The Monstrous Feminine


The festival of Navaratri – the ‘Nine Sacred Nights of the Goddess’ – has begun. All over India, the Goddess Durga will be worshipped for these nine days and nights. In Bengal, where it is the main state festival, it culminates with the immersion of hundreds of Durga idols in the sea.

Durga took birth to kill the buffalo-demon Mahishasura. She is an avatar of Shakti, the feminine power that pervades the universe. The Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva join together to get Shakti to incarnate herself as Durga, as the demon was undefeatable otherwise. Ten-armed with a weapon in each, riding a lion, she went on to meet the demon in battle. The demon fell in love with the goddess and asked her to marry him; enraged by his audacity, Durga slew him.

Durga (literally ‘impassable’) must be a version of the Mother Goddess, who according to most mythographers, predated the male gods. What is interesting is that in India, one of the most patriarchal societies you can imagine, the goddess still commands respect – sometimes even more than her male counterparts. But however, Indians have succeeded in deifying her, putting her on a pedestal, and going about their patriarchal lives quite comfortably: subjugating and abusing women to their heart’s content while extolling her as a goddess.

I find this motif of the fearsome divinity – which I call the monstrous feminine, the bogeyman that has lurked in the dark corners of Indian myth since time immemorial – ever present as an undercurrent in our popular myth and culture. As goddess, she is Durga and Kali, with her insatiable appetite for blood; she is present as the various rakshasis (demonesses) such as Tataka and Surpanakha in the Indian epics; and in my own homeland of Kerala, she used colour my childhood nightmares as the yakshi, the fearsome wood-sprite that ate men alive.


Kali by Raja Ravi Varma

The she-monsters are always conquered, of course. The yakshis are tamed and imprisoned in trees; the demonesses are killed by mythical heroes; and the goddess is placated by daily rituals and oblations (which used to comprise sacrifices, even human, in yesteryears). But there is always a sense of unease; that the hidden power, the adi-para-shakti (‘primeval pervading power’ – as the infinite form of the goddess is known – will break out of her slumber and take over the world. This is what the male-centric society has always feared: and this fear is reflected in the current aggressive resistance towards many of the feminist movements across the world. As Steve Bannon fears, women may take over the world!


I came to know of Lilith rather late in my mythical explorations. She is a part of the Jewish myth which has been expunged from the bible: and her story is extremely interesting because of its feminist overtones.

I have relied upon the Gnosis Archive for the following story:

This potentially blasphemous story has Adam trying to copulate with animals, and finding them unsuitable, asking God for a helpmeet. “God then formed Lilith, the first woman, just as He had formed Adam, except that He used filth and sediment instead of pure dust. From Adam’s union with this demoness, and with another like her named Naamah, Tubal Cain’s sister, sprang Asmodeus and innumerable demons that still plague mankind.”


Lilith by John Collier

This “filthy” woman, however, was rather feisty. She refused to subordinate herself to Adam:

Adam and Lilith never found peace together; for when he wished to lie with her, she took offence at the recumbent posture he demanded. ‘Why must I lie beneath you?’ she asked. ‘I also was made from dust, and am therefore your equal.’ Because Adam tried to compel her obedience by force, Lilith, in a rage, uttered the magic name of God, rose into the air and left him.

The “disobedient” Lilith was, unsurprisingly, punished by God: when she refused to come back, enjoying her free life with lascivious demons on the banks of the Red Sea, God cursed all her children to die. The belief is that she produces one hundred demon children per day, all of whom perish by night.

Lilith is feared as the seducer of sleeping men, the killer of babies and the spirit who causes abortions.

The subtext is clear – the independent woman is the demon, while the subordinate one made from the rib is the perfect helpmeet!




The monstrous feminine in the Occident, I find perfectly embodied in Medusa. Though not especially marked as “evil” – the Greek myths are rather amoral – she is indeed the antagonist to the male hero, something he must vanquish on his quest. And it is interesting that Medusa is never really defeated face to face: even in death, her eyes can turn one to stone.


Here, I find it interesting to compare this metaphor across the traditions of the Levant, the Occident and the Orient. In the Biblical tradition, the monstrous feminine is unambiguously marked as evil and on the side of the devil; in the Occident, she is still frightening, and something to be vanquished, but her moral labelling doesn’t exist; while in the East, she has been deified and assimilated into the masculine myth in a masterful way.

The Tale of Nagavalli

The Malayalam film Manichithrathaazhu released in 1993 was a totally new phenomenon as far Kerala moviegoers were concerned. Shunning the popular themes of comedy, the family drama or the crime thriller (even though the film incorporated elements of all of these genres), it presented a tense psychological thriller with just a touch of the horror, and proved an instant hit. It also became a watershed film in Indian history, as it was remade in Tamil, Kannada, Bengali and Hindi. And it also won the National Award for Shobhana for her portrayal of a girl with split personality.

