Gava: Love, Affection … and Money!
According to the Marxian paradox, money is a social relation but may simultaneously act as a veil for such relations. Many social scientists have thus lamented the impersonal nature of money and its socially disruptive effects. However, one of the most important lessons I learned during fieldwork among Badagas in the South Indian Nilgiri hills is how frequently and conciously money may be used and institutionalized with the sole purpose of making social relations explicit. Even money and love need not – cannot! – be kept apart. The following is a brief excerpt:
There is no native word for love among Badagas except the term ‘gava’. The latter is commonly translated as a person’s or even an entire community’s ‘love and affection’. Yet, gava has little to do with love in the English or European sense.
“Gava is not ʻloveʼ, it can’t be mixed with other words, it is like gold” (B.J. Murogan, advocate, Kotagiri, 2010).
Most important, gava does not refer to the kind of romantic and erotic love between individuals we are used to, but rather to an emotional and performative state of alliance as well as of being (and becoming) part of a larger group. Gava thus involves not only affection but also certain aspects of duty, responsibility and care that refer to a larger social structure. Moreover, while gava it is indeed a strong personal emotion, it is also something that can and should be shown and witnessed in society.
[I thank my friend B.J. Murogan from Kotagiri, who pointed out to me the relevance of the concept, and proved much patience in explaining the matter – i.e. one of the many ways in which he showed his gava to me]
(2) Money is Gava
Strikingly, when I requested local informants (especially ladies) to give me a few ideas about what they think of money, one of the more frequent answers was that “money is gava” and, still more frequently the enlightened phrase that “money cannot prosper without relations.”
To be very clear at this point: Gava is certainly not the only thing that most Badagas would have to say about money! However, insofar as gava does inform and reflect a local concept of money it also became one of the big themes of Rupees in the Dollar Zone. The flow of money cannot but represent relations between humans (and of course between the things, ideas, services or performances that humans possess, exchange, create, and value). Yet what exactly money represents also depends on how we conceive of such relations. Even after ages of colonization, market-integration, modernization, globalization, global “dollars” and, well, monetization, for most Badagas it makes little sense to draw any straight distinction between economic and social relations – and, as I would argue, this is why local money is or becomes an extraordinarily important aspect of gava and vice versa.
All gava starts with marriage (and payment)
(1) “Honnu kattu” (ceremony of paying a bride price)
The first formal arrangement in the course of a marriage is a ceremony called honnu kattu – the payment of bride wealth, i.e. the bride “price”. For that purpose family elders of both the groom’s and the bride’s side gather in the house of the bride. The potential groom is not present at this occasion. However, on this occasion, the bride will be officially asked whether she agrees to the marriage.
(I’m talking here about arranged marriage. While gava does indeed imply that the whole family must be involved in the decision, the bride’s consent is formally indispensable. There would be more to discuss about arranged marriages in India and the fate of girls in this practice, but it certainly does not generally hold true that girls don’t have a say in it at all. Many aspects need to be considered for a suitable alliance, but at least when judging from my personal impression among Badagas, famliy elders may take the wish of their children – boys as well as girls – quite serious. )
Three times she must confirm before an elder of the groom’s lineage can pay the symbolic amount of (usually) 201 Rupees to a representative of the bride’s patrilineal family. Today this is a rather symbolic amount of money. However the payment is the formal act which confirms the arrangement of a marriage and through which the bride becomes already – though still somewhat in a liminal state – a member of the grooms village .
Immediately a small fraction of this money is wrapped in a white piece of cloth and returned to the initial giver. This latter gesture is a symbol for the mutual respect, caretaking and economic responsibility which evolves from the moment of marriage and through the gava which grows and spreads from such alliance.
After the ceremonial payment, the mother of the bride (the lady in blue) takes the money (it is in the cup which she holds in her hands) and shows it to her husband. Next, a boy from the groom’s family is asked to come in front and to bow down before the family of the bride. As a young boy he performs this respectful gesture on behalf of the groom (who is never present during this kind of ceremony) and his entire family and patrilineage. The mother of the bride takes the money which was given as a bride price to the puja-shrine of her house. There she puts it under the divige – the sacred lamp which burns in every house and represents its innermost core. After that all guests are served with food (another important expression of gava) and some of the elders (gents and ladies) will start discussing the particularities and the organization of the wedding.
The actual marriage takes place a couple of weeks or months later. Marriage, too, requires a series of monetary transactions. The most important are “guru kanikai”, “sinna dhana”, and “moi”
Shortly before the wedding ceremony, the couple (more precisely the house of the groom) must offer a small amount of money (1,25 or 10,25 Rupees) to each of its gurus (“uncles”, i.e. male elders from both sides of the alliance). The money is put on a betel-leaf. The couple bows down, receives blessings and one by one the gurus will pick up the money. The transaction is meant as a sign of respect towards elder family members who in turn signalize their final approval of the marriage by picking up the money. This also means that the couple will be granted the full support of all family members – for example when it comes to emergencies, childcare, house-constructions, networks, education, economic investments etc.
