On a grey, rainy monsoon day in Madikeri, I step into our family jeweller’s store. I see a lavish display of elaborately worked Kodava jewellery in gold and silver. My mind buzzes with questions about the possible origins and design influences.
The kadagas (bangles), necklaces (kokkethathi, pathak, joomale and paunch) and the peechai kathi (the ceremonial dagger worn by Kodava men on special occasions) are unique to Coorg. They are unlikely to be seen even in the neighbouring areas of Karnataka and Kerala. These pieces are characterized by exquisite repoussé work. Repoussé is a metalworking technique, in which a malleable metal is ornamented or shaped, by hammering from the reverse side, to create a design in low relief.
Typically, most Kodava jewellery is handcrafted and hollow. To prevent damage to these pieces, they are filled with wax to give them solidity and stability.
An exhaustive online search for the origins and influences doesn’t reveal very much. The only information I am able to glean is that the jewellery is inspired by nature, with special reference to the sun, moon, stars, the serpent, flora and fauna and in one instance specifically, the prickly skin of a jackfruit.
What does stand out though is a clear design influence from an entirely different region. This remains as much of a mystery as the origins of the Kodavas is. The kokkethathi, a crescent shaped pendant inspired by the moon, does bear a similarity to a pendant found in Oman. As does the peechai kathi, which is very much like the traditional daggers worn by Omani men. Perhaps this lends credence to one of the many theories on the origins of the Kodavas–a tribe who migrated to India many centuries ago, from the Middle East via land and sea.
My jeweller friend is as curious about Kodava jewellery as I am. He takes me to see two master craftsmen hard at work, off one of the central streets of Madikeri. Working from a tiny space up a steep flight of stairs, they handcraft the kadagas in gold and silver, putting together various permutations and combinations of gold wire and sheet, in cleverly repeated geometric patterns of circles and triangles.
For the jodi, single kadagas and pimbale, miniscule dots of gold are clustered together forming an upraised triangular motif that repeats. Metal sheet is deftly cut into triangular bits and forms the end point of a pattern. Fine strands of gold wire are trimmed into small circles and soldered onto thick ovals of gold or silver that form the base of the kadaga. Interestingly, most Kodava kadagas are oval and not circular in shape, as a result of which they fit the wrist better.
The pimbale has a few elements of the jodi kadaga design in it. In addition to this, it has upraised repoussé lines that make up the main design of the bangle. To me, this appears to be inspired by bamboo and its distinctive nodal points on the stem.
We go on to see another master craftsman who specializes in making kokkethathi pendants. These crescent shaped pendants are surmounted with the head of a serpent and have the figure of Goddess Lakshmi and two birds on them. A row of descending cabochon rubies and a string of hanging pearls on the edge, complete the design.
He explains the process of making a pendant to us. The nakash, a moulded gold piece is sent to him by the mould maker. It has the basic shape and design of the pendant, but needs further work in terms of minute detailing. In addition to this, he painstakingly solders together the various bits and pieces, which make up the kokkethathi. Once he is done with this, the pendant is sent to the polisher. The stone setter is the last link in this complex process, adding the corals, pearls and rubies.
As I leave these workshops, what strikes me most about Kodava jewellery, is the intricate and clever use of geometric forms and shapes–basically the building blocks of any good design vocabulary. Walk down any bye lane of a town in Coorg and you might stumble on one of these master craftsmen, ever willing to show you a craft that has been practiced for centuries.