Read History of the Nayars of South Travancore text version

Chapter - II

unique Customs and traditions of Nayar Community



Marumakkathayam and Tharavadu

Nayars followed the Marumakkathayam (Matrilineal) system of inheritance and lived in units called Tharavadus (matrilineal jointfamily).1 The tharavadu referred to relations of property (mudal sambandham) shared by a group tracing descent from a common ancestress. The outer boundary of tharavadus seems to have been defined by relations of pollution (pula sambandham), whereby a wider matrilineal kin group was knit by symbolic ties prominently in sharing birth and death pollution and a memory of common descent. However there are indications that when expediency demanded it was possible to even break off pollution ties. For instance, in the case of a numerically large tharavadu, comprising a considerable section of the population of territory, death and birth pollution spelt a great inconvenience. In such cases it could be decided to terminate pollution ties, even while the related groups continued to share a cremation ground.2 ____________________________________________________________

1. 2. Dr. Hermann Gundert, Keralolpathiyum Mattum,1843-1904, Kottayam, 1992, p.185. Kunhappa, H., Smaranakal Matram, (Autobiography), Kozhikode, 1981, p. 17.

44 Architecturally wealthy tharavadus encompassed a

Naalukettu or Ettukettu, a Kulam (fresh-water pond) and a Sarpa Kavu (a sacred grove with trees and thick foliage for worship of the Nagathaan (Serpents) while in the case of some exceptionally wealthy families a private temple as well. The water body served the purpose of ritual baths, followed by Tantric worship in the Sarpakavu, phased out into rituals and ceremonies that repeated in cycles of days, months, and years often accompanied by feasts that witnessed a grand assembly of kin. Interestingly, eventhough tharavadus existed based on descent from a common ancestress, it was comparatively rare for a remembered founder of a tharavadu to be a woman alone3 and it showed a "structural" patriarchy of the Karnavar (seniormost male member). For instance in management of the tharavadu, Nayar women managed domestic affairs in their natal tharavadus4 and the senior woman's decision making role was restricted to the inner domain of larger tharavadus in central and north Kerala.5 However it was also not that the Karnavar had absolute powers in the tharavadu, but unlike in patrilineal families there was more than one mode of power and a plural authority structure. In


3. 4. 5.

Arumina, G., Colonialism and the Transformation of Matriliny in Kerala, (c.1850-1940) , Orient Longman, Malabar, p. 290. An Article on Marma Adi and Marma Shastra, Moore Melinda, A., "Symbol and Meaning in Nayar Marriage Ritual" American Ethnologist, 15 (1998), pp. 254-273.

45 practice, the senior woman, was not necessarily determined by seniority and might be the oldest competent woman and yet seniority was a crucial factor in determining power relations between the Karnavar and the senior woman. If the Karnavar was the son or younger brother of the senior woman, she might indeed be the de facto head of the group keeping accounts in her own hands and counseling him; but were he the older brother of the senior woman then she was subordinate to him. In some wealthy tharavadus lands were set aside for women as stanum (a special status) property or otherwise over which they enjoyed varied claims does not in any way suggest `separate rights' or access to their own separate revenues and properties.6 In the matrilineal Tharavadus customary

practice, rather than any religious precepts embodied in written sources, was the source of personal/family law. In the words of William Logan, an administrator-historian with extensive experience of Malabar: If it were necessary to sum up in one word the law of the country, that word would undoubtedly be the word "custom". In Malayalam it would be "Maryada", "Margam", "Acharam" all signifying established rule and custom.7 The marumakkathayam system and tharavadu system are not viable any more and has declined in tune with the social and cultural ____________________________________________________________

6. 7. Kunhappa, H., op.cit., p 17. Moore Melinda, A., op.cit., pp. 121-139.

