Theories of origin
Ancient South Indian history, historians, and foreign travellers referred to the Nairs as a dignified martial nobility. The earliest reference to Nairs comes from the Greek ambassadorMegasthenes. In his accounts of ancient India, he refers to the "Nayars of Malabar" and the "Kingdom of Chera" . However the earlier origin of the Nair caste is uncertain and several alternate and sometimes conflicting theories exist.
Dalawa Velayudhan Chempakaram Thampi (1765-1809)
Some sociologists are of the view that the Nairs are not indigenous to Kerala, as many customs and traditions distinguish them from other Keralites. According to one theory, Nairs are descendants of the Newars of Nepal, who joined the Munda exodus and later migrated to Kerala. The most prominent arguments given in support of this theory are the presence of distinct pagoda-like architectural style of Nair Tharavaadus and Temples and the practice of Marumakkathaayam (matrilinial) system of inheritance similar to both Nairs and Newars.
There is also a hypothesis on the basis of mythology that the Nairs are Nagas and were Kshatriyas belonging to the Serpent dynasty (Nagavansham) who removed their sacred thread and migrated south to escape the wrath of a vengeful Parashurama. The affinity of the Nair community towards serpent worship, their martial past, and the absence of the sacred thread lends support to this theory. In addition, the Travancore State Manual states that there were indeed serpent-worshipping Nagas in Kerala who fought with the Namboothiris till they reached a consensus.
According to Chattampi Swamikal, who interpreted old Tamil texts, the Nairs were Naka (Naga or Snake) Lords who ruled as feudal lords in the Chera kingdom. Therefore this theory proposes Nairs to be descendants of the rulers and martial nobility of pre-brahmin Kerala who, after the arrival of the Namboothiris (and establishment of the Varnas/Caste System), got categorized as sat Sudras.. One finds mention of the Nairs during the reign of the King Rama Varma Kulashekhara (1020-1102) of the second Chera dynasty, when the Chera Kingdom was attacked by the Cholas. The Nairs fought by forming suicide squads (Chavers) against the invading force. It is not clear whether the Cheras themselves were Nairs, or if the Cheras employed the Nairs as a warrior class.
Nair Lady (Panapillai Amma Srimathi Lakshmi Pilla Kochamma of the Chempakaraman Arumana Ammaveedu Family of the Thampi clan and wife of Visakham Thirunal Maharajah of Travancore)
The Kerala Mahatmayam, an ancient Sanskrit Purana, calls them the progeny of NamboodiriDeva, Rakshasa and Gandharva women. men with
The 17th century the Brahmin-inspired Keralolpathi and Grama Padhati describes the Nairs of Kerala and the Bunts of Southern Tulu nadu as descendants of the Sudras who accompanied the Brahmins to Kerala and Tulu nadu respectively from Ahichatra/Ahikshetra in southern Panchala. In addition, Manual of Madras Administration Vol II (printed in 1885) notes that the Nadavas/Nairs of Malabar and the Bunts of Southern Tulu nadu are same.
Irrespective of the different theories that seek to explain the origin of Nairs, it is clear that till the early 20th century, Nairs exerted their influence in medieval Kerala society as feudal lords and owned large estates. Nairs dominated the civil, administrative and military elite of the pre-British era in Kerala. The decline of Nair dominance came about in multiple stages. During colonial times, the British perceived that Nairs were an inherent threat to their hegemony in the region and therefore outlawed their right to bear weapons and by banning the Nair martial art of Kalaripayattu. Weapons were integral to the Nair psyche and power, and combined with repressive legislation led to a loss of social standing for Nairs. Later during post-colonial years, the Land reforms of 1950's led to massive loss of land-ownership by Nair feudal Lords and some Nair gentry were relegated to poverty overnight. Thus the decline of Nair dominance came to a full circle by mid the 20th century.
The word Nair lends itself to two etymological interpretations. The first interpretation is that the word Nair could have been derived from the Sanskrit word Nayaka which means leader. The Sanskrit word Nayaka which appears in various forms in southern India (Nayakan/NaickerNayak in Karnataka and Maharashtra, and Nayudu in Andhra Pradesh) could have been corrupted as Nairs in Malayalam. The second interpretation is that the word Nair is a corrupted form of the word Nagar- serpent men because Nairs practiced snake worship. in Tamil Nadu,
The word Nair also occurs in other parts of the world - although no direct linkages with the Nairs in Kerala have been established.
Typical Nair last names
Nair surnames were traditionally carried through matrilineality, although most modern Nairs follow patrilineal nomenclature. The surname Nair is commonly used by all sub-castes belonging to Nair caste. However, there are surnames which are reminders of the honours conferred upon individuals by the powers that be from time to time in acknowledgement of exceptional acts of valour, erudition and scholarship, or excellence in chosen field of endeavour. The families of these individuals inherited the titles. It is also possible that in the majority of cases, such honours were bestowed by the Royalty in return for services rendered and in recognition of a display of loyalty. In general, the system of conferring honours points to the ruling Monarch's dependence on the Nairs who provided them with military and administrative support. While most of these are ranks and positions in a feudal set up (similar to the Mughals' Mansabdari system), such royal patronage was crucial to the development and promotion of strikingly singular forms of dance and drama such as Kathakali of which, the Nairs were exponents.
