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Of the London Missionary Society



The Shanars of South Travancore are identical with those of Tinnevelly, who have been so well described by Dr. Caldwell in his monograph published in 1850. Their domestic usages, however, have not hitherto, we believe, been detailed.

The cultivation of the palmyra palm-tree is practised by this interesting race, from which many converts have been made to Christianity. The palmyra yields a sweet sap, from which sugar is obtained; as it is from the sap of many other palms, the sugar-cane, beetroot, and the maple-tree. The sap flows from the unexpanded flowering stem, which comes out at the very top of the tall, mastlike, branchless palm; and to collect the sap the tree must be climbed at least twice daily.

With marvellous agility the climber ascends, just like a monkey, clasping the tree with hands and feet, assisted only by a loop of fibre, seen in the illustration, laid on the man’s head, as his hands are fully occupied. This loop is placed around the feet to hold them together, and enable the toes to grasp the stem more firmly. The crutch-like staff being laid against the tree, the first step upwards is taken upon it. The hands being required for climbing, the vessels are tied to the waistcloth.

The uppermost vessel is a basket made of the spathe of the palm, and this holds the smaller apparatus — a brush, a little lime to prevent the over-rapid fermentation of the juice, and so forth. Besides the staff, the climber holds a pair of wooden pincers for crushing the flower stem slightly, and a knife to trim it daily, in order to make the sap flow freely.

The next is a basket or bucket of palm leaf, plaited double, to hold the juice and carry it down to the bottom of the tree; and the lowest is an earthen pot, holding about a quart, which is suspended to the bleeding flower-stem to catch the sap. The climber’s wife boils the sweet juice into sugar, which she takes to the market for sale.

The work of palmyra-climbing is very laborious, and demands great strength of muscle, incessant practice, and caution to avoid dangerous falls. The more prosperous owners of palm groves rent out the trees, or hire climbers to do the work for them. A hundred palmyras are said to suffice for the support of two families by their produce of sap, sugar, coarse fruits, leaves, fibre, and timber.

Birth. — On such occasions they put margosa leaves (Azadirachta Indica) in the eaves of the house, and keep a lamp lit in the room all night. This is done for sixteen days.

Relatives who visit will bring rice and curry stuffs, but not partake of food in the house during this time of ceremonial pollution. On the sixteenth day all in the house put on clean cloths, and invite the relatives and entertain them. The husband also, who had abstained from shaving from the time he first knew of his wife’s pregnancy, has the whole body shaven from head to foot, and bathes.

When the child’s head is first shaved, the barber pours some milk into a brass plate arid shows it to the relatives sitting near the child — then they put some chuckrams in the plate as a present to the barber; the parents also give him either some money or a palmyra tree, the produce of which he enjoys so long as the tree stands. The ears of children of both sexes are pierced, but those of boys are not enlarged.

The ears of female children are bored at the age of about six months, and the hole barbarously enlarged — first by means of twisted cotton or elastic rolls of palm leaf, then by leaden rings, added one after another till the opening in the lobe of the ear is extended sufficiently to contain a large cylinder of wood or of gold.

Girls in running, are sometimes obliged to hold up the ears with their hands, lest the lobe should break with the weight of the leaden rings; and a cruel husband in anger, or a robber grasping at the golden jewels, is sometimes known to tear the ear-lobe, which has then to be repaired by the native physician, tying it up again until fully re-united and healed. The umbilical cord, being dried in the roof and preserved, and the first hair shaven off the head, are enclosed in a small silver tube and tied round the neck with other ornaments, to ward off the attacks of demons.

When the whole of the hair of the head has grown to such a length as to be tied in a knot, a feast is given to the boy’s maternal uncle, who brings a headcloth, ties four chuckrams in a corner of it, and binds it on the head of the boy.

