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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 2

Fr. J. J. Pallath

[Ed. Note: This is the second in our two-part series by Fr. J. J. Pallath about the Namboothiris, the Brahmins of the Indian state of Kerala. The first part was published in the May 2002 issue of Human Rights SOLIDARITY.]

Marumakkathayam and Namboothiri Family Structure

Marumakkathayam (nephew-centred matriliny) was a joint family structure and sambatham (cohabitation only at night) a sort of cohabitation that was spontaneously developed by the Nairs of Kerala. The Namboothiris conveniently made use of the existing Nair joint family system in order to develop their combination of veli (official marriage) and sambatham marriages. The Nairs considered co-opting the Namboothiris into the system as bliss as the latter was considered to be the most respected people in society. The Nair women thought sleeping with Namboothiris to be a blessing for the good acts of their previous life. That the Nair caste was a polluting one to the Namboothiris added more prestige to the cohabitation.

However, the inherent social contradiction and moral ineptitude were so blatant that the Namboothiris could not carry on with this practice without being hurt by it. As noted in Part 1 of this article, the Namboothiris strictly forced their women to observe monogamy, so much so that they were made to remain widows for life, and the punishments for unfaithfulness, as well as violating virginity, were unimaginably cruel and inhuman. For Namboothiri men though, the Namboothiris were scandalously compromising.

'[T] heir family structure and sexual codes have reduced the Namboothiris to strange creatures who have never experienced love and the familial bonds natural to human existence. '

The Namboothiri marriage ceremony (veli) was a weeklong celebration, and their sexual codes are so strict that it demanded unusual self-control. The quality of the child was thought to be directly proportional to the sacrifice and self-control exerted before begetting the child. After the birth of the child, there were elaborate ritual ceremonies for its progressive induction into the family. While demanding such a high level of moral standards within their community, Namboothiri men were allowed to go from house to house looking for sexual satisfaction at night and merrily begot children without any responsibility towards them.

The Aphan Namboothiris, who form the majority, who enter into sambatham are a pathetic social group. We have seen that they could not be free in their own illams (Namboothiri houses). Through sambatham, they were not able to experience true marital love nor were they able to return the same to their cohabiting partner. They never experienced the loving care of their wife, never once knew the sublime feeling of the commitment to their wife. Having lived for generations without tender feelings, they became strange creatures that lost the capacity to communicate love and affection. The beauty of emotion and its accompanying heavenly feeling were lost to them, never to be recovered. The Namboothiris also never experienced the contentment of hard labour; they never had the chance to enjoy the fulfilment of having led people to the bliss of hard work. More than how they lived, our concern at present is in knowing the effect of their life, that of the most prestigious high caste, on the culture and society of Kerala.

Namboothiri Family Structure and Personality Problems

The family structure of Namboothiris has been discussed rather extensively, but its effects on the Antherjanam (a Namboothiri woman) and the Namboothiri men themselves were not examined in great detail.

'[Namboothiri men] . . . lost the capacity to distinguish between smaller and larger cruelties, for cruelty, particularly to women, became the order of the day. '

As we have seen above as well as in Part 1, the cruelty of Namboothiri men knows no bounds. A social arrangement that did not take into consideration the emotional needs of the community's women and that brought untold misery to them was not of any concern to Namboothiri men. Almost 20 percent of the Namboothiri women remained unmarried, and there were strict moral and behavioural codes imposed on them to keep them lifelong virgins. Heartless punishments up to excommunication from the community were reserved for non-compliance with these harsh sexual moral codes.

There were other unpronounced serious social degradations as well, for their family structure and sexual codes have reduced the Namboothiris to strange creatures who have never experienced love and the familial bonds natural to human existence. To an extent, we can even quantify the situation. According to the statistics in Part 1, out of the 6,787 Namboothiri men, about 4,500 of them were Aphan Namboothiris who have taken women from other communities through sambatham. According to the practice of sambatham, the woman remains in her house, and the Namboothiris visit her at night. Because the family members, as well as the "bride" herself, could pollute him, he leaves the house early at dawn to purify himself through a ritual bath, leaving no space for developing a loving relation between the "wife" and the husband. Consequently, an Aphan Namboothiri never experiences the loving care of a woman. Their contact is only during the night for sexual satisfaction. They beget children not knowing the burden of responsible parenthood. The children of this contract grow up under the supervision of an uncle without experiencing the care and affection of the father. A mind that has been shaped by generations of such irresponsible marital life has become one that could not imagine the joy of fulfilling the man-woman relationship. What sort of person would one become who was born in such a rigid family system, who lives without proper experience of marriage and conjugal love, without the joy of rearing a child and without the knowledge of labour?

'The roots of present-day aberrations of the Malayalee personality in Kerala can be traced from the past Namboothiri-dominated culture and society. '

No other male, except the father of a virgin Antherjanam and the husband of a married Antherjanam, were allowed to see them face-to-face. According to the practice, after the first menses, the girl's own brother was not allowed to see her. Thus, the sister-brother relationship remained just a childhood memory, and thus, at home, the man becomes a stranger who cannot move about freely in his own house. The problems generated by such inhuman practices, particularly for the women in the illams, were taken note of sufficiently by the reformers, but they failed to see, it seems, its effects on emotional patterns and the mental structure of Namboothiri men and women.

First of all, the Namboothiri male, in turn, became a person without a family. He became a strange creature who did not know genuine female love relations. Consequently, the Namboothiri who lost common sense became very indifferent and insensitive to tender human feelings. One wonders whether we can find such Brahmins anywhere in any time of history! Their women became their sole object of attack, and hurting them systematically by newer and stronger regulatory practices became their form of sport. Thus, they became strange creatures that lost the capacity to distinguish between smaller and larger cruelties, for cruelty, particularly to women, became the order of the day. This is epitomised in what is known as smarthavicharam, the trial for adultery of an erring female of the sexual moral code, which we have observed in Part 1.

