The big words rolled off the little boy’s tongue. It is not certain if he grasped the meaning of what he just read aloud off a wall at VJT Hall in Thiruvananthapuram.
Mel vasthram dharichu raniye kandu; yuvathiyude mulayaruthu. The woman’s breasts were cut off for going to meet the princess wearing upper garments.
Nonchalantly, the boy went off to read the next exhibit out of the many placed in the hall celebrating the 82nd anniversary of the Temple Entry Proclamation in Kerala – in the then Thiruvithamkoor (Travancore). The proclamation was issued by Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma in 1936 abolishing the ban on lower caste people entering Hindu temples.
The incident the little boy read out happened in the 18th century when a Nair woman from Kerala had gone to see Europe and on coming back home, thought it alright to visit the princess of Attingal wearing the upper garment. In those days Nair women were expected to lower their upper garment and bare their breasts at palaces and temples. The Europe traveller was punished for her act. Her breasts were cut off in front of the princess, it is recorded in history.
Exhibit on incident of Nair woman's breasts being chopped off for wearing upper garment to palace
Quite a lot of the incidents exhibited as old documents, proclamations and pictures have come up at discussions, in history books and awareness classes. Some are forgotten, perhaps in the relief that it happened before our time. But if you look at the exhibits, at the stories we have chosen to forget, you are transported to those days when a surprising majority thought it alright to subject humans to such inhumanity, that they even rejoiced in seeing the pain of others they thought lowly.
Slavery in Kerala
Thiruvithamkoor is a place that once had slavery. People were sold and bought for prices that varied from half a parrah (unit) to six parrahs of paddy per year, depending on their physical ability.
The proclamation banning slavery in Kerala in 1865
Caste made some not just untouchable to others, but even the sight of them was believed to bring impurity. Distances were assigned for every caste, the number of feet they should stand away when an upper caste Brahmin walked the streets. Twelve for the Kshatriyas, 24 for Nairs, and for Ezhavas to Paravas, it varied from 36 ft to 100 ft.
Lower caste people, beginning from Ezhavas, could not walk on public paths or get an education. That’s what renaissance leader Ayyankali opposed among many other social injustices. He undertook the ‘Villuvandi samaram’ to fight for the rights of the lower castes to travel on public roads. He got a girl called Panjami enrolled in the Ooruttambalam School after children of every caste were officially allowed to get an education. But upper caste men set fire to the classroom she sat in. The bench that she sat on is still kept safe, in her memory.
Heroes break away chains of slavery
Ayyankali was also behind the Kallumala samaram. Women of lower caste, those days, were forced to wear chains of stones or glass pieces as a symbol of slavery. Ayyankali organised a protest against this and got women to break those chains away.
Exhibit on the incident of lower caste women breaking chains, which were symbols of slavery
Other major and lesser known heroes came up with fights of their own. Sahodaran Ayyapan started mishra bhojanam, where people of upper and lower castes ate together, as a way to fight. Vaikunda Swami used panthi bhojanam (community feast) to challenge untouchability. He was arrested and lodged in Singarathoppu prison, till he was released with the help of his student, Thycaud Ayya.
Many fought their own lone fights, cruelly punished for it later. Even before the famous Vaikom Satyagraha, a lower caste man called Kannan Thevan entered the Poothotta temple. He was arrested. When released, he came to take part in the Vaikom Satyagraha. Attackers poured pacha chunnambu (quicklime) and kambattikara into his eyes and his vision was affected. He was taken to jail and further tortured, and freed only when the Satyagraha ended.
Exhibit on the attack of Kannan Thevan while participating in Vaikom Satyagraha
Another landlord called Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker, an Ezhava leader, organised a protest by getting lower caste women to wear gold nose studs. That was in 1859 when an Ezhava woman from Pandalam wore a nose stud and upper caste people snatched it away. In 1818, an order was given allowing lower caste women to wear jewellery, but it didn’t stop the attacks. Panicker also built his own temple and got Ezhavas to enter some temples in Changanassery.
Exhibit on the incident of lower caste women protesting for right to wear nose stud
When another Ezhava woman walked through a field in Panniyur near Kayamkulam in 1859, upper caste men stripped her of the sari that extended to her ankles. So Panicker made a group of Ezhava women wear ankle-length saris and walk through fields. His end came when enemies pierced a dagger through his chest.
In 1924, 20 Ezhava people, including renowned writer OV Vijayan’s grandfather Chami, who went to see the Ratholsavam festival of Kalpathi were beaten up.
Proof of yet another Ezhava ill-treatment is reported in the Kerala Kaumudi newspaper in January 1925. An Ezhava man had walked into a tea shop, not realising it was run by a Nair, and asked for a ‘single tea’. He was duly fined by a Nair policeman who happened to come there.
Exhibit on newspaper report of Ezhava man being fined for ordering tea at a Nair's shop
Gandhi too not spared
Even Mahatma Gandhi was not spared. He had famously taken part in the Vaikom Satyagraha, a protest to allow lower caste men and women to pass through the roads that led to the Vaikom Mahadeva Temple. Gandhi was to talk to the upper caste Indamthuruthi Devan Neelakandan Namboodiri about the satyagraha. But he was made to wait outside while the Brahmin sat inside, for the Father of the Nation had touched lower caste men and was therefore “impure”.
Exhibit on incident of Mahatma Gandhi being made to stay outside for touching untouchables
Women of all castes suffered
Upper caste women too suffered. The antharjanams or wives of Namboodiri Brahmins led a quiet life wearing their mundus up to their neck and carrying an umbrella to cover their face. If they were found to be in the wrong, they would be thrown out of the house and their final rites performed – the term for this is padiyadachu pindam vechu.
If a woman was accused of immorality, there would be a trial called the smartha vicharam, when she would be inside a room and a group of men would decide her fate, until she confessed and named the men she had involved herself with. The story of Thathri Kutty who confessed in this manner is well-known. The names she confessed included many influential and higher caste men. The story goes that the trial was stopped by the King of Cochin just when he feared his name would be next.
Interestingly there was also a ritual called Pulappedi Mannapedi when men of lower caste were allowed “freedom” one day in a year during the time of a festival. They could touch or throw sticks at women on the street and claim their rights on them. The upper caste women thus “claimed” would not be welcome back to their communities after this.
The first widow marriage happened in September 1934. Uma Devi, sister-in-law of social critic VT Bhattathiripad, got married to writer MRB.
Exhibit of the first widow wedding in Kerala
A temple that didn’t allow women
Like Sabarimala, the Thiruvalla Shreevallaba temple did not allow women to enter the naalambalam. In 1841, when a woman entered the temple, rituals were conducted to “purify” it. It was in 1960 that women began coming to the naalambalam. If word got out now, perhaps there would be protectors of tradition blocking their entry all over again.