Betrothal. — After the relatives of a youth have understood that the guardians of a girl will consent to give her in marriage, the former go and confirm the agreement by partaking of food in the house of the latter, and fix the date for bringing the parisa money or donation by the bridegroom to the bride, before proceeding to the house for marriage, along with fruits, fish, and other things. After this is done the bride’s people return the visit. An auspicious day for the marriage being fixed, rice-cakes are made, and a little paddy boiled and beaten, and reserved without a single grain being taken from it, until the marriage day.

Erecting Pandal.— On the day of the wedding a green palmyra-tree is cut, and nine posts are set up in the courtyard of the house. The first post is called “south-west post;” a measure full of paddy, four chuckrams, betel, and arecanut being laid down, the post is set up with drumming, whooping, and rejoicing. Then the other posts are fixed and the roof erected. The measure of paddy and other things along with a pot of boiled rice, will go to the headman of the village.

Food is supplied to the guests. The bridegroom fasts on the day previous to the marriage, but on this day he is shaven from head to foot, and is supplied with food made from the rice auspiciously prepared some time before.

The barber marks the bridegroom’s forehead, puts on him the marriage cloth and gold ornament, and brings him into the pandal, where his maternal uncle will be fed with milk and fruits.

The uncle then sitting on a low seat near the banyan-wood post and next to the “Brahma,” or middle post, a basket of rice, a cloth, cocoanut, plantain, and betel leaf will be laid before him. The bridegroom, too, brings the bride’s tali and cloth and jewels in a wedding basket of special form called pere petti, which the uncle returns into his hands, blessing him, and tying four chuckrams in a corner of his head-cloth. The bridegroom hands the basket, which contains a smaller one for the tali to his sister, who carries it along.

This marriage basket is of considerable significance in the ceremony, and is used by all the makkalvari or true marriage castes, Brahmans, Shanars, Vellalars, Chetties, Barbers, Pariahs, &c., with some diversities in the form of the basket and the details of its use. Pariahs were permitted only to have a single coverless basket in which the wedding cloth would be seen; now being free, they naturally imitate other people.

The Brahman basket has several divisions for rice, betel, saffron, two of their gods, Sivalingam and Tali kiramam (an egg-like idol), in two of the little divisions, with the cloth in the centre and the tali in another small basket.

Shanars and similar castes used the kind of basket plaited of palmyra-leaf represented in the engraving. The chief wedding cloth costs from Rs. 10 to Rs. 30 or more; some use cheaper coloured cloths, or common calico, according to their means. In all marriage baskets there is a smaller one, which contains the tali, along with which they always put three grains of rice and the points of three betel-leaves, without which, they say, the tali would have to fast.

There are also placed in the basket some measures of rice, one or more cocoanuts, seven areca nuts, seven betel leaves, &c., which are to be given to the relatives of the bride. Some castes also keep in it a small vessel of oil.

The marriage basket must be carried only by a sister of the bridegroom — if not his own sister she must at least be a cousin. She carries the wedding-cloth in the basket for clothing the bride, as will be described presently.

Among the fisher caste the custom differs very much. The marriage basket and cloth and tali are provided by the bride or her family, because in that caste husbands are bought by females for so many fanams, and should live in the wife’s village or house. The baskets, &c., are, therefore, sent on the wedding day from the bride’s house to the sister of her bridegroom.

Amongst Sudras, being nepotists,* the custom is quite different; they have no marriage basket. Their girls go through a make-believe marriage ceremony in their childhood. On the marriage day, when the nominal husband leaves his house, his sister puts the cloth in a large brass plate kankalam commonly used by wealthy natives for eating food.

She holds the plate in her left hand and a lighted lamp in her right. That cloth is called mantra kodi — “charm cloth.” (Holding a light near the marriage basket is customary amongst all castes except Pariahs and Pulayars. The higher classes, and rich heathen Shanars, carry it all the way.) The Nayar tali is made in the bride’s house at the expense of her family, costing from three fanams to any sum they may wish to expend. But whatever they may spend on this, the bridegroom pays only one fanam for it; as soon as this is paid, the goldsmith puts the tali in a small wooden or horn box, and it is given to the sister of the bridegroom.