46 changes which have taken their toll on many old institutions. Social reforms spread with modern education. In other words, Nayars switched over to the patriarchal model of kinship and inheritance. The partition of tharavadus into individual shares (Alohari Bhaagam) followed the enactment of Land Reforms Ordinance that stipulated upper limits on land holdings. Many tharavadus, already bursting at the seams with internal dissensions and strife, collapsed under the pressure. The matrifocal system was disintegrated. Fathers took charge of their sons and daughters and husband and wife started living together with their offspring. The

"Marumakkathayam Law" which sanctioned dismantling of the tharavadus and the partition of property, came into vogue in the year 1933. 32,900 families were partitioned in Travancore alone by 1938. The tharavadu system of living became a thing of the past by the 1940s. Naalukettu and Ettukettu structures began to collapse, or were sold off. 8 The Vadakkan or northern style of Kalarippayattu is associated with the Nayars. In earlier times, Kalarippayattu was an essential component of education for Nayars. Nayar men and even women learned the art of Kalaripayattu at an early age and used their skills in war and combat. From Kalaripayattu, comes Marma Adi. ____________________________________________________________

8. Buchanan, F., A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar, Vol. II, Madras, 1988, p 513.

47 Marmam shastra was an advanced way to temporarily or permanently disable or kill an opponent through a tap with a finger on a specific nerve. Marma Adi capitalised on the knowledge of acupuncture points. In recent times, however, Marmam shastra and Marma Adi have been used only for therapeutic purposes. 9 The Nayar subcastes known as Kurup and Panicker were traditionally teachers of the Kalari Martial Arts. Kalari may have given rise to Kung Fu10 according to ancient documents. It was outlawed by British in 1793, leading to great loss of self esteem among Nayars.


In the past Nayars had three major marriage/rite of passage ceremonies.

Kettukalyanam (Mock marriage ceremony)

The thaali tying rite took place before the onset of puberty. During this ceremony the girl was married to a man, preferably a Namboothiri Brahman. The ritual husband had no further duties to the girl ____________________________________________________________

9. 10. Bina Agarwal, A Field of One's Own: Gender and Land Rights in South Asia, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. 113. An Article on Marma Adi and Marma Sastra, Life

48 after the completion of this ritual, although she had to observe a period of death impurity upon the death of her ritual husband. The thaali ceremony was a female centered ritual which emphasized fertility and household prosperity.11 This ceremony had to be performed on pain of excommunication.

Thirandukalyanam (Announcement and Celebration of puberty)

The Thirandukalyanam ceremony was the puberty ceremony, during which femininity is celebrated as women occupy the parts of the household typically inhabited by men.12

Sambandham/Podamuri (casual marriage alliance)

The Sambandham ritual is less auspicious than the thaali and puberty rites, and literally means "alliance" or "relationship". It was the customary institution that framed casual marriage alliances between men and women following marumakkathayam. This ritual marks the union of the bride and groom and was not necessarily a permanent arrangement. However it was this innate weakness of sambandham that helped maintaining the integrity of the matrilineal tharavadu. ____________________________________________________________

11. 12. Arumina, G., op.cit., p. 292. William Logan, Malabar Manual, Vol. I, Madras, 1906, p. 111.

49 Sambandham denoted hypergamy between Nayar women and Namboothiri men as well as reciprocal marriage among Nayars.13 However such an alliance was not recognized as constituting marriage by Namboothiri Brahmins as well as by colonial courts but was seen as comparable to concubinage.14 Two reasons cited for this were that dissolution of sambandham was fairly easy and that it did not give rise to property relations. Though viewed by Namboothiri Brahmins and European commentators as immoral, allied with polyandry, or even prostitution, sambandham was nothing of that sort for the Nayar women. Sambandham essentially gave a Nayar woman the liberty to initiate, consent to, or terminate a sexual relationship with any man and thereby formed one of the foundations of matrilineality. In case of sambandham with Namboothiri men, the system benefited both the Namboothiri Brahmins as well as matrilineal castes like the Nayars for two reasons. First, Namboothiri brahmins had institutionalized primogeniture, permitting only the eldest son to marry within the caste. Younger sons (also called aphans) in Namboothiri families were expected to establish sambandham with Nayar and Ambalavasi (temple service castes) women. Secondly, Nayar families ____________________________________________________________

13. 14. Website on Kalari preceding Kung Fu An Article on Marma Adi and Marma Shastra,

50 encouraged the sambandham arrangement with Namboothiri men, thereby increasing their tharavadu and caste status.15 Such alliances

between Nayar women and Namboothiri men came to an end after the efforts of V.T Bhattathirippad in 1933.

