Caste system in Kerala
The caste system amongst Hindus in Kerala can not be categorised strictly with what is popularly known as the fourfold division of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra. Nambudiri Brahmins formed the priestly class, and never recognized any other Brahmin community as true Brahmins. Nairs formed the warrior class, and chieftains among them, known as Varma, Raja and Moopil Nair.etc formed the ruling class, which was known as Samanthan Nair or Samanta Kshatriya. In addition there were also caste who generally served in temples known as Ambalavasis or Pushpaka Brahmins, who were considered lower to Namboothiris. Other castes like Nadar, Ezhava, Kammalar, Araya.etc ranked further down in the caste hierarchy. The so called "lower castes" like Pulayar and Parayar ranked even below them. The bottom most position was occupied by nomadic and jungle dwelling tribes like the Nayadis. There was a strange mixing of various caste equations that Vivekananda called Kerala a lunatic asylum.It is believed that caste system as per Aryan norms began after the arrival of Nambudiris into Kerala. In addition to various castes, Kerala had a tribal population residing mostly in hilly areas who did not integrate into the new formed caste systems. Nairs formed the second largest Hindu caste and most of them were very influential feudal aristocratic landlords. Nambudiris, Nairs (including Samanthan Nairs), Ambalavasis.etc were considered to have had a more privileged life in pre-independence Kerala, and therefore the benefit of caste based reservations was not extended to them.
In post independence Kerala, castes may be classifieds as General category, Other backward castes, scheduled castes and finally scheduled tribes.
This category includes castes such as Nambudiris, Samanta Kshatriyas, Nairs, Vaishyas (Moothan and its sub castes), Ambalavasis and Syrian Christians. They are not extended reservations in government jobs and educational institution due to their relatively better economic and educational status in pre-independence Kerala. However amongst these castes, Nairs have become most influential due to their numerical superiority. Unlike in North India, the proportion of Brahmins(1.4%) in Kerala is not very significant. Hindu Forward Castes form around 16% of the population of Kerala, while Syrians form another 9.5%. Therefore, the Forward Castes makes up around one fourth of the population of Kerala.
The decrease in the Forward caste population has been extremely steep in Kerala, compared to other parts of India. During the 1816, 1836 and 1854 censuses, the forward castes outnumbered the other Hindus by a huge margin. Despite the conversion of large number of Outcaste Hindus to Christianity, Caste Hindus became a minority during 1860s and 70s and during the 1931 and 1941 censuses, the Outcaste Hindus numbered almost twice as much as the Caste Hindus. For example, Nairs numbered two times as much as the Ezhavas during the 1854 census (30% to 15%). But as of 1968, Ezhavas outnumbered Nairs significantly (22% against 14.4%).
Ezhava, Muslim Mappilas, Latin Christians, Arayan,Izhuvan, Ezhutachan, Kalasi Panicker, Kalari Kurup or Kalari Panicker, Kaniyar Panicker, Kusavan , Viswakarmas, Veluthedans and Vilakkithalavan have been classified as a backward caste by Kerala governmentdue to the discrimination faced by them historically.
Paravan, Cheruman, Mannan, Nayadi, Pallan, Thotti, Vetan, Vettuvan, Panan etc. are some of the castes who have been included in the scheduled caste list of Kerala. These castes were generally in the bottom of caste hierarchy and faced worst kind of discrimination. Scheduled Castes, along with Scheduled Tribes form 10.95% of the total population according to the 2001 census.
Untouchability in Kerala
As per historians, untouchability started in Kerala with the advent of Nambudiris. In Kerala, anyone who was not a Namboothiri, was treated by the Namboothiris as an untouchable. The Namboothiris had different rules regarding the degrees of pollution for the different classes. If a Namboothiri happens to touch or comes in physical contact with an Embraanthiri, he gets the Embraan Sudham, which is supposed to be one step lower in rank among various types of purity of Namboothiris. But it is not compulsory that an adult male Namboothiri should bathe before performing "sandhyaavandanam" if he is polluted due to "Embraan sudham". Also Namboothiris will get Eda Sudham if they are polluted by the touch of Iyers. Namboothiri women (and not men) are not permitted to eat if they become Eda Sudham. For doing Sandhyaavandanam, Namboothiris should take bath if they are polluted with Eda Sudham. Asudhams are practised not only by Namboothiris, but also people of other communities in Kerala, such as the royal families, temple employees, Nairs, etc., who are closely associated with Namboothiris. Other South Indian Brahmanans also follow this custom. Clothes of Namboothiris, washed by Veluthedans , if touched by other Nairs, are not impure. But if touched by a person below the rank in the hierarchies of caste system, it becomes impure. Other classes had different distances after which they could be considered polluting. For example, if an Ezhava got within 24 feet of a Namboothiri, the Namboothiri was considered to be polluted. Untouchability was not isolated to Hindus in Kerala, amongst Christians the original Syrian Malabar Nasranis considered newly converted Latin Christians (usually fishermen) to be untouchables.
When British banned the right of the Nairs to carry swords with them, caste-related violence steeply decreased .The observance of untouchability vanished consequent to the social-reform movements, especially the one initiated by Sree Narayana Guru. Temple Entry Proclamation by the Raja of Travancore effectively put an end to the system of untouchability in South Kerala.
