Social Anthropology

‘You don't joke with these fellows.’ Power and ritual in South Canara, India

Marine Carrin a1 and Harald Tambs-Lyche a2
a1 CNRS – Centre d'Anthropologie, 39 Allées Jules Guesde, 31000 Toulouse, France
a2 Département de Sociologie, Université de Picardie – Jules Venne, Chemin de Thil, 80025 Amiens, France


In South Canara, landowners claiming chiefly descent stage the nema, once the central occasion on which chiefs displayed and renewed their power. Through semantic analysis of the nema's syntax the authors show how the meaning of ritual statements are rooted in the context of action, in an age where chiefdoms no longer exist. Analysing specific cases, the authors show how the staging of a nema is a risky venture, claiming or defending positions of a highly political nature. The nema acts to construct important actors who structure the imagined community of Tulunadu, claimed as the homeland of the Tulu-speaking population. The bhutas to which the ritual is dedicated, both legitimise and contest the hierarchy and symbolise the moral values of the community. At the same time, each performance encodes new elements into a continuous production of meaning, rooted in myth, informed by events, and linked into complex traditions and systems of knowledge.