Religious Customs

Kerala is a pluralistic society where no one ethnic community or religious group dominates the scene. They are all minorities, and all minorities have their place. All are Keralites first; then they are Brahmins, Nayars, Ezhavas, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The extinct religious communities of Jainism and Buddhism also have made their contributions to Kerala's culture.

Early Religion

The Cheras, the ancestors of present-day Keralites, were at one time Indian Mundas and later Indian Dravidians, but not Hindus. 16 They worshipped many gods and goddesses, among whom the most important one was Lord Shiva, the Supreme God, who was specifically adored as the Sun God. They did not have idols and icons; they worshipped lingam-shaped stones as abodes of the divine presence; they ____________________________________________________________

15. 16. Velupillai, T.K., Travancore State Manual, Vol. I, Trivandrum, 1940, p. 858. Ibid., p. 412.

51 believed that some of these self-grown stone pillars, as opposed to manmade structures, were physical transformations of invisible gods. Besides praying in front of these stones located usually under the sacred Pepal tree, they used to anoint with water, alcohol, oil, and colored powder. Occasionally they would sacrifice a chicken and pour the blood on the stone. This form of worship is still practiced in many villages in Kerala.17 The Hindu temples also have taken over this form of worship and perfected it with elaborate rituals and Sanskrit hymns and prayers. The early people also worshipped the Mother-Goddess and various manifestations of her, besides a number of minor gods and ancestors.18 The reason for all this worship-ritual is their belief that the universe is inhabited by super-natural beings and powers. All the rituals and prayers are designed for coping with this religious world which is not always consistent, but arbitrary; the gods control the destiny of man and the universe. Therefore, it is necessary to propitiate these deities and spirits so that they may be benevolent to the living or that they may not at least bring harm to the people. The remarkable thing about the early religion is that it was never a static institution. It constantly evolved by the addition of new gods and new rituals and by the dropping of some old gods and old rituals. The ____________________________________________________________

17. 18. Faw Cett, F., Nayars of Malabar, New Delhi, 1985, p. 255. Ibid., p. 258.

52 early Indians gradually absorbed many Vedic gods or identified their own gods with the Vedic gods; for instance, the Shiva of the primitive religion was identified with the Vedic Rudra and was absorbed into Brahminical Hinduism; Murugan became identical with Subramonya/Kartikeya and Madura Meenakshi with Parvati, and so on. As a result of this contact with the Brahmins and their religion, a new pan-Indian religion called "Hinduism" evolved in India. It was neither purely Aryan/Vedic nor purely Munda/Dravidian; it was a healthy synthesis of the early religion and Vedic Hinduism; the brilliant Brahmin theologians created new mythologies and rituals to fit the needs of this new religion; they did not destroy the old, pagan, primitive religion, but rather baptized it, enriched it, and found a place for it in the new religious universe of Hindu India. The best way to study the primitive religion is to study the religions of the tribals who still retain the basic beliefs and basic rituals of the early religion in spite of their exposure to Hinduism. The few remarks on early religion made above are the result of the researcher's fieldwork among the various tribes in India and particularly of Kerala.

The Meaning and origins of Onam and other National Festivals

Like every other culture, the Kerala culture also celebrates some important festivals.19 Since Kerala is composed of several ethnic and ____________________________________________________________

19. Thundy Zacarias, The Meaning and Origins of Onam and Other National Festivals

53 religious groups, the country has a wide variety of festivals.20 Some of these are not just special for Keralites, but common feasts, like Christmas and Easter, which are celebrated by Christians of all denominations all over Kerala, India, and the world. Like-wise, Muslims celebrate their festivals of Id and Bakrid all over India. The Hindus also celebrate certain festivals like Divali, Dasara, and Holi in most parts of India while certain regions have their own special feasts like Pongal in Tamil Nadu and Durga Puja in West Bengal. Keralites celebrate Onam festival as their national festival irrespective of caste and creed.21 There are a few other minor festivals that are dear to certain sections of Keralites like Thiruvathira, Vishu,22 Teyyam and Sabarimalai Pilgrimage which will be briefly described below23 It is impossible to describe all the other important local festivals; their name are legion; every temple and church have their own annual festivals.


