Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Kerala Brahmins – moving with the times

Kerala Brahmins are called Nampoothiris. How long have they been present in this small State in the southwestern corner of India? The legend is that Lord Parasurama created Kerala from the sea and settled several Brahmin families in the new land. Another view is that Kerala emerged from the waters of the Arabian Sea due to some geophysical phenomena in the distant past.

Whatever that might be, undoubtedly the Nampoothiri presence in the State goes back at least a millennium. It is believed that stringent caste system was introduced in Kerala around 9c CE. All through their known history the Nampoothiris have made great contributions in many fields.

During the centuries that have passed the rituals, practices and conventions of the Nampoothiri community remained more or less stagnant. This naturally led to practical difficulties as times changed. Eight years back a committee of fifteen acharayas was formed by the Yogakshema Sabha Vidika Parishad to look into the problem. After in-depth studies and intense debates this peer group modified and codified the traditional practices and rituals of the community.

This alteration covers sixteen major areas including Nompoothiri veli (marriage). This function, which was spread over four days, has now been recast into four kriyas conducted in a single day.

I understand that the reformation is done without disturbing or compromising the traditional conventions, convictions and canons. The revision is based on the belief that Brahmin culture is established by the sages for the good of mankind and the ultimate objective of blending with the Paramatma.

Azhuvancheri Thamprakkal, who is the doyen of the Nampoothiri community, announced the new code earlier this month. In my humble opinion, this is a great stride in bringing the nampoothiris in fusion with modern times without diluting the basics.

(This is based on a report in Malayala Manorama of April 13, 2008.)


Also see:

Vedas, Syrian Christians


Guru said...

I am not sure that all Kerala Brahmins are Nampoothiris. Are Kerala 'Iyers' Nampoothiris? I asked this question years ago to a few of our family friends, and they said that there is a dividing line between them and Nampoothiris.
I did not press about this 'dividing line' as it meant probing them further which I thought was not a civilsed intrusion. The great Adi Sankara of Kaladi was the most famous Nampoothiri to date. The other known person coming from that community was E M Sankaran Nampoothiripad. He was a surprising Marxist from that God-fearing community which gave to the world the greatest Advaita Philosopher, the sage from Kaladi
Perhaps the philosophy of Karl Marx appealed to EMS more! I listened to the speech delivered by EMS in 1958 at the Townhall grounds in Mysore. He tended to stammer frequently. He came to the ground by walk escorted by a few comrades from the modest office the communists had nearby in Irwin Road. Obviously I did not agree with what he way saying, but his modesty was impressive. Even my father did not say anything about my attendance to that EMS meeting. He a scholar of Advaita seemed to be comfortable with his son going to listen to Nampoothiri pad speech who albeit was not a practising Nampoothri! VR Krishna Iyer his home minister then, who later became a Supreme Court Judge is not a Nampoothiri, I was told.
Is this because, he was from Palghat, whose ancestors perhaps migrated from Tamil Nadu ( nearby Coimbatore?)?

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Maddy said...

Namboothiris (tantric in belief) are as you mentioned different from the Iyers who migrated to Kerala from Tamil nadu.
there is a comprehensive site they have where you can find a good amount of detail ..
especially origins dating back to 2nd century AD.

the major migration of Iyers to Palghat (a theory) and other places started in 1565 during the famine in Tanjavur.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Guru, thank you for the comment. As far as I know, Kerala Brahmins are nampoothiris. There were two other influxes of Brahmins to Kerala, from Canara and Tamil Nadu. They are generally referred to as 'paradesi' Brahmins.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Maddy, thank you for the information.

Abraham Tharakan said...

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Guru said...

The best way to determine who theese 'Iyers' are is Not to go to namputhiri maintained website, but to ask a neutral historian and that I did years ago. But the date of migration from TamilNadu is often disputed as Kerala and Tamil Nadu had very open borders centuries ago. I can understand if one says that 'Namputhiris' as
'native brahmins' of Kerala. We had discussions about this with my collegues in the University of Trivandrum during my days in India
when I was an external examiner there.

Guru said...

