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WOMEN AND CASTE DISCRIMINATION: The Namboothiri-Dominated Period of Kerala Culture and Society
The Oppression of Women and the Misuse of Religious Authority: Part 1

Fr. Pallath J. Joseph

The Namboothiris

The Namboothiris are the Brahmins of Kerala. Claiming priestly origin, the Namboothiris established superiority over the "Patters," the Tamil Brahmins, and "Embranthiris," the Thulu Brahmins. The Namboothiris had absolute contempt for the Patters and Embranthiris. Namboothiris considered eating with other Brahmins below their dignity and refused food prepared by the latter. Interestingly though, the Namboothiris made use of their services in the kitchen as well as for running errands.

There are 64 distinguishing practices that set Namboothiris apart from other Brahmins. While other Brahmins are pinkudumakar (tie their hair behind them), the Namboothiris are munkudumakar (tie their hair in front). Other Brahmins wear a poonool (a cord worn like a sash that designates social status) with two threads; the Namboothiri poonool is only of one thread. Other Brahmins take a bath with their clothes on, but the Namboothiris take a bath naked. Other Brahmins take a bath chanting the mantras; the Namboothiris are forbidden, not only to chant, but also to think of mantras. Other Brahmins repeat the mantras after the main chanter, but the Namboothiris chant the mantras individually. Other Brahmins wash their clothes themselves, but the Namboothiris use only clothes washed by Veluthedan (dhobi, a subcaste responsible for doing laundry). Only the widows of other Brahmins wear white cloth, but the Namboothiri women wear only white dresses. Other Brahmin women do not have pardah (veil), but the Namboothiri women are supposed to be seen only by her husband, not even by her own father or brothers. Other Brahmins exchange greetings while meeting, but it is forbidden to do so for Namboothiris. Other Brahmins are either Vishnavites or Saivites (followers of Vishnu or Shiva), but the Namboothiris belong to neither of them. While the other Brahmins strictly practise marriage before the puberty of their girls, the Namboothiri women have no age limit for marriage. Only the eldest Namboothiri son's marriage is endogamous (marry woman from among the Namboothiris); other sons are to satisfy their sexual needs through sambatham (cohabitation only at night) with Nair women.

The Namboothiri houses are called illam or mana; a mana was superior to an illam. Namboothiris chose places of natural beauty to build their houses that were isolated from other castes. The illam or mana compounds would be lush and green with a variety of trees and medicinal plants. The Namboothiri houses had their characteristic architectural designs. Generally there would be one or more ponds in the illam or mana campus and also a serpent grove, which added beauty as well as gave a mysterious atmosphere to the illam or mana environment.

The Namboothiris made sure that they had all the facilities for a comfortable life within their immediate reach. Their servants and tenants were made to stay around the illam or mana campus. Also housed were people of different castes who helped them with the sacred rituals. The Nairs and their subgroups and other temple castes were among them. The interdependence of the Namboothiris and these castes was such that the Namboothiris could not live a day without the help of these castes, particularly the Nairs.

The Namboothiris were allowed to do work related to knowledge and sacred rituals. They were forbidden to do hard labour, farming and business. Meanwhile, the lower caste was forbidden to do the work of the higher caste; but in case of impoverishment, the higher caste could take up the work of the lower caste. There were also intricate prescriptions on purity and pollution. Birth, death and the menses of women were extremely polluting events with ritual bathing of varying kinds and other rites prescribed for purification. Seeing a woman during menses was polluting. Only the mother was an exception in this matter. Even seeing menstruating sisters and aunts were defiling events, and one had to undergo a ritual washing of their feet.

The ritual purity of a Namboothiri was ruthlessly observed, not only in their personal life, but also in their relation with other lower castes without whom they cannot live for a day. The distance for pollution was in proportion to the caste grade. Seeing of some of the lowest castes itself was polluting, the polluting range according to the caste grade: Kmmalar, Ezhavar and Paanar - 24 feet; Velanmar and Arayar - 32 feet; Kanakkmar and Koodar - 48 feet; Cherumakkal and Pulayas - 64 feet; Parayar, Nayadikal and Kadar - 72 feet.