What was so special about the film? For one, it married the supernatural tale of spirit possession with modern pop psychology; at the same time, it fused the ancient art of sorcery with the science of psychiatry. Even though most of the theories Mohanlal as Dr. Sunny spouts in the film are unadulterated bullshit, they resonated with a populace eager to discover scientific principles in our ‘ancient wisdom’.

But most importantly, it was the character of Nagavalli, the long-dead dancer out for blood revenge on her tormentor, who stole the hearts of people. Shobhana, in a flawless performance, enacted the role of the city girl Ganga who believes that she is Nagavalli, to perfection.


Shobhana in Manichitrathazhu

The story, stated very briefly, runs thus. Ganga and her husband Nakulan are staying in their ancestral home, which is believed to be haunted by the ghost of a Tamil dancer who had been imprisoned and later murdered by the head of the family. Ganga, who has got serious psychological disturbances, starts believing herself to be Nagavalli – and her husband to be her cruel captor. As her madness slowly progresses, the unconventional psychiatrist Dr. Sunny comes up with a unique way to cure her. In collaboration with the sorcerer and tantric expert Pullattuparambil Brahmadattan Namboothiripad, he enacts a ceremony where Ganga, in her Nagavalli avatar, is allowed to behead a dummy of Nakulan in the guise of her antagonist. The act done, she returns to her normal self – the “ghost” is “exorcised”.

Joseph Campbell has said that artists are the myth-makers of the modern-world: and this movie is a perfect example. The character of Nagavalli channels all female monsters hiding in the Indian psyche, as well as the avenging Durga (it is not a coincidence that she gets her sacrifice on Durgashtami, the eighth day of the Navaratri festival, very auspicious to the goddess): but most importantly, she is humoured, tamed and assimilated back into the pliant Ganga who practically worships her husband. And this has been done through an amalgamation of psychoanalysis and Vedic ritual. No wonder the movie was a hit!


So there she is, ladies and gentlemen – the monstrous feminine. Always in the background, always underneath the “civilised” facade of the “chaste” woman. Most of us in India, including women who follow tradition, do not prefer to acknowledge her; to accept the fact that the docility of woman comes at a great price to her psyche. And as woman goes through the avatars of Sati, Savitri and Sita, her inner Durga and Kali are chafing at the bit, struggling for release: the symptoms of which struggle are becoming more and more visible, day by day.

Is a new myth in the offing?


Resurrection Sunday

I have been away from regular blogging for quite some time now, due to travel, personal exigencies and a job change.  Wells, things are settled a bit now, and what better time to restart than this auspicious weekend, when Vishu (the Kerala new year) and Easter come together?

Vishu is always a new beginning for us Malayalees.  We wake up before the sun, and see good things as first thing in the morning – called ‘kani’ (കണി) – fruits, vegetables, gold, an image or idol of Krishna, a piece of new cloth… hoping the new year will bring prosperity. Then there are fireworks until daybreak. The young ones get money from the elders – kaineettam (കൈനീട്ടം); literally, “handout” – and then we have our sumptuous afternoon feast: the “sadya” (സദ്യ).  We hope for the same level of prosperity during the whole year – makes sense to a predominantly agrarian culture.

Easter is also a new beginning for mankind.  In the traditionalist literal Christian narrative, it is the historic day when Jesus Christ arose from the dead and ascended to heaven, thus opening the way for the salvation of man.  If we go to the pagan roots of the festival, it is the perennial regeneration of the sacred king, murdered and rejuvenated in perpetuity – Christianity destroyed the concept of cyclical time and established its myth in linearity.  Easter is also celebrated with feasting after a month of austerity.

On the personal front, I have completed about thirteen years of life as an expatriate and is finally coming back to live in my hometown.  A long-cherished dream of a personal library is also has finally come true.  So it’s a new beginning for me as well: a new phase of life in which I will slowly withdraw from active life and move into a life of contemplation.  Vanaprastha, the third phase of a man’s life according to the Indian ethos, is just around the corner.

So let my blog also take on a new lease of life on this day of renewal!


A Sacred Grove for Serpents

949742014452f212b2409357c1f5cd571 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

13 And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

14 And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

In the Old Testament creation myth, the serpent is the villain: it is he who tempts Eve with the “Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil”, which God had expressly forbidden mankind from eating.  This results in man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (the so-called “Fall”), and the everlasting enmity between man and serpent.

