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The Namboothiri Community - A History

The Brahmanans of Kerala are known as Namboothiris. Historical evidences as well as their own traditions suggest that they came from North India and settled down in Kerala, migrating along the West Coast*. It is clear that they constitute links in a long chain of migration along the West Coast of India, carrying with them the tradition that Parasuraman created their land and donated it to them. In fact, one sees this tradition all along the West Coast from Sourashtra on; and the Brahmanical traditions in the Canarese (Karnataka) and Malabar Coasts are nearly identical to one another. According to that tradition, Parasuraman created the land between Gokarnam and Kanyakumari and settled Brahmanans there in sixty-four Gramams or "villages". As a result, the Brahmanans of Kerala share several common features with the Brahmanans of the Canarese coast; this also distinguishes them from their counterparts in the rest of South India. In the historical inquiry, this is extremely important. What is necessary is not to look for the place of their origin or the identity and date of Parasuraman but to ascertain the social function of such a tradition and examine the extent of linkages between the two regions and their cultures. It is stated that thirty two out of the sixty four gramams are in the Tulu-speaking region and the remaining thirty two, in the Malayalam- speaking region in Kerala. Recent historical research has identified these settlements on either side of the border. Those in Kerala proper are listed in the Keralolpathi, the narrative of Kerala history. They are:

a) Between rivers Perumpuzha and Karumanpuzha:
1.Payyannur, 2.Perumchellur, 3.Alattiyur, 4.Karantola, 5.Cokiram, 6.Panniyur, 7.Karikkatu, 8.Isanamangalam, 9.Trissivaperur, 10.Peruvanam.

b) Between rivers Karumanpuzha and Churni:
11.Chemmanda, 12.Iringalakkuda, 13.Avattiputtur, 14.Paravur, 15.Airanikkalam, 16.Muzhikkalam, 17.Kuzhavur, 18.Atavur, 19.Chenganatu, 20.Ilibhayam, 21.Uliyannur, 22.Kazhuthanatu.

c) Between river Churni and Kanyakumari:
23.Ettumanur, 24.Kumaraanallur, 25.Vennanad or Kadamuri, 26.Aranmula, 27.Tiruvalla, 28.Kitangur, 29.Chengannur, 30.Kaviyur, 31.Venmani, and 32.Nirmanna.

Of these, most survive today with the continuing Brahmanical traditions and the structural temples known as Gramakshetrams. Many find mention in the epigraphical records dating from the ninth century and a few are mentioned in literature. Moreover, every Namboothiri house claims to belong to one or the other of these thirty two settlements in Kerala. The historicity of the Grama-affiliation of the Namboothiris, therefore, cannot be doubted. It is possible that these settlements came up between the third and ninth centuries of the Christian era, i.e., the close of the early historical period in the history of South India, described by historians as the "Sangam Age", and establishment of the Chera kingdom of Mahodayapuram. There is a solitary reference to the northernmost, and thus possibly the oldest, of these settlements, namely Chellur or Perumchellur or Taliparamba, in the Tamil "Sangam" literature with a Vedic sacrificial background and the Parasurama tradition; but the rest of them are clearly products of a later period. It is also clear that all these had been not only established but also sufficiently prosperous by the beginning of the ninth century, when the Chera kingdom was ruling over Kerala from Mahodayapuram.

What is important is that when we begin to get historical evidence, they were well established around temples, controlling the temple and the vast estates of land that it possessed. The Gramam was synonymous with the temple and vice-versa. It will not be far too wrong to look at these settlements as so many agrarian corporations centered around the temples. In fact, much of the agrarian land in Kerala was under the control of these thirty-two Gramams or the several Upagramams they had - at least that is the impression that we gather from the inscriptions of the period. With such Brahmanical control of land and the population dependent on that land, it is not surprising that Kerala came to be known as brahmakshatram or where Brahmanans wielded the power of Kshatriyas. In fact, the statements in Keralolpathi as well as other historical sources, that it was the Brahmanans who put the Chera king on the throne, mean the same thing. In any case, the presence of the Brahmanans in the polity of that kingdom is really very strong. We see this at various levels, from the royal court down.

 As suggested earlier, the villages were organised around temples, which owned landed properties in large measure. Committees known as ur (oor), urar, or uralar managed these temples and their properties. These committees consisted of the prominent Brahmanan landowners of the locality and were, basically, concerned with their own interests in the landed property. The strong sense of community exhibited by such committees is remarkable. The committees are shown to have had a corporate character, taking decisions unanimously and carrying them out ruthlessly. Idiosyncrasies of individual members were never tolerated; nor was anything detrimental to the corporate interest of the bodies. Elaborate procedures, often following the prescriptions in the Dharmasastra texts, could be seen in the records, such as what is called the Muzhakkala kacham, which earlier historians like Elamkulam P.N. Kunjan Pillai took as designed to protect the interests of the tenants. This solidarity rendered them a very powerful group in society and this, coupled with the ideological tools such as Varnaashrama Dharmam and the Agamaic religion of the temple, enabled them to dictate the pattern of society. It is this that enabled them to be the kingmakers in every possible way.

