The position of Nairs in the caste and ruling structures of medieval Kerala is a very peculiar one, and this resulted in so many anthropological studies into it. Volumes have been written by people who understood it in parts, for decoding the structure and its peculiarities is not easy. I don’t claim to know even parts of it, but I thought I will cover a little bit of my gatherings on the specific aspects of Kiriyam and Kiriyathil nairs here and in particular, as related to Malabar, not Travancore.
During wedding planning in families which attach much importance to caste, an alliance is carefully checked to see what caste classification the prospective bride or groom belongs to. If they are both Nair’s they check to see what kind of a Nair the other is. So now that explains that there are different types of Nairs. It is a subject by itself which I will not get into, but briefly, there are quite a few and decided by pedigree as well as profession, social status and also positions granted by a sovereign in those old times. Some say there are close to 64 or so of such sub classifications. Examples are Illathu, Swaroopathu, Pattola, Maran, Idachery Nairs, Odathu, Athikurichikal, Chembukottikal, Chalia Nairs, Kalamkotti Nair, Pallichal Nairs, Veluthedathu Nairs, Vilakkithala Nairs and so on and so forth. Whatever said and done, the top position of differing tables created in Malabar, Cochin and Travancore regions are held by the Kiriyathil Nair. So what is a Kiriyath Nair supposed to be?
Note first of all that Kiriyam as terminology is not exlusive to Nairs. It is a term used by many other communities such as the Thiyyas, Kanakkans, Kurups and so on. Kiriyam can actually be said to mean clan. Illam as a family home or homestead is also not exclusive to Nambuthiris (Kulam is another nonexclusive term). The normal definition, dating back to Fawcett goes thus - The Kiriyattil, or Kiriyam, said to be derived from the Sanskrit word graham, a house (a doubtful derivation) is the highest of all the clans in South Malabar, and is supposed to comprise or correspond with the group of clans just named of North Malabar. In the old days every Nair chief had his Charnavar, or adherents. The Purattu Charna are the outside adherents, or the fighters, and so on, and the Akattu Charna are inside adherents, clerks and domestics. The clan from which the former were drawn is superior to the latter.
What brings these Kiriyathils Nairs to a primary position is the fact that they were not obliged to serve upper caste Namboothiris or the ruling Kshatriaya families (The Illath Nair or Illakar on the other hand served in Nambuthiri homes while the svarupakkar served the royal households e.g. Kolathiri, Perumbadappu etc). The Kiriyathil nairs tended to matters of their houses or estates, and were allowed to collect taxes on land holdings of Sthanis whom they were aligned to. Only the Kiriyam Nair was allowed to wear bracelets on both arms and they were also not classified as Sudra Nairs (not in the eyes of the Namboothiris though) whereas all other Nair classifications were.
Kanippayur provides two comparisons to explain the difference, firstly comparing the Tripunithara Rajas and the Kodungallur Chazhur kovilakom. Both were Kshatriya families in principle but the former were higher in social status, being the ruling elite. The males the royal house are called Thambrakkal whereas the males of Chazur are Thambakkal. The females are Thambrattimar and Thambattimar respectively. Similarly the Zamorins (Samoothirimaar) and other Eradi families are of the same category but the former are Rajas and their home, Kovilakoms. The Zamorin can sit and eat with a Namboothiri, but the Eradi could not.
In the old times, the land was divided into Naadu’s and Desam’s. Their rulers or chieftains were termed Naaduvazhi and Desavazhi respectively and were always of Kiriyath nair stock. Kiriryam therefore is considered to be the corrupted dialectic equivalent of the Sanskrit term ‘graham’ or homestead. The graham name and the land around it, owned by the owner is one that had been formally endorsed by the local Thambran. As the titles of Desavazhi and Naduvazhi lost prevalence when time passed, the honorific Kiriyam titles remained, thus creating the group of those aristocratic families and their descendants. Note here that the name of the home or in today’s terms the family name had to be kept intact to provide a manner of proof of the Kiriyam lineage.
Interestingly in the Cochin area, some of these Kiriyam Nairs were also called Vellayma Nairs, signifying the connection to Vellala or Valluvan of the Tamil lands. If you recall, I had mentioned earlier (On the origin of Nairs) an article by U B Nair alluding to the advent (based on Oppert’s claim) of Vellalas into Malabar. It appears that 64 families of karakattu vellalars formed the original Kiriyathil Nair group. They were the groups which won distinction from the Pandya king for guarding the clouds and were apparently the ones brought in by Parasurama into Malabar. However this is debunked by UB Nair himself on the basis that Parasurama existed before the advent of Vellalas to Kaveripattinam and as he had brought Nairs to Kerlam, Nairs predated vellalars.