This is true of the Levantine Religions which subscribe to this myth.  But for me, brought up in sylvan landscape of rural Kerala, the snake is an entity to be worshipped.  He is feared, true, but that is because of his power which is enormous when unleashed – a curse from him can affect seven generations, it is said – but he is also revered.  During my childhood, each big house had a corner of their compound set aside for the traditional Sarpakkavu, the sacred “Serpent Grove”.

My family was educated and “enlightened”, so they did not go for this pagan nonsense (they believed in the gods, of course) and I grew up with a healthy contempt for such animistic practices.  As “civilisation” spread and villages became towns and then cities, traditional Kerala homesteads made way for modern terraced villas and multi-storey apartment complexes: and the sacred groves were slowly encroached upon by western style lawns and rose gardens.

Ironically, as I slowly lost my faith in the gods as absolute entities, my creative interest in the spiritual facet of myth grew (helped by the discovery of Joseph Campbell in my early twenties) – and I began to pine for the lost serpent groves: seas of tranquil peace in the hustle and bustle of daily life, where huge centenarian trees stood guard; where the afternoon slept peacefully, and nature woke to lusty and dangerous life at twilight.

The Sacred Grove

The concept of the sacred grove is hardly confined to Kerala, India or the East – It is part of  most of the pagan universe in general.  Sir J. G. Frazer, in his landmark book The Golden Bough, discourses at length about the sacred grove of Diana at Lake Nemi, where the priest-king was ritually killed annually and reincarnated in his successor.  From Wikipedia:

The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief and scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat and many other symbols and practices whose influence has extended into twentieth-century culture. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. Frazer proposed that mankind progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.

golden_boughThis thesis was developed in relation to J. M. W. Turner’s painting of The Golden Bough, a sacred grove where a certain tree grew day and night. It was a transfigured landscape in a dream-like vision of the woodland lake of Nemi, “Diana’s Mirror”, where religious ceremonies and the “fulfillment of vows” of priests and kings were held.

The king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth. He died at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend of rebirth is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies.

Curiously enough, the temples of the Goddess in Kerala are called “kavu”s (groves), even when there are no trees present within the compound!  I have always felt that we must have “progressed” from real groves to today’s elaborate structures as patriarchy slowly replaced the pagan matriarchy and the Goddess was subjugated as the consort of God.  At some point of time, the Earth Mother was enslaved by the her consort, who was her son as well – and instead of being the offspring of Gaia, man became her master.  (We all know the impact of this paradigm shift on the environment, but that is another story.)

If the Goddess represents the dark and mysterious female principle, her companion in popularity in Kerala, the snake, represents the male principle.  No wonder he also resides in a grove, and is directly linked with fertility.  People sacrifice at famous snake temples throughout the state for getting offspring and for their continued welfare: in the famous temple at Mannarsala, a down-turned uruli (a flat vessel) is the offering, under which a snake comes to meditate until a child is born to the devout couple (the Freudian and Jungian connections are obvious here).

So, going back to the Biblical myth, I always wonder whether the serpent was a benign deity originally, who was recast into the role of the villain as the Abrahamic myth gained traction?  The fruit he offers Eve makes her aware of her sexuality, and she is henceforth cursed (or blessed?) by God to “bring forth children in sorrow”.  Maybe the Garden of Eden was initially the Grove of the Serpent, and the myth had an entirely different form…

Constructing a Sarpakkavu

Our ancestral home in Thrissur is a huge monstrosity with sprawling grounds.  A few years ago, my sister (who is an artist and a connoisseur of artistically eccentric ideas) decided to create a Sarpakkavu in one corner.  Initially, no one was in support. The traditional method of creating the grove being leaving the area totally unattended, allowing the bushes, trees and creepers to grow at will, soon one corner of our compound was choked with grass and bush.  It became a haven for stray dogs, snakes and everyone was aghast at the unsafe conditions: but my sister doggedly persisted.

Soon, nature took over.  As the big trees began to grow and spread their branches, the shade of the leafy canopy slowly killed off the wild grass, and the floor became more even.  The fallen leaves provided the necessary support for the ground to hold rainwater, and as the soil became more fertile, a miniature forest began to take shape.  Most importantly – snakes which were rampant in our grounds seem to have disappeared, apparently retiring to this piece of heaven created for them.

This is how it looks today.


