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Sambandham (literally "sama=equal, bandham=relationship") was a marriage system primarily followed by the Nairs and Ambalavasi in what is the present-day Indian state of Kerala. All of these were matrilineal communities. The custom is no longer observed. Alternate names for the system were used by different social groups and in different regions; they included Pudavamuri, Pudavakoda, Vastradanam, Vitaram Kayaruka, Mangalam and Uzhamporukkuka.
Act IV of the Madras Marriage Act, 1896, defined Sambandham as "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 an 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, an elderly woman would bring in the bride 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. A Sambandham may take place only if the bride had already had the elaborate ritual marriage known as Kettu Kalyanam.
While marriage is generally expected to bind the man and woman involved in a permanent alliance, the Marumakkathayam law of Kerala did not consider this kind of lifelong alliance to be the most important part of marriage. Sambandam marriages were more contractual and could be dissolved at will by either party. By the late 18th century, changes started appearing in the system and the Sambandam started becoming more regularised. Under this matrilineal or matriarchal system, women had property rights; children inherited from their mothers and not their fathers. As a result, fathers were excluded from almost any responsibility in the upbringing or care of their children. The maternal uncles of the children were more important to their upbringing. Sambandam was a ceremony to establish the right to cohabit and acknowledge a sort of partnership between a man and a woman. Families arranged these, which did not depend on individual choice, though divorce could also be contracted. A woman could have Sambandam with a male of her same caste or of superior caste. But, Sambandam cannot be considered synonymous to concubinage. It was regulated because it could only be contracted after certain rituals for the bride, which were mandatory on the pain of excommunication.
The veli system was beneficial to the matriarchal upper castes as well as to the patriarchal Nambudiri and other Brahmin castes of Kerala. Among the Nambudiri, only the eldest son was permitted to marry; this was intended to maintain the integrity of ancestral property and prevent its being divided among too many descendants. The remaining males contracted Sambandams 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 mother's castes and families, the Nambudiri father would not be obliged to provide for them. For the matriarchal castes in turn, Sambandams with Brahmins were a matter of prestige and social status. Thus both castes benefited by contracting Sambandam. Nambudiri-Kshatriya and Nambudiri-Nair Sambandams may also be considered morganatic marriages. While the father 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.
Due to the majority of Nambudiri men having marital alliances with women of other castes, the number of Nambudiris rapidly dwindled. Many Nambudiri women were forced to marry men much older than themselves, resulting often in young widows, or else to die as spinsters. Due to the imbalance in the system, the numerical strength of the Nair Tharavadus and other matriarchal castes increased at the cost of the Nambudiri women.
Changes in Sambandam in Kerala
The Malabar Marriage Act, 1896 was a failed attempt to legitimise sambandam. Similar legislation in the southern parts of the region followed much later, namely, the Travancore Nair Act of 1912 and 1925, and the Cochin Nair Act of 1920.
Nambudiri Yogakshema Mahasabha, a revolutionary group of Nambudiris founded in 1908, from 1919 agitated for all Nambudiris to marry within their own 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. They decided to boycott Sambandams. This revolutionary meeting deciding this was held in "Bharatheebhooshanam" at Thrissur on 25th Medam 1094 (1919 A.D.). The Madras Namboothiri Act of 1933 confirmed this change. In the same year, the Madras Marumakkathayam Act was passed, by which Sambandam was acknowledged as a regular marriage, conferring on the children rights of inheritance and property as held by children whose parents were both Nambudiris. The declaration and these Acts led to a sudden decline in the number of Sambandam marriages and the practice died out within around a decade.
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