Inhabiting Erasures


Pure Devouring

Volume 7, Issue 02
October 10, 2021

The 19th century was a period of intense transformation for the people of Kerala: a slim littoral land, in the south-west coast of India, ruled by multiple kingdoms. By the early Common Era, Kerala was a thriving landscape of agrarian societies alongside its spice trade. Dominated by the Hindu community and their temple norms, social codes were informed by the Hindu caste system, where the Nambuthiris formed the topmost rung, the Nayars a notch below and a variety of lower castes formed the lowest rung. On arrival, British colonists began reordering and reshaping the native cosmos into a perceived ‘normative’. They segregated Kerala into the Malabar area in the north, Cochin in the center and Travancore in the south. The British governed the Malabar area directly and the Cochin and Travancore kingdoms through subsidiary alliances. The political and social terrain was fractured, revised and reworked on, as was the routine of the Empire in its colonies. Through a process of codification, lands were renamed as temple lands, sircar lands, janmam lands and tenancies.1 These external practices including creation of a market economy which provided more non agrarian jobs for males2 began to transform the household organization.3 The tarawad , the joint family system within an agrarian homestead emblematic of the matrilineal kinship structure of the upper caste Nayars, was a site of native practices founded on the principles of polygamy. By definition, tarawad means a group of persons forming a joint family with community of property governed by the Matrilineal Law of Inheritance.4 These agrarian homesteads, with the notion of family inseparable from the material spaces, were courtyard houses organized around four wings. These houses were assembled alongside supplementary buildings in a landed property next to agricultural fields. The Nayar tarawad consisted of all the matrilineally related kin, male and female, descended from a common female ancestress.5 Unlike the patrilineal Nambuthiris , the Nayar house, hinged on the agency of its women. The women, apart from having the right to choose multiple partners also maintained the property. British colonialism in Kerala, was a process of remapping social constructs on the native landscape — an attempt to undermine a traditional notion of ‘living’. This revised imagery was superimposed on the native landscape in layers for the purpose of accommodating the natives into a modern, British, framework that would benefit the imperial market. The spatial enterprise of the Nayars was remapped through two processes — the first through land and the second through delegitimizing the kinship practices of Nayar women.

The traditional jenmi - kudiyan (land owner- tenant) structure sustained a symbiotic relationship. The jenmi only had over-lordship and a share of the produce with no absolute rights on the land.6 Colonial laws reprogramed the customary practices into a system of land tenure— jenmis, kanams and verumpattoms .7 In efforts to maximize land revenue, the British remodeled this customary system into a feudal class providing jenmis with agency of eviction and complete land ownership8 rupturing the symbiosis.9 The tenurial ladder situated the kanam tenants first10 , a position given to the Nayar caste. The verumpattom tenure11 was occupied by the lower castes. Through negotiations with the colonizers, the Kanam tenants were upgraded to the status of landlords. Land tenancy reorganization and its resulting power accumulation in the Nayars eventually, morphed them into an elite cluster that imbibed western education and manners. This elitism resulted in Nayar men redefining the sexual practices of their women, to bracket them into the ‘normative’. Conversations on restructuring the matrilineal system began in the legislative assembly and were passed years after the British left India. This revised land and kinship structure materialized as fragmented Nayar households, where the tarawad was no more an impartible entity. The homestead that organized the spatial practices of the Nayars was erased in concept. In customary imagination, the family and the house were defined by each other. With the fracturing of the family system, it existed merely as a material ‘property’, a concept alien to customary practices.

In the aftermath of India’s independence, the Nayars , have founded ways spatially and ritualistically to reenact their past models of living. Within the newly developed cityscape, they have preserved some of the old homesteads as a means of reconnecting to the past. As the descent was traced through the female line, each family consisted of a female lead and all her descendants — and was known as tavazhi .12 Contemporary tavazhis13 still retain the tarawad and live in them. To reclaim and reconnect to indigenous practices, ritual rites such as paying tribute to ancestors and annual festivals are held in the tarawad , jointly attended by all the members of the lineage. In this act of reclaiming the architectural artifact and reenacting spatial practices within it, the Nayars of Kerala found ways to cultivate a continuity with their past. While real estate developments devour the cityscape in modern India, there is a peaceful refusal by the Nayars to give up their ancestral spaces for modernization. This act can be read as a re-entrusting of its symbolic value to the tarawad . Few have also opened up as spaces of display, a museum, an arena that delineates the ancestry and the rich heritage.

All these are acts of resistance — a stubborn refusal to give up. By re-appropriating the architecture, they bring it to life, enriching it with their rituals, customs, prayers, festivals and displays. The Nayars resist, reclaim and persist to continue the past into the present, inhabiting the erasures.

  1. ↩︎
  2. Mencher, Joan P. “Changing Familial Roles among South Malabar Nayars.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 18, no. 3 (1962): p231. ↩︎
  3. Ibid ↩︎
  4. ↩︎
  5. Mencher, Joan P. “Changing Familial Roles among South Malabar Nayars.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 18, no. 3 (1962): p230. ↩︎
  6. Karat, Prakash. “Agrarian Relations in Malabar: 1925 to 1948. Part One.” Social Scientist 2, no. 2 (1973): 24–37. ↩︎
  7. Ibid ↩︎
  8. Ibid ↩︎
  9. Ibid ↩︎
  10. Ibid ↩︎
  11. Ibid ↩︎
  12. ↩︎
  13. This system of inheritance was abolished by The Joint Family System (Abolition) Act, 1975 by the Kerala State Legislature, however the term is locally used to refer to the families. ↩︎

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Volume 7, Issue 02
October 10, 2021