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.


3 comments on “A Differing Viewpoint on Kerala History

  1. Balakrishnan,if I remember right,ridicules Elamkulam’s theory,by mentioning the Thiruvanchikulam Temple.Elamkulam’s history cites,in the hundred years war,structures like this were demolished.But Balakrishnan points out that the temple is still intact.After reading it,I have been to the temple several times,to see the idols of Perumal and Sundara Moorthy Nayanar.

  2. I have not visited the temple, but Balakrishnan’s theory does seem to have some credibility. However, none of the established historians question the existence of the Chera Empire (even non-Malayalis), so I am a bit sceptical of his argument that it never existed. But it is surprising that this book is not part of the historical debate.

  3. P K Balakrishnan was not an academic historian. Maybe that’s the reason his studies were not given the merit it deserved. Sivasankaran Nair supports PKBs findings but he too is not an academic historian. SreedharaMenon propagated and MGS expanded Elamkulams findings. As Nandakishore Varma pointed out, none of the academic historians – KN Ganesh, Rajan Gurukkal, Raghava Warrier, Keshavan Veluthat, PK Gopalakrishnan- objected to second Chera empire theory.

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