A Differing Viewpoint on Kerala History

Ever since my interest in history was piqued during my late teens, I have been fascinated by a lack of it as regards my home state of Kerala. Unlike India, which has a rich and continuous history spanning centuries, Kerala civilisation seems to have sprung into being overnight – my father-in-law, a historian, once told me that we missed the agrarian phase while transforming from tribal hunters to city dwellers. Our language, even though well-developed with a rich modern literature, is the youngest of the Dravidian languages and among the youngest in India. Kerala does not have huge temples, palaces or monuments like other Indian states: maybe because our tropical climate (high humidity and torrential rain) does not augur well for colossal structures – or maybe because our “kings” did not progress much beyond the tribal chieftain stage.

Kerala had a long history of trade with Babylonians, Assyrians, Sumerians and Romans: ironically, much before it had contacts with the rest of the Indian subcontinent, from which it was separated by the (in those days) impenetrable Western Ghats. So most of the region’s early history depends on accounts by foreign seafarers – mostly related to trade. The earliest knowledge we have of any kind of political organisation we have is that of the Chera dynasty, which is supposed to have ruled Kerala from the first to the fourth century C.E, and again from 825 C.E to 11102 C.E.

The (Fictitious?) Chera Dynasty

Map_of_Chera_KingdomThe official history of Kerala talks of the first Chera dynasty as having ruled during the first to fourth century C.E, according to knowledge gained mostly from Sangam Literature, with its capital at Muziris (modern day Kodungalloor). This kingdom declined due to invasion from neighbouring states. The second Chera dynasty also ruled from the same capital, now called Mahodayapuram. The Chera dynasty declined and vanished after a “hundred years’ war” with the Cholas.

This is common knowledge – in fact, so common that it is never critically questioned. In the book ജാതിവ്യവസ്ഥിതിയും കേരളചരിത്രവും (“Caste System and Kerala History”) P. K. Balakrishnan makes the bold contention that this whole history is nothing short of fiction – invented by the distinguished historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai.

Balakrishnan is a historian in his own right, and such controversial statements are not made without impressive backup from a variety of sources. He cites numerous passages from foreign sources to show that the spices which were traded were just collected off the forest vines and trees – there was no organised agriculture. Kerala was mostly a society of hunter-gatherers at that time, and the kings who are mentioned are little more than tribal chieftains.

Balakrishnan does not dismiss the Chera Empire as fabrication in toto. Definitely a kingdom existed – but it covered little more than the southern and northern tips of Kerala. The central part of the state, in those days, comprised mostly mud-flats and was largely unliveable. Kerala was built up by sea sedimentation over the years, as the writer makes amply clear through his examination of geological records.

Cheraman Parambu

The Memorial at Cheraman Parambu, the place commonly acknowledged as the site of the palace of the Chera kings (Photo courtesy: The Hindu)

But it is when he tackles the Second Chera Dynasty, and the 100 Years’ War with the Cholas, that Balakrishnan is scathing on the scholarship exhibited by Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai. He calls Pillai’s method of historiography a “historical three-card trick”. His reason for discarding the officially accepted version is as follows:

  • Most of the royal proclamations usually mention the construction of temples, grants to temples or Brahmins or stories of royal victories. In the handful of such proclamations unearthed from Kerala, no king or royalty is mentioned.
  • The proclamations available from Tamil Nadu are notoriously unclear as to the geographical details of Cheranadu (“The Land of the Cheras”). There is no logical basis for ascertaining it contained the whole of today’s Kerala, which as we saw earlier, consisted of mostly uninhabitable regions.
  • Kulasekhara Varma who is considered as the founding father of the dynasty exists on the most tenuous of evidence. Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai has read more into history than what is warranted.

(P. K. Balakrishnan’s destruction, here, of an accepted historical theory is somewhat alarming. Being no historian myself, I cannot vouch for its authenticity. But the way the evidence is presented is very impressive.)

It is when he presents social and economic evidence for his theories that the author is most impressive. Quoting from a number of foreign sources, whose traders made direct contact with the locals; as well as district gazettes and census reports from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Balakrishnan presents a picture of Kerala society which is aeons away from the magnificent kingdom in popular imagination.

