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History, Caste and Demographics in Kerala

PostPosted: Wed May 06, 2009 2:58 pm
by manu
Kerala is a remarkable place by any standards, for it stands out so distinctly from the rest
of India. The landscape is different, the customs are different, the very rhythms of life
appear different. Indeed, it appears as though Kerala were an afterthought somehow
attached to peninsular India. This last may not be a flight of fancy. According to legend,
the sage Parasurama, in atonement of his sin of killing kshatriyas, created Kerala by
throwing his axe out to sea, whereupon the sea withdrew.

The geological reality of this legend is that a major tectonic movement, perhaps an
underwater earthquake, raised up this thin sliver of land from the sea. Atop the highest
peaks of the Western Ghats, such as Anamudi, scientists have discovered fossilized sea
bottom dwelling creatures like crustaceans. And it is clear that Kerala does suffer from
periodic, massive earthquakes. One such, roughly 500 years ago, caused the decline of
the great port of Muziris or Kodungalloor and created the deep water part of Cochin,
when the river Periyar shifted its course from Muziris south to Cochin.

Kerala has always pursued its own path, somewhat different from the rest of India. This
is a function of geography, for Kerala is physically cut off from even its closest relative,
Tamil Nadu. Because of the high mountains that run down its spine, the Western Ghats,
Kerala has generally been insulated from what happened on the Peninsula to the east and
what happened in the Deccan plateau to the north. Thus, even though Kerala was
generally part of the Chola-Pandya-Chera empires of the deep South, and even though
Malayalam is essentially old Tamil with a lot of Sanskrit included in it, the state evolved
a distinct identity of its own.

Re: History, Caste and Demographics in Kerala

PostPosted: Wed May 06, 2009 4:14 pm
by manu
In many ways, Kerala has also looked to the sea, trading with the Romans and Phoenicians even: its black gold, the scarce and expensive spice, Tellicherry pepper, was the despair of the Roman Pliny the Younger who complained that his imperial treasury was being emptied by the demand for this and other luxury goods from India. Arabs and Malayali sailors discovered long ago how to use monsoon winds to cross the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to reach Kerala. And Malayali shipbuilders made some of the finest ocean going urus or sailing ships (as they still do around Beypore in northern Kerala) from abundant local teak.

A British poet wrote about the port of Ophir, which is believed to be Poovar near Trivandrum. It shows the antiquity of the trade links between West Asia and Kerala. Historically, the great port of Muziris (Kodungalloor), the Roman pronunciation of ‘muchira’, land of three streams, was the biggest harbor on the West Coast, along with Bharuchha or Broach in Gujarat.

Quinquereme of Nineveh, from distant Ophir
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine
With a cargo of ivory
And apes and peacocks
Sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine.

Sea borne trade also gave Kerala a certain cosmopolitanism: for Jews fleeing Romans arrived in 72 CE; Syrian Christians under the merchant Thomas of Canaa, fleeing persecution, arrived around 400 CE; and Arabs, at that time newly converted to Islam, brought their religion circa 700 CE. For all three religions, this was their first arrival in India.

There are also interesting traditions which may be mythical. Some Christians claim that their Saint Thomas came to Kerala in 52 CE, but this is acknowledged in scholarly circles to be a later missionary fabrication, conflating Thomas of Canaa with Saint Thomas. Some Muslims claim that the then ruler of northern Kerala, Cheraman Perumal, converted to Islam, abdicated, and went to Mecca: there is little convincing proof for this, either. Nevertheless, it is clear that small populations of people of Semitic religions existed in Kerala for very long without strife or conflict. This is a tribute to the inherent fairness and tolerance of Kerala’s Hindus.

There is considerable evidence that Kerala was mostly Buddhist and Jain. Periodically, farmers plowing their fields bring up old images of the Buddha, and you can find them here and there in Kerala: they are called karumadi kuttans, because they are made of black granite: one of these has been installed in a Burmese-style pagoda in Alappuzha. But Buddhism and Jainism (which was concentrated in areas close to Karnataka) both disappeared completely in pre historic times. Up to roughly 500 CE, there is evidence of a strong Buddhist presence.

