ETHNONYMS: Bhattadiripad, Namboodiri Brahman, Namboodiripad
The Nambudiri Brahmans are one of a number of caste groups living in Kerala State, India. Most of the description given in this article refers to Nambudiri society as it existed circa 1900. Traditionally, they were a wealthy aristocratic landed caste group of highest ritual and secular status, who maintained their position by the practice of primogeniture and a complex relationship with lower-ranking matrilineal castes including the Nayars. After the advent of the British toward the end of the eighteenth century they gradually lost their political power. They rejected Western education early on and, apart from those few who took to communism, became entrepreneurs in the second half of the twentieth Century, or managed to get an advanced education, the majority in the 1990s are living in much-reduced circumstances.
Traditionally the Nambudiri Brahmans have lived on the southwest coast of India, in what is now the state of Kerala. (For a description of the area see the article on Nayars.) The Nambudiri Brahmans today make up less than 1 percent of the Hindu population of Kerala, but their status as the former elite of the state makes them important to document. The Nambudiri Brahmans speak Malayalam, a language belonging to the Southern Branch of the Dravidian Family of languages.
History and Cultural Relations
The early history of Kerala is very complex and there are many problems remaining to be resolved by historians. The history of the Nambudiri community still presents a number of puzzles. According to the legendary Keralolpatty (a traditional account of Kerala history, set down in writing in the eighteenth century), Brahmans were brought to the southwest coast of India by the sage-warrior Parasurama, and they settled in thirty-two grammam (from Sanskrit grama, "Community") in the South Kanara District of Karnataka State and in thirty-two grammam in what is now Kerala. Those who settled in Kerala are said to be Nambudiri Brahmans. Each grammam had its own temple and its own set of authorities for religious and secular law and its enforcement. Most of the grammam were localized geographically with their illams (large manorial homes) located within a 16- to 40-kilometer radius of the temple. However, the territory of one grammam might overlap that of another, as they were not communities in the usual sense. There is considerable argument among historians as to when the Nayars became matrilineal, some stating that this started in the tenth century a.d. and others seeing it as being rooted either in an earlier tribal matrilineal system or perhaps in an earlier bilateral system such as is found in Sri Lanka. There is some evidence from their customs and from physical characteristics that the Nambudiris came from outside the area.
The heyday of the Nambudiri system was between the twelfth and the seventeenth centuries. The majority of Modern historians hold that they came to Kerala between the first and fourth centuries a.d., though there are some—such as E. K. Pillai—who believe they came later. Prior to the British, in some parts of Trichur Taluk (subdistrict) of Cochin State, which had the densest Nambudiri concentration, the area was ruled by the heads of the Vadakunnathan and Perumanam temple boards. Where they did not rule directly, or where their rule was weak, they would align themselves with different matrilineal rulers. When the Zamorin of Calicut was expanding his kingdom, he needed the allegiance of the heads of the two largest temple boards of Cochin to capture power. When the Maharaja of Cochin recaptured part of his kingdom, he had to break the power of the Nambudiri illams in Trichur.
Apart from their direct political control, Nambudiris were often able to exercise considerable indirect power Because of their status as the highest spiritual authorities in Kerala.
(For general details see the article on Nayars.) The geographic distribution of Nambudiris in Kerala was never completely uniform. Certain areas were noted for containing thick Nambudiri concentrations, particularly in parts of South Malabar and Cochin where they also had the most Direct political control. This was the area where the greatest amount of land could be given over to rice cultivation. (With traditional tools and technology, control over paddy land was a major source of wealth.)
Nambudiri Brahmans had the unique role of being considered above and beyond territorial concerns. They would go from one ruler to another and carry messages. They had an essential communication function for the preservation of the then-existing political system, and they were considered to be good diplomats.
(For general details on the area see the article on Nayars.) Traditionally, the vast majority of the Nambudiris derived their subsistence from the income of their medium to large landed holdings. They were not expected to participate in the life-crisis ceremonies of castes lower than themselves, apart from the coronations in a few of the ruling houses. They all had at least a few servants in their homes. Some Nambudiris, slightly lower in rank, performed rituals at well-known Temples (though many of these also had rituals performed by Embrandiri Brahmans from South Kanara District of Karnataka State and by Pattar Brahmans from Tamil Nadu).
Traditionally, the Nambudiri Brahmans lived off the income from their lands, although a few also worked in large temples. They spent considerable amounts of time learning and reciting Sanskrit slokas and many of them were famous scholars and teachers of the Vedas. They also participated in sacrifices.
