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  • Athul Mohan

A Forgotten Past

“It is a fine sunny day in 18th century Travancore. A warrior who had just returned from war waits outside his Tharavadu (ancestral house) to see his wife. A few moments later, the doors burst open and the maid comes out and keeps a chellam (a box made of copper, which is used to carry betel leaves and tobacco) on the steps in front of the man. The brave fellow, hardened by war, allows emotions to creep in and drops a tear or two. He proceeds to walk away in silence.”

The story above represents the act of divorce. Although quite surprising, it was once a reality for Nair families in Kerala.The Nair community of Kerala was a matriarchal community and Nair women enjoyed a better position as compared to women of other castes. The primary reason for this aberration was that most of the Nair men was busy in the war field and thus women had the power and authority within the family. Women had the final word in decisions related to the family and they controlled the entire tharavadu. The position of men in a family becomes particularly evident through literary sources. In Kochi, husbands were referred to as irippukkar or those who sit. As the term suggests their duty was only to sit somewhere and enjoy their lives. They could only see their wife if she agreed to do so. The maid will place a lamp in the veranda and then they could see their wife. Similar authority was also exercised in marriages, which was not as serious an institution as it is today. Marriage was known as sambandam which literally translates to a contract. One man could marry a woman by simply handing over a saree in front of a fire lamp, while the woman sat, and the man stood. Thus, the act of marriage was quite simple and so, unsurprisingly, divorce was too. The Nair women also practised polyandry, they married more than one man and divorced them when they wanted to. The Nair community was also matrilineal.

The family property went through the female line. Sons had no claim in the family property they had to find a Nair girl and live using the property that she acquires. Thus, in turn, the Nair community was also matrilocal. This structure was consciously made by Brahmins to sustain their structure. In Brahmin families, only the elder son was allowed to marry a Brahmin woman, others had to be in sambandam with a Nair woman. They served as irippukkar, thus the family property of Brahmins will not be divided. Since the Nair community is matrilocal, the Brahmins who married would leave their house creating space for the next generation.

The power enjoyed by Nair women often comes as a shock to modern-day observers. We find instances where husbands were afraid to talk to their wife. A popular folklore from Travancore recites the story of a husband who bribed a maid to steal the keys of the house from his wife. The tale also underlines the sheer dependence of men on women within Nair families. However, this is not to say all men were meek observers, some were also powerful. Motivated by hate towards this female-centric system, and instances of ill-treatment in the past, they married women who were not very brave and outspoken and dominated them. This can be seen as an act of revenge, for how their mothers treated their fathers, in a Freudian sense. In popular culture, such instances are often highlighted in movies, Ozhimuri, a national award-winning movie in Malayalam also discusses such an incident. Thus, the system alone provided no absolute authority. Poor women often tended to be dominated by their husbands.

This system, however, faced a serious challenge from the colonial authority. The colonial officials felt that this system is not effective and believed that only men could lead a family. Inspired by the ideas prevalent at home, and the ‘noble’ pursuit of civilizing a barbaric population, they attempted to change this system. However, the reason for the change was more internal. With the spread of Western education, the Nair children increasingly attended prestigious universities like Madras University. These universities, often the cradle of Occidental ideas led to the questioning of traditional Indian systems. The students mocked the female-centric system of the Nairs. Often at the receiving end of this flak, were Nair children themselves who were ridiculed. They were asked whether they knew who their father was or if they had seen their fathers. The continuous ridicule resulted in the young generation demanding change in the system. The colonial officials were happy to oblige and support such a demand. Gradually, practices like polyandry ended, much like the many traditional systems faced by colonial challenges.

However, the Nair community was not free from the hangover of the past. This led to the system of marumakkathaayam, which allowed for inheritance by sister’s children. The customary law of inheritance was codified by the Madras Marumakkathayam Act 1932. In this system, male members enjoyed more power. But still, the community was matrilocal and matrilineal. Newly married couples stayed at the women’s tharavadu. The elder brother (karanavar) of the tharavadu looked after the property and passed it over to the children of his sisters. His children had no claim. They had a claim only on the property of their mother. This system led to the growth of large joint families. However, marumakkathaayam was marred by many problems. Firstly, the elder son of a family who served as the karanavar was forced to serve the family his entire life. So, he was not able to live with his wife and children in the tharavadu of the wife. In a plea to the Madras Court, a Sankaran Nair said that “the wife of such karanavars was living like concubines and their children lived as bastards”. They could not see their father or feel his love. This was a serious drawback of the system. Many of the karanavars remained unmarried to solve this. But there was another problem emerging. Men living in their wife’s tharavadu despised that life. They never wanted to be ruled by their brother-in-law. On the other hand, they had the chance to rule the husbands of their sisters in their tharavadu. So many of them shifted to their own tharavads leaving their partner and children. Thus, family relations started to disintegrate. Gradually marumakkathayam also started to fade away. In 1975 under the Kerala Joint Hindu Family System Abolition Act, the acts pertaining marumakkathayam were abolished. This marked the end of a great tradition which seems impossible today.

In the present day, Kerala Nair women are not any different from other women. Instead, all of them are dominated by males. Even today the custom of exchanging saree during a Nair wedding exists. But today instead of sitting with power the women have to touch the feet of their husbands. Nair joint families are also very rare today due to the current socio-economic circumstances that require family member work away from home or even abroad. Surprisingly, even Nair women have forgotten about their history and their ancestors who were much more powerful than they are today. They now tend to serve their husband as other women do. It is a fact that men suffered in the matrilineal system, thus it would be unfair to glorify the system. However, the revival of this history serves the purpose of attempting a comparison between the matriarchal system then and the patriarchal system now. It also presents a formidable challenge to the supposed superiority of men, that is touted as the basis for a patriarchal system. Our history is replete with instances that challenge present-day norms, although it does not warrant a wholesale whitewashing of history. What we require is a reappraisal of the past and the present, and lay the foundation of the future- both yours and mine.

By Athul Mohan

The featured image is the painting “Three Nayar Girls of Travancore” by Ramaswami Naidu (1872). The painting can be found at V&A Images.


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