|Amid heat, dust, and clamor, a jostling mass of excited, chattering devotees clad in lunghis and
saris sweeps me along the narrow street toward the massive stone temple. A din of bells, drums,
and chants; the mingled odour of incense and jasmine flowers wound around the bushy tuft of
charcoal black hair of women worshippers - bombard all my senses as I stumble along, trapped
and impelled by this human river of faith.
A man bearing an elaborately adorned kavady on his shoulders stumbles but cannot fall because he
is wedged on all sides by humanity. Another man, his eyes wild with devotion, his cheeks and lips
pierced with the trident of Shiva, tries to thrust his way through the unyielding crowd. Around
me, rapt faces adorned with holy ash, bear the mark of Vishnu on their foreheads.
Single-mindedly the throng advances, trampling underfoot the broken garlands that litter the
ground with bright orange marigold petals and delicate white plumeria blossoms.
Drumbeats become louder as we stagger through the great temple gates. In the shadows, stolid
and grand as the pillars around him, the temple elephant stands, patiently awaiting his entrance to
the great drama. His huge grey body is painted in swirls of colour, his tusks adorned with brass
and tassels, his howdah caparisoned with silk and gold; he is a fit mount for the god Vishnu during
this great festival of Navaratri.
Above us, covering every inch of the granite walls, stone figures clamber and writhe in scenes
from the sacred books, all as crowded and vibrant as the human scene below. Each carving is an
epic story from the Ramayanam or Mahabharatam. This is Trivandrum, this is Kerala where I was
I am in the majestic Ananta Padmanabhaswami temple, famous for its intricate granite carvings
and its seven stories high gopuram (tower). The temple is a great pilgrimage center, built in the
8th century on the spot where Vishnu was abandoned as an infant.
A Pulaya (untouchable) woman saw Vishnu, as a discarded child on the street and nursed him,
and left him under a tree so that his mother would find him but would not know that he had been
polluted by the touch of a Pulaya woman. Ananta, the five hooded serpent, came to guard him.
The temple was built at the spot where he was found. A coconut shell used as a cup for Vishnu as
a child is preserved in the royal pagoda at Trivandrum.
This temple is so large that entire processions with elephants can be held within it. In its corridors
are 368 music-resonating, carved granite pillars. The reclining image of Anantapadmanabha
(Vishnu) is so large it has to be viewed from three different doors to appreciate its size and majesty
Sri Padmanabha Swami (Vishnu) was the tutelary deity of the rulers of Travancore (now part of
Kerala). The Rajah and his successors held possession and the right to rule the state as servants of
the deity. Marthanda Varma dedicated the whole of Kerala state to the Sri Padmanabha Swami
Kerala lies on the southwest coast of India. It is bounded by the State of Karnataka in the north,
the Western Ghats and the State of Tamil Nadu in the east and south, and by the Arabian Sea in the
west. Kerala is a beautiful land of lakes, white-water rivers, golden sandy beaches, and calm sea
inlets with overhanging coconut trees with dancing fronds. Its high hills are covered with verdant
tropical forests. In beauty, it far exceeds all famous resort areas in the world including the
Hawaiian Islands. A visit is an unforgettable experience.
According to one story in Hindu mythology, Kerala was created by Parasurama, Vishnu's sixth
incarnation. He came to destroy Kartavirya, a wicked Kshatriya king who terrorized the
Brahmins. When Parasurama killed Kartavirya, Kartavirya's vengeful sons murdered Parasurama's
father. In retaliation, Parasurama slaughtered Kartavirya's sons. They reincarnated twenty-one
times, and each time he axed them to death until all were annihilated On the advice of a sage,
Visvamitra, Parasurama went on a pilgrimage to the ocean shore in the south as penance for the
slaughter he had committed. From the shore at Gokarnam, he heaved the execution axe into the
ocean. The axe fell at Cape Comorin (komo-rin), about 400 miles from where he stood. The land
between him and where the axe fell rose up from the ocean and became Kerala.
Outside the Kerala History Museum near Ernakulam, this myth is commemorated by a statue of
Parasurama throwing his axe into the sea.
Kerala has many mythological associations. It is here that Rama, King of Ayodhya and seventh
incarnation of Vishnu, spent part of his fourteen years of exile. During this exile, Rama's wife, the
goddess Sita, bathed in a lake that came to be known as Devikulum (lake of the goddess). It was
from Kerala that Sita was abducted by Ravana.
