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The Temple states of Medieval Kerala

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Sanketams of Malabar

Starting from the time when the Chera Empire and its powers declined, new forms of governance came up as lands split into multiple Swaroopams, Nadus, Desams and so on. Local chieftains administered the land with the help of the Lokars or Nairs, and came under the local Swaroopam suzerain’s umbrella. In return, they provided the services of foot soldiers comprising Nairs in the time of a war between the swaroopams. But in between all that, temple states also sprung up in parallel and some of them became very powerful. Some were small, like Pallavur in Palghat, which was just 2 square miles and where I hail from, others were very big, comprising many hundred square miles like Padmanabhapuram in Trivandrum. The Peruvanam Kshethra Sanketham for instance, extended approximately 25 miles in all directions, to Kuthiraanmudi (peak) Ayyappa temple in the east, Kodungalloor Oozhakam Sastha temple in the south, Edathiruthy Ayyappa temple near Thriprayar in the west and the Akamala Sastha temple in the north.

These were the Sanketam’s. Simply put, they were islanded spiritual states in the midst of lands under secular chiefs and princes. Even a king could not break the sanctuary provided by a Sanketam. Their authority was maintained using physical force by the Nairpada and not by any kind of religious or spiritual sanctions. However as time went by, the Sanketams aligned with one or the other local chieftains and eventually declined in powers. Let’s follow their course to see how it all went.

The Calicut University Political science text book explains - The Yogams (councils) of the Namboothiri trustees (uraler) of temples and temple lands and their privileges were together called Sanketam. In the absence of sovereign authority of the government, the Sanketams became real rulers. They administered law and justice in their jurisdiction. The Changatham was a group of warriors who ensured protection and safety to a Desam and to the Sanketam property. Like the Chavers, Changathams were also suicide squads. They were rewarded with a share from the offerings that were received at the temple. The share was called "Kaaval Panam" (remuneration for guarding) or Rakshabhogam. It was with the military backing of these Changathams that the Brahmins established social and political hegemony.

According to the Keralolpathi, Parasurama who brought the Brahmins, ‘created adima and kudima in the desam, protected adiyans and kudiyans, established taras and sankethams, separated the Nairs into taras and the supervision work over the land was given to them’. It is said that there were two types of sanketams, the self-existent one which continued on as remnants of the ancient Brahmin supremacy and the second type which had been created as a concession by the sovereign who was in favor of the temple and which then became a Sanketam, fully governed by people and authorities elected or selected by the Sanketham Uralers. This was the norm in a period broadly defined as the temple centered period of Kerala history.

Achyuta Menon explains - The Brahmin settlements (he also terms them demesne – i.e. territory, realm, domain) known in inscriptions as ‘Ur’ were concentrated around temples, sprang up throughout Kerala, and Brahmins became the custodians of huge wealth and property of these temples. The land owning Brahmins were generally called Uralar. The temples together with the endowments attached to them are called Devaswams - the property of God. All the important Devaswams in Kerala had their own independent jurisdictions known as Sanketam with unlimited temporal power, independent of the local chieftain. Later, the Sankethams were forced to seek the protection of Rajas and accepted the Purakoyma or external territorial lordship over the Devaswams. In the post-Perumal period they started conducting even the judicial administration of the area under the purview of the Sanketham. The Sankethams were considered protected places and attained importance as neutral areas and kept away from attacks and shelter for Brhamins and Kshatriyas. The well-known Sankethams like Payyannur, Chovvaram, Trikkakara, Elamkunnapuzha, Tiruvalla, Panniyur etc. were powerful than the local chieftains.

The sanketam was a refuge for people and nobody could enter and force out somebody taking there. A famous example is the time when the Cochin raja fled to the Sanketam of the Elamkunnapuzha temple in the island of Vypin. It was here that Francisco de Albuquerque met the Raja (note also that a non-Hindu was perhaps admitted to the Sanketam in this rare case) to pay compensations for the Raja who had suffered on account of supporting the Portuguese. Another example is that of the Attingal Rani who fled to the Nedumpuram Sanketam when surrounded by the Kayamkulam Raja in 1730.

