Jan 12, 2020

The Kora Puzha custom

A Cultural or political boundary?

I think most of us will recall that in the past, we had some strict rules when it came to marriages. People from Malabar would not marry from families down South or up North. Let us take a look at that rule or custom and see what it was all about during and after the days when the Calicut Zamorins feuded with the Kolathunad rulers.

One can always argue if it was a rule or a custom, perhaps the latter is a more appropriate usage, we shall soon see. The details come out in various clarifications sought during the long discussions held to formulate what is known and the Report of the Malabar Marriage Commission of 1891. It is not my intention to discuss the practice of a Sambandham marriage, for it is a complex and vast but totally misunderstood subject, so we can get to it some other day.

Rivers were considered natural barriers and divisive lines between medieval feudal states. While women of South Malabar and Cochin cannot go beyond Quilon in Travancore on pain of losing caste, those of north Malabar were prohibited from crossing the Perumpula River towards the north and the Korapuzha towards the south (Kora Puzha is roughly nine miles north of Calicut). Those of Polanad were confined between Korapuzha on the north and Chalian River on the south. The Putiyapalam River was respected by the ladies of the orthodox Nayar families of Kizhakkumpuram and Vadakkumpuram. The list goes on, but we will discuss the Kora Puzha rule, only because the discussion over that rule was very well documented and widely debated.

How and why did this custom originate? The earliest mentioned relate to the mythical Parasuma (of course!) who created the three classes of women. According to the Kerala Mahatmyam, the Kora River, is the "Ghara" in Sanskrit. The story is that Parasurama provided three women by Indra, them being an Asura, a Gandharva and a Deva, proceeded on to Malayala. He settled the first at Gokarnam, the second in North Malabar and the last at Trichur. The progeny of these three women were (due to social levels or hierarchy at Devaloka perhaps!) prohibited from associating with one another. The sons of Deva and Gandharwa women may have mutual intercourse with the daughters of Gandharwa and Deva females respectively, and vice versa in the Malayalam country – viz. Kerala).  Now note here that the sons of Deva females are the Nayars of South Malabar, and the daughters of the Gandharwa females are the women of North Malabar, because according to Kerala Mahatmyam, the country between Cape Comorin and Ghora river was colonized by the descendants of a Deva female and those of her six handmaids, and the country between the Ghora river and Paysasini river in Kizhoor, at Kasargod, by the descendants of a Gantharwa female and those of her six handmaids, and the country between Payassini river and Ghokarnam in North Canara, by the descendants of an Asura female and those of her six handmaids. This as you can see was the legend attached to the divisions.

That was a myth, but perhaps the real reason lay in the rivalry between the Zamorins and the Kolathunad Rajas. Many of the people quizzed came up with this reason as the real basis, and the necessity for absolute faithfulness by the supporting Nair and Tiya militia. Wifely ties would weaken such faith and so, no liaisons should exist across the borders. Further, property rights would mean that men in the South marrying up North can lay claim to lands through their wives and vice versa!

Of course there were some who tried to explain that the Northern Nair castes were superior, chaster compared to the South, that their women had higher standing and so on which I would, like the marriage board, take with a pinch of salt. The argument rested on the supposition that polyandry prevailed largely in South Malabar whilst North Malabar was comparatively free from it, and that the edict was issued to protect the purity of North Malabar women. A curious fact was that all this and the Anuloma/Pratiloma concepts were applicable only in Malabar and not to adjoining South Canara, so it was not a rule which had any kind of broad religious or moral ground. Hence it was just a custom.

Some went back to a period where there was a belief that N Malabar women would be dishonored in the Zamorin’s country and connected the belief to an event where a bunch of N Malabar women had gone to Calicut to attend a feast or celebration, during which they were detained there and married off to many Nairs in the palace. This was done in order to create a clan which became the Zamroin’s personal staff. They are the ‘akathu cherna nayanmar’ or Parisha Menon’s or todays Menon’s.