Kerala owes its lushness to the monsoon. During the southwest monsoon from June to
September, water-saturated clouds from the vast Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, hit the coast,
and rain pours as if the sky has opened its floodgates. Heavy rain falls almost continuously every
day for a week or two during June and July. This southwest monsoon is associated with the
calamitous floods that annually cause great loss of life in the Indian subcontinent, particularly in the
flat lands in Bengal and the Indo-Gangetic plains.
From October to November, on the slopes of the Sahya mountains, the northeast monsoon
provides the rainfall in Tamil Nad in the east. Some clouds that get through the ghats on to the
western slopes create from nowhere sudden bursts of frightening electrical storms and
thundershowers in the afternoons. This is a daily event. It pours for a few minutes and stops
abruptly. Bright, hot, humid, sunshine pours out from the sky and the land is dry again.
On an average, the province receives between 130 and 200 inches of rain annually, most of it
during the two monsoons. One consequence of such heavy rain fall is the dense rain forest where
trees such as ebony, rosewood, sandalwood and teak are common. The best elevation for the rain
forest is from 0 to 4000 ft. mean sea level. On mountain ranges with elevation over 6000 ft. trees
do not grow to great heights.
Kerala has an ideal climate for the cultivation of spices such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves,
nutmeg, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, and dozens more, spices that attracted King Solomon's
galleys to Kerala. During the last century B.C. Greece, Babylon, Rome, Egypt, China and
Palestine, all traded with Kerala for spices, ebony, ivory, peacocks and other precious commodities.
Another consequence of the monsoon is that many rivers arise from the western slopes of the
Sahya Mountains, gush down the precipitous slopes, crisscross the land and meander into the
Arabian sea. One such river is the Periyar.
The Periyar is navigable from where it enters the Arabian Sea at Parur, north of Cochin, for some
distance toward its source. The navigable portion provides a route for communication,
transportation of goods and travel. Boats are pulled along the shore or propelled by a pole or by
The 140 miles long Periyar river originates at the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, then flows
north into an artificial reservoir created to generate hydroelectric power. The reservoir is fed by
water from many rivers and supplies water for irrigation in Kerala. It also irrigates land in Tamil
Nadu through a tunnel in the mountains and through the Vaigai river.
The artificial lake created by the dam in Periyar has an area of about 12 sq. miles and a shoreline
of about 60 miles. Surrounding the lake is the Periyar Wild Life Sanctuary where wild elephants,
tigers, bison, leopards, sambar, spotted deer, barking deer, wild bison, Nilgiri tahr (wild goat),
Nilgiri langur, Hanuman langur, lion tailed macaque, bonnet monkey, pea fowl, hornbill, antelopes,
ibex, monkeys, spectacled cobras, king cobras, many other animals and a variety of birds abound.
All the wildlife can be viewed safely at close range from boats. Herds of elephants numbering up to
40 are not uncommon. This sanctuary was created by the Maharajah of Travancore in the early
The Bharathapuzha, Chalakudi, Pampa and other smaller rivers also originate in the Sahya
Mountains. They cascade through the hills creating numerous waterfalls that explode in crystal
clear, foamy waters and add to the beauty of the surroundings.
Three of these, Perunthenaruvi near Quilon, Athirampalli near Trichur, and Thommankuthu near
Thodupuzha, are delightful, unforgettable spots that refresh the sprit with their scenic beauty.
During the rainy season, all the rivers flood. They gush down the mountain slopes in
uncontrollable torrents sweeping everything before them including villages. Rains wash the
hillsides and carry decayed leaves and fertile soil into the streams. When the streams reach the
valleys, they overflow into the paddy fields on either side of the banks and deposit their fertile silt.
Thus, each year, the paddy fields flourish in Kuttanad, the lush rice bowl of Kerala near Alleppey,
and in all the lower regions. However, irrigable lands are few in the country, with the result that
rice must be imported.
Except during monsoon, Kerala has a moderate climate. Temperature varies little during the entire
year. It may range as high as 27° to 32° C. but the average is about 24° C. December and January
may be considered the coolest months, sometimes reaching as low as 17 C. April and May are the
hottest, reaching as high as 32 C. At higher elevations, the temperature will be 5 or 6 degrees
lower than on the plains.
