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The Decline of Nair Dominance (Society and Politics in Kerala 1847-1908)

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Item Code: NAM968
Author: Robin Jeffery
Language: English
Edition: 2021
ISBN: 9789350980347
Pages: 421
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 540 gm
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Book Description

About The Book

This book tells the story of how a longstanding matrilineal society, in which women provided the reference point for the control of property, began to crumble in the late nineteenth century, eaten away by the demands of a modernized state and ridiculed by foreign missionaries and Hindu critics from elsewhere.

When the book begins in 1847, high-caste families, mostly Nairs, still held slaves, controlled most of the land in the southern princely state of Travancore and demanded humiliating deference from lower castes. When the book ends at the time of the First World War, land and wealth seem to be passing into the hands of Christians and lower castes, the latter are protesting against social discrimination and Nair critics are calling for reforms of matrilineal practices and even for the abolition of matriliny itself.

The book introduces intriguing characters, among them the longtime British Resident, General William Cullen, ‘ruin of many ladies of caste and respectability,’ according to disapproving missionaries; the brilliant Travancore Minister, Sir T. Madhava Rao; social reformers like P. Thanu Pillai; Father Emmanuel Nidhiry who challenged European bishops; the courageous Dr P. Palpu, who struggled for opportunities for lower castes; the poet and activist N. Kumaran Asan; and the redoubtable Mannath Padmanabhan, founder of the Nair Service Society.

Anyone who has walked the streets of Trivandrum, or pondered the remarkable social achievements of ‘the Kerala model of development’, will find in this book a vivid evocation of a time in history and an essential foundation for their understanding of ‘God’s own country’.

About The Author

Robin Jeffrey first visited Kerala in 1967. The Decline of Nair Dominance grew out of a doctoral thesis submitted to Sussex University in 1973. He is the author of Politics, Women and Well-Being: How Kerala Became ‘a Model’ (3rd edn 2011), India’s Newspaper Revolution (3rd edn 2010), and co-author with Assa Doron of Cell Phone Nation (2013). He is a Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.


When I did the research for this book between 1970 and 1975, thousands of Malayalis had just begun to seek work in the Gulf, the Kerala tourist industry barely existed and Arundhati Roy was another one of thousands of middle-class children humming the hits from The Sound of Music that played non-stop from Kasargod to Kanyakumari. In 2014, more than two million Malayalis work in West Asia, more than two million foreign tourists come to Kerala each year and Arundhati Roy is a household name. Kerala has changed a lot since this book was first published in 1976 and even since its last reprint in 1994.

The reason for a reprint in English is that the book is still in demand in Kerala where earlier editions are now hard to find even in libraries. Though there has been much scholarly research on Kerala history and politics since 1976, this book still provides a readable account of an enthralling moment in modem Indian history. The period is the sixty years when practices implanted through British dominance hollowed out matrilineal institutions in the princely state of Travancore, which occupied the southern portion of today’s Kerala.

The book is not solely about matrilineal practices (i.e., descent and inheritance traced through women, not men) nor, in spite of the main title, about Nairs. When I wrote the book, I was trying to understand what happened when written legal codes, public works departments and such apparatus of a modem bureaucratic state were imposed in a comer of India. But as I began to investigate this line of inquiry, the dramatic story of the dissolving of matriliny emerged as a central aspect.

Many people read the titles of books, but not so many read the books themselves. The title of this book needs a little explanation, because it has often been misunderstood. The Malayalam translation has not helped. Nayar Medhavittvattinte Patanam when translated back into English is sometimes rendered as ‘the destruction of Nair rule.’ I’ve sometimes been greeted by people who cheerily said, ‘Oh, you are the person who wrote the book about the destruction of the Nairs. To paraphrase the disclaimers at the end of movies: no Nair is destroyed in this book. Indeed, people who identify as Nairs have fared at least as well as anyone else in Kerala over the past hundred years of head-spinning change. Perhaps the subtitle does a better job of capturing the scope of the book: ‘society and politics in Travancore, 1847-1908.’