V.Nagam Aiya, Dewan Peishcar, Travancore, in his Travancore State Manual states that although all the Malayala Sudras were classed under the general head of Nair, in reality there were only five "genuine" Nair castes. These included:
Kiryathil Nairs : They are the highest class of Nairs found usually in Malabar and Cochin and rarely in Travancore. The 17th century Keralolpathi  states them to be descendants of warrior Naga tribes who came to Kerala from the north along the western coast. It may be noted that the earlier Keralamahatmayam, a Hindu Purana, does not make mention of any subcastes among the Nairs but only states them to be the military caste of Kerala.
Illathu Nairs : They were brought in by Parasurama, as per the Keralolpathi(it's a 17th century book written by Namputhiris to protect the cast intrest of them), to serve the Brahmins as tenants, servants, warriors, cultivators etc. Purificatory rites by the MararsElayatus distinguished the Illathu Nairs. and priestly service from the
Swaroopathil Nairs or Cherna Nairs : These Nairs were the warriors of KshatriyaSwaroopams. In Malabar they are classed as Akathu ChernaPurathu Cherna Nairs. Royal Households known as Nairs and
Padamangalam Nairs : They were the Nairs appointed by Parasurama to serve in Temples. They migrated from Tamil Nadu of the Pandyan kingdom as it was then known.
Tamil Padam Nairs : This class of Nairs, as the name indicates, were migrants from Tamil Nadu who were embraced into the Nair community.
Paliath Govindan Achan (Paliath Achan from 1779-1825)
Nair customs and traditions
The following information has been condensed from the Travancore State Manual by V.Nagam Aiya. The General appearance of the Nairs will be clear from the following quote, as noted by the author in 1901.
The Appearance of the well nourished Nair is perhaps among the finest in all India...the men and women among the Nairs are models of neatness and simplicity particularly in their dress, food and living. The men keep a small tuft of hair hanging in front, tied into a knot which is thrown behind or on the side, quite similar to the Tamil Brahmins while women have long black hair growing luxuriantly which they keep neat and orderly by constant bathing, rubbing of oil and use of comb. They tie it in a large bun suspended on the left side or in front. This is a very pretty observance and one that is worth imitation in more civilised countries
Males wear a Kaupinam and a single strip of cloth, four or five cubits in length, known as the Mundu, round the waist and another one thrown over the shoulder or worn like a shawl(veshti). The lower cloth is not tucked between the legs as in northern India but is left to hang loose to the ground. The upper cloth is known as the Neriatu which may be tied as a turban on the head while walking outside.
The dress of the women is not generally distinguishable from the men. On festive occasions the Pudava is worn which is a gilt bordered mundu, also known as a Pattukara.
This dressing style of women is no longer practised and introduction of the Rauka blouse in the early 20th century made it extremely popular among the Nair women. The mundu is still widely used by almost everybody in Kerala, though modern clothing, naturally, has found tremendous use as well.
Men usually, besides amulets and rings, had their ears bored and wore earrings studded with precious gems. Women had for the neck ornaments such as the Kantasaram, Nalupanti, Addiyal, Ponnu-Nool, Nagapadam (the most important ornament of a Nair lady), Arimbu Mani, Jnali Kuzhal, Minnum Maniyum, Arasillatali, Pachakkatali, Kasu Malai, Kuzhalmala, Rasi Tali, Padakkatali etc. For the nose, pendants called Mukuttis were worn set with ruby or diamond generally. For the arms, bangles such as Kattikappu, Maniyalakappu, Swarna-Sangala Muduku etc. were worn. For the waist, ornaments known as KacchapuramThanda or Padaswaram. The Nair ladies extended their ear lobes and the only two types of ornaments which were worn in the ears was a type of cylindrical ornament known as Takka or a two lipped biconvex disc considered more fashionable, known as the Toda. Jewels were not worn on the head. Tattooing was not favored among the Nairs and was considered derogatory. were worn. Young girls even wore ornaments on their feet, known as
Food and drink
Boiled rice and rice gruel known as Kanjee (pronounced kun-jee) form the staple food of the Nairs. The coconut, jack, plantain, mango and other vegetable products are widely used in cooking among the Nairs as also coconut oil which is used widely for frying. Ghee was used in well to do families and on festive occasions. Kanjee was had thrice a day at mealtimes and formed the major part of the diet of the Nairs. Animal food was not objectionable and fish was the most commonly consumed commodity, fowl being less in demand. Beef was barred for the Nairs. Alcoholic drinks as a rule were prohibited.
