Kerala is in the news

Yet even when it is in the news on account of “natural causes”, Kerala provokes debate.

Keralite “exceptionalism”, for better or worse, comes to the fore, and invariably causes friction.

What makes Kerala a difficult state? Why is it “exceptional”?
Let’s list some aspects of Keralite exceptionalism. Some of these points are in a light hearted vein.

1. Large sections of Keralite society were traditionally matrilineal. Much of India is patrilineal

2. Kerala is 50% Non hindu. Much of India is over 80% Hindu.
3. Kerala was the first major state in the world to elect a Communist govt. The rest of India is anything but communist.

4. Keralite temples look like cottage houses. Temples in other parts of India are grand with Shikaras and Gopurams announcing them to the world
5. Keralites like football. Indians elsewhere like cricket

One can go on. Feel free to add.

But why is Kerala exceptional?
Before we try to understand what makes Kerala “exceptional” or “different”, let’s first understand those facets of Kerala which do unite it very inextricably with the rest of India
Kerala is not quite like the North East. It is a land deeply integrated with Aryavrata from the beginnings of history. A land with deep Hindu roots, and that has contributed more than its fair share to the development of the Hindu religion
The earliest reference to Kerala in Indian literature is in Aitareya Aranyaka - a text associated with the Rig Veda. So it is pretty clear that the land was known to Aryavrata as early as the late Vedic age if not earlier.
Hindu mythology associates two of Vishnu’s avatars with the land that now corresponds to Kerala -

- Parasurama
- Vamana

Kerala is known as “Parasurama Kshetram” by many traditionalists. Who believe that the land was reclaimed from the sea by Parasurama himself.
The land is also closely associated with the legend of Mahabali and Vamana

So its association with Puranic Hindu lore is pretty deep.
Malabar is regarded as the place of birth of the great 8th century Advaitin Adi Sankaracharya, who was a Namboothiri brahmin as per tradition, and almost without doubt the greatest Hindu theologian of the past 1500 years.
Kerala’s contribution to Vaishnavism in particular is immense.

13 of the 108 Divya Desams in Sri-Vaishnavite lore are located in Kerala.

Sri Padmanabhaswamy and Guruvayoor temples rank among the most popular and widely visited Vaishnavite shrines in all of India
One of the most distinguished of the 12 Vaishnavite Alwars - Kulasekhara (9th cen)- hailed from what is now Kerala

Kulasekhara was a Chera king from the 9th cen who wrote in both Sanskrit and Tamil. His “Mukundamala”, an early Skt Bhakti text, remains a popular work to this day
In the 16th century, Malabar was home to the great Melpathur Narayana Bhatattiri - a mathematician, a grammarian and a great Bhakti poet.

His Narayaniyam, a 1000 verse condensation of Bhagavad Purana is regarded as one of the great Sanskrit works in the past 1000 years
So we have discussed Kerala’s deep Hindu roots going back to antiquity.

Yet, why is Kerala “different”?

I don’t have all the answers, but will put forth some hypotheses
One reason for Kerala’s distinctiveness is perhaps its geography. It is a hill country for the most part, unlike the rest of the South.

Did this limit its intercourse with other parts of Southern India - leading the region to develop its own distinctive culture? Maybe
Kerala has a long coastline with ancient port towns like Kollam (Quilon) that date back to antiquity. Did its interaction with the West contribute to the state’s precocious cosmopolitanism? Maybe

But this hardly explains why the rest of the western coastline is so unlike Kerala
One aspect of Kerala that really stands out is its Matrilineal structure - adhered to by several communities - the Nairs in particular.

But why is Kerala matrilineal? A question worth asking
A closely related point is the patriarchal primogeniture followed by the Brahmin community native to Kerala - the Namboothiris, who trace their presence in Kerala back to the legendary migration of Parasurama!
The patrilineal structure of Namboothiris makes an interesting contrast to the matrilineal tendencies found in other communities.

Did the Namboothiri community’s marital practices contribute to the matrilineal set-up among the dominant non-brahmin castes? Maybe.
Namboothiris, as per tradition, followed a very strict practice of primogeniture where only the eldest Namboothiri son could marry a Namboothiri female. While the younger Namboothiri sons had “sambandhams” (liasons) with Nair women.
The progeny of these “sambandhams” would not become Namboothiris, nor would they inherit the Namboothiri male’s property. Instead they would grow up as Nairs in a matrilineal set-up
So could it be argued that Namboothiri “sambandhams” triggered the constitution of several matrilineal families in Kerala - which perhaps then got picked up by other communities?

I am not sure. But just putting the question here
This also explains the low Brahmin % in Kerala. As per 1901 census, Namboothiris constituted only 0.47% of Kerala’s population. This is sharply lower than the brahmin % of 2-4% in the rest of Southern India
This is not surprising given that several Namboothiri males had sambandhams with Nair women, leading to a diminution in the Namboothiri population
What are the implications of Kerala’s matrilineal structure? Did hypergamy lead to a high % of spinsterhood in the Namboothiri community?

Let’s take two Namboothiri families - one family has four sons S1-S4, another family has four daughters - D1-D4
Now if S1 marries D1, while S2/S3/S4 have sambandhams with Nair women, whatever happens to D2, D3, D4? Will there be Namboothiri males to marry them?

These are thought experiments. I would be glad to be corrected.
But Nair-Namboothiri liasons had positive consequences too. It led to the democratization of a sanskritized vernacular. Malayalam (though it shares its roots with Tamil) is far more sanskritized than Tamil.

The Sanskritization of the vernacular was perhaps aided by Sambandhams.
What if Namboothiri men refrained from “Varna Sankara” in both letter and spirit, and married only among themselves, like Brahmins elsewhere?

What would that have meant to the evolution of the Malayali character? Worth pondering over.
Also did the historical prevalence of Varna Sankara in the region, make the land more vulnerable to conversions? Again these are not rhetorical questions. I am soliciting views here
Also did the matrilineal structure make the Keralite character more “left wing” and inclined to statism and state paternalism?

Feel free to cite other reasons that may have contributed to Keralite “exceptionalism”
A paper that discusses the practice of "Sambandham" that found mention in the thread…
Just a clarification on the thread - Am not necessarily holding Namboothiri sambandham as a cause of Nair matrilineal culture. Perhaps the latter long predates the former. But was merely curious.
Post-script 2: the legendary birthplace of Sankara in Kalady is not strictly speaking in Malabar (which is a term used to refer to only Northern Kerala). Kalady is in central Kerala in Ernakulam district just to the south of Malabar.
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