If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?
Keralites all over the world woke up yesterday to the death news of His Royal Highness Uthradam Thirunnal Marthanda Varma, the last ‘king’ of the Travancore royal dynasty. He was truly a ‘king of the people’. His kingdom was given up to democracy long back but he remained the people’s favorite king. Every deed of his was in view to keep royalty intact, by preserving the customs and rituals of the palace, yet, refraining from all pomp and show. It is said that he used to dust his feet after leaving the Padmanaabha Swamy Kshethram (Thiruvananthapuram), to symbolize that he wouldn’t take even a particle of Padmanaabha Swamy’s wealth (this was in regards to the recent sensational story of unlimited wealth at the temple). He was an extremely learned person with a passion for photography. Today, he has left to eternity, leaving behind his descendants who will never be kings again.
Watching this over and over again on the news, compelled me to do a quick-peek into his life (on the internet, of course!) and I ended up on another interesting article. A very sensational trial, which turned out to be a milestone in the history of Kerala, or more aptly, the history of women in Kerala. So much has been written about this. The Malayalam movie ‘Parinayam’ has this story as its base. The protagonist in this historic story is Kuriyedathu Tathri (Better known as Thathrikutti or Savithri). It is her trial that put the end to an unbelievable practice in the society. It seems almost fiction-like and it gives me the shudders to think that this really happened to people a century ago!!
I have to explain history here. So please bear with me if you aren’t much of a reader.
The years from 1200- 1900:
The Namboothiris were on the top of the caste hierarchy. They were the Brahmins of Kerala. They established superiority over the ‘Patters’ (Tamil Brahmins) and the ‘Embranthiris’ (Thulu Brahmins). They were wealthy landlords and did not do any hard manual work. They would take up work relating to knowledge or sacred rituals. They followed a patriarchal caste system (contrary to the matriarchal, which prevailed through the rest of the land, at that time), with an intention that their property shouldn’t be left to somebody else’s possession. Under this system, only the eldest son was allowed to marry. The younger Namboothiri men were not allowed to marry; they could not have wives, but were allowed formal ‘sambandhams’ with Illath Nair women. The eldest brother would have many wives as he wanted. So most of the Namboothiri women (Antherjenam) were confined to the house mostly. They were either married to a man with many wives and led unsatisfactory lives or were not married at all. Marriage then was totally different. More of prison-like living.
The Status of Namboothiri Women -
The Namboothiri women were called Antherjanam, the literal meaning being “people inside the house.” The entire Namboothiri life was patterned to ensure the virginity of the Antherjanam. Their travel was limited to the temples or to the house of their immediate relatives, but that too had to be accompanied by a maidservant.
In the life cycle ceremonies and other aspects of life, female discrimination was present to a shocking level. The first ritual ceremony after conception is Pumsavanam, a ritual for the expected child to be a male. This discriminatory attitude against the female child continued throughout her life and was built into the Namboothiri lifestyle in all details of her existence. Female children were brought up to understand that they are not only not free but are also a step below their brothers. The girl child’s education was just reading, writing and basic arithmetic while that of the boy child was an elaborate learning process throughout almost his entire life. The girl children moreover were made to feel that they occupied only second place at home and in society, and the rites and rituals were patterned after this belief to instill this feeling. The Antherjanam also had separate places for worship, and their rituals had restrictions placed on them: women were not allowed to chant, for instance, and to do other ritual performances like those of males. In addition, after her first menses, a Namboothiri girl was not allowed to leave the illam; she was not allowed to visit even close relatives. She was neither allowed to see men nor allowed to be seen by them. The morning ritual bath, chanting and work in the kitchen were the only activities of the Antherjanam that were allowed.
Similarly, the Antherjanam’s ornaments were, in fact, a suffocating set of taboos. She was not allowed to wear gold ornaments and nose rings. While travelling, she should take all precautions to keep her chastity. Cooking food, serving the husband and looking after the children were taught to be the essence of womanhood. The wife should eat from the same plantain leaves used by the husband; noblewomen were not supposed to travel; the water used for washing the feet of the husband was considered to be theertham (holy water) to the wife.
