What Led to the End of Kerala's Matrilineal Society?

06 December, 2015

In The Ivory Throne, Manu Pillai retells the history of a unique Indian monarchy: the princely dynasty of Travancore in southern Kerala. Travancore, a dominion loyal to the British Raj, was relatively newer than the ancient houses that once warred over this slice of south-western India, set between the Arabian Sea and the tail-end of the Western Ghats. Yet a ruthless ancestor and generations of shrewd management ensured its endurance, as well as its political and cultural currency. As Kerala was ushered into the modern era, closer to democracy and republicanism, the women of Travancore came to occupy a central role in its fortunes. In this excerpt from the book, Pillai delves into the history of Kerala’s unusual history of matriliny.

Some anthropologists regard Kerala's system of matrilineal kinship as the continuation of a practice that at one time existed all over the world, while others contend that it was conceived due to some mysterious, compelling circumstances that replaced patriarchy at a historical point. There are, however, two views on this that have been passed down within the region. One is mythological and based on a Malayalam treatise called Keralolpathi, as well as and a Sanskrit work called the Kerala Mahatmyam. These refer to the creation of Kerala by the legendary hero Parasurama, who is supposed to have hurled his battle-axe from Gokarna to Cape Comorin and claimed from the sea all the land in between. He is then said to have awarded this new region (conveniently) to Brahmins, after which he summoned (equally conveniently) deva (divine), gandharva (celestial minstrel), and rakshasa (demon) women for the pleasure of these men. The Nairs, the principal matrilineal caste, were the descendants of these nymphs and their Brahmin overlords, tracing their lineages in the maternal line. This version was dismissed quite appropriately by William Logan in his Malabar Manual as “a farrago of legendary nonsense.”

The other theory relates to the ancient martial tradition of the Nairs. Boys were sent off to train in military gymnasiums from the age of eight, and their sole occupation thereafter was to master the art of warfare. For them death by any other means than at the end of a sword on the battlefield was a mortifying ignominy and in their constant zeal for military excellence and glorious bloodshed, they had no time to husband women or economic resources. So a man would never “marry” a woman, as in other parts of India, and start a family with their children. Instead he would visit a lady in her natal home every now and then, solely for sexual purposes, and the offspring would be her responsibility entirely. Matriliny was, as per this theory, consequent upon the men purely being instruments of war rather than householders. So the onus of family and succession was taken care of by women, who formed large establishments and managed their affairs independently in the absence of men. While the military tradition of the Nairs, famous for its suicide bands called chavers, was well known, this theory is also more circumstantial than absolute.

But as the scholar K. Saradamoni points out, “None of these theories appear to have taken note of the fact that matriliny offered an identity and security to women.” 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. Widowhood was no catastrophic disaster and they were effectively at par with men when it came to sexual rights, with complete autonomy over their bodies.

The marriage system itself was something that never ceased to fascinate visitors to Kerala. This was simply called sambandham, or relationship, and as one distinguished observer noted, it was not seen as a “sacred contract” but as a “purely fugitive alliance, terminable at will.” The bond between brother and sister was considered more sacrosanct than that between husband and wife. Sambandhams even permitted remarkable interaction among Kerala’s higher castes. Among Nambutiri Brahmins only the eldest son was permitted to take a Brahmin wife and all other men had to seek sambandhams from the high-caste matrilineal communities. This meant that Brahmin property was protected, as the issue of these younger men belonged to their mothers’ families with no claims on their patrimony; and for the women, in turn, alliances with a superior caste amplified prestige.

To take the Travancore royal family as a case, for instance, husbands were always “Koil Tampurans,” known as the “twice-born” Kshatriyas. They were, necessarily, fathered by Brahmins. 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. In fact, when Sir Mountstuart Grant-Duff was Governor of Madras, he once met a lady from Travancore and the talk somehow came to the topic of textiles. He “innocently said that he would like to send her a cloth from Madras as a specimen of the handiwork executed there” to which the lady blushed and quickly responded that while she was “much obliged,” she was “quite satisfied with her present husband.”

Relationships could be remarkably free and an anecdote from 1881 recorded by the Rajah of Cochin who ruled from 1895 until 1914 is telling. “In the Palliyil house in Trippunithura,” he wrote, “there was a girl who was the step-daughter of the late Rajah.” She was sixteen at the time and already had ‘a regular husband.” “I proposed,” he declares very matter-of-factly, “to become paramour to her, and, as the husband raised no objection to this course it was done so. This kind of things [sic] was not considered improper at the time.” This late 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. Greater interaction with other parts of the subcontinent where patriarchy was the norm also added fat to the fire. To these modern-day observers Kerala’s marriage practices were a source of outrageous horror and in 1901 Augusta Blandford in her book on Travancore took exception to the Nairs and their marriage system as “very revolting.

