Nair

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Nair Soldiers

Nair is a Hindu caste in the southern Indian state of Kerala, also known as Nayar or Malayala Kshatriyas the name of a Hindu forward caste from the Southern Indian state of Kerala. The Nair community as of 19th century was divided in to close to 200 subcases with Kshatriya and Shudra subclasses. Until a few decades ago, the Nairs were divided into several sub-castes and inter-dining and inter-marriages were practically non-existent amongst them. The 1891 Census of India, undertaken by the British listed a total of 138 Nair subcastes in the Malabar region, 44 in the Travancore region and a total of 55 of them in the Cochin region. Also Nair has lineage from Nagas or Nagavanshi (snake-born), claiming descent from the Nagas. The term "Nair" is derived from Nayaka, an honorific meaning "leader of the people", while others believe it stems from the "Nagas" association with the Naga cult of serpent worship.

History[change | change source]

Nair Brigade Flag

According to some theories, the Nair have Indo-Scythian ancestry.[1] Traditionally, Kerala's royalty, militia, and land managers were from the Nair and related castes.[2] During British rule, Nair were known as Nayarkutti and were important in politics, government, medicine, education, and law.[2]

Hierarchy[change | change source]

The caste hierarchy within the 20 major divisions among the Nairs is as following. Nairs are mainly classified as Kshatriya subclass and Sudra subclass. The Government of India classify the Kshatriya subclass as Forward caste and Shudra subclass as Other Backward Community.

Kshatriya Subcastes Shudra Subcastes
Samanthan Nair (Nambiar, Thampi, Thampurans, Thirumulpad, Adiyodi, Nedungadi, Eradi, Nayanar etc),

Koil Thampuran, Samoothiri, Perumal, Rajah, Thampan, Thirumulpad

Maaran, Vatti, Chempukotti Nair
Kiryathil Nair & Vellayma Nayar (Nambiar, Kaimal, Kurup, Mannadiar etc) Otattu Nair, Puliyath Nair, Matavan Nair
Illathu Nair (Kartha, Thirumukom, Pillai etc) Kalamkotti Nair, Anduran Nair, Asthikkuracchi Marar
Swaroopathil Nair, Menokki & Charna Nair (Menon, Menoky,etc) Chakkala Nair, Vattakkatan Nair , Vaniya Nayar
Padamangalam Nair Chitikan Nair , Chetty Nair, Itasseri Nair
Pallichan Nair Chaliyan Nair , Veluthedathu Nair, Vilakkithala Nair

According to Fuller, most unbiased observers have concluded that the Samanta Kshatriya and SamanthanSamanta Kshatriyas were divided into two principal subdivisions: Thampans (or Tampurans) and Thirumulpads. Included among the former are the Cochin royal family and the Cranganore chiefly family. In Travancore, the division was different. Thampurans were divided into three categories of which only the highest ranking grouping made up of ten chiefly families and known as Koil Tampurans were regarded as Samanta Kshatriyas. The second division, known as Rajas, comprised nine chiefly families (including the Travancore royal family) who were Samanthans, like the third grouping of ordinary Thampurans. In Malabar, there were seven major SamanthanEradi, Nedungadi, Vellodi, Unniathiri, Adiyodi, Thirumulpad, and Nambiyar. Eradi is the subdivision to which the Zamorin of Calicutbelongs. The Raja of Valluvanad was a member of Vallodi. The Raja of Chirakkal was an Unniathiri.[2] subdivisions should be treated merely as supereminent Nair subdivisions. The subdivisions: The Raja of Travancore, however used to perform an extraordinary ceremony known as Hiranyagarbha. The essential feature of this ceremony was the casting of a hollow golden vessel through which the Raja passed. On emerging from the vessel, the Raja's caste status rose from Samanthan Nair toSamanta Kshatriya. Unfortunately for the royal family, the Samanta Kshatriya status so acquired was not hereditary, and thus the ceremony had to be performed for each new Raja. The Samanta Kshatriya and Samanthan Nair subdivision were minute. For example, In Travancore in 1931, the Samanta Kshatriya population was 3,673 (0.07% of the total population), and the Samanthan NairSamanta Kshatriya population was recorded as less than 0.1% of the total population; for 1921, the Samanthan Nair population was given as 4,663 (0.15%).[3] population was 97. In Cochin in 1931, the populations were, respectively, 2,128 (0.18%) and 571 (0.05%). In Malabar in 1931, the The Raja of Vadakara (Polanad), popularly known as Polarthiri was of Nambiar (Nair Nobility) origin. They were also known as Vadakara Vaazhunnor and consisted of 30 sub divisions known as Koottams, such as Chelkkattan Kurup (Thacholi Koottam), Vennappalur Koottam, Moodaadi Koottam.etc