It is a place where most of the population (including the “kings”) lived in abject poverty. All land belonged to Kerala Brahmins called Namputhiris. The people who tilled the soil, the Pulayas, lived in hovels akin to doghouses near the fields; the Ezhavas, who also worked the paddy fields could barely make ends meet. The Nairs, the so-called “upper caste” of Kerala were not much better: even though they were trained in the martial arts and were part of armies, mostly subsisted whatever they could eke out through the lands which they were tenants on, and through doing menial labour for Namputhiris – who, even though they were at the top of the social pecking order, were mostly poor.

IMG_8768With an impressive array of evidence, Balakrishnan establishes that the cultivation of paddy and coconut which are the lifeblood of Kerala agriculture was a relatively recent phenomenon. The coconut palm, which originated in Malaysia and reached the east coast of India by the beginning of the Common Era, did not become a crop in Kerala until the seventeenth century when it was cultivated by the Dutch! Even the cultivation of paddy never progressed beyond subsistence agriculture till the nineteenth century. Animal husbandry was unknown. As far as civic amenities were concerned, there were no proper roads or modes of transport – people walked.

It has already been mentioned that the kings were not much better than tribal chieftains. The so-called “war” between the kingdoms consisted of groups of soldiers facing each other off on an open field. As soon as a handful of soldiers fell on one side, the battle was stopped! Similarly, there was no police force and the civil justice was carried out by the Tharakkoottams (Citizen Forums), with different concepts of justice for different castes.


Nair soldiers with the King of Cochin atop an elephant – painting by a Portuguese artist

All in all, a bleak society of impoverished tribes in a fertile land. No wonder all the seafaring Western powers made a beeline for the Malabar Coast!

The Caste System of Kerala

In the second part of the book, Balakrishnan describes how Kerala’s caste system (more stringent than anywhere else in India) evolved – and how it was responsible in part for the above society.

Swami Vivekananda called Kerala a “madhouse” – and with good reason. This small strip of land which does not have any of the traditional four varnas of Hinduism, nevertheless boasts of such a convoluted system of caste restrictions that outsiders can be overwhelmed. It is the only place where a person of higher caste can get “polluted” by coming within a certain distance of a person from one of the “untouchable” classes – in other places, only touching is forbidden. Also, Kerala is the only place where untouchability exists within the higher castes themselves (Namputhiri Brahmins get polluted by touching Nairs, for example) and also among the lower castes (Ezhavas cannot touch Pulayas without getting polluted)! To cap this all, Namputhiri men can have legitimate sexual liaisons with Nair women, but get polluted if they touch their progeny!

Balakrishnan posits this caste system is a natural outgrowth of the historical development of Kerala: a history which he delineates in detail, in opposition to the official version currently accepted.


Namputhiri in traditional attire (Photo courtesy: http://www.namboothiri.com)

The author bases his analysis on the unique Brahmins called Namputhiris, who are indigenous to Kerala and who do not follow the majority of the Brahmin customs elsewhere in India. (They consider even other Brahmins substandard – the Tamil Brahmins who have been settled in Kerala for generations are derogatorily called “Pattars” and not allowed to offer priestly duties in the majority of the temples in the state.)   Balakrishnan analyses an impressive array of historical records and memoirs by prominent Namputhiris to describe the salient aspects of this unique system, followed until recently.

In a Namputhiri family, only the eldest son was allowed to marry: the remaining sons had to make do with alliances in Nair families (which were called “sambandham”). These children, even though legitimate, were not recognised by the father’s family – not a problem since Nairs were matrilineal. The Namputhiri women were kept under virtual lock-and-key – their collective nomenclature as “antharjanam” (the people inside) bears witness to this fact – and any sexual transgression on their side was treated as a heinous crime and the woman was subjected untold torture and misery. Balakrishnan says that this custom may have evolved to prevent proliferation of Namputhiris so that their numbers remained within control and wealth undiminished: we can only speculate.

All the land in Kerala originally belonged to the Namputhiris (this is established from land records and may be one of the reasons why we do not find evidence of land grants to Brahmins in Kerala by the kings). However, they never worked on this land, only enjoyed the bounty of others’ labour. There was no kingship as in other parts of India – in fact, according to Balakrishnan, there were no Kshatriyas (the ruler caste) as such – only Nairs elevated to the role of local rulers by Namputhiris. This is also quite logical, as Kerala Kshatriyas follow the same matrilineal social system of the Nairs.

