that reject each other's food. There is also a group of castes—the Panchabrahma [Panch Bramha], artisans in gold, brass, iron, and wood—that claim to be higher than the highest Brahmans. But while they refuse food from all other castes, no other castes accept food from them.
The states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are divided respectively into thirteen and ten districts (zilla). Districts were traditionally subdivided into taluks until 1985 when a smaller subdivision, the mandal, was instituted by the Telugu Desam party. The mandal, whose leader is directly elected, serves as a functionary of revenue administration and of government development projects. Towns with taluk headquarters are the seat of courts, police, and government health-care programs. The political culture of democracy among the Telugu is highly developed, with frequent elections for state and national representatives.
In times of conflict the authority of elder males is respected. A male household head rules on a dispute within his household. Next, an informally constituted group of elder males of the same caste arbitrates difficult disputes within or between families in the caste. Cases involving members of different castes are often referred to higher castes for settlement, in a pattern of ascending courts of appeal. When conflicts begin there is often much commotion and shouting of accusations or grievances. This attracts the participation of bystanders and triggers the process of arbitration.
RELIGION AND EXPRESSIVE CULTURE
The vast majority of Telugu are Hindus. There are also some Telugu castes that have converted to Christianity and Islam. Each village has its main temple—often dedicated to a great Hindu god, usually Rama or Siva—as well as small shrines to numerous village deities, most of which are female. Preeminent among the regional shrines is the temple of Sri Venkatesvara in the town of Tirupati, a major pilgrimage center.
Hinduism lacks a centralized ecclesiastical hierarchy or unified authority officially defining doctrine. The specifics of religious customs vary widely from one locality to another and even between different castes in the same village. Among the major types of ritual are family ceremonies, caste ceremonies, and village ceremonies. In addition, the range of deities worshiped varies between localities. Many deities are associated with particular places or specialized powers or seasons. But a unifying theme is a system of worship called puja in which offerings are presented to a deity in return for protection and help. The offerings imply a subordination by the worshipers and include the receiving back of part of the items offered—after their spiritual essence has been partaken of by the deity.
Overarching the host of specific deities is a transcendent divinity, bhagavan or devudu, responsible for cosmic order. People conceive of this deity in personified forms such as Vishnu and his associated circle of gods—including his ten incarnations, among whom are Rama and Krishna, and their various female consorts, such as Lakshmi, Sita, and Rukmini. Shiva and gods associated with him include his sons Ganapati and Subrahmaniam and his wife Parvati. Settlements, villages or towns, have a tradition of female "village deities" (grama devatas) who protect their localities as long as they are properly propitiated but cause illnesses if they are not. Ghosts of deceased humans, especially those of people who died untimely deaths, can hover about and interfere with people, as can other malevolent forces such as inauspicious stars and evil spirits. These thwart people's plans or render their children ill.
A person acting as the officiant in a temple, conducting or assisting the worship, is known as a pujari, or priest. Brahmans serve as priests in temples to deities associated with the scriptural deities known throughout India, such as Rama, Shiva, or Krishna. Members of many other castes, some of quite low social rank, act as priests for a wide range of lesser deities.
There is little uniformity in the celebration of festivals across the Telugu region. Each subregion presents a kaleidoscopic variation of interpretations and emphases on common themes. In the northeast, Makara Sankranti is the principal harvest festival. It features castes worshiping the tools of their trades and a period of fairs featuring elaborate night-long operatic drama performances. In the northwest, Dasara and Chauti are the festivals during which castes worship their implements. Farther south, near the Krishna River, Ugadi is a time when artisans worship their tools. All subregions have festivals that honor Rama, Krishna, Shiva, and Ganapati.
Village goddess festivals, celebrated on dates unique to individual settlements, are among the most elaborate celebrations of the year. These rituals—entailing the offering of chickens, goats, or sheep—mobilize extensive intercaste cooperation to ensure the health of the whole community. Also important in the worship of village goddesses is the practice of making vows to achieve specific personal benefits, such as the curing of ailments or finding of lost objects. Periodically, when emergencies arise—in the form of epidemics, a spate of fires, or sudden deaths—these goddesses are believed to require propitiation.
The region is a historical center of cloth making, dying and fashion. Traditional dress is the sari for women and dhoti for men. Telugu have a rich history of poetry, singing and dance. Folk songs narrate divine stories. Paintings of various historical styles depict religious scenes, landscapes, costumes and jewelry. Tollywood is centered in the Hyderabad Telugu neighborhood of Film Nagar, the largest film facility in the world.
Illness is ascribed to malicious spirits that live in the landscape and need to be propitiated with food and animal sacrifices. Spirits dwell in soil, fields, rivers, wells, anthills, cattle sheds, etc. Angry gods and spirits are responsible for illnesses and diseases such as stomachaches, headaches, sores, smallpox, and blindness; also for disaster such as fires, blights, plagues, and droughts. Moslems attribute maddnes to the fierce spirit Narsappa. Mantras and drawn symbols (yantras) are used by magicians to affect cures, exorcise spirits, and guard against evil eye. Symbols are written on paper and either tied to the body or boiled in water and drunk. Herbal medicines are also used.
DEATH AND AFTERLIFE
Funerary rites are also highly significant, defining the lineal relatives who share ritual pollution caused by the death of a member. In addition, they mark social statuses by treating the body of a man differently from that of a woman (cremating it face up or face down, respectively) and by disposing of the body of an immature child differently from that of a married adult (by burial or cremation, respectively).