Nāyar (Malayalam: നായര്‍, most commonly spelt Nair) is the name of a Hindu upper caste from the southern Indian state of Kerala. The Nairs were a martial nobility and figured prominently in the history of Kerala. Before the British conquest in 1792, the Kerala region contained small, feudal kingdoms, in each of which the royal and noble lineages, the militia, and most land managers were drawn from the Nairs and related castes. Nairs were prominent in politics, government service, medicine, education, and law.

Nairs were traditionally matrilineal. Their family unit, the members of which owned property jointly, included brothers and sisters, the latter's children, and their daughters' children. The oldest man was legal head of the group. Rules of marriage and residence varied somewhat between kingdoms.

The Nairs were famous for their martial history, including their involvement in Kalaripayattu and the role of Nair warlords in the Mamankam ritual. The Nairs were classed as a martial race by the British, but were de-listed after rebelling against them under Velu Thampi Dalawa, and thereafter were recruited in low numbers into the British Indian Army. Only Nairs were recruited into the Thiruvithamkoor Nayar Pattalam (Travancore State Army), until 1935 when non-Nairs started to get admitted. This State Force (known also as the Nair Brigade) was merged into the Indian Army after independence and became the 9th Battalion Madras Regiment, the oldest Battalion in the Indian Army.

It is believed that the Kshatriya Kolathiri and Travancore kingdoms had Nair origins. The Zamorin Raja was a Samanthan Nair and the Arakkal kingdom of Kannur, which was the only Muslim kingdom in the Kerala region, also had Nair origins. Nair feudal families such as the Ettuveetil Pillamar were extremely influential in the past and often had greater influence than the Raja.


The word Nair lends itself to two etymological interpretations. The first interpretation is that the word Nair is derived from the Sanskrit word Nayaka meaning leader. The Sanskrit word Nayaka appears in various forms in southern India (Nayakan/Naicker in Tamil Nadu, Nayak in Karnataka and Maharashtra, and Nayudu in Andhra Pradesh) and the word Nair has been suggested to be the corruption of Nayak in Malayalam. The second interpretation is that the word Nair is a corrupted form of the word Nagar- serpent men because Nairs practiced snake worship.

The family name Nair or Nayar also occur in Punjab, belonging to a Khatri community.

Theories of origin

According to Dr K. K. Pillai, the first reference about the Nairs is in an inscription dated to the 9th century A.D.

The Nairs have been described thus:

"A race caste who do not owe their origin to function, although, by force of example, their organization is almost equally rigid, and they are generally identified with particular trades or occupations. These race caste communities were originally tribes, but on entering the fold of Hinduism, they imitated the Hindu social organization, and have thus gradually hardened to castes.
However this does not rule out the possibility that the Nairs do not constitute a homogeneous ethnic group as it is possible that each subcaste or clan may have different origins. For example, members from other tribes or communities were adopted into the Nair fold once Nair became to be known to refer to a caste, such as the Tamil Padam Nairs. There have also been incidents where the Nair caste status was bestowed upon persons favoured by the Raja.

A number of sociologists are of the view that the Nairs are not indigenous to Kerala, as many customs and traditions distinguish them from other Keralites. According to one theory, Nairs are descendants of the Newars of Nepal, who joined the Munda exodus and later migrated to Kerala. The most prominent arguments given in support of this theory are the presence of distinct pagoda-like architectural style of Nair Tharavaadus and Temples and the practice of Marumakkathaayam (matrilinial) system of inheritance similar to both Nairs and Newars.

There is also a hypothesis on the basis of mythology that the Nairs are Nagas and were Kshatriyas belonging to the Serpent dynasty (Nagavansham) who removed their sacred thread and migrated south to escape the wrath of a vengeful Parashurama. A Naga origin from Rohilkhand has been suggested. The affinity of the Nair community towards serpent worship, their martial past, and the absence of the sacred thread lends support to this theory. In addition, the Travancore State Manual states that there were indeed serpent-worshiping Nagas in Kerala who fought with the Namboothiris till they reached a consensus. The Nairs have also been classified as of Indo-Scythian (Saka) origin as well as being linked to the Nagas.

