NATIVE LIFE IN TRAVANCORE
The REV. SAMUEL MATEER, F.L.S.
Of the London Missionary Society
These are a branch of a great and widespread race of people that occupies South Tinnevelly, Travancore, and the Malabar coast as far as the Tulu country. In the far south on both coasts they are known as Shanars; in Central Travancore as Ilavars; from Quilon to Paravoor, Chogans; in Malabar, as far as Calicut, they are called Teers, or Tiyars; and still farther north Billavars, which appears to be a slightly altered form of Ilavar.
Ilavar, or Eeloover, is derived from Ilam, Ceylon, whence they are said to have immigrated into Malabar, bringing the cocoanut tree along with them.
“The general and natural course of migration would doubtless be from the mainland to the island; but there may occasionally have been reflex waves of migration, even in the earliest times, as there certainly were later on, traces of which survive in the existence in Tinnevelly and the western coast, of castes whose traditions, and even in some instances whose names, connect them with Ceylon.”(Caldwell.)
A few are found in Sivagasi district in Tinnevelly, where they are called Pandi Ilavars, or Panikkars — distillers of arrack — also in Travancore, from Tovala to Velavenkodu. These generally obey the Makkatayam law of inheritance like the Shanars and Tamil people, but they are Malayalis in dress, language, and customs.
In the census of Travancore, the Ilavars are classified with Paravans, Noolians, Thandans, and Shanars, as all ‘’slightly modified forms of the same order of the Hindu community.” The Ilavars proper, however, number 383,017; if Shanars and others of similar standing are added, there are over five lacs, or nearly a fourth of the entire population. Shertala is the stronghold of the Ilavars, as half a lac of them reside in that Talook. Some of their community are among the most respectable ryots in the State. All speak Malayalam, while the Shanars are Tamilians.
In Travancore there are several sub-divisions of the caste, which are respectively held in various social and local estimation. Sometimes the terms by which the higher castes are accustomed to denote them differ from those which they use of one another; and offence may be given by appellations, which are regarded as nick-names.
The Pandi, or Tamil Ilavars, have already been mentioned; sometimes they call themselves Pattanam varikar. The Pachotti, or Pachili Ilavars, are found between Kovelam and Quilon — the Chevannar or Shanar Ilavars, South of Quilon to Anjengo — the Pula Ilavars, very numerous from Neondakara to Cochin, appear to be simply Chagans. Tandans, Panikkans, and Velans are also Ilavars.
Titles of Honour. — The ‘Channan’ amongst the Chevannar Ilavars is the one who conducts marriages and presides at all important ceremonies, for which he receives presents of tobacco, &c. He is the head-man of the village, and the office is hereditary from uncle to nephews.
Panikkar (artificer, an honorific applied to different classes) is used chiefly in the north from Kayenkulam, more particularly to denote a priest of this caste.
The Illam “house or lineage,” is a curious classification amongst this caste, purely Hindu and copied, apparently from the Brahmanic gotras. It may be traced also amongst the Pulayars and the Mukkuvars (the latter are said to be immigrants from Ceylon, and are probably allied to the Ilavars). Persons who belong to the same illam are accounted as brothers and sisters, and may not intermarry, for this would be regarded as incest. These illams, they allege, continue the same from generation to generation; new ones are not established, nor do the old ones die out, while of course the actual blood relationship between the families of an illam is becoming more and more distant.
The illam is counted through the mother. It is an instance of the law of exogamy — marriage prohibited within the clan. “It must be remembered,” says Sir A. C. Lyall, “that in all pure Hindu society, the law which regulates the degrees within which marriage is interdicted proceeds upon the theory that between agnatic relatives connubium is impossible. And as by an equally universal law no legitimate marriage can take place between members of two entirely different castes or tribes, we have thus each member of Hindu society ranged by a law of intermarriage, first as belonging to an outer group, within which he must marry; and secondly, belonging to an inner group of agnatic kinsfolk, among whom he must not marry.”
Amongst the Ilavars this rule is purposeless and very troublesome, sometimes proving quite a check on desirable marriages; even after becoming Christians the prejudice clings to them.
At Mayanadu, a few miles south of Quilon, of which we have particulars, the illams are stated to be Choli, Muttu, Mathinadu, and Madambi, the origin of each of which is traced to Veerabhadran marrying wives of various castes.
