NATIVE LIFE IN TRAVANCORE
The REV. SAMUEL MATEER, F.L.S.
Of the London Missionary Society
“THIS is the most numerous class of the Hindu community. There are numerous sub-divisions among them, and sometimes the distinctions are so nice and capricious that the men and women of one house will not eat meals prepared by the members of another, nor sit for eating together in the same row, though they do not object to eat in the presence of those others, or sit with them in different rows.
The members of this community are sometimes called Nairs (Nayars), which is a title of distinction, and cannot be indiscriminately applied to all the classes among them. The principal sub-divisions included under this head are thirty-four.” (Census Report.)
The Sudras are generally a cleanly and respectable people, residing in their own houses, on the banks of the rice fields which they own, and cultivate by the aid of the low caste labourers. Many are employed in the service of government, and some of the poorest of them are day labourers ; but scarcely any are engaged in trade or shopkeeping. They are a home-keeping people : rarely do native-born Malayalis visit other countries.
Their strange laws of marriage and inheritance being fully discussed in the chapter on Nepotism, a few notes on domestic manners will here suffice.
Malayalam Sudras are careful to pay much respect to aged relatives. Nephews will not sit down in the presence of their uncles, but stand with the left arm crossed on the breast and the right hand over the mouth ; or, at least, sit on a lower seat or level Sudras meeting Brahmans adore them, folding both hands together ; the Brahman, in return confers his blessing by holding the left hand to the chest and closing the fingers.
Friends are invited to a feast, not by sending betel-leaf, as the low castes do, but by going in person. Guests are first served with water to wash the hands and face ; then different kinds of curries, rice, fruits, sweetmeats, and salt are served on plantain leaves. The leaves used for plates by officials and influential men are removed by maid-servants : other persons carry out their own. Usually the first polite inquiry concerning health is- “How is it that you are so much reduced?
‘’ Men are not accustomed to cover the body above the waist ; so also females when in the house, but when going out they cover the bosom with a piece of light white cloth, which is sometimes a costly article, having a border of gold thread. They wear many ornaments, and the hair done up in a kind of chignon on the lift side of the head.* Women are fond of swinging while they sing songs ; dancing and plays are much liked.
On a journey, wealthy people are attended by men-servants carrying a brass betel-box, drinking vessel, fan, and provisions. Before partaking of a meal, they always bathe and put sacred ashes on the forehead : some also repeat the praises of Rama. They eat from brass or earthen vessels, sitting on the ground : after eating, the place is swept and purified with cow-dung. At some special feasts women are first served, then the men, the food being distributed by men. Some wealthy Sudras employ Brahmans to cook for them at feasts, according to the Brahman mode: food cooked by them may be eaten by all classes. Sudras do not eat beef, but mutton, poultry, &c.
Their barber women, having some experience, officiate as midwives. If a male child is born, they utter the kurava cry ; if a female, they beat on the ground three times. The name is given on the twenty-seventh day, with offerings to Ganesha. The mother sits down with the child, and whispers the name chosen by the father in its ear; then the midwife takes the child, and calls the name aloud before all assembled. At six months old the “first rice” is given with due ceremonial ; also, on a girl’s attaining maturity a festival is held for four days. The tali marriage and the “giving of cloth” are described in the chapter on Nepotism.
In the seventh month of pregnancy the pulikudi, “tamarind drinking,” ceremony is held. The woman is sent to her parents’ house, and on an appointed day the husband takes, according to his means, rice, cocoanuts, plantains, and seven pots full of sweetmeats to her house for offerings, called pongala.
On that day rice is offered in seven pots. Afterwards the woman goes to the house of one of her cousins, and brings a plant of the tamarind tree, and some plants of Sida retusa and Achyranthes aspera in a pot to the front yard of the house where she is to be delivered. She stands on a piece of plank facing the Sun; and a Maran takes the juice of some leaves of the pinaru (a gamboge tree, Garcinia Roxburghii) and of the Sida, which he gives into the hand of one of the woman’s cousins. The woman takes this acid juice in her mouth, and spits seven times. Some of the offerings are given to the Maran.
Sudras have no priests but Brahmans. Some, however, begin to entertain and to show great aversion to Brahmans on account of their profession of superiority, and probably really superior force of intellect. This dislike seems rather on the increase, amounting at times to bitterness and jealousy.
Some classes of Sudras, who may eat together, do not intermarry.
“The Nair’s house almost invariably faces the east, which long-established custom and superstitious belief enjoin. Every house has in addition to the pumukham, or building over the gateway used for more public purposes, a tekkathu, “southern shed,” which is generally dedicated to the presiding deity of the house, and is kept neat and clean, and without any furniture or household utensils, except a brass lamp which is lighted up every evening. The place is looked upon with reverence by the inmates of the house, who do not enter it except after purifying themselves by a bath, which is generally done by dipping into cold water.
“The Brahman visitor of the family retires to the tekkathu for purposes of meals and drink. The spacious open yard enclosed by this cluster of buildings, so useful for drying paddy, grain, peas, and other annual stores, is kept scrupulously neat, the floor having been first hardened and made smooth by a solution of cow-dung and charcoal, which is often repeated during the hot weather.
The master of the house, most probably an old Proverty accountant or a pensioned Tahsildar, not noted for over-scrupulousness while in office, but now in affluent circumstances and respectable old age, sits in the pumukham, or porch-house, chewing away the tender betel and the narcotic tobacco, or beguiling the hours of the afternoon with anecdotes of his early prowess, achievements, and successes ; while the religious books of his family, the time- honoured Ramayana and Mahabharatha, alternately engage and exact his time and attention.”*
* Census Report, p. 123