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Vivekanada's Lunatic Kerala

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Watching a totally loony & horrible movie ‘Bharghava Charithram Moonam Kandam’ scripted by Srinivasan and based loosely on the fantastic ‘Analyse this’ starring Robert De Niro & Billy Crystal, I was wondering about the comment Sreenivasan makes during the opening scene. He refers to Swami Vivekananda’s statement about Malayalis being lunatics. I thought I must be crazy one to be watching this miserable movie…First & foremost – Do not see Bharghava charithram…It is probably the worst movie you can see, but then you should watch ‘Analyse this’…

Kerala today - is a tropical paradise, God's own country, recommended by the National Geography Magazine as one of the 50 destinations in the world that one should visit. Kerala is a land of great natural beauty, one of the smaller states of India. From the majestic heights of the Western Ghats the land undulates westward presenting a vista of silent valleys clothed in the richest green. A place
Bill McKibben describes thus in National Geographic – The real reason to visit Kerala, which lies at the southwestern tip of the subcontinent, is for the intellectual adventure: Kerala is a bizarre anomaly among developing nations, a place that offers real hope for the future of the Third World. Consider: This small state in India, though not much larger than Maryland, has a population as big as California's and a per capita annual income of less than $300. But its infant mortality rate is low, its literacy rate among the highest on Earth, and its birthrate below America's and falling faster. Kerala's citizens live nearly as long as Americans or Europeans. Though mostly a land of paddy-covered plains, statistically Kerala stands out as the Mount Everest of social development; there's truly no place like it.

Now what exactly did Vivekanada feel or see to say what he said, when he visited Kerala some 100 years ago?? “I have wandered into a lunatic asylum!' Swami Vivekananda concluded after touring the princely states of Kerala (See exact remarks at the end of this note!!). He was appalled by the horrors of the caste system practiced in Kerala at that time. This was some 100 years ago, when Hindu society in India were divided into several castes and sub castes. The many groups bickered & quarreled about rights and privileges and argued over who stood higher on the caste ladder. The miserable custom of untouchability existed and a large majority were denied entry into temples. Vivekananda was horrified by these terrible practices that were imposed on lower caste people prompting him to call Kerala a "lunatic asylum".

The other day I read about a
Dr Bahuleyan in America, also a Malayali, who was giving back many millions of dollars to his village in Kerala. He mentioned that in his younger days, he had to take a circuitous route to school since the temple was on the main route and he as an untouchable could not go near the temple.

Can you imagine that temples, wells, eating halls were all out of bounds for the lower classes? Can you imagine a scenario where lower class women were not allowed to cover upper part of their bodies or wear jewelry? That "Untouchable" Hindus were required to maintain a prescribed distance from the upper-castes at all times so as not to pollute them. The distance was at least 64 feet from the priestly Brahmin caste and 30 feet from artisans. The untouchables belonged mainly to the Pulaya, Paraya or Nayadi community.

I still remember days as a child at Pallavur, when during midday or dusk a sharp howl would be heard on certain days. It was a Nayadi announcing his arrival. We children would rush out despite dire threats not to, by the elders, but there would be nobody at the gate. All we could see was a pot into which old rice gruel was poured by the maid servant for the Nayadi beggar, sometimes it was old clothes. We all had to leave and then the Nayadi would come and pick up his bowl. One day I did see the chap, he was no different from anybody else…A bit darker from all the wandering around in the sun and rather disheveled in looks & attire (a single tattered towel round the waist) that was it. However, we did not have any ill luck seeing him, ever, if one wondered about that..

How did Vivekanada land up in Kerala? Well, it all started in 1892 when Vivekananda stayed at the house of a
Dr Palpu in Bangalore, just before his trip to USA. Dr Palpu an Ezhava from Kerala, was forced to move to Madras for medical studies due to the fact that he could not do so in Kerala (even though he passed the entrance exams, he was not given a seat) and was later educated in Europe with a Mysore government scholarship. Even after becoming a doctor with a European degree he was not allowed to practice in Kerala!!

It was Palpu who explained the horrors of the caste system to Vivekanada.
Vivekanada replied Dr Palpu that they should find their own leader and not look up to somebody else. Palpu went along to rally support with a signature campaign in Kerala, created an association with Sree Narayan Guru & the starting of SNDP plus raised the matter to Sr Nivedita in England, who using her connections passed it on to the British government for action. Thus started the mass awareness phase.

During 1924-25, Gandhiji got involved in this uprising, starting with the Vaikom Satyagraha. Sree Narayana Guru who spearheaded the cause rallied to convert it to a mass movement. This forced the Maharaja of Travancore to issue the 'Temple Entry Proclamation' on November 12, 1936, throwing open all temples to all Hindus.

PJ Cherian puts it perfectly - During the last years of 1930s tremendous changes occurred both in the political and cultural spheres of Kerala. In that period anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, national, democratic movement strengthened in an unprecedented fashion all over Kerala. Modern value concepts which was confined to the upper strata of the society in the early phase, now began to spread to the lower layers of society. In addition to the middle class, various other sections consciously entered into the mainstream of public life. Consequently political and cultural spheres became more popular based and it acquired democratic character.

