Christians, warriors and princesses

Manu Pillai | Updated on January 15, 2018
Written in blood: To the first Europeans, Kerala seemed to marinate in blood as Nairs, serving their numerous lords and princes, lived in a state of perpetual warfare and violent enmity. Photo: S Ramesh Kurup

Written in blood: To the first Europeans, Kerala seemed to marinate in blood as Nairs, serving their numerous lords and princes, lived in a state of perpetual warfare and violent enmity. Photo: S Ramesh Kurup

Early birds: Malayalis had been Christian long before Christianity had reached Europe. Photo: S Ramesh Kurup

Early birds: Malayalis had been Christian long before Christianity had reached Europe. Photo: S Ramesh Kurup

The Ivory Throne; Manu Pillai; Non-fiction; HarperCollins India; ₹699

The Ivory Throne; Manu Pillai; Non-fiction; HarperCollins India; ₹699

In this excerpt from The Ivory Throne, shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2016, we read about Kerala’s relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, and its once-relaxed behavioural norms for women

It was hence that neither the Portuguese nor their pontifical enterprise to unite Christians into one integrated bloc against Islam (and Arab competition) evoked any great enthusiasm in Kerala. After all, these Malayalis had been Christian long before Christianity had reached even the outskirts of Europe. They were heirs to a tradition more ancient than the Roman Catholicism of the Portuguese and had never, for instance, even heard of the Pope; when the Portuguese presumed to claim that the Kerala churches ‘belonged’ to the Pope, quick came the retort, ‘Who is the Pope?’ The Malayali Christians, as it turned out to the great mortification of the Portuguese, adhered not to the Vatican but to the Nestorian Church headed by the Patriarch of Antioch in modern-day Turkey. Their liturgical language, similarly, was not Latin but Syriac, by virtue of which they were known as Syrian Christians. In other words, the celebrated Father of Roman Catholicism held little consequence for them, and besides the common tag of being all ‘Christians’ they could not be more unlike the Portuguese. Thus, the local Christians whom the Europeans ‘rediscovered’ observed a branch of the faith that Roman Catholicism neither approved of nor upheld.

As was almost habitual with them at the time, when the Portuguese could not find what they sought in the local Christians, they abandoned all fraternal pretensions and went on to diligently persecute the latter. Over the following centuries many were compelled to accept the Catholic faith and denounce the Eastern Orthodox rites of their ancestors. The Portuguese also set out to purge Hindu elements from their rites, and ruthlessly applied themselves to rid local Christianity of what they derided as ‘Pagan’ influences. They may have reconciled to not finding the fabled Prester John and his legendary treasures, but the zealous Portuguese could never come to terms with a flock of ‘corrupted’, non-Catholic Christians. Eventually, a sizeable Catholic following also grew in the region under the Portuguese banner, along with a minor Luso-Indian population. In the years ahead, as more and more European missions reached Kerala, many new brands of the faith found welcome in the land, establishing other churches with their own distinctive features along the coast.

But if the nature of Christianity in Kerala seemed outlandish, what positively befuddled the Europeans were the peculiarities of Hindu society here. While they did not encounter the men with dogs’ heads or the so-called ‘Apple Smellers’ that they expected, they were most astonished by the principal class of ‘Pagans’ in Kerala. The Nairs, as these serpent worshippers were known, were a martial group, and the most exalted of them was none other than the Zamorin himself. And their customs appeared even more bizarre than those of the Christians. Describing the Nairs, the diarist Duarte Barbosa paints a picturesque, typically exoticised summary of their general way of life:

“In these kingdoms (...) there is another sect of people called Nairs, who are the gentry, and have no other duty than to carry on war, and they continually carry their arms with them, which are swords, bows, arrows, bucklers, and lances. They all live with the kings, and some of them with other lords, relations of the king, and lords of the country, and with the salaried governors (...) And no one can be a Nair if he is not of good lineage. They are very smart men, and much taken up with their nobility. They do not associate with any peasant, and neither eat nor drink except in the houses of other Nairs. These people accompany their lords day and night (...) These Nairs, besides being all of noble descent, have to be armed as knights by the hand of the King or lord with whom they live, and until they have been so equipped they cannot bear arms or call themselves Nairs (...) In general when these Nairs are seven years of age they are immediately sent to school to learn all manner of feats of agility and gymnastics for the use of their weapons (...) These Nairs when they enlist to live with the king, bind themselves and promise to die for him; and they do likewise with any other lord from whom they receive pay. This law is observed by some and not by others; but their obligation constrains them to die at the hands of anyone who should kill the king or their lord; and some of them so observe it so that if in any battle their lord should be killed, they go and put themselves in the midst of the enemies who killed him, even should those be numerous, and he alone by himself dies there; but before falling he does what he can against them; and after that one is dead, another goes to take his place, and then another, so that sometimes ten or twelve Nairs die for their lord.”

Indeed to the first Europeans, Kerala seemed to marinate in blood as Nairs, serving their numerous lords and princes, lived in a state of perpetual warfare and violent enmity; as Galleti would dryly remark, “War was in fact the natural state” here. Perhaps the most emblematic of their ingrained will to kill (or to get killed) was the custom of blood feuds known as kudipaka. If a Nair died at the hands of an enemy, the slain warrior’s family vowed not to rest until they had exterminated the killer’s clan, avenging their dead kin. Families in such epic vendettas often prepared doggedly for years before assaulting each other on a chosen date in a great duel or full-fledged battle, witnessed by massive baying crowds. Bloodthirsty loyalty of this nature extended to feudal overlords also. In 1502, for example, when the Zamorin’s soldiers killed three princes of Cochin, 200 Nairs serving as the latter’s bodyguard set out to avenge their dead masters’ honour. Their mission was to claim the lives of an equal number of princes from the house of the Zamorin, and it is said to have taken five years before the soldiers of Calicut put the last of these warriors to death, just outside the capital city. Until then, these chavers, as they were called, persevered on, advancing further and further into the Zamorin’s country, acting as a deadly squad of killing machines, cutting down every enemy Nair they encountered. “Their chief delight,” Francis Buchanan would write about the Nairs, “is in parading up and down fully armed. Each man has a firelock, and at least one sword; but all those who wish to be thought as men of extraordinary courage carry two sabres.”