Moreover, the marriage of widows was thought to be unnecessary. Namboothiri men were allowed to take many wives, leaving many women to the sorrow of sharing in grief her undivided devotion to the husband, for women must be strictly monogamous. The evil consequence of the practice that only the eldest son marries from the same community directly affected the Antherjanam. Many women remained unmarried and died without experiencing the bliss of motherhood. As the marriage of widows was forbidden, there were many young widows who were the prey of a husband’s old-age marriage. The widows were objects of contempt in the community. The women were an absolutely neglected group in the Namboothiri community; the men treated them as creatures whose limited needs were believed to be only dressing, bathing and sleeping.
Dress Code for Women -
Women who are travelling should cover themselves with a blanket and use their traditional umbrella to escape being seen by other men, and they are also instructed to walk behind the maidservant. An Antherjanam is expected to wear only white dress. They are strictly forbidden to use gold ornaments but are allowed to use ornaments of silver or brass. An Antherjanam was expected neither to dress their hair nor to put a pottu (coloured spot) on their forehead. They are allowed to use cotton thread to tie the thali, the wedlock symbol. No other ornament on their legs and hands was allowed. The maidservant was expected to carefully watch their conduct with other men.
[Fr. Pallath J. Joseph, WOMEN AND CASTE DISCRIMINATION: The Namboothiri-Dominated Period of Kerala Culture and Society, 16-08-2002]
Smarthavicharam was the trial that a Namboothiri woman (Antherjanam) had to go through , when her chastity was doubted. Her accused male adulterers (jaaran) were also tried and if found guilty, they were all excommunicated or ostracized (Bhrasthu) and banished. This was a ritualistic trial and was conducted with the permission of the Cochin Maharaja. There was absolutely no room for public opinion or personal consideration. The accused was handed over to a society for enquiry. The entire trial was maintained by the accused’s father. There were six stages to the Smarthavicharam: 1) ‘Dasivicharam’ – where the ‘dasi’ or maid of the accused was interrogated. 2) ‘Anchampurayilackal’ – where the accused was sent to an isolation shed if substantial evidence was gathered against the Antherjanam. 3) ‘Swaroopamchollal’- wherein a notice was sent to the king about the accused and the men involved and formal request for a Smarthavicharam was made, along with the necessary monetary deposits. The king would appoint a Smarthan (judge) and his assistants and a couple of onlookers. 4) Interrogation- where the accused was questioned by the Smarthan. This would go on for days and even months. The woman was questioned till she accepted her misdeeds. She had to name all her jaarans (adulterers) and had to identify them with proof (mostly some mark on the body) and this was then verified by the Smarthan. Finally a verdict was reached. Till then the woman was considered as a ‘Sadhanam’ (inanimate). 5) ‘Dehavichedam’- If the woman was found guilty, she and her jaarans were ostracized and excommunicated. She was evicted from her caste and funeral rites were done for her. Her white coverings and umbrella were taken away from her and she was left to be on the streets. 6) ‘Shudhabhojanam’- The meal in which the entire trial team participated. If the accused were innocent, they also took part in this.
The last Smarthavicharam was considered to be that of Kuriyedathu Thathri, the one woman who decided to rebel against the society and the oppression of women by their men. There have been so many articles and debates about this topic. Some say that she used her body to put a stop to this system of male superiority through sexuality. Some consider it her meekness; her callousness and nothing else. Whatever, she rebelled and it ended!