According to Chattampi Swamikal, who interpreted old Tamil texts, the Nairs were Naka (Naga or Snake) Lords who ruled as feudal lords in the Chera kingdom. Therefore this theory proposes Nairs to be descendants of the rulers and martial nobility of pre-Brahmin Kerala who, after the arrival of the Namboothiris (and establishment of the Varnas/Caste System), got categorized as sat Sudras. However, Nairs have also been classed as Kshatriyas by some sources. One finds mention of the Nairs during the reign of the King Rama Varma Kulashekhara (1020-1102) of the second Chera dynasty, when the Chera Kingdom was attacked by the Cholas. The Nairs fought by forming suicide squads (Chavers) against the invading force. It is not clear whether the Cheras themselves were Nairs, or if the Cheras employed the Nairs as a warrior class.

The Sanskrit Kerala Mahatmayam, an upa purana of the Bhoogola Purana, calls them the progeny of Namboodiri men with Deva, Rakshasa and Gandharva women.

Connection with Bunts and Tulu Nadu

The 17th century the Brahmin-inspired Keralolpathi and Grama Padhati describes the Nairs of Kerala and the similarly matrilineal Bunts of southern Tulu Nadu as descendants of the Sudras who accompanied the Brahmins to Kerala and Tulu Nadu respectively from Ahichatra/Ahikshetra in southern Panchala.

The Manual of Madras Administration Vol II (printed in 1885) notes that the Nadavas are the same people as the Nairs of Malabar and the Bunts of southern Tulu Nadu:

They appear to have entered Malabar from the North rather than the South and to have peopled first the Tulu, and then the Malayalam country. They were probably the off-shoot of some colony in the Konkan or the Deccan. In Malabar and south of Kanara as far as Kasargod, they are called Nayars and their language is Malayalam. From Kasargod to Brahmavar, they are termed as Bunts and speak Tulu. To the north of Brahmavar, they are called Nadavars, and they speak Kanarese.
The Nairs have disappeared as an entity from Tulu Nadu but the inscriptions found in Barkur from the medieval period as well as the Grama Padathi, which gives the history of Brahmin families in Tulu Nadu, have made several references to the Nairs. They seemed to have intimate connections with the Brahmins and acted as their protectors, perhaps brought to Tulu Nadu by the Kadamba kings in the 8th century. Kadamba king Mayuravarma, who is credited with bringing Brahmins from Ahichatra (from the north), also settled Nairs in Tulu Nadu. Yet, there is no written proof for this occurrence and the only mention of the Nairs in the inscriptions comes after the Alupa period (early part of 14th century). It is postulated that the Nairs were later absorbed into the social stratum of the Nadava community.


Middle age South Indian history, historians, and foreign travelers referred to the Nairs as a dignified martial nobility. The earliest reference to Nairs comes from the Greek ambassador Megasthenes. In his accounts of ancient India, he refers to the "Nayars of Malabar" and the "Kingdom of Chera".

Irrespective of the different theories that seek to explain the origin of Nairs, it is clear that till the early 20th century, Nairs exerted their influence in medieval Kerala society as feudal lords and owned large estates. The position in society of the Nairs as that of a martial nobility in medieval Kerala has been likened to the position in society of the Samurai in medieval Japan. Nairs dominated the civil, administrative and military elite of the pre-British era in Kerala.

Decline of Nair dominance

The decline of Nair dominance came about in multiple stages. During colonial times, the British perceived that Nairs were an inherent threat to their hegemony in the region and therefore outlawed their right to bear weapons and by banning the Nair martial art of Kalaripayattu. Weapons were integral to the Nair psyche and power, and combined with repressive legislation led to a loss of social standing for Nairs, though some of the social legislation was in part inspired by the Nairs themselves, such as changes in inheritance law permitting the Karanavan to pass on some (and later all) of the fruits of his stewardship of the taravad to his own children. During post-colonial years, the Land reforms of 1950's led to massive loss of land-ownership by Nair feudal lords and some Nair gentry were relegated to poverty overnight. The decline of Nair dominance was however tempered by their conversion through the 20th century to the academic and professional classes and their high profile in Kerala politics.

Early in the British period, Nair armies were disbanded. Perhaps partly as a result, plural marital unions gradually died out in the 19th century. Children began to be maintained by their father, to support him in his old age, and to perform the ceremonies at his death. Laws passed in the 1930s enforced monogamy, permitted division of the matrilineal estate among male and female members, and gave children full rights of maintenance and inheritance from the father. By the mid-20th century it was increasingly common, especially in towns, for nuclear families to form separate residential and economic units.