Contempt for Lower Castes

It is a commonly accepted fact that an immigrant group of people who came to be known as Brahmins created caste in India. It is also an accepted fact that the diversity of the people and the tribals in different places where they immigrated gave birth to the innumerable castes in India. The difference in caste observance though between Kerala and the rest of the country, even from the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, is so different and crude that it remains a vexing problem for historians and anthropologists. The social life of South India does not comply with the Chaturvarna (Four Caste) concept, and the immediate polluting castes are one or two. In Kerala, however, all of the castes, except the most holy Namboothiris, are polluting castes. The Nair caste that stood in the place of the Shetriya was a polluting caste on body contact. All other castes, as we have seen, had to observe a prescribed distance from the Namboothiris.

An illam or mana could not survive a day without the help of a Nair family. While the Nair men served the Namboothiris, the Nair women helped the Antherjanam (a Namboothiri woman). There was not a single illam which did not have a Nair family housed to help them. Valiyakkar (servant) was a synonym for Nair men. It also must be remembered that there were hardly any Namboothiris who were not sleeping with Nair women. In spite of these facts, the Namboothiris had taken such an uncompromising stand in prescribing pollution on body contact with Nairs. Human nature is such that intimate dealings compel one to overlook man-made laws. The great betrayals in human history were done by exploiting this human weakness. Before the self-centred and comfort-seeking Namboothiri mind, intimacy and human tender feelings were of no value. Namboothiris displayed the very same cruelty when they subjugated their own women and reduced them to being a Saathanam, which means an inanimate object or thing.

The Status of Namboothiri Women

The Namboothiri women were called Antherjanam, the literal meaning being "people inside the house." The entire Namboothiri life was patterned to ensure the virginity of the Antherjanam. Their travel was limited to the temples or to the house of their immediate relatives, but that too had to be accompanied by a maidservant.

In the life cycle ceremonies and other aspects of life, female discrimination was present to a shocking level. The first ritual ceremony after conception is Pumsavanam, a ritual for the expected child to be a male. This discriminatory attitude against the female child continued throughout her life and was built into the Namboothiri lifestyle in all details of her existence. Female children were brought up to understand that they are not only not free but are also a step below their brothers. The girl child's education was just reading, writing and basic arithmetic while that of the boy child was an elaborate learning process throughout almost his entire life. The girl children moreover were made to feel that they occupied only second place at home and in society, and the rites and rituals were patterned after this belief to instil this feeling. The Antherjanam also had separate places for worship, and their rituals had restrictions placed on them: women were not allowed to chant, for instance, and to do other ritual performances like those of males. In addition, after her first menses, a Namboothiri girl was not allowed to leave the illam; she was not allowed to visit even close relatives. She was neither allowed to see men nor allowed to be seen by them. The morning ritual bath, chanting and work in the kitchen were the only activities of the Antherjanam that were allowed.

Similarly, the Antherjanam's ornaments were, in fact, a suffocating set of taboos. She was not allowed to wear gold ornaments and nose rings. While travelling, she should take all precautions to keep her chastity. Cooking food, serving the husband and looking after the children were taught to be the essence of womanhood. The wife should eat from the same plantain leaves used by the husband; noblewomen were not supposed to travel; the water used for washing the feet of the husband was considered to be theertham (holy water) to the wife.

Moreover, the marriage of widows was thought to be unnecessary. Namboothiri men were allowed to take many wives, leaving many women to the sorrow of sharing in grief her undivided devotion to the husband, for women must be strictly monogamous. The evil consequence of the practice that only the eldest son marries from the same community directly affected the Antherjanam. Many women remained unmarried and died without experiencing the bliss of motherhood. As the marriage of widows was forbidden, there were many young widows who were the prey of a husband's old-age marriage. The widows were objects of contempt in the community. The women were an absolutely neglected group in the Namboothiri community; the men treated them as creatures whose limited needs were believed to be only dressing, bathing and sleeping.