The original inhabitants of Kerala were Dravidians of whose arrival there is no record. The Aryans
migrated to Kerala from the north around the fifth century B.C. With them, they brought
Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
During the third century B.C. Emperor Asoka of the Maurya dynasty sent monks to spread
Buddhism to different parts of India, Sri Lanka, Burma, even to Greece and Persia. Rock
inscriptions made by Asoka record Kerala as Keralaputra which literally means Kerala's son.
Keralaputra is a misnomer for Cheraputra. This corroborates the mythical story that Parasurama
advised the Brahmin families he brought from Aryapuram in Bijapur district to hire Chera kings
who ruled the adjoining country for he believed that they would rule impartially.
Twenty-five Cheraman Perumals or kings ruled Kerala from 216 to 428 A.D. Cranganore was
their capital and their palace was at Cheraman parambu (Cheraman's compound), site of the
present Allal Perum-kovil-akam pagoda within the great temple compound at Thiruvanchikulam
During the 11th century, a hundred-year war with the Cholas reduced the Chera kingdom to petty
principalities. Kerala split into many chieftaincies, the prominent among them being that of the
Zamorin of Calicut in the north, Travancore in the south, and Cochin in the middle.
At different times, the Pandyas of Madurai, the Cholas of Tanjore and the King of Vijayanagar (in
Mysore) conquered and held sway over Kerala from time to time.
Foreign influence has also had a long history. When St. Thomas arrived in Kerala in 52 A.D., there
was a colony of Jews in Muziris (Cranganore). In 345 A.D., four hundred Persian Christians
emigrated from Mesopotamia to escape the persecution of Sapor II. They arrived in Cranganore
under the leadership of one Kanaye Thomman (Thomas of Cana) along with Bishop Joseph. In
823 A.D. more Persian immigrants arrived in Quilon with Marwan Sabrisho, a merchant. Two
bishops, Mar Sapro and Mar Prodh came with him. They were hospitably received by king
Cheraman Perumal. Sabrisho built a church in Quilon with grants from the Cheraman Perumal.
These special grants were recorded on five copper plates, three of which are in the old seminary in
Kottayam and two with the Metropolitan at Thiruvalla.
King Udaya Marthanda Varma of Venad established a township in Kollam (Quilon) in honour of
the Persian immigrants and their endeavors. He convened a grand assembly of learned men of his
kingdom in Kollam and established the Malayalam Era.
Another story about the origin of the Malayalam Era is that the Marthanda Varma of Kulasekhara
Dynasty, acquired such prominence as Chera ruler that he promulgated the Malayalam Era in 825
Until the eighth century, when the Kulasekhara Dynasty established its control over Kerala, Tamil
was the language of the area. When Ravi Varma Kulasekhara of Travancore established his rule
over all of south India, Malayalam emerged as the language. The eighth and the ninth centuries
A.D. were the sublime periods in the history of Kerala, marking the advance of philosophy, fine
arts, dance, music, literature and education.
During the seventh century, Arab traders came to Kerala and built the first mosque in India in 644
European contact with Kerala began in the fifteenth century. The Ottoman empire had cut off the
land route to India. The Portuguese wanted to take over the lucrative spice trade which was
monopolized by Arab traders. Therefore, King John II of Portugal sent Bartholomeu Dias on a
sailing expedition in 1488 to find a route to India. An unfortunate gale became great fortune when
it carried him off course beyond the Cape of Good Hope. He then sailed east and north and
reached Mosel Bay, two hundred and thirty miles east of Capetown. He sailed farther north and
reached as far as Algoa Bay before returning to Portugal.
In 1495, King Manuel I sent Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese, captain, to follow the success of Dias
and find the route to India. Vasco da Gama, the son of a minor official in the south coast of
Portugal, had some expertise in sailing.
In Malindi, Gama found Ibn Majid who guided Gama across the Arabian sea to Calicut. This was a
vagary of fate that Majid should help his enemy who would later destroy Arab monopoly in the
Indian ocean. Da Gama landed near Calicut in 1498. Unable to strike a deal with the Zamorin of
Calicut who was not impressed by da Gama's trade articles, he stayed three months in Calicut to
make friends with the Zamorin. The Zamorin was not amenable, so da Gama went back to Lisbon.