Additional factors such as the impact of the market economy, the disappearance of traditional military training, the absorption of new values through the new system of education, the self-consciousness being generated among the lower castes and their cry for equality and privileges also contributed to the decline of Nair dominance.


V. Nagam Aiya, Dewan Peishcar, Travancore, in his Travancore State Manual states that although all the Malayala Sudras, 18 castes in total, were classed under the general head of Nair, in reality there were only five "genuine" Nair castes. These included:

  • Kiryathil Nairs : They are the highest class of Nairs found usually in Malabar and Cochin. The 17th century Keralolpathi states them to be descendants of warrior Naga tribes who came to Kerala from the north along the western coast. It may be noted that the earlier Keralamahatmayam, an Upa Purana of the Bhoogola Hindu Purana, does not make mention of any subcastes among the Nairs but only states them to be the military caste of Kerala.
  • Illathu Nairs : They were brought in by Parasurama, as per the Keralolpathi, to serve the Brahmins as tenants, servants, warriors, cultivators etc. Purificatory rites by the Maarans and priestly service from the Elayatus distinguished the Illathu Nairs.
  • Swaroopathil Nairs or Cherna Nairs : These Nairs were the warriors of Kshatriya Royal Households known as Swaroopams. In Malabar they are classed as Akathu Cherna Nairs and Purathu Cherna Nairs. The highest of Swaroopathil Nairs were those included in the Paroor Swaroopam, who being originally Illathu Nairs have their purificatory rites performed by Maarans.
  • Pandamangalam Nairs : They were the Nairs appointed by Parasurama to serve in Temples. They migrated from Tamil Nadu of the Pandyan kingdom as it was then known.
  • Tamil Padam Nairs : This class of Nairs, as the name indicates, were migrants from Tamil Nadu who were embraced into the Nair community.

There were more than 100 sub group in olden days such as Athikurushi, Vyavari, Chakala, Pallichan etc, who are some of the lower grade subcasts. Stratification between the different Nair subcastes is non-existent in the present day, with individuals and families usually identifying themselves simply as "Nairs".

Earlier customs and traditions

The following information has been condensed from the Travancore State Manual by V. Nagam Aiya. The General appearance of the Nairs will be clear from the following quote, as noted by the author in 1901.

The Appearance of the well nourished Nair is perhaps among the finest in all India...the men and women among the Nairs are models of neatness and simplicity particularly in their dress, food and living. The men keep a small tuft of hair hanging in front, tied into a knot which is thrown behind or on the side, quite similar to the Tamil Brahmins while women have long black hair growing luxuriantly which they keep neat and orderly by constant bathing, rubbing of oil and use of comb. They tie it in a large bun suspended on the left side or in front. This is a very pretty observance and one that is worth imitation in other civilised countries

Nair men were identified by their Tufts of hair in the front side (Mun Kudumma), side burns (Krithavu) and the upturned Moustache. They always carried swords or daggers with them as a sign of dignity and authority.


Men wore Kaupinam (loin cloth) and a single strip of cloth, four or five cubits in length, known as the Mundu, round the waist and another one thrown over the shoulder or worn like a shawl(veshti). The lower cloth was not tucked between the legs as in northern India but was left to hang loose to the ground. The upper cloth known as the Neriatu was tied as a turban on the head while walking outside.

The dressing style of women was not generally distinguishable from that of men. On festive occasions the Pudava, a gilt bordered mundu, was worn. After the introduction of the Rauka (blouse) in the early 20th century, this particular dressing style went out of fashion. The mundu is still widely used by almost everybody in Kerala, though modern clothing, naturally, has found tremendous acceptance as well.

Men usually, besides amulets and rings, had their ears pierced and wore earrings studded with precious gems. Women had for the neck ornaments such as the Kantasaram, Nalupanti, Addiyal, Ponnu-Nool, Nagapadam (the most important ornament of a Nair lady), Arimbu Mani, Jnali Kuzhal, Minnum Maniyum, Arasillatali, Pachakkatali, Kasu Malai, Kuzhalmala, Rasi Tali, Padakkatali etc. For the nose, pendants called Mukuttis were worn set with ruby or diamond generally. For the arms, bangles such as Kattikappu, Maniyalakappu, Swarna-Sangala Muduku etc. were worn. For the waist, ornaments known as Kacchapuram were worn. Young girls wore ornaments even on their feet, known as Thanda or Padaswaram. The Nair ladies extended their ear lobes and the only two types of ornaments which were worn in the ears were a type of cylindrical ornament known as Takka or a two lipped biconvex disc considered more fashionable, known as the Toda. Jewels were not worn on the head. Tattooing was not favored among the Nairs and was considered demeaning.