According to KV Krishna Ayyar, the period between the 8th to the 18th century, the period when the Namabuthiri ruled supreme in Malabar, was a time when they imposed their will using the stated power of being ‘god compellers’ which could provide divine favors for the obedient and bring down divine wrath on the recalcitrant. Even the sovereign acceded to the throne only with the Nambuthiri’s ariyittuvazcha blessings, with the sovereign in turn promising that they would protect cows and Brahmins. Rival Brahmin settlements and their chiefs fought their own wars (frequently violating each other’s sanketams during the kur-matsarams) as could be seen in the protracted quarrel between the Panniyurkur and the Covarakkur with the support from their respective temporal chiefs, and without the involvement of the suzerain the Zamorin. The namputhiris also had a peculiar method of threatening to fast or starve (Pattini) themselves to death, if their will was not heeded to. This could in rare cases spiral into a huge issue, for the death of a Brahmin or the sin of Brahmahatya fell on the ruler (See the story of the Tali temple in Calicut for more details on the amends that had to be made) as well as the land or kingdom. But then again, if the Brahmin was the proven aggressor, the temporal chief could intervene and confiscate their land, excommunicate them or levy other social penalties. Typically the pattini was symbolic and not a fast unto death, this will be explained a bit later.

Ayyar adds – The origin of these temple states is shrouded in obscurity. In a semi feudal age, ownership of land carried with it the privilege of protecting and punishing those who lived within its boundaries. Every endowment and dedication therefore conferred some power or the other according to its terms. Again in the wake of religious devotion that swept over the land under the leadership of the Nayanars and Alwars, the members of the village republics might have made over all their lands and properties to the lord to be governed by him, according to his will. Not only single villages, but two or more might combine likewise and establish a temple state. Trichur was thus formed from the synoccism of two villages, Trivandrum of three and Guruvayur (Guruvayur was actually a subsidiary temple state of Trikkannamatilakam and it had 18 smaller temples under it) of five. Suchindram was also a Sanketam, but without doubt Trivandrum was the biggest of all where Marthanda Varma enlarged the sanketam and made it coexistent with his empire with the monarch and his successors becoming the lord’s first servants.

To understand governance, you need to follow the old terms carefully. The small unit called desam (Calicut for example had 125 desams and 72 taras) was presided over by the desavali. For clarity, note that a Brahmin settlement was a gramam, a Nair settlement was a tara and an Ezhava settlement was a cheri. Sometimes the desam and tara were identical. A number of desams constituted a nadu presided over by the naduvazhi who himself was subject to the Rajah. The naduvazhi as we mentioned earlier, was expected to supply the Raja with fighting forces in times of need. Since these temples provided sanctuary or sanketams during enemy attacks in times of war, there was a tussle among neighboring sovereigns to obtain over-lordship (melkoyma) over bigger temples and temple sanketams, irrespective of whether they were situated within their own domains or not. All these attached much importance to temples and also to the priests who controlled the temples, as well as the uralers who incidentally obtained a payment for their services (urachi). This melkoyma desire was one of the reasons for many a skirmish between rulers. The committee of uralars is usually termed the samudayam. As examples, it is mentioned that over years the rulers of Cochin, Palghat and Calicut acquired control over the important Tiruvilavamala temple; the Cochin Raja had rights over the temples at Haripad and Tiruvalla; the Raja’s of Vadakkumkur and Parur over Thrissur and Peruvanam and the king of Venad over Vaikkam temple.

Sreedhara Menon emphasizes - The sanketam functioned almost 'as a state within a state' with the ruling sovereign having no effective political control over it …. They (the Namboodiris) owed allegiance not so much to any ruler as to their caste chief, the Azhavancheri-Tamprakkal, who alone had the authority to punish them.

In course of time, due to political uprisings in the country, the Sanketams lost their significance and with the rise of secular power, their powers declined. Susan Thomas in her thesis covers the aspect of the changing nature of the sanketams, as they sought support from the suzerain, taking the example of Trikkandiyur – ‘The Sanketam depended on the neighboring chief for everything including the constitution of their yogam and the maintenance of law and order. The chiefs would even send directions to the members of the yogam’.