The Ilavars there regard themselves as belonging to the second and third of the above illams, and each takes wives from the other illam only. Those of the Madambi illam, they say, are numerous about Trevandrum and Neydttankara, and are said to intermarry amongst themselves sometimes. Muttu appears to mean the “stem” or principal line; Mathinadu to be merely Mayanadu, the name of the locality; and Madambi, the “baron’s”servants.
When marriages take place at Mayanadu between persons of the Muttu and Mayanadu illams, the headman of each is paid five fanams for conducting the ceremony. They also receive a bundle of betel leaves when the pulikuli ceremony takes place on pregnancy; and at the tirandukuli ceremony, on the arrival at maturity of a girl. Various other marks of respect are paid them.
The Muttillam comprises but one class, who are also called Nayan Shanan. There are four subdivisions in the Mayandau illam, viz., Senior Shanan, Junior Shanan, and Ayanthi and Kannankara Shanan, names of places. They say that the title of Channan was obtained from their former rulers by paying a fee to them.
At the temple of “The Five Lords” in Mayanadu (probably the Five Pandu Brothers), a festival is conducted in April for five days by the headmen of the five sub-divisions of illams last mentioned, during which the five nieces or heiresses of these headmen are allowed to carry lamps and walk round the idols inside the temple, while other women can only perambulate on the outside.
The special occupation of the Ilavars is the culture of the cocoanut palm, and the manufacture from it of toddy and ardent spirits, described in another chapter. They are also general agriculturists; some are weavers and boatmen, and a few are petty traders, teachers, priests, doctors, and such like.
They are a pleasant looking, intelligent, and respectable people, the highest of the so-called low-castes, but very bigoted in their superstitions, and strongly attached to their caste usages and high pretensions. At Vakkam men are sometimes supported by their wives, who earn a living by trade. The land in that village is divided into neat little square plots of half an acre, or an acre, each planted with cocoanut trees, and having a neat thatched cottage in the centre.
Customs. — The ceremony called Pulikudi “tamarind drinking,” is observed in the seventh month of pregnancy. For her delivery the woman’s put in a separate room and attended by the midwife. If the infant is a male, the assembled women make the kurava cry; if a female, they strike the earth with the midrib of a cocoanut leaf to remove the fear of demons.
The infant is immediately washed, and totturekka ceremony performed as follows: — A little palm sugar and some onion are mixed in water, and a few drops of this given to the infant by some relative or friend whose excellences, it is supposed, will be acquired by the child. Some give the water of a young cocoanut — others rub a little gold into powder on a stone, mix with water and administer this.
The parents note the exact time of birth as well as they can by the length of their shadow or otherwise, and apply to the astrologer for a horoscope. Regarding the house as polluted by the occurrence, the husband cannot eat food in it for ten days, but goes elsewhere to eat. On the seventh day, pollution is removed by a ceremony performed by the barber woman. She breaks a cocoanut and scrapes it into fine flakes, which she throws about the house.
Women of well-to-do families only go out of the compound on the 28th, or the 40th day, but poorer people go abroad on the seventh. On the eleventh day after the confinement, food is given to the women who had attended on that occasion.
The name is given to the child on the twenty-eighth day. Names are selected by lot, or sometimes the father settles it. Names of deities are usually chosen. On the day the name is given, offerings of boiled rice are made to the god whose name is taken, and a feast is given; an ornamental chain of silver or gold is put on the waist of a boy and a kind of tali on the neck of a girl. Poor people only tie a cotton cord on the waist.
The first rice is given to the infant when six months old, with some ceremony. When the first tooth appears, a kind of sweetmeat called pallada is made of rice, sugar, and cocoanut, and given to the relatives. On the child’s birthday rich parents give alms to the poor, or food to a number of children of their own caste.
Thoughtful parents send their children to school at the age of five or six. Education is begun with the following ceremony : — An edungaly of rice is placed on a smooth floor or plate, and a lamp and a nali measure containing rice, cocoanut, and flowers of Ixora and Jasmine laid close by. The teacher, holding the boy’s right hand, makes him to write on the rice the word Hari (Vishnu).
