Malabar Marriage Act, 1896
In 1896, the government of Madras passed the Malabar Marriage Act in response to the recommendations of the Malabar Marriage Commission of 1891. This allowed members of any caste practising marumakkatayam (matriliny) in Malabar to register a sambandham as a marriage. It was permissive rather than restrictive law: whether or not a relationship was registered was entirely the decision of the people involved in that relationship.
Initiated by the work of Sir C. Sankaran Nair, the measure was largely a failure, with Panikkar noting that in the 20 years following introduction of the Act only six such relationships were registered and that all of those involved family members of Nair himself.
Sambandham and marumakkatayam
Sambandham was a form of relationship practiced by the Nair caste. Anthropologist Christopher Fuller has said that, "The Nayars' marriage system has made them one of the most famous of all communities in anthropological circles". Thomas Nossiter has commented that their system, which included the pre-pubertal thalikettu kalyanam rite and permitted both hypergamy and a form of polyandry, "was so loosely arranged as to raise doubts as to whether 'marriage' existed at all." Men and women could both have several partners, and they could both break away from those partners and take other partners with a minimum of effort.
The sambandham relationship was not recognised by the British colonial government, who saw it as akin to concubinage. The civil courts refused jurisdiction, principally because the relationship could so easily be dissolved by either party to it and because there were no rights of property connected to it. The dominant position that the Nambudiri Brahmins held over the region, due to their overwhelming control of landholdings, was seen by those outside the caste system as providing a means for Nambudiri men to gain sexual access to women from the lower-ranked Nair community.
Marumakkatayam was also a source of angst among the colonial administrators.
Movement for change
Expressions of dissatisfaction with marumakkatayam became prominent in newspapers of the 1870s and 1880s, and were also voiced by the colonial administrator William Logan in an official report of that period. Matters came to a head in 1890 when Nair introduced a bill seeking legitimisation of the customs in the Madras Legislative Council, causing the administration to establish the Malabar Marriage Commission in 1891. This was to investigate matrilineal customs and was also charged with recommending whether or not legal measures should be used to effect changes to the traditional practices for marriage, family organisation and inheritance.
- Panikkar, K. M. (July–December 1918). "Some Aspects of Nayar Life". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 48: 271. Retrieved 2011-06-24.
- 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. JSTOR 313121. doi:10.1017/s0026749x01002037.(subscription required)
- Fuller, C. J. (Winter 1975). "The Internal Structure of the Nayar Caste". Journal of Anthropological Research. 31 (4): 283. JSTOR 3629883.(subscription required)
- Nossiter, Thomas Johnson (1982). "Kerala's identity: unity and diversity". Communism in Kerala: a study in political adaptation. University of California Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-520-04667-2. Retrieved 2011-06-24.
- Fuller, C. J. (Winter 1975). "The Internal Structure of the Nayar Caste". Journal of Anthropological Research. 31 (4): 296. JSTOR 3629883.(subscription required)
- Kodoth, Praveena (May 2001). "Courting Legitimacy or Delegitimizing Custom? Sexuality, Sambandham and Marriage Reform in Late Nineteenth-Century Malabar". Modern Asian Studies. 35 (2): 351. JSTOR 313121. doi:10.1017/s0026749x01002037.(subscription required)