To take advantage of the success of da Gama's voyage, Manuel I sent Pedro Alvarez Cabral to
Calicut with a fleet of thirteen ships. Cabral left many of his men in Calicut and returned to
Portugal. These men were murdered by the Hindus under Moslem instigation. When the news
reached Portugal, Manuel I sent Vasco da Gama back with a squadron, to conquer Calicut and
establish colonies, spread Christianity and destroy Arab power in the Indian ocean.
Da Gama was a violent, hot-tempered, cruel man who committed many barbarous acts. During
his second visit to India, he lay in wait for Arab ships. Within a few weeks, a ship with about four
hundred Moslem men, women and children arrived from a pilgrimage to Mecca. He demanded all
their treasures and when they were slow to comply, he seized their valuables, worth about 20,000
pounds, shut them on board, spread gunpowder on the ship and set it afire, killing all of them.
In Canannore he formed an alliance with a petty ruler, an enemy of the Zamorin. Then he went to
Calicut with a fleet of 20 ships. The Zamorin, seeing the large fleet, was afraid and was willing to
sign a treaty but da Gamma refused. He found many Muslims in town and demanded they be
evicted immediately. When the Zamorin refused, he captured 48 merchants who had come to his
ship to trade their wares, cut off their heads, hands and legs. He caught the Zamorin's Brahmin
envoy, who had accompanied da Gama with assurance of a safe conduct, and cut off his nose,
ears and hands. He sent the bodies with the envoy in an open boat with a note on a palm leaf
asking the Zamorin to make curry out of the meat.
After bombarding Calicut for three days, da Gama sailed to Cochin and got a concession to build a
Eventually, through force, Portugal obtained a monopoly over the pepper and spice trade in India,
a very profitable venture. Da Gama operated under Royal charter with Royal power and prestige,
behaving as if he were the King of Portugal. With great religious zeal, the Portuguese tried to
spread Catholicism and acquire territories for the King.
When the English found out about the profitable spice trade, a group of private individuals
formed the English East India Company in 1599. The company was chartered by Queen Elizabeth
I to trade in Asia, Africa and America. It established many trade centres in India and the early
voyages yielded large profits. The English entered into treaties of protection with the Zamorin of
Calicut who had fought against the Portuguese. It entered into valuable commercial treaties with
other native princes as well.
In 1580 King Philip of Spain conquered and seized Portugal, bringing down Portuguese power. In
1588, when the English defeated the Spanish Armada, the Dutch had an opportunity to overthrow
Spanish rule and gain independence. The Dutch and the English went east, the Dutch to Batavia
(Jakarta), the centre of the spice trade, and the English to the Cormandel Coast of India.
This stopped the Portuguese from advancing but they were not destroyed. In spite of an extended
blockade, they held out in fortified Goa. Then, in 1623, the Dutch massacred the English, Japanese
and Portuguese traders, the notorious Ambonia massacre. This almost eliminated all competition
but not completely.
The Dutch, who stayed in India for 125 years, had neither religious zeal nor territorial ambitions.
They were there only for trade and profit. Therefore they imported into Kerala whatever they
could sell there and exported from Kerala what they could sell in Europe. Imports included coal,
mineral oil, hardware machinery, chemicals, opium, Coffee, Chinese silk, copper, weapons and
explosives. Pepper, coir yarn, coir products, copra, coconut oil, cashew kernel, lemon grass oil,
cashew shell extract, teak, and rose wood were exported. They even had a contract with the rulers
that pepper would be sold only to Dutch traders. They held the rajahs captive until Rajah
Marthanda Varma defeated them and Travancore became independent.
When Tippu Sultan of Mysore, in what is now Karnataka, invaded the territory of the Zamorin, in
1784, the British found it necessary to stop the escalation of Muslim power. They responded by
invading Mysore, forcing Tippu Sultan to retreat. This lead to more help being given to the
Zamorin and finally annexation of the Zamorin's territory, which became the Malabar District of
Madras Province under direct British rule. Travancore and Cochin also accepted British Suzerainty
because of the threat of invasion by Tippu Sultan.
