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Nairs defied the rest of India, where patriarchal patterns have remained entrenched since Manu and other post-Vedic lawgivers reassigned women to the status of sudras, low caste.




Where women is worshiped

Matriarchy in India? Really? Oh, must be some foreign practice that invaders smuggled in long ago on ships or camel caravans. No, actually not. India's many pockets of matriarchal lifestyle are indigenously Indian, Hindu and as old as the sacred cow, Mother Ganga and worship of God as "She." Nowhere did this system flourish on such a grand and finely tuned scale as in the southeastern seaboard state of Kerala.

In fact, travellers of yore nicknamed Kerala Penn Malayalam, "the Malayala land of women." It was an unusual place. Here, mostly within the large and powerful Nair caste (and some smaller ones), women ruled. Not on royal thrones with giant armies but as heads of giant households--positions often more powerful. Here, women were educated, respected, moved about without fear or censure, participated occupationally wherever they wished, and were the major force leading Kerala to become India's first near-100% literate state.

The Nairs defied the rest of India, where patriarchal patterns have remained entrenched since Manu and other post-Vedic lawgivers reassigned women to the status of sudras, low caste.

The way it works is very interseting. After marriage, a bride does not move into her husband's home, as is the common practice among Hindus. The opposite occurs. He comes and lives with her and her family. In fact, only on very special occasions would she ever visit his family's house.

The senior female member is the uncontested head of this tarwad, a sprawling matriarchic residential complex with several buildings, its own temple, granary, water-well, orchards, gardens and large land holdings. The senior male member, called karanavan (the senior lady's brother), looked after the basic affairs of the house and implemented decisions made in consultation with the senior lady. "Because of the financial advantage they enjoyed, women were able to keep the men under their thumbs," Mr. Narasimhan, a Trivandrum lawyer, explained to me. "And because the husband came to his wife's house, he dared not ill-treat her or misbehave, else he would be sent out. In his own tarawad, a husband lived with his sisters and aunts. Similarly, if he tried to rebel or show dissension there, he would be thrown out by the karanavan and not entitled to his share of the property. So, he was forced to keep a low profile for a peaceful existence."

But the idea that these warrior-class men were reduced to spineless housewhimps is totally false. They just weren't allowed to be tough warriors inside the house. "Men were not made submissive," confirms Prof. Venugopala Panickar of Calicut University. "They were treated equally and respected. At no time was the man put down in an inferior position."

The husband/wife relationship was not as we know it today. "In this system, both husband and wife retained their premarital individual identities, maintaining a very congenial relationship," Princess Gowri Parvathi Bayi of the Travancore Royal Family shared with me. She should know--her ancestors have followed matrilineal successorship for 700 years.

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Last Updated: December 11, 1998