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.