NATIVE LIFE IN TRAVANCORE
The REV. SAMUEL MATEER, F.L.S.
Of the London Missionary Society
The total population of this class numbers close upon 140,000, scattered all over the country, most thickly near the coast, but very few in Yettumanur and Cottayam districts, where they form less than one per cent, of the inhabitants. With few exceptions, they have no acquaintance with Hindustani, but speak the vernacular of the country in which they live. The Hindustani speaking families come from North India, and comprise, in all, 2,844 persons.
Most of the men wear only the ordinary native waist-cloth; and for full-dress a cotton jacket or long coat. They are fond of coloured handkerchiefs and cloths, and often carry about with them a China paper umbrella. A skull-cap is to some extent a distinctive mark, as joining their religion is usually called “putting on the cap.” The beard is worn, not shaven like the Hindus.
Women dress in the ordinary Malayalam cloth and jacket and upper-cloth, as is well shown in the accompanying copy of a native drawing. Foreign Muhammadans retain their own respective national costumes. The features of the latter are, of course, Arabic or Jewish, while those of most of the native Mussulmans are Indian. Islamites in creed, they are almost Hindus in person.
In the census Muhammadans are divided into seven classes, of which three are insignificant in numbers in Travancore, viz. : — Two or three thousand MOGHULS, who should be descendants of the Tartar chiefs who followed Tamerlane into India; six or seven hundred Arabs, who came over as horsedealers, traders, &c.; and over eight hundred Sheiks (or Shaikhs), who profess to be the descendants of the immediate friends and followers of Muhammad, though the title (which means “an old man,” especially one who has authority and respect) is given to any one who is learned and clever. Besides these, there are some fifteen thousand persons belonging to other minor sub-divisions.
Of the four principal classes, the first are Pathans (Pattanis) or Afghans, adventurers and settlers of that nation, chiefly descendants of sepoys retained by the Rajahs of Travancore. They number over three thousand, and are generally poor and unimportant.
Syeds are descendants of the prophet through Ali and Fatima his favourite daughter. Yet, mingled with other blood, they marry whatever women they choose, but do not give their females to others. Those who so classify themselves number over six thousand.
LUBBAYS (Labi or Lebbe) are about 18,000 in number. The term is of doubtful origin. Some trace it to the Arabic labek “may it please you,” used by servants to their masters. Many of these reside in Trevandrum and on the coast southwards. They speak chiefly Tamil, and are of mercantile habits. They are of mixed parentage, being descendants of Arabs and natives. But the proportion of Arabic blood is exceedingly small; they are but a mongrel breed of circumcised Hindus.
From various words in use amongst them, and ornaments worn in South Travancore, some suppose that a large proportion of them were formerly Shanars converted, not recently, but centuries ago.
Bishop Caldwell says, “Muhammadan Arabs seem to have settled first on the Malabar Coast in the ninth century, and thence to have spread to the eastern coast and Ceylon. Their principal settlement on the eastern coast is Kayalpattanam in Tinnevelly. Heathen Arabs, that is, the Sabaeans of Southern Arabia, frequented the coasts of India long before, following the lead of the Greeks.
The mixed race consisting of the descendants of those Arab merchants are called Mapillas on the western coast, Lebbies on the eastern. By the Tamil people they are generally styled Tulukkar (Turks) or Jonagar (Yavanas?). Their ordinary title is Maraikan or Marakan, a word which means steersman, implying that they were first known as sailors, which doubtless is correct”*
Mettan, a term of respect used to these people, appears to be the Mahratta “mehtar’ a common designation for a hereditary village officer, or the head of a business or a caste, who used to exercise considerable authority over the others. It was once a title of honour given by the Rajah to the chief Muhammadan at Powar and others : now every man is politely called Mettan.
The TULUKKANS should scarcely be classed as distinct from the preceding, being also the descendants of Arab immigrants by the Indian women, but more closely connected with those on the East Coast. The great body of the Mussulmans of Travancore, say over 110,000, come under this head.
