I have got absolutely nothing to do with the authorship of this article. It appeared on the in-flight magazine of Air-India or Indian Airlines in the late 1980s or early 90s. I have searched various combinations of several key words and even full paragraphs in Google but it all ended up in negative results.
I gather the article is not available in the cyberspace, and thought of making it forthcoming somewhere. I do not know if by doing so I am doing the right thing. Also, if anyone rightly in that position, think I am infringing the copyright laws or violating any spaces of ethics or morality, I offer to withdraw this article right away.
Also there may be many who think I am trying to venerate a rotten social system long buried by history. I fully respect their freedom to harbor such sentiments. But this is for those who think otherwise. Also I find it somehow complimenting my own post titled ‘Paradevatha- Remnants of an era by-gone’ available in this blog.
Where Women Reign
Tucked away in the south-west corner of India is the tiny state of Kerala – a region most favored by nature. With unbroken regularity each year the bounty of the skies falls down in abundant measure to make it a land of lush green vegetation. The bus was slowly winding it’s way, meandering across the green countryside. Looking out of the window I saw all around me lofty mountains merging into misty blue skies, placid back-waters dotted with boats, tiny lagoons that abound in fish, and acres of smiling sunlit paddy swaying majestically to the hum of the gentle breeze.At my grandmother’s insistence we were going to visit the temple of our family deity at our ancestral home. It seemed to me a long way to come to seek the Lord’s blessings. But according to my grandmother it was something all members of every family should do, if only once in their lifetime.
As we moved on we passed sleepy villages that had until now escaped the tentacles of modernity, but soon we left them far behind, and we were once again in the midst of greenery. As we moved on and on our journey proved more tedious, because the road has narrowed down and finally we reached a point from where the bus could go no more. From then on it was a long, tiresome trek, which was an experience in itself – thorny styles and rickety bridges through narrow pathways between paddy fields and tiny woods, across rivulets and hillocks, we trudged on and on.
With every passing step my curiosity was aroused and finally we came to a large clearing in the middle of which stood a large house with red tiles, doors of brass and panels of wood. It was a picture of peace, calm and serenity. And looking at this imposing structure made me comprehend my grandmother’s feelings – for it was not merely a structure of brick and mortar, it was almost human, like a person waiting eagerly for the return of loved ones.
This strong and sturdy building which had seen life in both prosperity and adversity is the very essence of the Nair society. This was the taravad. Every Nair, whether rich or poor, belongs to a taravad, the most vital pillar of their matrilineal social order. The taravad is identified by the name it is called by or the veettum peru (house name). This is also the family name of all its members. The taravad veedu (taravad house) consists of a large building, characterized by an open central courtyard – the nalu kettu around which are the living rooms that house the women- folk. Spread out in all directions around the main house are paddy fields, which were the main, and in most cases, the only source of income for the family. Paddy was thus the most valuable possession, freely exchangeable for other goods and consequently the most guarded. After the harvest, every year the paddy was stored in a huge box called the patayam, and this was housed in a separate, smaller building, constructed to the side of the main house known as the patayapura. To guard this “wealth” was the task of the men-folk. In the course of time this became the main living quarters of the men. Situated towards the back of the taravad was a large water tank, now dilapidated. This was the kulam an integral part of every taravad house used primarily for bathing. Yet another inseparable part of every taravad is the temple with its own family deity. The fact that all members of a family even till today hold in reverence the personal deity is evidence enough of the fact that this social structure has stood the test of time. The members of a taravad no matter where they may be, through monetary contributions and the like, see to it that not a day passes without the lamp being lit in their temple.
The taravad is held together by the eldest lady member and it consists of her sons and daughters, the children of her daughters and so on. A fact that intrigues everyone is the prominent position occupied by women under this system. The son is at best a son and no more, whereas a daughter is the light and life of every taravad. To be blessed with a daughter is the objective of many a fervent prayer offered at temples and birth of one is a reason for jubilation. It is indeed with great pomp and joy that the birth of a daughter is celebrated for it is through her alone that the family lineage can continue. The contribution of a son to the life of a taravad is ephemeral – as his children belong not to his family or taravad but to that of his wife’s. Consequently in lieu of their surname, all Nairs place before their personal names, the name of their mother’s taravad. In all legal documents even now, all individuals are identified as the sons or daughters of a particular lady – the mother and not of the father.