Thiru Onam is celebrated in the second half of August (the Chingam month of Kollam Era) when the August monsoon rains come to ____________________________________________________________

Anon, Onam., Anon, Onam. Shubhkaama. 22. Anon, Onam ­ the National Festival of Kerala. 23. Ittyipe, Minu, Fantasy Kingdom of Maveli. The Hindu Online, Metro Plus Kochi, Aug. 22, 2002. [7] Jose, Salil, An e-mail from Maveli, Maa Mallupuram, Chennai. 20. 21.

54 an end and the summer heat gives way to the pleasant warmth of the Kerala autumn.24 Anthropologists see in Onam a great fertility rite, the ceremony of thanks giving for a plentiful harvest. For Keralites Onam is the celebration of the return of Mahabali, their once and future king. This king once ruled over the Keralites during the Golden Age before caste existed, "when all men were equal, when no one was poor, when there was neither theft nor dread of thieves" (Maveli natu vanitum

kalam/Manusharellam onnu pole). The complete folk-song is given below in its English version: "When Maveli, our King, rules the land, All the peoples form one casteless race. And people live joyful and merry; They are free from all harm. There is neither theft nor deceit, And no one is false in speech either. Measures and weights are right; No one cheats or wrongs the neighbour. when Maveli, our King, rules the land, All the peoples form one casteless race"25.

______________________________________________________________________ 24. 25.>>




Onam Athappoo Kolam

56 The celebration of the return of Mahabali takes four days for the Hindus26. The house and yard are cleaned; a temporary mud stall is put up and washed with cow-dung solution for the royal visitor; flowers are strewn over it for the king to sit upon; pyramid-shaped images of the king called Trikkakarappan,27 made of wood or clay, are placed upon it as the onlookers applaud and cheer in sheer welcome. Every Morning Pujas (worship service) are performed during the four days of Onam parents give children presents, especially dresses on the occasion. Onam has become a holiday like Thanksgiving which is characterized by family reunion and feasting. Three foods used to be essential for the festival are split bananas, pappadam (wafer) and payasam (rice pudding).28 After the sumptuous midday dinner, all the family members dressed in fine clothes and amuse themselves: adults and boys play hand-ball, chess, dice, and/or cards. Wrestling and display of swordsmanship are not common any more; women and girls sing and dance. In the backwaters of Kerala, young men race the long snake-boats (chundan vallom) - a reminder of snakeworship.29

______________________________________________________________________ 26. 27. 28. 29. Anon, Onam. Shubhkaama., Anon, Onam ­ the National Festival of Kerala. Ibid. Gilbert Slater, Some South Indian Villages, London, Oxford University Press, 1918, p. 253.

57 Onam celebrates the legendary King Bali. Only two versions are told these days. According to the orthodox Brahminical version, Mahabali was a wicked demon (asura) king who was yet "good" enough to become a yogi by virtue of his austerities (tapas). He controlled earth and heaven; the gods, of course, felt threatened by Bali. So they sent Vishnu to get rid of this menace; Vishnu assumed the form of a holy beggar, the comical dwarf Vamana, and asked for the gift of as much land as he could cover in three paces. Vamana grew into cosmic size and in three strides encompassed the whole earth and heaven and Bali was forced to retire to the only space left, patalam, the other world.30 In the Kerala version, Bali is Mahabali, the benevolent ruler who aroused the jealousy and envy of the gods. He gave up his kingdom not just because he was the victim of a trick but because he was too generous to refuse a request and too honorable not to fulfill a promise. He asked Vamana to place the third stride on his head; Vamana-Vishnu kicked him down into the nether world. Mahabali, however, was granted the wish, before he retired, that on a day each year he would be allowed to return to his dear people, the Keralites, to see them and to be with them as father and friend.31

______________________________________________________________________ 30. 31. Folk-lore Published 1960, Indian Publications, p.47. Gilbert Slater, op.cit., p. 258.

