Thiyya’s of Malabar

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Exploring their origins

This was a particularly difficult topic for me and the only information I had to look at was a number of legends narrated by historians and reinterpreted by many more people along the way. I will not venture to titrate any amount of fact from it, for I realized early on that it is quite impossible. Confounding the issue was the fact that two castes Tiyya and Ezhava merged during the early part of this century or sometime in the last, under one classification called Ezahava. The Tiyyas of Malabar don’t seem to like it one bit and have been somewhat vociferous about that aspect. Further analysis and discussions resulted in theories of migrations from far flung origins like Polynesia, Kyrgyzstan and Crete as against the more established nearer locale Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka). Some others countered by saying, well is not everybody from somewhere if you go all the way back? Medieval historians were somewhat unanimous about Lanka, but the Tiyyas themselves do not agree, as yet.

Looking at it from afar, our ancestors were perhaps originating from Africa, later possibly from up North, but yes, everybody came from somewhere, sometime. Sudden furor over reports made by somebody that they share DNA tracers with Central Asian people does not have to create any amount of surprise. Similar theories exist over Nairs originating from various parts of India, Middle Eastern, Scythian or other Northerly parts, we have Cochin Jews originating from today’s Jerusalem or thereabouts, The Nestorian Christians from Persian Syria and so on..And so, man is forever in search of his roots, some like A Haley even writing voluminous and eminently readable works of fiction about it. The discussions will go on and research will intensify as to why somebody left their zone of comfort and moved many miles to create yet another, while others will wonder why some other unfortunate types of displaced people like the Kurdish or the Romany’s never manage to settle down and find a home. I guess that is life, but let us get back to the topic at hand and try to first of all consolidate what I read.

It is important to establish first the earliest mentions of differences between Tiyyas and Ezhavas and Anthropologist LAK Iyer states the following about their classification and origins. In North Malabar as far as Calicut, they are known as Tiyyas; in South Malabar, Izhava or Thandans in Cochin and Travancore- Chovas and Izhavas. They are closely allied to the Tamil speaking Shanars of the Tinnalvelly District, to the Billavas of South Canara and to the Halepaiks of North Canara. Owing to their change in occupation, they are in some places called Velans and Urali s.

So now we establish the geographical distribution and get a general understanding of the categories. But how did they arrive in Southern India? Iyer goes on to explain that Tiyyan came from the word Dwipan which signifies ‘from an island’. In the same vein he explains that Izahvan means from Izham, an old name for Ceylon. Also stated is that both Thiyyas and Ezhavas perhaps originated from the Shanars (which he says is refuted by both communities) and made coconut cultivation their occupation. Further explained is the fact that Covan perhaps meant Sevakan and that there were many Ezhava soldiers in the Travancore Raja’s army and that they were called Chova soldiers.

Now how did they get to these regions? More legends abound. The first is attributed to some old Tamil Puranic texts where a Buddhist King Illa or Izha of Ceylon went to Chidambaram with his priests for a religious discussions presided by the Saivite priest Manikavachakar. Convinced, Izha was converted to the Saivite faith. His descendants were the Izhavas.

Yet another legend states that Alli a Pandyan princes married Narasimha from Vijayanagr and ran away to Ceylon to become the Izha perumal. Their descendants came to South India and formed the Ezhava communities.

The Cherman Perumal story is an interesting one where a washerwoman claims the carpenter’s caste due to a pollution accident (has to do with a wash cloth and a girl – no time to narrate all that now), after which she is killed by the carpenter. The washer men complain to the perumal who castigates the carpenters. They get angry and leave enmasse to Ceylon. The perumal is stumped and pleads with the king of Ceylon for the return of some of the carpenters. The carpenters offer to go back if they are provided armed protection. Accordingly four chovans of soldiers are deputed with them. These four created the community after arrival in the southern Malabar regions.

Mackenzie manuscripts mention the fanciful story of the seven gandharva women who were desired by Shiva – their sons were Ezhavas.

Barbosa, Pyrard etc mentioned about this community or caste. Barbosa described the Tiyyas as people engaging in such various trades as tending the palm-groves, quarry men, agricultural labourers, and men-at-arms; in short those who, ‘earn their living by work of all kinds. Pyrard of Laval mentioned that Such people as the Tuias (Tiyyan), Manen (Mannan), Canaquas (Kaniyan), Ageres (Asari) and the like were regarded as the higher classes among these outcastes. Francis Buchanan refers to the Tiyyas as an industrious people engaging in various trades. He also mentions that they did not pretend to be of the Sudra caste, but were content with their lowly position as panchamas.

