Chapter XII. The Hindoos of Malabar.

When Parasu Rama, the demigod, departed this transitory life, he left, as we said before, the kingdom of Malabar as a heritage to the priestly caste. For many years a hierarchy of Brahmans governed the land. (88) At length, finding themselves unable to defend the country, they established Nair chiefs in each Nad (provience), and Desha (village), (89) called from their places of jurisdiction Nadwallee and Deshwallee. The main distinction between them seems to have been, that whereas the latter could not command more than a hundred fighting men, the Nadwallee never went to battle with a smaller number than that under his banner; some few led as many as twenty thousand vassals to the field. Both were bound to conduct the affairs of their feofs, to preserve the peace of the country, and to assemble and head their respective forces at the summons of the Rajah. There does not appear to have been any limitation to the power of settling disputes vested in these feudal superiors, nor were they prohibited from taking fines and costs of suit; (90) parties appearing before them had, however, a right of appeal to the Rajah. These dignities were hereditary; still they may be considered political offices,--for, in case of demise, the heir did not succeed without a formal investiture by the ruler, and a relief, or fine of entry, taken in token of allegiance. Like the feudal landowners of England, both the Nadwallee and the Deshwallee were dependent upon the prince to whom they swore the oath of fidelity. Neither of these dignitaries was necessarily owner of all the landed property within his province or village boundaries: in fact he seldom was so, although there was no objection to his becoming proprietor by purchase or other means. They were not entitled to a share of the produce of the lands in their jurisdiction, nor could they claim the seignoral privileges, which the heads of villages on the eastern coast, and many other parts of India, enjoy. Under the Deshwallee of each village were several Turravattakara, (91) or chief burgesses. They possessed a certain hereditary dignity, but no controlling authority. In them, however, we may trace the germ of a municipal corporation, as their position entitled them to the honour of being applied to on occasions of marriages, deaths, religious ceremonies, and differences amongst the vassals. When their mediation failed the cause went before the Deshwallee.

The anarchy introduced by this complicated variety of feudalism soon compelled the hierarchy to call in the aid of the Bejanuggur, or, as it is commonly termed, the Anagundy government, and the latter, at the solicitation of the Brahmans, appointed a Peroomal, or Viceroy, whose administration was limited to the term of twelve years, to rule the fair lands of Malabar. These governors, who are also known by the name of Cherun, (92) were first appointed in the 3511th year of the Kali Yug, (93) about A.D. 410. Seventeen of them, curious to say, followed each other in regular succession. The last, however, Cherooman Peroomal, (94) so ingratiated himself with his temporary subjects, that he reigned thirty-six years, and, at the head of a numerous army, defeated the home government, which attempted to dispossess him of his power, in a pitched battle fought near the village of Annamalay. (95) Afterwards, becoming a convert to Islam, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca. Before leaving India, he divided the province among the seventeen chiefs (96) to whose valour he was indebted for his success in war. These were the ancestors of the present race of Rajahs.

Malabar was soon torn with intestine feuds, arising from the power and ambition of its host of rulers, and the Samiry, Samoory, or Calicut Rajah, soon became de facto--if not de jure--the lord paramount. He was a native of Poontoora, in the Coimbatore province, and derived his name, Mana Vikram, from Mnicham and Vikram--the two brothers present on the occasion when Cherooman conferred dominion upon the head of the house. His superiority was acknowledged until Hyder's time, by all the chiefs from the north point of Malabar to the south extremity of Travancore.

After that Hyder had become regent of Mysore, he made use of the following pretext for invading Malabar. The Palghaut Rajah, a descendant from the Pandian sovereigns of Madura, terrified by the power of the Samiry, had, in early times, sought the alliance of the Mysore state, then governed by its Hindoo princes, and constituted himself a client of the same by paying a certain annual sum for a subsidiary force to be stationed in his territory. The ambitious Moslem, under colour of avenging his ally and protecting him against the oppressions of the Samiry and other princes, forthwith attacked them on their own ground.

The manner in which the Calicut house is and has been, from the days of hoar antiquity, broken and divided, appears curious in the extreme. It may be supposed that the Brahmans, jealous of the overgrown power of one individual, in the person of the Samiry, endeavoured to temper its force by assigning to the other members of the family certain official dignities, together with concomitant privileges. It is also possible that this partition might have taken place at the solicitation of the princes, who naturally would wish to secure for themselves a settled and independent subsistence. They were appointed to act as a council to the reigning sovereign; they could check his authority as well as aid him in his wisdom; and, finally, they were his principal officers, each having separate and particular duties to perform. By this arrangement, in case of the ruler's demise, his heir would succeed to the throne without any of the harassing disturbances and sanguinary contentions so common amongst Asiatic nations.

Where rank and property descended from father to son, there is little difficulty in settling the succession. But when families remain united for years under the Murroo-muka-tayum, or inheritance by the nephew or sister's son--the strange law which prevails among the Rajahs and Nairs of Malabar--it becomes by no means an easy matter to ascertain who is the senior in point of birth. The crafty Brahmans provided against this difficulty by establishing a system of intermediate dignities, which act as a register, and by requiring a long interval of time, during which each individual's rights might be frequently discussed and deliberately settled, to elapse between promotion from the inferior to the superior grades.

The head of the Calicut house, who may be supposed to occupy the position of the first Samiry's mother, is called the Vullia tumbooratee, (97) or principal queen. She resides in the Kovilugum, or palace of Umbadee. Priority of birth gives a claim to this dignity, and the eldest of all the princesses is entitled to it, no matter what be her relationship to the reigning sovereign. The Umbadee is the only indispensable palace; but, for the sake of convenience, an unlimited number of private dwellings have been established for the junior princesses. Thus we find the "new palace," the "eastern palace" (relatively to the Umbadee), the "western palace," and many others. (98) The queen and princesses are compelled to occupy the residences allotted to their several ranks; they are also prohibited from holding any commerce with men of their own family, as their paramours must either be of the Kshatriya (99) (military) caste, or Numboory Brahmans, and may not be changed without the consent of the Samiry and that of the world body of near relations.

The princes are taken according to their seniority out of the above-mentioned Umbadees, and the eldest of all, when a death occurs, becomes the Samiry. There are five palaces of state allotted to the different princes--namely, the Samotree Kovilugum, or palace of the First Rajah; the Yeirumpiree Kovilugum, or palace of the yellia Rajah--the heir apparent to the Samiry-ship; and three others, which are respectively termed the "Governments of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Portions." After that a prince has been once established in any of these dignities, his order of rank may be considered finally settled: he cannot be superseded, but must, if he lives, rise step by step--each time with formal investiture--till he attains the highest dignity. Whenever a superior palace becomes vacant, he is duly installed in it, and succeeds to the revenue arising from the landed property belonging to it. But he cannot remove any of the furniture, or the gold and silver utensils, from the inferior residence which he formerly occupied, as these articles are considered public goods, and, as such, are marked with distinctive stamps. Under all circumstances, however, the prince retains the right of private property.

The principles of the arrangement which we have attempted to describe, not only exist in the Calicut house but prevade all the families of the different Rajahs in Malabar.

In the intercourse between the princes there is much ceremony, and, as might be expected, little affection. No one is allowed to sit down in the presence of a superior; all must stand before the Samiry, and do obeisance to him with folded hands.

According to a census taken in 1846, the different castes were enumerated as follows in round numbers:--

1. Numboory Brahmans 5,500
2. Puttur, or foreign Brahmans 15,200
3. Nairs 370,000
4. Tiyars 340,000
5. Moplahs 315,000
6. Fisherman 15,300
7. Chermur, or serfs 160,000
8. Christians and other strangers 9,000
 Total: 1,230,000 (100)

Even in India, the land of ethnologic marvels, there are few races so strange and remarkable in their customs as the people of Malabar. The soil or the climate seems to have exercised some peculiar effect upon its inhabitants: Hindoos as well as Moslems abound in peculiarities unknown to their tenets and practices in other parts of the world. The correctness of our observation will appear in the following sketches of the different castes.

The priesthood of Malabar is at present divided into two great classes; the Numboory, Numoodree or Malabar Brahmans, and the Puttur, or families of the pontifical stock that do not originally belong to the country.

The Numboory is the scion of an ancient and celebrated tree. The well known polemic Sankaracharya belonged to this race; he was born in the village of Kaludee, in the 3501st, or, according to others, the 3100th year of the Kali Yug. His fame rests principally upon his celebrated work, the sixty-four anacharun, or Exceptions to Established Rules, composed for the purpose of regulating and refining the customs of his fellow religionists. (101) No copy of the institutes which have produced permanent effects upon the people exists in Malabar. There is a history of the saint's life called Sankaracharya Chureedun, containing about seven hundred stanzas, written by a disciple.

The Numboory family is governed by several regulations peculiar to it: only the eldest of any number of brothers takes a woman of his own cast to wife. All the juniors must remain single except when the senior fails in having issue. This life of celibacy became so irksome to the Brahmans that they induced the Nair cast to permit unrestrained intercourse between their females and themselves, it being well understood that the priesthood was conferring an especial honour upon their disciples. Probably in order to please the compliant Shudras the more, the Numboory in many parts of the country changed their regular mode of succession for the inheritance by nephews practised amongst the Nairs. As might be supposed, the birth of female children is considered an enormous evil by these Brahmans; their daughters frequently live and die unmarried, and even when a suitable match has been found for them, their nuptials are seldom celebrated till late in life, owing to the extraordinary expense of the ceremony. Throughout India the marriage of a girl is seldom delayed after her twelfth year; in Malabar, few Numboory women are married before they reach the age of twenty-five or thirty. They are most strictly watched, and all faux pas are punished by a sort of excommunication pronounced by the hereditary Brahman, with the consent of the Rajah. The relations of the female delinquent are also heavily fined, and such mulets in ancient times formed one of the items of the ruler's revenue.

There is nothing striking in the appearance of the Numboory. He is, generally speaking, a short, spare man, of a dark olive-coloured complexion, sharp features, and delicate limbs. His toilette is not elaborate; a piece of white cotton cloth fastened round the waist, and a similar article thrown loosely over the shoulders, together with the cord of the twice-born, compose the tout ensemble. These Brahmans are solemn in their manners and deportment, seldom appear in public, and when they do, they exact and receive great respect from their inferiors in caste. A Nair meeting a Numboory must salute him by joining the palms of the hands together, and then separating them three successive times. (102)

The Nairs (103) are a superior class of Shudra, or servile Hindoos, who formerly composed the militia, (104) or landwehr, of Malabar. Before the land-tax was introduced they held estates rent free; the only prestation required from them was personal service; to attend the rajah, or chief, on all official and religious occasions, and to march to battle under his banner. When absent from their homes, they were entitled to a daily subsistence, called Kole. Their arms were sword and shield, spear and matchlock, with a long knife or dagger suspended behind the back by a hook attached to a leathern waistband. Being now deprived of their favourite pastimes--fighting and plundering--they have become cultivators of the soil, and disdain not to bend over the plough, an occupation formerly confined to their slaves. And yet to the present day they retain much of their old military character, and with it the licentiousness which in Eastern countries belongs to the profession of arms. In fact, "war, wine, and women" appear to be the three ingredients of their summum bonum, and forced abstinence from the first, only increases the ardour of their affection for the last two. Although quite opposed to the spirit of Hindoo law, intoxication and debauchery never degrade a Nair from his caste.

Wedlock can hardly be said to exist among the Nairs. They perform, however, a ceremony called kulleanum, which in other castes implies marriage, probably a relic of the nuptial rite. The Nair woman has a Talee, or necklace, bound round her throat by some fellow-cast man, generally a friend of the family; a procession then ambulates the town, and by virtue thereof the lady takes the title of Ummah, or matron. But the gentleman is not entitled to the privileges of a husband, nor has he any authority over the said matron's person or property. She is at liberty to make choice of the individual with whom she intends to live--her Bhurtao, as her protector is called, she becoming his Bharya. The connection is termed Goonadoshum, words which literally signify "good and bad," and imply an agreement between the parties to take each other for better and worse; it cannot be dissolved without the simple process of one party "giving warning" to the other. In former times, the lady used always to reside in her mother's house, but this uncomfortable practice is now rapidly disappearing.

Another peculiar custom which prevails among the Nairs, is the murroo-muka-tayum, (105) hereditary succession by sisters' sons; or in case of their failing, by the male nearest in consanguinity from the father's grandmother. The ancient ordinances of Malabar forbade a Nair to leave his property by will to his offspring, and it was considered unbecoming to treat a son with the affection shown to a nephew. Of late years some heads of families have made a provision for their own children during life time, but it has been necessary to procure the assent of the rightful heirs to bequests thus irregularly made. When property is left to sons, the division follows the general Hindoo law, with two essential points of difference. In the first place, children inherit the estate of the mother only; and, secondly, a daughter is, in certain cases, entitled to preference to a son. Thus, a female can, a male cannot, mortgage or sell land inherited from his maternal progenitor: after his death it must revert to those who were co-heirs with him; and though a man is entitled to the same share as his sister, his right to it continues only as long as they live in the same house.

The origin of this extraordinary law is lost in the obscurity of antiquity. The Brahmans, according to some, were its inventors; others suppose that they merely encouraged and partially adopted it. Its effects, politically speaking, were beneficial to the community at large. The domestic ties, always inconvenient to a strictly military population, were thereby conveniently weakened, and the wealth, dignity, and unbroken unity of interests were preserved for generations unimpaired in great and powerful families, which, had the property been divided among the several branches, according to the general practice of Hinduism, would soon have lost their weight and influence. As it was unnecessary that a woman should be removed from her home, or introduced into a strange family, the eldest nephew on the sister's side, when he became the senior male member of the household, succeeded, as a matter of course, to the rights, property, and dignity of Karnovun. (106)

We suspect that the priesthood--those crafty politicians whose meshes of mingled deceit and superstition have ever held the Hindoo mind "in durance vile"--were the originators of the murroo-muka-tayum and the goonadoshum. Both inventions, like many of the laws of Lycurgus, appear the result of well-digested plans for carrying out the one proposed object. They are audacious encroachments upon the rights of human nature; and we cannot account for their existence by any supposition except that the law-givers were determined to rear a race of warriors--no matter by what means. As a corroboration of our theory, we may instance the fact that these strange and now objectless ordinances are gradually giving way to the tide of truer feeling. Already the succession of nephews has been partially broken through, and in the present day the control of the heads of families is nothing compared with what it was.

There is a tradition among the Nairs, that anciently, the Samiry Rajah was, by the law of the land, compelled to commit suicide by cutting his throat in public at the expiration of a twelve-years' reign. When that ceremony became obsolete, another and an equally peculiar one was substituted in its stead. A jubilee was proclaimed throughout the kingdom, and thousands flocked from all directions to the feasts and festivals prepared for them at Calicut. On an appointed day, the Rajah, after performing certain religious rites, repaired to the shore, and sat down upon a cushion, unarmed, bare-headed, and almost undressed, whilst any four men of the fighting caste, who had a mind to win a crown, were allowed to present themselves as candidates for the honour of regicide. They were bathed in the sea, and dressed in pure garments, which, as well as their persons, were profusely sprinkled over with perfumes and water coloured yellow by means of turmeric. A Brahman then putting a long sword and small round shield into each man's hand, told him to "go in and win" if he could. Almost incredible though it may appear, some cases are quoted in which a lucky desperado succeeded in cutting his way through the thirty or forty thousand armed guards who stood around the Rajah, and in striking off the sovereign's head. This strange practice has of late years been abolished.

The Nairs are rather a fair and comely race, with neat features, clean limbs, and decidedly a high cast look. They shave the head all over, excepting one long thin lock of hair, which is knotted at the end, and allowed to lie flat upon the crown. Neither cap nor turban is generally worn. Their dress consists of the usual white cotton cloth fastened round the loins: when en grande tenue, a similar piece hangs round their necks, or is spread over the shoulders. We have alluded to the appearance of their females in our account of Calicut, and may here observe that we were rather fortunate in having accidentally seen them. The Nair is as jealous as he is amorous and vindictive; many travellers have passed through the country without being able to catch one glimpse of their women, and the knife would be unhesitatingly used if a foreigner attempted to satisfy his curiosity by anything like forcible measures.

The Tian (107) of Malabar is to the Mair what the villein was to the feoffee of feudal England. These two families somewhat resemble each other in appearance, but the former is darker in complexion, and less "castey" in form and feature than the latter. It is the custom for modest women of the Tiyar family to expose the whole of the person above the waist, whereas females of loose character are compelled by custom to cover the bosom. As this class of Hindoo, generally speaking, provides the European residents with nurses and other menials, many of our countrymen have tried to make them adopt a somewhat less natural costume. The proposal, however, has generally been met pretty much in the same spirit which would be displayed were the converse suggested to an Englishwoman.

In writings the Tiyar are styled Eelavun. They are supposed to be a colony of strangers from an island of that name near Ceylon. An anomaly in the Hindoo system they certainly are: learned natives know not whether to rank them among the Shudras or not; some have designated them by the term Uddee Shudra, meaning an inferior branch of the fourth great division. Their principal employments are drawing toddy, dressing the heads of cocoa and other trees, cultivating rice lands, and acting as labourers, horse-keepers, and grass-cutters; they are free from all prejudices that would remove them from Europeans, and do not object to duties which only the lowest outcastes in India will condescend to perform. Some few have risen to respectability and even opulence by trade. They will not touch the flesh of the cow, and yet they have no objection to other forbidden food. They drink to excess, and are fond of quarrelling over their cups. Unlike the Nairs, they are deficient in spirit; they are distinguished from the natives of Malabar generally by marrying and giving in marriage. Moreover, property with them descends regularly from father to son.

Throughout the province a sort of vissalage seems to have been established universally among the Tiyar, occasionally among the Nair tribes. (108) The latter would sometimes place himself in a state of dependency upon some Rajah, or powerful chief, and pay Chungathum, (109) or protection-money, for the advantage derived from the connexion. The Tiyar willingly became the Udian (110) of any superior whose patronage would guarantee him quiet possession of his goods and chattels. This kind of allegiance by no means amounted to slavery. The Tumbooran could not dispose of the person or property of his vassal, nor did the private tie acquit an individual of any public duty to the Rajah or his representatives upon emergent occasions. The patron was on all occasions bound to defend, protect, and procure redress for his client--favours which the latter acknowledged by yearly tribute, and by affording personal service to his superior in private quarrels. To the present day the Tian will immediately say who his Tumbooran is: the annual offerings are still kept up, and though British law entitles all parties to equality of social rights, it must be an injury of some magnitude that can induce the inferior to appear against his patron in a court of justice. Some individuals became vassals of the Pagoda, which, in its turn, often subjected itself to fee a Rajah for the maintenance of its rights and the defence of its property.

The reader will remark how peculiarly characteristic of the nation this state of voluntary dependency is. In European history we find the allodialist putting himself and his estate in a condition of vassalage, but he did so because it was better to occupy the property as a fief incident to certain services than to lose it altogether, or even to be subjected top pillage and forced contributions. But the Asiatic is not comfortable without the shade of a patron over his head; even if necessity originally compelled him to sacrifice half his freedom, habit and inclination perpetuate the practice long after all object for its continuance has ceased to exist.


The Chermur, (111) or serfs of Malabar, amongst the Hindoos, were entirely prædial or rustic. The system of slavery is said to have been introduced by Parasu Rama, as a provision for agriculture when he gave the country to the Brahmans. We may account for it more naturally by assigning its origin and referring its subsequent prevalence to the operation of the ancient Indian laws. The rules of caste were so numerous and arbitrary that constant deviations from them would take place in a large community; and for certain offences freeborn individuals became Chandalas (outcasts), and were liable to disenfranchisement.

Servitude in Malabar offered few of the revolting, degrading, and horrible features which characterized it in the ancient, mediæval, and modern annals of the Western World. The proprietor never had the power of life or death over a slave without the sanction of the feudal chief, or more generally of the sovereign; he could inflict corporeal punishment upon him, but old established custom limited the extent as effectually as law would. Moreover, in this part of the globe serfs were born and bred in subserviency, they had no cherished memories of rights and comforts once enjoyed,--no spirit of independence conscious of a title to higher privileges and indignant at unjust seclusion from them. In their case slavery did not begin with the horrors of violent separation from country and home, the cruelties of a ship-imprisonment, forcible introduction to new habits and customs, food and dress, languages and connections. They were not degraded to the level of beasts, nor were they subjected to treatment of the worst description by strange masters, who neither understood their natures, nor sympathized with their feelings.

A proprietor in Malabar could always sell (112) his serfs with or without the soil, but to remove them far from their homes would have been considered a cruel and unwarrantable measure sufficient to cause and almost justify desertion. Only in some castes the wives of slaves might be sold to another master, and, generally speaking, parents were not separated from their children. (113) They might, however, be let out in simple rent, or mortgaged under certain deeds. The proprietors were bound to feed their slaves throughout the year. The allowance on work days was double the proportion issued at other times, but it was never less than two poinds of rice to a male, and about three quarters of that quantity to a female. In Malabar there have been instances of a Chermun's holding land in lease, and being responsible to government for paying its taxes. In Canara it was by no means uncommon for slaves to have slips of rice-fields, and small pieces of land given to them by their masters for growing fruit and vegetables. When a slave possessing any property died, his owner was not entitled to it, except in cases when no lawful heir could be found. In some places on the coast, (114) and near large towns, the serfs were permitted, when not labouring for their proprietor, to employ themselves in carrying grass, firewood, and other articles to market. On great occasions they expected presents of clothes, oil, grain, and small sums of money whenever the owner was wealthy enough to distribute such largesse. And at harvest time they were entitled to a certain portion of the produce, as a compensation for watching the crop.

There are several castes of serfs who do not intermarry or eat with each other. The Poliur is considered the most industrious, docile, and trustworthy. Proprietors complained loudly of the pilfering propensities displayed by the others. With the exception of the Parayen and Kunnakun tribes, they abstain from slaying the cow, and using beef as an article of food. All are considered impure, though not equally so. For instance, slaves of the Polyan, Waloovan, and Parayen races must stand at a distance of seventy-two paces from the Brahman and Nair: the Kunnakuns may approach within sixty-four, and other servile casts within forty-eight paces of the priestly and military orders.