The furious Kolathunad raja, unable to physically retaliate against his powerful rival, put in the ban on any of his female subjects from ever again entering the Zamorin’s territory. His words on the occasion are reported to have been somewhat to the following effect. "Into the territory of the Zamorin, who is guilty of such gross misconduct as this, let our women (subjects) not enter." A later generation, who perhaps did not know, or were not informed of the reason for the prohibition, or, who, by lapse of time, and because no fresh instance of the kind took place in the South mis-paraphrased the Rajah's words into a prohibition to cross the Korapuzha—the Southern boundary of Kolathnad.

Stories like this abound, for there is one siding with the Zamorin as well. The relations between one of the Zamorins and a certain Kurumbranad Rajah was, let us say friendly and there was much intercourse between the two domains, so much so that it appears the Kurumbranad Rajah succeeded in bedding a Tampuratti of the Zamorins's family. The enraged Zamorin put in a travel ban towards the North!

There were some other complex issues too at stake relating to Yagam performance as one explained- There are no Nambuthiris to the North of Korapuzha and to the South of Aleppie river who can perform Yagam and kindred ceremonies; therefore high caste Brahman women cannot travel beyond these boundaries and consequently the Sudra dependents too, of these Brahmans are prohibited from going further than the two limits.

Connections and potential pollution with Muslims was another major issue cited by some and date back to the Pardesi Arabs in the Zamorin territory. It appears that new Arab settlers (perhaps 13th to 15th century periods), forcibly carried away some women - one or two of them of very high rank too and made them their wives. Such unpleasant facts occurring in the South must have made the northern people regard the Zamorin's dominions as dangerous places to live in or travel through, and that more especially for women, and as, to them such travelling or settlements were not necessary, they made the passing into the Zamorin's dominions by women ,an offence " punishable with forfeiture of caste."

While Korapuzha was the Kolathunad border many years ago, in the 19th century it became an issue since Korapuzha was no longer in the Kolathunad territory. The correct boundary between North and South Malabar, for argument sake should have been the Kottakadavu (Marat River) and not the Korapuzha, because, the country beyond the Kottakadavu and within the Korapuzha forms the Southern portion of the Kurumbranad Taluk.

Petty religious issues were also brought up, for example the Korapuzha required boats to cross it and they were all owned and rowed by Moplah’s. In certain other rivers, they had Hindu Pitran rowers, so it was not a problem. But at Korapuzha, they could not circumvent Moplahs. It also appears that there was an event relating to some Kolathunad women being ‘ravished’ by the Moplahs in the Zamorin’s kingdom!

Property rights were mentioned - In the olden time Kolathunad extended up to Korapuzha and Kolathiri, who is said to have exacted feudal services (military) from thirty thousand Nayars under him, thought it wise to rule with a view to stop emigration of these feudal serfs, that to cross that boundary for a female of North Malabar (who is, of course only likely to propagate such serfs rightly belonging to his Swarupam) was to entail excommunication.

The subsequent conquest by the Mysore Sultans also figured in the arguments – One went thus - The dominion of the Zamorin was overrun by Tipu Sultan, who converted many a Nayar to Islam. The Rajah of Chirakkal then issued an order that no woman should cross the Korapuzha, lest she be converted, and that no man of South Malabar should be admitted to a North Malabar family on the belief that all in South Malabar (including the Zamorin) had become converts to Islam!