While I walked around the area yesterday, I felt positive energy flowing into me: both physically from the oxygen-laden atmosphere and spiritually from the calming presence of the gently swaying trees.  I once again marvelled at the wisdom of paganism, where man instinctively understood his place in the grand scheme of things – not as master, but as a humble cog in the machine.  As I stood absorbed by this tiny ecological paradise in a world largely gone to waste, an old mantra to the Earth Mother, which I learned at my mother’s knee, came up in my mind:

Samudra vasane Devi

Parvata sthana mandale

Vishnu patnim namasthubhyam

Paada sparsham kshmaswa me

(O Goddess, wearing the oceans as your dress and having the mountains for your breasts: Consort of Vishnu, I bow to thee; forgive the touch of my feet…)

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:

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.

The Father of Malayalam Language

Thunchath Ezhutthachan.

The name is a hallowed one. Very few languages have recorded ancestry – and very few people can claim to have created languages. The gentleman mentioned above is widely recognised by us Malayalis (the people of Kerala) as the father of our language, Malayalam.

I had studied about Ezhutthachan (which itself means “Father of Writing”) in school. It is generally agreed that he created the modern Malayalam script; adapted letters from Sanskrit and Tamil to provide for all the spoken sounds in Malayalam, thus removing the discrepancy between the spoken and the written language. He also composed Malayalam versions of the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Bhagavata. His Hari Nama Keerthanam (“Prayers in praise of the Lord’s Name”) is one of the most popular prayer songs even today.

According to popular legend, Ezhutthachan was a man of one of the low castes; a man who drank and ate fish (possibly also tapped toddy from coconut palms). In present day Kerala, the Ezhutthachans are ranked as OBC (Other Backward Caste). However, this caste name was adopted relatively recently (only in 1921). Before that anyone who taught children were known as “Ezhutthachan” (it may also have been “Ezhutthaasaan” – “Master of Letters”).

As it happens with most things in Kerala, the exact caste of Ezhutthachan has led to a caste dispute; both the Nair community (who belong to forward castes) and the Ezhutthachan community claiming him. With the status of historical records of Kerala being what they are, it is not likely that this issue will be resolved anytime soon, if ever. The problem is also compounded by the fact that all castes in Kerala from Nair downwards are officially Sudras according to the ancient system of the four Varnas (castes) of Vedic Brahmanism. The Brahmins who came to Kerala relatively late in history seem to have elevated some of the local ruling families to a higher caste and dumped the rest under the umbrella of Sudras – so Ezhutthachan may have been any non-Brahmin who taught children.

So much for official history. The renowned Malayalam novelist C. Radhakrishnan has a different story to tell – one which he has dug up from family legends.

A Personal Story

As a very young boy, as the author was reading a lesson on Ezhutthachan in his schoolbook, his grandmother astonished him by saying that it is about his ancestor, who preceded him by fourteen generations. That night and the nights afterward, she told Radhakrishnan the family story – how Ezhutthachan was persecuted by the Samoothiri (the Zamorin Raja of Calicut) for belonging to a family who traditionally opposed him: how his school was destroyed, his uncle and elder brother murdered: and how he himself was demoted to the condition of a “Temple Slave”, forbidden to teach and write, forced to manually operate a “Chakku” (a mill used to extract oil from copra and gingelly, usually pulled by bullocks or buffaloes) to earn a living for himself and his family: and finally when even these measures failed to kill the poet and philosopher within him, he was deported never to return on pain of death. The story cleared up the mysteries behind a family ritual, where the karanavar (eldest male member of a matrilineal family) annually buried and later unearthed a bunch of ancient texts – to recreate an event which actually happened when the soldiers of the Zamorin invaded Ezhutthachan’s home. It also gave the background of the family admonishment to naughty children, “I will make you push the chakku!”

Armed with this knowledge, Radhakrishnan went forward to write the story of his long-dead ancestor. The author confesses it was no easy task. He had to expend Herculean efforts to dig up facts from a past mired in myth and legend; running from pillar to post, consulting many authorities and resolving contradictions. He also had to face the ire of people who saw behind this a nefarious plot by the Nair community to “appropriate” the great man of letters. But Radhakrishnan persevered, and the result is the extraordinarily brilliant and poetic novel, Theekkadal Kadanju Thirumadhuram (“Divine Sweetness from the Churning of the Ocean of Fire”).

The Historical Background

The time period in which Ezhutthachan lived was a turbulent one. The Samoothiri, having seized power in the kingdom of Calicut, was in the phase of bringing the smaller kingdoms to heel. In this, he is abetted by certain Brahmin families who had their own agenda to carry out – make learning, which has become democratic in the wake of the Buddhist reforms, once again the monopoly of Brahmins and put all the uppity “lower” castes in their place.