Re: History, Caste and Demographics in Kerala

PostPosted: Wed May 06, 2009 4:16 pm
by manu
For instance, there is the revered monk Bodhidharma from Kodungalloor, the originator of the Zen school of Buddhism. Bodhidarma is honored to this day as Daruma, the preceptor, in Japan, and immortalized in the Zen koan “Why did Bodhidharma go to the East?”. There is documentary evidence that Bodhidharma went to the Shaolin monastery in China around 400 CE, and that he took with him from Kerala the principles of kalaripayat and ayurveda, including the science of pressure points. These evolved later into the martial arts of East Asia as well as acupuncture and acupressure.

The great temple at Sabarimala was at least partly a Buddhist shrine: it was visited by,among others, the Chinese traveler Ziuen Xang, who described it as a place of worship by both Saivites and by Buddhists, the former worshipping Siva and the latter worshipping the Avalokiteswara Padmapani, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. In fact, the connections with Tibetan Buddhism are striking: the Dalai Lama is considered an incarnation of the Avalokiteswara Padmapani, and his abode in Lhasa is the Potala Palace, apparently named after Sabarimala, which was called “potala” (bright light) in old Tamil! The temple of Kannaki at Kodungalloor was, similarly, almost certainly a Buddhist nunnery. There is other circumstantial evidence of the prevalence of Buddhism in Kerala. But Buddhism and Jainism declined and disappeared in Kerala, and this is not incidental to the story of the Guru. The most widely accepted explanation for the eclipse of Buddhism and Jainism is as follows: at some point, perhaps around 600 CE, a Hindu resurgence began, when Sanskrit speaking Hindu Brahmins established their sway in Kerala. The very word nambuthiri for Malayali Brahmins has been parsed as nambu +thero, where nambu is old Tamil for new, and thero, whence teravada, is the word for Buddhist priest.

Those Buddhists who collaborated with the Hindu takeover, goes this theory, were “promoted” in caste so that, while still sudras, they were deemed “high sudras”. The others, the masses, were considered “low sudras”. It is certainly a peculiarity of Kerala that there are practically no kshatriyas or vaishyas: there are Brahmin Nambuthiris, but the rest of Kerala’s Hindus are all sudras or outside the caste system. This theory finds support in the legend of Mahabali and Vamana. Mahabali, the “asura” king, presided over an emphatically egalitarian system: in the old Onam song that celebrates this Golden Age: maveli vaneedum kalam manushar ellarum onnu polay when Mahabali ruled we were all as one.

But when the Brahmin Vamana asked Mahabali the “asura” (surely, the “asura” designation is because Mahabali was a Buddhist) for a boon he could not give him, he was banished to the netherworlds. Metaphorically speaking, the Brahmins defeated the Buddhists and took over.

Re: History, Caste and Demographics in Kerala

PostPosted: Wed May 06, 2009 4:19 pm
by manu
There was a unique system of morganatic marriage or sambandham whereby Nambuthiris took spouses from among the sudra castes, but the offspring were considered sudras. Only the first born son among the patrilineal Nambuthiris was allowed to marry a Nambuthiri woman, thus preserving genetic purity. Younger sons were forced to go for morganatic marriages.

The bahujan or the peasant class who were thus converted to “low sudras” became, in due course, the Ezhavas and Nadars of southern Kerala and southern Tamil Nadu, and the Thiyyas of northern Kerala. Then as now they form the largest group of Hindus in Kerala, despite large-scale conversion to Christianity.

Sri Narayana Guru was born into an Ezhava family, and hence the social and economic position of Ezhavas is central to his story. Unfortunately, despite the decidedly universal nature of his preaching, there is a tendency among in some quarters to see him as merely an “Ezhava guru”. This would have amused the Guru, for he certainly had a sense of humor: he once caused great consternation amongst the orthodox by gently suggesting that he had merely consecrated an “Ezhava Siva”. The very idea is absurd, as though the Infinite, the Creator himself, could be categorized into a small, watertight compartment! Anyway, after the decline of Buddhism and Jainism from Kerala, which must have been completed during the Bhakti era, the social structure of Kerala was affected more by external events, including invasions and colonization.

