NATIVE LIFE IN TRAVANCORE
The REV. SAMUEL MATEER, F.L.S.
Of the London Missionary Society
POLITICAL AND SOCIAL CONDITION IN FORMER TIMES
The political condition and government of the country in past,, but still modern, times, is of importance as bearing upon practical reforms in the present day. Take, for instance, the period from the middle of the eighteenth century, when Vanji Martanda Vurmah Rajah began his reign, to the end of the century, when the British political power became established, and introduced a new element urging and enforcing enlightened and righteous rule.
The various reforms which have taken place clearly indicate the former condition of things, and the corresponding urgency of need for them which existed. Information may also be gathered from the detailed testimony of writers since the beginning of the present century and from the evils still prevailing, which cry for further and sustained effort towards amelioration.
At the period referred to, the territory under the rule of the Rajah of Travancore was but small, extending only from about Cape Comorin to Quilon, and comprising but a small portion of the present kingdom; A system of small States obtained, as in other parts of India, and as once in England;
The neighbouring States of Kayenkulam, Tekkankur, Vadakkankur, Changanacherry, Ambalapulay, Alangadu, and Paravur afterwards subdued by intrigue and fraud, and incorporated with Travancore, were still intact and ruled by their respective Rajahs, while even within a short distance of the capital the ‘Eight Barons’ seem to have not yet fully acknowledged the sway of Travancore, and the southern district of Nanjinad appears to have had still some remnants of popular and constitutional right.
From the persistent claims of other chieftains it appears somewhat doubtful whether the authority of the Rajah was really sovereign. Was it not then rather an aristocracy of military leaders than a consolidated monarchy, the most powerful chief afterwards reaching the stage of territorial sovereignty ?
“Till the beginning of the eighteenth century” says Sir Madava Row, “the territory which now constitutes this State was mostly cut up into little principalities, each with a chief of its own, who had a favourite pagoda at his capital — a shrine with the splendour of which he regarded his fortunes as indissolubly bound up. When conquest welded the numerous little chiefships into one State, the pagoda at Trevandrum naturally acquired a predominant ascendancy, and other institutions of the kind had to take a more subordinate position.”*
With this view agrees Buchanan in his “Journey”: — “The Rajahs (of Malabar) were formerly head of a feudal aristocracy with limited authority; afterwards they became despotic princes, with a military force to chastise any chieftains who might be disobedient.” And an able exposition of the Malabar land tenures in “Standing Information” of the Madras Government says: —
“The characteristic of the whole of the Kerala country was the presence of a strongly developed personal and individual land property, the absence of a government tax on land, the absence of a concentrated village system such as obtained in the Carnatic, and the existence of a military tenure similar to the feudal system of Europe. The country was originally subdivided between a race of Brahman priests called Namboories, and a military tribe called Nairs: these two holding in subjection the agriculturists of the country, consisting of persons called Teers, and others. The Nairs paid no land tax, but attended the kings to the field with their retainers. The Namboories also paid no land tax, but furnished the expenses for the support of the temples. In the absence of land tax, the kings of the country had considerable domains assigned to them, which were cultivated by slaves, and yielded a sufficient revenue for household expenses.
"The subordinate chiefs maintained their own internal police arrangements, and, except in time of war, the personal expenses of the rajahs were not large. But they were not without other branches of revenue. A succession duty equal to twenty-five per cent, was levied on Mahomedan subjects being landholders. There were also import and export duties, mint duties, fines, escheats, confiscations, protection money received from persons of other states who claimed asylum, benevolences in the shape of offerings made to the Crown at great festivals or on an occasion, and fees on marriages of important persons. There were also license taxes, and royalties on gold ore, elephants, ivory, teak trees, bamboos, and vessels wrecked on the coast. For fiscal arrangements, there were authorities in charge of defined tracts of country.”