58 Obviously, these two versions of the Mahabali-legend represent the conquest of the non-Aryan Keralites by the Aryans on the battlefield and in the field of religion. The Aryans and their gods triumphed over the Keralite gods; instead of completely banishing their gods to the realm of non-being, the Brahmins demonized one god, Mahabali, and accepted Shiva, the God of Bali. 32 Keralites, on the other hand, would not consider their god Bali a demon, but rather a vanquished god and popular ally. There is a third version of Bali retained by the Mundas of Central India, the cousins of the Keralites. This version is untouched by the theology of the Aryan Brahmins. The Cheras of the Chotanagpur region, the ancestors of Keralites, had a great king called Bali who governed the Dinajpur area; he was an Asur. He did not worship Vishnu, the Aryan God. He continued to worship the native Munda God, Lord Shiva. Bali introduced the severe mode of worship, while suspended from a lever by iron hooks which are passed through the skin of the back. He spent a thousand years in this penance and obtained the favour from Lord Shiva that no god (Aryan) should ever have the power to kill him. While the king was reigning in great glory, Anirudha, the grandson of Krishna, the King of Brindaban and Mathura, came in disguise to his court and seduced his daughter Usha. The young man was arrested ____________________________________________________________

32. Faw Cett, F., op.cit., p. 292.

59 and thrown in prison. In order to liberate his grandson, Krishna came with a great army and defeated Bali; the young man was released and was allowed to marry Usha. King Bali's city was destroyed by Krishna's barbarian army later in an unprovoked battle. According to the Munda and Santal traditions, it was an Aryan Kharwar Chief by the name of Madhu Das attacked them at night and drove them to the fortresses of Vanchi (Vindhya) Hills (the future name of Kerala) for their refusal to bestow the hand of one of their girls on the son of Madhu Das. These legends show that Mahabali, the Chera king of the Munda race and worshipper of Shiva, was defeated by Krishna, the Vishnu-worshipper.33 The Mahabali-story of the Keralites, in the Munda-Chera tradition, indicates the triumph of the Vaishnavite brand of Aryans over the Shiva-worshipping Munda-Cheras. King Bali is immortal and therefore a god; though he is defeated, he is still alive. It is this once-and-future king Bali whom Keralites commemorate in the Onam festival34 -- Bali is also called Ban (is Onam named after Ban?). Further, Bali/Balia is a common personal name among the Mundas. The name appears later as Mahabali and Maveli in the South where the Cheras settled down. In the Tamil Sangam-work, Puram (234), Maveli appears as the Vellala chief of Milalaikurram who was very wealthy and generous: "The gates of the ____________________________________________________________

33. 34. Faw Cett, F., op.cit., p. 298. Ibid., p. 293.

60 mansion were never closed and he never sat to meals except with a large company." He died of wounds received in battle fighting against the Pandyan King Nedumchelyan (Puram 233).35 Mahabali is remembered thus in another folk story in Tamil Nadu; in this story the enemies of Bali are Tamils. There are places bearing Bali's name in Tamil Nadu like Mahabalipuram and in Kerala like Mavelikkara. The purpose of this discussion on the legends of Onam is to indicate a well-known folklore truth that there is a historical nucleus to most myths and legends and that they undergo many changes in the passage of time, during the migration of ethnic groups. The researcher's contention is that Mahabali was a great ancient Munda-Chera King, a Shiva-worshipper, who was defeated by the Vishnu-worshipping Aryans.36 Mahabali is still remembered fondly by the Keralites, the descendants of the Munda-Cheras, as the British remember the legendary King Arthur who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons in the fifth century in Britain. Arthur is called rex quondam atque futurus ("the once and future king"). Mahabali is exactly that for the Keralites. For them he is also a Santa Claus or Father Christmas; someday, like King Arthur and Jesus Christ, Mahabali will return in glory, and the defeated Chera culture will rise in glory like the phoenix from its ashes. ____________________________________________________________

35. 36. Ibid.


