We learnt to see humans as humans because of modern education.”

- Ravi Sarma Raja, descendant of the Parur Raja, Parakkadavu, 2024

We learnt to see humans as humans because of modern education.”

- Ravi Sarma Raja, descendant of the Parur Raja, Parakkadavu, 2024

Land and Caste I

When Rajas and Landlords Speak

Land Ownership and Tenures

Land tenures are rules about who can use land, for how long, and in what ways. It depends on the agreements people enter into with the government or the local landlord. Land ownership worked differently for different castes and land tenures in Kerala, and it varied based on geography and the ruling authority.

In medieval Kerala, there were four main kinds of land ownership:

  • Janmam: This was a lifetime right held by Rajas, Namboothiris, temples, and naduvazhis. Naduvazhis had armies that they lent to the king in times of war and did not have to pay taxes to the king in return.
  • Kanam: This was a proprietorship tenure held by Nairs and sub-groups.
  • Verumpattom: These were temporary tenants with simple lease agreements and were given to Nairs, Ezhavas, Muslims, and Syrian Christians.
  • Agrarian Slaves: People belonging to Pulaya, Paraya, Cheruma, and other lower castes did the tilling, weeding, etc. They were tied to the land and could, in certain instances, be bought and sold.
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The main Poojari, the oldest living male in the family of the Parur Raja, rulers of the Parur Kingdom till the 18th century, walking through their grounds in Parakkadavu, Ernakulam. Image: JANAL Archives, 2024
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The Moozhikulam Temple, Ernakulam. An ancient vedic learning centre called Moozhikulam Shala existed near this temple. Moozhikulam was one of the original Brahmin settlements in Kerala. Image: JANAL Archives, 2024

The Arrival of the Namboothiris

“The story goes that most priestly clans, warriors, and landlords were killed during the Mahabharata War. The land became like a jungle, with no one to conduct poojas. It was then that Parashuraman brought Brahmins to settle on the land. The native Brahmins in Kerala are those who migrated from Andhra Pradesh.”

– M.D. Kaimal, NSS Secretary, Purapuzha, 2024

It is believed that Parasurama brought 64 Brahmins with him and settled them in 64 villages in Kerala. Historians estimate that there were more villages and of the original 64, 32 may have been in Tulunad. Edgar Thurston, in his Castes and Tribes of Southern India, mentions different sub-castes of Brahmins settled in Kerala in the early twentieth century: Embrantiri (Tulu Brahmins/Malabar), Elayad or Ilayatu, Jain Vaisya (Travancore & Cochin), Namboothiri (Malabar), Papini, and Pattar.

 

 

According to Rajan Gurukkal, contrary to the legend of Parasurama, which suggests royal initiative, the settlements were primarily the result of organised migration by select Brahman families from previous settlements. The fertile river valleys in Kerala provided an ideal environment for the settlements. These regions were often waterlogged and marshy and required extensive labour to be converted into agrarian fields. Agro-pastoral families staying along the hilly fringes of the marshy wetlands became their primary workforce. These families engaged in cultivating millet and paddy. Additionally, groups specialising in arts and crafts were permanently attached to Brahman lands through bonded labour arrangements.

Growth of Brahmin Settlements

The Brahmin settlements in Kerala were temple-centred. The temple committee looked after the property belonging to Brahmins and the temple. The land held by the temple was called Devaswom, and those held directly by Brahmins were called Brahmaswom.

“Some temples also had a Brahmin army. For example, places called shalas, like Moozhikulam Shala and Thiruvalla Shala, were places where, together with the shastras, the use of weaponry was taught. Among the Namboothiris, there was a group trained in weaponry called Shastra Namboothiri. When a decision was taken in the temple, they would stand outside with their weapons. There would be no opposing voices there. In the early periods, the Namboothiris themselves did the guarding duty; the Nair brigade and all came later. First, one had to scare the Nairs into submission before making them soldiers.”

– Vasudevan Namboothiri, a retired teacher and Assistant Education Officer, Puliyanam, 2023

The Brahmin settlements grew and began to amass wealth, influence, tenants, and servants over the centuries. Academic Pius Malekandathil mentions that from the initial low-lying paddy cultivating zones, the Brahmins moved to the mid-upland terrains of Kerala due to political developments.

