The Nayars of Malabar are my newest fascination. It is not a newfound spirit to discover my roots; it is part of a bigger story, which demands reading nothing less than the original accounts by anyone from CA Innes to F Fawcett to good old William Logan.
It has been a delighting and insightful journey so far; the often debatable and definitely inconclusive anthropological and historical anecdotes opening up new vistas for new thoughts, stirring an urge to know more – a desire I thought had died in me, exactly five years back, when I switched from working at newspapers to the backmost yard of a public relations firm.
That bit of work-bitching aside, I believe the ‘Nayars of Malabar’ has been an intensely personal pursuit. I have fallen into a regimen of reading, not the fast-paced page-turner pulp reading, but the slow, laboured, trudging from one page to another.
Perhaps as an offshoot, or quite by coincidence, since the early notes on Malabar also touch through the era of Vasco da Gama and ‘The Pychy Raja,’ the reading also kindled an active interest in Kerala’s own period films (which surprisingly are very few, barring the loud Udaya/Navodaya creations) – from the most -recent Urumi to Pazhassi Raja and the older 1921. Believe me, I even watched ‘Padayottam’ to get a history high.
‘Urumi,’ which the makers conveniently describe as ‘historical fantasy,’ I felt, made a mockery of Kerala’s history – not least with its alarmingly long stretches of creative liberty but also with the blasphemous historical aberrations. Why call it historical on the first place?
I was pleasently surprised to note how the master writer MT Vasudevan Nair based his script of Pazhassi Raja almost dotting every i and crossing every t with such faithfulness to Malabar’s history as narrated by CA Innes, who served in various capacities in the ‘District of Malabar’ under the British Indian Administration.
While the effort to be ‘religiously’ correct is glaring in ‘1921,’ a film directed by IV Sasi based on the script by T Damodaran, to give total credit, Mr Damodaran too follows the Innes narrative to its spirit. The two however differ in the reason for the Mappilla outbreaks.
Innes writes: “The Mappilla outbreaks may be attributed to three main causes, poverty, agrarian discontent and fanaticism, of which the last is probably the chief.” Mr Damodaran largely attributes it to the first two.
The historial fascinations aside, it was new learning for me that probably Malabar was the name given by Arabs – pardon them, therefore when they calls us Malabaris.
Apparently, an Egyptian merchant, Cosmas Indicopleustes, who travelled our land much earlier than Al Biruni (970 to 1039 AD), mentions of the north of Kerala as ‘Male’ which could have led to the name ‘Malabar.’ For Marco Polo, it was ‘Melibar.’
As for Nayars themselves, the mentions of the tribe (or is it community?) go as old as Malabar itself and very conclusively so, as the ‘Nareae’ referred to in Pliny’s (that is 23 to 79AD) accounts, and much later in ‘The Lusaid,’ by Luis de Camoens, who writes:
“Polias the labouring lower clans are named;
By the proud Nayres the noble rank is claimed…”
Nobility be damned.
What definitely endears me to the Nayar culture is the untainted ammorality that our foremothers practiced. Much before Malayalis in general were forced to wear the guilt induced by a foreign moral code propagated by the missionaries, the Nayars set and lived to their own code – sexual and material.
On the flip side, that lands every Nayar from Malabar with an unenvied dilemma: We can never trace back our lineage. Our family tree will never go beyond a few grandmothers. And then we get stuck at this scenario, described eloquently by Innes:
Describing the ancient marriage customs of Nayar women, where the mother must go begging to young men to ‘deflower the girl,’ he notes: “And when she is pretty, three or four Nayars join together and agree to maintain her and to live with her; the more she has the more she is esteemed; and each man has his appointed day from midday to the next day at the same hour when the other comes, and so she passes her time without anyone thinking ill of it.”
The result: Children grow up in their uncle’s care due to the unique matrilineal wealth distribution. For better or worse, they never ever know who their biological father is. (Is it a bad thing after all? Steve Jobs, reportedly, was born to a Syrian, whom he hasn’t met to this day.)
Yes, a bit of bastardisation there.
But there was a reason to it: “The Kings made this law in order that the Nayars should not be covetous and should not abandon the King’s service.”
The Nayars of today are a bit docile; but perhaps in their docility there is a fierce and latent blood of loyalty – a trait that apparently is shared by the Muhairis of the UAE.
Both Muhairis and the Nayars, coincidentally, serve the rulers – to this day, as trusted lieutenants.
(Nayars and Muhairis are but footnotes to the book, ‘A Malabar Sepoy,’ that I dream to write one day.)
(For the Muhairi connection, my gratitude to my friend Giri Nair)