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Identification. The Nayars are one of a number of caste groups living in Kerala State, India. Most of the description given in this article refers to Nayar society as it existed around 1900. Traditionally they were warriors, landowners (who supervised but rarely worked the land), and rulers. Toward the end of the eighteenth century they began to abandon their role as warriors and gradually lost their political power. They took to Western education early on and came to form a Significant proportion of the professional and white-collar class by the middle of the twentieth century.

Location. Traditionally Nayars belong to the southwest coast of India, in what is now the state of Kerala. It is a long, narrow area bounded on the west by the Arabian Sea and on the east by the high ranges of the Western Ghats. The area may be divided into (1) a narrow alluvial coastland extending only a few miles from the sea and mostly confined to the area south of Ponnani (the lower two-thirds of the coastline); (2) low lateritic plateaus and foothills between 75 and 200 meters above sea level, covered with grass and scrub; and (3) the highlands. The central region forms the main area of traditional village settlement as well as the main area for rice cultivation. It consists of a continually undulating countryside, with long, narrow, winding paddy fields surrounded by hills and slopes that were earlier covered by thick vegetation. The climate is monsoonal with heavy rains from both the southwest (oncoming) and northeast (retreating) monsoons. The average temperature is 27° C.

Demography. The state of Kerala has the highest rural population density in India with 1,244 persons per square kilometer in Alleppey District, 1,182 in Trivandrum District, 1,052 in Ernakulam District, and over 800 in Trichur and Kozhikode districts (1981). Despite an exceptionally successful family planning program, these densities are expected to be even higher in the 1991 census because of the demographic pyramid. Sex ratios in Kerala approximate those in the "developed world," with 1,032 females to every 1,000 males (1981 census). Extrapolating from the census of 1911, which gave great detail about caste, it can be estimated that the Nayars make up approximately 15 percent of the present population of Kerala, or a number close to 3.8 million (as of 1981) or 4.3 million (based on approximate figures for 1990).

Linguistic Affiliation. Nayars speak Malayalam, a Language belonging to the Southern Branch of the Dravidian Family.

History and Cultural Relations

The early history of Kerala is very complicated and there are many problems remaining to be resolved by historians. The region was united between approximately a.d. 216 and 825, when the Malayalam era is said to have begun. By the Beginning of the ninth century a.d. the area was divided into a number of small kingdoms, each ruled by a Nayar or Kshatriya (higher matrilineal subcastes related to Nayars) royal family. Those families were relatively autonomous, owing little allegiance to any overlord. Between the thirteenth century and 1498 (when the Portuguese arrived in Kerala) two Nayar chiefdoms, Kolattiri in the north and Travancore in the south, expanded into small kingdoms. In the central part of the coast the Zamorin of Calicut was in the process of establishing ascendancy over many of the petty rulers and was slowly expanding his territory through an alliance with the local Muslims and Arab traders. Although the Portuguese and later the Dutch and the British built up the ruler of Cochin (another central Kerala coastal kingdom), the Zamorin's kingdom remained powerful until the invasions of the Mysoreans in the eighteenth century. After defeating the Mysoreans in 1792, the British amalgamated the seven northern kingdoms (including the reduced domain of the Zamorin) to form the Malabar District of the Madras Presidency. The kingdoms of Cochin and Travancore remained independent, though each had a British resident and many British businesses. When India became independent in 1947, Malabar District became part of Madras Province and Travancore-Cochin became a separate state; in 1956 the state of Kerala was formed, uniting the district of Malabar with the state of Travancore-Cochin.