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Paddy fields adjoining the Mattappally Mana in Puliyanam, a low-lying paddy cultivation zone, near Moozhikulam can be seen in the background. The fields do not belong to the Namboothiri family at present. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023.
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The entrance to the Bhadrakali Mattappally Mana at Puliyanam, near Moozhikulam. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Origin Myths Among Namboothiri Families

Vasudevan Namboothiri of the Bhadrakali Mattappally Mana in Puliyanam recounted the origins of the family as told by his ancestors:

“It was called Bhadrakali Mattappally because Bhadrakali was pleased or captivated and brought along by an ancestor. Badrakali was brought on a palm leaf umbrella. The ancestor said, ‘I cannot come and see you there, so come with me.’ And she was brought here. The umbrella carrying the goddess was placed on the ground and couldn’t be lifted again. And then Bhagavati’s presence was felt. This history is similar to that of other places. This same story is said of most places (with Bhagavathi).

 

Ravi Sarma Raja, a descendant of the Parur Raja, who lives in Parakkadavu at Vadakkepattu Madam on the other side of Moozhikulam, had a more grounded origin story:

The entire Parur (now known as North Paravur) taluk belonged to the Parur Raja, who abdicated around 250 years ago. He heard from spies that the Travancore Maharaja was about to attack Parur. If Travancore were to attack us, we would have nothing. The legitimation of kingship was the sacred sword (udawal). This sword was taken to the Sri Padmanabha Swamy temple in Travancore and presented to the deity (thripadiyinmel vachu). This was equivalent to abdicating one’s power, authority, and wealth. As soon as he heard it, the Travancore Raja went there and asked him why he did that. The Parur Raja said he did not have the power or capability to protect his kingdom if the Travancore Raja attacked: ‘If there is a war, people will suffer losses, and there will be damages.’

We believe this area must have been under the Parur Raja because we were allotted land here free of tax in those times. A house was built here by the Travancore king himself for our use. It was a thatched building. It does not exist anymore.

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The Bhadrakali Temple, owned by the Parur Raja family at Parakkadavu, was in the process of being rebuilt in 2024. When the original ettukettu house was built, the temple was part of the building. It was re-built in the exact location when the original house was dismantled in the past. Image: JANAL Archives, 2024.
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The Chalakudy river borders the property where Ravi Sarma Raja lives. The river was earlier used as a means of transport and is important in their rituals. Image: JANAL Archives, 2024

Landholdings

The Parur Raja had opted for paddy and money as a pension from the Travancore Maharaja.

“Our primary source of income 2 to 3 generations ago was the pension. My grandfather bought land with money saved from the pension. He also ran a chitty and used the initial payment of every chitty to buy more land. The buying began around 150 years ago, and he bought land in other people’s names because he felt entitled to receive only a pension. Later, these lands were made over in our names. We gave the paddy fields on lease to other people. There was a document called a pattasheet, which carried the terms and conditions of the lease—the quantity of paddy or money, and for Onam, this number of plantain bunches and so on—to be given to us. We sold the paddy we received as pattom. People would come here to buy the paddy via the river, and most of them were regular buyers, coming from places as far as Varappuzha.”

– Ravi Sarma Raja, descendant of Parur Raja, 2024

Screenshot of the judgement in the State of Kerala vs Ravi Sarma Raja. Image: www.the-laws.com

The family had to resort to legal battles post-Indian Independence to continue getting the pension. The quantity of paddy was converted into the current price of rice, and the amount of money (₹91) has been maintained in the payment. After litigation, it was decided that the eldest living male of the family would receive the entire amount, which he would distribute evenly among the remaining male members. However, since 2010, though the court had ordered that the money be paid, the government has not paid it. The female members of the family are not entitled to the pension since the Namboothiris follow patriliny.

Vaaram (a kind of tenancy) meant the land was cultivated, and the expenses were borne by the tenant. The harvest was brought to us here. We and the other half would take half the paddy and the hay by the tenant. This is called pakuthivaaram. Later, as a kind of compromise, half the land was given to them, and we retained the other half. The actual transaction happened after the government rule was brought into effect, though there was a mutual understanding even prior that this would happen. Only paddy fields were given.”

– Ravi Sarma Raja, descendant of Parur Raja, 2024

The land around the house had cash crops like nutmeg, mango, and others. Coconut and areca nuts were sold, while the other produce was mostly used for their consumption.

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Nutmegs in a row, lining the path between Raja’s house and the family temple. Image: JANAL Archives, 2024.
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The tharavad building within the Mattappally Mana. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

“Sometime in the 1400s, ten families named Mattappally merged into one. There is a possibility that they accumulated land following this merger…We don’t know the correct extent of the land given for lease, but we’ve heard it said that 35,000 para of paddy (1 para, approx. 10 kg) used to be received. The land was around 25 acres, including the hills, and the compound of the tharavad is 12 acres.”