Sorry for my typo in first line of my earlier posting.
Iyers vis-a-vis Nampoothiris raises a similar discussion point, this time related to Tamil Nadu. In Tamil Nadu, the equivalent to Nampoothiris are 'Gurukkals', the religious gate keepers of the temples who for centuries had the mandate derived right from rulers like the Cholas who built the magnificient Tanjore and Chidambaram temples and later Gurukkals influence gradually extended to other temples in Tamil Nadu.
Iyers vs Gurukkals here is a slightly different argument as Iyers like Gurukkals are natives of Tamil Nadu. The difference lies in the way Gurukkals followed for generations the practice of taking their dynnastically anointed positions in temples. As this was considered a s a restriction, they were given lands to stick to their vocation of the main carers and worshippers of the deities concerned.

Gurukkals in Chidambarams are unique the way their hairdo looked.
While generally all gurukkals had their long hair tied at the back of their head to form a tuft ( in Tamil it is called 'kudumi') these Chidambaram gurukkals' hairs were tied at the front of their head to form 'a munkudumi' that is knot in the front. Chidambaram gurukkals were a stubborn lot and not even Karunanidhi in 1960s could break their hold over the temple.

I understood from my friends who were Kerala iyers and Nampoothiris,that marital relationaship between them was forbidden in practice, similar to
Iyers and Gurukkals in Tamil Nadu.
I am talking about the precepts and practices until 1950s.

Maddy said...

guru - The namboothiris site talks about namboothiris only and not iyers.
Abe - as you mentioned, a subset of Nambuthiris apparently migrated from Tulunad..

bhattathiri said...

One of the greatest poetess, story writer and novelists in Kerala is Lalithambika Antherjanam who can be called and a literary historian and her writings are a heavily debated topic. Because of her earnest effort today women are largely educated and daughters are thought to be as prized as sons. Kerala has been praised for its treatment of women because of characteristics such as these. However, Lalithambika Antherjanam's writing speaks to some of the problems for Malayali women especially namboodiri women were often forced into seclusion in their homes, especially during adolescence. If they went out they would have to cover themselves. Even among other castes, the place of women in Kerala society is questioned. While women have had the opportunity to be educated for many years in Kerala, this education has not necessarily meant an elevated position in society Kerala society. Her independent -view and their realistic style make them part of a broader phenomenon of modernity through which, writers and thinkers around the world have tried to move away from the traditional cultural paradigms into the certainties of the age of the scientific temper. Although she was part of the most powerful priest cum landlord Brahmin caste of Kerala, her life-work was the exposure and destruction of the hypocrisy, violence and injustice with which women were treated in Namboodiri society. She was not allowed to study in school, and could only glean scraps of information about the outside world through male relatives who were kind enough to tell her about current affairs. "The stories and the autobiographical fragments in this collection are engaged and critical accounts of life in Namboodiri households. Set in the thirties, forties and fifties, these texts bring alive the world into which Lalithambika Antherjanam (1909-1985) was born. They record in vivid detail the physical incarceration, the mental agony and the terrorizing disciplinary holds of rituals of purity with an intimacy that can only come from one who writes from experience. Yet these stories are also accounts of individual women's protests, and these range from the ones that shake the polity, to ones that subtly re-order the immediate world. Surprisingly little known outside Kerala, her work provides invaluable insight into the little documented social reform and nationalist movements of Kerala. The introduction places the author and her work in the cultural history of Kerala." Her stories throb with the tormented reality of the Namboodiri illam or household: unbearable social restriction, rigid sexual mores, lives ruled by the maintenance of ritual purity, the extreme oppression of widows.

Abraham Tharakan said...

Bhattathiri, thank you for the comment.

You are right. ‘Agnisakshi’ by Lalithambika is one of the finest novels in Malayalam. I think that was the only novel she wrote.

Another interesting novel, this one about Tamil Brahmins settled down in Trivandrum, is strangely enough, written by a Christian lady. It is ‘Narmadipudava by Sara Thomas which won the Kerala Sahithya Academy Award in 1978. A worthwhile read, I must say.

snigdha G said...
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