Food and drink

Boiled rice (Choru) and the rice gruel known as kanjee (pronounced /ˈkɒndʒiː/) formed the staple food of the Nairs. The coconut, jackfruit, plantain, mango and other fruits and vegetables were widely used. Coconut oil was also used widely. Ghee was used in well-to-do families and on festive occasions. Rice in the form of 'Kanji' or 'Choru' was served thrice a day at mealtimes along with curries and other additional dishes. Non-vegetarian food was not objectionable and fish was the most commonly consumed additional dish. Chicken was also consumed. Many of them had a special liking for game meat. Traditionally beef was not eaten by Nairs. Killing of the cow was resented. They had a pious attitude towards cows just like other Hindus. Dairy items like milk, curd, buttermilk, butter and ghee were greatly relished. Alcoholic drinks as a rule were prohibited. Sweet dishes like Palpayasam and Ada Prathaman were prepared during festive occasions. Other special dishes included Kozhukkatta, Chivda, Elayappam (sweet), Ottada, Kaliyodakka, etc .

Marumakkathayam and Tharavadu

Nairs followed the Marumakkathayam (Matrilineal) system of inheritance and lived in units called Tharavadus (matrilineal joint-family). The tharavadu referred to relations of property (mudal sambandham) shared by a group tracing descent from a common ancestress. The outer boundary of tharavadus seems to have been defined by relations of pollution (pula sambandham), whereby a wider matrilineal kin group was knit by symbolic ties. Prominently, this involved sharing birth and death pollution and a memory of common descent. However, there are indications that, when expediency demanded, it was possible to break off even these pollution ties. For instance, in the case of a numerically large tharavadu, comprising a considerable section of the population of territory, death and birth pollution spelt a great inconvenience. In such cases, it could be decided to terminate pollution ties, even while the related groups continued to share a cremation ground.

Architecturally wealthy tharavadus encompassed a Naalukettu or Ettukettu, a Kulam (fresh-water pond) and a Sarpa Kavu‎ (a sacred grove with trees and thick foliage for worship of the Nagathaan (Serpents) while in the case of some exceptionally wealthy families a private temple as well. The water body served the purpose of ritual baths, followed by Tantric worship in the Sarpakavu, phased out into rituals and ceremonies that repeated in cycles of days, months, and years often accompanied by feasts that witnessed a grand assembly of kin.

Interestingly, even though tharavadus existed based on descent from a common ancestress, it was comparatively rare for a remembered founder of a tharavadu to be a woman alone and it showed a "structural" patriarchy of the Karnavar (seniormost male member). For instance in management of the tharavadu, Nair women managed domestic affairs in their natal tharavadus and the senior woman’s decision making role was restricted to the inner domain of larger tharavadus in central and north Kerala. However it was also not that the Karnavar had absolute powers in the tharavadu, but unlike in patrilineal families there was more than one node of power and a plural authority structure. In practice, the senior woman, was not necessarily determined by seniority and might well be the oldest competent woman and yet seniority was a crucial factor in determining power relations between the Karnavar and the senior woman. If the Karnavar was the son or younger brother of the senior woman, she might indeed be the de facto head of the group keeping accounts in her own hands and counseling him; but were he the older brother of the senior woman then she was subordinate to him. In some wealthy tharavadus lands were set aside for women as stanum (a special status) property or otherwise over which they enjoyed varied claims does not in any way suggest ‘separate rights’ or access to their own separate revenues and properties. In the matrilineal Tharavadus customary practice, rather than any religious precepts embodied in written sources, was the source of personal/family law. In the words of William Logan, an administrator-historian with extensive experience of Malabar:

If it were necessary to sum up in one word the law of the country, that word would undoubtedly be the word "custom". In Malayalam it would be "Maryada", "Margam", "Acharam" all signifying established rule and custom

