Marrying first cousins: How the practice evolved and declined in Kerala

There are several theories that suggest how the practice might have begun in Kerala, and why children of two brothers or two sisters cannot get married.
Representative image for newly wed
Representative image for newly wed
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In the popular 1989 Malayalam film Kireedam, Mohanlal’s character Sethumadhavan helplessly falls in love with his uncle’s daughter, played by Parvathy. The same year, Mammootty played the mythical character of Chandu in Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha, where he is in love with his warrior cousin, Unniyarcha (Madhavi). Years earlier, in a movie titled Murappennu – a man’s female cousin, whom he can marry by custom – Prem Nazir and Sarada played cousins in love. In all these on-screen stories, it was a relationship accepted and, sometimes, prodded on by relatives. The term ‘ammavante makal’ – uncle’s daughter – would get knowing glances from friends. It was a norm, unquestioned for generations, followed by certain religions and castes. But perhaps, not anymore. Today, consanguineous marriages or marriages between cousins in Kerala are not as common as it is in other south Indian states.

According to the National Family Health Survey (NHSF-4) 2015-16, released by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, 14% of marriages are consanguineous marriages, which are more common in all of the southern states except Kerala. “About one-third of women in Tamil Nadu, Lakshadweep, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana reported being in consanguineous marriages,” it said.

Interestingly, in nearly all of these cases, the marriage is between cross cousins, that is, children born to a brother and sister, not two sisters and not two brothers. In other words, marriages between parallel cousins are not allowed.

How did the practice begin?

Historian MG Sasibhooshan suggests several possibilities, considering the social situation of ancient times. “Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai (late historian and academic) suggested a theory that such marriages could have evolved in primitive societies when men mostly went to war and found it difficult to find alliances from circles beyond the immediate family. The practice was followed by Hindus and Muslims, by people in Tamil Nadu and even in Sri Lanka,” Sasibhooshan says.

State-wise data

He puts forth another theory: Kerala was made of really small kingdoms once upon a time, each fighting one another and possibly not wishing to have marriage alliances with each other. This possibly limited the choice of finding a partner to immediate family circles.

“Yet another possibility is that in the old days, people would not look for marriage alliances beyond a certain river that functioned as a sort of physical boundary. Take Korapuzha river in Kerala’s northern district of Kozhikode, for example. Families considered it beneath their dignity to form any relationship with members south of the river. But, there were rule-breakers, like VK Krishna Menon’s (late Indian politician and ally to former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru) father Krishna Kurup, whose marriage to a woman in the south of Malabar was something of a rebellion back in the 19th century,” Sashibhooshan says.

One popular theory of consanguineous marriages evolving in Kerala stems from the concerns over keeping the wealth within the family circles and not letting it go to an outsider. “In marumakathayam (matrilineal inheritance followed in Kerala), wealth is inherited by a nephew in the family, and not the son. So marriage is held between daughter and nephew so that the wealth remains in the same family,” says J Devika, an academic.

What statistics showed

More than 50 years ago, in a study titled ‘Inbreeding and Endogamy in Kerala’, author SGM Ali found that the least inbred group was Jacobite Syrians and the most inbred groups were Malayali Muslims, closely followed by Nairs (Hindu community). The study was conducted on 1,631 marriages belonging to 20 endogamous groups. It also cites earlier reports that most inbred groups were people in Andhra Pradesh, followed by Malayalis and then Marathis.

As the table shows, there are different types of consanguineous marriages – between first cousins, second cousins, cousins once removed and between an uncle and niece. Among this, the most common is between first cousins, who are not parallel first cousins.

“Kerala is particularly different in having a marked concentration of these marriages, unlike other states, among the people of a higher social position,” the study says.

The NHFS-4 survey also says that ‘women in urban areas are slightly more likely to be in consanguineous marriages than are women in rural areas.’

It is also not limited to Hindus. The survey says, “Muslim and Buddhist/Neo-Buddhist women are the most likely to be in consanguineous marriages.” SGM Ali’s study also shows that Christians, however, did not marry cousins up to the fourth degree of consanguinity.

What history tells about parallel cousin marriage

The practice was a transient phase in the evolution of the nuclear family system, writes 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Engels in his book, ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’. He explains how the marriage between people of the same ancestry, including close blood relations, was practised in various tribes across the globe.

Engels explains that the consanguine family was the first stage of family. Marriages between members of the same generation were customary. For example, he says, all members of the generation of grandparents in a clan will be mutually wedded to each other. Their children will be married to each other and their grandchildren will be married to each other.

However, in the later stage of development, the family system, called ‘Punaluan family’, marriages between ‘natural siblings’ stopped. Engels adds that the definition of ‘natural siblings’ differed in some tribes.

In the Dravidian tribes of the Deccan region (present south India) and in Iroquois of North America, a woman will consider children of her sisters as her own children along with her biological kids. Those children call the woman ‘mother’ like her biological child. And her biological children considered them to be their own brothers and sisters. But the same woman considers children of her brothers to be her nieces and nephews. And her biological children consider the nieces and nephews as cousins.

In the case of men, the children of a man’s brothers were considered as his own children and they called him ‘father’, while children of sisters were considered as nieces and nephews.

This could be one explanation of why marriages between parallel first cousins were always considered taboo – their children were considered ‘natural siblings’.

Why such marriages declined over years

Over the years, the practise of marrying cousins declined drastically, says Sashibooshan. It could perhaps have links to the many studies revealing that marriage between blood relations can cause health problems and genetic disorders in the offspring.

A 2013 story in The Hindu mentions a detailed study involving 11,000 children from consanguineous marriages. The revealed congenital anomalies in 386 such children. This was double the number of children with anomalies born to parents who were not related by blood. Kerala, with its literacy rate increasing through the decades, very possibly took these studies seriously while considering marriages with cousins.

It is still not completely absent and even among newer generations, there are willing cousins marrying each other, as a practice handed down through generations.

This story evolved from a conversation on TNM Forums on consanguineous marriages.

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