Did this unique Brahmin caste exercise their brutal authority on the remaining parts of the populace through physical might? Oddly enough, no. Namputhiris were the least militant of Brahmins: it seems that their superiority was accepted as a part of life by everybody. The reason for this, Balakrishnan says, is the historical development of Kerala society.


A traditional Namputhiri Illam (domicile) [Photo courtesy: The Hindu]

It is widely accepted that Namputhiris came to Kerala from southern Karnataka. It is logical to assume that they were trained in the arts of agriculture and animal husbandry, as most Brahmins were: however, they encountered a tribal society basically of hunter-gatherers. This society followed tribal customs of untouchability within themselves: as with most primitive tribes, they had no concept of a nuclear family. Indiscriminate sex, polyandry and polygamy were common. There was no concept of wealth or land-ownership.

The Namputhiri with his knowledge of the seasons, agriculture and house construction must have impressed these “natives” as some kind of godman (similar to what European settlers did in many parts of the world). Slowly, he established himself as their overlord: raised the status of some of the Nair chieftains to that of kings: modulated their tribal customs to suit his system of the four castes: laid claim to all the land and wealth of the state. The social pecking order established by the Namputhiris in Kerala, where a multitude of big fish survived by eating the smaller fish beneath them on the ladder, proved a surprisingly stable system.

(It is interesting to note that Balakrishnan attributes the formation of the Malayalam language to the mixing of Sanskrit with local tribal dialects, and not from Tamil as is commonly accepted. According to him, language itself was feudal, Namputhiris speaking mostly Sanskritised Malayalam while the lower castes were allowed to use only a version which signified their status. The relatively late development of Malayalam as a literary language is quoted as evidence of this. This chapter is fascinating.)

However, the Namputhiris’ rigid caste laws ultimately proved their downfall. The family system described above produced a male of the species with no familial ties who lived only for pleasures of the flesh. Even though the abundant leisure allowed to them made them forerunners in the field of literature and the arts, they proved ill-adapted to the change brought about under British rule. With the advent of a democratic government, Nairs proved adept at government service and shot ahead in economic and social status, leaving the impoverished Namputhiri behind. Balakrishnan calls them “the self-made martyrs of Kerala caste system”.


As said earlier, I do not know how far Balakrishnan’s historiography is correct. But I agree one hundred percent with his sociological analysis of Kerala caste system. Being born in 1963 of a Kshatriya father and a Nair mother, I have seen its idiosyncracies at first-hand. No wonder most progressive Namputhiri youth became communists – and the 1957 communist government of Kerala (the first elected communist government in the world) was headed by a Namputhiri.

A Review of “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind

There are some books which can be called unique. They may be good, bad or indifferent: but their authors strike out from the trodden paths of narrative themes and structure to explore totally new vistas, so that the product becomes unique. Perfume by Patrick Suskind is such a book.

Jean Baptiste Grenouille is “an abomimaxresdefaultnable and gifted personage, in an era which was not lacking in abominable and gifted personages”. Born a bastard in the stinking heart of the city of Paris in the eighteenth century under a gutting table, the first cry he utters sends his mother to the scaffold for abandoning an infant. Grenouille grows up by sucking many wet nurses dry, survives the horrendous childhood of an orphan in an age without mercy, and grows up to become a successful perfumer. For this is his unique gift: the child who does not emit any smell himself is blessed with extraordinary olfactory capabilities, which allows him to recognise, separate and catalogue in his mind all the different odours he comes into contact with.

But simple identification is not enough for Jean. He is driven by the insatiable urge to possess any smell he likes for himself; he will move heaven and earth to extract it from its origin, make a perfume out of it and keep it with him. He is not bothered that the object which originates the smell will be destroyed in the process of extraction: he is a “smell-vampire”. And like a vampire, it is the smell of virgins which drives him wild. Ultimately, Grenouille’s gift and single-minded obsession proves to be the cause of both his uplift and undoing…
Suskind has written a gripping novel which will hook and pull the reader in from the first sentence onwards. However, this is not a simple horror story or thriller: it has got layers of meaning hidden beneath one another which will come out on careful reading.