Vinod Bhattathirpad opines slightly differently - The chief of the Sanketham ("Sankethaadhikaari") was selected from the temple Yogam, and as decided by the Yogaathiri. Within a Sanketham, the Sankethaadhikaari was all-powerful and could punish even the king. In some Sankethams, kings of even the adjacent kingdoms also used to be members of the Sanketham. The Thrissur Vadakkumnaathha temple Yogam, for example, honoured not only its own Maharaja of Kochi, but also Perumpadappu Raja, Manakkulam Raja, Ayanikkoor (Chiralayam) Thampuraan, Kurumbranaad Thampuraan, Valluvakkonaathiri, Thekkumkoor and Vadakkumkoor Rajas. These kings considered such positions an honor conferred on them. The Yogaathiri, however, was invariably to be a Namboothiri.

To guard against encroachment, the Sanketams themselves started to choose a secular leader without giving up their right of ownership, for they were a self-governing unit, self-working and self-contained community, recognizing no sovereign. They had the right to punish even the sovereign. It had the right to collect taxes (house and professional taxes) and rents owed by its subjects. All land transactions were registered in the temple records. In these sanketams, everything was done in the name of the Lord, looking at the case of Pallavur and Guruvayur, the formula was ‘Tevar Tirunal peral uraler ullirunna annuninna samudaya manusham (meaning - In the name of .. the auspicious austerism of the lord with the governing committee sitting in session behind closed doors and by its order, the then executive officer of the corporation…...).

Ayyar adds that the sanketam prohibited the pursuit of trades such as toddy tapping, barter systems, and settlement of Muslims at Pallavur, as an example. In the case of Vaikom, they could even award a death penalty by hanging, and it is said that before hoisting the flag at the annual temple festival the committee had to ensure that those convicted by them of murder within the Sanketam, were hanged. People leaving the sanketam for any reason had to come back for the important festivals or they were deemed dead and their obsequies were performed by their relatives. During such festivals, activities such as paddy threshing, roofing, fence repairs, paddy husking etc. were prohibited. To ensure higher attendance, free food was provided to the people of the sanketam. The temple flag was hoisted only after hearing all complaints an ensuring that not a single one remained unaddressed. In case a major crime was committed in a sanketam, (and presumably unresolved) the sanketam was dissolved and all festivals cancelled (but routine worship continued). Sometimes the temple flag was not hoisted for petty issues, such as a situation where a nambudiri girl’s marriage was delayed (if delayed beyond a year following puberty). In 1725 at Calicut a man was sentenced to death at Tali, his lands were confiscated and his house roof knocked down by the elephant.

In case the Melkoyma or the sovereign was indifferent to an offence, he had to pay a fine to the sanketam. In the case of his collusion with the offender, the Yogam of the sanketam resorted to passive resistance known as pattini or fasting. Numerous documented cases exist and a few of them are connected to the Elankunnapuzha sanketam. The pattini itself was a peculiar system lasting eight days (during the 13th century). A grand feast would be prepared each day in the temple. The Brahmins would sit in front of the banana leaf and dishes would be served. Just before the starting of eating, the melshanti (chief priest) or Yogatirippad would call the attention of those seated for the resolution from the yogam. Immediately they would all stand up and walk out without eating. The intention was perhaps not ‘fast unto death’ as some historians mention, but according to Ayyar, it was intended originally to generate intense fire or Jatharagni inside the body by the hunger pangs and use it as a spiritual or psychic weapon.

To understand the workings in the sanketams, one has to primarily understand that everything was done in the name of the lord and so a good amount of religious fervor existed in actions. After the last worship, the daily income and expenditure of the sanketam was read out before the lord. The ultimate sovereignty rested with an assembly called the yogam or sabha (parish) consisting of the family heads in the village, meeting once a year to elect the uraler (ur village, alar administrators) committee, to fix festival dates, create special committees, induct new families into the yogam, to receive endowments, to appoint the chief priest, the new velichappad (oracle) etc. The yogatiri usually an ascetic was the head of the yogam, and the chief priest. Interestingly, the pura koyma or sanketam protectors according to KVK Ayyar were originally Brahmin, but with their dwindling numbers, the Sanketam resorted to seeking support from the local chieftain. Some historians mentions that Yogam is common in Malabar, while Sabha as a term was more relevant to Travancore. The velichappad was a powerful character in those times, for when possessed, it was believed that the lord was talking through the man himself and so his pronouncement was final! As time went by, the yogam was reduced to just the uralar families or sometimes just one family. 