There was a strange custom in place at this time. The Valluvakkonathiri who originally ruled the place called Valluvanad to the south of Calicut, was the patron of a festival called Mamankam at Thirunavaya, conducted on the banks of the Bharathapuzha river once every 12 years. The Samoothiri captured this town and usurped the patronage, which was not accepted by the Valluvakkonathiri. So the families loyal to him used to form a squad of 18 soldiers called a Chaver Pada (“Suicide Squad”), and attempt to kill the Samoothiri as he stood on a stage called the “Nilapadu Thara”. Of course, death was certain, but the custom was enacted without fail on every occasion: such was the depth of hatred.

The Story

Ezhutthachan had the misfortune to be born into double jeopardy in these turbulent times. His mother’s family (and according to matrilineal system of the Nairs, his family) were traditionally teachers, and therefore distrusted and hated by the hidebound Brahmins who feared that they will take away the knowledge of the Vedas and distribute it to all and sundry. His father belonged to a family of traditional Chaver soldiers, who had deep-rooted enmity with the Samoothiri.

Krishnan (as Ezhutthachan is named in the novel) never saw his father – he was treacherously killed days before he was born. However, the family lives on in relative peace at Thanniyur, patronised by the king of Vettathunad, one of the vassal states of Calicut. There is the elderly uncle, blind from cataract; his mother, slowly moving towards madness after the death of her husband; his eldest brother, Kuttan, who is charge of the teaching; and two older sisters – Seetha, mature and motherly and Cheeru, flighty and cheerful.

Seetha marries Unni, her father’s nephew, in time-honoured tradition. However, the tranquillity of the family is shattered when Unni decides to become a Chaver soldier. After his futile battle and death, one of the renegade armies of the Samoothiri destroys the Kalari (school) of the Ezhutthachan family. His uncle gives his life to save the ancient texts by dumping them in the well. The family has to move on: find a new place to put up a Kalari at Thiruvur, in a place called Thunchan Parambu (“Thunchan’s Compound”) which is rumoured to be inhabited by the ghost of an unfortunate toddy tapper and family who were murdered by an employee of one of the local Nampoothiri families.

This Kalari also progresses well. Cheeru marries Unni’s younger brother Gopi and Kuttan marries their sister Ammini. Krishnan Ezhutthachan in the meantime travels to Tamil Nadu, to an “Adheenam” – a centre of learning which makes no caste distinctions in teaching. When he returns after almost a decade as a young man, his nephews and nieces are grown up. Krishnan also marries and has a daughter in due course; but almost as a forerunner of the great tragedies about shadow his life, his wife dies in childbirth. During this time, his literary genius takes wings, however; he composes a devotional poem Hari Nama Keerthanam, and more importantly, modernises the Malayalam alphabet.

Meanwhile things have gone from bad to worse politically. The malice of a local Nampoothiri family, the Munayoor Illam, is unrelenting. The Portuguese have arrived, and having fallen out with the Samoothiri have joined forces with the Raja of Cochin. In the subsequent internecine war, the king of Vettathunad and the Samoothiri have a falling out, as the former refuses treat Cochin as an enemy. Samoothiri’s marauding army attack the Vettathu Palace where the Ezhuttachan family has taken refuge, and kill the young king of Vettath and Kuttan, Krishnan’s elder brother, in treachery. They also condemn Ezhutthachan to death for teaching Vedas to non-Brahmins and for arguing that enlightenment was possible for anybody, regardless of caste, in the Hari Nama Keerthanam (actually a basic tenet of Hindu philosophy).

However, there is a last-minute reprieve: the Mooppil Nair (local leader of the upper-caste Nairs) decrees that the low-caste infidel who blasphemed the Brahmins should be condemned to a fate “worse than death” – namely, making a living for himself and his family from the pittance earned by manually operating a chakku. Actually, the Mooppil Nair is covertly saving Krishnan from certain death, in return for education he received. However, it is indeed a cruel fate – the Ezhutthachan family (including all the widowed women and orphaned children) is transported to Sabara Kottam, designated as slaves of the temple to stay in a hovel in the virtual wilderness and earn their livelihood through the backbreaking labour of one member of the family.

However, you can’t silence the voice of poetry for long. Along with the song of the chakku as it rotates along the axis, the poet also sings – translating the Adhyatma Ramayana into Malayalam, giving the language it first epic poem. He soon does the same for the Mahabharata and Bhagavata. Obviously he cannot teach anybody or write these poems down – but they spread like wildfire, travelling from mouth to mouth, actively assisted by lovers of learning, both Brahmin and non-Brahmin, who care a hoot for caste distinctions.