Child Marriage

The Brahmin law (Sankara Smruthi) suggests that girls should be married before they reach puberty, i.e., when they are 8 to 10 years old. Marriage was very expensive in the Brahmin system. Many girls remained unmarried just because of financial difficulty. Such unmarried virgins were married as the fourth or fifth "wife" of any old Moosad, or eldest son.

Dress Code for Women

Women who are travelling should cover themselves with a blanket and use their traditional umbrella to escape being seen by other men, and they are also instructed to walk behind the maidservant. An Antherjanam is expected to wear only white dress. They are strictly forbidden to use gold ornaments but are allowed to use ornaments of silver or brass. An Antherjanam was expected neither to dress their hair nor to put a pottu (coloured spot) on their forehead. They are allowed to use cotton thread to tie the thali, the wedlock symbol. No other ornament on their legs and hands was allowed. The maidservant was expected to carefully watch their conduct with other men.

Sambatham

Only the Moosad in the Brahmin illam was allowed to enter into veli (official marriage) with a woman from the Brahmin community. The Aphans (other sons) were to enter into sambatham with other Nair women, but strangely enough, the Antherjanams were not allowed to marry anyone from outside the Namboothiri community. While the Namboothiri men were allowed extreme sexual permissiveness, the women were extremely restricted in their sexual activities: one-fifth of women, in practice, were denied sexual activities, leave alone begetting children, the biological right of every female. Such an unjust social and familial order is unheard of in human cultural history. It is not surprising though that a social order which had built genocide into its fabric never questioned such a wicked situation despite the fact its detrimental effect was so palpably experienced for centuries.

According to the 1891 census of Travencore, the total population of Namboothiris was 12,395 in 1,239 households of which 6,787 were males and 5,608 were females. The number of Moosads, who can marry from the Namboothiri community, in 1,239 households was about 1,300, which means, even if we imagine that each one takes four wives, there still would be some women left to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives and die without knowing the bliss of bearing children. The bride price and the marriage expense were so high that very few rich Namboothiris could afford marrying away one of their daughters. Naturally then, marrying away any of the other girls from the same family remained only a theoretical possibility. This being the case, a large number of women remained unmarried in Namboothiri illams. The situation was so miserable that the king of Travencore in his proclamations of 1823 had to legislate the following regulation: "The Namboothiris who take a bride price more than 700 kaliyanpanam will be taken to court and will be punished according to the religious laws."

It is worth noting that, while the population of Travencore increased from 25 lakhs (2.5 million) in 1891 to 40 lakhs (four million) in 1931, the population of the Namboothiris was reduced from 12,395 to 8,481 during the same period. It is clear that, as a consequence, a number of women remained unmarried and died without knowing their womanhood.

It is clear from the above census report that the restriction that only the eldest son could marry from the Namboothiri community left almost one-fifth of the Namboothiri girls without Namboothiri boys to marry. The problem was solved by allowing the Moosad to marry several girls, and thus, some of the rich Namboothiris married a number of times, but these social adjustments brought about untold misery to the Namboothiri girls. First, the age of the wives of an 80-year-old Moosad ranged from 14 to 75. Some of them were namesake wives without children and the accompanying sexual satisfaction of marriage. Secondly, the old man could die at any time, leaving the young girl a widow who cannot remarry according to the community's social customs, for the Namboothiri marriage law strictly forbids widow marriage.