Anyone who visits the towns of southern Kerala will find vestiges of that time: the gravestone of the good-old, bad-old General William Cullen in the churchyard in Alleppey; CMS College in Kottayam; the Government Guest House on Ashtamudi Lake in Quilon; the Secretariat, General Hospital, Napier Museum and Victoria Jubilee Town Hall in Trivandrum. And Trivandrum’s favourite landmark - ‘statue junction’ - where Sir T. Madhava Rao, a leading figure of this book, stares sternly at the Secretariat. But though remnants of those days survive, much else has disappeared, just as most of the grand taravad houses have vanished. I suspect too that some of the records that I had the privilege of reading 40 years ago will by now have dissolved into dust.

In 1971 when I was researching this book, there were 21 million Keralites; in 2011, there were 33 million. New generations may find something of interest in a foreigner’s attempt to understand their forebears.

I am grateful to Ramesh and Ajay Jain at Manohar for agreeing to reprint the book and to bring out an affordable paperback. And I am forever grateful to Malayalis for the kindnesses I have received from them and the immense pleasure I have derived from puzzling over their history.


This is a study of social and political change resulting from the impact of a cash economy, western-style education, improved communications and a British-inspired system of law on the complex social structure of an Indian princely state. Specifically, this study deals with the breakdown of the matrilineal social system which prevailed in Travancore among a large section of high-caste Hindus, and with the growth of social assertiveness and political aspirations among low-caste Hindus and Christians. It is the story of a ‘dominant caste’ being brought down from comfortable supremacy over its neighbours to keen competition with them in 60 years.

In every region of India the period from about 1850 to 1910 was one of striking change. To describe the processes at work, one turns to words like ‘anglicization’, ‘modernization’, ‘secularization’. There are also impressive illustrations. In 1849, the uneducated great-grand-uncle of Prakash Tandon fought with the Sikh army against the British at the Battle of Chilianwala in the Punjab; by 1910 Tandon’s father was a senior engineer in British service.’ Perhaps nowhere in India, however, were the changes of these years so dramatic or so little known as in the Malayalam-speaking region of Kerala on the southwestern coast. In 1859 it took six weeks to travel by bullock cart from Madras to Travancore; in 1903 the railway journey to Quilon took thirty hours.’ In the 1850s the Travancore government enforced caste laws which required most women to go bare-breasted; in 1915 a Travancore woman on a government scholarship graduated in medicine from the University of London.

The modern linguistic state of Kerala, created in 1956, was formed from areas which were under three distinct governments yet shared a common language and culture when the British ruled India. The northern portion of the present state was the British Indian district of Malabar, a part of the Madras Presidency. South of Malabar was the small princely state of Cochin, and to its south again, the princely state of Travancore, covering an area of about 7,600 square miles, stretching from Cochin to Cape Comorin.

Although Vasco da Gama found Kerala divided into dozens of rival principalities when he landed at Calicut in 1498, the region had an ancient cultural unity. According to the Brahminical tradition, the creation of Kerala resulted from the banishment from India of the god Parasurama. Having nowhere to live, he won the permission of Varuna, the god of the sea, to reclaim all the land within a throw of his axe. Parasurama threw his axe from Cape Comorin to Gokarnam, the sea receded and Kerala was formed. To populate the new area, Parasurama introduced a special race of Brahmins, the Nambudiris, and gave to them ownership of all the land and unique customs which prevented their return to the India on the other side of the Western Ghats. Next, he brought Sudras - the Nairs - to act as the servants and bodyguards of the Nambudiris. He bestowed on the Nairs the marumakkattayam or matrilineal system of family and inheritance, and decreed that Nairs should have no formal marriage and that their women should always be available to satisfy the desires of the Nambudiris.

The legend, which is thought to date from the seventeenth century, constitutes an attempt to justify some of the most important features of traditional society in Kerala: the hold of high-caste Hindus on the land, the matrilineal system of the Nairs, their close relationship with the Nambudiris, and the Nairs’ military role. By inference the legend also sought to justify the debasing subservience which Nairs extracted from their caste inferiors. Ritual pollution, which in the rest of India was transmitted only by touch, could in Kerala be communicated over distance. A Nambudiri, seeing a man of the slave castes a hundred yards away, would consider himself polluted and undergo a series of purificatory ceremonies.

