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Interesting Tidbits



1. What is LATERITE?
2. Who was AYYAPPA?
3. How was the CASTE-SYSTEM introduced in Kerala?


1. What is Laterite?

(Latin `Lateris` = `Brick`)

Laterite is a compact rock composed of a mixture of Hydrated Oxides of Aluminum and Iron, with small amounts of Manganese Oxides and Titanium.

It is created under monsoon conditions of alternating wet and dry seasons, when the silica and alkalis get washed away leaving deposits of brick-like rock. This rock has a very useful quality - it cuts like cottage cheese when it's quarried but, after being exposed to the air for a short while, becomes hard. This makes Laterite an excellent building medium and most of the temples and old houses of Kerala were constructed of red Laterite.


2. Who was Ayyappa?

Lord Ayyappa is the apotheosis of Ayyan Adigal Thiruvatigal, the Chera king of Venad. His stepfather - Rajashekara of Pandalam - was the last Perumal of Kerala, Rajashekaravarman Cheraman Perumal. All three were contemporaries of the great Shankaracharya (788-820 AD).

Mahishi represents the Chola and Pandya forces Ayyan defeated in the high ranges of the western ghats. The seven battlefields on the pilgrimage route commemorate his victorious campaigns: Kottapuram, Kalaketti, Utuniparamalai (also called Inchippara-kotta), Karimala, Sabaripeetham, Saramkuttiyal (symbolic arrows are offered here) and Trippaty.

Association of Ayyapan with the Muslim Vavar and Christian Katutha indicates that all the communities of Venad had united to fight against the invaders. The leadership and bravery he inspired, immortalised him as a folk hero. Later, this Dravidian king was deified by the Brahmins as Hariharasutan (son of Vishnu-Shiva).


3. How was the Caste System introduced in Kerala?

Kerala, during the Tamil Sangam Age (1-500 AD) was a very egalitarian society. Untouchability was unknown, manual labour was respected and women held in high esteem. After the defeat of the Cheras by Cholas, Buddhism declined and Brahmins introduced the Chatur-Varna caste-system. Behind this apalling caste system they introduced, lay a brilliant strategy aimed at usurping power using religion as a tool. Here is how it was implemented -

  • Arrival- c.800 AD: The first Brahmin missionaries moved into Kerala through Tulu-naadu (Mangalore area). At that point in time, Kerala was a flourishing center for Buddhism and Jainism.

  • Establishing Credentials: Buddhist/Jain scholars were defeated in public debates and then local kings converted. This led to a more systematic settlement of 64 gramoms and Illoms across Kerala .

  • Royal Patronage- c. 1100 AD : After being crushed by the Cholas, the recuperating Chera-Nair chieftains were `promoted` as Kshatriyas. This assured the Brahmins of their socio-political status while the `new` Kshatriyas gained religious sanction of the new Vedic gods. This was the beginning of a long, mutually gratifying relationship. But the `new` Kshatriyas, unlike their northern counterparts, continued to follow the Matrilineal system, worship Kaavu-Bhagawati, and at the same time, promote construction of new temples to the Vedic gods.

  • Re-creating Myths : An old Chera lore (of a king Velkezu Kuttavan, who flings his spear to claim land from the sea) was conveniently appropriated for Parashurama, a Puranic character symbolizing aggressive Brahmanism, who uses his Parashu (Axe), to `create` new land for the settlers. In another myth, a legendary king, Mahabali (Maveli) is symbolically crushed by a midget Brahmin (Vamana - yet another assimilative avatar of Vishnu).

  • Old gods, new bottles : Old icons like Sastha (Buddha) were blended with folk heroes like Ayyappa (King Ayyan Adigal). The new god was then called Hariharasuta (son of Vishnu & Shiva); Murugan became identical with Subramonya/Kartikeya; Madura Meenakshi with Parvati.

  • Exclusivity : To prevent dilution of their powers, the Namboothiris called themselves Swadeshi and differentiated newer Brahmin migrants (Embranthiri, Pattar, Potti) and branded them Paradeshi (foreigners).

  • Primogeniture : Only the eldest son was allowed to marry a Namboothiri lady and inherit land. Younger sons entered into Sambandhams (Relationship) with Nair women of matrilineal Tharavads. Unmarried Namboothiri women were forced to remain spinsters and lead secluded lives.

  • Central Authority : While the Namboothiris gave themselves the power to punish and kill (Kollum-kolayum), only the head of one Illom in Kerala had the power to punish Namboothiris.

  • Monopoly on Education : A strong control over institutions of learning ensured that mobility and communication was restricted. Semi-historical works like Keralolpathi helped in projecting a Brahmin-centric view of the past.

  • Pollution Laws : The laws of pollution laid down that an `untouchable` should not come anywhere near the Namboothiri at all; should keep 24 feet away from the Nair; 12 feet away from the Ezhava!!

This absurd social structure and ostracism lasted for more than 500 years. The system ensured the rapid rise of Namboothiris as a powerful landed aristocracy. In places like Chambakaserry and Edapally, the Namboothiris became kings themselves. Thanks to them, Buddhism & Jainism was completely wiped out from Kerala; Later, Christianity and Islam became very popular; and Malayalam emerged as a sanskritized cousin of Tamil.

But today, it does not take a discerning anthropologist to notice that for all the barriers they created, the `Aryan` Namboothiris look no different from the rest of the people of Kerala. It is also a tribute to the community that the greatest, assimilative social reform movement in recent Kerala history was led by a Namboothiri Brahmin.


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