Changes in subdivision[change | change source]

According to Pocock, the significance of the Samanta Kshatriya and Samanthan Nair subdivisions lay not in their numbers, but in the model they provided for other Nairs involved in the status game. A Nair taravad, especially if it were wealthy or powerful, could attempt to transform itself into a new, different subdivision. The methods used vary. Most common were the severance of all connections with any demeaning occupation, the Sanskritization of various customs and the taking of a new name. But most crucial of all was alteration of the taravad's marital connections, by finding men of higher status to perform the tali-tying ceremony for the girls in the taravad, and by beginning to accept only men of higher status as sambandham[4] partners for the women. A number of comparatively low-status groups were absorbed into the Nair community. Among other features, the taking of the prestigious title "Nair" may itself serve this end (Dumont 1964:98). According to the British reports, the process is perhaps most apparent in the cases of the Chakkala Nair, Veluthedathu Nair and Vilakkithala Nair. These two subdivisions well illustrate the ambiguity attached to upward mobility. Even as early as the beginning of the 20th century, these castes were commonly referred to as "Veluthedathu Nair" and "Vilakkithala Nair"-at least in Central Travancore, and in official publications. Although the Jatinirnayam included them as Nairs, in the early census reports they were often enumerated as separate, non-Nair castes. It is still the case, despite their names, that many Nairs belonging to higher-ranking subdivisions do not acknowledge the Veluthedathu and Vilakkithala Nairs as "real" Nairs, and they never intermarry with them.[1] It is noted that hypergamy, in that it can lead to a shortage of marriageable women for men on the lowest rungs in the caste, promotes the absorption of lower-status groups into the larger caste through marriage, and thus further expands the populous caste.

Formation of subdivisions[change | change source]

The formation of Nair subdivisions is explained by K Raman Unni in Polyandry in Malabar (Sociological Bulletin). Nair taravads were usually linked by hereditary duties to Nambudiri families dominating various villages. The taravads gained a "reflected" prestige dependent on the status of the Nambudiri family. A group of taravads with the same prestige, usually those linked to one family (Namboothiri or high caste Nair) in one village, would tend to become endogamous, which means, in this context, that they would, for the most part, exchange marriage partners only with each other. Over time, particularly if the group of taravads took a distinctive name, it would effectively become a subdivision. Nayar taravads serving Nayar chiefs, rather than Nambudiris, also formed similar groups, whose status depended on that of their respective Nair chiefs. Clearly, subdivisions formed in this manner were highly localized, although they could expand by contracting alliances with other taravads of equal status. In such a case, the creation of a larger subdivision would simultaneously mean the extinction of two or more smaller ones.[5]

Historical evidence[change | change source]

It may be noted that the earlier Keralamahatmayam, an Upa Purana of the Bhoogola Hindu Purana, does not make mention of any subcastes among the Nairs but only states them to be the military caste of Kerala. But the 17th century Keralolpathi[6] which is a work purported to be written with the ulterior motive of promoting Brahminical supremacy mentions different subdivisions of Nair caste. While Kiriyathil Nayars were considered prominent in Malabar and Cochin, Illathu Nairs were prominent in the hierarchy in the Travancore.[7] In fact, Kiriyathil Nayars are confined mainly to the northern and central part of Kerala. Considering the unnecessary rancour created by the different subdivisions among the Nairs, social reform movements such as Nair Service Society (NSS) campaigned strongly against such divisiveness. Eventually, stratification among the different Nair subcastes has become non-existent in the present day, with individuals and families usually identifying themselves simply as "Nairs".

Origin[change | change source]

The origin of Nairs is a subject of great dispute. Some say they are direct descendants of the Aryans who married into Dravidian families, accounting for their fairer skin colour. Some say that they are descendants of a warrior clan in Nepal. Others say that they are natives of south India who were awarded the title of Nair by the king. Let us start the story at the very beginning…from the birth of the beautiful land of Kerala.

Kerala wrenched from under the sea Legend has it that settlers moved into the fertile Indian lands from the north. In the process, they pushed the native people southwards. The southern part of India became excessively crowded and reached a state when there was practically no place to stay. A few families rushed to Lord Parashurama and narrated to him their woes. He agreed to help and went with them to south India.