The conservatives are incensed. They want to enforce the death sentence. However, deliverance comes in the form of Azhvanchery Thamprakkal, the spiritual head of all Nampoothiri families in Kerala, and a patron of literature and arts. He commutes Ezhutthachan’s death sentence to deportation. He is forced to leave his loved ones; and after once again travelling to his old Adheenam and a long stint as teacher there, he comes back and sets up a scholastic centre at Chittur in Palakkad, in the kingdom of Cochin.

The novel ends with Ezhuttachan in his last phase of life, still sorrowing for his estranged family – but looking forward to a peaceful death, and hoping for a peaceful future for mankind.

One feels that his soul is now smiling down from above, seeing his homeland attaining 100 per cent literacy and removing all barriers to learning imposed by caste.

Memorial to Ezhutthachan at his birthplace


Churning the Ocean of Fire

“Churning the ocean” is a concept closely related to the Indian psyche. According to Hindu myth, the Devas (celestials) and Asuras (demons or anti-gods), churned the celestial Ocean of Milk using the mount Manthara as the churn and the snake Vasuki as the rope, to get Amrutha, the divine nectar of immortality. This is interpreted psychologically as the refinement of the psyche, using both the positive emotions (symbolised by the Devas) and the negative ones (represented by the Asuras) so that immortality (oneness with God or the Brahman) is ultimately realised. Radhakrishnan uses this concept, as Ezhutthachan goes round and round the chakku. While doing this
backbreaking labour, the mind of the great man is busy composing the Adhyatma Ramanayanam. As he churns the sea of fire his life has become, his poetic psyche gets even more refined, and able to produce the divine sweetness of the song of Lord Rama.

The novel is written in first person; which is usually a limitation, but in this case once you finish reading it, you feel this is the only way it could be. The great man’s viewpoint is presented throughout – which is one of pacifism and peaceful acceptance of life and all that it brings. This is not fatalism, because the flame of optimism is never extinguished. This is the thought at the pinnacle of Indian philosophy – as Joseph Campbell put it, the “joyful acceptance of life’s sorrows”. As we are ground up mercilessly by fate like copra and gingelly seeds by the chakku, we get refined, and the essence of souls pours out like the oil.

Radhakrishnan’s language is poetic and his grasp of Sanskrit literature and Indian philosophy exemplary. Also an enormous amounts of historical research has gone into the book. The author writes with passion – as his ancestor, it is obvious that he feels Ezhutthachan’s pain. However, this is not an easy novel to read. One should take one’s time to understand the history and savour the philosophy.

I am not going into the controversies here: obviously, when one tries to recreate history from so little documentation, there are bound to be many conflicting viewpoints. However, as a work of art, this novel stands alone. Radhakrishnan’s fictionalised history deserves to be the truth, we feel.

Like the fellow said, if it ain’t true, it oughtta be!


Nostalgia and the Malayali

It seems that as I grow old, nostalgia becomes more and more of a permanent companion, a sort of chronic condition which is not debilitating. It is the province of the Malayali: mostly forced to live as an expatriate, he pines for a time and a place unattainable. It may not be coincidental that the usually the term for homesickness is used for nostalgia too in Malayalam (“gruhaturatvam”). For the Malayali, separation across time and space from loved surroundings is the grim reality in life.

Many of the beloved songs of popular Malayalam cinema are about nostalgia and homesickness:

“Maamalakalkkappurathu Marathakappattuduthu

Malayalamennoru Naadundu…”


(Across the mountain ranges, wearing a dress of emerald green

Is the land called “Malayalam”…)


“Naalikerathinte Naattilenikkoru

Nazhiyidangazhi Mannundu…

Athil Narayanakkili Koodupolulloru



(In the land of the coconut palm,

I have a handful of earth in my name…

On that, like a sparrow’s nest

There is a ramshackle thatched house…)


“Oru vattam koodiyen Ormakal meyunna

Thirumuttathethuvaan Moham…”


(Once again, I wish to go back to that

Sacred courtyard where memories graze…)


The last song, by our beloved poet Prof. O. N. V. Kurup, was the defining song of my generation. It came out in the Eighties. In simple terms, it talks about a pastoral childhood which was becoming a distant memory even then: what children used to do when VCD players, computers and play station were not available. Eating bitter gooseberries, drinking cool well-water immediately afterwards to convert that bitterness to sweetness, having a cooing match with the koel… but what really packed the punch was the last line:

“Verutheyee Mohangal Ennariyumbozhum

Veruthe Mohikkuvaan Moham…”


(Even though I know that all these wishes are futile,

I wish to wish, just for the sake of wishing…)


Thus the song defines two things – a pastoral life which is fast disappearing and a futile wish to go back to it, knowing fully well it is impossible. It is about thirty-four years since O. N. V penned that song, but the sentiment has not altered.