The marumakkathayam system and tharavadu system are not viable any more and has declined in tune with the social and cultural changes which have taken their toll on many old institutions. Social reforms spread with modern education. In other words, Nairs switched over to the patriarchal model of kinship and inheritance. The partition of tharavadus into individual shares (Alohari Bhaagam) followed the enactment of Land Reforms Ordinance that stipulated upper limits on land holdings. Many tharavadus, already bursting at the seams with internal dissensions and strife, collapsed under the pressure. The matrifocal system disintegrated. Fathers took charge of their sons and daughters and husband and wife started living together with their offspring. The "Marumakkathayam Law" which sanctioned dismantling of the tharavadus and the partition of property, came into vogue in the year 1933. 32,900 families were partitioned in Travancore alone by 1938. The tharavadu system of living became a thing of the past by the 1940s. Naalukettu and Ettukettu structures began to collapse, or were sold off.


Kalarippayattu is the martial tradition of Kerala and the right to practice this martial art for the service of the ruler (Vazhunnavar) was predominantly vested with Nairs, however although less frequent, at least one subcaste of Brahmins (Chathira), one subcaste of Thiyyas (Chekors) as well as some Christians and Muslims seemed to have been bestowed with similar rights. Several social anthropologists and historians have documented the Nair dominance of the martial tradition of Kalaripayattu. For instance, The Kollam - Ramesvaram record states that the defence of the Chera kings and their city was entrusted to a group of Nair warriors known as Ayiram (The Thousand). This militia also called Onnu Kurai Ayiram (The thousand without one, ie with out the last Cheraman Perumal) existed in Kodungallur through centuries and was a group consisting of Nair members proficient in the martial tradition of Kalaripayattu, organised on a hereditary basis (from the Nair tharavads -Valloppalli, Tayyappalli, Kilikkotta and Kattolli) for the protection of the Chera kings. The Keralolpathi also clearly states that the commander of the Patinayiram (The ten thousand- an alternate referral to the Ayiram militia) called Patamel Nair commanded the forces of the last Chera Perumal and was the Supreme Commander of his Army. It is interesting to note that during the extended period of warfare between the Cheras and the Cholas in the 11th century CE Nairs demonstrated their exceptional martial skills, courage, and nobility by forming elite suicide squads (Chaver-Pada) against the invading Chola forces. Also the once in 12 year Mamankam festival conducted by the Zamorin of Calicut during the medieval ages was an important platform when the Nair militia of the Zamorin and the Nair Chaver Pada of the Valluvakkonathiri used to demonstrate their superior skills in the Kalari martial tradition. Kalaripayattu therefore was an essential component of education mainly for Nair men and to a lesser extent Nair women and the Vadakkan Pattukal (Ballad tradition of Malabar) is prolific with descriptions of fencing skills and bravery of Nair warriors like Thacholi Othenan. The role of the Nair militia proficient in Kalaripayattu in putting strong resistance to the Chola invasion, European invaders and excesses by Tipu Sultan and Hyder Ali are well documented in the annals of Kerala history. However, during colonial era Kalaripayattu was outlawed by British in 1793, leading to great loss of self esteem among Nairs.

Sambandham (an earlier form of marriage) and related customs

In the past Nairs had three major marriage/rite of passage ceremonies.

Kettu Kalyanam (mock marriage ceremony)

The thaali tying rite took place before the onset of puberty. During this ceremony the girl was married to a man, preferably the maternal uncle's son. The well-to-do families engaged Brahmins for this purpose by providing hefty 'Dakshina' (ceremonial fee). The ritual husband had no further duties to the girl after the completion of this ritual, although she had to observe a period of death impurity upon the death of her ritual husband. The thaali ceremony was a female centered ritual which emphasized fertility and household prosperity. This ceremony had to be performed on pain of excommunication.

Thirandukalyanam (announcement and celebration of puberty)

The Thirandukalyanam ceremony was the puberty ceremony, during which femininity is celebrated as women occupy the parts of the household typically inhabited by men.

Sambandham/Podamuri/Pudava Koda/Mundukoda (casual marriage alliance)

The Sambandham ritual is less auspicious than the thaali and puberty rites, and literally means "alliance" or "relationship". It was the customary institution that framed casual marriage alliances between men and women following marumakkathayam. This ritual marks the union of the bride and groom and was not necessarily a permanent arrangement. However it was this innate weakness of sambandham that helped maintaining the integrity of the matrilineal tharavadu.