Woodcock wrote "It is the nature of the English nation to get possession of countries by
treacherous means." Perhaps these means were not treacherous but they exploited disunity among
rulers and became conquerors. Some who came for trade found the land attractive and the people
hospitable. Therefore, they became settlers. Each nation tried to get a foothold. They came as
friends with gifts, and made themselves rulers. However, there is some good in all bad events. The
Portuguese introduced the coir factory in Alleppey and the British introduced English education,
and the printing press.
Today, only one fifth of the population of Kerala state lives in urban areas. The rest reside in the
rural equivalent of a megalopolis. Most houses are garden houses with a courtyard and an attached
garden enclosed by a wall. Houses are not huddled together as in other parts of India but are
distributed throughout the land, constructed along the roadside, adjacent to the paddy fields, in
coconut estates and rubber or coffee plantations. Therefore, villages and cities are not congested.
Even in the city of Trivandrum the houses are so distributed as to provide a garden for each house.
The urban population is low compared to other provinces. This contributes to keeping the city
clean, unlike other cities in India.
Kerala is inhabited by highly literate, industrious, hardworking people, who make up for the lack
of natural resources of their land with their capability to meet the challenges of the wide world. It
has 1% of the area of India but 4% of the population. It has the highest density on the
subcontinent. In some places, the density is as high as 3000 per square mile. Three fifths of its
30,000,000 population is Hindu, one fifth Christian and one fifth Moslem. There are a few Jewish
merchants in the harbour towns of Travancore and Cochin.
There is great religious diversity in Kerala but Hindus, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Jains, and
animists all co-exist harmoniously. Christian churches, Muslim mosques and Hindu temples exist
within yards of one another. There are separate Hindu temples for the worship of Kali, Siva,
Vishnu, and the snake god, Naga.
Hindus and Muslims live with unusual amity in the state. There are two groups of Moslems in
Kerala: Arabs who arrived for trade and settled; and the converts who adopted Islam during the
invasion of Hyderali (1782) and Tippu Sultan. Some adopted Islam voluntarily to gain advantages
from the invading forces while others did so to escape religious persecution, extra taxes, or the
disadvantages of being low caste Hindus.
The British missionaries converted low caste Hindus to Christianity. They were mostly
untouchables who lived in shanties and had no permanent settlement, moving from place to place
like the Gypsies. Conversion was one way of escaping from the caste system and untouchability.
These converts are known as Indian Christians. British missionaries provided schools and
education and built churches for them. When the missionaries established hospitals, they could not
find nurses as nursing involved cleaning bedpans, which only the untouchables would do.
Hospitals recruited the untouchables for various work including nursing. Hindus did not visit the
missionary hospitals except when they were so sick that the caste system did not matter to them.
Even more diverse than religion is the caste system. There are about 500 castes and sub-castes
among the Hindus in Kerala. Though the system was introduced by the Brahmins for their own
benefit, there is a possibility that there was an overall intent to keep the masses satisfied by
creating a community where they could interact. Thus, the farmers had their own community, the
merchants and soldiers had their community, and the untouchable had their community where they
could interact and be equal. The caste system was accepted and followed by all inhabitants of
Kerala, even Christians.
The Brahmins, the priests in charge of ceremonies which brought rain for the farmers and health
for the populace, were greatly respected. They appropriated for themselves the top rung of the
social ladder. In 1959, 20.8 % of the highest paid government positions were occupied by the
Brahmins who totalled only 1.6% of the population (22.p.34). All occupations are caste dictated.
Caste distinction differentiates one from the other; the colour and design of their dresses, the
ornaments they wear, and how they wear their ornaments, how they drape their saris, lungis,
pyjamas, skirts and sarongs. All these have meaning and significance. Women of a particular caste
are prohibited from covering their breasts; women from another, their midriff or their legs.
Intermarriage between castes is prohibited.
Nambudiri Brahmins, being the priests and custodians of the temple and its property, hold much
power and wealth. In Kerala, Nambudiris are a separate class of Brahmins. They believe that they
are the custodians of Vedic religion. There are five subdivisions in the Nambudiri castes, each
with different occupations in the management of the temples in their charge. The top-most are the
"Tampurakkal" (lords). They are the owners of all temple wealth, and administrators and decision
makers. Next in power are the "adhyas" who are the supreme spiritual beings, temple priests who
are in direct contact with the gods. Next come the "Visishtas" (the qualified), those qualified to
conduct the rituals in the temple. Next comes the Samanyas (ordinary), the ordinary folks who
study the Veda, ayurvedic medicine, and other special treatises. The last group are "Jatimatras"
who are engaged in traditional learning, philosophy, and witchcraft. Very rarely do Nambudiris
practice any profession for financial purposes. They receive their part of finance from managing
the land holdings of the temple.
