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This article is about a Hindu caste. For other uses, see Nair (disambiguation).

The Nair /ˈnɑː.jər/, also known as Nayar, or Malayala Kshatriya, are a martial caste which was primarily associated with military conflicts in Kerala. Nairs feature prominently in the history of Kerala, especially during Islamic and European incursions of the region.



Velu Thampi Dalawa was a Nair who led the Travancore army against the British
Varna Kshatriya
Classification Forward caste
Religions Hinduism
Languages Malayalam
Populated States Kerala

Military History

Historically, Nairs were the martial nobility of Kerala. Constant invasion from Muslim Sultanates and Kingdoms have resulted in the Nair caste's rise to prominence. One way that Nairs were trained for these conflicts were through the martial art of Kalaripayattu. Nairs were trained in Kalaripyattu from a young age, and trained to have honorable, healthy, and active lifestyles. Nairs were especially known for their distinctive fighting style with light armor and training in martial arts.

Muslim armies from Mysore invaded and gained control of northern Kerala in 1766 and remained in power until 1792, until Nair soldiers under the combined forces of Travancore-Cochin were abled to defeat mysore. Most of the soldiers and commanders under this army were Nairs. Countless victories such as the one in Srirangapatnam, in which the Nairs had captured Tipu Sultan's sword. ;.[1] Nairs also participated in several rebellions against the British, the most notable being the one of Pazahassi Raja. Another attack on British colonialism would be that of Velu Thampi Dalawa's, in which many Nairs marched to Travancore to topple the weak king Avittom Thirunal Balarama Varma, who had gave the British power over his subjects in exchange for money.[2] Although there were many other military conflicts in which Nairs served, a notable example would be the the battle of Colachel in which the Dutch were permanently repelled from India.

The Kataram, a dagger used by Nairs part of Kalaripayat.

Travancore units

In pre-colonial times, the Nairs often saw extensive battle against Muslim Invaders who had constantly invaded Kerala.The Travancore Nair Infantry was formed in 1704 for the defense of the Maharajah Marthanda Varma, and distinguished themselves in battle against the Dutch at the Battle of Colachel (1741).[3] The Nair Pattalam was disbanded following the British takeover of Malabar after the Anglo-Mysore Wars, and the Nair were first disbanded, and later disarmed, upon which they turned to agriculture.[4]

Portuguese era

The Nayar were involved in early regional conflicts against the Portuguese . During this period, the two parties maintained their distinctive styles, with the Nair fighting with light or no armor and a shield, and the Portuguese wearing steel armour to protect from sword strokes and bullet wounds, despite the heat.[5]

British era

The Travancore army was disbanded following Velu Thampi Dalawa's revolt against Travancore.[6] (some Nair battalions of the Raja were dismissed in 1809 following the Travancore War[7]) and its remnants became the Travancore Nair Brigade in 1818-1819.[8] The Nair unit, 1st Battalion of HH Rani's Troops, was likewise incorporated into this brigade, but the Brigade served only in a police capacity until the withdrawal of the East India Company troops in 1836. In 1901, the unit was relieved of its police duties and placed under a British officer.[9] In 1935, the Travancore Nair Regiment and the Maharaja's bodyguard were fused and renamed the Travancore State Force, as part of the Indian State Forces system.[9] Thereafter, members of other communities were allowed to join.[citation needed]


Two former Travancore State Army divisions, the 1st Travancore Nayar Infantry and the 2nd Travancore Nayar Infantry were converted into 9th and 16th Battalions of Madras Regiment respectively after the independence.[3] The Nayar Army from Cochin was incorporated into the 17th Battalion.[10]


The Nairs identify themselves as being in many subgroups and there has been attempts to acheive caste cohesion under the NSS. T. Anthropologists, ethnologists and other authors, including William Logan, believe that the last name of a Nair was a title which denoted some sort of honor bestowed upon the Nair by the king of a particular region. These names included Nair itself, Kurup, Menon, and Pillai.[11]

Attempts to achieve caste cohesion

The Nair Service Society (NSS) was founded in 1914.m, to establish a network of educational and welfare institutions and to defend and advance Nair interests in the political arena."[13] Devika and Varghese believe the year of formation to be 1913 and argue that it was established as a reaction to perceived communal slights in Travancore. Hindu Nairs were known to have conflict with the Christian and Muslim communities, who had begun to take a more prominent role after the dissolution of Travancore state, in which Nairs and other upper castes previously had more power.[14]

The NSS today has most of its power in the Travancore region of Kerala,[15] although it also has numerous satellite groups around the world.From its early years, when it was contending that the Nairs needed to join together if they were to become a political force, it argued that the caste members should cease referring to their traditional subdivisions and instead see themselves as a whole.[15]


The 1968 Socio-Economic Survey by the Government of Kerala gave the population of the Nair community as approximately 13% (2 million) of the total population of the state.[16]