He saw that the land was indeed very crowded and prayed to Lord Varuna (the God of the sea) to give up some land from under the sea. The arrogant Varuna flatly denied and raged even more ferociously. Lord Parashurama, known for his quick temper, is said to have thrown his axe into the sea and pulled up a huge chunk of land. Thus Kerala was born. The people were very happy and moved in to the new land that Parashurama blessed them with and Parashurama went back to his abode.

Sometime later, the people came back wailing to Parashurama yet again. They complained that the land given to them was infested with snakes and had poisoned yellow soil and no crops would grow on it. Even the rivers were heavily poisoned and their cattle died in hundreds everyday. Parashurama decided to pay a visit to Vasuki, the king of snakes.

Vasuki welcomed him to his underworld kingdom with all due honour. Once seated, Parashurama asked him the reason why his subjects taunted the poor people who lived on the new land. Vasuki replied quite calmly that the piece of land that Parashurama had ploughed out was a piece of his kingdom and that it was the home of his subjects. How could he, being a righteous ruler, ask them to move out of their homes?

After a long discussion, they reached a mutual decision. Parashurama told Vasuki that if he ordered his subjects to remove the poison from the land, he would see to it that he and his subjects were always revered and provided for by the people of the land. Should they fail to do so, Vasuki was free to order his subjects to punish them. However, they should leave the land alone. This proposition was acceptable to Vasuki and orders were immediately given to remove all poison from the land.

When Parashurama went back, he called forth the heads of sixty-five aristocratic families, imparted to them the ritualistic methods of doing Naga puja, and ordered them to have a shrine for the Nagas in each of their homes. This was duly done and all poison was withdrawn from the land. Kerala became one of the most fertile areas in the world. Crops thrived and people became very wealthy.

The sixty-five families that Parashurama chose are the sixty-five aristocratic Nair families of today…the so-called Kiriyath Nairs. Such snake shrines can be seen in the family homes of these Nairs even today. And the rituals are still performed with all respect. Every temple in Kerala will have a shrine dedicated to the snakes. This is tradition. But the reason for this tradition is what is narrated above.

These shrines are kept as natural as possible. They are usually circular bunds made of stone beneath an oak tree. None of the wilderness is ever cleared, save for the treading path. This is to ensure that the snakes feel at home in their natural surroundings. These shrines are usually located a little away from the house so that there is very little disturbance to its slithering inhabitants. A lamp is religiously lit at twilight every evening. Some families even have the custom of offering a saucer of milk everyday, though it has been proved by reptile specialists that snakes cannot drink milk.

Nairs were a martial race. They practiced Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art of Kerala. They vowed allegiance to naduvazhis (kings) and were expected to give their life for them. Every Nair boy joined kalari (military training school). Women were also given training in kalaripayattu up to a certain level (usually until onset of menses).

Travancore's Nair Pattalam (Nair Brigade) was famed for its strength. Travancore decimated the Dutch East India Company's forces in The Battle of Kulachal, effectively ending the Dutch influence in India. The Nair Pattalam proved to be more than a match for the technologically superior Dutch forces with artillery. The defeated Dutch governor Eustachius De Lannoy was so impressed that he took up service with Travancore and modernized the Travancore Army (which, till then, had been armed mainly with melee weapons) into an effective fighting force. De Lennoy modernized the existing firearms and introduced better artillery and, more importantly, trained the Travancore army in the European style of military drill and military tactics. He carried out his orders with such sincerity and devotion that he rapidly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the "Valia Kapitaan" (Commander in Chief) of the Travancore military and served in this position until his death.

The Travancore military that De Lannoy was instrumental in modernizing, went on to conquer more than half of the modern state of Kerala, and the Nedumkotta forts De Lannoy had designed, held up the advance of Tipu Sultan's French trained army during the Third Anglo-Mysore War in 1791 AD till the British East India Company joined the war in support of Travancore. ' After Veluthampi Dhalawa's revolt against the British, the Nair Brigade was also disbanded and they were prohibited from keeping arms, with the British East India Company undertaking to serve the Raja in cases of external and internal aggression. Most of the nairs turned to agriculture for livelihood.

The Nair brigade later became a part of British Indian Army. After independence, it merged into the Madras regiment of Indian army (9th and 16th Battalions) in 1954.