The conclusions after the involvement of all the representing nobles (my Great Great grandfather Vidwan Ettan Thamburan, included) and educated men of that time, was as you can imagine, inconclusive. If you are interested in hearing what my ancestor (who became the Zamorin only a few years after the interview) had to say, well he was a deeply religious person who believed in the caste system and furthermore, the Bhagavad Gita. A very conservative and caste bound men, he said…

There exists no absolute objection to a Nayar woman of North Malabar going South of Korapuzha. 
The causes which led to this prohibition appear to me to have been:
(1) The restrictions laid down by the two Rajahs (Zamorin and Kolathiri)
(2) If the women were allowed to travel as freely as they pleased, they would enter into all sorts of connections forbidden by caste regulations and customary usage, which would undermine caste observances, and would remove caste distinctions, so much so that all classes would be reduced to the same level, and lead to other similar evils. It is clear from the following quotation from Bhagavatgitha that if the women fall and become degenerated it would be productive of enormous evil…

"0 ! Krishna! From the increase of vice (even) family (chaste) women become sinners. 0! Descendant of Yrishni (Krishna)! When women are bitten ("corrupted) confusion of castes is the result. The wages of this confusion will be hell even to the race of such as destroy the purity of families, for their forefathers will sink into hell, being deprived of Pinda (funeral cake), TJdagam (holy water) and Kriya (funeral rites). By these vices of the destroyers of families, which produce mixtures of castes, the long established religious observances of castes and of families are up-rooted."

The Malabar marriage act of 1896 was eventually enacted, though it did not quite make an impact.The first man in North Malabar, who tried ineffectually to break through the custom was the late Kuvukal Kelu Nayar, a late Sub-Judge of South Malabar. His son Kunhi Raman Nayar, who was also Sub-Judge of Calicut, too, failed in his attempt to take his wife to Calicut.

Thurston adds, though not referring to the apparent origins of the Akattu Charna caste from Kolathunad – To this rule there is an exception, and of late years the world has come in touch with the Malayāli, who nowadays goes to the University, studies medicine and law in the Presidency town (Madras), or even in far off England. Women of the relatively inferior Akattu Charna clan are not under quite the same restrictions as regards residence as are those of most of the other clans; so, in these days of free communications, when Malayālis travel, and frequently reside far from their own country, they often prefer to select wives from this Akattu Charna clan. But the old order changeth everywhere, and nowadays Malayālis who are in the Government service, and obliged to reside far away from Malabar, and a few who have taken up their abode in the Presidency town, have wrenched themselves free of the bonds of custom, and taken with them their wives who are of clans other than the Akattu Charna.

He then goes into detail about the custom of a Mannan being the one to provide the ‘mattu’ or post mensuration period clothes to a Nair woman, but does not quite explain how it applied to an Akattu Charna Nayar woman. Perhaps she can have the mattu from any dhobi, not a vannan?

According to Kodoth’s studies - This prohibition on Women had by the turn of the turn of the twentieth century turned into a source of inconvenience for the increasing number of Nair men employed outside north Malabar. Men employed outside North Malabar or in Madras resorted to sambandham with women in south Malabar owing to the inconvenience of the rule. The first instances of women defying the rule were in order to join their husbands and these women had to bear the pain of ostracism. A few women did cross to join their husbands in Calicut. Chandu Nambiar recalls that it was possible to break the taboo only because women of the older generation took it upon themselves to violate the norm. They were also willing to brave the censure involved. By the 1920s, women were crossing the river without major social repercussions.

But with the passage of time, new marriage rules came into vogue and old feudal rules disappeared, but even today you can see chaste Nair or Tiya families asking questions about the geographic origins of the groom or the bride’s family, during marriage proposals. In fact when two Malayalee’s meet, the first question is where in Kerala the other is from!

Shifting the ground of fatherhood, Matriliny, men and marriage in early 20th century Keralam – Praveena Kodoth
Nayars of Malabar – F Fawcett
Report of the Malabar Marriage commission 1891.
Castes and Tribes of Southern India, by Edgar Thurston Vol 5
Note: Today the Korapuzha is also known as the Elathur river



Sudhir Narayanan said...

Makes very interesting reading in this lockdown.Though worked in palghat for about 20 years not aware of many bits of interesting palghat history.Thanks for enlightening.

Maddy said...

Thanks Sudhir..
some of those old customs are so strange, when viewed today!!