In Kerala prior to the British period, communication was extremely difficult. There were no roads, wheeled vehicles, or even pack animals. Travel and the transportation of goods depended on human porters and boats plying the numerous rivers and backwaters as well as the seacoast. Only local rulers and petty chieftains could ride on elephants or horses, and even then their use was primarily confined to processions. Since Indian independence and especially since the formation of Kerala State, roads have been built linking all parts of the state and all villages by bus. A railroad now links the southern city of Trivandrum to Mangalore in the South Kanara District of Karnataka (apart from links to Madras and the rest of India); there is one international airport (at Trivandrum) and two regional airports (at Cochin and Calicut). By the mid-1980s all of the villages were electrified. The settlement pattern in Kerala has always been dispersed, with the house of each landowner standing on its own patch of higher ground. The actual physical features of the countryside do not encourage the formation of compact settlements, though today there is a tendency for some parts of settlements to hug the roads. It is impossible to tell where one Village ends and another begins. The ideal Malayali house was set in its own compound with its food-producing trees, so that the dwelling space did not subtract from cultivation space. Formerly (prior to the twentieth century) the large Nayar house, set in its own compound with its walls for protection, was a veritable fortress. Nambudiri Brahman houses as well as middle-class Tiyyar houses followed the same pattern. Every home had a name and the individuals belonging to a given house were known by that name. The members of low and Untouchable castes attached to a Nayar house were known also by the name of that house. Today settlements are still dispersed, though because of population growth many of the spaces in between have been filled in.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditionally the Kerala economy was extremely complex. The main Subsistence food was rice. It was supplemented by a wide variety of root vegetables and some leafy ones, eggs, fish, poultry, goat meat, and for most of the population (apart from Nayars and Nambudiri Brahmans) beef or water-buffalo meat. All of the Brahmans (about one percent of the population) and some of the higher-ranking Nayars (especially those that intermarried with Brahmans, see below) were vegetarian. Today, the diet includes bread and many other wheat Products as well as Western vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. It is hard to separate commercial activities from trade, but it is important to note that every village supports a large number of tea shops, toddy shops, general stores, and rice mills, as well as numerous other enterprises. Kerala has probably more small-size printing and publishing establishments than anywhere in the world.

Industrial Arts. Industrial arts unique to Kerala include a wide variety of products made from coconut fiber, the very advanced manufacture of traditional Ayurvedic medicines for worldwide distribution, the crafting of exceptionally fine gold jewelry in intricate traditional designs, bell metalwork, until recently very delicate ivory work, and the construction of traditional seagoing boats and ships. The newer products made in the region are discussed in the next section.

Trade. Apart from the fact that the society was extremely hierarchical with several layers of nonworking overlords, the region was not self-sufficient in rice production (the main subsistence grain) even in the fifteenth century. (Vasco da Gama reported seeing ships carrying rice in the port of Calicut in 1498.) However, the port of Calicut and many lesser ports were grand emporiums for export by sea in this period. Traders came from China, from the Middle East, and even from Rome. Because of the great demand in Europe for black pepper (at that time grown only in Kerala), one of the places Columbus was trying to reach when he sailed west was the port of Calicut. Apart from black pepper, many other items were traded there: other spices, copra, gems of many kinds, peacock feathers, rice (used medicinally in ancient Rome), teak and mahogany, elephants and ivory, and cloth of various kinds, including both cotton and silk. Today Kerala exports pepper, cashew nuts, frozen freshwater fish and seafood, woven textiles, and (to other parts of India as well as many third-world countries) paper and paper products, condoms and other rubber products, coir rope and other coir products, radios and watches, fruits, and fertilizers. However, Kerala's major export today consists of people, primarily Educated people, both to the Middle East and to the developed world. There are large numbers of Nayars working as doctors, lawyers, nurses, scholars, and other professionals in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain.

Division of Labor. Since the Nayars are part of an extremely hierarchical society with complex caste and class distinctions, it is hard to describe the division of labor simply. Traditionally, Nayars formed the militia of the countryside, as well as functioning as landlords. In some villages they were the highest level of landowners, in other villages they held the land on lesser tenures. In the extreme north of Kerala and in some parts of Cochin-Travancore, poor Nayar households actually worked the land. But in the rest of Kerala, while Nayars (both males and females) might supervise production, they did not work in the fields. This arrangement has changed to some extent in very recent times. Where Nayars worked in agriculture, the division of labor between the sexes was the same as that followed by other Malayali groups within a given region (though there were and are regional differences Between the north and the south).

