A BRIEF OVERVIEW NAYAR CULTURE AND SOCIAL ORGANIZATION
A Brief Introduction to the Nayar
By Myranda Grecinger
In Kerala of southwest India lives an indigenous people, called the Nayar. They are known for having a highly complex and intriguing culture. The Nayar are a warrior caste who follow matrilineal dissention and are said to practice polygyny. (Nowak & Laird, 2010) Their villages are primarily sustained thru agriculture and display little significant difference between wealthy and poor families socially or economically. This society is unparalleled in many cultural aspects by any other culture even within India. Their traditions, beliefs and customs have been the subject of much debate and fascination among scholars and authorities for generations.
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The Nayars of Kerala, south-west India, unusually trace descent through the female line and, in the past, had a marriage system in which women were allowed several husbands simultaneously. This system has brought the Nayars continuing fame in anthropological circles. In this 1976 study, Dr Fuller analyses fieldwork data collected among Nayars in a village in southern Kerala, a region on which there is practically no modern anthropological information.
Birth and Infancy in Nayar Society
As with many cultures, the arrival of a Nayar child marks a blessed and celebratory event. It is the beginning of life, a journey full of ups, downs, hardship and elation. For the first few days of a Nayar infant’s life, he or she will spend all of their time secluded in a sacred room bonding in private with his or her mother, no man or unmarried woman is permitted to enter the area. A baby whose mother dies in child birth may be raised by any woman who is in milk within the village and will be seen as her child for all purposes. It is important that the child be claimed by a woman in milk for two reasons, one because a Nayar baby may not receive any food aside from its mother’s milk for quite some time, and two because Nayar children reside in their mother’s home all their lives. (Panikkar, 1918)
Once the child has reached twenty-eight days old and its umbilical cord has been buried or burned, the child may then be brought out of seclusion and accompany its mother to the local temple. Once at the temple, the child will undergo two consecutive ritual ceremonies. During the first ceremony a beautifully adorned belt will be place around the child’s waist, this is a rite of passage which now allows for the child to be clothed and adorned with ornaments. The waist garment often includes a special amulet or jewel which is meant to ward off demonic presences and evil. The second ceremony entails naming the child and is done by having a priest or an astrologer read his or her horoscope, the clergymen then recites the initials of the stars, planets, or deities that accompany the reading and the child’s name is forged with the use of a chosen set of those letters. (Panikkar, 1918) The child is now part of the village and is no longer a newborn. Around this time a he or she may receive their first taste of food when they are introduced to cooked flour made of dried fruits.
Childhood as a Nayar
When a Nayar baby reaches six months of age another ceremony takes place, the child is taken once again to the temple where he or she and their family are purified and cleansed. This is done through the reciting of chants and bathing in the temple bath, then dressing in white. Once cleansed, a male relative will offer a gift to the gods and then feed the child a bit of rice from his bare finger. It is believed by the Nayar that during this ritual a child will receive the positive aspects of the person feeding them. (Panikkar, 1918) When this ceremony is complete the child’s life will go on somewhat uneventful for some time. There appears to be little information regarding the life of a Nayar child after infancy aside from the occasional mention of assisting an older relative during various ceremonies
Due to the fact that the Nayar are somewhat of a matrilineal society, the Nayar child has very little need for a patriarchal figure. (Lee, 1982) It is a highly beneficial set up since many Nayar children may not be aware of the father’s paternity, they simply refer respectfully to all of their mother’s lovers as lord or leader and to her first husband as little father though even he has no patriarchal authority over them. (Lee, 1982) Nayar women have sole parental responsibility for their children. (Nowak & Laird, 2010) Nayar boys are taught to be strong and courageous warriors by their matriarchal uncles and are taught to be men by the same or by brothers or other men within their mother’s home but are primarily raised by their mother and aunts. Nayar girls also have little need for a male influence as they are traditionally wed in a special ceremony prior to reaching puberty and spend their youth preparing to be matriarchs. (Panikkar, 1918)
Entry into Adulthood
Once a Nayar girl has been through the first wedding ceremony called the Talikettu she is considered to be married. Although this ceremony is the subject of some debate, many believe its intended purpose is that a woman’s offspring will always be legitimized by this union. In some cases both the first husband and the biological father will claim a child as his own by paying a midwife’s expenses, it is only a formality which seems to be the case of the first wedding as well. The wedding begins as a political event in which the villagers decide that it is time for all of the girls under the age of thirteen to be inducted as women. (Panikkar, 1918) Once this happens, a meeting is called between the village and all of its allies in which the topic of the ceremony and the identity of a groom are discussed and a medicine man determines the day and time it will take place.