Next in rank to the Brahmins are Ambalavazis, who assist the priests with ceremonies in the
temple. They stay in the ambalam, a building attached to the temple and, in the absence of the
priests, conduct religious ceremonies.
Next in hierarchy are the Nairs (also spelled Nayars). They are the traditional warriors and feudal
landholders who perform the function of Kshatriyas and Vysyas. The rajahs gave titles such as
pillai, panikkar, nambiar, menon, karthas, kaimal, etc., to Nair families for services to the royal
family or the country or for distinguished performance in battle. The titles were conferred upon
the family in perpetuity and all members were entitled to use it. These titles have become subcastes.
Kammalans come next in the hierarchy of the caste system. The sudras or artisans, such as
goldsmiths, blacksmiths, carpenters, washer-men come next. Below them are pot maker, brass
worker, and Kaniyan who is part time astrologer, protector of the paddy from pestilence, and part
time umbrella maker. From the leaves of the umbrella palm, he makes umbrellas four feet in
diameter that are worn on the head like a hat, as the Thais do, or hold it by a handle. He is the heir
to the leftover food at feasts. Then come the Ezhavas (Thiyyas) or toddy tappers, the Mukkavas
or fishermen, etc.
Till the early part of this century, members of different castes had to keep prescribed distances
from each other. A Nair had to keep 16 ft. from a Namboodri, an Ezhava 16 ft. from the Nair, a
Pulaya 32 ft. from an Ezhava. (These distances are cumulative. Therefore, an Ezhava must stay 64
ft. from a Namboodri.) Woodcock even speaks of a caste called Nayadi who are not only
prohibited from walking on roads, but were also prohibited from being seen. I have never heard of
In the last quarter of the 19th century, the Ezhavas were untouchables. They were barred from
entering Hindu temples and could not go to schools. They were engaged in toddy tapping, coconut
plucking, in coir factories and cashew nut plantations.
Nanu Asan, Ezhava born in 1854, protested against the treatment of his people. He built and
consecrated his own temple to Siva and performed worshipful ceremonies. When questioned how
he could usurp the Brahminical function of consecrating a temple for Siva, he replied that his Siva
was an Ezhava Siva. His dictum was "One caste, one religion and one God." This helped to
strengthen the organization he formed, Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana (S.N.D.P.) Yogam. He
was later known as Swami Narayana Guru. He threw open his temple to Pulayas and Parayas, and
other untouchables, thereby increasing his following.
Mahatma Gandhi's attempt to abolish the caste system further helped the Ezhava movement. To
the untouchable, Gandhi gave the name Adidravidan, meaning first Dravidian. Later the term
Harijan (Children of god) was adapted to represent all the untouchables. Even then, there was
continued resistance to admit untouchables to temples. When Swami Vivekananda returned from
America to Kerala the Ezhavas were agitating to end caste oppression. With Vivekananda's help,
they were able to strengthen the SNDP. Dr. Palpu, an Ezhava medical practitioner, convincingly
argued that if a man becomes either a Christian or a Muslim and changes his name, he is no more
an outcast or untouchable.
Fearing the possibility of a wholesale conversion of untouchables to Christianity, in 1936,
Ramaswamy Iyer, the Dewan of Travancore, decreed admission of all Hindus, irrespective of
caste or creed, into the two thousand Hindu temples. Still, some hard nosed Nambudiris would
not give up the caste system.
Only the eldest male in the Brahmin family is allowed to marry women of his own caste.
Nambudiri women are not allowed to marry men of lower castes. Unmarried Nambudiri women
have to stay indoors and are allowed very little freedom. Therefore large numbers of Nambudiri
women live and die in seclusion as spinsters. A Nambudiri Brahmin can have four wives.