Of this period we have some notices by Canter Visscher, a Dutch chaplain at Cochin, about A.D. 1723. The country was almost isolated from foreign intercourse, the roads and communications by land being kept as obscure and difficult as possible, by the jealousy of the governments and their disinclination to admit strangers. They were but semi-civilized; scarcely any indigenous literature existed; and the customs handed down from that age, remnants of which are still visible, testify to the low social condition of the inhabitants.
Except in so far as it was checked by the counteracting power of a number of refractory chieftains the form of government was altogether despotic, the chieftain being regarded by the common people with almost superstitious dread, as in the South Sea Islands, Africa, and elsewhere. The restraint of law was faintly acknowledged by the sovereign, and but slightly felt by those who conducted the administration, even at the best; while, at the worst, it was ignored altogether.
All authority was centred in the rajah and distributed by him amongst various officials at his pleasure, and these were rewarded not by regular salaries, but by grants and the profits of oppression. There were no independent judicial tribunals, but the executive officers were invested with judicial powers, and determined causes according to caprice or interest. The Rajah was the final court of appeal, if any dared to prefer appeals against the decision of powerful officials. One advantage, certainly, was that justice (or injustice!) was swift and decisive.
“Their legal suits are tried, according to old customs, viva voce. No lengthy proceedings are required to obtain the decision of the causes, which are always concluded within a few days by the fiat of the Rajah, who, in obscure cases, consults with his Brahmans “(Canter Visscher). But, of course, the low castes were not taken into account in these matters; they had no rights, and could make no claims.
The subordinate governors and officials as in all Oriental despotisms, ground down all beneath them. Paying for their appointments and giving also annual “presents,” they were obliged to squeeze the necessary amounts from the unfortunate people. The heads of the respective castes also paid an annual sum for their dignity. Bribes and pecuniary gratifications were everywhere expected, and nowhere forbidden. The ruling power and subordinate officials were ever ready to snatch from the people as much as possible. When a cruel ruler was on the throne, the country suffered much; when a benevolent one, it gained little.
Religion was used as an engine for government, yet the rajahs themselves were enslaved to the Brahman priests. No Brahman could be sentenced to death, however heinous his crime.
Warfare with neighbouring rulers was frequent, as throughout India; not that there was generally great bloodshed in these parts, but the country was devastated and laid waste, cattle were driven away, and the miserable subjects sorely oppressed; the time and treasure of rulers and people were wasted in war and on forts and arms, while the lower castes were made to serve in menial attendance, only occasionally Tiers, or Shanars, weavers, and others, being entrusted with arms. Petty princes attacked each other’s territories, and carried away the people as captives.
The grossest cruelties were practised, and oppressions of the labouring classes and the predial slaves. Most severe punishments were inflicted on the disobedient and criminal. Simple imprisonment was not much resorted to, but cruel torture to force confession, mutilation, cutting in pieces, impalement, and other inhuman punishments, even for theft, unchastity, killing of cows, and other minor offences. Ordeals were common.
“The prisons of Malabar are mere quadrangular cages, the size of a man in length, breadth and height, made of wooden gratings nailed together. Such prisons as these would in Europe be more fit to keep fowls in than human beings.”
To the present day Pulayars and others are thrust into cages not much better. One which I measured was fifteen feet long by eight feet wide, and five and three-quarters in height, in which twenty-five persons have at times been incarcerated, supplied with stocks all round, and no separation of the sexes. Another was eighteen by eight feet, in which thirty persons have been confined at once; and another was a “black hole” about eight feet square and five and a quarter high, with no opening whatever, for ventilation, not now used “except,” said the peon, “there were a woman, who would be put in there for her comfort!”
The Sirkar has long been urged to remedy this serious evil, and has promised amendment, and done something in the larger towns; but much yet remains to be effected throughout the country. In somewhat recent times Shanars also, if they neglected to supply jaggery for public work, were put into cages armed with spikes, and made to eat a quantity of salt with a little rice, or chained to trees like monkeys to their cage-posts.
“I once saw,” says Fra Bartolomeo, about A.D. 1780, “five natives suspended from a tree in a forest near Ambalapusha, on account of the supposed crime of killing a cow.”
Again he says : “At Quilon, I saw a native of the caste of the Shanars hanging on a gallows for having stolen three cocoanuts in the house of a Nayr. The corpus delicti was suspended from his neck, in order that it might serve as a warning to all passengers.”
“For the restoration of peace at that time “(A.D. 1802), says the native historian, Pachu Mutthathu, “punishments were too severe, beyond the law. Krishna Pillai sepoy, and others who rebelled, were tied to the feet of elephants and torn asunder. Blowing from the mouth of a cannon, impaling and hanging, gouging out the eyes, cutting off hands, nose and ears, were inflicted for trifling offences.” Devasagayam Pillai, a convert to Christianity in 1752, was “taken from village to village riding on a buffalo, daily beaten with eighty stripes, pepper rubbed in his wounds and nostrils, exposed to the sun, and had only stagnant water to drink.”
Severe fines, pecuniary mulcts, and confiscation were also resorted to. “The rajahs understand how to make the most of the opportunity of making criminals bleed well in their purses; and there is hardly any crime which may not be expiated by money.”
Slavery in the most unmitigated form, that is, united with caste restrictions, prevailed. A large proportion of the population were actual slaves of the soil, while others of the proscribed classes were in a condition but little removed from this. “The rajah might sell into slavery persons of various castes who had committed any crime” by which they lost caste, or were liable to capital punishment.” They also laid hold of vagabonds and sold them. Slaves were sometimes exported to other parts of India.
Crimes of murder, assault, and robbery were prevalent in those days; and outrages were freely committed upon the weak and defenceless.
Narrow and short-sighted laws, exclusive legislation, and oppressive monopolies, effectually hindered the extension of trade, the growth of commerce, and the spread of agriculture, while barbarous caste restrictions produced disunion and national weakness. The use of the public highways was forbidden to outcasts, and any one daring to pass on within polluting distance of a Nayar would be cut down at once.
To secure immediate recognition of such classes they were required to be uncovered above the waist; shoes, umbrellas, fine cloth, and costly ornaments were interdicted to them. The holding of umbrellas was prohibited to all castes, except Brahmans, on public occasions, though the rain were pouring upon them. The proper salutation from a female to persons of rank was to uncover the bosom.
The erection of lofty or large houses was forbidden to all but kings and nobles. Even the King of Cochin, it appears from Barbosa, was prohibited tiling his palace without special permission of the Zamorin. Licenses were given in consideration of large payments, granting various social privileges and distinctions, as the use of certain lamps, particular kinds of music, ornaments, or conveyances, with other honours, immunities, and titles.
Burdensome taxes were also imposed, a poll-tax being a favourite mode of levying rates. In 1754, for instance, a head tax was imposed on the Shanars to meet the military expenditure. In 1787, a poll tax was imposed on the Syrian Christians. Fees were levied on low-caste marriages. The Administration Report for M.E. 1040 gives a surprising list of no less than 110 distinct taxes, which were in that year happily abolished with a stroke of the pen, to the unspeakable relief of a great multitude of the industrious poor.
A perusal of this curious list is very suggestive as to what must have been the previous state of the country, and the miserable interference with trade and industry, social freedom, and domestic comfort. Everything at all taxable was availed of, and every special occasion made an excuse for squeezing the laborious classes of their hard earnings. They produced small revenue at the cost of great vexation, partaking often of the character of poll taxes and taxes on implements of industry, and the proceeds were wasted on Brahmans, temples, and ceremonies.