The first novel in Malayalam, Indulekha, by O. Chandu Menon in 1889 is a social criticism, particularly against sambatham. Indulekha, the main character, a very beautiful Nair girl, had an English education. She was in love with Madhavan, another English-educated, handsome Nair boy who was her muracherukkan (the bridegroom by custom of first-cousin marriage). Panchumenon, the uncle of Indulekha, was very unhappy with the independence of the boy because of his English education. He too had reservations about Indulekha's conduct for the same reason. Once an irritated Panchumenon - because of the independent behaviour of Madhavan - vowed not to allow Madhavan to marry Indulekha so he invited a rich, middle-aged Namboothiri for sambatham with Indulekha. On her refusal, the invited Namboothiri decided to marry Kaliyanikutty, a 14-year-old cousin of Indulekha, whom he met casually on the same morning. The author describes the scene of sambatham as follows:

"According to the custom, namboothirippad (the bridegroom) washed his feet and entered the room in the eastern side and lay down on the bed, which was elaborately decorated and done with costly silk. The door in the western side of the room was closed. At that time, all the women in the house together caught hold of poor Kaliyanikutty and forcefully pushed her into the room through the door in the eastern side, like caging a living pig in the pig tile, and closed the door; the sambantham was over."

It must be noted that sambatham was done so casually while veli was an elaborate ritual of several stages.

Smarthavicharam

Smarthavicharam (a trial for adultery) reflects at the same time the detailed intricacies as well as the basic inhuman insensitivity of the Namboothiri mind. The Namboothiris, whose benumbed mind lost the capacity to understand the extreme level of sexual deprivation and depth of suffering therein of the Antharjanam, were able to anticipate the tendencies of their women to be sexually permissive in the artificial, inhuman environment of the illams unless they were strictly controlled. It is doubtful whether any people anywhere have invented institutions and procedures to bring to trial the sexual misbehaviours of their own mothers and sisters. They have given shape to a permanent arrangement, not only of making procedures for trials, but also have created permanent smarthanmar (judges), anticipating its regular occurrence.

There are six stages for a smarthavicharam. The first stage is dhaasi vicharam (the trial of the maidservant ) in which a prima facie report is taken from the maid of the suspected Antharjanam's sexual misdeeds. If there is prima facie evidence (sangayum thurumbum), the Antharjanam is isolated, anchampurayilackal (isolating the accused in a special cell) - the second stage. After the woman is isolated, the head of the family informs the ruler about the trial, and the king sends four lawyers, together with a smarthan (the judge) and Brahmin representative of the king. The lawyers, in consultation with the representatives of the king, prepare the questions. The third stage involves questioning by the smarthan regarding the status of the accused as a Antharjanam. The smarthan questions her sitting outside of her cell without seeing her. The questioning will continue for several sessions - sometimes for several days - until the accused accepts the allegations and becomes a Saathanam or is proved innocent. The accused woman is subjected to physical torture during this time. A popular method was to pack the guilty woman in a mat, like a dead body, and roll it from the housetop. Other women were also forced to carry out torture to make the accused confess her guilt. At other times, rats, snakes and other poisonous creatures were driven into the isolation cell of the Saathanam. It must be remembered that those close blood relatives living under the same roof until the woman became an accused undertook such inhuman types of torture. The literal meaning of Saathanam is inanimate object. A Saathanam loses her status as an Antharjanam, and the smarthan questions the Saathanam face to face to get the names of the jaarans (the men involved). It was not enough that the Saathanam names the jaarans, but she had to prove it, specifying some body mark in the private parts of the man thus named. The trial would continue until the smarthans are convinced that there were no more jaarans. The king would be informed of the men involved in the offence. If the accused men denied the accusation, they were subjected to sathiyapariksha (a test of truth) at a Suchidran temple to prove their innocence. The fourth stage is sorupamchollal: if the accused men are found innocent through the test, they are declared innocent. The fifth stage is dehavichedam in which the Saadhanam, as well as the involved guilty men, are ceremoniously excommunicated. In the sixth stage, sudhabhojanam (pure meal), there is a sharing of a meal among the accused and the trial team once the accused is proved innocent.

The last reported smarthavicharam took place in 1918, but the most famous was the samarthvicharam of Kuriyedath Dhatri. The stunning beauty had entertained 65 jaarans, and she remembered the body marks of them all to substantiate her "naming" the men. It is said that the smarthans stopped questioning her when it was almost clear that the 65th jaaran to be named was the king himself.

Posted on 2002-08-16
     
 
Asian Human Rights Commission

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