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Inverting the pyramid

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The Kurumba men, liberated by disguise and alcohol
The Kunde festival is a carefully contoured chaos that obeys immemorial and invisible laws.
The Kunde festival is a carefully contoured chaos that obeys immemorial and invisible laws.
The Kurumba men, liberated by disguise and alcohol
This crazy carnival serves a purpose — it’s a social pressure cooker that allows everyone to let off steam.
This crazy carnival serves a purpose — it’s a social pressure cooker that allows everyone to let off steam.
This crazy carnival serves a purpose — it’s a social pressure cooker that allows everyone to let off steam.
The Kurumba men, liberated by alcohol and disguise.
The Kurumba men, liberated by alcohol and disguise.
The Kunde festival is a carefully contoured chaos that obeys immemorial and invisible laws.

On the cool, green hills of Coorg, the Kunde festival is when Jenu Kurumba men, liberated by disguise and liquor, curse their gods, their employers and all passers-by

Once a year, the usual peace of the Coorg hills is rent by expletives and abuse, the staccato beat of plastic drums, and rhythmic chants and yells. Then, from the muted shades of green and brown foliage emerge the neon-yellow-silver-red Jenu Kurumba men. They are dressed as women, in a playful take on Western sexuality. They are walking to a forest temple to invert normality — they will not worship but berate the gods.

Liberated by disguise and alcohol, the Kunde festival topples the norms — gods, passers-by and plantation owners are all cheerfully abused by the labour force, as today they stand upright rather than bent over the coffee bushes. Kunde Habba in the local dialect means the festival of abusing god. Screams and laughter are in the air but this crazy carnival serves a purpose — it’s a social pressure cooker that allows everyone to let off steam. The static hierarchy of the hills is blown open for a day, which makes the rest of the year more bearable for those near the bottom.

The Kurumbas are seriously angry. They asked the god Aiyappa to go hunting with them, but he was far more interested in the beautiful goddess Bhadrakali, and abandoned them to the vagaries of the hunt. The god’s love is tested by this annual reminder of his duties, couched in a torrent of anatomically accurate abuse.

Today, the Kunde has modernised. The areca nuts, the leaf masks, the flowers and fruit layered over turmeric have been replaced with mass-produced plastic accessories, but what is still going strong is the casual immediacy of self-expression. The Kunde is more than a day of shattered inhibitions; it is carefully contoured chaos that obeys immemorial and invisible laws, granting the privileged observer a glimpse into another world and another time.

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