When the day of the ceremony arrives the girls are adorned in jewels, ornaments and beautiful clothing, much singing and dancing take place and the groom is treated as royalty. The girls prance in circles around the groom and he awards their families with cloth as is their custom in matrimony. At this time a magician ties a particular amulet around the girl’s necks and pronounces them married. A magnificent, elaborate feast ensues for four days and the girls may or may not ever see their first husband again, depending on where his family resides. The girls are now married and honored as such in their village and once they have had their Terundu Kuli, a ritualistic, public celebration pronouncing their first menstruation and ability to have children, they may now wed whomever they choose. (Moore, 1988)
Nayar Marriage and Pregnancy
Once a Nayar woman has chosen a husband he must present her family with cloth and often that is the extent of the ritual, they are then pronounced husband and wife and may meet conjugally in the woman’s home. (Panikkar, 1918) A Nayar woman appears to have little responsibility to this husband though, he is purely a sperm donor and a pleasantry who visits only after dinner and leaves before sunrise. If the couple have a disagreement there is little trouble obtaining a divorce, the two merely separate, though in some communities if it is the husbands choice he must first give her notice. Once a couple has separated they are both free to remarry if they have not done so already. (Panikkar, 1918) A Nayar woman’s duty is only to her mother’s family, their assets and her own children, not a man.
When a marriage results in a pregnancy, a Nayar woman goes through a string of rituals and ceremonies. One tells her what the gender of the child will be, another ensures that the child will be born with a sensitive and generous soul and will possess attributes such as courage and bravery, all of which are character traits that are highly valued in Nayar society. Some ritual and ceremonies tell a woman what she should eat and what not to eat in accordance with their beliefs and customs, others make her pure and still others procure her safety and security or seclude her until she is pure. Whatever the case may be, a woman during pregnancy is always seen to by the women of her family and is not to be bothered by any man but her own brother or uncle procuring her safety. (Panikkar, 1918) Once the baby is born she will spend a great deal of time alone with it before her first public appearance twenty eight days later. At which time she may choose to take the child to visit the father’s home and bring gifts for his mother and sisters. (Panikkar, 1918)
The Nayar Man
Many scholars proclaim the women of the Nayar to be strictly polygynous, but others claim this is a misconception and that Nayar women are simply marrying and separating and then remarrying, it may be that both are accurate, each of a separate community. The fact is, either way, Nayar women do appear to have multiple husbands whether consecutive or simultaneously. This goes along with the presumption that Nayar women hold more power, stature, and freedom then many of their counter parts across the country. Traditionally women in Nayar cultures hold decision making powers over themselves and their families and are the primary holders of all land and assets owned and maintained within the family line. (Malayali, 2005) Men, traditionally, were free from these restraints or the restraints of conventional husbandry due to the necessity of being free to leave for purposes of war but, freedom came at the cost of having very little political, social, or economical power or stature within the community. In fact, the only duty men are expected to fill at home is to train their nephews and visit their wives long enough to impregnate them, and of course to show up and claim paternity when necessary. (Moore, 1985)
While much of the reading material that can be found on the Nayar seems to neglect to incorporate much on the lives of Nayar men, there are some references that provide some insight as to their perspective and significance. Nayar men are considered by many to be polygamous, therefore, while being one of perhaps several husbands to a Nayar woman, they, themselves have several partners. Unlike women, there appears to be a common perception among Nayar men that these relationships are more of a concubinous nature than multiple marriages (Moore, 1985). Although, in some instances Nayar men have been known in their old age to choose a single wife and try to set up a separate living arrangement with her. This is interesting because there is also a common desire among many Nayar men that appears to have a basis in the desire to claim traditional paternity. Evidence of this paternal desire is rooted in many stories relating to men attempting to place their own earnings or assets in their wife’s name or leave it to their own offspring rather than their sister’s. (Kuhl, 2001) This goes against Nayar tradition and apparently is frowned upon.
Nayar Economic Structure and Cultural Outlook
Nayar villages are comprised mainly of family farms. Their economy is based on the cultivation of cocoanuts and rice. Tracts of land and the houses that occupy them are passed down from mother to daughter. Families keep servants who provide farm labor. These servants were once slaves, but since the abolishment of slavery have remained, for the most part with the families to whom they belonged due to the fact that their social cast prevents much in the way of opportunity, on a Nayar farm they are provided for. The traditional Nayar compound is typically a garden home. Families grow everything they need to supply their own families and those of their servants’ right at home and rarely purchase from a market. Their diet consists of mostly rice, cocoanuts, pork and fish, cooked in a variety of different ways for each meal. (Panikkar, 1918) Due to the fact that the majority of Nayar sustain themselves the same way, their economy is fairly stable and very little distiguishability lies between wealthy and poor in Nayar society. In many cases of Nayar family or house and land units, family members share personal income and assets. Even those who are educated and seek outside employment positions in fields other than agriculture are bringing their earnings home to share with the family and therefore are not financially excelling past what is typical for the region. (Panikkar, 1918)
The villages of the Nayar abound with celebrations of life, love, prosperity and even death, as with a man who remains pure for a year following a death in the family. The spiritual beliefs in a Nayar community, for the most part revolve around magic and superstition, as opposed to traditional Hindu religion, though they do recognize many Hindu deities. (Panikkar, 1918) Their traditions involving marriage and divorce, paternity and inheritances are far from the norm found in other regions of India; they are related in many ways and appear to simply be divinations that worked for this particular caste. Unfortunately, it appears that these traditions are slowly beginning to fall by the wayside as globalization and cross-cultural influence take their toll.