– Vasudevan Namboothiri, retired AEO, Puliyanam, 2023

 

The family previously held land in places like Angamaly, Aluva, and Karukutty.

Expenditures

Namboothiri families faced shortages of funds in the last 100–150 years and had to venture into other fields to generate income.

“My father had started a few business ventures and incurred losses. It may have been because there was not enough income from land. He had a tile factory in Angamaly, which he sold and started another company in Ollur in 1962. That year, the State faced a severe power shortage. Moreover, we didn’t have the required business acumen. By 1970, it was a complete loss. Large Namboothiri households had other expenses.
When money was needed, it was borrowed from people or institutions. When it couldn’t be repaid in cash, land was sold. One reason money would have been needed was to pay for wedding expenses. In those days, medical costs were not much. Only the rich spent money on treatment. The rest of the people used local ingredients—oil and kuzhambu (ointment)—to treat diseases.

Marriage was one of the most expensive affairs in that period. Among the Namboothiris, there were more women’s marriages (because only the oldest male in the family was allowed to marry from within the community until 100 years ago).
Chorrunu, Upanayanam, Samavarthanam, Vivaaham, Pindam (the first ritual done after death), then Aandumasam, held one year after death—these six ceremonies held for a man are called aaradiyanthirangal (six ceremonies). They are held with a fair amount of ceremony. Although one couldn’t call these events extravagant, about 200 or 300 people would attend them.”

– Vasudevan Namboothiri, Puliyanam, 2023

The land surrounding the temple closest to Vasudevan Namboothiri’s house was cleared of weeds after the monsoon in November 2023. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

 

The running of the temples was another massive expenditure on the families. They would need to pay for the woworkers’alaries, maintenance of the buildings, the rice and other perishable goods used in the poojas, not to mention the various festivals that the community compulsorily celebrates, both now and in the past.

The Temples

“Kings and landlords coveted a position in the temple as it was one way to accumulate wealth.”

– Vasudevan Namboothiri, Puliyanam, 2023

Mattappally Mana had three temples and a sarpakavu (snake abode). In contrast, the Parur Rajas had one temple belonging to the family, two other temples belonging to the Devaswom, and a sarpakavu on their grounds. Their family members do the pooja in the Bhagavathi temples, while poojaris belonging to the Devaswom Board do the poojas in the other temples.

In Namboothiri’s courtyard, a structure to house the idol of the Bhagawathi was built in the past. This structure was built specially for his mother to do the morning prayers and poojas without stepping out of the house. It is called a kappela or roopakoodu (identical terms are used for chapels and framed idols within Christian houses or churches). Once Namboothiri’s mother passed away, the deity was moved to their tharavad because there was no one left at their home to do the prayers in the morning.

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The sarpakavu at Mattappally Mana. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023.
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The roopakoodu for the deity built within the inner courtyard, Puliyanam. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023.

“One of our ancestors became too old to go to the Mookambika Temple regularly; he was praying at the temple entrance when, in a dream, the goddess appeared and told him she would go with him. ‘My place will be wherever you put down the umbrella you’re carrying right now.’ When he reached Kottapurayidam (the Parur Raja’s palace), he thought, ‘OK, I’ve reached home.’ And he put the umbrella down. As he couldn’t lift the umbrella from its position, that is where the idol was placed. The original Mookambika Temple has a sanctum sanctorum in the middle and a temple pond around it. Like the Mookambika temple, this also has a sreekovil in the middle and a lotus pond surrounding it.” (Speaking of the North Paravur Mookambika Temple)

 “Even now, family members must compulsorily be at the Peruvaram Temple, our ancestral temple, for all ten days of the festival. We give the koora (dress worn) and pavitram (a ring made of a darbha or halfa grass) worn by the thantri for the pooja. We are considered the temple owners; the thantri only officiates. Giving the koora and pavitram symbolises our empowerment of the thantri to do the ceremonies in our steed. More than one person can go. Now, the Devaswom board is in charge of the board and food for all that attend from our family.”

