Commentary on
William Logan’s ‘Malabar Manual’
The Thiyya quandary


Let me now take up a very intriguing feature seen all around the book, Malabar, where the text has been evidently written or edited or doctored by the Nayars and certain others.

This feature element is this: In almost all locations, where the Thiyyas are mentioned, very evident interest has been shown to mix them up with the Ezhavas of Travancore, and also with many of the very low-castes of Malabar.

Before moving ahead on this route, I would like to mention a few things about Ezhavas. The fact is that until around 1975, when my family moved to Travancore area, I do not think anyone in our family had any information on a caste known as Ezhava. This does not mean that no one in Malabar was ignorant of them. For, there is an Ezhava temple at Tellicherry known as the Jagadnath Temple. Beyond that there are several SN Colleges and other institutions run by the SNDP, which is the leadership organisation of the Ezhavas of Travancore.

The first impression of the Ezhavas of Alleppy was the terrific darkness of their skin complexion. I think it was a very conspicuous item for the individuals who came from Malabar then. As of now, this skin complexion difference has vanished much due to the mixing of populations.

Later on, on getting to know more about the Travancore, it was found that the Ezhavas were in themselves a mixed population, with many individuals fair, some of mixed complexion and some quite dark complexioned. However, they were not at all similar to the Thiyyas of Malabar, especially of north Malabar.

The north Malabar Thiyyas were generally fair, if they were not from the labour class. Labour class persons generally had a darker skin complexion that they had acquired due to constant exposure to the sun. However, it would be clearly noticeable that skin-colour did not have much connection to intellectual and cultural content.

Image of an ordinary North Malabar Thiyya man who was born when Malabar had been British Malabar

A mental quality known as ‘inferiority complex’ or a mood to retract from it using powerful props, was seen in the Thiyyas of the lower classes in north Malabar. I cannot say much about the Thiyyas of South Malabar, who actually were a different population group different from the North Malabar Thiyyas. I do not have much personal experience with them. The higher class north Malabar Thiyyas were quite developed and fashionable. However they also had the same repulsive feelings for the lower-class Thiyyas, as had the higher castes. These repulsions are encoded in the word-codes.

Thiyyas themselves used derogatory words about other Thiyyas. That is, words like Chekkan (lower grade male), Pennu (lower grade female), etc. The point here is that there had been occasions when the Thiyya working class had mentioned objection to the use of these words about them by the richer classes /castes or by the Mappilla rich.

From the inferiority complex sense, the Ezhavas did have more reason for that. For, till 1947, they were more or less kept out of so many statutory rights and functions which were then available to the Thiyyas of Malabar. However, that was due to the English rule in Malabar.

As to the skin complexion issue, it is true that in the Subcontinent, in many locations, a dark skin colour is seen as a negative attribute. However, in Tamilnadu, the people are mostly quite dark. They do not seem to have any inferiority complex due to this, unless they are purposefully compared with a fair-complexioned person. Yet, there also, film starts and successful political leaders have tried to don a fair-skin complexion.

Maybe if the Englishmen had been dark-complexioned, there would have been more appreciation for this skin-colour. For, then, higher quality human attributes like fair-play, honesty, rectitude, sense of commitment, chivalrous mental attribute, English Classics &c. which are generally seen as associated with native-English common standards would have been connected to dark-skin.

However, as of now, in most themes connected to all kinds of heritage and antiquity of the land, the dark-skin complexion is seen mentioned as connected to diabolic and wicked entities. Even in the puranas (epics) of the northern parts of the subcontinent, the heroes (such as Sri Rama) are seen shown as fair in colour. There is another divinity Sri Krishna. By various descriptions, this divine personage should be of dark skin-complexion. However, in almost all pictorial depictions, Sri Krishna is seen as of blue-skin colour. The dark-skin element is avoided.

Speaking about the Thiyyas, there is this thing also to be mentioned. In the Tellicherry location, due to the close connection with English administration and also due to the terrific sense of freedom and social eminence that perched upon the Thiyyas there, corresponding higher features appeared on their personality.

It is simply a matter of a person who had been in the lower indicant word definition suddenly rising up to the higher indicant word definition. It is a social machinery work. That of an ‘Oan ഓൻ’ (Avan അവൻ in Malayalam) population rising to a ‘Oar ഓര്’ (Avar അവര്/ Adheham അദ്ദേഹം in Malayalam) population.

Persons who rise higher in the verbal codes generally display a more softer demeanour and a fairer (or less dark) skin complexion. Learning English also makes a person much softer. It gets reflected in the next generation.

However, this is a comparison of two different population groups, for which actually there is no need for any kind of comparison. For, historically there is no connection between them. There would be practically no family connection other than those achieved by the means of caste-jumping. Caste-jumping is done by any lower caste to a higher or more attractive caste, the moment they relocated to a new location. I have mention about this earlier.

For instance, I have found Ezhavas in Malabar who go about mentioning that they are Thiyyas. However, generally their dark-skin complexion will lend a clue that they have simply changed their caste.

Now, how the Ezhavas came to get connected to the Thiyyas and vice versa might be a very interesting bit of information.

This book, Malabar, in all its positions, other than in the history part written directly by Logan (connected to the written Log book records of the English Factory at Tellicherry), has tried to establish a total connection between the Ezhavas and Thiyyas. However, there is no evidence of any direct intervention by the Ezhava vested-interests in this regard. In fact, there is ample feeling that the Nayars did the work, which the Ezhava leadership sort of desired, on their own.

Since I do not have any historical records with me regarding the origin of the Ezhavas population in Travancore, I will have to take as much as possible from such books as Travancore State Manual, Native Life in Travancore, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Omens and Superstitions of Southern India etc.

The general talk is that the Ezhava came from the Ceylon Island (current-day Sri Lanka). If that is true, then their ancestors are Sinhalese. Traces of Sinhalese language might be found in the Ezhava ancestry. However, the general feeling of Travancore way back in 1970s onward that I personally felt was that the place had a linguistic antiquity of Tamil. The discussion on the languages of the three components of current-day Kerala has to be taken up separately. I will leave that here.

However, it must be mentioned that the Thiyyas of north Malabar did have a language right from the ancient times. This is seen reflected in the Thottam chollal (ritualistic chanting) (തോറ്റം ചൊല്ലൽ) of the Muthappan Theyyams, Vellattaam and Thiruvappana.