Dance Performance of Nayar Women




This is another national festival. It falls on the Thiruvathira day in Dhanu (December-January). The details comes under

Thiruvathirakkali in oncoming pages.


Vishu falls on the first of Medam (March-April), which is the astronomical New Year's Day.37 One's good fortune during the year would depend on his seeing some good thing on Vishu morning. The heart of the festival is the preparation of the kani (the lucky sight or gift). The older custom of preparing the kani is described below. The women of the family take a large dish made of bell-metal (uruli), arrange in it a grantha (palmleaf manuscript), a gold ornament, a new cloth, some flowers from the konna tree (cassia fistula), some coins in a silver cup, a split coconut, a cucumber, some mangoes, and a jack-fruit. On either side of the dish are two burning lamps with a chair facing it. After these are set in the living room of the house, family members are taken one by one with their eyes blindfolded or closed. When they are in the living room, the blindfolds are removed so that they ____________________________________________________________

37. Faw Cett, F., op.cit., p. 297.


Flower Blossom during Onam

Lord Muruga with Valli and Theivanai


may view the vishu kani. The kani is then taken from the home to the homes of the poor for their benefit.38 The father (Karanavan) of the family gives gifts of money to children, servants, and tenants.39 During the rule of the Rajas, state officials used to pay respects to the reigning king to wish him a Happy New Year, to offer gifts, and receive presents from him. The day is marked by a grand feast at home for all the members of the family and the dependents.

Dress and Ornaments

Males wear a Kaupinam and a single strip of cloth, four or five cubits in length, known as the Mundu, round the waist and another one thrown over the shoulder or worn like a shawl(veshti).40 The lower cloth is not tucked between the legs as in northern India but is left to hang loose to the ground. The upper cloth is known as the Neriatu which may be tied as a turban on the head while walking outside.41 The dress of the women is not generally distinguishable from the men. On festive occasions the Pudava is worn which is a gilt bordered mundu, also known as a Pattukara. ____________________________________________________________

38. 39. 40. 41. Faw Cett, F., op.cit., p. 298. The Temple Entry Proclamation Memorial Souvenir, Trivandrum, 1942, p. 21. Faw Cett, F., op.cit., p. 303. A travel feature on the ancient Kerala art of Kalaripayattu,

65 This dressing style of women is no longer practised and introduction of the Rauka blouse in the early 20th century made it extremely popular among the Nayar women. The mundu is still widely used by almost everybody in Kerala, though modern clothing, naturally, has found tremendous use as well.42 Men usually, besides anklets and rings, had their ears bored and wore earrings studded with precious gems. Women had for the neck ornaments such as the Kantasaram, Nalupanti, Addiyal, Ponnu-Nool, Nagapadam (the most important ornament of a Nayar lady), Arimbu Mani, Jnali Kuzhal, Minnum Maniyum, Arasillatali, Pachakkatali, Kasu Malai, Kuzhalmala, Rasi Tali, Padakkatali etc. For the nose, pendants called Mukuttis were worn set with ruby or diamond generally.43 For the arms, bangles such as Kattikappu, Maniyalakappu, Swarna-Sangala Muduku etc. were worn. For the waist, ornaments known as Kacchapuram were worn. Young girls even wore ornaments on their feet, known as Thanda or Padaswaram.44 The Nayar ladies extended their ear lobes and the only two types of ornaments which were worn in the ears was a type of cylindrical ornament known as Takka or a two lipped biconvex disc considered more ____________________________________________________________

42. 43. 44. Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art, Nagam Aiya, V., Travancore State Manual, Vol.I, Trivandrum, 1906, pp. 232, 238. The Nayar heritage of Kerala: People and culture,

66 fashionable, known as the Toda. Jewels were not worn on the head. Tattooing was not favored among the Nayars and was considered derogatory.45

Food and drink

Boiled rice and rice gruel known as Kanjee (pronounced kunjee) form the staple food of the Nayars. The coconut, jack, plantain, mango and other vegetable products are widely used in cooking among the Nayars and coconut oil is also used widely for frying. Ghee was used in well to do families and on festive occasions.46 Kanjee was taken thrice a day at mealtimes and formed the major part of the diet of the Nayars. Animal food was not objectionable and fish was the most commonly consumed commodity, fowl being less in demand. Beef was barred for the Nayars. Alcoholic drinks as a rule were prohibited.47