It must be noted that diaspora is hardly unique to the Malayali. The most famous one historically is that of the Jews (“By the rivers of Babylon…”): it has culminated ultimately in them obtaining a country of their own and creating another diaspora – that of the Palestinians – in the process. It seems that displacement and the longing to return is part of our humanity, and it shall remain. What makes the Keralite different from others is that his separation is voluntary.

Keralites are proud of their small state: unlike the majority of India, it is green and clean. Mother Nature has been kind to Kerala. The tourist brochures call it “God’s Own Country”, and even though this is boasting at its zenith, many tourists may agree. Even at the height of urbanisation – there is hardly a “village” worthy of the definition in Kerala any more – the state still manages to maintain its green image. I have posted below a random sample from my “vacation” photographs to illustrate the point (one gets to appreciate all the more, gazing on concrete and desert sand for eleven months of the year).

However, the state has very few avenues for making a living for its highly educated population: there are very few industries and very little infrastructure. For making a living, most Malayalis are forced to go out. The separation is thus not entirely a matter of choice. Also, the rapid pace of urbanisation – even though heartily embraced by the people – does not prevent them from remembering a past when everything was blissful.

This futile longing for a lost golden age and paradise – a sort of Atlantis of memory – defines much of Malayalam popular art, literature and culture. It is doubtful whether it ever existed: it may be as mythical as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But that is not relevant. In the realm of the spirit, mythical truth is more powerful than mundane reality.

Our most famous festival, Onam, is in the memory of a golden era when Kerala was ruled by the mythical king Mahabali (this could only be a later interpolation – because according to another myth, Kerala came out of the sea when Parasurama, an incarnation of Vishnu, threw his axe from Gokarna in the north to Kanyakumari in the south – and Bali predates Parasurama in mythical chronology). In the actual myth, Mahabali was an Asura king who has defeated all the Devas, and was tricked by Lord Vishnu in the guise of a dwarf Brahmin (“Vamana”) into giving up his kingdom. However, because Bali was just and devout, Vishnu set him up as the ruler of a region called Sutala.

In the Kerala version of the myth, Mahabali (or “Maveli”, as we Malayalis call him) was the ruler of Kerala. He was the quintessential perfect monarch: popular ballads sing about his reign when all people were equal, there were no deceit and trickery, and people never told lies. Vishnu as Vamana kicked this kind ruler down to the netherworld (“Patalam”) where he lives now: however, the god granted him one boon. Every year he could return to visit his people on Onam day. So to keep the monarch happy, the people of Kerala make a great show of prosperity with splendour and feasting (even if one is living in abject poverty), so that Maveli goes back satisfied that all is well.

Maveli is the original expatriate from Kerala, pining eternally for a homeland he can never come back to.

We celebrate Onam with great gusto wherever in the world we are. In the Middle East, this has become the festival of the Great Nostalgia: in effect, we all share part of King Maveli’s angst.

O.N.V was right – even if the longing is futile, we will still do it.

It is such a sweet pain.

The Realm of Faerie

And you love take my right hand,

Come join the faery folks’ last dance;

Then we’ll sleep and dream of Elfland,

Her wizardry and wild romance.


The Elvish Rune,



I am currently going through the Harry Potter series (yes, I know I’m terribly late!) and I have been marvelling at J. K. Rowling’s mastery in the mixing of the traditional British school story and Celtic fairy-lore. For kids of my generation who grew up on Enid Blyton, fairy-folk like pixies and brownies were childhood playmates; there was something fascinating about the enchanted woods just over the hedge, populated by these fascinating creatures. Blyton purposefully avoided the disturbing and frightening aspects of these creatures, and they were transformed into something like mischievous little children with magical powers. The illustrations also helped.

Running in parallel to these stories were narratives of a different kind of woodland beings. These inhabited not the calm and peaceful copses of temperate England, but the shadowy forests of tropical Kerala. Consequently I think, they were more frightening and violent. The Yakshi who enticed you in the form of a beautiful lady, only to eat you up; the Gandharvan who bewitched young ladies with beautiful music; the Thendan who followed you on dark, deserted paths and hit you if you looked back… What separated these stories from Enid Blyton’s tales were the fact that they were real, in the here and the now. These beings inhabited your backyard.

As I grew up, these magical beings were relegated to the attic of my mind; stowed away, but never discarded and never entirely forgotten. I had more pressing concerns now like studies and the angst of growing up (partial differential equations were more terrifying than any Yakshi). However, my yearning for magical lands and fantastic beings survived in the form of a deep love of fantasy and science fiction, and a growing interest in mythology. And when I discovered Joseph Campbell, it was as though a kindred spirit was calling to me across the ages. I understood that mythology is not just beautiful stories: it is an integral part of our psyche.