Land Tenure. Traditional Kerala land tenure resembled the feudal system in Europe, with several levels of subfeudation and infeudation. Land was owned either by an Individual, an unpartitioned family, or a temple. The owners derived their income from rents or customary payments by their tenants and lesser tenants or subtenants. Often the Nayars were the tenants, the Tiyyars or Ezhuvas the subtenants, and the agrestic slave castes the manual laborers. However, there were some Nayar owners and some Nayar subtenants. A series of land-tenure laws was passed starting in the late 1920s in Travancore, culminating in major land-reform laws in the early 1970s and a series of supreme court decisions that provided not only for permanence of tenure but also for the gift of actual ownership rights to the lowest rung of tenants in the former hierarchy. As a result, one finds today a large class of small landowners, an even larger class of landless laborers, and a small number of larger landowners (some of whom were former tenants and held land from a number of higherranking landowners) who have found ways to circumvent the legal land ceilings.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Nayars were traditionally matrilineal. The traditional Nayar taravad consisted of all the matrilineally related kin, male and female, descended from a common female ancestor, living in one large taravad house and compound. The property was held impartible, and the several members each were entitled to maintenance within the taravad house but could not claim a separate share. This has all changed since the 1930s, when partition became legally possible. A traditional taravad was composed of a woman, her children, her daughters' and her granddaughters' children, her brothers, descendants through her sisters, and her relations through her dead female ancestors. Within each taravad a significant subgroup consisted of the set of Individuals headed by a living female ancestor called a tavari. When partitions became possible, they originally occurred on tavari lines.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology follows the Dravidian pattern, with the exception that kin terms traditionally were not used for paternal kin. Today, usage is completely of the Dravidian pattern with a clear distinction Between matrilateral and patrilateral kin. Mothers' sisters are called elder or younger mothers, and cross cousins are distinguished from parallel cousins, who are equated with one's own brothers and sisters.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage customs among the Nayars have evoked much discussion and controversy in India among both jurists and social scientists. There was considerable subregional variation as well as variation by subcaste and family prestige. Details presented here refer to south Malabar and the former Cochin State. There were two kinds of marriage: talikettu kalyanam (tali [necklet]-tying ceremony); and sambandham (the customary nuptials of a man and woman). The tali-tying ceremony had to be held before puberty and often the ceremony was held for several girls at the same time to save on expenses. Depending on the group the tali could be tied by a member of a linked lineage (often two Nayar Lineages that frequently intermarried were linked to one another and called enangar lineages), by a member of a higher subcaste of Nayars, by one of the matrilineal Ambilavasi (temple servant) castes, or by a member of a royal lineage. By the mid-1950s, it became common for some girls to have the tali tied by their mothers. It is still controversial as to whether this ceremony was ever a formal marriage or if originally it was simply an age-grade ceremony, since it often included a large number of girls ranging in age from 6 months to 12 or 14 years. Women did observe formal mourning practices for the men who tied their talis, and in some instancesfor example, if the girl was close to pubertyit was possible that the Marriage might be consummated during this ceremonial period. How often this occurred is unknown. By contrast, sambandan involved a man having a "visiting husband" relationship with a woman. While such relationships were considered to be marriages by the woman's family, especially when they occurred with males of higher subcastes or castes, the males tended to view the relationships as concubinage. Traditionally Nayar women were allowed to have more than one "visiting husband" either simultaneously or serially.

Domestic Unit. The size and composition of the domestic unit have varied over time. Before partition was permitted it could consist of as many as 50 to 100 people. However, once partition was allowed, the size of units decreased rapidly, so that by the late 1950s and 1960s the normal unit consisted of one or more married women with their children, their mother (if living), and possibly some adult male members of the matrilineage. Traditional Nayar family organization provided one of the relatively unique exceptions to the near universality of the nuclear family. The "visiting husband" had very Little importance in his wife's family and had no responsibility for any children he might sire. His main responsibilities were for his sister's children. The practice of polyandry also placed a limitation on relationships between men and their own biological children. Today households are even smaller, consisting often of only the nuclear unit, though a matrilineal relative of the woman might often reside with a married couple.

Inheritance. Traditional inheritance was in the matriline only. Any property a man possessed went to his sisters and their children. As men took to modern, Western professions and started accumulating personal wealth as opposed to Family property, they began passing it on to their own biological children. As a result, there are today slightly different laws regulating inherited and acquired wealth. However, even today it is customary for a man to put his self-acquired property in his wife's name so that it can then be inherited Matrilineally. Furthermore, a man feels greater responsibility for his sister's children than for his brother's children. Even men living away from Kerala in Delhi or New York are more likely to sponsor a sister's son or daughter than a brother's.

Socialization. Traditional socialization patterns involved a strong emphasis on the use of shaming as a technique of Control. Traditionally, in all but the poorest taravads, children (female as well as male) were expected to learn to read and write Sanskrit written in the Malayalam alphabet, and as soon as English education came to the region, boys started learning English. Girls only started learning English later. Socialization training strongly emphasized what people knew (i.e., keeping up appearances) rather than superego (i.e., internalized conscience and values).