Jean Baptiste Grenouille is a masterly creation. His insatiable thirst for smells makes him a truly terrifying “collector”: one who cannot enjoy his passion the normal way, but must possess the object of his desire (I was reminded of Frederick Clegg in John Fowles’ “The Collector”) completely. The fact that he lacks a characteristic odour himself enhances his vampiric nature. Also, all the people who profit from him come to a grisly end, like the poor misguided souls who make a pact with the devil.
Joseph Campbell has made the slogan “Follow your bliss” very popular – but how to know whether your bliss is good or bad? I have always wondered about the concept of “negative bliss”. Both Gandhi and Hitler could have been said to be following their bliss in different ways. While reading this novel, I was struck by the realisation that the difference is in one’s attitude. If one is doing it because one cannot be doing anything else – following one’s karma, if you want to put it that way – then it is bliss. But if one is driven by an insatiable need which feeds on itself, one ends up being a vampire. Ultimately, it consumes oneself.

Highly recommended.

A Review of “Lord of Light” by Roger Zelazny

13821Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment at the foot of the Bodhi tree and became the Buddha: his teachings swept across India, striking at the roots of decadent Brahmanism. The Hindu priests were understandably alarmed, but were helpless against the doctrine of the eightfold path as the stale air inside a room against the tempest raging outside. So they did the clever thing: after the Buddha’s passing, they assimilated him and made him an avatar of Vishnu (in fact, they licked him by joining him). Perhaps this is the fate of all reformers!

This much is history. Roger Zelazny takes the bare bones of this story, adds the exotic ingredients of Indian myth and legend haphazardly, seasons it with the spirit of Prometheus who moved against heaven, and serves it up as a science fiction novel. For people who have not tasted exotic and spicy Indian dishes (at least not regularly), this is extraordinary fare indeed: alas, for my jaded palate, this is quite ordinary.

Zelazny writes superbly. The novel is structured imaginatively-as Adam Roberts says in the introduction, the author deliberately wrong foots us with the flashback. The language is rich and lush and a bit cloying, like India at its exotic best (or worst), seen from an “Orientalist” perspective. In an age when characterization was almost nonexistent in SF, Zelazny gives us rounded characters who behave consistently. The SF elements are also well developed and lord-buddha-18aconsistent with a technology so far advanced that it is “indistinguishable from magic” (to borrow from Arthur C. Clarke).

That the author is well acquainted with India is obvious. He knows the names of a lot of Indian gods (not only the Vedic pantheon – Murugan is a Tamil god). From the way the Kathakali performance is described in detail, I am almost sure that Zelazny has travelled in Kerala (my native place). The way each god’s “Attribute” defines him or her is more or less consistent with Hindu mythology – and it has been translated into scientific terms quite convincingly. And the way the “Rakasha” (the Rakshasas and Asuras of Indian myth) have been described as elemental spirits of the planet, subdued and imprisoned by the human colonisers, closely parallels the real origin of these demons in folklore.

But once all the bells and whistles were removed, I found the story of a renegade god moving against the celestial dictators quite ordinary. If the whole Indian pantheon were not in the story, if it was just the tale of a plain “Sam”‘s rebellion, I do not think this book would have merited a second glance at the awards. It was sold under the label of exotic India, like many other orientalist offerings. One might argue that this was Zeazny’s intention, and that there is nothing wrong in it: I would tend to agree. His vision of using Indian myth to flavor a science fiction novel was (at the time of its publication) a bold, path-breaking move. Only thing is, I am not one of the intended audience!
kathakali20131111114431_15_2 Varaha_avtar,_killing_a_demon_to_protect_Bhu,_c1740
I have one more caveat: Zelazny mixes and matches the gods and their attributes with a free hand (especially towards the end). Since these are not true gods but human beings who have taken on these attributes, this is technically OK, but it soon becomes a pot-pourri very difficult to follow. Also, in the process, he saw many of the gods only single dimensionally (this is most notable in the case of Krishna, who is seen only as a lecher).

I would recommend this book for people unfamiliar with Indian mythology. I am afraid those who are well-read in the same may feel disappointed.

A Review of “Look Who’s Back” by Timur Vermes

Image courtesy: Cartoonstock

This book has been criticised severely (mostly by people who had not read it) for committing the sin of laughing at Hitler.  Since I love satire (coming from Kerala, the land of the Chakkiar Koothu, how can one not?), I found this argument ridiculous.Subsequently, I searched for similar instances of making fun of Hitler, and came across the book Dead Funny by Rudolph Herzog, where the author had posed the question of satire and the Third Reich.