Marumakkathayam and Tharavadu
Main article: Tharavadu
Main article: Marumakkathayam
Nairs followed the Marumakkathayam (Matrilineal) system of inheritance and lived in units called Tharavadus ( matrilineal joint-family ). The tharavadu referred to relations of property (mudal sambandham) shared by a group tracing descent from a common ancestress. The outer boundary of tharavadus seems to have been defined by relations of pollution (pula sambandham), whereby a wider matrilineal kin group was knit by symbolic ties prominently in sharing birth and death pollution and a memory of common descent. However there are indications that when expediency demanded it was possible to even break off pollution ties. For instance, in the case of a numerically large tharavadu, comprising a considerable section of the population of territory, death and birth pollution spelt a great inconvenience. In such cases it could be decided to terminate pollution ties, even while the related groups continued to share a cremation ground.
Architecturally wealthy tharavadus encompassed a Naalukettu or Ettukettu, a KulamSarpa Kavu (a sacred grove with trees and thick foliage for worship of the Nagathaan (Serpents) while in the case of some exceptionally wealthy families a private temple as well. The water body served the purpose of ritual baths, followed by Tantric worship in the Sarpakavu, phased out into rituals and ceremonies that repeated in cycles of days, months, and years often accompanied by feasts that witnessed a grand assembly of kin. (fresh-water pond) and a
A typical Nair Tharavadu
Interestingly, even though tharavadus existed based on descent from a common ancestress, it was comparatively rare for a remembered founder of a tharavadu to be a woman alone and it showed a "structural" patriarchy of the Karnavar (seniormost male member). For instance in management of the tharavadu, Nair women managed domestic affairs in their natal tharavadus and the senior woman’s decision making role was restricted to the inner domain of larger tharavadus in central and north Kerala. However it was also not that the Karnavartharavadu, but unlike in patrilineal families there was more than one node of power and a plural authority structure. In practice, the senior woman, was not necessarily determined by seniority and might well be the oldest competent woman and yet seniority was a crucial factor in determining power relations between the Karnavar and the senior woman. If the Karnavar was the son or younger brother of the senior woman, she might indeed be the de facto head of the group keeping accounts in her own hands and counseling him; but were he the older brother of the senior woman then she was subordinate to him. In some wealthy tharavadus lands were set aside for women as stanum (a special status) property or otherwise over which they enjoyed varied claims does not in any way suggest ‘separate rights’ or access to their own separate revenues and properties. In the matrilineal Tharavadus customary practice, rather than any religious precepts embodied in written sources, was the source of personal/family law. In the words of William Logan, an administrator-historian with extensive experience of Malabar: had absolute powers in the
If it were necessary to sum up in one word the law of the country, that word would undoubtedly be the word "custom". In Malayalam it would be "Maryada", "Margam", "Acharam" all signifying established rule and custom
The marumakkathayam system and tharavadu system are not viable any more and has declined in tune with the social and cultural changes which have taken their toll on many old institutions. Social reforms spread with modern education. In other words, Nairs switched over to the patriarchal model of kinship and inheritance. The partition of tharavadus into individual shares (Alohari Bhaagam) followed the enactment of Land Reforms Ordinance that stipulated upper limits on land holdings. Many tharavadus, already bursting at the seams with internal dissensions and strife, collapsed under the pressure. The matrifocal system disintegrated. Fathers took charge of their sons and daughters and husband and wife started living together with their offspring. The "Marumakkathayam Law" which sanctioned dismantling of the tharavadus and the partition of property, came into vogue in the year 1933. 32,900 families were partitioned in Travancore alone by 1938. The tharavadu system of living became a thing of the past by the 1940s. Naalukettu and Ettukettu structures began to collapse, or were sold off.
Main article: Kalarippayattu
A Kalari Poothara shrine
The Vadakkan, or northern, style of Kalarippayattu is associated with the Nairs. In earlier times, Kalarippayattu was an essential component of education for Nairs. Nair men and even women learned the art of Kalaripayattu at an early age and used their skills in war and combat. From Kalaripayattu, comes Marma Adi. Marmam shastra was an advanced way to temporarily or permanently disable or kill an opponent through a tap with a finger on a specific nerve. Marma Adi capitalised on the knowledge of acupuncture points. In recent times, however, Marmam shastra and Marma Adi have been used only for therapeutic purposes. The Nair subcastes known as Kurup and Panicker were traditionally teachers of the Kalari Martial Arts. Kalari may have given rise to Kung Fu  according to ancient documents. It was outlawed by British in 1793, leading to great loss of self esteem among Nairs.
In the past Nairs had three major marriage/rite of passage ceremonies.
Kettukalyanam (Mock marriage ceremony)
Main article: Kettu Kalyanam
The thaali tying rite took place before the onset of puberty. During this ceremony the girl was married to a man, preferably a Namboothiri Brahman. The ritual husband had no further duties to the girl after the completion of this ritual, although she had to observe a period of death impurity upon the death of her ritual husband. The thaali ceremony was a female centered ritual which emphasized fertility and household prosperity. This ceremony had to be performed on pain of excommunication.
Thirandukalyanam (Announcement and Celebration of puberty)
The Thirandukalyanam ceremony was the puberty ceremony, during which femininity is celebrated as women occupy the parts of the household typically inhabited by men .