“These taxes,” the Report modestly says, “used to be a source of vexation and embarrassment.” Yet their total proceeds amounted to but 800 rupees annually. Their very titles are suggestive, though not in all instances explanatory of the actual import. Kuppa katcka, ‘refuse offering,” was so called because it was the meanest tax — really a house tax — one fanam for each hut. Pariahs, Pallars, and some Shanars paid this. There was also a house tax on Ilavars. “Grass cutting” was paid by Pariahs only in Nanjinad. The widow of a weaver continued to pay the tax on the loom (about a rupee per annum) long after the death of her husband and the cessation of the work.
The catalogue goes on enumerating various forms of house tax, taxes on oil-mills, bows, iron and forges, exchangers, palankeens, boats and nets, hunting, keeping civet-cats, on the industries of goldsmiths, fishermen, musicians and drummers, bearers, dyers, schoolmasters, Kuravar dancers, &c.; dues at the festivals of Onam, Dipavali, harvest, the end of the year, and various anniversaries, and on occasion of royal marriages, birthdays, &c., besides more defensible fees on royal grants, on agreements, on timber cutting, &c. A little oil was taken from each oilmonger; and service in village watching was demanded.
Though these cesses were professedly relinquished under a Royal Proclamation, many of them are still retained and partially collected, the people being ignorant of their rights, and the inferior officials grasping and oppressive.
Sirkar Ooliam, or personal gratuitous services and forced labour for government and temples, is an institution common in countries that are backward in civilisation; but in Travancore imposed on the poorest classes, and to an unwarrantable degree. This led to very serious evils and complaints, and to great suffering and loss, up to quite recent times, and, indeed, is partly continued in Vritty service, and forced labour of several kinds. “These demands,” wrote Sir Madava Row, “were of the most uncertain character, involved a good deal of oppression and vexation, and interfered with the freedom which industry of all kinds is entitled to.”
The small nominal sums that were in some cases allowed for work did not reach the labourer’s hands, the underlings keeping what they could for themselves, or to bribe their superiors to continue them in employment, while the people dared not complain, lest counter-charges be brought against the complainant, and himself condemned as a malefactor, imprisoned, or perhaps, tortured to death.
When looking with admiration at the noble examples of Indian architecture and engineering — temples, forts, public buildings — the first thought that sometimes occurs to us is of the vast amount of misery and expenditure of human life imposed on the multitudes, as in Egypt, who did the unskilled labour. In the case of irrigation-works, perhaps, this was excusable, though even in these the higher classes should have taken full share; but the attendance upon the military forces, cutting of grass for the horses, supplying of fodder for state elephants, palm leaves for writing, oil for lights, and firewood and provisions for temples, formed a heavy and oppressive burden on the poor. Of a single one of these, the report for M.E. 1040 says : —
“The cocoanut plantations of the country were for a long time subject to a demand for feeding the Sirkar elephants. The demand was of an uncertain and oppressive character; the rich contrived to evade it, and it fell with great severity upon the poor. The required leaves could be cut from any garden on payment of a nominal price, and even this scarcely reached the owner.
This year a notification was issued declaring that elephant fodder should thereafter be purchased in the open market at the ruling prices of the day. The extent of the relief may to some extent be measured by the fact that under the new arrangement the fodder of a first-class elephant cost Rs. 540 a year, while under the old it cost only Rs. 144; but the relief is really more valuable than represented by the difference of cost. Many oppressions and exactions for which the old system gave scope have been swept away.”
In another paper from the same able pen, in 1869, numerous disabilities and established abuses to which the lower castes were subject, but which had been happily, to a greater or less extent, removed of late years, are recounted as follows : —
“Gratuitous services of various kinds used to be exacted from them. They had to guard Sirkar properties in several places. They were compelled to work in the Sirkar forests in cutting down or transporting timber. They had to carry Sirkar things from place to place. They were largely impressed to convey Sirkar salt from the pans to the place of export. They had to supply firewood to certain charitable institutions — and so on.