When did the Tiyyas come to Kerala, if they were indeed from an island? The clue is in the possible arrival of the coconut tree to Kerala as recounted by LAK Iyer writing about Mysore castes. The Periplus 1AD does not mention coconuts or its derivatives as an exportable item of Malabar. But coconut produce is mentioned in the Cosmas indicopleustes in 520-550 AD. It is also stated that in the copper plate grants that he Tiyyars were an organized guild of coconut plantation professional farmers.

And then there is the study by Sadasivan, where he is sure that the original aborigines of Kerala were the Ezhavas and Thiyyas who practiced Buddhism. That the Nambuthiris and Nairs came from somewhere and destroyed the balance and kicked the Buddhist aborigines to levels below them as the conquered usually are. He also mentions that it could be so that the aborginies who agreed to the Brahmin wishes became Nairs and the others were classified as a lower caste. Perhaps he has a point about the Buddhist origins and more research has to be done around it, though he does himself much disservice in the book by straying away from the topic and voicing his personal dissatisfaction about the upper classes and decrying the other two upper castes for pages at a stretch in his book on the social history of India.

So now we note that Shanars, Chovas and Izhavas perhaps had direct Lankan origins. How about the Thiyyas? Interestingly the Arabic ‘nu tiyya’ is sailor – nu or nau is boat. Were they sailors or islanders?

Krishna Iyer in his History of Kerala states that the Thiyyas reached N Malabar via the Laccadives which had much trade with the Chirakkal rajas. He states that the Shanars came to the Travancore regions from Lanka, whereas the lot that went to Laccadives from Ceylon, drifted to N Malabar to form the Tiyya community. Perhaps the Thandan of the caste was allowed to settle on certain conditions and continue with the trade and other occupations like agriculture, palm tree cultivation (eventually toddy tapping) etc.

According to LAK Iyer, the Thiyyas of Malabar are the offspring of the Chirakkal Mannanar Raja, who was the son of an excommunicated Nambuthiri lady or a lady from the Chirakkal royal family (question I had was, whom did she marry? A Chovan from Ezham? Is that how the linkage with islands came about?)

Let us take a second look at the Mannanars. I had written about them earlier, Mannan is the old Malayalam usage for king. A Chief of Tiyya caste that was given the title of Mannanar, took care of destitute Namboothiri women who were outcastes, by either making them wives or treating them as sisters. The Raja of Chirakkal even donated land to him for this purpose. But if the Tiyyas were offspring of local women and matrilineal then they would not have been called Dweep’ars, right?

K Krishanan Ret Sub Judge Tellicherry explained to LAK Iyer that the Thiyyas belonged to eight Illams and thirty two kiriyams and are also known as ettu illakkar. The eight illams are nellika, Pullani, vangeri, kozhikalan, patayanguti, managuti, thenanguti, velakanguti. The titles they carried are Chekavar (Soldiers) Kurups (priests), Panikkars (trainers – kalari), vauydyan, Jolsyan, Asan (teachers) and finally Thandan the headman. The Thandan position was purchasable, they were the headmen and wore a gold knife on their waist bands and had somewhat the same social level as Nairs. His deputy was called a Ponamben. They ruled by council having 31 or 61 elders deciding things. They were matriarchal and women did not marry south of Korapuzha (men could – signifying together with matriliny, a shortage of women in their fold). They considered the ezhavas of the south to have mixed blood and did not intermarry.

So we get to the husband of the outcaste Kolathiri (or Namboothiri) lady. Was he a Buddhist at nearby Dharmadom? Was he perhaps from Lanka or did he come from the Lakshdweep? He obviously became the first Mannanar or Tiyya Raja if we follow Iyer’s logic. Let me take up this line using inputs provided by my good friend Premnath. Around 6th or 7th century Buddhists had established a flourishing monastery in a secure Island, which later on came to be known as Dharmadom, the place of dharma, near the present-day Thallasserry. In This area and in North Malabar the beggars are still addressed as ‘Bhishakar” & “Dharamakar”, probably the Buddhist Monks daily routine of going around for alms must have let this imprint. The present day “Andalur Kavu” was supposed to be a Buddhist Monastery. Vestiges of this culture can still be seen when they conduct the Annual festivals!! The legend goes on to say that a Sinhalese king was overthrown by his brother and he with his retinue sailed to this Island and took sanctuary. When the news of the Sinhalese king’s arrival reached the ruler of the land [Chirakal Raja?] he sent his emissaries and made all arrangements for his comfortable stay across the river. There was a head village surrounded by smaller hamlets-“Thala” head and “Cheri” village later on became “Thalasseri”. The King later on in the story narrates got back his kingdom and returned to his country. Some in his retinue preferred to stay back. The Thiyyas are supposed to be the descendants of these people from “Tivu” [Island] – “TIVU ARS”=Thiyyar.