Here, as in British India, the Muhammadans stand low in education and attainments. Of the two classes last-mentioned, about eight and a half per cent, of the males, but only eighty-four females in all, can read and write. They have little taste for education, scarcely a single school or publication of their own, and few who learn English.
In this Hindu State there are no nobles amongst them. In Government service 384 persons are employed, chiefly Tulukkans and Pattanis, mostly in the humble position of peons or policemen. About a fifth of the whole body are cultivators; one-fifth traders; a tenth are labourers; a few are weavers, men of property, &c. Though rather stubborn and troublesome, they are persevering and industrious. Females are not allowed to enter a place of worship, of which restriction we have known some complain in view of the liberty of Christian women; but they are not secluded as in some parts of British India.
The better class of Muhammadans are extremely polite and hospitable. In Alleppey the houses of the Cutchmen are large and roomy, but close and dirty. On entering the archway leading to the courtyard in order to pay a visit to such, the old and hale householder may generally be seen sitting tailor fashion, and propped up with pillows. If word is sent beforehand, the visitor is honourably received. Two men appear with bottles of rosewater who completely drench him, his hands are filled with cardamoms and cloves, and on rising to take leave, a bottle of otto of roses is put into his hand as a parting gift.
They, of course, avoid pork and other forbidden food, but may eat beef if it be killed with the requisite ceremonies. They are very loose in their moral principles and in their attendance at mosques and observance of religious rites, yet superstitious and even heathenish in common life, and bigoted against all others, though they understand very little of their own religion and do not care to learn more. The ignorance of their youth even in their teens is sometimes remarkably dense, of which an amusing instance is given by Mr. Yesudian.
In examining a new class in the Tamil First Book and endeavouring to test their general knowledge, he questioned them as to the various points of difference between, say, an ox and a dog, and then said, “You have told me that the tail of an ox is useful in driving away the flies that annoy it — would it not be a desirable thing if we likewise were provided with tails?” This they all answered in the affirmative.
Then he required them to tell, one by one, what number of tails they would like to have. The first boy said he would like to have one tail; the second boy, two tails; the third boy, three; and the fourth, as if desirous of excelling them all, said he would have four tails. On this the whole school burst into loud laughter. Then the fifth boy said with some hesitation, “we do not require a tail;” and some of the silk weaver boys said, “we have hands instead,”. On being interrogated as to the reason for their giving such ridiculous answers, they said it was because they had not previously learnt anything of letters.
Circumcision they call marga kalyananam “religious rejoicing;” it is performed on children of five to eight years of age according as money is available for the feast. It is not done in infancy, “lest it should grieve them — a little older, they know what it is.” Children think the rite an honour and submit. The barber operates. Several boys are generally circumcised at one time and in one house, with prayers by the Lebbe, all the neighbours being invited, and spending the night without sleeping, at watch over the children, feasting, talking, singing songs, and playing games. Feasting and rejoicings are continued for a week.
Wedding processions are conducted with as much display, and the festivities continued as long as can be managed. The bridegroom is richly dressed and adorned, and the accompanying party join in a chant as they proceed. Some marry their children in infancy, which is contrary to their law.
As might be expected from the views and practice of Islam and the Malayalam examples around them, the Muhammadans are very dissolute and sensual. Not many, however, can afford to keep more than one wife. Divorce is not infrequent. The wife must first be warned, then may be beaten, then put away for a few days; then finally divorced by repeating the tallah or formula for the occasion. After two months she is at liberty to marry another person.
The Muhammadan law of inheritance is extremely difficult and intricate, but rarely claimed to its fullest extent in Travancore. Indeed, they seem to have little knowledge of their own laws of inheritance, frequently talking of the “undivided family,” and other Hindu customs and rules which they are familiar with, and look upon as applicable to themselves as a matter of course.
When suffering from sickness, the patient is not only treated with medicines for his recovery, but is given holy water, over which the Tangal or priest has repeated texts and prayers. If death seems near, his face is turned towards Mecca, he repeats the creed, and the 36th chapter of the Koran is repeated for the consolation of the dying man.