After the fall of the imperial Tamil dynasties in medieval times, Kerala was under thesway of a number of small kingdoms, many of which were no more than regional satrapies or fiefdoms. The chief of these were the kingdoms that approximate the three regions of Kerala today: Vanchinad in the south, Cochin in the center, and the realm of the Zamorin in the north. Modern Kerala consists of Travancore (minus Kanyakumari district, ceded to Tamil Nadu), Cochin, and Malabar. There was a tradition of martial valor, exemplified by kalari payat and Thiyya warriors, male and female (Aromal Chekavar and Unniarcha) and Nairs (Thacholi Othena Kurup) celebrated in the wonderful vadakkan pattukal (Northern Ballads).

Much like medieval samurai warriors in Japan, these brave kalari payat experts were honored mercenaries for the kings. They participated in remarkable rituals of martial valor: for example the chaver suicide squads, a handful of highly trained kalari payat experts who would fight the entire army of the Zamorin, unmindful of certain death. On occasion they almost succeeded in killing the king.

Roughly three hundred years ago, things began to consolidate. Under the warrior king Marthanda Varma, Travancore became a relatively powerful kingdom, extending from Kanyakumari to the vicinity of Cochin. One of his notable feats was his defeat in 1741 of a Dutch fleet at Colachel near Kanyakumari. This was significant, because the Dutch were never again a colonial threat to India after that.

Re: History, Caste and Demographics in Kerala

PostPosted: Wed May 06, 2009 4:22 pm
by manu
But the other colonials did not go away. Portuguese, French and British invaders, who initially came for trade, soon started influencing the local kingdoms and societies greatly. The Portuguese in particular, fired up by their Inquisition-era spirit of aggressive Catholic evangelism, wreaked havoc in Kerala, although to a lesser extent than in Goa, further up the west coast. The Portuguese were astonished to find Syrian Christians in Kerala who did not owe allegience to the Pope. They proceeded to convert them, as well as Hindu fisherfolk, often by force.

The other colonial powers established alliances with the various kingdoms, with the intent of capturing the lucrative trade in spices and other commodities from Kerala. A series of forts along the Arabian Sea coast testifies to their presence. The next major event was the invasion of Tipu Sultan of Mysore. Tipu, despite a reputation in some circles as a freedom fighter, was clearly fired up by the spirit of jihad. Tipu’s march through northern Kerala carried in its wake large-scale forced conversions to Islam. To this day, the northern districts are heavily Muslim, with at least one district being Muslim-majority, and this is attributable to Tipu’s march, which, in the racial memory of Kerala Hindus, is still remembered as a terrible catastrophe.

After the British defeated Tipu Sultan, his realm came directly under their rule. Thus what is Malabar today became part of the Madras Presidency. The states of Travancore and Cochin also came under the heavy influence of the British, who stationed ‘Residents’ to advice the kings, and on occasion, to browbeat them. Though nominally independent, Travancore and Cochin were under the British thumb.

A major part of the agenda of the British (at least some of them) was the Christianization of India. A certain Col. Munro who as the Resident in Travancore certainly had this objective. Therefore, in 1819, he influenced the then ruler of Travancore to donate Rs. 10,000 for the establishment of a Syrian Christian seminary at Kottayam. In today’s terms, this was an extraordinarily large sum of money, amounting to about $300 million. As a result of the establishment of this seminary and of a number of Christian sects, for example the Church of South India, which became particularly strong in what is now southern Tamil Nadu, large-scale conversions to Christianity began. A major carrot was the fact that the Christians would offer education to anyone who converted: not unreasonably, large numbers of Hindus, especially those who belonged to the ‘lowercastes’, converted, expecting to improve themselves through education.

Numbers from the Travancore Manual reflect the demographic changes. In 1820, Travancore had 6% Muslims and 6% Christians. In one hundred years, Travancore had about 8% Muslims, and 33% Christians! Undoubtedly the dismal treatment handed out to the ‘lower castes’ played a large part in this massive conversion activity.

Re: History, Caste and Demographics in Kerala

PostPosted: Wed May 06, 2009 4:24 pm
by manu
This was the society that Sri Narayana Guru was born into: one in which large numbers of his fellow-Hindus were oppressed, denied basic human rights and forced to accept at every turn the idea that they were inferior beings who deserved their status in life because of their sins in previous lives. Ezhavas who then accounted for some 20% of Kerala’s population were seriously debating whether they should convert en masse to Christianity.