Sambandham denoted hypergamy between Nair women and Namboothiri men as well as reciprocal marriage among Nairs. However such an alliance was not recognized as constituting marriage by Namboothiri Brahmins as well as by colonial courts but was seen as comparable to concubinage. Two reasons cited for this were that dissolution of sambandham was fairly easy and that it did not give rise to property relations. Though viewed by some Namboothiri Brahmins and European commentators as immoral, allied with polyandry, or even prostitution, sambandham was nothing of that sort for the Nair women. Sambandham essentially gave a Nair woman the liberty to initiate, consent to, or terminate a sexual relationship with any man and thereby formed one of the foundations of matrilineality. In addition, Nair women were autonomous, self-reliant, and enjoyed greater personal freedom than women in the rest of India. William Logan in his Malabar Manual, page 136 says:

Although the theory of the law sanctions freedom in these relations, conjugal fidelity is very general. Nowhere is the marriage tie - albeit informal - more rigidly observed or respected, nowhere is it more jealously guarded or its neglect more savagely avenged. The very looseness of the law makes the individual observance closer; for people have more watchful care over things they are liable to lose.

In case of sambandham with Namboothiri men, the system benefited both the Namboothiri Brahmins as well as matrilineal castes like the Nairs for two reasons. First, Namboothiri brahmins had institutionalized primogeniture, permitting only the eldest son to marry within the caste. Younger sons (also called aphans) in Namboothiri families were expected to establish sambandham with Nair and Ambalavasi (temple service castes) women. Secondly, Nair families encouraged the sambandham arrangement with Namboothiri men, thereby increasing their tharavadu and caste status. Such alliances between Nair women and Namboothiri men came to an end after the efforts of V.T. Bhattathirippad in 1933.

In case of sambandham with Nair men, The Malabar Marriage Act, 1896 (Act IV of 1896) succeeded to alter by statute, the personal law of the Hindu matrilineal castes of Malabar and South Canara districts of the erstwhile Madras Presidency. It was a permissive legislation that made it possible for people following marumakkathayam and aliyasantana law (matrilineal law) to register their marriages, if they so wished. The Act enabled people to be legally married, something that was not possible under matrilineal law as interpreted in the colonial civil courts. Similar legislations in the southern parts followed much later as is evidenced by Travancore Nair Act of 1912, 1925, and the Cochin Nair Act of 1920.

Current Ceremonies and Customs

Nair have customs and rituals which are an amalgamation of indigenous rituals and the rituals of Nambothiri Brahmins. Generally, there are local variations for such customs. However, the basic framework of many of the rituals is more or less the same.

Vivaham (marriage)

Presently the Nairs do not practice either of the three forms of marriages described above but perform Vivaham (Marriage) recognized by the Hindu Marriage act of 1955. It is ceremonially the shortest in comparison to its counterparts from other Indian castes and regions. The marriage ceremony among Nairs has changed considerably over the past one hundred years.

Vivaha Nischayam (Betrothal)/Jathakam Koda - The first ceremony is the Vivaha Nischayam or simply Nischayam. After both the families consent to the marriage, the elders of the bride and the bridegroom assemble at the bride's home and an astrologer is consulted to set an auspicious date for the wedding. Horoscopes which have been already compared and approved are exchanged during this ceremony. During the celebration, there may be a mothiram maattal (ring exchange) ceremony. This ceremony may also be conducted later, during the actual vivaham ceremony.

Kalyanam (Marriage) - The marriage venue will be usually at the place of the bride. It may take place in a kalyana mandapam (a hall rented for the occasion) or in the padinjatta (principal/western room of the bride´s house, where religious ceremonies are conducted), or in a pandal erected on the foreground of the house, or in a temple. The marriage proceeds through distinct ritualistic steps as described below.