At death, the eyes are closed by the attendants, and the legs stretched and tied together with a band of cloth. Relatives are immediately informed, and friends flock in to the funeral, which is conducted as soon as they can arrange. The Lebbe is sent for and the bier brought, the attendants served with betel-nut, and the body bathed and dressed for removal to the cemetery adjoining each mosque. The remains of widows are always clothed in white; those of wives whose husbands survive, in red cloths of silk and other materials.
To follow a bier on foot to the grave is an obligation incumbent on good Mussulmans. During the funeral procession from the house to the burial-ground, the Lebbe repeats certain plaintive songs, the others joining in at intervals repeating the kalima or creed. The body is not carried inside the mosque, but taken near it, and the prayers repeated. Coffins are never used; the corpse being only wrapped in cloths and laid on mats.
After the prayers, it is lowered into the grave, and each puts in seven clods of earth, repeating a text in the Koran, cap. 112. “We created you of earth, and we return you to the earth. We shall raise you out of the earth on the day of resurrection.” The grave is dug north and south, and the body buried with the face towards Mecca; poor people place two stones at the ends, while the rich erect tombs and monuments, or a canopy of cloth over the grave.
After the funeral all return to the house of mourning, chew betel, and then go home. For forty days after the interment, a lamp is kept burning day and night. On the second day fruits and flowers of various kinds are made ready at the house; and the Lebbe and others again attend, when the priest performs other ceremonies, takes the articles to the burial-ground, and again repeats texts and prayers for the remission of the sins of the deceased. This over, all the articles are distributed amongst those present.
On the tenth, and on the fortieth days, feasts are made for the friends; and special ceremonies performed at the expiration of twelve months after the death, all doubtless imitated from the Hindu sraddha.
Here are a few notes of a fishing village, Vilinjam, a few miles south of Trevandrum, inhabited both by Roman Catholics and Muhammadans — the one class at the north end, the other at the south of the village. They are not mutually hostile, but do not go out to fish in the same boats. The Mussulmans are divided into two classes, whom they call merchants and marakkans or Lubbays — the last inferior.
These two do not intermarry, but they attend the mosque together, and are buried alike, close by the mosque. The marakkans will eat food from their superiors, but not vice versa. They are probably pure native proselytes from the Mukkuvar and other castes. None however, have recently been converted to Islam here.
These fisher people marry early, boys at the age of ten or twelve; girls at seven to ten, but occasionally remaining unmarried many years longer, if a suitable husband does not appear. Lucky days are sought for marriage and other engagements.
They do not go out to fish on Fridays, but attend the mosque, though not very regularly, where the Lebbe reads the Koran from a palm-leaf manuscript. The mosque is built on a prominent point of land, and wholly of stone, as are some wayside rest-houses, with three spikes on the top, like some Hindu temples. They assert that it was not built by human hands, but by persons sent by the prophet. The children are excessively rude and ignorant, shouting at a European traveller, “White man ! go from the mosque !” and other impertinences. They go out to fish with the fathers from a very early age.
The men do not carry fish to market, but sell to the merchants of dried fish, who export to Colombo. Some days they take nothing : then must run in debt to the merchants, or want. Their houses are wretched huts, put up on the sands in the shade of a few cocoa-nut trees, and formed entirely of leaves, as they cannot procure clay for walls. The graves are neglected, and the remains sometimes shockingly exposed to view.
The two great religious divisions of Islam are SUNNIS and SHIAHS. Of the latter, who admit tradition only when verified by any of the twelve Imams, there are none in Trevandrum. They mourn the martyrdom of Hassan and Hossein, the women abstaining for ten days from betel, flesh-meat, and other luxuries, leaving off their ornaments and coloured cloths, and wearing only black in token of mourning. They offer prayer with unclasped hands. Shiah is literally ‘a follower,” ie., of Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, and, in the opinion of his followers, the lawful successor to the Khalifat.
