Tharavad ("Ancestoral home", pronunciation (help·info)) is a system of joint family practised by people in Kerala, especially Nairs. Tharavadu was a legal entity like a Hindu Undivided Family as per Indian Income Tax laws, and was entitled to own properties. The others, like Christians and Muslims also now refer to their ancestral home as Tharavadu. However the Nairs system was very different and was an integral part of their joint-family lifestyle in the bygone era. There was a very complex system of relationships amongst tharavads, which were based on the matriarchal and marriage relationships. The key to a Nair Tharavad was a very prominent temple for forefathers and Serpent Groves.
According sangam literetaure, Malainadu (Kerala) was divided into 64 Tharas. Each Thara (an administrative unit) had four Tharavads - Amsoms. Four Tharas or 16 Tharavads formed a Desom. Four Desams constituted a Nadu - ruled by a Naduvazhi. The Naduvazhis elected the King.
Each Nair Tharavad has a unique name. As joint families grew and established independent settlements, the Shakhas (branches) modified the names in such a way that the main Tharavad names are identifiable, yet the Shakha (or Thavazhi, i.e. Thay Vazhi which means Through Mother) had a distinct name.
Social structure and rituals
Some Tharavadus were the protectors and rulers of the Desham (region) that they were in and a reporting relationship emerged to a "Naadu Vaazhi" (Ruler of the land). Naadu is a group of Deshams. Since the tharavad had a name of its own, it invested the members with a sense of responsibility to conduct themselves in a manner befitting the traditions.
The Tharavad, Ancestoral home was administered by a Karnavar, the senior most male member of the family, who would be the eldest maternal uncle of the family. The members of the Tharavad consisted of mother, daughters, sons, sisters and brothers. The fathers and husbands had only a minimal role to play in the affairs of the Tharavad. It was a true matrilineal affair. The Karanavar took all major decisions, however, the consent of the eldest female member of the family was obtained before implementing the decisions. This eldest female member would be his maternal grandmother, own mother, mother's sister, his own sister or a sister through his maternal lineage. Since the lineage was through the female members, the birth of a daughter was always welcomed.
A fresh water pond (Kulam) was an essential requirement for the Tharavad for bathing purposes. Daily baths were a must for all. Also, there were many rituals which needed ceremonial bathing.
Each tharavad also has a Para Devatha (clan deity) revered by those in the particular tharavad. Temples were built to honour these deities. A Kalarideivam/devatha or deity presiding over the practice of Kalarippayattu (martial art form in Kerala) was also honoured.
Every Tharavad had a Sarpa Kavu (Sacred Grove for Serpents) for the worship of serpent deities. Annual rituals and feasts were ceremonially conducted at the Sarpa Kavus.
Many Tharavad houses were grand and unique in style and architecture, and many tharavads owned temples, schools, other buildings and vast expanses of land. One peculiarity of Nair tharavad in the past was that they were built always quite deep into the landed property owned by the tharavad and almost in the middle of the main property, never at the edges, mainly for security and military strategy reasons. However as the families grew bigger and more homes were built, in recent times, things have changed.
The Tharavadu house had a unique Kerala style architecture with an inner courtyard or many inner courtyards enclosed within the several large buildings built in the traditional Kerala style, including wells.
There were specific locations for prayer places, kitchens, storage for grains, living places for women and men - both married and unmarried - in the Tharavad building complex. A NaaluKettu had four sectional buildings, Thekkini (Southern Section), Kizhakkini (Eastern Section), Vadakkini (Northern Section), and Padinjattini (Western Section), around a single inner courtyard. The Thekkini was the abode of the Karnavar. The Vadakkini was for the kitchen and for women. The Padinjattini consisted of bedrooms for the married women. There was a separate Uralppura (Building for Mortar) for rice meshing. This same room was used for separation of women during their menstrual periods.
Tharavads of occupational groups
Many occupational groups had their own Tharavads associated with the Naaduvazhi centres. These Tharavdus were centres for imparting various vocational knowledges. These Tharavadus also hosted Bhagavathi temples where the Karnavar officiated all the religious ceremonies.
Deterioraton of Tharavadu system
The socio-cultural changes which accompanied industrialization, modernization and political awakening had its toll on many old institutions.
The matrilineal communities had to change with times. Maternal uncles started caring for their own children instead of their nephews and nieces. Fathers took charge of their sons and daughters and the husband and wife started living together with their offspring.
Social reforms spread with modern education. Partition of Tharavadus for individual share (Ohari Bhaagam) happened due to enactments. Tharavadus crumbled. The matrilineal system disintegrated.
The change occurred within a span of 25 years and by the 1940s the Tharavadu system of living became a thing of the past. Big Naalukettu and Ettukettu structures began to collapse or were sold off.