Collection Description

Culture Name


Culture Description

The Indian state of Kerala—encompassing the Malayalam (a Dravidian language) speaking people of the region—was formed in 1956 from the Malabar district and the former kingdoms of Cochin and Travancore. The economic mainstay is rice faming, along with a wide variety of tree and vegetable crops that supply an ancient, extensive tradition of trade in spices and craft products; wage labor is pursued in modern sectors of the state economy and through emigration. Households tend to be large, due to persistent elements of the traditional, matrilineally-related joint family. Traditional Kerala society was characterized by rigidly defined caste groups, a system that has undergone substantial change, especially since the 1950s with the advent of political reforms under a system of village-based elected government.


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Asia --South Asia



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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in eHRAF World Cultures and are referenced by author, date of publication, and title where necessary.

The Kerala collection covers a half dozen of Malayalam-speaking peoples, primarily organized along caste lines. A majority of the studies focus on salient aspects of culture among the politically dominant Nambudiri Brahmins and Nayars as observed over the years, from earliest European contact to the present. A number of other studies discuss what became of lower caste, untouchable groups, including Tiyas (Izhavas), Kammalans, and Pulaya and Paraya agricultural workers, because of political reforms and related policy changes introduced since the 1950s. Christians receive significant coverage in a few documents.

Anantha Krishna Iyer (1912) broadly describes aspects of Nayar culture and society as observed in the first decade of the twentieth century. Coverage includes historical information on the military organization and warfare of the Nayars, caste subdivisions, marriage customs, family life and administrative hierarchies.

The most comprehensive description of the Nayar in the collection is Gough (1954). Drawing on fieldwork from 1947-1964, Gough (1954, 1961 "Nayar: central Kerala", 1961 "Nayar: north Kerala") discusses the paradox of Nayar “marriage” which has long engendered a great deal of controversy among anthropologists. The main controversy concerns the absence of permanent union of the kind observed among married couples in all other cultures. Instead of marriage in the strict sense of the term, the Nayar recognized a union called sambandham, that enabled men to cohabit with women without claiming jural rights over children born of the relationship. This union also allowed for polyandry (i.e., the marriage of a woman to have more than one husband at a time). Panikkar (1918), a native Keralite, disagrees with the labelling of the system as polyandry. Other studies in the collection discuss effects of both British colonial and post-independence Indian government policies that sought to replace this system with a more-or-less monogamous, and supposedly permanent, union (Fuller 1975; Mencher 1962; Nakane 1962: Peter 1963; Puthenkalam 1977).

Documents on upper caste Nambudiri Brahmins primarily focus on two broad themes. Some of them discuss structural factors and political processes that led to the continuity of this group at the apex of the caste hierarchy. This includes Mencher (1966) and Mencher and Goldberg (1967) who attribute this paradox to the Nambudiris’ strong emphasis on patrilineality and primogeniture that enabled them to exclude all females and affinal relatives. This exclusion was further reinforced by the high prevalence of hypergamy, often among cross cousins, involving large dowries. Others shift the focus to the Nambudiri elites’ response and adaptation to socioeconomic change, especially since India’s independence (Mathur 1969; Parpola 2000).

Studies specifically discussing the local effects of Kerala’s political reforms and development programs include Aiyappan (1965), Devika (2010), Gough (1967, 1968), Klausen (1968), Mencher (October 1980), Osella and Osella (2000), Pullapilly (1976), and Uchiyamada (2000). Together, these studies tell of mixed results. Kerala has undergone impressive changes, and this is most noticeable in higher literacy, improved health services, tenancy reform, decentralized local governance with elected councilors, and loosening some of the most controversial taboos and related etiquettes governing interpersonal relations across and within caste groups. Yet, the majority of the poor, especially members of formerly untouchable agricultural laborers, benefitted very little from these changes.

Some documents in the collection cover themes broadly relevant for all Keralites and Hindu castes, such as socialization (Mencher 1963), kinship terminology (Tharakan 2006), snake worship (Mehra 1956), initiation rites and ancestral cults (Gough 1955, 1958), ancient deities and rituals (Freeman 1998; Neff 1987; Vadakkiniyil 2010), religion and caste (Fuller 1976), subsistence strategies (National Council of Applies Economic Research 1962), and migration (Osella and Osella 2003).

For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in this collection, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

Overview by

Teferi Adem

Janmi – freehold landowner

Kara – village residential community

Karanavan, karanavān, karanavar – senior male of the matrilineal extended family (taravad)

Marumakkathayam, marumakkatháyam – matrilineal system of inheritance

Nayar, Nair – landlord caste below Brahmin (Brahman)

Panchayat, panchayet – assembly of village elders – use "COMMUNITY COUNCILS (623)"

Sambandham – loose marital union between a woman and one or more visiting husband

Taravad, tarawad, tarawád, tharavad, tarwad – matrilocal joint family

Tavazhi – subdivision of a taravad based on the mother-child relationship (literally, "belonging to the same mother")

Vaidyan, vaidya – traditional healer or medical practitioner

Indexing Notes by

Teferi Adem

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