Many younger Nambudiris enter morganatic marriages called Sambandham, with Nair women. A
Nair woman may have a Nambudiri husband along with her Nair husband. Sometimes the Nair
women were forced against their will to marry Nambudiris for financial reasons because
Nambudiris were land lords. A Nair woman can be "visited" by a Nambudiri who has priority
over her Nair husband.
The marriage ceremony among Nairs is not very elaborate. It is a matter of exchange of clothes.
Marriage of young girls before puberty to a Nair or a Nambudiri was common. Her husband was
not obliged to visit her but he may. After marriage, she remains with her parents until puberty
when her husband may claim her. She remains in her parental home and her husband moves in
with her. A girl or woman can receive as many men as she pleases. Normally they are of her own
caste or from a higher one. A Nair can visit as many women as he pleases. A father had no
obligation to provide for his children. The property of the family will come to them through their
mother. This is the matrilineal system of inheritance called Marumakkathayam. The oldest male
member is the administrator of the family property, whereas his sister is the owner. This system
gives more privileges for Nair women. Although the man is the administrator of the family-wealth,
he cannot dispose of the property without the consent of his sister, nor can he give any of the
property to his sons. This helped to maintain the family unit and gave Nair women considerable
say in the financial affairs of the family. The family house, called Tharavadu, is never disposed of.
During olden days when there were frequent battles between chieftains, the Nair men, being
soldiers, were away from the home most of the time. This was reason enough for women to be
inheritors of the family property. This custom gave women in Kerala a higher status than in other
parts of the world.
The matrilineal system is fast disappearing and is being replaced by the patrilineal system. Nair
men were getting exasperated that even their personal savings, their hard earned money could not
be given to their sons, but had to go to their sister's children. This agonized some and a law called
"Nair Regulation of Travancore" was passed in 1912 according to which a man could leave half
his property to his sons. After a decade it was further revised to allow partition of the family
property equally, if the majority agreed.
Many festivals and cultural activities enrich Keralan life. Frequent festivals, fairs, and boat races
provide occasions to display local talents. A major festival observed by all Malayalis, despite caste,
creed, race, or religion is "Onam". It is a celebration of the visit of king Mahabali. According to
mythology, Mahabali (great Bali) was a righteous demon-king. During his reign, all his subjects
were happy and prosperous. He was so much loved by all his people that the gods felt threatened.
Therefore, they schemed his destruction. Vishnu appeared before Bali as a dwarf, Vamana, and
begged for three strides of space. When Mahabali generously agreed, Vamana transformed
himself to Vishnu. With one stride he covered the earth, with another he covered air and sky
(Heaven), and left hell for Bali. (39. p 183). Mahabali begged Vishnu to grant him permission to
visit his subjects for ten days every year. His visit is celebrated as Onam during the month of
To show Mahabali that they are happy, people whitewash their houses, re-plaster their floors with
fresh cow dung, create designs with rice flour, dress themselves in their Sunday-best and
exchange gifts. They play, dance, feast, enact religious and mythological stories and hold boat
The boats used in these races were originally used as battle ships by the maharajahs and are called
Chundan Vallam. Some call them Snakeboats because of the curl at the sterns. The boats may be
owned by a family or a village and are used only for boat races during Onam festival. After the
race the boat is taken out of water and stored in specially constructed sheds. Villages compete
with each other to own bigger and better boats and to win the race. These boats have tall ornate
sterns like the Viking boats. The stern rises six to eight feet above the water and is gracefully
carved and elaborately decorated with shining brass ornaments and silken multicolored ornate
umbrellas. Some boats will be more than 50 feet long and 6 feet wide. There may be twenty or
more boats in the regatta. The boats are propelled by hundred or more oarsmen wearing decorative
garb. They row to the beat of drums and songs accompanied by music and dance and a small
orchestra. Winning the race depends on the unified action of the experienced oars men. But no
less important are the men who stand eight feet above the water and handle sixteen feet long oars
at the helm to rudder the boat.
It is a thrilling sight to see the oars being raised and dipped in unison, like a bird in flight. The Main
center of Boat- races used to be the village, Aranmula, about 18 km from my village. The boat
races are held also at Ernakulam, Kottayam and Champakalm near Changanasseri. Now there is
another boat race at Alleppey every year on the second Saturday in August in honour of Pandit
Jawaharlal Nehru's visit to that town in 1952.
