History of Kerala: Were matriarchs common in medieval Nair families, as shown in the Malayalam movie Ozhimuri?

Even though I knew Nair families were matrilinear, I assumed they would be still patriarchial, with men (brothers, uncles) controlling their affairs. As seen in the movie ‘Ozhimuri’ were Nair Matriarchs free to choose their paramours/husbands? Did they have choice in regular sambandhams?

Answer by Raakhee V. Menon:

I believe that it’s unfair to classify Nair families and their societal makeup from North to South Kerala under the same umbrella. Unknown to many people outside Kerala, the societies were quite different as one moved from the kingdoms to Malabar to Thiruvithamkoor (Travancore).

The one common aspect that all Nair families followed was that of the matrilineal system of inheritance. As far as ‘prominence’ of the women in the family was concerned, it differed. For instance, in northern Kerala, the women were a lot meeker. They were confined to their homes and looked after the internal matters only. As you have written in your description, the actual family heads were the men of the family…not the men who married the women, mind you. It was the sons of the bloodline who managed the affairs of the house and all their property. My father’s maternal uncle was a Naaduvaazhi or Zamindar. He was a bank manager with Nedungadi Bank back in the days. My father recounts how he used to come to their ancestral home (where my dad lived with his family) every Sunday morning. My grand-uncle worked and stayed at Ernakulam. So he had to take a train to go to Shoranur. It seems there would be a huge crowd of people at the railway station to receive him every Sunday. And as he walked home, the crowd would accompany him and fill him in on the happenings of the week that passed. After he reached home, he would sit at the entrance of the house on the verandah and all the people would come in front of him one-by-one on the front porch and present their issues – he stole my goat, she hit my son, my crop was ruined by this man’s cow, and so on and so forth. And my grand-uncle would conduct the trial there. Nowhere in the vicinity would any other womenfolk of the family be seen, it seems. All of them remained indoors. So while they individually inherited wealth, the women were socially a lot less powerful than their brothers or even their sons for that matter.

But in southern Kerala, the women were socially more influential than their male counterparts. They took decisions and didn’t need a male relative to sanction it. When I watched the movie ‘Ozhimuri’, even I was surprised. I had heard that Nair women chose their partners on their own in some areas, but this was something very new.

I am from Kochi, which lies somewhere almost midway between Malabar and Travancore, socially speaking. So the position of women there was neither as meek as it was in the north, nor was it as powerful as it was in the south. For example, the women didn’t need their brother or son to manage the finances. They managed well enough by themselves. But marriage alliances were fixed by the men of the family. All important decisions were taken after consultation with the womenfolk. So there was a balance. Neither the men not the women felt inferior or superior to the other. One thing that I have observed is that the eldest of the family, be it man or woman, held a position of immense respect. He/she would be informed of every major decision taken in the family and their blessings and approval was sought at every new venture. So we can’t really say that the families were strictly matriarchal or patriarchal. Who held the top position depended solely on their age, not their gender.

And no, the system of excessive sleeping around was also not a common thing in and around Kochi. Even the system of sambandham was uncommon. And ‘ozhimuri’ was a word we all heard for the first time when that movie came out.

So when you talk of medieval Kerala, it’s about several different types of societies that you’re talking about. So there can’t be any one common explanation for whatever was depicted in ‘Ozhimuri’. Scenes like this made me feel sorry for the men…

And this scene where he realizes that he has just been unceremoniously asked to never come back…

But I must say there were moments like these in the movie that made me wish more women thought like her today…

But on the flip side, it was exactly women like the character of Kali Pillai that resulted in an entire generation of frustrated men who rebelled against the system and overthrew it in favor of what it is today…

I guess it would suffice to say that matriarchs and customs like ‘ozhimuri’ existed in some societies of medieval Kerala, but not all. Not all societies treated their menfolk like that. But when the rebellion happened, it affected everyone equally.

There is a funny anecdote people in Kochi say about the nature of women as we move from north to south Kerala. It is said that the fierceness of the women of these regions and the subsequent position of the menfolk is reflected in the pose of the chief idols in three major Lord Vishnu temples in the three regions. In the north, the men stand tall (Guruvayurappan), in the centre, the men are made to sit down (Sree Poornathrayeesan) and in the south, the men are made to lie down (Sree Padmanabhaswamy) 😀 😛


History of Kerala: Were matriarchs common in medieval Nair families, as shown in the Malayalam movie Ozhimuri?


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