In the Shanar marriage procession, the bridegroom, if possible, rides on horseback, or is carried in a palankeen, holding a cocoanut and a sword in his hands. Before starting for the bride’s house he bows to his parents. All along the way cocoanuts are broken, tom-toms beaten, playing, fencing, and fireworks go on. When nearing the bride’s house, they are met from thence with drums, and the bride’s brothers place a garland of flowers on the neck of the bridegroom. They rub sandal-powder on his forehead, seat him in the place prepared, and offer a slight refreshment of jaggery and water, betel-leaf and areca nut, to his company.

After a few minutes’ rest, his sister, accompanied by some women, enters the bride’s room with the basket and the little vessel of oil. There the bride will be holding two rolls of betel-leaf in her hand, which are taken by her bridegroom’s sister. Then oil is poured on the bride’s head three times (if heathens, prepared saffron is added). After that the bridegroom’s sister invests her with the marriage cloth and jewels brought in the basket. Her parents also receive money for the fees of washer-man, barber, drummer, and other assistants, seven fanams for the village goddess, and five fanams for the village people. The bridegroom’s sister receives, besides the betel-leaf and nut, some money for her aid to the bride.

After the bridegroom has come into the marriage shed, the girl’s female relatives cover the mouth of a large new pot with their hands; and the bride’s mother brings twenty-one measures of paddy and puts into the pot

Tying the Tali. — The marriage badge is a gold bead on a string: the bridegroom holds it on the bride’s neck, and his sister ties it securely. Both persons standing on the marriage board, or plank, the bride’s father causes the man to hold the woman’s right hand. Then a rice-mortar, in which some cotton- seeds and oil are put and set on fire, is carried by the bride-groom’s brother thrice around the Brahma post, the bride and bridegroom following. This completes the marriage.

Both persons are then seated on the board, and a little oil, with a few chuckrams in it, is given into the hand of the husband; this he touches thrice with his fingers, and sprinkles on his wife’s head — she does the same to him. After this, both are clothed with a long cloth, supplied by the washerman, and bathe. Then both are fed from the auspicious rice; the remainder, together with a large quantity of boiled rice and cakes, is used by the relatives.

A little lime and turmeric are mixed, waved thrice round the heads of husband and wife, and thrown away. The bride, paying due obeisance, transfers all the things she brought from her father’s house to the hand of her mother-in-law, who puts a bracelet on, and bids her bow to the salt-vessels, &c. They all eat together, and return to the bride’s house, where also they are entertained.

The following curious estimate of the expenditure in both houses in a Christian marriage of this caste on a respectable scale, is furnished by a native friend intimately and practically acquainted with these matters. It is calculated in fanams = value the seventh of a rupee.

Tobacco brought by the agents of the bridegroom on going to ask the consent of the bride’s parents 1

Feast on receiving these men 6

Tobacco given by the bridegroom’s party to the bride’s on settling the achi panam ‘mother’s money’ 3

Feast on this ocassion, at the bride’s house 5

Tobacco brought by the bridegroom’s party to the bride’s house when paying the achi panam 15

Paid on same day by bridegroom’s family as a sign that both are now connected 41

For the bride’s jewels, from both parties. 464

Feast at bride’s house on same day. 70

Pillapani, jewels given to the bride by her relatives 121

Feast at the bride’s house when writing application for marriage licence 5

Tobacco brought by the bridegroom’s party 2

Erecting marriage pandals, both parties. 95

Betel, &c. distributed to guests as invitation 80

Feast at the bride’s house to those who bring the provisions from the bridegroom’s house. 18

Marriage feast, both parties: - rice, fs. 425; cocoanuts, fs.45. plantains, fs, 115; salt, tamarinds, curry stuffs, fs. 35; vegetables, fs. 32 652

