There was a common belief that Nairs were a semi urban group having peculiar customs like wearing single dhothi, holding umbrellas made of palm leaves, with swords in their hands, females having four or five husbands, having alliance (sambandhams) with Brahmins, following matriarchal hereditary system, with belief in oracles and having fond of pulluvan pattu and maintaining kavus (snake parks) and ponds in their residential place.

But all these were about years ago.  The Nairs who were proud of their ancestry and wealth and nursed their lords and Brahmins, who followed special practices of marriage are now living in an advanced and modern society, says Sri.Pattom G.Ramachandran Nair.  This is in fact a realistic assessment.  An in-depth journey through history will reveal the fact on the transition of Nair community to the present social situations.

In Ancient Days

A number of studies were made on the social set up of the tribes, the predecessors of Nairs.  Blood relation determined the rights and privileges in such tribes.   They maintained their heredity through father or mother. The system of marrying the uncle's daughter was common in some of the tribes.  The system of worshipping the dead souls was there.  When person is dead, they used to put rice (in some places betel wine also) on his mouth.  This practice might have from their strong belief that the soul of the dead person will live even after their death. They worshipped Deities (Devis and Devans). 

The advent of Dravidians to South India was between 1750 and 1400 B.C.  Before their advent, Nagas were the tribes of the area.  Historians say that radical changes occurred in socio-cultural fields with the advent of Dravidians.  The most important of them is the language.  The South Indian languages including Malayalam originated from the early Dravidian language.  During this period matriarchal and patriarchal systems were prevailing.  The group who followed matriarchal system might have become Nairs. 

Structure During Sangha Period

During Sangha era (A.D 1st to 6th Century), the social divisions like haves and have-nots, the superiors and subordinates came into existence.  There are two opinions that during Sangha period the system of inheritance was matriarchal or patriarchal. The system of burning dead bodies was in practice during this period.  The chastity of ladies was highly recognized during the period.  Polygamy was in practice.   There was independent style of life between men and women.  Love marriages were not rare.  The marriage function was grand like that of today.  Females wore clothes made of cotton or silks.  They wore ornaments too.

 Both men and women tied their hair on top of the head.  Men applied sandal paste on their chest.  They were careful in wearing new dresses.

There was no major difference between Nairs and other castes in their social structure, belief, customs and practices.  But still Nairs were considered as upper classes since they were soldiers and landlords.

Origin of Caste System

By about 7th and 8th Century AD, a number of temples were established in Kerala and they became the nerve centre of social life. Namboodiris Brahmins) were the priests and owners of temples. Untouchability was originated from the temples. It was during this period that caste system was also formed. Brahmins become more influential and powerful in the society.  Kerala society divided into two. Those who recognized Brahmin supremacy stood on the one side and others who opposed them.  The first was within the fold of Hinduism and latter was out of it.  Those who embraced Hinduism were grouped into several races.  Rulers or Kings became Kshathriyas.  The trader group known Vaisyas was not there. All others who followed Brahmnical faith later came to be known as Sudras.  They were Nairs.

In Feudal Era

Nairs became prominent during the feudal period (17th to 19th century).  A number of Naduvazhis (local rulers) emerged from Nair society.  They became the leasers of Dewaswom land (land owned by temples) and soon became highly influential in socio-economic fields.  During this period 'Thara' (village) was the lowest strata of society.

The activities of a Thara were managed by Tharakootom, a general body of the village headed by the distinguished family manager or managers of the village. The matters pertaining to a Thara was discussed and finalized here.    The practice was to nominate the prominent elder of the Thara as 'Deshavazhi' and he was the decision-implementing officer of the Thara. A number of Thara constituted a Nadu, a certain area to an extent of a district or so.  Naduvazhi is the ruler of the Nadu. Nattukoottangal assisted him.  The chief among the Tharas were the members of Nattukoottangal.  Various Nadus constituted a country and Rajah was there above Naduvazhis.  It was the Nairs or Kshathriyas who held the supremacy in all the stage from Thara to Rajah.

William Logan wrote: "I would call attention to the central point (about Malabar - Kerala), the position occupied for centuries by the Nair caste in the civil and military organisation of the province ... so lasting that there seems no reason why it should not have continued for centuries to come but for the foreign intervention... this decentralised administration, with fairly independent chieftains who acted like a parliament, gave Malabar its inherent strength." (Malabar Manual)

In the cultural field also, Nairs exhibited their talents during the feudal era.  Festivals like Onam, Vishu, Thiruvathira were popularized during this period.  Thiruvathira festival was confined only to the Nair society.

In the Last Decades of 19th Century

The changes that occurred in the caste system of Kerala during the last decades of 19th century resulted in the revision of social system.  There are several reasons for this change.  Important among them was the progress in the field of education.  Democratization and organized religions set up changed the caste-based society.  The establishment of the Nair Service Society paved the way for bridging the disparity among the sub sections of Nairs.  They overcame the existing Brahmin-Kshathriya supremacy and came in the forefront of the society as an influential group.  The superiority in caste, high educational status, bureaucratic positions etc. paved the way for the rapid growth of nair community.  They surpassed the other communities and emerged as a strong community.

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