Travancore fell under British suzerainty and received a British Resident in 1800, but it was fifty years before the effects of the British connection began to show upon the dominance of high caste Hindus, particularly Nairs. What was the extent of that dominance in the mid-19th century? In most villages or desams of Travancore, Nairs, or their much less numerous Nambudiri or Kshatriya patrons, were the chief landholders. To be sure, in north and central Travancore there were desams in which the biggest landholders were Syrian Christians, but in most of Travancore they were Nairs. Nairs, moreover, held slaves, and in the pre-British period had been responsible for maintaining order. In the administration of Travancore, they held more than sixty percent of the posts; their only rivals were non-Malayali Brahmins. Their hypergamous, matrilineal system of marriage meant that the wives of the Maharajas of Travancore and of local Kshatriyas were Nairs. The younger sons of Nambudiris and some non-Malayali Brahmins also entered into marriage alliances with Nairs. In a state dedicated to a Hindu deity, such as Travancore, Nairs enjoyed the privileges and power of being by far the most numerous ‘clean’ Hindu caste. Syrian Christians they could largely ignore, while from their caste inferiors - artisan castes, Shanars, Iravas and slave castes - they could compel the most exaggerated forms of submission and subservience.

The position of Nairs, therefore, squared fairly closely with the definition of a ‘dominant caste’ given by a modern anthropologist. A ‘dominant caste’ has ‘relatively eminent right over the land; ... power to grant land and to employ other castes ... [and thereby] to build up a large clientele, not [to] say an armed force; power of justice ...; generally speaking monopoly of authority ...; ... the dominant caste is often a royal caste, [or] a caste allied to royal castes …’ This is what is meant by ‘Nair dominance’ in the chapters which follow: not that Nairs were the largest landholders in every desam in Travancore, but that they were in most; not that every village officer and government official was a Nair, but that the great majority were; not that Nairs had the highest ritual status, but that their privileges far out-weighed their disabilities. This is not, therefore, the strictly defined village ‘dominant caste’ of some social anthropologists. All that is argued here is that in Travancore in the mid-nineteenth century about one-fifth of the population were people known as Nairs - ‘the’ Nairs suggests too much homogeneity - who had a number of common attributes and who were easily identified by non-Nairs; that these Nairs held most of the land in most of the desams, as well as most of the appointments under government; that they had a fairly high ritual status which gave them great advantages over low-caste people and non-Hindus in a traditional Hindu kingdom; that they enjoyed close relationships through their women with the small portion of the population who were their ritual superiors; and that this was ‘Nair dominance’.

From the 1850s, however, the balance of the political and social system was increasingly disturbed as new resources became available for which all men, regardless of caste or religion, could compete on fairly equal terms. The commercial or menial occupations of many Christians and low-caste Hindus, and their association with European missionaries, gave them advantages in this competition which Nairs did not share. Indeed, the economic pressures, changing values and rigorous legal system, which were the concomitant of the new resources, seriously weakened the Nair matrilineal joint- family and hastened its disintegration. As the bonds of the matrilineal family loosened, so did the hold of Nairs on the land.

In 1847 European missionaries in Travancore began a campaign to end slavery. Since the system of slavery was inextricably connected with caste, the missionaries’ campaign developed into a challenge to the principles of Travancore society and to the ramshackle administration. Slavery was abolished in 1855, and by the 1860s the Travancore government, responding to British pressure, had embarked on a vigorous programme of administrative and commercial reform. These reforms encouraged education and helped to extend a cash economy throughout the state.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s different groups responded to these changes in different ways. The importance of ritual status began to decline. The idea grew that a man should no longer be accorded deference on the basis of his caste but on the basis of his academic qualifications, his industry or his wealth. Educated Nairs were the first to use such new ideas politically. Nair officials increasingly questioned the right of non-Malayali Brahmins to hold many of the most lucrative posts in the government service. After a petition and agitation against such non-Malayali Brahmin officials in 1891, these Brahmins and the first generation of college-educated Nair government servants reached a brief understanding over patronage in the administration. However, Christians and low-caste Hindus, modestly prospering in the new economic climate, could apply the new ideas about ‘qualifications’ and achievement against their chief rivals - Nairs. The latter, moreover, were increasingly aware of the chaotic conditions of the matrilineal joint-family and increasingly sensitive to charges that Nairs, unlike caste Hindus in the rest of India, had no formal, legal marriage.