Continuing on, these lords or chieftains or Sthanis (Nadu Vazhi and Desavazhi) had additional titles such as Kurup, Kaimal, Nambiar, Kartha, Vazhunnavar etc. This authority to govern was the reason why the Kiriyathil nair families considered themselves superior to other Nairs. They were considered to be the aristocrats, they had the status, the upbringing, the standing, bearing and so on and were also authorized to settle dispute in their respective territories.
In general they are involved with agriculture, work as a Sthani’s or chieftain’s officer or as accountants. Should there be a dispute to adjudicate, representative from four kiriyams hear it and if they cannot resolve it, the matter is passed on to the Nambudiri (regional nambudiri council?). In those times, the Kiriyam nair married only from another kiriyam. It was also their responsibility to maintain the rules of pollution, for example, if a death occurred in a lower class Nair’s house and people including upper classification Nairs were attending, all the cooking could only be done by a Kiriyathil Nair. They were called Ejamanan and according to Kannipayur, prominent Kiriyathil Nair families preferred sambandham only from Nambudiri men for the women in the family. As days went by and the English came to take control of administration, the Kiriyathil Nair did not have much to do unlike the other Nairs who had held on to their hereditary professions. All they did therefore was living a life of landlords with revenues from the land tilled by their tenants.
Looking at Bhaskaran Unni’s magnum opus, ‘Kerala of the 19th century’, we see that the definition has changed. Quoting Chathurvarnakarmam, he states that while Kiriyam Nairs were aristocrats, there were also soldiers in their midst and adds Nairs, Kurups, Nambiar, Panickkar and Menon to this Kiriyam list.
We also observe that while Kiriyathil is the name of the highest class sub-caste of the Nair caste, they are found confined to the regions of Malabar and Cochin mostly and are rarely seen in Travancore where the second in line in Nair sub caste i.e. Illathu Nairs, take predominance.
Francis H Buchanan (vol2 p408) traveling through Malabar in 1800 affirms the above in his records - The Nair, or in the plural the Naimar, are the pure Sudras of Malayala, and all pretend to be born soldiers; but they are of various ranks and professions. The highest in rank are the Kiriam, or Kiriyat Nairs. On all public occasions these act as cooks, which among Hindus is a sure mark of transcendent rank; for every person can eat die food prepared by a person of higher birth than himself in all disputes among the inferior orders, an assembly of four Kiriams, with some of the lower orders, endeavour to adjust the business. If they cannot accomplish this good end, the matter ought to be referred to the Namburis, The Kiriat Nainmar support themselves by agriculture, or by acting as officers of government, or accountants. They never marry a woman of any of the lower Nairs, except those of the Sudras, or Charnadu, and these very rarely.
Kannipayur points out another interesting observation connected with Kiriyath Nair’s. If a Nair ate in a Nambudiri’s illam, he had to remove his banana leaf after the meal, himself. The women of the Illam are not allowed to dispose of these. However a Kiriyam Nair invitee also desists from doing this himself. Instead he brings along a Nair servant to do that menial service, demonstrating his higher status of Sthani Nayanmar. It is also believed that important Kiriyam Nair families, until about the end- of last century did not accept husbands from the Samanthan castes such as Nedungadi and Kartavu.
Kannipayur believes that the Nairs came to the fore after the 12th century and following the defeat of the Cheras, to further split into multiple swaroopams. The Kiriyathil Nair from that point on was the eye and the hand of the overlord, and was the clan who administered smaller principalities (The Desavazhi was akin to a Village Munsif of British times). A desam incidentally is a village or the smallest administrative unit and had at least one Kiriyam Nair resident, who was therefore the village authority.
While this was what was in practice, it would be interesting to check what the lore and legend was in connection with the Nairs. In the words of Kerololpathi: “Parasu Rama having sent for Sudras from various countries, made them settle and prescribed various rules of conduct for them. He created adima and kudima in the Desom, protected Adiyans and Kudians, established Taras and Sankitams, separated the Nairs into Taras, and ordered that to them was to belong the duties of supervising (lit. the eye) executing (lit. the hand) and giving orders in such a manner that rights should not be curtailed or suffered to fall into disuse. To the kudians the kilkur (inferior share), to the Brahmins the melkur (superior share); to the former the kanom and to the latter the jenmam; and so the law of kanam and jenmam and the rules of conduct for the Brahmins and customs for the Sudras were ordained.”
It is clear from the above that the Nairs were connected with supervisory functions of that early feudal system and William Logan rightly observes: "they had as a guild higher functions in the body politic than merely ploughing the rice-fields and controlling the irrigated lands”
K Raman Unni explains the two differing levels of Kiriyathil Nairs in his 1961 thesis - As an example consider this - Kolappulli is a village headed by a Sthani nair who lives in Kavalappara, a village three miles away. Barely three fourth of the lands of the village belongs to the Sthani Nair and it is one of the few villages where his retainers, the Kiriyattil Nairs, reside. In each of the three villages, families of power belong to the retainer castes.