Sambandham/Podamuri (casual marriage alliance)
Main article: Sambandham
The Sambandham ritual is less auspicious than the thaali and puberty rites, and literally means "alliance" or "relationship". It was the customary institution that framed casual marriage alliances between men and women following marumakkathayam. This ritual marks the union of the bride and groom and was not necessarily a permanent arrangement. However it was this innate weakness of sambandham that helped maintaining the integrity of the matrilineal tharavadu.
Sambandham denoted hypergamy between Nair women and Namboothiri men as well as reciprocal marriage among Nairs. However such an alliance was not recognized as constituting marriage by Namboothiri Brahmins as well as by colonial courts but was seen as comparable to concubinage.. Two reasons cited for this were that dissolution of sambandham was fairly easy and that it did not give rise to property relations. Though viewed by Namboothiri Brahmins and European commentators as immoral, allied with polyandry, or even prostitution, sambandham was nothing of that sort for the Nair women. Sambandham essentially gave a Nair woman the liberty to initiate, consent to, or terminate a sexual relationship with any man and thereby formed one of the foundations of matrilineality.
In case of sambandham with Namboothiri men, the system benefited both the Namboothiri Brahmins as well as matrilineal castes like the Nairs for two reasons. First, Namboothiri brahmins had institutionalized primogeniture, permitting only the eldest son to marry within the caste. Younger sons (also called aphans) in Namboothiri families were expected to establish sambandham with Nair and Ambalavasi (temple service castes) women. Secondly, Nair families encouraged the sambandham arrangement with Namboothiri men, thereby increasing their tharavadu and caste status. Such alliances between Nair women and Namboothiri men came to an end after the efforts of V.T Bhattathirippad in 1933.
In case of sambandham with Nair men, The Malabar Marriage Act, 1896 (Act IV of 1896) succeeded to alter by statute, the personal law of the Hindu matrilineal castes of Malabar and South Canara districts of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. It was a permissive legislation that made it possible for people following marumakkathayam and aliyasantana law (matrilineal law) to register their marriages, if they so wished. The Act enabled people to be legally married, something that was not possible under matrilineal law as interpreted in the colonial civil courts. Similar legislations in the southern parts followed much later as is evidenced by Travancore Nair Act of 1912, 1925, and the Cochin Nair Act of 1920.
Vivaham (Older Form)
Presently the Nairs do not practice either of the three forms of marriages described above but perform Vivaham (Marriage) recognized by the Hindu Marriage act of 1955. It is ceremonially the shortest in comparison to its counterparts from other Indian castes and regions. The marriage ceremony among Nairs has changed considerably over the past two hundred years. Originally, the process started with the examination of the horoscopes of the bride and bridegroom to see if their respective stars agree astrologically. This is still done today in some conservative Nair families. If the stars do not match, families may go so far as to cancel the marriage and seek another prospective bride or groom. If the astrological predictions are favourable, further examination is undertaken to appoint an auspicious date and time for the ceremony. During the celebration, there would be a presentation of danom (wealth or alms) to Brahmins, and a sadhya (feast). The bride and bridegroom would meet in the central room of the house, rice would be sprinkled on their heads. This was the essence of a basic Nair marriage about two hundred years ago. In addition to these general ceremonies, there are local variations.
In North Malabar (Northern Kerala), there is a Podamuri or Vastradanam ceremony. In this ceremony, the initial examination of horoscopes takes place at the house of the bride in the presence of the bride's and bridegroom's families. The astrologer writes his calculations and opinion on a piece of palmyra leaf and hands it over to the bridegroom's relations. If the horoscopes match, a day is fixed for the ceremony. This date is also written down and handed to the bride's Karnavar and to the bridegroom's relations. The astrologer and the bridegroom's party are then invited to a feast in the bride's house. The astrologer also receives gifts in the form of money or cloth.
Three to four days prior to the wedding date, the bridegroom visits his Karnavars and caste-elders to receive permission to leave for the wedding. The bridegroom presents them with betel leaves and areca nuts and obtains formal sanction for the wedding. The bridegroom then proceeds, accompanied by a number of his friends to the house of his bride. He is received at the gate of the house by the bride's relations and is led with his friends, to seats provided in the thekina (southern hall) of the house. The bridegroom distributes gifts to all the Brahmins present. After this, the whole party is invited to take part in another sadhya. The astrologer then announces the auspicious hour that has been fixed and leaves after receiving his dues. The bridegroom is then taken by one of his friends to the padinitta (principal/western room of the house, where religious ceremonies are conducted). New clothes, betel leaves and areca nuts brought by the bridegroom's party are placed in this room. The room is decorated and turned into a bedroom for the occasion. In this room are placed a number of lamps as well as the ashtamangaliyam (eight articles symbolizing mangaliyam or marriage). These are rice, paddy, the tender leaves of the coconut tree, an arrow, a looking glass, a well-washed cloth, a burning fire, and a small rounded wooden box called a cheppu. The bridegroom with his groomsman enters the room through the eastern door, while the bride, dressed in beautiful clothes and jewelry, enters the room through the western door accompanied by her aunt or another elderly lady of the family. The bride stands facing east with the ashtamangalyam and lamps in front of her. The groomsman hands over to the bridegroom a few pieces of the new cloth and the bridegroom puts them into the hands of the bride. After this, the lady who accompanied the bride sprinkles rice over the lit lamps and over the heads and shoulders of the bride and bridegroom. The bridegroom then leaves the room to go to the thekina to present his elders and friends with cakes, betel leaves and areca nuts. After the guests have left, the bride and bridegroom retire to the bedroom. Next morning, the vettilakettu or salkaram ceremony is conducted and the bridegroom's female relations take the bride to the husband's house, where a feast is held in honour of the occasion. After marriage, the bride remains in her tharavaadu, and her husband will often visit her, while remaining a member of his own tharavaadu. The children, of course, will belong to their mother's tharavaadu in accordance with the marumakkathaayam system.
Vivaham (Newer Form)
These days, a number of the individual ceremonies have been abandoned or condensed. However, one can still see elements of the older ceremonies in the new ones. Families may observe all or part of the following ceremonies. The first ceremony is the Vivaha Nischayam or simply Nischayam. In this ceremony, an astrologer is consulted to set an auspicious date for the wedding. Horoscopes may or may not be compared depending on the wish of the individual or their families. After both families consent to the marriage, the couple visits the bride's home. This meeting may be a simple affair, or a large celebration. During the celebration, there may be a mothiram mattal (ring exchange) ceremony. This ceremony may also be conducted later, during the actual vivaham ceremony. If it is done at bride's house, it is usually done around a lit nila vilakku (brass oil lamp).
On the evening before the wedding the families of both the bride and the groom, gather in their respective homes to bless them. On the day of the wedding, the bride and the groom will separately visit a temple near their homes. The temple can belong to any God except Lord Ayyappan or Lord Hanuman as they are bachelors. The bride's parents carry the mangalyasutram or taali, a necklace that is a symbol of eternal union, to be blessed by the priests. Upon returning home, the bride and groom touch the feet of the elders of the family and receive blessings. This is called Namaskaaram.
The actual wedding may take place in a kalyana mandapam (a hall rented for the occasion), temple, or hotel. The bride's family receives the groom's family at the entrance of the venue to the tune of nadaswarams (long wind-instruments) and the beats of the thayli (large drums beaten with curved sticks). The groom stands on a wooden plank while the bride's younger brother washes his feet. The bride's aunts perform aarti for the groom with a thaali (platter), on which are arranged wicks made of twisted cotton. The groom is then escorted to the mandapamchangala vatta (sacred oil lamp), while another carries the ashtamangaliyam. The girls following the first two, carry the taala phuli (platters of rice, turmeric, and flowers on which oil lamps made of coconut shells are placed). With his parents on either side, the groom follows the girls around the mandapam and seats himself on the right side of the canopy, which is decorated by flowers, fabric, palm fronds, and banana stalks. The bride is then escorted by her aunt to the mandapam to the sound of the nadaswarams and thaylis. All those who are present on the mandapam stand when the bride arrives. She stands facing to the east, with the groom facing her. At the auspicious moment set by the astrologer for the muhurtham (the most auspicious time), the groom ties the thali around the bride's neck to the beating of drums. He is assisted by the bride's uncle because on no account should the thaali be allowed to fall. In some Nair communities, the traditional thaali is a gold pendant strung on a yellow thread. The bride has to wear this for three days after the wedding ceremony. After the three days have passed, the thread is replaced by a golden chain. (platform constructed to perform the wedding rites) by two rows of young girls. One girl carries the
After the tying of the thaali, the groom gifts the bride a sari and a blouse on a platter. This signifies that he will now assume the responsibility of providing for her. The groom's mother also gifts the bride with some jewelry at this time. The couple then exchange garlands accepting each other as life partners. The bride's father then places the bride's hand in the groom's, thus handing over his daughter to the groom in holy matrimony. The couple is then escorted to a room by their older relatives, who bless them. After the marriage ceremony, the bride gets a send-off from her house. The couple leaves for the groom's house escorted by a few people from the bride's family. The groom's mother and older female relatives perform aarti with an oil lamp (which rests on a platter heaped with rice mixed with turmeric) and receive them at the entrance. Both bride and groom enter the house, right foot forward. The bride is then required to kick over a large pot containing rice, symbolizing prosperity.
After the wedding ceremony a wedding reception may be performed if the families so wish.
Nair have customs and rituals which are an amalgamation of indigenous rituals and the rituals of Nambothiri Brahmins. Generally, there are local variations for such customs. However, the basic framework of many of the rituals is more or less the same.
Seemantham (also known as Pulikudi or Garbhamthozhikkal) denotes the preparation for childbirth and is performed between the fifth and seventh months of pregnancy. On an auspicious day, after being massaged with homemade ayurvedic oil, the woman has a customary bath with the help of the elderly women in the family. After this, the family deity is worshiped, invoking all the paradevatas and a concoction of herbal medicines prepared in the traditional way, is given to the woman. The woman is dressed in new clothes and jewelry used for such occasions. Among some Nairs of Malabarm two local ritualistic additions called ariyidal and Garbha Prashnam are performed. In the ariyidal the seated pregnant lady is given rice and appams in her lap. In the Garbha Prashnam, an astrologer prescribes ritualistic remedies (if needed) for the protection of the mother and child as well as for smooth child birth in the event of any astrological obstacles. Afterwards, the pregnant lady visits four temples, including her own ancestral temple and prays to the deities for a healthy child and for a smooth delivery. After this she begins to observe Pula or birth pollution, which extends up to 15 days after childbirth. The family then holds a feast for all the relatives. Medicines and routines are prescribed for the woman, which are to be followed till childbirth.
This ceremony is performed on the 28th day after birth of the child, as this is the first time the nakshatram (star) of the child repeats according to the Malayalam calendar. During the ceremony, charadu (thread), one in black cotton and the other in gold are interwined and tied around the waist of the child. The child's eyes are lined with mayye or kannumashi (Kohl). A black spot is placed on one cheek or asymmetrically on the forehead, to ward of evil eyes. A mixture of ghee (melted and clarified butter) and honey is given to the infant as a base for its various foods in the future. This is similar to the Jaathakarmam ceremony of the Namboothiris. In many instances, honey is rubbed with gold on a stone, which is then mixed with Vayampu, a herbal medicine. This mixture is then applied on the tongue of the newborn. In certain areas, the child's horoscope is usually made out between the birth and the Irupethi Ettu so that a name based on an ideal first letter prescribed by his horoscope can be used to name the child. This name-giving ceremony is similar to the Naamakaranam ceremon of the Namboothiris. In some instances, piercing of the lower lobes of the ears for both boys and girls (Karnavedham) is also done on the same day. Otherwise, it is done separately on an auspicious day. Unlike the Namboothiris who perform Jaathakarmam and Namakaranam as separate rituals, Nairs mostly tend to perform them together on the Irupathi Ettu.
Choroonu is the ritual of feeding rice to the child for the first time. Rice is the primary food of Nairs, which is why the first intake of purified rice is celebrated on an auspicious day. After manthrams are chanted to request Agni to purify the food, a mixture of melted ghee and honey, followed by boiled rice is served to the child. This ceremony is performed during the 6th month or after the 7th month of birth.
During the Malayalam month of Thulam (October - November) all the women and girls in the family bathe in the river or family pond before sunrise. They will then perform rituals of worship at home, or visit a temple for Nirmalyam (viewing the deity for the first time for the day).
Thiruvathira is observed on the full-moon day of Dhanu Masam, on the day of the ThiruvathiraAlpha Orionis). It is believed this is the day, the Goddess Parvathi finally met Siva, after her long penance. It is believed that observing Thiruvathira vratham or Thiruvathira nonbuthiruvathira) would ensure that a woman's husband would have a long life. The Nair women, including little girls, would get up early in the morning during the whole of Dhanu masam and go to the Kulam or river to take a bath. They will go in a sort of procession, singing various songs. They sing and play while taking bath. This is called Thudichukkuli. After bathing, they go to the temple dressed in their finest clothes. Thiruvathira is a day of fasting. No one eats rice preparations, but they are allowed to eat things made of wheat and all types of fruit. The practice of presenting bunches of bananas to the elders was common. During this season, huge swings (oonjal) are erected in the backyards of most of the houses. These swings are hung from the branches of tall trees such as mango trees or jack-fruit trees. The swings are made of ropes hung from the branch with a wooden plank for the seat. They can also be made from a well grown bamboo tree shoot, which is vertically split into two. After lunch, the ThiruvathirakkaliThiruvathirapaattu) are written in Malayalam and are set in a specific meter. The dance is also called Kaikotti Kali (dancing while clapping hands) and is also performed during the festival of Onam. star ( (fasting during danced would be performed. The accompanying songs (
Pooram means "festival" in Malyalam. In regions south of Korapuzha, this is mainly a temple celebration. However in regions north of Korapuzha, especially north Malabar, Pooram is predominantly a Nair household festival during the month of Meenam (March-April). The festival lasts for 9 days, starting from Karthika day to Pooram day. Among unmarried Nair women of north Malabar, Pooram was celebrated to praise and please Kamadeva, the God of Love. On each of the day an idol of Kamadeva made out of clay, is worshipped at different locations starting from the steps of the pond (first day) to the inner house (ninth day). The song sung by the group leader is repeated by the others and the song begins Thekkan dikkil povalle kamaa. Eendola panayil iruthume kamaa. (Do not leave us and go the south and various reasons are provided as to why he will be treated better in the north. These are sung in the form of puns). Dances are performed around a sacred lamp with elegant steps resembling thiruvathirakkali. While dancing, the players clap their hands uniformly to the tune of the song and to the thaalam (rhythm or beat) of the group leader. Poorakkali has 18 different forms.
Stories from the epic Ramayana often constitute the subject matter of the ritual songs. The ritual dance form warrants intense training and good physical stamina. The forward and backward movements and the abrupt variations in the speed and directions enthralls the spectators. Invariably, Poorakkali is followed by a duel of wits staged to test the intellectual capacity of the rival group leaders. This is known as Marathukali. During the debate, intriguing questions are put by one leader to the other side.
In central and south Kerala, several poorams or festivities during this season are observed in all important temples of the different deshams. The most famous of all these, is the Thrissur Pooram. Before the advent of the Thrissur Pooram, the largest temple festival during summer in central Kerala was the one-day festival held at Aarattupuzha. Temples in and around Thrissur were regular participants of this religious exercise until they were once denied entry by the responsible chief of the Peruvanam area of Cherpu, known for its Namboothiri supremacy. As an act of reprisal, and also in a bid to assuage their wounded feelings, Prince Rama Varma (1751-1805), also known as Sakthan Thampuran (ruler of the erstwhile Cochin state ) invited all these temples to bring their deities to Thrissur where they could pay obeisance to Lord Vadakunnathan, the deity of the Vadakunnathan temple. Further, he directed the main temples of Thrissur, Thruvambadi and Pamamekkavu, to extend all help and support to these temples. It is this historical background that determined the course of the Thrissur Pooram program and it is specifically because of the ruler's antipathy to the Brahmin aristocracy, that he opened Thrissurpooram to the common man.
Socio-political movements among Nairs
A number of socio-religious reform movements, which were also the earliest democratic mass movements in Kerala, took shape from late 1800 s.The Nairs also felt the need for reform in response to such changes. Throughout the medieval period and until well into the 19th century, the Nairs had a pre-eminent role in Kerala. By the middle of the 19th century, however, this dominance started waning. Institutions like the sambandham and the matrilineal joint family system which had ensured the strength of the Nair community earlier, now became productive of many evils in changing socio-political background of Kerala. The impact of the market economy, the disappearance of traditional military training, the absorption of new values through the new system of education, the self-consciousness being generated among the lower castes and their cry for equality and privileges - all these factors brought about a decline of Nair dominance. The sense of decline gave an impetus to the spirit of reform that expressed itself in the work of religious men like Chattambi Swamikal, in literature, on the press and platform and later in legislative enactments in respect of marriage, inheritance, property rights, etc. Ultimately, the movements crystallized in the foundation of the Nair Service Society, in 1914.
The Nair Service Society (NSS) is an organization created for the upliftment and welfare of the Nair community. It is headquartered at Perunna in the town of Changanassery in KottayamMannathu Padmanabhan. The NSS is a three tier organisation with Karayogams at the base level, Taluk Unions at the intermediate level and the Headquarters at the apex level. District, Kerala State, India. It was established under the leadership of
The Society owns and manages a large number of educational institutions and hospitals. These include the NSS College of Engineering at Palakkad, NSS Hindu College at Changanassery, NSS College at Pandalam, Mahatma Gandhi College at Thiruvananthapuram, Pazhassi Raja NSS College at Mattanur, Kannur and the Women's College at Niramankara, Thiruvananthapuram.
Taking the lead given by Mannathu Padmanabhan, expatriate Nairs both in other startes of India as well as in countries other than India have formed Nair Service Societies in their states and countries of domicile. Examples are Karnataka Nair Service Society with 21 karayogams in Bangalore, and the Calcutta Nair Service Society in Kolkata. These Societies of Non Kerala origin retain the cultural uniqueness of the Nairs at the same time adapting many practices to the times and country of their adoption. Efforts are on to bring together all Nair groups the world over under an umbrella " International Federation of Nair Societies".
