On Kiriyathil Nairs and Nair Aristocracy

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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.

William Logan (1841-1914)

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The author of The Malabar Manual and a friend of Malabar

There are many Scotsmen, Irish and Englishmen who have spent long tenures in India, and some have spent their entire adult lifetimes in India but have done little. Logan Sayipp as he was known in Calicut spent only a few years but left a huge mark, for unlike many others who followed, he loved the land (and the people) which he was sent to administer. This man of Scottish farming stock went on to write what we still consider as source book on Malabar and his history, the Malabar manual. Let’s now try to get to know the man behind it all, his life and times.

The Welser’s and the Malabar spice trade

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Perhaps we give too much credit to the Portuguese when it came to the Malabar trade. In a manner, it is right as they possessed the might and the control of the sea route to make it all happen. But what most casual readers of history gloss over is the simple fact that the finances and string pulling at times, originated elsewhere. Two major players were families who had hands on the strings, and one being the Fuggers, whom we had come across briefly in a previous article (then again, there are plenty of books written about the Fuggers). But the pioneering family of the two, were the risk taking Welser’s from Augsburg, Germany. Not much has been written about them in English and only recently has substantial information surfaced. They were an enterprising family, so let’s meet them and take a quick look at their connections to the Malabar spice trade.

The Chekavars of Malabar

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Chekavars and their Tiyya origins 

I had written an article exploring the origins of the Tiyyas of Malabar some years ago and many comments came in, some asking new questions, some adding new insights, but I missed covering something which could have provided a more definite angle. Recently I got back to studying the Vadakkan Pattukal or Northern ballads and some books on that subject, notably the volume 1 on the Ballads by C Achyutha Menon, some fine articles by the eminent MD Raghavan and an explanatory volume by the great historian KS Mathew. All of them spent a few pages on the first set of Ballads dealing with Aromal Chekavar, also Tacholi Othenan and dwelled a bit on the time period of these dueling heroes. In particular they explored the origin of these Chevakars or Chekavers, living among the other traditional communities of Malabar such as Nairs and Chetties and also pointed out the lack of importance or presence of the Namboodiris who were mentioned only in passing in the ballads as temple priests (perhaps they were mostly settled between Tirunavaya and North of Trissur and minding their business).

The 1938 Kadakkal riot

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Franco Rule - A nation is proclaimed, within the domains of Travancore

It was a curious incident, not oft mentioned in the annals of history. During the ironclad reign of Sir CP, a few individuals took an opportunity that came by and on their own, liberated their village from a brutal tax collector and proclaimed independence. The leaders then called themselves the king and chief minister respectively. The police retaliated strongly resulting in violence and deaths and eventual overpowering of the revolting hordes. It was somewhat inconsequential, in the large scale of things, and was hardly reported, for the press itself was being muzzled by Sir CP. But it signaled the start of many more acts against the royal government, the evolution of the Travancore state congress, the wane of the Dewan’s powers and even resulted in physical threats and assassination attempts against him. For a while, Sir CP thought of implementing an American style government in Travancore, but the public protested, as Sir CP planned to become the president. In the end Travancore was finally ceded to the Indian union and Sir CP rode into the sunset. History books call these acts and events as demands for responsible government. These acts continue ever so often even today in Kerala and serve to be safeguards of Kerala’s democracy, as checks and balances. People like us keep us looking at the state from afar, bemused, while comedians and mimicry artistes remind its citizens to be either satirical or lighthearted about all those, after the fact. The life of a Malayali, so to say.

The Venganad Nambitis of Kollengode

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The Kollengode Rajas

Today there is not much left of that small dynasty but for a lovely palace built purportedly for a recalcitrant princess, an opulent building serving these days as a popular Ayurvedic center. The Venganad Swaroopam which once inhabited it, is scattered around the globe, with homes elsewhere, while people from the West and many an Indian tourist wandering off the beaten track, ironically spend days and nights resting and recuperating in it. The Venganad family must I am sure, be thinking of the old days of splendor and pomp at this kovilakom, of many occasions and festivities, as children played in the courtyard, of the feasting and shows when dignitaries visited and even of the times spent going in hunt to the nearby Anamalai hills. They may recall the trips to the Nelliyampathi coffee estates and presiding over the festivities at the Kachamkurichi temple.

The Peirce Leslie Saga

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Many scholars and sociologists have concluded that Kerala stands out among the other states in India and mention about the peculiar statistics concerning women, how they are balanced or even more in number in Kerala, how educated they are and how the gender equality situation is much better in Kerala, thereby constituting to its uniqueness in the world. But what most of you may not know is how that came about, especially the involvement of certain foreign companies and individuals who set out training and employing many hundreds of thousands of women from Kerala’s backward castes in the 19th and 20th centuries starting after the fact that Travancore boasted of the first girl’s school as early as 1819 (even though informal education for upper caste women was available much before that).

Mammali Marakkar – Regent of the seas (Regedor do Mar)

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And his connections to the Maldives

The balanced trade networks between the Red Sea and the Far East had Malabar and Gujerat as the fulcrums with the Arabs controlling the west and the Chinese controlling the east. The delicate balance with traders spread over many ports in the Indian Ocean and smaller seas, working on a large amount of trust, ferried goods and spices, based not only on the barter system but also various currencies of the trade and gold. As the ships of the desert, the camel trains moved men and material over the northern Indian deserts and steppes, while the winds of trade or the monsoons moved small ships and junks between these distant ports.

The story of Chinali

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and revisiting Dom Pedro’s exploits

We talked about the Kunhali Marakars, we discussed about the Chinese presence in Calicut and the nearby ports, we talked about their relationship with the Zamorin’s, but lurking in the background is an interesting character, about whom some mentions have been made by historians of the past and most recently Jonathan Gil Harris, in his new book on firangis.