Other customs

Nayar have customs and rituals which are an amalgamation of indigenous rituals and the rituals of Nambothiri Brahmins. Generally, there are local variations for such customs. However, the basic framework of many of the rituals is more or less the same. ____________________________________________________________

45. 46. 47. Kerala - Gateway to Paradise, Ancient martial art fights for survival in India, Kalari,



Seemantham (also known as Pulikudi or Garbhamthozhikkal) denotes the preparation for childbirth and is performed between the fifth and seventh months of pregnancy.48 On an auspicious day, after being massaged with homemade ayurvedic oil, the woman has a customary bath with the help of the elderly women in the family. After this, the family deity is worshiped, invoking all the paradevatas and a concoction of herbal medicines prepared in the traditional way, is given to the woman. The woman is dressed in new clothes and jewelry used for such occasions. Among some Nayars of Malabar two local ritualistic additions called ariyidal and Garbha Prashnam are performed. In the ariyidal the seated pregnant lady is given rice and appams in her lap. In the Garbha Prashnam, an astrologer prescribes ritualistic remedies (if needed) for the protection of the mother and child as well as for smooth child birth in the event of any astrological obstacles. Afterwards, the pregnant lady visits four temples, including her own ancestral temple and prays to the deities for a healthy child and for a smooth delivery. After this she begins to observe Pula or birth pollution, which

extends up to 15 days after childbirth.49 The family then holds a feast ____________________________________________________________

48. 49. Velupillai, T.K., Travancore State Manual, 1940, p. 412. Velupillai, T.K., op.cit., p. 415.

68 for all the relatives. Medicines and routines are prescribed for the woman, which are to be followed till childbirth.

Irupethi Ettu

This ceremony is performed on the 28th day after birth of the child, as this is the first time the nakshatram (star) of the child repeats according to the Malayalam calendar.50 During the ceremony, charadu (thread), one in black cotton and the other in gold are interwined and tied around the waist of the child. The child's eyes are lined with mayye or kannumashi (Kohl). A black spot is placed on one cheek or asymmetrically on the forehead, to ward of evil eyes. A mixture of ghee (melted and clarified butter) and honey is given to the infant as a base for its various foods in the future. This is similar to the Jaathakarmam ceremony of the Namboothiris. In many instances, honey is rubbed with gold on a stone, which is then mixed with Vayampu, a herbal medicine. This mixture is then applied on the tongue of the newborn. In certain areas, the child's horoscope is usually made out between the birth and the Irupethi Ettu so that a name based on an ideal first letter prescribed by his horoscope can be used to name the child. This name-giving ceremony is similar to the Naamakaranam ceremony of the Namboothiris. In some instances, ____________________________________________________________

50. Ibid., pp. 416-418.

69 piercing of the lower lobes of the ears for both boys and girls (Karnavedham) is also done on the same day. Otherwise, it is done separately on an auspicious day. Unlike the Namboothiris who perform Jaathakarmam and Namakaranam as separate rituals, Nayars mostly tend to perform them together on the Irupathi Ettu.


Choroonu is the ritual of feeding rice to the child for the first time.51 Rice is the primary food of Nayars, which is why the first intake of purified rice is celebrated on an auspicious day. After manthrams are chanted to request Agni to purify the food, a mixture of melted ghee and honey, followed by boiled rice is served to the child. This ceremony is performed during the 6th month or after the 7th month of birth.