Travancore’s extraordinary rate of literacy facilitated communication between educated men in the towns and their castemen in rural areas. New ideas, aspirations and conflicts were not confined to an urban elite. The rate of male literacy in 1901 was 22 per cent, the highest in India, and in Travancore’s nine small towns, it reached 36 per cent, higher than that of Calcutta. By 1905 there were more than 20 Malayalam and English newspapers, and among most castes in most desams there were men able to read the newspapers aloud in coffee shops and by the roadside.

By 1908 educated members of various castes and religions were competing vigorously, and often bitterly, for positions in the government service. Many of the most important posts in that service were still reserved for high-caste Hindus, much to the anger and frustration of Christsians and low castes. Members of the first generation of college-educated Nairs had become deeply involved in palace politics in Trivandrum. Their aim, they asserted, was to win control of the highest posts in the government service from non-Malayali Brahmins and thus protect the interests of their castemen. By this time, however, the economic position of Nair joint-families having only modest holdings of land was obviously critical. The politics of the palace smacked of self-interest and delusions of grandeur. The report of a government committee set up in 1908 to investigate the matrilineal joint-family produced statistics which showed an alarming rate of land transfer from Nairs to Christians and low castes. The committee, composed entirely of matrilineal high-caste Hindus, took such a serious view of the situation that it advocated drastic changes in the law relating to the matrilineal joint-family. Yet it was this joint-family, according to the glorifiers of the Nair past, which had been the basis of Nairs’ way of life in prosperous, powerful days of yore.

To be sure, Nairs in 1908 had not lost all their advantages or been swept from power. They still held more land than any other group; but they were alienating it steadily. They still preponderated in the government ser-vice; but their dominance, based partly as it was on ritual status, was constantly questioned. They were, indeed, like a retreating army, trying to rectify internal problems of administration and supply while counterattacking in some areas and defending others. In the years after 1908 they painfully succeeded in resolving the problems of the matrilineal joint-family and in checking the erosion of their power. Yet in having to cling to what they had, Nairs were in sharp contrast to ‘dominant castes’ in other areas of India. Elsewhere, the ‘dominant caste’ in the twentieth century displaced the elite ‘service’ castes - generally Brahmins - and grew powerful. For Nairs, the unquestioned dominance which they enjoyed in traditional society vanished; the plural and competitive nature of Travancore society in the twentieth century made it impossible to achieve the political influence available to ‘dominant castes’ in other areas. To exercise power in future, men would have to rely on their skill in mobilizing increasingly wide popular support. The fusion of Nair sub-castes and the creation of a Nair political ‘community’, which some Nairs saw as the solution to the new problems of political power, were partially negated by the growing importance of class divisions among Nairs. All this was a far cry from the days of their idealized traditional glory, or, indeed, from the secure position which most Nairs held in 1847 when this story begins.

Abbreviations xi
Preface to the Reprint of 20 14 xii
Preface to the Second Edition xiv
Preface to the First Edition xv
Introduction xviii
1The Distribution of Resources, 1847: Nairs in Comfort 1
2Militant Missionaries: New Resources for Low Castes, I 847-60 34
3Travancore Transformed: New Resources for All, 1860-72 63
4Cash, Caste and Customs: The Effect of New Resources, 1872-91 93
5The Malayali Sabha and the Malayali Memorial: Out of Change, Conflict, 1886-89142
6The Brahmin-Nair Official Elite and its Competitors, 1891-1904 161
7‘Social Civil War’: Nairs at Bay, 1902-08 195
Epilogue: End of Matriliny: Beginning of Disillusion 230
Conclusion 241
Notes 248
Appendix 326
Glossary 327
Bibliography 333
Biographical Notes 359
Index 377

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