After the wedding ceremony and after the tali (golden string) has been tied, the couple is placed on a mat. An elder of the groom’s family drops a few coins (commonly 11 coins) into his lap. Likewise an elder of the girl’s family puts coins (commonly 9 coins) into the lap of the bride. In earlier times these were golden coins (fanams) and that’s why it is still called sinna dhana (golden gift). An accountant also notes the amounts and in this way he opens the account book which records all the gifts that are subsequently given by relatives and guests.
One by one, the closest relatives take turns dropping money (now larger amounts varying between 100 and 1000 Rupees) into the lap of both the groom and the bride. After that, the groom takes the money which he received and puts it all into the lap of the bride. In her lap the bride mixes the money that was given from both sides of the alliance. Then she returns the money to the groom who wraps it in a white cloth. From now on the bride and the groom will work and earn together. Both their families will offer mutual support while the alliance will beget children and future generations who marry among each other (cross-cousin mariage is a common ideal). As to that, sinna dhana may be seen as the initial seed of many future transactions and literally of all kind of prosperity that follows upon alliance.
Later the giving of sinna dhana is followed by moi (see below). More distant relatives, friends and all other guests of the wedding take turns congratulating the couple and leaving individual monetary gifts that vary between 10 to 1000 Rupees. These gifts, too, will be noted in the account book. As there are often several hundreds of guests, moi finally adds up to a considerable amount. Yet, whatever was given as moi on the day of the wedding must later be returned at other occasions like weddings, or funerals.
Gava spreads to the entire community
“The starting point of gava is between the husband and wife. And it leads to family – and that particular family they have a small group – from that small group it is spreading all over the community.” (B.J. Murogan 2010)
Like in the case of a marriage, there are many occasions in the life of a Badaga which deserve the presence, the support and participation of large networks of kin- and friendship: child-birth and name-giving, puberty functions, house-constructions, sickness and hospitalization, funeral – i.e. all those life-time events where members should join either in joy or in sorrow. One crucial aspect of sharing in all these events is telathi – an institutionalized system of monetary support. All relations should show their gava both through their physical presence and a monetary contribution. The latter may be a small sum of 10 Rupees, but depending on the prevailing relations and the concrete situation it may also exceed this sum up to 500 or even 1000 Rupees.
All telathi which is given, will be kept in memory and should be reciprocated one day. Telathi is a substantial aspect of the entire community. It grows with what you give and with the relations you make. And when it returns, it may multiply and even cover all the expenses of a concrete event.
One of the most impressive events, not only with regard to telathi, are funeral ceremonies. Funerals are not only sad events. What they really celebrate is the life and relations of the deceased. Sometimes thousands of guests may come to pay the last honour to the decedent and of course this inseparably includes the payment of telathi to his or her surviving dependants.
Telathi is a reflection of an ethic of solidarity and cooperation that – in spite of many social and economic transformations and many everyday conflicts about noney – continues to prevail among Badagas. (If you want to see how gava restores houses after a landslide check this article.)
(2) Hospitality, Commensality and Paruva
There are many events from family functions to rituals and temple festivals where people should have food together. Sometimes this means feeding several thousand people at once. The big paruvas (collective feastings) are a frequent pleasure but also a costly event in the villages and during festival-times. Most paruvas are substantially funded by individual donors who donate money or rice on behalf of their family, lineage, neighborhood or village, and in order to show their gava. Alternatively or in addition a hosting village may raise a tax among all of its members or use money from a collectiv fund. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, sharing food is one way to show and experience gava while money is another.
(3) Collective funds and donations
For each main-village, most of the temples and most of the hattis (hamlets associated with a particular main village) and even for single keris, Badagas keep collective funds. Commonly a tax is raised among all members of a particular unit. Yet donations make up for another crucial part. I shall deal with this elsewhere. However, regarding gava it should be noted (1) that donations are an important way to show one’s love and affection and (2) that donations are also crucial because they can help integrating social units far beyond the patrilocal village. Married daughters, for example often donate for festivals or temple-constructions in their native villages and even entire villages donate money for each other’s purposes. Sometimes a temple is also shared by larger territorial units within a certain settlement pattern, and all members and all well-wishers contribute to their maintenance. There are many other reasons and purposes to donate. Likewise donations can be given in one’s own name, or in the name of sombody else, in the name of a house or a village, etc. Donations are thus indeed another great example, how gava spreads to the entire community. Here too, whatever you give will also return at some later point and in some way.
In short, money, love, affection and belonging are densely interwoven in the social fabrics of gava. Again, money is not the only aspect of gava. Certainly it does not explain gava. However, just think about the following:
“You cannot prevent that somebody is loving you. Gava cannot be stopped – that is the logic, that is the only aspect in the entire community” (B.J. Murogan 2010)
“And why indeed should it ever run out, was her next thought. This was no ordinary coin or common gold. This money is like love, she thought at once. Once you have some, once it has come into being, it can go on multiplying, each part dividing itself, doubling and doubling like the cells of an embryo.”
[quoted from Hilary Mantel’s Fludd: A Novel (1989: 176)]