Another element which helped them gain in power was the curious practice of arms which a section of Brahmanans in Kerala had. Known variously as the Chatter or Chattirar, these arms-bearing Brahmanans are seen in records from different parts of India from the post-Gupta period onwards. It is from Kerala that we have the clearest information about them. We hear about the significant institutions called Salais, which imparted military training to these Brahmanan youth in different parts of Kerala - some of them had been looked upon by the neighbouring rulers as a veritable military threat to them. They had no pretension of Vedic scholarship, but on account of their muscle power, they became a considerable force in society and politics. In the subsequent period, however, their profession of arms lost all relevance and they were reduced to the status of professionals performing the typically Namboothiri entertainment, part ritual and part art, known as Sanghakkali or Panayam Kali. In any case, Namboothiris had become a significant economic, social and political force by the time the Chera Perumals were ruling over Kerala. This justifies the statement of a modern historian that the polity under the Cheras of Mahodayapuram was in reality a Brahmanan oligarchy and that the Brahmanans constituted the real power behind the throne. And, there was indeed a council of Brahmanans in the Chera capital known as the Nalu Tali, the memory of which survives in four temples of Melttali, Keezhtali, Netiya Tali and Chingapuram Tali.

When the Chera kingdom disintegrated in the twelfth century, the influence of the Brahmanans did not, nevertheless, decline. In fact, we see them deciding the course of history with renewed vigour. The practice that the eldest son succeeded to the estates of the family continued and was strengthened by accepting the custom, that only he was eligible to marry within the caste and father children to inherit the properties of the family, which nearly got the force of law. This resulted in the consolidation of the properties, but also led to the extinction of several families. The properties of such families went to their near relatives and this led to the rise of huge landed magnates among Namboothiris in these medieval centuries. Correspondingly, the insistence of unanimity in the meetings of the temple committees is no longer seen. Also, one comes across attendance by proxy being allowed in such meetings. All this led to the consolidation of feudal tendencies and the consequent growth of landlordism. It was not, contrary to what some historians have held, a case of the cruelty and caprice of Brahmanans who deprived the non-Brahmanan landowners of their landed properties. Differentiation on the basis of wealth also led to differences in ritual status. We start getting Namboothiris of infinitely varying ritual status from this period onwards. Increased wealth and political power led to greater leisure, which made possible the creditable intellectual and cultural contributions by members of this community. It also resulted in greater licentiousness. The literature of this period, in both Sanskrit and Manipravalam, which was a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam, gives us a picture of such easy-going life, as do other forms art in this period, including the Devadaasi dance and the theatrical performances such as Koodiyattam and Koothu. It is for this reason that this period earned the rather appropriate sobriquet of being the "orgiastic period" of the Namboothiris.

The period after the fifteenth century witnessed major changes in the course of the history of Kerala. Trade with the western world, first via Arab Muslims and then directly through the Portuguese and the Dutch, brought about a major transformation. The Namboothiris failed to read the writing on the wall and adapt to the changed situation accordingly. They lived in a make-believe world of feasts and Kathakali and games of chathurangam and the like, unmindful of the winds of change that were blowing around. When the trading companies got gradually transformed into political masters, the Namboothiris again lagged behind. Probably believing in the permanence of the landed wealth they had, they refused to take to English education and thus make use of the immense opportunities offered by the colonial state, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the country. The cynicism that resulted, expressed itself in the form of the proverbial Namboothiri humour and the poetry of the Venmani variety. It was somewhat unbearable for them to see their own tenants and children (of other castes, to be sure) being their rulers, this time dictating terms to them. This pushed them to initiate social reforms among themselves, demanding modern education, rights to property for all members of the family, proscription of polygyny and permitting even the younger brothers to marry within the caste. It was this 'Yogakshemam' movement during the early twentieth century, spearheaded by stalwarts like Kurur Unni Nambudiripad and V.T.Bhattathiripad, which brought about some semblance of modernisation to the community. When far-reaching land reforms were adopted in Kerala in the post-independence period, the Namboothiris received a further shock. Many of them lost their land and the only source of livelihood; but many others have taken to modern education and qualified themselves to compete with the rest of society in the modern world (To know more about this Click here ). However, nostalgia for what is perceived as a lost golden age continues, which often takes the form of an unfortunate revivalism and obscurantism as several associations testify.

* NOTE: Readers may note that the issue of whether there was an "Aaryan Invasion" of India, or they were indigenous to the land, or there was a series of migrations with resultant cultural absorptions and adaptations, is yet to be resolved. Archeologists, historians, linguists, social scientists, anthropologists, politicians, and a host of "experts" are still arguing and have not reached any consensus.

- Editor

| Article No:2. | Last update of this article:8th March 2001 |
Article prepared by Dr. Kesavan Veluthat. Dr. Kesavan Veluthat belongs to Veluthat Mana, near Tirur in Malappuram dt. His best contribution to Indian History is his studies on "Brahman Settlements in Kerala". He anchored a book in the same name which is now considered as the best source of information in the concerned area. Dr. Kesavan teaches History in Mangalore University.

Reading List:
Note: This is not a comprehensive bibliography. Those who are interested in greater details may go to the literature referred to in the works mentioned below.
1. Ganesh, K.N., "Keralattinte Innalekal" (in Malayalam), Department of Cultural Publications, Govt of Kerala, 1990.
2. Narayanan, M.G.S. and Kesavan Veluthat, "A History of the Namboothiri Community in Kerala", in "Agni" Edited by Frits Staal, Asian Humanities Press, Berkeley, 1983.
3. Narayanan, M.G.S., "Perumals of Kerala", Calicut 1996. (Published by the author.)
4. Rao, Nagendra, "The Historical Tradition of South Canara and the Brahmanical Groups: A Study of Gramapaddhati and Sahyadri Khanda", M.Phil. Dissertation (unpublished), Mangalore University, 1995.
5. Varier, Raghava and Rajan Gurukkal, "Kerala Charitram" (in Malayalam) Vallathol Vidyapitham, Sukapuram, 1991.
6. Veluthat, Kesavan, "The Brahman Settlements in Kerala: Historical Studies", Sandhya Publishers, Calicut, 1978.

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