– Ravi Sarma Raja, Parakkadavu, 2024

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View of the Chettarikkal Bhagavathy Temple that belonged to Thettadimekkadu Illam from the gates of Ravi Sarma Raja’s house. Family history says that the Thettadimekkadu illam members had quarreled with Raja's family and settled in Chalakudy decades ago. Image: JANAL Archives, 2024.
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A washing area overgrown with weeds adjoining one of the temples within the Mattappally Mana, Puliyanam. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023

Castes and Jobs: Within the Temple

“For the nivedhyam, rice was needed—taken care of by a Nambisan who used to stay in the eastern part of the land. Nambisan would be given paddy. He would do the processing and give the rice to the temple. Paddy was also Nambisan’s salary. In those days, for work related to the temple, compensation was given in the form of cooked rice.”

– Vasudevan Namboothiri, Puliyanam, 2023

“Two families belong to the Ambalavasi caste here. Earlier, they used to do jobs connected to the temple. Now, all of them are employed outside. They made the garlands and cleaned the temple premises. The poojari cleans the space inside the sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum).”

– Ravi Sarma Raja, Parakkadavu, 2024

Edgar Thurston mentions at least fourteen castes that belong to the broad group of Ambalavasi:
• Ari (Travancore)
• Bhramani
• Chakkiyars (Recites Puranic scripts/Malabar & Travancore)
• Gurukkal (Priestly caste/Travancore & Malabar)
• Kallattakurup
• Karo Panikkar (Temple servants/Malabar)
• Kshetravasinah Maran or Marayan (Temple servants or drummers/Malabar)
• Nambiyassan (Travancore)
• Parasaivan (Priest or Ambalavasi)
• Pidaran
• Pisharodi
• Poduval (Cochin & Travancore)
• Tiyadi
• Variyar
Not all these castes lived near temples, especially those owned by Namboothiri households.

Namboothiris and Other Castes

Namboothiri households depended on several other castes for their functioning.

“Several kinds of workers were at home—household cleaners, those who cleaned the grounds, and those who cared for the children. Belonging to the Nair caste, they had certain rights and were called adiyan in the past. It is a continuation of the old slavery system. Some of these families had numerous members, and the work was divided among them; some would only work for five days, and so on.

People belonging to the Pulaya caste worked in the fields as agrestic slaves in Puliyanam. Because of the prevailing practice of ashudi (untouchability and pollution related to caste), they were not allowed to enter the household compound. Cooked rice was poured into a hole dug into the ground and covered with leaves, outside in the fields, for them to eat. Thambran ennu villipikkum, pallayill kanji kudipikkum was a saying of the Pulayas (You make us call you Tambran, and you give us rice on palm leaves). The time was such. There’s no doubt that they were also killed.

Palm leaf was used to make different kinds of umbrellas to protect one from the sun and the rain. The Parayas used to bring these umbrellas. The man supplying the umbrella would come to the south side of the property and call us. When he called, someone would take food to him there. Objects provided by the lower caste had to be purified. Some of them could be purified with the application of sacred water. I do not remember the umbrella being purified.”

– Vasudevan Namboothiri, Puliyanam, 2023

 

 

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A migrant labourer sprays the field belonging to Mattapally Mana. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023.
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Workers and neighbours talking near the house bordering the Bhadarkali Temple, Parakkadavu. Image: JANAL Archives, 2024

“In the past, clothes were brought by travelling salesmen like Chettiar. In my childhood, we used to go to places like Aluva and Parur and buy clothes from there. We travelled to Parur either by vanchi or boat. Most of the things were available here. Items like knives were brought by the Kollan (smith), and woven baskets by other castes during Onam. Their tribute (kazhcha) would be these items. In return, they were given land to hold.”

– Ravi Sarma Raja, Parakkadavu, 2024

In Parakkadavu, at Raja’s house, Christians worked as field labourers. Moozhikulam (the neighbouring village) has a church believed to have been established 1400 years ago. There are Christian families in and around the village. They were not allowed to enter the house but could enter its compound.

The kappella or chapel of the church can be seen across the river from Raja’s house.

Ponds and Running Water

Running water, like a river or a pond (with its renewable underground source), is usually found near Namboothiri households. Running water was believed to purify the body of all impurities—physical and caste-based (in the past). The women and men in the households take a dip in the pond or river before important rituals. Water from a well is not used for rituals since it is not considered running water, and as Raja playfully said, “One cannot jump into the well to immerse oneself.”

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One of the three ponds in use at Mattappally Mana. A tortoise can be seen basking in the sun on the half-wall leading to the water. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023.
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Water being pumped into the channels leading to the crops at Parakkadavu. Image: JANAL Archives, 2024.

“We had electricity here in the late 1950s or early ‘60s—the first household to get electricity in the village. The rest of the village did not have electricity at that point. The line was drawn over the river from Moozhikulam and connected to a motor in a shed. Electricity was given here for agriculture, not for lights. Many years later, when the house was given an electricity connection, the first electrical line was finally cut.”

