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.