The Sunnis (from sunnat, the record of those sayings and acts of Muhammad which oral tradition had at first preserved) recognizing the lawful succession of the first four Khalifs, are the great body of the Mussulmans, and are again subdivided into four sects, named after four eminent orthodox Imams or Doctors of the Law, who decided questions regarding which Muhammad had given no explicit direction.
These are : —
1. Hanifa, born A.H. 80. He admitted very few traditions as authoritative in his system, which claims to be a logical development from the Koran, and permits the right of private judgment. The Pattanis are of this sect, and their tenets generally prevail throughout India.
2. Malik, born A.H. 93, founded his system on the “customs of Medina.” He arranged and systematized the traditions current there, and formed a historical and traditional system of jurisprudence rigidly embracing the whole sphere of life. His tenets are not known to prevail in India.
3. Shafif, born A.H. 156. An eclectic system from the works of the two previous Imams, and requiring a considerable number of traditions in proof of any single point. In offering prayer they put the hands on the breast or shoulder, the thumbs touching the lobes of the ear. His doctrines have some currency along the sea-coast; the Calicut Mussulmans belong to this sect.
4. Ibn Hanbal, born A.H. 164, professed excessive veneration for the Koran as uncreated and eternal. There are none of this sect in India.
Of Wahabis there are but a few, chiefly men from Sind, very zealous against the use of tobacco, opium, &c., but attending the usual mosques.
Proselytes are called Maula Islam. Cases of conversion are very rare in Trevandrum, but more common in Alleppey and Cochin. Children are sometimes purchased or picked up, and educated in Islam. They cut off the kudumi at once, as heathenish, and because they think an outward mark is needed. Yet a few wear it for temporal profit, as for example, sepoys in the Brigade. There are five special commandments imposed upon all, viz : —
I. To learn the Kalima (a “word,” or speech, the confession of faith), and repeat it “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Apostle of God.”
2. To pray five times a day.
3. To fast in the month of Ramzan, the ninth Muhammadan month, during which eating, drinking, and any sensual gratification is interdicted between dawn and the appearance of the stars. The preceding ordinances are for all, the next for the wealthy : —
4. To give five per cent, of income to charity.
5. To go on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Priests and Religious Teachers. — Of the regular moulavi (a learned man, teacher, expounder of Muhammadan law) there are few, if any, in Travancore. Officers are retained under this title at the principal law courts at Trevandrum, Alleppey, &c., to administer oaths to Mussulman witnesses. This is done by making them take a Koran in their hands, or place it on the head, then making solemn affirmation in set form that they will speak the truth.
Sometimes, they say, a peer or saint may visit the country, or a Moulvi may come round and preach, but such visits must be rare.
The local priests are called Tangal, a common Malayalam honorific, meaning “they themselves.” These are supposed to be Syeds, and exercise considerable influence; they have no regular training for this office — any one who has learnt, and can conduct the prayers acceptably, may become accustomed to it by degrees, and be popularly recognized. The Tangal of Powar travels about as a great man in a palankeen, sometimes as far as to Colachel, the people of each place where he is invited, in order to conduct special ceremonies, bearing the expense of bringing him to the locality.
Under a Tangal are several Lebbes, one in each mosque, who conducts the worship, kills sheep for food with due ceremonial, and conducts marriages. He is appointed by the people, and paid by fees and presents.
Friday (Juma) is the day of public prayer. In the mosques there are no sermons, no common prayer, and no singing. At the principal mosques no public service is held except there be forty persons present, exclusive of strangers, slaves, and the deformed. The Lebbe repeats some portion of the Koran in Arabic, but without explaining it, as he does not know the meaning himself.
At least three texts must be repeated, taken from any part of the sacred volume. All stand while this is repeated, and follow the action of the Lebbe in ritual as he stands, bows, prostrates himself, or sits down. The common explanation of these acts is that man should praise the Creator as head of the creation, and on behalf of all — standing like a tree, stooping like quadrupeds, prostrate like reptiles, and sitting like mountains and hills.
They should attend the mosque five times a day for prayer, but this is never done. When the time of prayer comes, men pray wherever they are. Women should pray in their houses five times daily, but not when unclean.
The mosques in Travancore number 335 in all. There is a remarkable one at Tiruvankodu, the ancient capital. It is usually called Malukku Muthaliar’s Mosque, this being supposed to be the name of an Arab buried on the site before the building was erected, whose tomb — a low brick-built structure — is now enclosed within the building. Strangers are not allowed to enter.
The tradition is that, a Rajah of Travancore, then residing at Keralapuram, near Takkaly, heard a sound like the muezzin’s call to prayer, and gave orders for the erection of this mosque; hearing also the blowing of the conch shell in another direction, he built the temple of Mahadevan. In digging the foundations, the remains of a human being were discovered, and the same night a person appeared in a dream to one of the principal parties, and said, “I am Malukku Muthaliar.”
The courtyard is large, and surrounded by a high brick wall, like some Brahman temples, with a porch-house surmounting the front entrance. Within is a deep tank, square, with fine stone steps on the four sides leading down to the water. The mosque itself is remarkable as being built entirely of granite, like some Hindu temples. The eastern end is used as a porch for the accommodation of the people before engaging in worship, and has a pent roof of stone, with stone rafters. A door leads into the body of the building, which has a flat roof, all of stone, and is fifty-nine feet in length and twenty-five feet wide; the stones for cross beams must therefore each be about thirty feet in length.
At the western end of the mosque there is a kind of pulpit or platform, called mimber used by the Lebbe while officiating. It is built of brick and plaster, bare of railing, but with a flight of steps for ascending.
An old inscription on another tombstone is indistinct, but is read by some as dated M.E 179, which would be over eight centuries ago, but the letters seem of much later date. This mosque is maintained and lighted daily from the produce of a garden granted free of tax by the Rajah, who is said to have built the mosque; from fees on marriage dowries at one-tenth (not always paid now-a-days), and on trade, at a quarter per cent, of the capital expended; and from the collections made at the annual festival, amounting to some eight hundred rupees. On the anniversaries of the death of honoured individuals, rice is brought to the courtyard by the relatives, and distributed to the poor.
The chief festival at this place is held about April, and is called Sandanakudam “vessel of sandal- wood.” A silver pitcher is filled with the powder of this fragrant wood, and brought from the old mosque to the new one, borne by the priest in an open palankeen, in full procession, torches burning, banners waving, and music and shouts of “Allah, Allah,” concluding with fireworks. People from as far as Quilon visit this celebrated temple.
The Muharram (“sacred, or prohibited,” being the first month in their year, in which it was held unlawful to make war) is observed about November or December. It has gradually assumed the appearance of a scene of amusement and merrymaking, while the religious principles on which it used to be observed — in commemoration of the tragic fate of Hassan and Hossein — are fast melting away.
Pretty tabuts or biers, are made of coloured paper or tinsel, something like a mausoleum in the Saracenic style of architecture, and carried in procession on the shoulders of men, with drum and fife, beating of tom-toms, masquerading, and other mummeries. Some of the company are painted with yellow and brown stripes, frightful red mouth, and bloody jaws, to represent tigers, holding rattles in the hand, the long tail supported by a friend, looking frightful enough to women and children. These go about demanding money from the people. A feast is also prepared, and the Fatiha repeated in the name of Hossein, and over the graves of friends.
The Mussulmans are accustomed to speak of Islam as the “Fourth Veda,” or Religion, alluding to Adam, Abraham, and Jesus Christ as previous prophets with a divine mission, each bearing new laws and revelations, which superseded all that had been delivered by their predecessors; Muhammad being the last and greatest of the prophets, the final authoritative organ of the divine will. Sometimes, however, Christianity is referred to as the “Fifth Religion.” They are very fond of the illustration that, as of these four — milk, butter-milk, curd, and butter — the last is the best and most valuable and durable, so their religion, “the Fourth,” is superior to all that preceded it.
Still they admit the excellence of the Christian faith in some respects, occasionally purchasing and reading with pleasure the Pentateuch, the Proverbs of Solomon Nabi, or prophet, and even the Gospels. They admit the divine mission of Jesus, and His authority as a prophet of God, and assert that His birth was glorious, that He did not die as commonly believed, but that He still lives in a mountain near Jerusalem; and they say that He was endowed with miraculous powers of which Muhammad was destitute — yet that Jesus was inferior to their prophet. Some believe that Jesus is now in the fourth heaven, and will come again to destroy antichrist “
We also,” say they, “are Vedakar (people of a book religion); we have Allah and Muhammad.” They strongly object to the image worship of Romanists. One of these was found engaged in discussion with a Mussulman, and insisting that Muhammad was wrong in not allowing females to attend the mosque for worship. The other retorted upon his opponent respecting their worship of images, and the dispute was referred to a colporteur who then came up, for his opinion. He thought both were in error on the points in question.
They are for the most part strongly prejudiced against Christianity; a few read books published by Islamites against it; and without making any serious inquiry, they urge blasphemous objections, and abuse and insult the Christian preachers.
“How,” they ask, “could the Saviour of the world be put to death on a cross?” The miraculous birth of Jesus Christ is to them a standing difficulty. We have known some refuse even water to drink to a European, because he was a Christian.
Yet they are far from any correct acquaintance with their own religion, or any intelligent submission to its principles and precepts.
In country parts we have asked them who was Muhammad, and why they believed in him, but they could give no answer. Such repeat scarcely any prayers morning or evening, nor attend to other prescribed duties; they have no zeal for their religion or its propagation, and are full of heathen and caste superstitions. There is a decided tendency to deify Muhammad and even to confound him with the heathen gods and to speak favourably of their power.
“Vishnu and Muhammad are the same,” said one, “Muhammad is an Avatar of Vishnu.” “Muhammad was created,” says another, “before the world was, and was consulted by the Supreme Being respecting the creation of the world.” They speak of the prophet coming down from heaven, when prayed to, and restoring children to life.
The ignorant often thus assert that Muhammad was before the creation. This arises from a text in the Koran, or a tradition, “I have created thee from my light and by thy light I have created the world. If I had not created thee, I should not have created the world,” meaning, the world is created for thee. A bright light, they assert, shone on Adam’s forehead, and was transmitted down to Abdullah and Muhammad his son.
Many superstitious notions and practices prevail amongst them. Pattanis make a hand of gold or silver, “because Hossein’s hand was cut off in battle,” which they take to the Karamana river and bathe. “During the prevalence of cholera in 1875, the conduct of the Muhammadans who occupy the northern portion of the Tittuvilei village, was deplorable.
For they stubbornly refused to take medicine, on the plea that their Koran prescribes no remedy for cholera; and sacrificed cocks, goats, and even young bulls, tumultously calling upon evil spirits whom they considered to be the cause of the plague, to abandon their dwellings and to repair to those of the heathens or Christians. When this proved ineffectual, the males of the village joined together, and bawled out simultaneously a prayer which means something like the following : —
“Allah is Allah — no other Allah.
“Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.
“Save, O Allah! ‘
This they commenced every night at nine or ten o’clock, and continued till they felt exhausted by the depth of their outcry, to and fro, along their several streets. The effect was awfully distressing, as it struck with a panic the heart of every person in the neighbourhood. The obstinacy of the deluded Mussulmans brought on them no trifling loss; for about one- fifteenth of their entire number was swept away by the plague.”
So ignorant and heathenish are the Muhammadans of Travancore, that they are pronounced by those of the East Coast “worthless.” They do not allow people of other castes or religions to eat with them. Few go to Mecca on pilgrimage. Sickness is attributed to the agency of demons, wherefore some secretly send gifts to the devil temples; many attend the idol procession at Arattu. Many give their children in marriage in infancy.
Though forbidden to sell arrack or opium, some do this secretly. As education is low, so crime, it is admitted, is excessive amongst them. Little moral discipline is exercised, though they may be excluded from the mosque, and others may refuse to speak or hold intercourse with them or give them fire, for adultery with heathen women, for disobedience, or drunkenness.