Thus started the renaissance in Kerala. Since then, Malayalis got involved in public work and politics in an effort to rebuild their disintegrating society. Women, who have long comprised over half the state's population, began working in fields such as teaching, as early as the 1920s. Unlike the Indian north, where knowledge has mostly been the privilege of the upper castes, Kerala experienced an even spread of education thus becoming highly literate and today a place where 90% of people own land. Today, ten decades thence, Kerala is an egalitarian state, perhaps the only place in India where castes and religious discrimination are relatively absent. It is also the only state where women outnumber men 1090:1000.
Paul Zakariah adds - Today caste is no more a tool of social domination in Kerala. In fact, lower caste status is shrewdly used as a tool for social bargaining. But Kerala continues to be a sociological madhouse of unparalleled dimensions. For example, perhaps this is the only society in India where ideology has got so intertwined with culture that people have ceased to understand the difference.

Exact text of Vivekanada’s statement (Text obtained from Colombo to Almora – Vivekanada’s notes 1904) Note that Vivekanada mentions Malabar, though I believe he meant Travancore & Cochin as Dr Palpu referred Vivekanada to those Kingdoms during his discussions.

In 1897, Vivekanada remarked in a public address – Was there ever a sillier thing before in the world than what I saw in Malabar? The poor ‘Paraiah’ is not allowed to pass through the same street as the high caste man, but if he changes his name to hodge-podge English name or to a Mohamedan name, it is alright. What inference would you draw except that these Malabaris are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums and they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better. Shame upon them that such wicked and diabolical customs are allowed.

The comment about the name is interesting – If you were a non Hindu trader such as an Arab, a Christian, an Englishman or a Jew (As you know Malabar was a trading capital in the world for many centuries and we had people of many religions and cultures inhabiting the coastal lands) you were classified as a Vaishya and were in the touchable-seeable class!!

For those who don’t know – Nayadis are mountain people who came from the Western Ghats. They were lowest in the social strata and were not even allowed to use the public road and had to use side roads (This I did not know, I learnt
this from Gandiji’s notes). They were apparently also not allowed to come out before sunset, this I am not in agreement with.

PJ Cherian explains the system in detail in Essays on the Cultural Formation of Kerala (the situation which infuriated Vivekanada) - Nayadi is the caste which has to observe the farthest distance from the Namboodiri Brahmans to avoid the polluting effect caused by it. If a Nayadi pollutes a Brahman the latter can regain his purity not only by a ritual bath but after the ritual bath he has to change the sacred thread and to eat the five products of the cow (milk, curd, butter, liquid and solid excreta used in the rituals of purification). For this most abhorred Nayadi the food polluted by a Pulaya or Paraya is forbidden but this Pulaya and Paraya are castes mutually polluting by touch and have to be themselves purified through a bathing by immersion. If an Ullada pollutes a Pulaya he can only be relieved from it by a seven course bath and by trickling out a few drops of blood from his little finger. But this Ullada is one who considers himself as holy as to abandon the food touched by a Pulaya.

Pic – courtesy Wikipedia


  1. Anonymous

    Good article .

    However please note that Dr Palpu did not belong to a "family of toddy tappers". It would be more appropriate to say that he belonged to a family of Ezhava heritage.

    "Ezhava" was never really a caste as it is made out to be today. Rather it was a group of people of varied professions. There were well known Ezhava dynasties,royalty, priests, warriors, ship owners , traders and ofcourse landowners and farmers. A miniscule number ,perhaps out of desperation took to getting coconut water for abhishekam in temples(!)Even the unwritten strict self imposed rule for them was they were all tea totallers!

    Much before Shri Narayana Guru's time , there were a large number of Ezhava families who were sanskrit scholars, ayurvedic physicians and astrolgers and still are. And Dr Palpu belonged to one such aristocratic Ezhava family.

    Untouchability as extended towards Ezhavas were quite a contradiction because even the affluent Ezhavas who owned palanquins had to get down and take alternate routes due to absurd laws of the time.

    So it was more a political untouchability! The same perhaps applied to the ezhava vaidyans, jyotishans and the panditanmar, ie intellectual elite. So the so called "untouchability" is not to be imagined as it is seen today.

    Neurosurgeon Dr Bahuleyan is also an Ezhava from another well known family. His childhood story of having to take a diversion while going to school is not to be again imagined as a dirty diseased ignorant kid or that of a 'slum dog'!

    Even the poor Ezhavas were mostly those who practised 'simple living and high thinking '. They were in no way to be imagined as spiritually ignorant. Most owned their own homes and land and were self sufficient. Each family had its kudumba charitram and a kudumba kshetram with strong ayurvedic traditions.

    Looking forward to the writer being slightly more sensitive while using the pen and extend the same courtesy he would if he were writing on his own heritage....:)

    Thanking you in advance.

    In good faith ,

  1. Maddy

    Dear friend..

    I thank you for your detailed comments and appreciate it. While no offense was meant, anything written was only meant to explain the extreme circumstances prevailing in that period. So first of all my apologies if I hurt any sensitivity.

    If I conveyed a demeaning tone, I assure you it was never meant to be so. Let me check again where I read about Dr Palpu and I will edit the text.

    As regards Dr Bahuleyan, I have just quoted what he mentioned to interviewers.

  1. Anonymous

    Hi Maddy, thanks for the wealth of information on Kerala's past. The problem for us Indians is that history or written records were not given importance and so, we are left to wonder about our ancestors - who were they and where do we come from? I have been searching the internet for any stuff related to Kerala. I think you have a brilliant blog.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Su..

    Plenty of info between these two blogs of mine, hope you will read & enjoy. However the availability of records noted by others stop around the 600 AD...