Under the traditional land tenure system, the Nambudiri Brahmans held land primarily as the rulers or as a direct grant from a ruler. They did not deal with that land directly, preferring to leave agricultural management to tenants and subtenants. Their land was held as an impartible inheritance by the eldest son, though younger sons and unmarried daughters were eligible to be supported by the income from the property. The land tenure laws passed in the 1920s and 1930s made the Nambudiri property partible. The major land reform law measures passed in the early 1970s plus a series of Supreme court decisions that provided for permanency of tenure for their tenants and gave ownership rights to the lowest rung of tenants have had the effect of causing many of the Nambudiri Brahman households to be severely impoverished.
The Nambudiri Brahmans were patrilineal and practiced primogeniture. They were divided into various status groups, the most significant one being the division between the Adhyans and the Asyans. The Adhyans (recognized by the suffix -pad at the end of their names) were the wealthiest and most powerful. There was a tendency for the eight most powerful of the Adhyans to be endogamous. The highest-ranking Asyans were the ones who had the right to recite the Vedas.
Kinship terminology follows a modification of the Dravidian pattern. There is a striking absence of terms to refer to affines not actually living in one's illam, indicating that affinity was not a critical principle of the system. Once a girl was married she was totally amalgamated into her husband's Family and used the same terms that he used. The only affines even given a term are the mother's brother and mother's brother's wife. The other significant difference from the rest of south India is the absence of a distinction between cross and parallel cousins. Among Nambudiris both are considered to be similar to one's own brothers and sisters and both are forbidden as marriage partners.
Only the eldest son was allowed to take a wife or wives from his own caste. The younger sons either remained celibate or else formed permanent or semipermanent liaisons with women from the somewhat lower matrilineal castes (see the article on Nayars).
Although only the oldest son could marry, he was allowed up to three wives at a time. Girls tended to be married to households within a two-to three-days' walk from their Native illam. Postpubertal marriage was most frequent. Dowries were quite high, and getting a girl married was considered a burden to her family. Sometimes a man might take a second wife in exchange in order to save on the dowry for his daughter. After marriage a girl had no rights in her natal home, and whether she was happy or miserable she simply had to bear it. Many Nambudiri women felt that being a Nambudiri woman was the worst fate any human being could have, and they sometimes prayed that no one should ever "be born a Nambudiri woman."
The size and composition of the domestic unit has varied over time. Traditionally it included a man and his wife or wives and their children, his unmarried brothers, and any unmarried sisters that might remain. It was often a three-generation unit with power and authority always vested in the oldest living male. When laws were passed permitting younger sons to marry, households sometimes came to include the wives and children of brothers, though by then these large households had begun to partition.
Traditional inheritance was in the male line and property was kept intact through the rule of primogeniture and impartibility. This has greatly changed since the 1920s and 1930s.
(See the article on Nayars for general background information.) When at the end of the eighteenth century the British took over direct political control in Malabar and came to play a major role as advisers in Cochin and Travancore too, the Nambudiris, deprived of their political role but still maintaining their status as religious authorities, withdrew to their estates. They remained aloof, preferring to reemphasize their spiritual sanctity and purity. In the first quarter of the twentieth century some of the Nambudiri youth became involved in the Nambudiri reform movement. Through this activity they became directly involved in politics, with many of the older sons aligning themselves with the Congress party but most of the younger sons and women joining the Communists. The head of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for the past twenty-five years, E. M. S. Namboodiripad, came out of the earlier Nambudiri reform movement.
Traditionally, social control was exercised through fear and shaming. Traditionally conflicts were handled by the caste elders. A special kind of court was held for females who were even suspected of committing adultery. These courts came to an abrupt end when one Nambudiri woman named sixty-four men (some quite well known) with whom she claimed to have committed adultery. Today, local conflicts are handled by the village panchayats and more serious and wide-reaching matters by the civil authorities.
Religion and Expressive Culture
The Nambudiris are Hindus. The higher-ranking Nambudiris perform pujas (individual worship rituals) and sacrifices in their own homes but do not work as ritual specialists for Others. The main pujaris (temple priests) are Tamil Brahmans or Brahmans from South Kanara, though in a few temples there are also Nambudiri or Kerala Brahmans. Kerala has been innovative in providing training and certification for well-trained lower-caste pujaris.
The most important ceremonies celebrated in Kerala among Hindus are Vishu, Onam, and Thiruvathira. In addition, traditionally there were numerous temple festivals, and on occasion Nambudiris were involved in performing Important large Vedic sacrifices (Agnicayana), which could take as long as ten days and required months of preparation. Traditionally, no non-Brahmans were supposed to hear the words of the Veda or be present during a Vedic sacrifice. As among all Hindus, there is a strong belief in reincarnation.
See also Nayar
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JOAN P. MENCHER