Taravads of Kerala

Both the Nayar caste and the arrangement of Nayar family structures in taravad institutions have been unique to the Malayalam-speaking population found in the state of Kerala. The Nayars may have emerged as a special Kerala caste as early as the tenth century, certainly before the Portuguese and Dutch incursions beginning in the fifteenth century. The Nayar caste provided retainers, soldiers, and administrators for the special caste of Kerala priests, called Nambudiri Brahmins. In addition, and important in this taravad description, the Nambudiris practiced an extreme form of primogeniture, that is, only the eldest son was allowed to marry a Nambudiri woman and only his children were Nambudiris. Nayar women were allowed to enter into sambandham marriages across this caste line with second, third, and fourth sons from Nambudiri families.

According to the earliest census in Kerala, the number of Nambudiris was small (less than one percent) and has remained small. The heyday of the Nayar taravad may have been in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The zealous protection of their high status, close to the supremely high-caste Nambudiris, partially accounts for Kerala’s reputation as a madhouse of caste. At the end of twentieth century both institutions, the taravads and caste are nearly extinct in Kerala. (Jeffrey)

The taravad institutions included family, household, and lands maintained a status and a life beyond any individual. {a6} Material support for the household was drawn from the inseparable lands of the taravad. Taravads were matrilineal institutions. That is, the family line was traced through the females and birth in the taravad endowed all children with the protection and care of the taravad. Fathers had no significant properties separate from their own taravads to give their children, and fathers held no special claims over their children. Male care and discipline of a son in the taravad was a duty of an uncle, the mother’s brother resident in the taravad.

Outside of the households of the taravads, their properties were managed by a senior male called a karanavan, a title translated from Malayalam as "the causer" or "the doer". Easily-misled observers from patriarchical societies saw the karanavan as the head of a large extended family. The internal management of the affairs of the taravad were in fact directed by a senior female---a mother, aunt, or grandmother of all sharing the wealth and status of the taravad. The taravad contained only blood relatives, no sons-in-law and no daughters-in-law.

Both males and females had a whole-life security within their mother’s taravad; fathers visited only on occasion. Two ceremonies marked a girl’s progress towards sexual union. The first was the tali-tying-marrage. A Brahmin tied a small ornament, called a tali, around the necks of several young taravad girls prior to their first menstruation. This ceremony satisfied the Hindu requirement of female marriage. In fact, the man who tied the tali rarely, if ever, became a sexual partner of any of the girls.

As contrasted to life of Hindu women in all-India, Nayar girls and women moved freely in their localities. As Nayar girls matured and were noticed, requests would come from Nayar or Nambudiri men to form a union. A proposal agreed to in her taravad led to a second marriage ceremony, called sambandham---translated from Sanskrit as "intense bond". The approved male presented the chosen female with a cloth symbolizing marriage and then began regular visits to her.

Within the taravad, married women had their own apartments and their husbands lived in their own taravads. Normally husbands arrived at their wives' apartments after dinner, and returned to their own taravads before breakfast. Ending a relationship (in the West called a divorce) was rather like a permanent separation with rights to remarry. A husband stopped coming to a woman’s taravad, and/or a wife instructed her brothers and uncles to exclude an unwanted partner. Whether polyandry, more than one husband at a time, was ever widespread is disputed, but serial marriages were common. (Gough)

Within the Indian family norm, females were responsible to maintain the class standing of their taravad by limiting their sexual availability to males from taravads of equal or higher status. The crucial difference of the Nayar taravads contrasted to the all-India Hindu practice was a generous equity between the sexes in the expression of sexuality.

The reader may need to be reminded here, that the details of the customs concerning the marriage among the Nayars could most easily be seen during the heyday of the taravads a century ago. This description is offered as a background for the weak patriarchy of Kerala families customary within the lower-class and lower-caste families throughout Kerala including Muslims and Christian families.

If we tried to characterize the Nayar marriage practice in terms of the customs of North America, we would show that marriage, divorce, and remarriage among the Nayars was easy. Disputes over the division of property did not occur. The property rights of husband and wife were vested in their respective taravads. Inasmuch as children always belonged to their mothers and her taravad, there were no questions of child custody. There were, of course disputes within the taravads, but love and support for both boy and girl child children was the essence of the tavarad. (Jeffery)

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