The Ward and Connor survey of 1800 mentions that associated with almost every major temple ("Mahaakshethrams") in Kerala, there existed a high-power committee called "Yogam"; and also a "Sanketham", described as a "Temple Kingdom" ("Ambala-raajyam").

We should also take note here that in the 17th century, Sanketam rights were granted to the Konkani’s who settled in Cochin. In 1627 A.D, Vira Kerala Varma Raja of Cochin gave the Konkanis certain rights and privileges such as exemption from payment of Purushantharam or succession fee, permission to construct houses with bricks, mortar and wood and also to conduct business from Cochin with foreign countries. Again in 1648 A.D, the Raja of Cochin, Vira Kerala Varma, gave the community the civil and criminal powers to be exercised by them within the well-defined boundary of their Gosripuram (Cochin Thirumala) settlement called ‘Sanketam’.

A classic case of the power of the sanketam and the rules followed by them is illustrated by the Vanjeri Granthavari as related to the Trikkandiyur sanketam where the Vanjeri Nampi was the main uraler. In this case, they did have a sanketam, but not the changatham or protection force. This was provided on request by the Zamorin as the Vettath raja himself was a feudatory under the Zamorin’s suzerainty. The Santekam ruled according to a set Sanketamaryada. In this issue, the Karippuram nambudiri was stabbed to death by a member of the urakattu (he happened to be a military man working for the Zamorin’s family). The fellow was captured soon after and the necessary permission to mete out justice was obtained from the Zamoirn. The Kovil nampi or Vettath Raja could not attend, for some reason and the culprit was put to death. The desamaryada rules are also well illustrated in the records obtained from Trikkandiyur. We will get to the many stories related to the Trikkandiyur temple another day for it is a large topic by itself.

Davis explains - References to the desamaryada from the Vanjeri records show that it was simply held to be the law of locality, without any reference to any other system or source of law. There are no references to specific dharma texts or any other set of written legal rules. We should not expect any because the influence of dharmasastra occurred primarily through the medium of Brahmins, who determined the law based on their interpretations, not invocations of dharmasastra.

As time went by and the British took over with a formal justice and administration system, the sanketams died a death, while the Dewasom board taking care of regional temple administration remained, absorbing smaller sanketams. But until then, the sanketam was a unique institution in the various principalities of Kerala.

Theocracy in medieval Kerala – KV Krishna Ayyar
A history of Kerala – KV Krishna Ayyar
The Cochin state manual – C Achyutha Menon
The temple states of Kerala – KV Krishna Ayyar (paper - 10th oriental conference)
The control of the king over temples in Ancient India – M B Voyce, Dunedin
State and society in Pre-modern South India – Ed R Champakalakshmi, Kesavan veluthat, TR Venugopalan
The Annamanada case – Gilles Tarabout
Calicut: The City of Truth Revisited - MGS Narayanan
Property relations and family forms in Colonial Keralam - Susan Thomas
Recovering the indigenous legal traditions of India: classical Hindu law in practice in late Medieval Kerala - Donald R Davis Jr
University of Calicut - State and society in Kerala, BA political science 6th semester, core course


Extensive background on these matters, especially the development of temple communities and temple authority can be obtained by perusing Kesavan Veluthat’s ‘the early medieval in South India’ and ‘Kerala Charitram’ by Raghava Warrier and Rajan Gurukkal, as well as ‘the state in the era of the Cheraman Perumals of Kerala’ by MGS Narayanan. Donald Davis’s extensive study demonstrates the evolution of the prevailing legal practice in the sanketam from early mimamsa texts and their application by the Nambuthiri’s, with or without involvement of the local chieftain or suzerain, the role of “custom” in the medieval law of Malabar and the role of the Kovil nampi in meting out punishment. Susan Thomas’s thesis provides an in depth review on temple formation, temple communities, social development and administration in early Malabar.

Sometimes the term Tattakam was used in place of Sanketam and many authors spell Sanketam as Samketam. Note here that the village is actually the state, and not the temple while the annual temple festival was considered as the annual renewal of allegiance. In Pallavur we still conduct the Desakkali and Navaratri Vilakku which are by convention mandatory for all village members.