The life of the average Ezhava was horrendous, yet they were relatively privileged, as ‘low sudras’. There were many wealthy land-owning Ezhava families, and many of the Sanskrit scholars and vaidyans in Kerala were Ezhava, in a way due to the truly bizarre reason that Nambuthiri vaidyans would lose caste if they touched anybody other than ‘high-caste’ patients. Whereas an Ezhava vaidyan could lay his hands on any patient: and he was temporarily ‘promoted’ to the caste of the patient. This is much like Japanese became ‘honorary whites’ in apartheid-era South Africa.

The truly oppressed Scheduled Castes, such as the Parayas and Pulayas, suffered far worse trauma. They were expected to work as agricultural laborers – in effect slave laborers – from dawn to dusk, and they were generally not paid in cash, but in rice or vegetables. Very few people from Ezhavas on down was allowed to hold a government job, which in those days was highly prestigious. Nor were they generally allowed to gain an education.

None of the ‘low-caste’ Hindus had access to temples. In a celebrated case that led to the famous Vaikom Satyagraha in 1924, Ezhavas and others demanded the right to merely walk on the streets surrounding the famous Siva Mahadeva temple at Vaikom; this was denied to them, but not to Muslims or Christians!

There were also many social ills among the ‘low-castes’. Some of them practiced polyandry or polygamy. They often held elaborate and expensive ceremonies where they ended up feeding large numbers of people: the thirandu kalyanam to announce the menarche of their daughters; the talikett (a rather bizarre pseudo marriage where children were ‘married’ to each other, but that did not mean they were, or would have to be, married to each other when grown up); the pulikudi in which a pregnant woman was made to drink a concoction of seven sour things in her seventh month. Of course, most of this was the product of superstition, the result of being uneducated: it flowed from the fact that they were oppressed and dispossessed people.

Perhaps the worst oppression, in retrospect, was that the ‘low-castes’ were banned from worshipping the great deities of Hinduism. Not even faith was allowed to them. They had quasi-temples, under a tree or on a roadside, where they worshipped not the Trinity or Sakti, but relatively primitive local deities – such as madan, maruta, yakshi, chathan, muthappan, and other frightening, autochthonic powers which were in a way distorted versions of Siva and Sakti. These powers were pacified with offerings of liquor and meat. This, then, was the social environment into which Sri Narayana Guru was born. Clearly, the sattvic Hinduism of the Upanishads had deteriorated and been taken over by tamasic and rajasic forces. It fell to the Guru’s lot to transform this appalling society into one where men were no longer slaves, but free men.

Re: History, Caste and Demographics in Kerala

PostPosted: Wed May 06, 2009 4:25 pm
by manu
In some ways, the simplest thing for the Guru would have been to preach that Hinduism was hopeless, that the sanatana dharma had degenerated into something that was not at all useful. This, of course, is the perspective of a lot of ‘intellectuals’ in India even today: they would throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is to the great credit of the Guru that he realized that there was nothing wrong with Hinduism that a little moral force could not cure. One of sanatana dharma’s great virtues that it is able to reform itself. If you look at the example of Kerala, the reform in Hinduism took place rapidly, and has taken root.

Today, one would be hard-pressed to find in Kerala any one who believes he is inferior to anyone else in the world: poorer in circumstances, perhaps, but never less of a human being. Travelers frequently comment on how Kerala is the only place in India where nobody is obsequious: everyone treats a visitor on equal terms, as someone you might have an intellectual conversation with, not someone who is your superior. What a change from the extreme self-abasement of ‘low-caste’ Hindus a hundred years ago! They have acquired human dignity.

The simple, but revolutionary, message of the Guru – that you are human being, and that out of your own efforts you can improve yourself to a point where nobody can deny you what you deserve – holds equally true for the oppressed anywhere else in the world. This is what gives one hope that even in the most benighted, feudal parts of the country, it only takes one man and a simple message for the Indian to rise from slavery, to become a free man. And to do this, he does not have to denigrate the gods of his ancestors and become beholden to some ideology imported from the Middle East or China or America.

The Guru’s most significant message was: “one caste, one religion, one God for man” – and what he meant was not the oppressive monotheism of Semitic religions, but the pantheistic monism of Adi Sankara’s Advaita. All of us belong to one caste: the human caste; one religion: the religion of humanism; and we should worship one God, the Creator of all of us, who, after all, is no different from His Creation. The Guru believed that “it doesn’t matter what your religion is, you just have to better yourself.”

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