One quote from that book stuck in my memory:

Is it permissible to laugh at Hitler? Is a comedy like Mel Brooks’s The Producers immoral? The respective answers are yes and no. Brooks’s film does not decrease the significance of the Holocaust; it reduces Hitler to human dimensions so that people can see him as something other than the evil demon promoted by the historiography of the 1950s. Germans in the Third Reich were neither possessed by an evil spirit nor collectively “hypnotized” by their Führer. They have no claim upon either mitigating circumstance. When we laugh at Hitler, we dismiss the metaphysical, demonic capabilities accorded to him by postwar apologists. All the more pertinent is the question of how the empty trickery of the Nazis, which was already all too well exposed by critics in the late 1920s and 1930s, could have ended in the Holocaust.

A very valid question (the portion I have highlighted).

Well, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes attempts to answer this question: and in my opinion, succeeds to a certain extent.  However, the answer is not at all palatable.  This may be one of the reasons why the book aroused such strong passions.


9780857052926This book is cutting satire which pulls no punches, in the tradition of Jonathan Swift – many a time you will flinch while reading it.  This is the way I believe that satire should work: while making one laugh, it should also make one uncomfortable, and make one question the very basis of one’s fondly held beliefs.  It did this for me.  I laughed out loud in very few places – but all the while, my inner demon was seething with evil laughter.

The premise of the novel is simple to the point of silliness.  Hitler is deposited into the middle of modern-day Germany (without any explanation whatsoever).  People take him for a flawless impersonator, while he is very sincere in his motives – to set Germany “right”.  While the country sees him as a comedian par excellence on TV, Adolf is using it as a means of propaganda to re-establish his philosophy in the minds of the Volk.  As the show and the showman become a runaway hit, he is wooed by different parties and gets a book contract – and at the end of the novel we realise with a shudder that Hitler is slowly re-emerging.

The juxtaposition of a historical figure with modern society is a common trope used in many satirical plays in India: it is a useful tool to satirise modern society in the light of age-old values.  However, here we find modern society evaluated in the light of Nazi values (celebrity culture and the ethics of journalism, for example), and we sometimes find ourselves agreeing with Hitler!  This is deeply disturbing, and forces us to question the values which we have become accustomed to – which is good, IMO, but which I suspect may get a lot of people pissed off.  A mirror is sometimes very difficult to look into.

Another disturbing fact Hitler’s popularity.  In the guise of “humour” (only for the audience-the Fuhrer is in dead earnest), so much of hatred for the “other” is tolerated, nay, even encouraged.  It made me question the limits of satire itself – for example, in a joke aimed at a particular community, are we laughing at the issue or the target community?  (For example, do we see a magazine such as “Charlie Hebdo” satirising society or insulting religion?) So while applauding Hitler as a comedian, is society tacitly putting the seal of approval on his dangerously eccentric ideas – due to its own ingrained racism?  Continuing in the same vein: is this what happened originally, when a little man with a ridiculous moustache was able take centre stage in German politics, after spending a long time on the fringes (frightening thought, that).

The novel is brilliantly written, in Hitler’s unreadable prose (I could recall my experience of reading <I>Mein Kampf</I>) which shows him up for what he was – a pompous ass with murderous ideas.  (I think this is the root of the criticism that the novel makes Hitler likeable.  It doesn’t.  It makes him silly.)  Such a man could not come to power, and commit murder on such a grand scale, without the active collusion of the majority – at least sins of omission if not those of commission.  In fact, Hitler only cleverly exploited European anti-Semitism to come to power, IMO.  By the time the world realised the depths of the depravity of this madman, it was too late.  The novel warns us that it is all the more possible in modern society, with the vastly improved means of propaganda at its disposal.

Finally: does this novel trivialise the holocaust and put Hitler in a favourable light?  In my opinion, it doesn’t.  What it does is that it diminishes Hitler.  It says: “Look, guys, this kooky idiot rode to power on your shoulders and once there, tightened his grip like a vice.  Such monkeys will come in future also.  Please don’t lift them to your shoulders and allow them to put a chokehold on you.”

Which is not a bad message, when one comes to think about it.