But let us dwell on the Mannanar for a little bit more time. A confusion creeps up when we find a mention that he came from the Varakat Illam which is not listed as a mannanar illam of Chirakkal. That does not allow us to tie up the loose ends. The Thiyyas of Varakat illam now established at Chirakkal, far from having any disability arising from untouchability, were permitted to enjoy all privileges of the higher castes and moved about in palanquins, carrying their swords and shields and could even ask the local Kurumattur Namboothiri for a girl from his family. That this Varakat illam is not from Chirakkal creates an issue with the Mannanar origin theory, because the main Namboothiri Illams were in S Malabar and the Varakat Tiyyas were also from South Malabar. Were the mannanars of Chirakkal just there to serve the purpose of providing the banished women (banished beyond valluvanad borders) asylum? If that were the case why did the Tiyyas of N Malabar refuse marriages from the South malabar beyond Korapuzha? Food for thought!

Interestingly in the earlier days, it is said that Tiyyas and cekons did not have untouchability with Nairs or Sudras, but Ezhavas had. Ezhava women address their Nair counterparts as ‘Thamburatti’ wheras the Tiyya or Cekon woman address Nair women as ' ammalakkan ' which denotes an amount of equality. This shows that they had different social standing from the ezhavas, perhaps explained by the mannanar story above.

But then came the next theory which brings them from Pacific Polynesia or Indonesia. In fact one of the early propounders of this theory was PK Goplakrishnan. According to him and many others like Sardar KM Panikkar, the Thiyyas (Thirayors) , Uzhavars, Chantors and Vollor were older than the Ezhavas. Thiyaas were originally thiraiyars according to some historians. The Thirayars were sea people originally settled in the Tirupati, Kanchi locales. The early colonizers of Indonesia, the ancient Pandiyan mariners and warriors, were called Thirayars (People of waves) (Thiyyars of Kerala, a variant) Dweeparu, Deevaru, Dheevara, Devaru etc meaning Island people. (Theevu or Dheevu = Island). Ilanthirayan, who came from waves, became a Chola king. Thirayars founded many countries including Indonesia and many South Asian countries. Thiraiyars returned when Indonesia was invaded by Chinese, to populate various communities of the Southern four states. Some of them drifted to Malabar for reasons unknown.

Very confusing is it not? Well it certainly is, and the same came be said about virtually everybody other than Africans. Everybody else looks different and came from?????. People perhaps want to be seen as adventurers who are here braving a long and risky trek, so farther the locale, the ‘cooler’ it is. But somebody will come up with a differing theory now and then. So while this article was an airing of many of those theories, it came up with no conclusion, though it covered distant regions of the globe.

While Thiyas were placed at a disadvantaged position in the social ladder of the medieval Kerala, they worked diligently as soldiers, farmers and by tending to the palms of Malabar. In the fold were also many astrologers, writers, physicians and Sanskrit scholars. With the arrival of the British, their fortunes changed and when education was offered to all, many of the early scholars from the colleges in North Malabar and Madras were Thiyas. Dr Gundert's dictionary rightly defines the Tiyya as a "community which rose into prominence by serving the British in India". Many became rich as food contractors, bakers and liquor suppliers to the British and in certain regions this close relationship between the Tiyya with French and the British resulted in a group called White Thiyyas, somewhat like the Anglo Indians.

The Thiyyas continued to prosper and do well, some of the greatest writers like SK Pottekkat, OV Vijayan etc are testimony to the creative geniuses of the community. Eventually, we have a large and dynamic community in our midst that contributed and continues to do so, to our collective well being, through many fields. That is all that matters.

And so in conclusion, as Premnath words it, this is all stuff of romantic tales and these legends I am sure will keep surfacing at cocktail circuits and around bonfires for generations to come…


Castes & Tribes of Southern India – Thurston
Social history of India – SN Sadasivan
The ethnographical survey of the Cochin state, Volume 10 - L Anantha Krishna Iyer
History of Kerala - KV Krishna Iyer
Chekavars blog
Haris blog
Malabar manual - Logan
Mannanars of Chirakkal