– Ravi Sarma Raja, Parakkadavu, 2024

Land Reforms

After independence, the various land reform acts passed in Kerala adversely affected Namboothiri households. The main features of the Land Reforms Acts that were enacted in Kerala after Independence are:

  • limit on the amount of land that one could own,
  • redistribution of excess land to those who had none, and
  • reforms that gave tenant farmers more rights and security.

“When the Land Rights Laws were passed, the household managers, the Nairs, took care of the legalities. The government took all the land, and we were to receive 12 times the pattom amount in return. There is still a case going on under the Land Tribunal, and I occasionally receive papers to appear at hearings.”

– Vasudevan Namboothiri, Puliyanam, 2023

Vasudevan Namboothiri’s wife, Geetha Namboothiri, mentioned times when many households, including theirs, did not have enough food to eat because they had to give away all their cultivated land to the tenants.

 

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Geetha Namboothiri at their illam in Puliyanam. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
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Vasudevan Namboothiri’s grandfather donated the land for the Puliyanam government school. Image: Vasudevan Namboothiri, 2023.

Giving Back to the Community

“There was a Christian management school quite close by. Someone said that they would not give admissions to anyone other than Catholics. People felt the need for a school for the children in the community, so the family gave an empty plot to start classes. A building was constructed, and the school was started as an LP school in 1947.”

Vasudevan Namboothiri, Puliyanam, 2023

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The land for the Parakkadavu Family Health Centre was donated by the Bhadrakali Mattappally Mana. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023.
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Government Higher Secondary School, Puliyanam. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023.
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One of the many paths within the Mattappally Mana. Due to outmigration, the only people around were migrant labourers during the day time. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023.

Younger Namboothiris

The Mattappally Mana has seen an outmigration of the younger generation. Most houses have only 2–3 older residents, as the younger ones have left for the bigger cities and towns for jobs. However, at Vadakkepattu Madam, the situation is slightly different since the current generation has taken up modern jobs that allow them to commute from home. Therefore, the place felt lively, with people coming and going for various reasons. Moreover, the Parur Raja family’s grounds were not as extensive as Mattappally Mana’s. Though Raja’s eldest brother’s nephews are responsible for continuing the poojas at the family temple, every male is taught the prayers compulsorily.

“He’s decided to drop the bank job and become a thantri. I cannot say why he chose that. You can probably call it bad luck.”

– Vasudevan Namboothiri, Puliyanam, 2023

“My father used to take me to these performances and developed my interest in the art form. I have a B.Com degree. I studied Kathakali under an asan (teacher). My father supports my passion.”

– Pradeep Raja, Parakkadavu, 2024

Namboothiri’s married son is working in a bank and stays with him. However, he plans to take up their traditional thantri job. Raja’s son, who runs a business (he has a Pepsi dealership), has taken up Kathakali as a hobby and has his father’s approval. He performs nearly 2–3 times a week in various temples north of Kottayam up to Kannur.

To summarise, these descendants of former rajas and landlords were quite different from what one assumes landlords would be because of their education, semi-urban location, and the socialist ideology that permeated Kerala in the mid-twentieth century during their formative years.

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Vasudevan Namboothiri, Puliyanam. Image: JANAL Archives, 2023
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Ravi Sarma Raja, Parakkadavu. Image: JANAL Archives, 2024

References

Edgar, Thurston. Castes and Tribes of Southern India. Vols 1-7. Madras: Government Press, 1909.

Gurukkal, Rajan, and Raghava Varier. History of Kerala: Prehistoric to the Present. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2020.

Gurukkal, Rajan. ‘The Making and Proliferation of Jati: A Historical Inquiry’. Studies in History 31, no. 1 (2015): 30–50.

Malekandathil, Pius. ‘Dynamics of Trade, Faith and the Politics of Cultural Enterprise in Early Modern Kerala’. In Clio and Her Descendants: Essays in Honour of Kesavan Veluthat, 157–98. New Delhi: Primus Books, 2018.

Paul, Vinil. Adimakeralathinte Adrishyacharithram. Kottayam: D.C. Books, 2023.

Prakash, B.A. ‘Changes in Agrarian Structure and Land Tenures in Kerala: A Historical Review’. Thiruvananthapuram Economic Studies Society, August 2017.

Veluthat, Kesavan. Brahman Settlements in Kerala: Historical Studies. Calicut: Sandhya Publications, 1978.


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