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Society in traditional Kerala was highly hierarchical, with a fairly close (though not one-to-one) correlation between caste and class. Most of the landless, land-attached laborers were from the Untouchable castes and tribal groups. The semi-Untouchable Tiyyars or Ezhuvas tended to be tenants, and the Nayars (as noted above) generally held land on various levels of infeudation and subfeudation. Socially, each middle- or upper-class Nayar taravad was a core for social as well as political Organization. Today this has all changed, as taravads have split into smaller and smaller units, as population increase has blurred village boundaries even more, and as there are now areas where the normal Indian rural/urban distinction does not apply. Social ties today tend to be closest among members of the same caste and socioeconomic position, though among the educated elite caste distinctions are less prevalent. The Nayars were divided into a number of subcastes all Hierarchically placed, though the subdivisions varied from one place to another. In central Kerala, the highest-ranking ones were often referred to as Samantans. Some Samantans were powerful rulers. (The Zamorin of Calicut was a Samantan from the Eradi subcaste.) The Samantan women marry either other Samantans or Nambudiri Brahmans. The Nayars themselves included: Stani Nayars (local chieftains), high-caste Nayars who traditionally served in the military or in some other important capacity for Nambudiri Brahmans, Kshatriyas, or Samantans; the middle-ranking Nayars who did not intermarry or interdine with those higher than themselves, and who performed various tasks for the temple; and the small group of low-caste Nayars who served other Nayars as washer-men, barbers, and oilmongers. The majority of Nayars belongs to the high-caste groups.

Political Organization. The traditional political organization was feudal in nature with many small states. Rulers had only limited control. After the British occupation of Malabar and the posting of British resident officers in Cochin and Travancore, the state came to have greater influence. Since Independence, large units of approximately 10,000 to 12,000 people have been governed by an elected panchayat (village council). There is a large bureaucratic structure and an elected legislative assembly in the state. Politics and political parties, especially those of the left, have penetrated into every nook and cranny of the state.

Social Control. Social control is effected through the Family, through a general concern about what people will think or what people will say and a strong emphasis on bourgeois values.

Conflict. Traditionally, conflicts were handled by the caste elders. In the Middle Ages, many of the Nayar men were Warriors, fighting against neighboring principalities. Today, local conflicts are handled by the village panchayats, and largescale ones by the police and the courts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Nayars themselves are Hindus. However, in Kerala there are also many Christians (of various denominations) and Muslims.

Religious Practitioners. Nayars frequently attend Hindu temples. 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.

Ceremonies. The most important ceremonies celebrated in Kerala among Hindus are Vishu, Onam, and Thiruvathira. Traditionally, these were the three ceremonial occasions when a "visiting husband" was expected to bring new clothes to his wife. Vishu occurs at the same time as the Tamil New Year in mid-April. It is a time for wearing new clothes and also is considered the beginning of the summer. The first things a person sees that morning upon arising are said to Influence his or her life throughout the year. Onam (in August-September) is the harvest festival associated with the first paddy harvest. It is also the Malayali New Year. For Nayars it is extremely important not only as a time for getting new clothes but also because of the many rituals associated with it. Thiruvathira is in December, and it is said to be especially important for Nayar females, who have to take a bath in the family tank in the early morning before sunrise, sing a number of special songs, and perform a dance said to be especially beneficial as exercise for women.

Arts. Nayar culture is closely associated with the Kathakali dance dramas that developed in the 16th century. They involve elaborate headdresses and makeup. It takes many years to master the intricate dance techniques (traditionally performed by males only, though today some females are involved in them). Other arts associated with Nayars include the famous Kalari pattu (Kalari or armed gymnasium play) and female Kaikuttikali (a kind of dance). All art forms traditionally were related to caste. Nayars were often patrons of art forms that they themselves did not practice.

Medicine. The traditional medicine in Kerala is Ayurveda. It has been highly developed there, especially by the Variars, an Ambilavasi (temple servant) caste group that is also Matrilineal and shares many traits with Nayars. Today they run Ayurvedic medicine factories, nursing homes, and dispensaries. In addition, Kerala has a well-developed scientific medical system. Kerala doctors (including many Nayar doctors) and nurses may be found all over the world. There is no clash between Ayurvedic and modern or allopathic medicine, as they tend to be used to treat different diseases.

Death and Afterlife. As among all Hindus there is a strong belief in reincarnation. The dead are usually cremated.

See also Nambudiri Brahman


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