Quotes about Nairs
Here are some quotes from the works of foreign travelers in Kerala regarding the Nairs:
"Nairs are the savarna Hindus who constituted the warriors, landed gentry and yeoman of Kerala. Nayars are the largest and most important section of the society of Kerala. They were the lords of the country and guardian of public weal."- Robin Jeffrey, The Decline of Nair Dominance
280 BCE — "...(description of other lands)... Next follow the Nairae, (Land of Nairs according to Wigram) enclosed by the loftiest of Indian Mountains" (He also alludes to the rule of queens, in this land.) — Megasthenes (306-289 BCE) the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta writes in his description of ancient India; — (In Book: Travancore State Manual; 1906; V. Nagam Aiya Editor, Chapter VI, page 238)
1510 AD — "The first class of Pagans in Calicut is called Brahmins. The second are Nair, who are the same as the gentlefolk amongst us; and these are obliged to bear sword and shield or bows and lances." — Ludovico Varthema
1755 — "The king has disciplined a body of 10,000 Naires; the people of this denomination are by birth the Military tribe of the Malabar Coast." — Orme
1661. — "Olive colored they (Nair Women) grow their ears long and consider it fashionable, they wear gold and silver ornaments in the big ear holes... They grow hair and tie it in a peculiar fashion on the head. Chewing betel leaf is common and their teeth are thus often black in color. From a very early age they get military training, though fierce they are also well behaved, which is the custom here... These Nairs rarely laugh... They are born in Noble families and are adept warriors. They come out with sword in one hand and shield in the other. They are a proud and arrogant people." — Logan (Malabar Manual)
1661. — "... it is strange how ready the soldier of this country is at his weapon...they are all gentlemen and are termed Nayars ... they send their children to (Kalaris) when seven years old and their body becomes so nimble and bends as if they had no bones" — Logan (Malabar Manual)
1603. — "The men of war which the King of Calicut and all other kings have is Nair... each being a gentleman... their women be of great beauty and rare to catch sight of... possessing fine neat features... befitting the noble class" — John Kanding
"...On the west coast there are a few curious distinctions that indicate, apparently, difference in racial origin. The first of these instances is that of the Nair, the military caste of Malabar. Their traditions point to the north as their native land; they are light in colour, in very great contrast to the rest of the castes of the tract, have retained the custom of polyandry, with a good deal of serpent worship. It appears that they advanced upon their present tract by way of the coast higher up, but how they got there does not appear. As with the Arya, they found a dark race in possession and enslaved them on their estates, where they labour to the present day. In the same tract, too, there is a class of Bráhmans, the Nambudiri, of remarkable fairness of complexion, and noted for their rigid ceremonial puritanism. Then, again, in the track of the Nair's alleged progress, we find a peculiar caste of Brahmans, partly occupied in the cultivation of spices and betel nut, but settled mostly above the Gháts, and not therefore so well sheltered from foreign influences as the Nair, who sought the coast. These Havig or Haiga Bráhmans show their connection with the Túlu country in their speech, and, like the Nairs, attribute to their caste a serpent origin in Rohilkhand, a statement borne out by their title. Between these we have a class of female temple servants of an equally light complexion amidst a universally dark population.."(Jervoise Athelstane Baines (1893), General report on the Census of India, 1891, London, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, p. 184) ?
"Before quitting the country (Kerala) Hyder Ali Khan by a solemn edict declared the Nairs deprived of all (social and political) privileges and (ordered) not to carry arms. This ordinance was found to make the submission of the proud Nairs absolutely impossible because they would have thought death preferable to such humiliations and degradation. Therefore, Hyder Ali Khan by another ordinance, consented to restore all social and political privileges including carrying of arms, to the Nairs who embraced the Mohammadan religion. Many nobles had to embrace Islam; but a significantly large section (Nairs, Chieftains and Brahmins) chose rather to take refuge in the kingdom of Travancore in the South than to submit to the last ordinance" — Prince Ghulam Muhammad of Mysore
"The Nairs of Malabar who attained much celebrity in warfare....justly entitled born soldiers...by the virtue of their descent they must always bear arms..they constitute the third and the last of the honoured castes....a privilaged people....the Rajahs like the oriental monarchs are fond of exaggerating their importance and boast of the number of Nairs they have in their country and service to impress us (the Portuguese) with the idea of their wealth and power" — The Book, Letters from Malabar
"This strange law (Sambandham) was established to prevent them (Nair men) from fixing their love and attachment on their wife and children. Being free from all family cares, they might be more willing to devote themselves to warlike services,for which they were born" wrote Wingram, Malabar Law and Custom.
"The peculiar deity of the Nair caste is Vishnu but they wear on their foreheads the mark of Shiva... They describe the proper road to heaven as...must go to Benares and then afterwards perform the ceremonies for his ancestors at Gaya. He must take water from the Ganges and after journeyed over and immense space of country pour it on the image of Shiva at Ramaeshwara...after this he must visit principle places such as Jaganath in Orissa and Tripetty in Carnatic...must give charity to Brahmins..From the time of Cheramun Perumal until that of Hyder Ali Malabar was governed by descendants on thirteen Nair chiefs' sisters...there were no standing armies except the militias of the Nair households..." — The Book, The East India Gazetteer
James Lawrence's novel, The Empire of the Nairs, or, The Rights of Women: An Eutopian Romance (London: Thomas Hookham, 1811), while containing a number of factual inaccuracies and romanticisations about the Nairs, was instrumental in introducing many important figures of the Romantic era such as Shelley to the Nairs and their society. Their matrilineal customs were important examples for early critics of patriarchy in support of the idea that patriarchy was not the inevitable order of society.
By the proud Nayars the noble rank is claimed, the toils of culture and of art they scorn, the warriors plumes their haughty brows adorn.... Luis De Camoens in his "The Lusiad"
The Nairs are rather a fair and comely race, with neat features, clean limbs and decidedly a high caste look....the Nair is as jealous as he is amorous and vindictive: many travellors have passed through the country without being able to catch one glimpse of their women and the knife would be unhesitatingly used if foreigner attempted satisy his curiosity by anything like forcible measures- Goa, and the Blue Mountains, Richard Francis Burton.
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