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Caste In Kerala

Even though Kerala is today treated as one ethnic unit, there are many caste groups and local customs in Malabar or North Kerala, which are not known to the people of the South, formerly called Travancore. Hindus, Christians and Muslims live almost as exclusive communities. Hindus had among them Brahmins and non-Brahmins. In the days of Narayana Guru, non-Brahmins ranged from the most touchable to the least touchable. No rational sociological norm is implied in this classification. These castes have evolved and crystallized in relation to hereditary trades and work opportunities. The caste in Kerala has nothing or very little to do with what is popularly known as the fourfold division of Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra. Even among the Brahmins there were sharp divisions based on their linguistic origin. There were MalayaliNambudiris, Tulu Pottis, Telugu Iyengars or Vaishnavaites and Tamil Iyers. Each one claims superiority over others.

Until recently Malayali Brahmins practiced the most heinous sociological crime of keeping women of a certain section of the Hindu community as concubines, without having the obligation of a responsible husband or father. As Travancore, Cochin and Malabar were under theocratic rule for a long time, these Nambudiris managed to keep the Rajas of these states in a socio-political hypnosis and got large areas of land and temples under their undisputed hegemony. They used the land and the favor of the Rajas to give a social acceptance to their illegitimate relationships which were known as sambandham.

Certain powerful Nair chiefs were 'baptized' by the Brahmins with a hocus-pocus ritual of making them 'Raja-designate' to be symbolically born out of a golden cow. The priest's fee was the golden cow. Thus the Kshatriyas of Kerala are homemade products. Nairs were a martial class. They had gymnasiums conducted by Kurups, where they taught martial arts.

Besides Brahmins and Nairs, there were temple attendants such as Warrier, Pisharadi, Marar etc. All of them enjoyed certain social privileges that were not shared by the rest of the Hindu community. There was also a large community who acted as a buffer group between the touchables and the untouchables. They are known in Travancore as Ezhavas, in Cochin as Choyas and in Malabar asThiyas. The common link between these three groups was their hereditary trade interest in extracting coconut and palm wine and running breweries. This factor does not exist any longer. Others now share this trade too. They show a definite left-wing protest in their attitude towards relating themselves to Brahmins. The price they had to pay was heavy. They lived more or less as outsiders to the Hindu Society. In the coastal areas like Tellicherry and Cannanore, they easily mixed with European adventurers and Arab pirates. Thus we can see there, many fair-complexioned and blue or brown-eyed Thiyas. Socially and economically they were under-privileged. In this group there are a number of families who remained as pockets of the last vestiges of the Buddhist culture. The Pali language, Sanskrit and Ayurvedic Medicine distinguished these families from others. Then there came the poorest of the poor, who were real children of the soil--the Bhumiputras. They were branded as untouchables. Kuravas, Pulayas, Pariahs and the tribals, all have their own traditions reaching back to antiquity. Perhaps the first Mohenjodaro drummer, Shiva himself, was a Pariah(para=drum).

In one of Swami Vivekananda's letters, he writes of the despicable caste system of Travancore as the most horrid experience he had in his wanderings in India.

It was into this dark chapter of Indian history that Narayana Guru came in the 1850s. His own caste is described as Ezhava. In his abundant sense of humor, he once described the Ezhava as an unrecognized weed in the garden of the caste scruples.

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