Dakshina Kodukkal - Both the bride and bridegroom get the blessings of the elders by giving "Dakshina" consisting of a betel leaf, a ripe arecanut and a coin and then touching their feet. The marriage ceremony starts with this ritual that is carried out in their respective homes. Thereafter the bridegroom and party leaves for the venue of the marriage. Varavelppu - In this ritual, the bride's family receives the groom's family at the entrance of the venue of marriage, to the tune of nadaswarams (long wind-instruments). The groom stands on a wooden plank while the bride's younger brother washes his feet. The bride's aunts (wives of maternal uncles) perform aarti for the groom with a platter on which are arranged wicks made of twisted cotton. The groom is then escorted to the mandapam (platform constructed to perform the wedding rites) by two rows of young girls. One girl carries the changala vatta (sacred oil lamp), while another carries the ashtamangaliyam (eight articles signifying marriage). The girls following the first two, carry the taala poli (platters of rice, turmeric, and flowers on which oil lamps lit in the broken half of a coconut are placed). With his parents on either side, the groom follows the girls around the mandapam and seats himself on the right side of the canopy, which is decorated by flowers, fabric, palm fronds, and banana stalks. Thaali-kettu (Tying the thaali) - The bride is now escorted by her aunt or mother to the mandapam to the sound of the nadaswarams and is made to stand facing to the east, with the groom facing her. At the auspicious moment set by the astrologer for the muhurtham (the most auspicious time), the groom ties the golden 'thaali' which is strung from a yellow thread around the bride's neck and this is accompanied by a special beating of drums (Ketti melam) and the ceremonial ululating sounds made by women (Vai Kurava). Sometimes the actual tying of the knot of the Thaali thread is done by the sister of the bridegroom if needed.

Vastradanam/Pudavakoda (Gift of cloth) - After the tying of the thaali, the groom gifts the bride a sari and a blouse on a platter. He may also give her betel leaves and areca nuts. This signifies that he will now assume the responsibility of providing for her. The groom's mother also gifts the bride with some jewelry at this time. This custom is reminiscent of the Podamuri during the sambandham ritual.

Maala maattal (Exchange of garlands) or Maala Ideel - The couple then exchange garlands accepting each other as life partners. The bride's father then places the bride's hand in the groom's, thus handing over his daughter to the groom in holy matrimony.

Madhuram Kodukkal - The bride's mother gives a glass of sweetened milk and a plantain fruit to the bridegroom and both the bridegroom and the bride share the milk and the fruit.

Sadya (feast) - After the blessings, the whole party is invited to take part in a strictly vegetarian feast. Rice and other dishes and curries like Parippu with ghee, Sambhar, Kaalan, Moru, Avial, two or three Thorans, Inchikkari, Naranga Uppilittathu, Kadumanga, Nellikka Achar, Nenthrakkai Upperi, Chena Upperi, Chembu Upperi, Sharkara Puratti, Valiya Pappadam, Cheriya Pappadam and sweet dishes like Ada Prathaman, Palada Prathaman, Semiya Payasam, Payattu (Parippu) Prathaman, and Palppayasam are served on Banana Leaf according to a well-set schedule.

Kudi Veppu (Entering the bridegrooms house) - This ritual involves the first entry of the newly wed in to the bridegroom's house. The groom's mother and elder female relatives perform aarti with an oil lamp (which rests on a platter heaped with rice mixed with turmeric) and receive them at the entrance. Both bride and groom enter the house, right foot forward. The bride carries the lit oil lamp that her mother-in-law gives her after arthi, symbolizing prosperity.

Adukkala Kaanal (Seeing of the Kitchen)/Nallavaathil - This is the official visit of the bride's parents and relatives to the house of the bridegroom after the marriage on a mutually decided date. Some gifts are exchanged during this customary visit and there will be a grand feast. As the name of the custom suggests, the girl's parents see and get satisfied with the environment of the new house into which their daughter is married. This is the concluding custom related to the marriage ceremony of Nairs.


Seemantham (also known as Pulikudi or Garbhamthozhikkal) denotes the preparation for childbirth and is performed between the fifth and seventh months of pregnancy. On an auspicious day, after being massaged with homemade ayurvedic oil, the woman has a customary bath with the help of the elderly women in the family. After this, the family deity is worshipped, invoking all the paradevatas and a concoction of herbal medicines prepared in the traditional way, is given to the woman. The woman is dressed in new clothes and jewelry used for such occasions. Among some Nairs of Malabarm two local ritualistic additions called ariyidal and Garbha Prashnam are performed. In the ariyidal the seated pregnant lady is given rice and appams in her lap. In the Garbha Prashnam, an astrologer prescribes ritualistic remedies (if needed) for the protection of the mother and child as well as for smooth child birth in the event of any astrological obstacles. Afterwards, the pregnant lady visits four temples, including her own ancestral temple and prays to the deities for a healthy child and for a smooth delivery. After this she begins to observe Pula or birth pollution, which extends up to 15 days after childbirth. The family then holds a feast for all the relatives. Medicines and routines are prescribed for the woman, which are to be followed till childbirth.