The present day Keralam before that period was a part of "Thamizakam" and the language was "Chenthamiz", during "Sankakalam" and later Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas were the three prominent rulers of "Thamizakam". "Muziris" was the most important city of "Cherakkam". Uzavar, Panner, Parayar, Parathar (fishermen), Kurumber were the main communities of that time, and the Cheras were the ruling class and they worshiped Kottave, a tribal deity and they were inimical to Aryan system of north India. They worshiped the spirits of their ancestors along with 'Kottave'. The majority people were Uzavas (farmers) and Paravans (fishermen) who followed Buddha dharma (Buddhism)came through Eelam (Sri Lanka. A later majority of Uzavas stayed as Ezhavas/Thiyyas (people from Ezham, "deep") and a significant portion of Paravans became Christans and Muslims. Jainism came through Mysore and Karnataka, and there were a number of Jains in Kerala. Muziris, Maduri, Panthalayanikollam, Vizinjam and such cities and costal areas had Roman Jewish, Arab, Chinesesettlements, thus the Semitic religions came to India, and there were also a few Aryans (Brahmins & Nairs) also settled in these cities but at that time they were neither influential nor had any significant presence in society.
Then came 100 years of war between the Cheras and the Cholas, and at first the Cheras lost heavily and Chera power started to vanish, and this time with the help of Nairs, the Cheras formed "Chavers" (suicide squads) and finally were the Cholas defeated. During this time the social system started to change, with Brahmins elevating their position in society. The Cheras lost many men in the battlefield and Chera women started to have Brahmin partners, the matriarchal system started, these Brahmins received local customs and imposed their vedic and knowledge and became Namputhiris, their children's and relatives from the Cheras became Nairs, and Adi Sankara established Brahmin supremacy among other ideologies especially among Buddha dharma (Buddhism), and the Namputhries (Namboothiris) accepted and integrated so many local beliefs and rituals such as Chera king of ancient time "Well kezu kettavan" myth became the Parasurama myth etc. The story of Brahmins converted to Christianity by St. Thomas came at much later stage, however his arrival or the date of arrival if he did so is widely disputed due to lack of credible historical evidence. People belonging to other castes (Uzavas, Paravas etc.) and some Buddhist and Jain priests, are believed to have converted by Christian missionaries in good numbers.
To know the history of Kerala, one has to learn the social set up of Kerala during pre-independent period. It was a Renaissance from the darkness brooded over Kerala society. In 1897, Swami Vivekananda said in Madras: "All Malabaries are lunatics. Their houses, lunatic asylums...." This was the reaction of his towards the caste system and the unique untouchability system that prevailed in Adi Sankaran's Kerala at that time. The worst form of untouchability in India existed in Kerala.Pulaya should not reach more than 96 feet near to a Brahmin. A Nair or Ezhava would strike down a Pulaya who violated the untouchability rule. Thiyya (Ezhava) kept 12 feet from Nair and a Nair would strike an Ezhava who violated the 36 feet barrier to Nambudiri. Whenever the caste Hindus went through public roads, they would shout, "Go! Go!". The untouchables or backward classes had to run away from the road immediately after they heard the voice.
Besides, they were not permitted to cover their upper part of the body. Footwear, umbrella, special dressing ornaments etc. were not permitted to them. In public places, it was the sole right of Brahmins to wear umbrellas even it was raining. It was by bearing their breasts that the lower caste women showed their respect to upper caste people.
The first event which questioned this caste system was the order issued by Tippu Sultan, the then ruler of Mysore Empire. At that period, the Mysore Empire spread even in the Malabar region of Kerala. Besides, the works of Christian Missionaries also helped the untouchables a lot to free themselves from the social incapabilities.
It was Dr. Palpu who started works towards getting the rights of Ezhava community. With the 1891 Malayali Memorial Revolt, he came forward by taking the leadership of the community. He tried to make an organization called 'Ezhava Sabha'. In 1896, he created the bye-law of it and published the same in Malayali, a newspaper published from Thankussery. Even though he organised some meetings at Paravur and Mayyanad, that movement failed.
Mannappedi or Pulappedi was a custom which existed until 17th century. An upper caste woman could lose her caste if any male from the castes like Pulayan, Parayan or Mannan happened to see her or touch her by any means. Then she would be expelled from the caste or had to move with the "low caste" person or will be under discretion of the elders to decide. This would apply especially on the night of a specific day that fell in the month of Karkatakam (roughly corresponding to the dates 15 July to 15 August) in the Gregorian calendar. Given the social and economic status of lower caste people of that era, it is believed that this practice could not be perpetuated without social sanction, and definitely not without the connivance and/or tacit support of the men of upper castes. Thus, the men folk used this in the garb of a custom to stifle the freedom or rights of women belonging to upper castes. Another view of the practice is that it was a route provided by tradition to the oppressed Pulayan class for registering their intentions of revenge as a symbolic act. The practice was abolished by the then Kerala Varma in 1696 after which he had to face the ire of the royal servants (Pandarathu Kuruppus).
The classification of castes
In old Kerala society the castes were classified as Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Avarnas. Non-Hindus were also considered Avarnas. Many native rulers, most of whom were Nairs, were crowned as Samanta Kshatriyas, with the help of Tulu Brahmins who migrated or were invited to Kerala during medieval times.
The caste system had its legitimacy in the positive responses to many of its institutions by the non-Brahmins.Sambandams with Brahmins was generally held in high esteem.
The opposition to caste system took various forms. While some castes refused the position of their community or refused to accept higher position of other community. In other cases, many individuals completely disagreed with caste divisions.
The most abused castes (now known as scheduled castes) showed their opposition to the system by creating and worshipping new spirits for the persons who suffered due to caste atrocities in north Malabar.
Artisans (known as Kammalan / Vishwakarma / Vishwabrahmin in Kerala), in all south India, paradoxically, fought for a higher position in the caste system. According to John Fryer, who vistited India in 1670, the members of Kammalan caste held themselves equal to Brahmins and disputed the higher position of Brahmins. The weavers and goldsmiths in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh created their own priest systems.
Prepared by Biju P R,Assistant Professor in Political Science,Govt Brennen College…….