During the Malayalam month of Thulam (October November) all the women and girls in the family baths in the river or family pond before sunrise. They will then perform rituals of worship at home, or visit a temple for Nirmalyam (viewing the deity for the first time for the day). ____________________________________________________________

51. Velupillai, T.K., op.cit., p. 413.



Thiruvathira is observed on the full-moon day of Dhanu Masam, on the day of the Thiruvathira star (Alpha Orionis).52 It is believed this is the day, the Goddess Parvathi finally met Siva, after her long penance. It is believed that observing Thiruvathira vratham or Thiruvathira nonbu (fasting during thiruvathira) would ensure that a woman's husband would have a long life. The Nayar women, including little girls, would get up early in the morning during the whole of Dhanu masam and go to the Kulam or river to take a bath. They will go in a sort of procession, singing various songs. They sing and play while taking bath. This is called Thudichukkuli. After bathing, they go to the temple dressed in their finest clothes. Thiruvathira is a day of fasting.53 No one eats rice preparations, but they are allowed to eat things made of wheat and all types of fruit. The practice of presenting bunches of bananas to the elders was common. During this season, huge swings (oonjal) are erected in the backyards of most of the houses. These swings are hung from the branches of tall trees such as mango trees or jack-fruit trees. The swings are made of ropes hung from the branch with a wooden plank for the seat. They can also be made from a well grown bamboo tree shoot, which is ____________________________________________________________

52. 53. Faw Cett, F., op.cit., p. 299. Ibid., p. 300.


vertically split into two. The sumptuous family dinner is held at noon; fried bananas and sweets are passed around to complete the celebrations.54 After lunch, the Thiruvathirakkali danced would be

performed. The accompanying songs (Thiruvathirapaattu) are written in Malayalam and are set in a specific meter. The dance is also called Kaikotti Kali (dancing while clapping hands) and is also performed during the festival of Onam.


Pooram means "festival" in Malyalam. In regions south of Korapuzha, this is mainly a temple celebration. However in regions north of Korapuzha, especially north Malabar, Pooram is predominantly a Nayar household festival during the month of Meenam (March-April). The festival lasts for 9 days, starting from Karthika day to Pooram day. Among unmarried Nayar women of north Malabar, Pooram was celebrated to praise and please Kamadeva, the God of Love. On each of the day an idol of Kamadeva made out of clay, is worshipped at different locations starting from the steps of the pond (first day) to the inner house (ninth day). The song sung by the group leader is repeated by the others and the

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72 song begins Thekkan dikkil povalle kamaa. Eendola panayil iruthume kamaa. (Do not leave us and go the south and various reasons are provided as to why he will be treated better in the north. These are sung in the form of puns). Dances are performed around a sacred lamp with elegant steps resembling Thiruvathirakkali.55 While dancing, the players clap their hands uniformly to the tune of the song and to the thaalam (rhythm or beat) of the group leader. Poorakkali has 18 different forms. Stories from the epic Ramayana often constitute the subject matter of the ritual songs. The ritual dance form warrants intense training and good physical stamina. The forward and backward movements and the abrupt variations in the speed and directions enthralls the spectators. Invariably, Poorakkali is followed by a duel of wits staged to test the intellectual capacity of the rival group leaders. 56 This is known as Marathukali. During the debate, intriguing questions are put by one leader to the other side. In central and south Kerala, several poorams or festivities during this season are observed in all important temples of the different deshams. The most famous of all these, is the Thrissur Pooram. Before the advent of the Thrissur Pooram, the largest temple festival during summer in central Kerala is the one-day festival held at Aarattupuzha. ____________________________________________________________

55. 56. Faw Cett, F., op.cit., p. 301. Ibid., p. 302.

73 Temples in and around Thrissur were regular participants of this religious exercise until they were once denied entry by the responsible chief of the Peruvanam area of Cherpu, known for its Namboothiri supremacy. As an act of reprisal, and also in a bid to assuage their wounded feelings, Prince Rama Varma (1751-1805), also known as Sakthan Thampuran (ruler of the erstwhile Cochin state ) invited all these temples to bring their deities to Thrissur where they could pay obeisance to Lord Vadakunnathan, the deity of the Vadakunnathan temple. Further, he directed the main temples of Thrissur, Thruvambadi and Pamamekkavu, to extend all help and support to these temples. It is this historical background that determined the course of the Thrissur Pooram program me and it is specifically because of the ruler's antipathy to the Brahmin aristocracy, that he opened Thrissurpooram to the common man.


History of the Nayars of South Travancore

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