On festival days devotees perform dances in honour of their special gods. The dancer identifies
himself with his beloved god and transforms himself into the person of the god. On those
occasions the dancers go through self-mutilation without apparent pain and perform beyond
human capacity and tolerance. For example, a devotee of Siva (who is also known as Nataraja,
the king of dancers,) will dance for many hours without getting tired. Other devotees walk on
red-hot coal. Some put hooks through the skin of their backs and pull a chariot containing the
image of their god along the streets. Some pierce their cheeks with long iron skewers or a trident
and carry a Kavady, from their village to the temple of that god, sometimes many miles away.
Another interesting entertainment for the whole village is the colourful dance drama, Kathakali. It
is an all-night-long affair of telling the stories in the sacred books in a very entertaining, enjoyable,
farcical fashion. The deep truths of Karma, Dharma and Bhakti are revealed to the common folks
in a simple way.
Kathakali is not the work of a single individual. It is a product of change and the influence of
many artists and poets, Kathakali is an adaptation of parts of other dances such as Kolam Thullal,
Thira Attam, Mudi Attam, Koodi Attam etc. which are all costume dances associated with rituals
in Kerala. Literally Kathakali means the playing out a story. It is an elaborate dance performance
that enacts traditional myths about divine and human heroes. The story is narrated as songs by
two musicians, one to sing and the other to repeat from behind a curtain. The actor-dancer will
translate it word by word by hand symbols, facial expressions, movement of the eye and body.
They do not sing or speak, but display the meaning of the song and story by mimes. Their facial
expressions will display all human emotions such as love, hate, desire, fear, disgust, grief, joy,
anger, contempt, jealousy and pity. Movements can depict ninety-five gestures and nearly 500
images. Colours such as green or black of the costumes and the make-up such as beard, pottu (a
mark in the center of the forehead) etc. will indicate if he is playing the part of a nobleman, an
asura, a hunter, a woman, a sanyasin, or Brahmin. Make-up can take many hours. The actors will
wear bright-coloured costumes, crowns, headdresses, and flowing robes. Both male and female
parts are played by males. An actor plays the part of Rama at one moment and Sita a little later.
Intensive training for Kathakali starts at an early age and will take about eight arduous years.
Actors remain devoted to their profession throughout their lives.
Performances last several hours, sometimes throughout the night. They are accompanied by
music and drums called muddalam, chenda, cymbal etc.
The government is the same as in all states in the Indian Federation. The head of the provincial
government is the Governor. There is only a single chamber legislature. The Kerala legislature has
134 members and a cabinet executive presided over by the Chief Minister. The Judiciary,
independent of government control, is hierarchical with a high court at the top. Appeals from the
High Court may be made to the Supreme Court of India. The Provincial Administration of Kerala
state is divided into 10 districts and 56 subdistricts or talukas. There are three city corporations, 28
municipalities, 952 panchayats, and 1650 villages. Panchayats are made up of five respected
citizens of the village. This is the lowest form of judiciary which has its roots in antiquity.
Travancore and Cochin were ruled for many years by maharajahs assisted by bicameral
legislature. Cochin, the smaller of the two states existed since the middle ages whereas Travancore
was created by King Marthanda Varma in the 18th century.
In 1970, Mrs. Gandhi removed their titles from and taxed 565 Indian princes, including the
Maharajahs of Travancore and Cochin
According to the United Nations, Kerala, with 100% literacy, is the most literate part of India.
There are more than 11,000 primary and secondary schools, fifty polytechnical and industrial
training institutes, about 100 arts and science colleges, 30 professional colleges and three
universities in an area of nearly 39,000 square kilometres.
The high literacy rate has created the only democratically elected communist government in India.
Except for a short period, Kerala, (from the time India became independent till to date) has been
governed by the communist party. For the last few years, Kerala had an unstable government
because of the communist influence in the area. Three times, presidential rule had to be
implemented to maintain order. Communism takes deep root in the state because of the highly
educated working population and equally high unemployment.
Labourers read the daily papers and thus are familiar with world events. Therefore, they demand
better living conditions and a greater share of the gross national product.
Syrian Christians have greatly contributed to the literacy of Kerala. This is perhaps because
reading the bible, the liturgy, and the hymnal are priorities for participation in church service. Faith
underlies much in Kerala, even social progress.