Oil 30

Payasam or pudding of rice, milk, jaggery, cinnamon, ginger, and cumin seed 54

Pappadam cake to eat with curry 14

Alms for Panddrams, Kuravars, &c. 15

Hire of horse, carriage, &c. 14

Hire of gold chains, silver waistbelt, turbans, bracelets, for dressing bridegroom and bride’s brother. 15

Cloths for the bride and bridegroom’s uncles. 17

Cloths and jewels brought by the man for his bride 140

Drumming, shooting guns, singing, &c. 147

Given to the bridegroom by the bride’s father when giving her hand to him 7

Vathilida (door) money to the bride’s mother-in-law 41

Presents of rings, ear-rings, money, &c. by their relatives to the young couple when bidding farewell 210

Cow, brass vessels, &c. dowry given to the bride by her father 160

Given to the bridegoom and his brothers in visiting the bride’s house 40

Feast to them, the same day 35

Marriage fees, &c. 19

Washerman and barber 6

Fs. 2594

Rs. 370½

Pongalpanei. — New pot to boil rice for the Pongal feast From the day of marriage the woman’s parents supply cloth, washerman’s hire, and other expenses to their daughter. Early in January they give notice of this feast to their daughter, and, accompanied by other relatives, visit her, taking with them some money, rice — raw and boiled — tobacco, betel, &c., with pots from three to eleven in number.

At other festivals they invite their daughter and son-in-law to a feast. She is presented also with a spinning-wheel. From her marriage till the first child is born, all her expenditure is supplied from her father’s house, where, also, her first confinement should take place. The parents come in good time to take her home. All these expenses are considered as part of the dowry.

Burial. — When one dies, the body is covered with cloth, and the barber is sent to call the relatives and others, who come and make a great cry; then proceed to prepare the bier and fetch water. They go with beating of tom-toms to the river or tank, walking upon cloth spread by the washerman all the way, the relatives holding a long cloth carried above their heads, with a pitcher for the ceremony on the head of the son of the deceased. This is filled with water, adorned with garlands of flowers, and placed near the dead body, which is then shaved, rubbed with oil, and bathed with the water brought by the villagers, clothed with a new cloth, and incense burned before it.

A small hole is made in the side of the vessel which the son carried; and the water which gushes out is received in a brass cup containing some cotton-seeds, cocoanut blossoms, turmeric, &c.; the cup is then carried round the corpse. Then the nieces and near relatives weep and beat on their chests, and the women put rice and chuckrams into the mouth. While carrying the coffin to the grave, the mourners again walk on cloth spread along.

The coffin is carried thrice round the grave, and the son breaks the pitcher of water at the foot of the body. The males then put rice and money into the mouth, and bury the body in a sitting posture. The barber, washerman, drummer, and other attendants are then paid, the mourners return to the house, where they are sprinkled with salt water, and spend the night in fasting, except that they may take some peas, cocoanut, or betel.

The next day all the rooms of the dwelling are purified with cow-dung, and the people mourn and burn incense. Mourning is continued till the sixteenth day. On the grave, palm-blossoms, tobacco, rice, and fruits are offered by a barber and a pandaram. A small bier is prepared in which some of these articles are put; it is carried to the sea-shore, cut to pieces, and thrown into the sea. A burning wick, with a little flour on a plate, is also sent afloat on the waves. Boiled rice is also placed near the grave, the conch-shell blown, and a cactus, or banyan, or palmyra palm planted for a memorial.

The Devil worship, zealously practised by these people, is minutely described in “Land of Charity,” pp. 189-226. The accompanying illustration represents the bell music used by them. A bow, seven or eight feet long, is fitted with a cord of strong leather, on which are strung a number of bells.

The singers sit down on the floor with the bow before them, and strike on the cord with short sticks made for the purpose; four or five do this in turn. This is a regular study; when lads have finished a course of training, they are considered worthy to sing in the pagodas, and other places, where they get a handsome fee.