"Families of these low castes were even allotted to certain private individuals, who were at liberty to obtain gratuitous services from such families. Then, again, there were many restrictions placed upon their personal liberty. A proportion of the low-castes were, indeed, subjected to avowed slavery. As such they were attached to lands, like chattels, and were bought and sold. Their masters were authorized themselves to punish them for refractory conduct — a power which it may be imagined was frequently abused in no small degree. Even those that were not avowed slaves used to be treated almost as such.
"They were not at liberty to keep milch cows. They could not use oil-mills. They were interdicted from carrying on trade as bazaar-men. They were debarred the use of any but coarse cloths. It was improper in them to wear any but the most ordinary personal ornaments, whether for males or females. It was not open to them to decorate the sheds they erected on marriage occasions. They were restricted to particular music. They were denied permission to move in conveyances. They could not even wear shoes or use umbrellas. It was considered improper to allow them to use metallic utensils. They could not build substantial or tiled houses. Nor could they acquire landed property with impunity.”
Such was the sad condition of millions of human beings throughout Malabar for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Superstition, with its attendant cruelties, multiplied the sorrows arising from ignorance and pitiless oppression, and still further darkened the gloomy picture. It sank the slave still lower by the caste notion of his essential pollution, so that he could not approach his master, enter the dwelling of any superior, or offer worship in any temple of the higher castes.
The Pulayan was, therefore, in an infinitely worse condition than ever the American slave was. Caste also prevented the access of the lower castes, in their various degrees, to public officials and courts : it even deprived the higher classes of many comforts and conveniences in travel, food, labour, and trade. On a long journey amongst people of strange caste, with whom they cannot eat, or drink water, their sufferings must be great.
Human sacrifices also appear to have been offered occasionally, as in other parts of India.
“It is not fifty years since an instance occurred of this inhuman and diabolical practice in the immediate neighbourhood of Cottayam. A Zemindar was endeavouring to build up a bund, which the waters carried away as often as he made the attempt. Some Brahmans told him he would never succeed till he had offered up on the bund three young girls. Three, of the age of fourteen or fifteen were selected; the dreadful sacrifice was made, and the ground was stained by the blood of these innocent victims.
Mr. Chapman showed me a place where some very large earthen vases have been recently discovered buried in a hollow in the laterite. All the natives without hesitation declare that they must have been the receptacles of human victims when this awful practice prevailed. Near each was another and minor vase, in which, it is said, the knife used in the sacrifice was buried.”*
Slaves were so little valued by the higher classes, that in cases of repeated and destructive breaches in banks of rivers and tanks they ascribed the catastrophe to the displeasure of some deity or devil; and propitiated his anger by throwing a slave into the breach and quickly heaping earth on him. It was this horrid custom that gave rise to the common remark with reference to a lazy and worthless man, “What would this man do for? Only for being thrown into a breach.” They were sometimes cast into the holes dug for foundations, and buried there for good luck, also that their ghosts might protect secret haunts of treasure. Rajah Vurmah Kulaskhara barbarously buried alive fifteen infants to ensure success in his wars with his neighbours.
Enormous expenses also were incurred in idolatrous worship. In M.E. 919 the whole kingdom was solemnly dedicated, by the will of one man, the reigning Rajah, to the deity worshipped at Trevandrum, Patmanabhan, who became the tutelary deity of the whole State. Thenceforward new expenses were undertaken for special festivals, such as the Bhadradipam in M.E. 919; the Murajapam, which was first observed in M.E 924, and thenceforward every six years; and a large number of Ootoopuras, or Feeding Houses for Brahmans, established in M.E 948, which cost the country three lacs of rupees per annum, a very small proportion of which can be regarded as useful, or even harmless, expenditure.
The Syrian and Roman Churches were, at the same time, in a condition of utter spiritual deadness, doing little or nothing, either by preaching or circulating the Scriptures, to enlighten the people as to the way of salvation. They themselves too often followed heathen customs, and mingled superstitious notions and practices with the truths they still retained from their forefathers.