As the numbers of Kiriyattil Nairs increased, the category of Sthanis separated themselves from a broader group of Kiriyathil Nairs. Raman Unni explains - The Sthanis, literally meaning the holders of high social status are lineages of title holding and very wealthy Nairs originally drawn from different castes of Nairs, chiefly from the Kiriyattil Nairs. Most of them were in pre-British times Naduvaris (district heads) and some were powerful Desavaris (village heads…... Some of the Sthanis carry special ritual rights and privileges as a heritage from a remote past and some of them have these bestowed by the ruler who awarded the title.
Kiriyam Nair caste appears to have had off-shoots of differential rank named Kakka Kiriyam, Patti Kiriyam, Manala Kiriyam and Panom Kiriyam. The Kiriyattils in general everywhere were on a level with the 10,000 armed retainers (Purathucharnas) under the Zamorin. Menons in Ponnani taluk were in this manner title holders under the Raja of Cochin and those in Walluvanad were originally clerks under their Raja drawn from Kiriyattils and Purathucharna Nairs. Of the non-Brahmin high castes the Kiriyattil Nairs alone are said to have a relatively good mastery of the culinary art, perhaps in line with their tradition as 'Kitchen men' of their Sthani overlords. The Kiriyattil men of the less wealthy tharavad, on invitation, serve as cooks at feasts of Nair castes of the same group, a practice reported by more popular in earlier periods. The Kiriyattils (both Nairs and Nambiars) the adukkalakkar (kitchen men) send from each taravad at least one man to the Sthani head's house to cook during the fourteen days of death pollution of his taravad. Nairs in a mood of gossip or sportive ridicule would refer to the Kiriyam Nairs as "KolliUntikal" which means feeders of fire wood, with reference to their role of cooking for their Sthani-heads at ritual occasions.
Malabar and Its Folk - T. K. Gopal Panikkar
Malabar Manual - William Logan
19’aam Nootandile keralam - P Bhaskaran Unni
Aryanmarude Kudiyettam 3rd volume – Kanipayyur Sankaran Namboothiripad
Caste in South Malabar – K Raman Unni
Census of India, 1901
Dravidian or South-Indian Family of Languages - Robert Caldwell
A hand book of Malabar law and usage as administered by the courts - B. Govinda Nambiar
Report of the Malabar Marriage Commission 1891
A peculiarity in North Malabar - There were three Kovilagams namely Chirakkal, Kottayam and Kadathanad, in North Malabar. The term 'Kiriyam' Nair is never used by North Malabar Nairs in speaking of themselves. Two main divisions are into Agatha Charnavar and Puratha Charnavar. There are Charnavar attached to each Kovilagam in North Malabar. The Nairs of North Malabar will generally consider that they are attached to one or other of the Kovilagams. A man will say that he is al-karan (adherent) of such-and-such a Kovilagam. If a man is alkaran of a Kovilagam it is that Kovilagam which
L Anatha Krishna Iyer on Kiriyathil Nairs basing his comment on Keralolpathi – The members of this subdivision are believed to have been the descendants of the early Brahmins, in their union with the Deva, Gandharva and Rakshasa women, bought into Kerala by Parasurama and their duty was primarily to serve them
Robert Caldwell - The word kiriyam according to Gundert, is a corrupted form of the Sanskrit word Kshayam which means loss, perhaps unrelated to the discussion but explains how it is difficult to obtains derivations for kiriyam from the Sanskrit word graham– Dr Robert Caldwell states - The hard, lingual sibilant of Sanskrit is unknown to classical Tamil. Sometimes it is changed into s’, a change which ordinarily takes place at the present day in the pronunciation of the lower classes in the southern districts, sh is sometimes, though rarely, converted in Tamil into r. Dr Gundert supplies me with some instances of this in old Malayālam—e.g., kshaya, Sans. loss, is in old Mal. written kirayam, and the name Lakshmanan in an old copy of the Ramayana is written Ilarkkanan. Here rkk stands for ksh. Sometimes sh is assimilated to a succeeding n—e.g., the name Vishnu becomes sometimes, both in poetical Tamil and in Malayalam, Vinnu.
Finally – Would these people have anything to do with the Kiriyam and Kriyavada doctrine of Mahavira preached by Jains?? The kiriyam doctrine teaches that the soul exists, acts and is affected by acts. Did these clans have anything to do with the large numbers of Jains we had in Malabar at one time? Food for thought….
WISHING ALL READERS A HAPPY AND PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR