Kerala Religion and Culture
¤ The People
People in Kerala are known to be modest and simple. They are a
curious melange of the natives and those outsiders who chose to make
Kerala their permanent abode.
Aromatic spices, lustrous gems and pearls had enticed many foreign
traders to this land of plenty. The Arabs, Assyrians, Babylonians,
Phoenecians, Israelis, Greeks, and Romans entered Kerala through its
waters, gently adding to the racial stock of the land.
Chinesevisitors too have left their mark on this beautiful landscape.
With their strong and sturdy build, the Syrian Christians stand out in
the crowd. The Muslims, Christians and Jewswho settled in the Malabar
region in the 1st century a.d., mingled well with the Hindu majority
of Kerala and have co-existed peacefully ever since.
The Caste System
By the 8th century a.d., the Aryans had succeeded in introducing the
caste system. Untouchability and casteism were natural fallouts as the
system grew rigid by the day. Innumerable caste divisions yielded the
Pulluvas, Panas, Velans, Malayars, Unni, Pisharotti with further
¤ Major Communities
The Ezhavas form a major community in the state. Tiyyas, a
sub-division of the Ezhavas, came from north Sri Lanka and settled in
the Malabar region. Basically agricultural labourers, they are
traditionally coconut cultivators. Dr. K.M. Panikkar has traced their
origins to Polynesia. Like the Nayars, or the warrior class, the
Ezhavas believe in maintaining a militia to defend their land. But the
Ezhavas, like the Kammallas and Mukkuvas, are avarna, or those who
belong to a lower caste (all those below the Nayars), whereas the
Nayars and the Nambudiris, or priests, are savarna, or those who
belong to a higher caste. The Nayarsare further divided into
¤ Other Important Caste Prevailing In The State
There are other castes like the Velakkittala(barbers),
Velluttetattu(washermen), Chakkalla(oilmongers) and Maran(temple
dependants). The Kiriyamsand Illams served in the houses of the
Nambudiris. The Gurukkal, Panikkarsand Kurupswere designated as
instructors to the Nayarswho underwent training in traditional
gymnasiums known as kalaris. However, the rigidity of the caste system
is being steadily eroded today.
¤ Major Tribes
Western Ghats as well as the coastal plains of Kerala are home to a
number of tribes. The Ooralisare among the few tree-dwelling tribes of
the nation, found around the famous Periyar Tiger Reserve. Not many
trees are used to live in, yet they serve as watchtowers to keep a
check on elephants and boars that stray into the fields. The Mananns,
or expert fishermen, traditionally collect honey from heights usually
abuzz with dangerous hill bees. These fishermen who usually climb at
night to avoid being stung, scale the trees with the help of bamboo
spikes that are hammered into these trees.
The Kadars, Paniyans,Muduvansand the Malayansbelong to the early
Dravidian race and could be found in the hilly tracts. These tribes,
with their flat nose, short stature and dark skin, apparently belong
to the Negrito race.
Among the Irular tribe of Palaghat District, ritual dance and music
accompany death rites.The hill tribes try to appease Maladaivangal,
the Hill God, through a number of rituals that include dancing and
singing, lest they gets wiped out.
The hill tribes do not contribute to the economic mainstream as much
as the Pulayans, Parayans, Nayadisand Ulattans the agricultural
labourers do. A lot of Christian converts are from the Pulayatribe.
Most of the tribes otherwise, belong to the lower castes of society,
employed usually as agricultural or industrial labourers. The Mavilon,
Velan and Koppalan are some of the other tribes of Kerala.
Keralas customs have been handed down the ages, and still
retain their age-old charm.The deep-rooted caste hierarchy yielded
many inhuman practices. Untouchability was one of them. Even the
shadow of the avarna (low caste) was believed to contaminate the
environs. Social reformists such as Sree Narayana Guru and V. T.
Bhattatiripad strove to eradicate such practices in the early part of
the 20th century. The Janmi, or feudal system became synonymous with
As a mark ofrespect to the superior feudal lord, one was to remove
the upper garment and bare the shoulder before being permitted to don
it on again.
¤ Prevailing of Marriage Institution
In the olden days, the institution of marriage or veli allowed for
polygamy and at times, polyandry. The custom of sealing a number of
alliances amongst the tribal Adiyars is practised till date, even
though wedding rituals are performed only during the first alliance.
Kings had the singular privilege of maintaining a number of Nayar
concubines, who lived within the palace, and were paid a regular
maintenance allowance. The rich Nambudiri men followed a similar
custom andpractised sambandham, relationships outside marriage with
Nayarwomen, while their own women strictly practised monogamy, and
moved around under a marakkuta (covered umbrella) and ghosha (veil) in
The Nayarsappeared in public with swords in hand. However, Nayarwomen
were ostracised and even killed by members of their own clan if they
were molested or even touched by the low caste, Pulappedimen, during
¤ A Matrilineal System
During the Chola Wars in the 11th century, menfolk had to be away for
long periods of time. This set the tradition of marumakkathyam, a
system of matrilineal descent, in which the women controlled the
family property. The daughters of female ancestors were entitled to
the tarawad (ancestral home), though the Nambudiriscontinued to
practise the makkatthayam or patrilineal system.
¤ Temple Significance In Kerala
in Kerala are the hub of socio-religious activities. Hindu marriages
are performed in these temples and include rituals such as kanyadanam
(giving away of the bride), panigrahana (holding hands) and sapta padi
(seven steps taken jointly by the bride and bridegroom around the
Other ceremonies that are performed in these temples are the
namakaranam (naming the child), nishkramanam (taking the child from
the house into the open), karnabhedam (piercing the ear) and
vidyarambham (initiating the child into education).
The Dress Code
The simple dress code of the people of Kerala defines their simple
lifestyle. Mostly dressed in white, men wear the mundu, a sarong-like
lower garment that extends well below the knees. Not uncommon though,
is the sight of men who conveniently fold the mundus above the knees
to the right, amongst the Hindus and to the left, amongst the Muslims.
The bordered mundus of the latter are kept in position by a nool, a
waist-string that is often attached to metal boxes containing the
Koran.Such variations may be observed in different castes and regions.
For instance, dhoti, another name for mundu, is worn only by the lower
castes that rarely use the pavamundu (shirt). Even their women never
wore a blouse or a jacket till recently. For the better off, torthu is
a scarf that is worn on the shoulder, especially on festive occasions
such as a wedding. The peasant class wears the thoppi, a cap made of
palm leaves that protects against the burning rays of the sun. The
traditional undergarment is called the Konam or Koupinam.
The White Jew may well be seen walking towards the synagogue in a
richly- coloured long tunic, with a buttoned waistcoat over it, white
trousers, a skullcap and sometimes a turban. Home wear is
uncomplicated; just a coloured loincloth, a shirt and a skullcap.
The simple white dress of malayali women is a sign of their inward
purity, observed Gandhi who was struck by the simplicity of their
The traditional attire of the antharjanam, the Namboodiri women
belonging to the uppermost division of the caste system, is the
pudava, a ten metres long coloured cloth. This is wrapped around the
body in the orthodox style, with portions passing between the legs and
reaching well below the knees. The extreme end of the pudava is held
in the hand, which is also used to hold a large concave palm leaf
umbrella while out in the sun. The women of Chetty, Vellala and
Kusuvacommunities wear the chela, a deep coloured ten-metre wrap.
The presence of Tamils from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu adds
to the variety in the style of dressing. The Tamil women from Kerala
wear the pudava in a style that leaves only four folds on the left
side and the rest of the material is passed between the legs to be
tucked up behind. The remaining portion is wrapped twice around and
carried over the right shoulder, then over the chest that is covered
by a blouse.