Caste Overview in Ancient Kerala, India
During the first five centuries of Christian era (Sangham age) there were no rigid caste divisions in Kerala, India but there were social freedom and equality. Kerala people followed Dravidian practices. The Dravidian culture was casteless. However, Aryan immigration changed a lot. The Brahmins started moving to Kerala with Jain and Buddhist monks from 3rd century B.C. By 8th century the Brahmins established their superior position in Kerala. Christianity and Judaism entered Kerala in the 1st century A.D. and Islam at the end of 7th century. The rules gave all support and facilities to the foreign missionaries as it was considered invaluable for prosperity of the land. However, by the 8th century A.D. Hinduism was well established in the region. Perhaps it is better to start with a definition of a caste itself before moving on to the description of how they were originally “born”, how they were modified, manipulated and maintained in a Kerala society.
What is a caste?
A caste is a closed status group. Its membership is hereditary. Social restrictions, occupations are imposed on every member of a specific caste. Caste system was imposed by Brahmins to suit their needs by modifying the Chaturvarya. Originally Chaturvarya consisted of the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaisyas (merchants), the Sudras (workers). In addition, there were the outcastes (untouchables).
It was the Hindu belief that the society was destined to be in such a way due to the statement in the Purushasukta in the Rig Veda that the Brahmin emerged from the head, the Kshatriya from the arms, the Vaisya from the waist and the Sudra from the feet of God. This belief was interpreted and manipulated to make class divisions and unjust practices.
At the high end in Kerala were the Namputhiri Brahmins (the Namputhiries), at the lowest Pualyas, Parayas, in the middle the Nairs each having their own subdivisions within a caste. As the Dravidian culture was casteless so it was obvious that it was the creation of Namputhiri Brahmins. 11th century AD saw the operation of caste system at its worst.
The Namputhiries are Malayali Brahmins who were priests and landlords. “Nambu” means sacred, “thiri”-light, so the Namputhiri would imply a sacred light. The traditional belief was that these Brahmins were brought to Kerala by Parasu Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu. Among Namputhiries there were eight subdivisions. Their place was supreme even though it was the minority. People believed that they are holy, their commands are God’s commands and they are representatives of God on earth.
After Namputhiries came the Kshatriyas in the social ladder who were mainly rulers or chieftains. There were eight classes of them and subdivisions within them with no social equality.
Then came the Nairs who had eighteen subdivisions of which fourteen were considered to be high. Kammalans with six subdivisions were lower than low caste Nairs.
The Ezhavas whose occupation was to plant and rear coconut trees were a polluting caste. One of the slave castes were the agricultural workers such as Pulayas, Kutans that constituted 13% of the population. The position of Pulayas was very low and they were merely the instruments for agriculture carefully manipulated by the Namputhiries. Below Pulayan caste there was Parayan one to whom the same restrictions applied as to other low caste people in Kerala.
Inter-dining and inter-marriage restrictions operated not only between different castes of Kerala society but also within the subdivisions of castes. For example, a low caste Nair and a high caste Nair would never dine together at that time. There was also a concept of "pollution". A Kshatriya has to keep a minimum distance of 12 feet and a Nair 24 feet from a Namputhiri Brahmin. The Ezhvas were said to pollute Nairs from 12 paces. When Pulayas met a higher caste person, 30 feet distance had to be maintained. If the distance is shorter, “pollution” takes place and can only be eradicated by taking a bath.
Moreover, you could get “polluted” by breathing the same air or just be seeing a low caste person. While travelling “Ha-ha-ha” was chanted which was a sign that a Nair was approaching and the Ezhavas and other low castes chanted “Hom, hom, hom” to acknowledge that they are keeping prescribed distances. However, a bath was always necessary as a cleaning process from “pollution” when coming back home.
The Ezhavas and other low castes were denied temple entry and using roads near the temples. They were not permitted to worship the higher-level Gods. Pulayas were spirit worshipper, for instance.
For the Namputhiri 90% of people were polluting and had to keep distances. Lower castes had to produce the food and so on for the higher ones. So Malayali Brahmins had the control and supremacy over other people in Kerala society.
All areas of life in Kerala were controlled by such Brahmins. The Namputhiries designed the family system and marriage to preserve their elevated position in the society. One of the rules was that only the eldest son must have a Namputhiri wife which would ensure that the family property is kept intact (passed on only to Brahmins, not other castes). All the juniors could form temporary liasons with Kshatriya and Nair girls. Veli is the name for the marriage between a Namputhiri boy with a Namputhiri girl, Sambandham is a mere alliance between a Namputhiri boy and a Kshatriya or Nair girl.
Kshatriyas and Nairs were following matrilineal system of inheritance and so there was no burden on the Namputhiri father as the girl’s family had to tackle all the relevant issues. That meant that Namputhiri fathers cleverly escaped passing down their possessions to their children born from women of other castes other than Brahmins with whom they formed Sambandham.
These arrangements ensured that Namputhiries enjoyed life to the fullest at the cost of lower castes. Namputhiri women, however, faced a lot of problems. As the eldest member could only marry a Namputhiri woman (inside the cast-a Namputhiri eldest member and a Namputhiri woman), that meant that a lot of Namputhiri women lived unmarried and were destined to die as virgins.
Sambandham also named Pudavakoda, which is a mere alliance between a Namputhiri boy and a Kshatriya or Nair girl, was confusing to many too because the children of a Nair woman and a Namputhiri man would not get the inheritance from a latter, whereas the children of a Namputhiri woman and a Namputhiri man would get it. Moreover, the children of a Nair woman and a Namputhiri man were considered untouchable by their father.
The divorce for Nair women was very easy at that time, there was no legal procedure. All they did was to put the sandals of their husbands outside the house to show that the husband was no longer welcome. Nair women wouldn’t move to live with Namputhiri husbands, it was for them to come to Nair women’s houses.
The inhuman, caste based system of the 19th century made Vivekananda to call Kerala an asylum of lunatics. He described Kerala of that time in this way:
“ I doubt if any greater foolish thing than what I have seen in Malabar has occurred or happened anywhere in the world at any time earlier. What interference would you draw except that these Malabaries are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums, and that they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better”. He continued: “Shame upon them that such wicked and diabolical customs are allowed; their own children are allowed to die of starvation, but as soon as they take up some other religion they are well-fed. There ought to be no more fight between the castes”.
Conversion for Freedom
Because of this unjust system many low caste Hindus were thinking about the conversion to other religions such as Christianity and Islam as it would ensure that they would not be treated according to their caste position anymore and would also get some material benefits offered by missionaries. It was the main reason that Christian missionaries gave for conversion to Christianity at that time. They cleverly utilized poverty, starvation, caste restrictions.
Christianity was accepted by many for material benefits at first but later they permanently merged into it. The conversion was massive. In 1860 during famines many Hindus accepted Christianity. The number of temples decreased from 19524 to 9364 between 1816 and 1891. The majority of temples that remained were of high caste Hindus.
These days in India we can see proliferation of Christian churches in fishing villages and other poor areas as they offered and are still offering money to poor Hindus for conversion to Christianity.
Overall, caste based rules weakened Hinduism and “strengthened” Christianity in India at that time. Hindu population and the number of temples decreased in Kerala. Kerala needed someone extraordinary who could change the system that Namputhiries established and maintained. A social reformer was needed who could transform not only the Hinduism but also the political and social systems. And one of those people was soon to be born and change the life and society in Kerala forever.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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