Rarely found in other social systems anywhere in the world, this prominence conferred on the Nair women gives them a pre-eminent position, and from this many things follow. Marriage for the Nairs is not a sacrament, but a mere contract conducted by a simple ceremony with neither priest nor sacred fire. Marriage for a woman in almost all communities brings with it dislocation, as she has to move out of her parent’s home and adjust to new surroundings. But not so for the Nair woman because after her marriage she does not leave her house but continues to live on in her taravad. It is in fact the husband who visits her, the frequency of his visits depending on his personal relationship with her. It is considered beneath the dignity of the husband to stay for long periods in his wife’s house. However, on the occasion of an important function such as a birth, death or marriage the presence of the husband is expected. On the other hand, the wife has little connection with her husband’s family. Ordinarily, except on ceremonial occasions, it is seldom that a wife visits her husband’s house. Yet inspite of this she occupies an important place at social functions in her husband’s home.
So complete was a lady’s independence in this matrilineal system, that in days gone by it was she who decided how long her husband was to remain in the house!
The practice of dowry given to a daughter at her wedding that is so prevalent in other parts of India, does not exist in the case of the Nairs. Dowry is neither sought nor given. Any kind of expense is borne by the taravad. All property belongs equally to all who live here. Interestingly, unlike in other parts of India, all family heirlooms are passed down from one generation to the next through the daughters and not through the sons.
Flowing from this form of family organisation is yet another fact – the special position occupied by the uncle in every taravad. It is the uncle who is in charge of most activities, and his sister’s children (who live in the taravad) turn to him and not to their father for all their needs. On the twenty-eighth day after a child’s birth the naming ceremony or iruvathettu is conducted by the uncle and in most cases, the father is not even present! He names the child, applies kajal to ward off the ‘evil eye’, dons black bangles on the child’s hands and an anklet made of five metals on its feet. When the child attains the age of six months, he is taken to the temple by the uncle, where he sits before the deity holding the child on his lap. He then feeds the child rice. It is only after this rice giving ceremony, that a child is put on a diet of rice. A great deal of stress is laid on education in Kerala, and consequently a special ceremony is held before the child is formally sent to school. This again is conducted by the uncle. The ceremony ezhuthinu-eruthal (initiation to education) is held on the day of Saraswati puja (10th day of Dussehra), where the child is made to repeat the alphabet after the uncle.
The tiny community of the Nairs do have unique social orders and maybe the mountains separating this pocket from its neighbors on one side and the sea on the other, have offered its people a secluded existence resulting in a social organisation so vastly different from the rest of India. But what stands out in this social pattern is the importance, independence and security enjoyed by women. The history of mankind has undoubtedly been one of evolution, each succeeding era bringing with its own demands. The demands of modern society are no longer conducive to the smooth functioning of the taravad and it is indeed sad that the system is slowly fading out. However what perhaps is re-assuring is that the mental tradition of this social order lives on – where women are respected, never taken for granted, never downtrodden and never ignored.
[I haven't edited a single word in this article. My readers are requested to note that this might have been written 3-4 decades back. By now we, Keralites or Malayalees as we call ourselves fondly ( you may term us as Mallus, well... we are not bothered at all) have marched ahead by turning the lush green vegetation described here to beautiful barren lands with a lot of concrete buildings. We now import all the food grains from Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Andhrapradesh and even from far off states like West Bengal to survive. We are happy with our modern diet which include Coke, Burger, and the like. Even Chilly chicken and Noodles with a load of Aginamoto has been rendered old fashion here by now. Even if almost all of us have Diabetes, High Blood Pressure or High Cholesterol etc, we have got enough Super Specialty Hospitals in every nook and corner of our state for if the ailments are provided with by our modern diet . And in return to all the stuff from kitchen salt to washing machines we import, we export two of our very precious products - 1. Our Children and 2. Christianity ! Though slightly exaggerated, there is a joke that says when the first astronauts landed on moon, they saw a malayalee running a 'chaayakkada' ( tea shop) there! And there is every chance for you to meet at least one Fr. J. Panthaplakkan or Sr. Fellatia in the streets of any country from the USA to New Zealand every 20 or so minutes. Surnames as that attached to the priest comes from his 'veettum peru' and its not the monopoly of Nairs alone. We are the most advanced society in the world... and still marching on and on....]