Social and political organization

Prior to the reorganization of the region by the British, it was divided into around ten feudal states. Each of these was governed by a rajah (king) and was subdivided into organizational units known as nads. In turn, the nads were divided into dēsams, which Gough considers to be villages. However, Panikkar states that the dēsams were themselves divided into amsas, and that these were the villages. He believes that generally only the amsas survived the reorganization.[17][18]

The person who governed the nad was known as the naduvazhi. It was an inherited role, originally bestowed by a king, and of a lower ritual rank than the royal lineages. Although Nair families, they generally used the title of Samantan and were treated as vassals. However, some naduvazhi were feudatory chiefs, former kings whose territory had been taken over by, for example, the Zamorins of Calicut. In these instances, although they were obeisant to the rajah they held a higher ritual rank than the Zamorin as a consequence of their longer history of government; they also had more power than the vassal lords. .[17] The naduvazhi maintained criminal and civil order and could demand military service from all Nairs below him. There was usually a permanent force of between 500 and 1000 men available and these were called upon by the rajah when required. All fighting was usually suspended during the monsoon period of May to September, when movement around the country was almost impossible. Roads did not exist, nor wheeled vehicles or pack animals, until after 1766.[18][19]

The desavazhi had the right to operate kalaris, which were military training schools that all young Nair men from the age of 12 were expected to attend. They ceased attending at the age of 18 but were expected to be available for military duty at a day's notice. The function of these schools became less significant practically following the introduction of the Arms Act by the British, which limited the right of Nairs to carry arms (prior to that, Nairs were known to carry distinctive swords in public); however, they continued to exist and provided some training to those Nair men who did not attend English schools. This training became evident at festivals, during which a martial review would take place.[18]


Birth Traditions

The Nair traditionally practiced certain rituals relating to births, although often only for those of the first-born. Of these, Phulikudh was the most significant to them. This involved rubbing coconut oil into the child, followed by bathing, formal dressing, consultation with an astrologer regarding the expected date of birth and a ceremonial drinking of tamarind juice, dripped along the blade of a sword. The woman would also select a grain, from which it was believed possible to determine the gender of the child. This ritual was performed in front of the community and contained many symbolic references; for example, the use of the sword was believed to make the child a strong warrior.[20]

In the months subsequent to the birth there followed other rituals, including those of purification and the adornment of the child with a symbolic belt to ward off illness, as well as a name-giving ceremony at which an astrologer again played a significant role. There were also various dietary restrictions, both for the woman during pregnancy and for the child in the first few months of its life.[20]

Death rituals

Birth was considered to be ritually polluting, and death in the family was thought to be much more so, unless it was one of honor.[20] In the case of the death, the deceased would be burned on a pyre for the most part. In either case, the ceremonies were conducted by the Maran subgroup of the community and they utilised both elements of superstition and of Hinduism. The occasions involving cremation were more ritualised than those involving burial.[21]


Despite being influenced by the Aryan and Dravidian traditions, some Nāga customs not found anywhere else in South India can still be found amongst the Nairs, such as serpent worship. Sacred forests, where naga devatas (serpent gods) are worshipped can be found in many Nair tharavads. These sacred forests are known as sarpa kavu ("abode of the Snake God"). Shrines where offerings are made to serpents, chitrakudam (nagakotta) are "an indispensable adjunct" to every Nayar house.[22] The worship of Nagas were significant to the entire tharavad since, as Gough says, they "... could inflict or avert sickness in general but were especially believed to be responsible for the fertility or barrenness of tharavad women". She considers it possible that they were viewed as phallic symbols.[23]

Supernatural beliefs

According to Panikkar, a christian, they believed in spirits. Pretam is the spirit of prematurely dead people; Bhutam, Panikkar says, "is seen generally in marshy districts and does not always hurt people unless they go very near him"; and Pisachu is spirit of bad air causing illnesses. Believing Pretam to be wandering around the place of death, they warned people to stay away from those areas between 9 am and 3 pm.[24] Nairs believe in the evil eye — that jealousy from others had negative effect; they also believed that utterances of a person with kari nakku (black-tongue) had a similarly bad effect.[25] They also believed koti from a poor man watching someone eating a delicious food will cause stomach-aches and dysentery.[26]


The historical attire of the Nair men was the mundu, a cloth wrapped around the waist and then left to hang down nearly to the ground, rather than tucked in as in other parts of India. The low-hanging fabric was considered as specific to the Nair caste, and at the start of the 20th century it was noted that a non-Nair could be beaten for daring to wear a cloth hanging low to the ground. Wealthy Nairs might use silk for this purpose, and they also would cover their upper body with a kurta. Turbans were eschewed by the Nairs, as they were seen to be associated with other ethnic groups. Nair women wear the sari in a kaccha pattern, with one portion covering the lower body and the other the upper, or a nariyathu (upper-body cloth) paired with a red blouse.[27]