The faerie folk lives within us.


I found this entry on “fairy” in The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan.

Once they were divine; the TUATHA DE DANANN, the children or the people of the goddess DANU. According to the mythological history of Ireland, the BOOK OF INVASIONS, the Tuatha De were the penultimate invaders of the island, wresting control from the sturdy dark FIR BOLG and the fierce FOMORIANS. When the final invaders came, the Tuatha De went the way of their enemies, being defeated in the great battle of TAILTIU by the Sons of Mil or MILESIANS.

The Milesians did not evict the defeated race from Ireland; instead, a deal was made that the Tuatha De would take the underside of the world while the Milesians ruled the surface. Through this curious treaty the ancient race remained within the hills, under the bogs, and in other liminal areas of Ireland, where they transformed into fairy people. Sometimes the story of their fall from power was connected to the Christian story of the angels’ fall from heaven, and the fairies were thus described as fallen angels.

One can immediately see the similarity to theory that the Asuras and Rakshasas of Indian myth were actually earlier inhabitants of India, vanquished by the invading Aryans. Similarly, the Devil is nothing but a fallen angel. So it seems that the protagonists of myth are always the beings of light who dwell on the surface; the antagonists, the beings of darkness beneath. Traditionally, according to the historical analysis of myth, the winners are thought to have written history with themselves as the gods and the conquered race as demons.

In my opinion, even though there may be some historical background to these legends, the roots run much deeper – all the way down into our subconscious.

Note that in ancient myths, even though the gods win, the demons are never fully vanquished. They only retreat temporarily, to come back with renewed vigour. In the same vein, the fairies have retreated to the “underside” – they dwell there in an uneasy truce with the ordinary beings “on the surface”. However, one has to be very careful never to cross into the no-man’s land, the twilight zone between the worlds. There are bloodcurdling tales.

Kidnappings by fairies are quite common: they steal the souls of brides, who waste away in real life, while the soul is made to spend its time continuously dancing in the fairy kingdom (a legend used to great effect by Susanna Clarke in the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel). There is also the terrifying story of the changeling, the fairy child swapped with a human child – a common trope in many fantasy and horror stories. There is the irritating goblin who can turn outright malevolent on occasion. There are also helpful fairies like the brownies and mischievous spirits like the pixies – the so-called little people – who also may turn nasty if not properly treated.

Back home in Kerala, the legends are even more blood-curdling. The Yakshi waylays unsuspecting males in the guise of a nubile young girl and entices them up the palm tree where she lives; for the unfortunate soul, it seems like he is entering a palatial mansion. As soon as the light goes off, the ogress changes back into her terrifying form and eats the would-be Romeo up. The Thendan follows you on deserted pathways; if you turn to look at him, he gives you such a slap that you fall down unconscious. If you are lucky, you will wake up with a fever. The Gandharvan is handsome and sings beautifully so that girls are easy meat for him – however, once a girl is in a Gandharvan‘s clutches, woe betide any male who goes near her.

Sarpakkavu (image courtesy:

Many of the houses in rural Kerala used to have what is called a Sarpakkavu (“Snake Grove”). This is a wooded area on the grounds which is set aside for the divine snakes, who partakes of offerings and drinks milk left for them. They are the protectors of the family; but if you cross them, the whole dynasty will be cursed, especially the children.

Most our temples in Kerala still have “gods” who cannot be accommodated inside, as their character is not wholly beyond reproach. They are accommodated outside under the banyan tree (which is a standard fixture for any temple) or at the back of the temple. The Thendan I mentioned earlier sits under the banyan tree of our local temple – I can still remember the twinge of fear as I used to pass its idol in the night. (By the way, my wife’s family house had four gods in the backyard until recently – so the concept is still not dated!)

The feeling one gets from these legends are of a world in an uneasy balance. Unlike Christian mythology, where God is unconditionally good and the Devil incorrigibly Evil, the faerie folk are somewhere in-between – like us humans. They have been pushed “beneath”, but they can come up any time and drag us down if we are not careful.


Humanity started out in the jungles: the race memories of a dark and frightening past hide inside the collective unconscious and still haunt us. These are what Joe Campbell calls the “Inherited Image” – like the image of the hawk that the chickens will run away from, even when they have never seen a hawk in life. These are the symbols which lie deep inside the psyche and provide fodder for much of our art, literature and myth.

And the prevalence of the faerie folk inside the enchanted forests all over the globe assures us that underneath we are all the same.