If the reckless bravery of the Nairs (sometimes induced by opium) impressed the Portuguese, what provoked great sensation and even a degree of romanticism were their exotic marriage customs. Indeed, parallels to their way of cohabitation were difficult to find even in other parts of India, leave alone Europe. The Nairs, it so happened, were what we would today define as extremely liberal, and their women had enough personal freedom to scandalise foreign observers. While everywhere else in the familiar world it was ordinary for men to keep numerous wives, here custom granted that privilege to women as well. As Barbosa recorded, “the more lovers a woman has, greater is her honour”. And ladies, high and low, vied to collect beaus and husbands with great avidity. Even princesses and queens were not excluded from this inviting polyandrous tradition; to quote Barbosa once again, “these [princesses] do not marry, nor have fixed husbands, and are very free and at liberty in doing what they please with themselves”. Wave after wave of Europeans was enchanted (and occasionally horrified) by these exotic customs, inspiring James Lawrence, years later, to pen a twelve-volume novel called The Empire of the Nairs: An Utopian Romance. Since this was translated into both French and German, it was presumably received with great interest and is now considered an early feminist work arguing for parity between the genders.

Women, in general, enjoyed individual personalities and often ran vast estates and even kingdoms on their own. They were normally educated at least to a basic level and very often grew adept in the art of warfare also. One local Rajah in Kerala, for instance, maintained a palace guard of 300 female archers when the Portuguese first met him, much to their astonishment. Country bards sang of gallant heroines putting dreadful villains to death with their superior swordsmanship and prowess. In the Muslim royal family of Arakkal, women had equal rights of succession with male members of the house, ruling in their own right. Females of royal blood moved about freely in society, unencumbered by purdah and that severe seclusion that was their fate in other parts of India. They commanded tremendous respect, besides actively participating in affairs that were the strict preserve of men in less-inclusive societies. When the Italian Pietro Della Valle visited the court of the Zamorin in 1623, for instance, he observed many ladies in attendance there and two princesses even came up and studied him with a casual, self-assured confidence, as the following description confirms:

“Suddenly two girls, about twelve years of age, entered the court. They wore no covering of any kind except a blue cloth about their loins; but their arms, ears, and necks were covered with ornaments of gold and precious stones. Their complexion was swarthy but clear enough; their shape was well proportioned and comely; and their aspect was handsome and well favoured (...) These two girls were in fact Infantas of the kingdom of Calicut. Upon their entrance all the courtiers paid them great reverence; and Della Valle and his companions rose from their seats, and saluted them (...) The girls talked together respecting the strangers; and one of them approached Della Valle and touched the sleeve of his coat with her hand, and expressed wonder at his attire. Indeed they were as surprised at the dress of the strangers, as the strangers were at the strange appearance of the girls (...) There were higher cloisters round the court filled with women, who had come to behold the strangers. The Queen (...) stood apart in the most prominent place, with no more clothing than her daughters, but abundantly adorned with jewels.”

Thus, in Kerala women enjoyed a position of singular importance, not least due to its matrilineal system of inheritance, about which more will be said later. Even their highly abbreviated sense of dress seemed outrageously uninhibited to the more conservative and culturally judgemental Europeans, for it was unusual for women to cover themselves above the waist. It was as if they all lived in a state of perpetual dishabille but the fact was that being bare-bosomed was considered perfectly respectable. Outsiders did feel this was somehow immoral but as F Fawcett would opine, “Dress is, of course, a conventional affair, and it will be a matter of regret should false ideas of shame supplant those of natural dignity such as one sees expressed in the carriage and bearing of the well-bred Nair lady.” In fact, in one instance in the seventeenth century when a local woman appeared before a princess covered in Western style, she was actually punished for doing this. Her breasts were mutilated by royal order, since covering them were “a mark of disrespect to the established manners of the country”. The princess too, of course, was unabashedly bare-breasted.

By the 18th century, however, all this was beginning to change. In 1766, Kerala was unexpectedly drenched in war and blood as the dreaded armies of Hyder Ali of Mysore rained death on the Zamorin and his hapless aristocracy. The Muslim king pillaged and plundered, unleashing such formidable chaos that the Zamorin was compelled to send even his own women and children south as broken refugees. As the marauders gained on his ancestral seat in Calicut, King Manavikrama’s heir, by his own hand, set fire to the palace where his ancestors once sat in state and lorded over the riches of their trade. And while the last of the great Zamorins of Calicut perished, thus, in inglorious flames, his feudatories and generals fled en masse, abandoning Kerala to the fiery ambitions of its invaders. With their exodus, the old ways of life in the region were devastated. Into the 1790s the English East India Company took over the province, and the ancient clans, once active participants in that enthralling theatre of commerce and power, were reduced to mere landlords with hollow, wistful titles. There was now no leader in the northern half of the coast, and all looked south where alone one prince succeeded in withstanding these convulsions of time, carrying his dynasty and house into modernity. As the Zamorins of Calicut faded into oblivion, it was time for the Maharajahs of Travancore to emerge from the shadows.

Manu Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne, published in November 2015 by HarperCollins India

Published on November 04, 2016

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