Tharavad[change | change source]

The social unit of Nairs was tharavad. It was a joint family where the females of the house lived together with sons. It did not include husbands and fathers. A person's tharavad will be the same as his mother's. The head of the tharavad was called karnavar, the senior most male member of the family. The members of the Tharavad consisted of mother, daughters, sons, sisters and brothers. The fathers and husbands had only a minimal role to play in the affairs of the Tharavad. It was a true matrilineal affair. The Karanavar took all major decisions, however, the consent of the eldest female member of the family was obtained before implementing the decisions. This eldest female member would be his maternal grandmother, own mother, mother's sister, his own sister or a sister through his maternal lineage. Since the lineage was through the female members, the birth of a daughter was always welcomed.

A Nair Tharavad

Marumakkathayam[change | change source]

The system of inheritance among Nairs was called marumakkathayam. This means the property passed from a male to his sister's son (the eldest among his sisters' sons). The father's role was played by maternal uncle.

Nalukettu[change | change source]

The special architecture of a nair home. Nalukettu literally means having four blocks. The house is build around a central courtyard on the four sides. The inner courtyard (nadumuttam) is a distinctive feature of this architecture style.

Even now, some houses built in Kerala incorporate some aspects of nalukettu architecture.

Thalikettu Kalyanam[change | change source]

Once in few years, a nair tharavad conducted thalikettu kalyanam where the young girls (~11 years) were married. The "husbands" were only ceremonial. The real marriage was sambandham. Either individual was free to engage with others through sambandhams.

Sambandham[change | change source]

This is the actual marriage. The man gives a pudava to the woman at the woman's house. This was a ceremony after which a man & woman may cohabit in the woman's house. The man known as sambandhakkaran had no right on property. The sons borne out of the relationship belonged to the mother's tharavad. The father had no responsibility towards the family. The father's role to the children was fulfilled by the mother's brother. Sambandham marriages were more contractual and dissoluble at will by both parties. Also, it was not unusual for both men and women to engage with other sexual partners since men. The paternity of a child was of little importance because of matrilinear system of inheritance. (The custom of groom giving a pudava to the bride in present-day Nair weddings originated from this)

Murakalyanam[change | change source]

The system of a guy marrying his maternal uncle's daughter is called murakalyanam (marriage by right) . It was considered a proper marriage since both of them belonged to different tharavad. Even now, there are people (though very rare) who marry their murappennu (bride by right) / muracherukkan (groom by right) according to this custom.

Mannathu Padmanabhan & Nair Service Society[change | change source]

The present day prosperity of Nairs, if any, can be attributed to Mannath Padmanabhan, a social reformer, freedom fighter. He was a progressive Hindu who recognized that untouchability was the curse of the Hindus. He dropped his title Pillai (a subcaste of Nair) saying that simply belonging to a caste is nothing to be proud of. (This later became a trend in Kerala. Many Keralites names are of the form [given name + father's name] without last name. He founded the Nair Service Society in 1914. NSS persuaded Travancore govt to do away with Marumakkathayam in 1920s and introduce direct inheritance from parent to children. Vaikom Satyagraha was a movement to allow the avarnas to use the roads near the Vaikom temple. The roads, which were open to Christians & Muslims were not open to avarna Hindus. The satyagraha was led by Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi knew that support of savarnas was crucial for the movement to succeed. This was ensured by Mannathu who led Nairs. As a result of his efforts, majority of savarnas themselves supported the satyagraha and at last the movement succeeded. The success of Vaikom Satyagraha later paved way for Temple entry proclamation, opening up temples to all Hindus, irrespective of caste.

NSS Headquarters

Nairs in present day Kerala[change | change source]

Nairs constitute around 14.5% of Malayalis concentrated in central and southern Kerala. They are the second largest community in Kerala and the major part of Hindu general (i.e.non SC/ST/OBC) population. NSS works as a pressure group for Nairs.

Prominent Nairs include V.K.Krishnamenon, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, M T Vasudevan Nair, Shashi Tharoor, Adoor Gopalakrishnan Pillai etc.

Other pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. Tyagi, Vidya Prakash. (2009). Martial Races of Undivided India, p. 282; India, Office of the Registrar General. (1965). Census of India, 1961, Vol. 7, p. 16.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Nāyar". Encyclopædia Britannica. (2011). Retrieved on 15 November 2011. 

More reading[change | change source]

  • Panikkar, Kavalam Madhava. "Some Aspects of Nayar Life," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, July-December 1918, Vol. 48, pp. 254–293.

Other websites[change | change source]