This was also the time when Nair men were out studying at the new English colleges and schools, exposed to these foreign opinions. “The Malayalis as a class are the most idle and homesick of the whole Hindu community,” decided a Madras newspaper, “owing to the enervating influence exercised on their character by their peculiar system of inheritance and their obnoxious system of promiscuous marriage.” 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 (virtuous wife and all) when it allowed men to bequeath part of their self-acquired property or money to wives and children instead of the

taravad, or matrilineal joint family. More importantly (and not a little judgementally), it gave women the right of maintenance from husbands, so long as they did not ‘live in adultery’ (that is., have other partners). In what was seen as ideal, the man became the breadwinner and the woman and her children, his dependants. Of course, this did not mean she lost rights in her own taravad, which remained as backup, but agitation continued. By 1923 the call was final: matriliny should be abolished and individual partition was to be the weapon of choice.

On the side, as Devika has detailed, women were also now asked to cultivate an image as humble, passive and in need of protection. ‘Womanly qualities’ were championed, with special emphasis on sexual virtue and loyalty to a single husband.Colonial authorities actively promoted this and it is noteworthy that Queen Victoria conferred upon the late Rani Lakshmi Bayi the imperial distinction called the Crown of India to commend her moral integrity when she refused to divorce Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Tampuran at the height of court intrigues in the 1870s.In the famous novel Indulekha by O Chandu Menon, a landmark in Malayalam literature which became very popular with women, the protagonist Madhavi is a prototype of the new Malayali lady. She has all the qualities of a self-assured woman but (and this is crucial) she is tremendously dedicated to her one man, has the graces of an English lady, and is horrified when her virtue is questioned. Women’s magazines also began to make their appearance in Kerala, promoting the domesticated, dedicated, motherly lady. “We will publish nothing related to politics,” declared the Keraleeya Sugunabodhini in 1892, adding that entertaining tales, “writings that energise the moral conscience,” cookery, biographies of “ideal women,” and “other such enlightening topics” only would be covered. As late as 1926 the Mahila Mandiram, for instance, would strongly argue that a woman’s role was as mistress of the (husband’s) household, and as a caretaker and that she should leave everything else to the superior competence of men. Propaganda was at its peak.

To be fair, of course, there were serious systemic problems with the taravad. As families grew large they became unwieldy and domestic quarrels became the bane of every Nair family across Kerala. The senior male member, who managed affairs, could often be more partial to his immediate relations at the cost of everyone else in the taravad. Favoured nephews might get perks like an English education while others would be denied opportunities. In major taravads it was also not unheard of for impatient nephews to connive to assassinate senior kin to obtain sooner rather than later the advantages of their rank and position. Enterprising men looking for capital to start business ventures could find no support from taravads, owing to joint ownership of resources; between 1897 and 1907 alone an average of 487 suits were brought to court by nephews against the managing senior uncles of their taravads. And in general, many intelligent men of the day began to see a dangerous pattern in allowing young boys to remain comfortably ensconced in the security of the taravad, wasting all productivity. By the 1920s, thus, it became quite obvious that something radical would have to be done. Some moderate Nair leaders only called for reducing the size of taravads by dividing them into more manageable branches. But as always, moderates were rarely heard and the more extreme clamour for individual partition was set to succeed.

Inevitably, the issue was raised in the legislature in Travancore and it was obvious that there was complete political support for the proposal. Any opposition was put down by moralistic arguments against which there could never be any defence; those standing in the way were admonished for holding on to antiquated, uncivilised beliefs. And so 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.

One of the most iconic representations of these epochal social changes was that old award-winning painting by Raja Ravi Varma of Mahaprabha, holding in her arms her eldest boy. As the scholar G. Arunima tells us, There Comes Papa was painted in the early 1890s when the role of the “papa” was still uncertain. “What is the significance of the painting called There Comes Papa when the subject and the artist are both products of a matrilineal society?” she asks. “The absent yet approaching papa signifies the crisis in Nair matriliny in the late nineteenth century. The fact that Ravi Varma chose to celebrate conjugal domesticity and the nuclear family at a time when these were comparatively unknown among large sections of the matrilineal population reveals his growing patrilineal sensibilities. There Comes Papa becomes akin to a clarion call for the end of matriliny.”

And it was. If a generation earlier, Ravi Varma painted the approach of the papa, it fell to his granddaughter to open the doors and let the man in as master of the house. In the five years that followed the historic legislation, 33,000 taravads were partitioned in Travancore and property worth over four crore rupees was divided among the Nairs. Matriliny began to fade into the memories of grandmothers and into the pages of history books. It would continue, till feminists redeemed it, to be decried as an immoral, barbarous system that served only to corrupt “family values.” Covertly, however, women in Kerala would always remember the good old days when the taravad gave them a place and a voice against the unmistakable chauvinism that replaced attitudes towards women, a problem that endures to this day.

The Sources and references for this story have been provided in the original text

Adapted from The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore, published by Harper Collins India, in bookstores now.