Monday, December 7, 2015

The Ivory Throne - The Matrilineal Society of Kerala

I always wondered how my state – Kerala –  was matrilineal and then switched to patrilineal. Review of book – ‘The Ivory Throne – Chronicles of the house of Travancore’ - on Caravan magazine by ‘Manu Pillai’ did answer a lot of questions I earlier had on this subject. However, I admit that the reason provided for why Kerala society was matrilineal earlier is not answered quite satisfactory.

Some excerpts from the book review (pasted verbatim),

“Scholar K. Saradamoni points out…Nair women always had the security of the homes they were born in throughout their lives and were not dependent on their husbands”

“Sexual freedom was also remarkable so that while polygamy was happily recognised in other parts of India, in Kerala women were allowed polyandry. Nair women could, if they wished, entertain more than one husband and, in the event of difficulties, were free to divorce without any social stigma”

“The marriage… was simply called sambandham, or relationship... terminable at will.”

“The bond between brother and sister was considered more sacrosanct than that between husband and wife.”

“Every Maharajah, in other words, had a Brahmin for a grandfather and a Nair for a grandson, both of whom were commoners; the Nair’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather came from different rungs of the social hierarchy”

“The procedure to enter into a sambandham was rather easy and simply involved the man handing the woman a piece of cloth before an oil lamp”

“This late [Cochin]Rajah’s wife already had a daughter from a previous husband, (indicating that even princes married widows or divorcees) and this girl, even at the highest social station in the court of Cochin, could keep two men at the same time. Similarly, the author C.V. Raman Pillai wedded his late wife’s sister, for whom it was the fourth marriage in a line that included two dead husbands and one divorce.”

“Traditional Kerala society never frowned at all this for the simple reason that such sexual relations were not taboo. It was customary and made perfect sense within the historical and economic context of the land. But what did happen by the nineteenth century was the impact of Christian missionaries with their prudish Victorian notions of decency and morality, aided by the colonial enterprise to “civilise” India.”

“This was also the time when Nair men were out studying at the new English colleges and schools, exposed to these foreign opinions...”

“Hitherto local practices affected no Malayali as odd. But now he had to face derogatory comments about their repulsive “backwardness”. “And it became worse,” Saradamoni tells us, “when sambandham was equated to concubinage and the women to mistresses and the children called bastards.”

“In 1912, Travancore gave its first boost to nuclear families, modelled on the patriarchal style … allowed men to bequeath part of their self-acquired property or money to wives and children instead of the taravad, or matrilineal joint family”

“By 1923 the call was final: matriliny should be abolished and individual partition was to be the weapon of choice.”

“between 1897 and 1907 alone an average of 487 suits were brought to court by nephews against the managing senior uncles of their taravads”

“in April 1925 the Legislative Council passed a bill terminating matriliny, permitting partition of property, “legalising” all sambandhams, and essentially inaugurating the age of the patriarchal family in Travancore”

“It was sent to the Maharani for her assent and on 13 April she signed the historic Nair Regulation of 1925, giving matrilineal kinship the unique distinction of being the only system of inheritance and family in the world to be abolished by law.”

“Similar Acts were passed for the Ezhava and Vellala communities also, sections of which were matrilineal. The Government of Madras would follow her lead in 1933 and do the same in Malabar, while Cochin would issue corresponding orders by 1938.”

I believe this is a good book to read on this subject.



1. What Led to the End of Kerala’s Matrilineal Society? – The Caravan Magazine

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