This was the most sensational of all Smarthavicharams. It involved Savithri (Thathri) the wife of Chemmanthatta Kuriyedathu Raman Namboodiri, a wealthy but promiscuous man who thought he had intercourse with a prostitute, but soon found out that it was his young wife. He launched a Smarthavicharam against Thathri, who unlike other timid Namboothiri women was very brave and proud. She was extremely beautiful and ruled the lives of many men belonging to different castes. She was married at the age of 18 to the 60-year-old Namboothiri. The famous Jathavedan Namboothiri of the Perumannan gramam was appointed as the Smarthan by the King. The trial began and Thathri accepted all charges but demanded that everyone should be treated fairly in the trial. She demanded that everyone who slept with her also had to be prosecuted. Generally, the adulterers would get away with influence and money. No woman had ever made such a demand.This shook the whole society. There were people of high social class and standing among her adulterers- Kathakali artists, musicians, government officials, scholars and many more. There was a huge public outcry against this and the King agreed to administer equal justice. All the men were prosecuted as well. The trial went on for 40 days and Thathri named 64 men, identifying each with appropriate marks. While she was asked to name the 65th man, she brought out a ring and asked whether she really should name that man. Rumor has it that the King himself was the 65th man and he stopped the trial immediately. The final verdict was pronounced and Thathri was prosecuted along with her adulterers. She was sent to Chalakudy and was under house arrest. Among her adulterers, there were 30 Namboothiris, 10 Iyers (Pattars or Tamil Brahmanans), 13 Ambalavaasis and 11 Nairs. Many fled for fear of their lives, some died, some took to the streets and the others left their homes under unbearable humiliation. It is not clear what happened to Thathri after her exile. Some say, she married an Anglo-Indian who worked with the Indian Railways and settled down in Tamil Nadu. It is also widely rumored that Thathri was actress Sheela’s great grand mother.
Thathri’s Smarthvicharam was in 1905 and that was reportedly the last trial then. However, records speak of another Smarthavicharam in 1918. But the 1905 trial was an important milestone for the women in Kerala. It also had several effects on the culture of the state then. Many artists who were condemned in the 1905 trial had to leave their professions and this affected the state’s revenue to a large extent. Also, conducting this whole ceremony was a major expense in itself. The Cochin King decided to not hold trials ever.
One could go on about the Thathri case and the morality involved. Did she do it for pleasure or for money? Considering the fact that even men of lower-caste who couldn’t afford to pay her were involved, it is wise to think she didn’t do it for money. If it was pleasure, 64 seems a huge number to believe and moreover, she wouldn’t ask for fair trial before the Smarthan. She never tried to justify herself. So one is forced to think that she used this method to strike against the unjust male superiority in the society. It would be too lame to call her cuckoo. A woman of her standing, clearly identifying her adulterers and working her charm up to the King really deserves attention. It must have been revenge. Was she alone in this struggle or were there supporters?- this remains under the shades even now.
The Smarthavicharam of Kuriyedathu Thathri remains an infamous episode in the history of Kerala. As a single entity she was able to bring down the pillars of an unjust system. One of my friends turned my attention to another point here- more than the plight of women in Kerala then, it was the caste system that caused oppression around. This was the state of the Antherjanam. Nair women, on the other hand, could take any man to bed. It was not considered immoral. It was only the Antherjenam who were prosecuted, even if some man remotely doubted her chastity.
Today, we’ve come so far from all these. Yet, there is this tiny bit in us which thinks that we are oppressed. Everything we do, falls in this direction. It is a male-dominated society, I agree. But at least within ourselves, we should find our freedom. We don’t need freedom from men. I am not at all a feminist. We need freedom from our limited thinking.
Notes: There have been many articles on this topic. My post here is my understanding of the whole episode of this particular Smarthavicharam and how I assimilated the facts from the various articles that I read. You may find them here:
1. 29 Jul 2013, ആലങ്കോട് ലീലാകൃഷ്ണന്, “സ്ത്രീശരീരം നടത്തിയ കലാപം”
2. 23 Jul 2009, Maddys’ Ramblings, “Kuriyedathu Thathriyude Smarthavicharam”
3. Jul 1999, Chakiar A M N, “The Last caste inquisition”
4. 16 Aug 2002, Fr.Pallath J. Joseph, “WOMEN AND CASTE DISCRIMINATION: The Namboothiri-Dominated Period of Kerala Culture and Society”