British influence has changed some of the traditional Nayar views on matrimony and parentage and some Nayar communities are beginning to lean towards monogamy as well as natural patriarchal parentage. Although for the most part matrilineal heritage is still recognized, bi-lineal heritage is beginning to take shape as well. With current trends moving further and further away from the traditional Nayar ways and closer and closer to the nuclear family, some scholars say it may only be a matter of time before the Nayar become as much a patriarchal and patrilineal as so many other cultures across India and around the world. (Moore, 1985)
Elderly Nayar and Funeral Rituals
When the Nayar either male or female reach the age of sixty years, they are given one last celebration. It is during this festival that they are removing themselves from working life and retiring their physical focus for a more spiritual one. It is quite literally a retirement party. At this time the next woman in line becomes the matriarch of the house and land unit, and in the case of a man, a younger generation takes on the matriarchal uncle’s duties. The next time the village focuses on these members of the village is during their funeral practices. (Panikkar, 1918)
A Nayar funeral entails smearing the body of the deceased with cocoa nut oil and other fragrances, much like any other ritual in this culture. Unlike many other Hindu cultures, the Nayar believe in ghosts and spirits, so they also have rituals to move the soul of the deceased along on their journey and prevent them from remaining in the home or bound to their burial spot. Like other Hindu cultures, the funeral does share the elements of reciting of prayers, the giving of offerings and a period of un-cleanliness followed by ritual purification. (Panikkar, 1918) It is a ceremony that in many ways is reminiscent of the long past celebrations and ceremonies that took place during the life of the deceased, in some ways seeming to involve bringing the life to full circle and providing closure until the spirit is reborn.
There is still much discrepancy as to the accuracy of some information regarding the Nayar, many scholars believes this is only due to some minor misconceptions and that it is possible that all are correct or part of a complete picture. If the answers to the many questions still out there regarding this society are not found soon, it is possible they will never be, already the Nayar people are in disagreement as to some of their past. Some studies show that there are Nayar communities who claim it has never been accepted for a woman to be married to more than one man; still others sight scripture that states that any woman is eligible for marriage regardless of previous marital state. (Moore, 1985) There are scholars who state that woman were polygynous in traditional Nayar culture and others that say this is a misconception born of a woman’s stature in the community and her ability to bare legitimate children fathered by concubines. There is also the question of who is really married to whom in these relationships as well, especially when one considers the fact that Nayar women are only held to mourn their first husband’s death and not the others. (Moore, 1985) These questions, this focus, these debates may never be resolved if they are not resolved before this unique culture fizzles and burns out like the many stars their ancestors and descendants were named for.
The Nayar of Kerala India have amazing systems of many aspects involved with culture. Being a warrior caste has created some interesting and unique practices among these communities. Agriculturally based and for the most part fairly stable and equal, economically and financially speaking, not to mention holding its women in high regard with them maintaining ownership of property and dissention rights the Nayar have certainly proved worthy of further discussion. In an area abundant with modern fanatical religion in many varieties, somehow the Nayar manage to hold on to their ancestral magic and medicine men of old time superstition. For fathers to claim no rights to their wives and children, yet desire to do so, for mothers to claim all rights to children and appear to have little desire to claim a monogamous husband, the Nayar would be challenged to attempt to be any less traditional. From all areas discussed in this overview, beliefs and values, gender relations, economy, kinship and social organization, there is still so much left untold. This society will continue to remain the subject of intrigue and debate for generations to come as it has in preceding generations.
Kuhl, B. (2001, April) The Female Matriarchal Society, Manhasset, 21, 2, 10, Retrieved from
Lee, G.T. (1982) Family Structure and Interaction: A Comparative Analysis, University of Minnesota Press
Malayali (2005) In Cassell’s Peoples, Nations and Cultures,
Moore, M. A. (1985, September). A New Look At the Nayar Travad. MAN, Royal Anthropological Institute Of Great Britain and Ireland 20(3), 523-541. Retrieved from
Moore, M. A. (1988, May). Symbol and Meanings in Nayar Marriage Ritual, American Ethnologist, 15(2), 254-273. Retrieved from /Nowak, B., & Laird, P. (2010) Cultural Anthropology (Bridgepoint Education, Ed)
K. M. (1918, July). Some Aspects of Nayar Life, the Journal of the
Royal Anthropological Institute Of Great Britain and Ireland, 48, 254-293.
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