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Sambandham (literally "relationship") was a form of marital system primarily followed by the Nairs in what is the present-day Indian state of Kerala. This system of marriage was followed by the matriarchal castes of Kerala, though today the custom has ceased to exist. Alternate names were used by different social groups and in different regions; they included Pudavamuri, Pudavakoda, Vastradanam, Vitaram Kayaruka, Mangalam and Uzhamporukkuka. According to Act IV, Madras Marriage Act, 1896, a Sambandham means:
|“||an alliance between a man and a woman, by reason of which they, in accordance with the custom of the community to which they belong, or to which either of them belongs, cohabit or intend to cohabit as husband and wife||”|
On a suitable date fixed by the astrologer, the groom and his family would arrive at the house of the bride. They would be entertained in the southern hall of the house which would be specially decorated for the ceremony. Two big brass oil lamps and paras of paddy would be kept in the centre of the room, with a bunch of coconuts in front of the lamp. The groom would be seated before the lamp. At the auspicious hour, and the bride would be brought in by an elderly lady before the groom. With the permission of the elders of the bride, the bridegroom would present the bride a wedding shawl or pudava . Once the bride receives the cloth she presents the bride groom with "thamboola" (betel leaves and arecanut). Following this a feast would be given in the house and the ceremony would be concluded. It may be stated that a Sambandham may take place only if the bride had already had her elaborate ritual marriage known as Kettu Kalyanam previously.
Status of Sambandham
|“||This strange law (Sambandham) was established to prevent them (Nair men) from fixing their love and attachment on their wife and children. Being free from all family cares, they might be more willing to devote themselves to warlike services,for which they were born||”|
- wrote Wingram, Malabar Law and Custom
As per the general definition, marriage is expected to bind the man and woman involved into a permanent alliance. However under the previously existent Marumakkathayam law of Kerala, this kind of lifelong alliance was not considered the most important part of marriage. Sambandham marriages were more contractual and dissoluble at will by both parties though by the late 18th century changes started appearing in the system and Sambandhams started becoming more regularised. The reason for this system was that under the matriarchal system women had property rights and children inherited from their mothers and not their fathers. As a result fathers were excluded from almost any responsibilities on the upbringing or care of their children. The same were fulfilled by the maternal uncles of the children. Hence Sambandham was basically the right to cohabit and a sort of partnership between a man and a woman. It was generally fixed by families and did not depend on individual choice though divorce could be contracted. A woman could have Sambandhams with a male of her same caste or of superior caste. However Sambandham cannot be considered synonymous to concubinage because it could only be contracted after certain rituals which were mandatory on the pain of excommunication. William Logan in his Malabar Manual says on page 136:
|“||Although the theory of the law sanctions freedom in these relations, conjugal fidelity is very general. Nowhere is the marriage tie - albeit informal - more rigidly observed or respected, nowhere is it more jealously guarded or its neglect more savagely avenged. The very looseness of the law makes the individual observance closer; for people have more watchful care over things they are liable to lose.||”|
The veli system was beneficial to the matriarchal upper castes as also to the patriarchal Namboodiri and other Brahmin castes of Kerala. Among the Namboodiris only the eldest son was permitted to marry with a view to maintain the integrity of ancestral property. The remaining males contracted Sambandhams with Kshatriya Princesses, aristocratic Nair ladies or from the other matriarchal castes, allowing the priestly Brahmins to cement ties with the ruling aristocracy. Since the offspring of these alliances were, as per Marumakkathayam, members of their mothers castes and families, the Namboodiri father would not be obliged to provide for them. For the matriarchal castes in turn Sambandhams with Brahmins were a matter of prestige and social status. Thus Sambandham was in both ways a gain to the castes involved. Namboodiri-Kshatriya and Namboodiri-Nair Sambandhams may also be considered morganatic marriages for while the husband was of higher social status and the mother of relatively lower status, the children were still considered legitimate although they did not inherit the titles or wealth of their fathers.
It may also be stated that due to the majority of Namboodiri men having marital alliances with women of other castes, the number of Nambudiris rapidly dwindled, and many Namboodiri ladies were forced to marry either men much older than themselves, resulting often in young widows, or else die as spinsters. At the same time the numerical strength of the Nair Tharavadus and other matriarchal castes increased at the cost of the Namboodiri ladies.
Changes in Sambandham in Kerala
The Malabar Marriage Act, 1896 was a failed attempt to legitimise sambandham. Similar legislations in the southern parts followed much later as is evidenced by Travancore Nair Act of 1912, 1925 and the Cochin Nair Act of 1920.
Namboodiri Yogakshema Mahasabha, a revolutionary group of Namboodiris and founded in 1908, took a decision in 1919 and agitated for marriage of all Namboodiris within the community. The Sabha declared the marriages of younger brothers from within the community as official, irrespective of whether the elder brothers were married or not and decided to boycott Sambandhams. This revolutionary meeting was held in "Bharatheebhooshanam" at Thrissur on 25th Medam 1094 (1919 A.D.). The aim was embodied in the Madras Namboothiri Act of 1933. In the same year, the Madras Marumakkathayam Act was passed, by which Sambandham was considered as a regular marriage, conferring on the children rights of inheritance and property as held by children whose parents were both Namboodiris. The declaration and these Acts led to a sudden decline in the number of Sambandham marriages, and this practice ended shortly (in about ten years).
- Kodoth, Praveena (May 2001). "Courting Legitimacy or Delegitimizing Custom? Sexuality, Sambandham and Marriage Reform in Late Nineteenth-Century Malabar". Modern Asian Studies 35 (2): 350. Retrieved 2011-06-24.(subscription required)
- Moore, Melinda. “Symbol and Meaning in Nayar Marriage Ritual.” American Ethnologist. 15 (1998) 254-273
- Gough, K. (1961) Nayar: Central Kearla, in Schneider, D. M. & Gough, K. (Eds.) Matrilineal Kinship. Berkeley & Los Angelos, p298-404
- Karl, R. (2003) Women in Practice: A Comparative Analysis of Gender and Sexuality in India. 2003 Marleigh Grayer Ryan Student Prize ; Moore, M. (1998) Symbol and Meaning in Nayar Marriage Ritual, American Ethnologist 15:254-73
- Jamanadas, K. (nd) Use Of Sex By Brahmins To Gain Supremacy. Online article, as accessed Oct. 15, 2004 
- Report of the Malabar Marriage Commission I (Madras: Lawrence Asylum Press, 1891), p. 98. Appendix A, Home Judicial Proceedings (May 1896), no. 245±55, Part B. National Archives of India
- Dirks, Nicholas. “Homo Hierarchies: Origins of an Idea.” Castes of Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2001.
- Castes and Tribes of Southern India by Edgar Thurston.