The rice is given to the teacher, who then writes on a palm leaf a word of praise to the deities and the first sixteen letters, and at the end of the leaf “Hari;”this he gives to the pupil, receiving from him in return some chuckrams as a present. When the boy becomes able to read short words, naryam edukka, “taking the iron pen” is the next step. The teacher writes a line on a palm leaf and hands it to the pupil along with the iron pen, receiving again a present of one or two fanams in a betel leaf. Some parents present beaten rice and plantain fruits to all the children in the school.
Ornaments for girls are made in various forms, as, a leaf of gold or silver tied on the waist, a gold chain round the neck, silver and gold bracelets, a takka or large cylinder for the ears, which last is not worn by those who have become mothers. Some families have large quantities of jewels, which they keep in a box and bring out on special occasions.
Marriage. — Ilavar girls are all married in infancy as a mere form or custom, at various ages, from one to nine. If not so married, the neighbours reproach the parents for their neglect, and exclude them from social privileges. The person who marries a girl in infancy does not afterwards live with her — often it is a near relative who is the nominal bridegroom.
A month before the solemnization of the nuptials, betel and tobacco are sent as a preliminary invitation to the heads of the community as well as to the maternal uncles of the couple, who are immediately consulted about the erection of a pandal or marriage-shed. The materials having been provided and an auspicious day named by the headman, they assemble and erect the shed.
The finishing touches of this work, as trellis, steps, windows, arches, and ornaments, are afterwards given by degrees. In the south-west corner of the pandal, a platform of ‘ stones is made, white-washed, adorned with flowers, and covered with a canopy of red, white and coloured cloths, upon which are fastened lotus flowers and leaves of Ficus religiosa cut in paper. A stool is also placed there covered with silk, upon which caskets, looking-glasses, swords, &c., are placed. A plank is also arranged in the pandal north and south, covered with clean cloth.
To save expense and trouble, several girls are usually married at one time. They are taken to the river to bathe, dress, and put on their ornaments. On returning they are accompanied by the barber-women of their caste, who sing marriage songs, and by men, women, and children of their own people, shouting, blowing snake-horns, and the “five kinds” of music.
At the entrance of the pandal the noisy display is stopped, and the eldest of the brides is prepared for marriage; her face is veiled and she is carried by one of her cousins and seated on the decorated platform, while the other brides are seated upon the boards, having their heads covered with white and red cloths. On the left side of each girl is laid a plantain leaf, and on this a nari measure, an edungaly measure made of the wood of Alstonia sckolaris, and filled with paddy, a brass vessel containing an edungaly of rice, and a clean cloth folded, on which half a cocoanut, containing a little oil and a wick, is placed. A brass lamp is also lit and laid close to each leaf, in addition to silver rings (worth one fanam each) tied with thread.
The barber-woman now places a betel leaf beneath the left elbow of each girl, takes up the ring, and thrice begs permission of the principal men and women, “Shall I tie the bracelet?”
Permission being given she binds it on. Here it may be observed that the barber-women bathe, put on their ornaments, and go to the marriage shed on the day previous to the wedding, where they keep up singing until the hour fixed for the marriage on the following day. On this occasion, the mother of each bride presents a red cloth, while other females present make them gifts of common cloth and money.
Again, the brides’ uncles employ the brothers of the girls who are to be married to furnish a memorandum of the names and birthdays of the brides, with a parcel of betel-nut and tobacco, to the respective bridegrooms’ maternal uncles, by whose permission the bridegrooms retire to some place at a considerable distance, where they have their hair partly cropped or shaved.
After bathing and daubing sandalwood paste over the body in stripes, they put gold bracelets on the wrists and gold beads round the neck, and tie a gold tissue on the red cloth which covers the muslin on the head. They also dress in a white thick cloth, over which is worn a thin muslin, also a gold or silver belt with similarly mounted writing style and penknife. These ornaments are hired for the occasion if not possessed by the family. This is a common practice amongst all castes.
The bridegrooms return to the marriage house in procession with shouting, trumpeting, the five kinds of drums, playing with swords, and other athletic feats. Arriving at the entrance of the pandal, they make a present of four or five bundles of betel to the workmen who erected it. The astrologer then comes forward and announces that the appointed and auspicious hour has arrived.
Instantly the bridegroom of the eldest girl, already sitting on the elevated platform, is taken in and seated by her side, while the other bridegrooms are seated on boards or planks in the shed. The bride sits on the left of her bridegroom. As soon as all are seated, the barber woman, holding in her hand the tali of the girl who is about to be married, and declaring the astral days and the names of the spouses, begs leave of the male and female relatives of the bride, thrice repeating the words, “Shall I take advantage of the lucky hour?”
Permission being granted, she hands over the minnu or tali to the bridegroom, who then ties it on the neck of the girl. Afterwards the mothers of the newly-married couples put into the hands of each bridegroom ten chuckrams, while other guests throw into a brass plate various sums, from five to ten fanams each. A list is then made of the names of the contributors, and the amounts paid in. The barber woman takes, as her fee, one fanam from each bridegroom, and leaves the remainder of the money to the bride’s maternal uncle, who counts and takes care of it.
The married couple remain at this house for a week, and are amused with various athletic performances, which they reward with appropriate presents. On the seventh day, the ring tied up by the barber woman is taken off — the wedding is over, and the bride’s party give to the mock bridegroom 25 fanams and a bunch of plantain fruits, with five edungalies of rice and a suit of cloth, and conduct him back to his home.
When girls thus married in childhood attain maturity, they are usually chosen as wives by a relative who is willing to do so. Then they are sent to his house with the money contributed to each during their first marriage, and in addition, ornaments, brass vessels, cows and she buffaloes, or any other presents her parents may wish to give.
Death and Burial. — In sickness, sorcerers are consulted, who divine that a certain demon is provoked, and must be pacified by offerings of rice, flowers, fowls, &c. For rendering this service he is paid. Vows are also made to various deities. Sacred ashes are sometimes thrown on the patient, with the promise that he shall recover.
The ceremonies after death vary according to the means and circumstances of the parties. Notice being at once given to relatives and neighbours, both men and women visit the remains. The body is washed and laid on a cot looking north and south. Before washing the dead, the Tandan is sent for, who constructs a shed of cocoanut palm leaves in the yard; the corpse is laid there immediately after washing, and the vaykkari, or “putting of rice into the mouth” performed.
The barber takes some paddy, beats it free from the husk, mixes with it some scraped cocoanut and keeps the mixture ready in a cup. He presides over the ceremony. The children, nephews, and other relatives of the deceased, come forward one by one, and each puts a small pinch of the mixture into the mouth of the corpse. Afterwards the nephews and others put new cloths on the body, which cloths, together with the earrings, &c., of the dead, become the perquisites of the barber himself.
While the vaykkari ceremony is being performed, offerings are laid in the shed, and the relatives cry and mourn. The offerings consist of a nari measure of paddy, flowers, and tender cocoanuts. A lamp is also kept burning. This shed remains for seven days, during which time there is daily mourning. The body is buried, either wrapped in mats, or enclosed in a coffin. But if the deceased had been distinguished for wealth, social position, or great age, the remains are burnt.
The grave is generally dug in the compound, and on the south side of the house. Relatives alone bear the body to the grave. They carry it seven or eight times round the grave before lowering and burying it. Afterwards a tender cocoanut is placed at each end of the grave, and some green leaves on it lengthways. A cocoanut tree is also planted on the spot, which is afterwards called “the burning ground cocoa-tree.” If the corpse has been burnt, a lamp is kept burning at each end of the grave, instead of the young cocoanuts.
On the sixteenth day is the pulakuli or “purification” ceremony, when the caste people are invited, and comparatively large sums spent by wealthy Ilavars on sumptuous entertainments. Bundles of betel-leaf are presented to the principal guests on leaving, and they are thanked for their attendance. To indicate that the “pollution” is over, the barber sprinkles milk in the house.
We may here observe that the barber attends in various ways. At feasts, for instance, it is his office to remove the plantain leaves which have served the guests as plates. Should he publicly refuse to take away the leaf, it is considered a most bitter and degrading insult.
The graves of virgins dying young are used as places for worship, some tree, such as pala (Alstonia scholaris) being planted over the grave, and a lamp kept burning. Pregnant women dying are supposed to become demons, and are, therefore taken for burial to some distant and lonely jungle, and mantrams repeated over the grave to prevent their spirits from returning to injure people.
Those who die of fever are supposed to become Maruthas, and are buried inside the house, mantrams being said over them also, to hinder their attacking the survivors. This miserable superstition is common amongst all classes, and the grief of a bereaved husband is often sorely aggravated by the thought that the future destiny of the beloved wife is that of an evil spirit, and that he should have to hear continually stories of her making frightful appearances and possessing others.
The nepotistic law of inheritance is, to a considerable extent, followed by this caste. Those in the far south being more closely connected with the Tamil people, their children inherit.
Amongst the Ilavars in Trevandrum district, a curious attempt is made to unite both systems of inheritance, half the property acquired by a man after his marriage and during the lifetime of his wife going to the issue of such marriage, and half to the man’s nepotistic heirs.
In a case decided by the Sadr Court, in 1872, the daughter of an Ilavan claimed her share in the moveable and immovable property of her deceased father, and to have a sale made by him while alive declared null and void to the extent of her share. As there was another similar heir, the Court awarded the claimant a half share, and to this extent the sale was invalidated.
Their rules are thus stated by G. Kerala Varmman Tirumulpad : —
“If one marries and ‘gives cloth’ to an Ilavatti (fem.), and has issue, of the property acquired by him and her from the time of the union, one-tenth is deducted for the husband’s labour or individual profit; of the remainder, half goes to the woman and her children, and half to the husband and his heirs (anandaravans),
“The property which an Ilavan had inherited or earned before his marriage devolves solely to his anandaravans, not to his children.
“If an Ilavatti has continued to live with her husband, and she has no issue, or her children die before obtaining any share of the property, when the husband dies possessing property earned by both, his heirs and she must mutually agree, or the caste-men decide what is fair for her support; and the husband’s heir takes the remainder.”
Demon worship, especially that of Bhadrakali, a female demon described as a mixture of mischief and cruelty, is the customary cultus of this caste, with sacrifices and offerings and devil-dancing like the Shanars. Shastavu, and Veerabhadran are also venerated, and the ghosts of ancestors. Groves of trees stand near the temples, and serpent images are common, these creatures being accounted favourites of Kali.
They carry their superstitions and fear of the demons into every department and incident of life. In some temples and ceremonies, as at Paroor, Sarkarei, &c., they closely associate with the Sudras.
The Ilavar temples are generally low, thatched buildings, with front porch, a good deal of wooden railing and carving about them, an enclosure wall and a grove or a few trees, such as Ficus religiosa, Plumieria, and Bassia.
At the Ilavar temple near Chakki, in the outskirts of Trevandrum, represented in the illustration, the goddess Bhadrakali is represented as a female seated on an image, having two wings, gilt and covered with serpents. Twice a year fowls and sheep are sacrificed by an Ilavan priest, and offerings of grain, fruit, and flowers are presented. The side-piercing ceremony is also performed here.
A temple at Mangalattukonam, about ten miles south of Trevandrum, at which I witnessed the celebration of the annual festival on the day following Meena Bharani, in March or April, may be taken as a fair example of the whole. In connection with this temple may be seen a peculiar wooden pillar and small shrine at the top, somewhat like a pigeon-house. This is called a tani maram, and is a kind of altar, or residence, for the demon Madan, resembling the temporary shrines on sticks or platforms erected by the Pulayars. On it are carvings of manyheaded serpents, &c., and a projecting lamp for oil.
For the festival, the ground around the temple was cleared of weeds, the outhouses and sheds decorated with flowers, and on the tanimaram were placed two bunches of plantains — at its foot a number of devil-dancing sticks. Close by were five or six framework shrines, constructed of soft palm leaves and pith of plantain tree, and ornamented with flowers. These were supposed to be the residence of some minor powers, and in them were placed, towards night, offerings of flowers, rice, plantains, cocoanuts, and blood.
The Ilavars who assemble for the festival wear the marks of Siva, a dot and horizontal lines on the forehead, and three horizontal lines of yellow turmeric on the chest. They begin to gather at the temple from noon, and return home at night. Over five hundred persons attend on this occasion — formerly many more came.
The festival lasts for five days. Some of the neighbouring Sudras and Shanars also attend, and some Pulayars, who pay one chuckram for two shots of firework guns in fulfilment of their vows. Offerings here are generally made in return for relief from sickness or trouble of some kind. The pujari or priest, is an Ilavan, who receives donations of money, rice, &c.
A kind of mild hook-swinging ceremony is practised. On the occasion referred to, four boys, about fifteen or sixteen years of age, were brought They must partly fast for five days previously on plain rice and vegetable curry, and are induced to consent to the operation, partly by superstitious fear, and partly by bribes. On the one hand they are threatened with worse danger if they do not fulfil the vows made by their parents to the devi; on the other hand, if obedient, they receive presents of fine clothes and money.
Dressed in handsome cloths and turbans, and adorned with golden bracelets and armlets, and garlands of flowers, the poor boys are brought to present a little of their blood to the sanguinary goddess. Three times they march round the temple; then an iron is run through the muscles of each side, and small rattans inserted through the wounds. Four men seize the ends of the canes, and all go round again in procession, with music and singing and clapping of hands, five or seven times, according to their endurance, till quite exhausted.
The pujari now dresses in a red cloth, with tinsel border, like a Brahman, takes the dancing-club in hand, and dances before the demon. Cocks are sacrificed, water being first poured upon the head; when the bird shakes itself, the head is cut off and the blood poured round the temple. Rice is boiled in one of the sheds in a new pot, and taken home with the fowls by the people for a feast in the house.
At Mayanadu, the Bhagavathi of the small temple belonging to the Ilavars, is regarded as the sister of the one worshipped in the larger temple used by the Sudras, and served by a Brahman priest; and the cars of the latter are brought annually to the Ilavars’ temple, and around it three times before returning to their own temple. At the Ilavars’ temple the same night, the women boil rice in new earthen pots, and the men offer sheep and fowls in sacrifice.
In further illustration of the strange superstitious practices of this tribe, two more incidents may be mentioned.
An Ilavatti, whose child was unwell, went to consult an astrologer, who informed her that the disease was caused by the spirit of the child’s deceased grandmother. For its removal he would perform various incantations, for which he required the following, viz. : — Water from seven wells, dung from five cowsheds, a larva of the myrmeleon, a crab, a frog, a green snake, a viral fish, parched rice, ada cake, cocoanut, chilli, and green palm leaves.
An Ilavan, who had for some time been under Christian instruction, was led away by a brother, who informed him that if he built a small temple for the worship of Nina Madan and offered sacrifices, he should find a large copper vessel full of gold coins hid underground and under the charge of this demon.
The foolish man did so, and dug to the depth of eighteen feet, but did not find a single cash. Now the lying brother avers that the demon will not be satisfied unless a human sacrifice is offered, which, of course, is impossible.
Ilavar converts form a proportion of the congregations under the care of the London Missionary Society. Through the labours of the Church Missionary Society, also, in the north, some thousands of the Chogans have been converted to Christianity; this work commencing about thirty years ago. Various little difficulties arose from the peculiar laws of marriage (or rather concubinage) and inheritance observed by the Chogans.
Some of the daughters of the converts were claimed and taken away by their uncles as the legal guardians: heathen nephews a’so made complaints that their Christian uncles had gone mad! Generally the difficulty was met by the Christians at once dividing their property equally between children and nephews.
The heathen relatives also attempted to remove the children, or prohibit their baptism, on the ground that, according to Travancore law, a father has no right to his own children among Hindus below Brahmans. The right of Christian converts to walk on the high road and enter public markets and streets was also discussed, the Brahmans and Nayars objecting to this, but the point was at last carried, as mentioned in our chapter on Caste.
Yet such is the corrupting influence of caste prejudice, that it was equally necessary to warn a few of these Christian converts against attempting to carry out the same unjust and cruel prejudices against Pulayar Christians. In 1877, some of the latter wished to attend the church at Arpukara near Cottayam, but the Chogan Christians appealed against this to the Bishop of Madras on the ground that they would lose some employment and advantages in their work for Nayars if they were obliged to mingle with Pulayars every Sunday, and threatening to secede if they were obliged to do so.
An admirable reply was given by the Bishop, explaining the spiritual principles of the gospel, the duty of brotherly kindness to the longdespised Pulayars, and the impossibility of Christianity adapting itself to heathenism; at the same time, enjoining the Pulayars to attend divine worship clean in person and dress, in order that no reasonable cause of offence should be given. The Chogans were displeased, and held worship separately for a time; but being judiciously advised, they returned by degrees, and all goes on well now.
Chogans sometimes have a few stones around a tree in the front of the house to represent the spirits of their ancestors, and perform certain ceremonies in their honour every year.
Valans are the most degraded branch of this tribe in Travancore, whose social condition demands special consideration and improvement. They are found at Shertala, Vaikkam, Paravur, and other places on the banks of the great backwaters in the north. They are sometimes called “fishing Arayans,” though not very appropriately, seeing that they have no connection with the Hill Arayans, their headman only being called arayan or chieftain.
Through ages of oppression by the native rulers these unfortunate people are virtually in a state of slavery, out of which it is impossible for them to redeem themselves, being unalterably bound by the system of government impressment for forced labour to their present residences, employments, and status. They are commonly regarded as lower than Ilavars and Chogans, but their manners and customs and laws of inheritance show them to be of the same origin.
The Valans have no fields or lands of their own, but like Pulayars and Kuravars build their wretched huts on the lands of the Nayars or Chogans, so that they may be dispossessed at any moment. Their food is scanty, and never includes eggs, milk, or rice cakes. Their dress is unclean and poor, the children going quite naked, and often suffering from indigestion, worms, and other diseases; while the parents are so ignorant that they do not even know the use of such a simple remedy as castor oil. They fear also to go to the Sirkar hospitals, which, indeed, are scarcely for the low castes. Very few have learnt to read, and those only in Christian schools.
Through extreme poverty their women do not, like Ilavar females, wear ornaments of gold. Their usual dress is the waist cloth and a small cloth on the shoulders, not covering the breast.
When the Valans converse with high caste people, they must use the old terms of humiliation and self-depreciation. Too many of them waste their earnings on drink. They “give cloth” for concubinage, and, therefore, change their partners often, like ‘other such castes.
The men fish only in the backwaters, not in the sea, using large nets which catch the fish at the ebb and flow of the tide as it affects the lagoons, and raising the nets nightly to gather the fish. The most they get at a haul is eight or ten chuckrams’ worth. The nets are made of cotton thread, and repaired by themselves, one being the work of two or three months, and lasting for three years.
Their tradition to account for this employment is that while Parameswara and Parvathi were crossing a brook, a ring which the former wore fell into the water. From the thigh of his wife the god created a man, who went into the water and brought up the ring. This man and his descendants thus became a race who make their living by labouring in the water. Sometimes they do a little cultivation, and the women eke out a livelihood by spinning coir yarn, buying the green husks from the farmers.
They have a few small temples of Bhagavathi, in which Valans officiate. They dread demons, some of whom, as “Water Giant” and “Up to the Skies,” seize people maliciously. Some are driven by their oppression into the Roman Catholic or Syrian communities.
Those who live at Tannirmugham Customs Station have to be ready at a moment’s call to examine boats passing, in order to detect opium or other smuggling. If the peons are sleeping, or at their food, boatmen must just wait. The Valans are also employed for rowing, the boats of government officials, for which they’ receive the usual hire — six cash per man per mile.
Their headman is called Arayan, and has a sword of honour presented by the Rajah. He lives at Chembil. When the Maharajah travels by water, it is the business of the Arayan to collect his people in snake boats for the procession in front of and behind the royal cabin boat. On such occasions the rowers are provided with food from the Ootooperahs, but of course cannot enter; they eat at a distance. The headman has an allowance from the Sirkar. While rowing, the Valans sing portions of the Ramayana in Malayalam, keeping time very well. They are great at boat-racing.
One class amongst these people are called Marakkans: their employment is similar; but Valans do not take food from a Marakkan’s house, and the two never intermarry.
Large numbers of these Valans are impressed by the Sirkar for the purpose of guarding the custom houses, salt warehouses, and excise stations; and rowing the canoes of the superintendents, inspectors, and peons whenever they go out on duty by water. Though the number daily required may be but one or two hundreds, yet the pressure affects the whole class, as each man has to serve a certain number of days by rotation, and each village is indented on for its quota.
The apology usually made for this is that these people enjoy free the right of fishing in the backwaters. But this indulgence is free in every part of the country, and the poor Valans have been so long and so effectually crushed down and hindered from agricultural pursuits, that they are now entirely dependent on their fishing and daily labour.
This system of forced labour is as oppressive as it is injurious to the industry of the poorer classes, and is of little real benefit to the State. The work indispensably required should be done by regular paid rowers and watchmen, and by the government servants to whom it legitimately belongs; and the Sirkars have now abundant means at their disposal for this reform.
It only needs more consideration for the sufferings of the poor, and an awakening to a sense of the great injustice perpetrated on this class. We trust that this much-needed reform will be carried out during the reign of the present Maharajah: it is rather surprising that it has not been effected long ago.