The Effects of Namboothiri Domination on Kerala Culture

The roots of present-day aberrations of the Malayalee personality in Kerala can be traced from the past Namboothiri-dominated culture and society.

Double Standards

The psyche of Malayalees is known for its double standards-they say something and do just the opposite. They are known for their external refinement and daytime gentlemanliness. However, at night, Malayalees engage in any type of cruelty, provided it is done in the darkness without being noticed by others.

As we have noted in Part 1, the Namboothiris in many cases have gone against the accepted Brahmin practices in the rest of the country. Their adjustment with the Nairs (the Sudras) for sambatham was a clear violation of the moral codes, or dharmasastras. The extreme compromises they have made in meeting their sexual needs against the moral codes made them a symbol of double standards in 23 Human Rights SOLIDARITY Vol. 12 No. 5 September 2002 23 WOMEN AND CASTE DISCRIMINATION life. This has influenced to an enduring level the Malayalee way of life.

'The Malayalees' psyche of double standards is all-pervasive. '

Care for Outward Appearance

The Malayalees' psyche of double standards is all-pervasive. The Malayalees take extra care in being externally clean in their dressing and housing. Kerala hotels are the only ones in the country where cooking is done behind a curtain without being noticed by the customers. We know though that the cooking is done in the most unhygienic manner. However, the facade of the hotel looks grand and neat. The same applies to latrines; for at home and in public, the Malayalees give little care in keeping their toilet clean and neat, but their houses are the most modern palaces. In short, Malayalees look externally well dressed, but their undergarments are dirty and stinking.

The guilt that they were exploiting the lower castes seemed to have continued to prick their conscience though, and the Namboothiris appear to have compensated for it by being externally clean through ritual baths and wearing white clothes as the practice of taking a bath both in the morning and evening and wearing predominantly white dress is still considered to be a Malayalee characteristic.

Indulgences-A Reaction to Deprivation

During the period of Namboothiri domination, the lower castes were forbidden from constructing good houses, wearing ornaments by low-caste women, desiring a beard and moustache, etc. As a reaction, as it were, to this century-long deprivation, the most palatial buildings have been built by the Malayalees to house a nuclear family of three or four people. Moreover, Keralite women have a craze for gold ornaments, and it is hard to find a clean-shaven Keralite like one would find elsewhere in India.

Poor Work Culture

The Namboothiris did not encourage the Shektria and Vaisiya castes, or varnas, in Kerala as in the rest of the country. They cleverly used the Nair caste to do the functions of the Shektria and Vaisiya castes. The Nairs were forbidden to do work and engage in business. Manual labour was the fate of the untouchable lower castes. Thus, manual labour came to be looked upon as something denigrating. The Vaisiya varna was replaced in Kerala by the Arabs and the Christians at different times in history. The negative attitude towards manual labour persists in the state even today.

'[T] he most palatial buildings have been built by the Malayalees to house a nuclear family of three or four people.'

Malayalees are known for their poor work culture. "Maximum benefit for minimum toil" appears to be the motto. This tendency is noticed among those who engage in hard manual labour (trade unions) and also in white-collar jobs as well as among students. Students, for instance, want high scores for doing little work with copying during exams a common practice. The tremendous success of the lottery in Kerala corroborates this point of craving for easy money without toil.

Contempt for Others

We have seen that the Namboothiris and Nairs were forbidden from doing manual labour, and consequently, the economy was poor and was sustained by the limited toil of the lower caste. This has brought about a lack of motivation and competition, a vacuum for excellence, which has been filled by mutual contempt and hatred within and between castes. It was not through the desire of excelling but by pulling down others that the position of an individual was maintained. This tendency exists even today, particularly among bureaucrats and academics.

'Women liberation movements are the weakest in the country's most literate state. '

The Use of Authority to an Inhuman Level

We have seen the inhuman use of the law and authority in the practices of purity and pollution-v e l i, sambatham and smarthavicharam-and other restrictions, including hard manual labour. This continues undiminished in Kerala culture: at home between family members, among religious between superior and subject and in the government structure between the higher and lower bureaucrats. Alcohol consumption in the state has become a mental sickness that has spawned the accompanying neglect of children and other dependants in the family. Cruelty among the religious authorities is also increasing. Among the Catholic religious alone, for example, 40 murders and "suicides" have been recorded in the last decade. Deaths due to communal tension instigated by religious authorities, fundamentalism and terrorism are increasing in the state as well. The dictatorship of the union leaders has made the bureaucracy anti-people, and they have become the enemies of the people that they are supposed to serve.

Lack of Respect for Women

Keralites have no respect for women, who are treated as permanent saathanam, a creature to be treated with cruelty (just as in the smarthavicharam). During the day, Malayalees pretend to be asexual and impose rigid sexual moral codes condemning even healthy free dealings between the opposite genders.

Namboothiri insensitivity to women expressed through veli and sambatham and other numerous restrictions, including smarthavicharam, is perhaps the worst in human history. This has its lingering effect in the culture of the Keralites. Even today women are not respected in Malayalee culture. Women liberation movements are the weakest in the country's most literate state. The craving of Malayalee men for touching and caressing women in public is notorious. Women are ill-treated in public and on buses. Women tourists accept Kerala as an unsafe state for women. It seems to be a hangover from the Namboothiri practice of pollution by touch. It must be remembered, unlike the Brahmins in the rest of the county, that the Namboothiris treated every other caste as defiling them from a distance, including the Nair women with whom the Namboothiris cohabited.


Posted on 2003-05-26
Asian Human Rights Commission

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