A 16th-century writer noted that drinking was unknown in Travancore at that time, but in 1787 AD the Maharaja formally prohibited takara. The Nayar avoided beef, lamb, and fish as well.[28] In the modern day, alcohol is avoided by members of the caste, but changing attitudes and liberal standpoints in Kerala have made that different.[29] During the pre-Independence era, consumption of beef and alcohol was also strictly prohibited and doing so often resulted in excommunication[30][page needed]

See also



  1. ^ Quoted by Fuller, citing K. P. Padmanabha Menon, History of Kerala, volume 3 (1933), pp. 192-195
  2. ^ Quoted by Fuller, citing V. Nagam Aiya, The Travancore State Manual, volume 2 (1906), pp. 348-349
  3. ^ Quoted by Fuller, citing L. K. Anantha Krishna Iyer, The Cochin Tribes and Castes, volume 2 (1912), pp. 14-18
  4. ^ Quoted by Fuller, citing C. A. Innes, Madras District Gazetteers: Malabar and Anjengo, (ed. F. B. Evans), volume 1 (1908), pp. 116-120
  5. ^ Quoted by Fuller, citing E. Kathleen Gough, Nayar, Central Kerala in Matrilineal Kinship, (ed. D. M. Schneider & E. K. Gough), (1961), pp. 308-312


  1. ^ Nossiter (1982) pp. 27-28
  2. ^ Biography, Mysore History Tipu
  3. ^ a b Gautam Sharma (1 December 1990). Valour and sacrifice: famous regiments of the Indian Army. Allied Publishers. pp. 59–. ISBN 978-81-7023-140-0. Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  4. ^ G. Ramachandra Raj (1974). Functions and dysfunctions of social conflict. Popular Prakashan. p. 18. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  5. ^ Gundert, Hermann (2003). Kerala pazhama: antiquity of Kerala. International School of Dravidian Linguistics. p. v. Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  6. ^ S. Ramanath Aiyar (1903). A brief sketch of Travancore, the model state of India: the country, its people and its progress under the Maharajah. Modern Star Press. pp. 164–. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  7. ^ James Mill (1845). The history of British India. J. Madden. p. 256. Retrieved 2 June 2011. 
  8. ^ "Army of Travancore". REPORT OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE REFORMS COMMITTEE 1958. Government of Kerala. Retrieved 2007-02-19. 
  9. ^ a b D. P. Ramachandran (October 2008). Empire's First Soldiers. Lancer Publishers. pp. 284–. ISBN 978-0-9796174-7-8. Retrieved 2011-06-06. 
  10. ^ Sharma, Gautam (1990). Valour and sacrifice: famous regiments of the Indian Army. Allied Publishers. p. 59. ISBN 978-81-7023-140-0. Retrieved 2011-05-04. 
  11. ^ Fuller (1975) pp. 286-289
  12. ^ Fuller (1975) Reproduced from p. 288
  13. ^ Nossiter (1982) p. 28
  14. ^ Devika, J.; Varghese, V. J. (March 2010). To Survive or to flourish? Minority rights and Syrian Christian assertions in 20th century Travancore (PDF). Trivandrum: Centre for Development Studies. pp. 15–17. Retrieved 2012-04-28. 
  15. ^ a b Fuller (1975) pp. 303-304.
  16. ^ Fuller (1975) p. 283
  17. ^ a b Gough (1961) pp. 307-308
  18. ^ a b c Panikkar pp. 257-258
  19. ^ Gough (1961) pp. 302-303
  20. ^ a b c Panikkar (1918) pp. 272-275.
  21. ^ Panikkar (1918) pp. 275-276.
  22. ^ Roy, Sarat Chandra (1945). Man in India. A.K. Bose. p. 56. Retrieved 2011-06-03. 
  23. ^ Gough (1961) p. 342.
  24. ^ Panikkar (1918) p. 279-280
  25. ^ Panikkar (1918) p. 282-283
  26. ^ Panikkar (1918) p. 283
  27. ^ Singh, Kumar Suresh; Bhanu, B. V.; Anthropological Survey of India (2004). People of India: Maharashtra. Popular Prakashan. p. 1520. ISBN 978-81-7991-102-0. Retrieved 16 June 2011. 
  28. ^ Kurien, Prema A. (2002). Kaleidoscopic ethnicity: international migration and the reconstruction of community identities in India. Rutgers University Press. pp. 124–. ISBN 978-0-8135-3089-5. Retrieved 2011-06-05. 
  29. ^ Osella, Filippo; Osella, Caroline (2000). Social mobility in Kerala: modernity and identity in conflict. Pluto Press. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-7453-1693-2. Retrieved 2011-06-05. 
  30. ^ Travancore Manual of 1901


Further reading

  • Jeffrey, Robin (1994) [1976]. The Decline of Nair Dominance: Society and Politics in Travancore 1847-1908. Sussex University Press. ISBN 0-85621-054-4. 

External links