Feeding Thenum Vayampum to the newborn

Just after the birth, the new born baby is fed a little bit of a concoction made of Honey and Vayampu (A herbal medicine known in Sanskrit as Vacha and in Latin as Acorus Calamus) into which some gold from a clean and pure golden ornament or ring is added by rubbing on a stone. This is given to the baby with the help of a piece of cotton dipped into the concoction.

Irupathi Ettu Kettu/Aranjanam Kettal/Palu Kodukkal

This ceremony is performed on the 28thth day after birth of the child, as this is the first time the nakshatram (star) of the child repeats according to the Malayalam calendar. During the ceremony, charadu (thread), one in black cotton and the other a chain in gold are interwined and tied around the waist of the child. This thread is called 'Aranjanam'. The child's eyes are lined with mayye or kanmashi (Kohl). A black spot is placed on one cheek or asymmetrically on the forehead, to ward off the evil eyes. A mixture of ghee (melted and clarified butter) and honey is given to the infant as a base for its various foods in the future. This is similar to the Jaathakarmam ceremony of the Namboothiris. The naming is done usually by the grand father of the child. The baby is taken on to the lap and a betel leaf is placed over the left ear of the baby and the name is called three times secretly into the right ear. Thereafter the name is publicly announced. Then other immediate relatives also call the name to the ear of the baby likewise in turn. In certain areas, the child's horoscope is usually made in between the birth and the Irupethi Ettu, so that a name based on an ideal first letter prescribed by the horoscope can be used to name the child. This name-giving ceremony is similar to the Naamakaranam ceremony of the Namboothiris. In some instances, piercing of the lower lobes of the ears for both boys and girls (Karnavedham) is also done on the same day. Otherwise, it is done separately on an auspicious day. Unlike the Namboothiris who perform Jaathakarmam and Namakaranam as separate rituals, Nairs mostly tend to perform them together on the Irupathi Ettu Kettu day.


Choroonu is the ritual of feeding rice to the child for the first time. Rice is the staple food in a Nair household, which is why the first intake of purified rice is celebrated on an auspicious day. After manthrams are chanted to request Agni (the God of fire) to purify the food, a mixture of melted ghee and honey, followed by boiled rice is served to the child. This ceremony is performed during the 6th month or after the 7th month of birth.


During the Malayalam month of Thulam (October - November) all the women and girls in the family bathe in the river or family pond before sunrise. They will then perform rituals of worship at home, or visit a temple for Nirmalyam (viewing the deity for the first time for the day).


Thiruvathira is observed on the full-moon day of Dhanu Masam, on the day of the Thiruvathira star (Alpha Orionis). It is believed this is the day, the Goddess Parvathi finally met Siva, after her long penance. It is believed that observing Thiruvathira vratham or Thiruvathira nonbu (fasting during thiruvathira) would ensure that a woman's husband would have a long life. The Nair women, including little girls, would get up early in the morning during the whole of Dhanu masam and go to the Kulam or river to take a bath. They will go in a sort of procession, singing various songs. They sing and play while taking bath. This is called Thudichukkuli. After bathing, they go to the temple dressed in their finest clothes. Thiruvathira is a day of fasting. No one eats rice preparations, but they are allowed to eat things made of wheat and all types of fruit. The practice of presenting bunches of bananas to the elders was common. During this season, huge swings (oonjal) are erected in the backyards of most of the houses. These swings are hung from the branches of tall trees such as mango trees or jack-fruit trees. The swings are made of ropes hung from the branch with a wooden plank for the seat. They can also be made from a well grown bamboo tree shoot, which is vertically split into two. After lunch, the Thiruvathirakkali danced would be performed. The accompanying songs (Thiruvathirapaattu) are written in Malayalam and are set in a specific meter. The dance is also called Kaikotti Kali (dancing while clapping hands) and is also performed during the festival of Onam.


Pooram means "festival" in Malyalam. In regions south of Korapuzha, this is mainly a temple celebration. However, in regions north of Korapuzha, especially north Malabar, Pooram is predominantly a Nair household festival during the month of Meenam (March-April). The festival lasts for 9 days, starting from Karthika day to Pooram day. Among unmarried Nair women of north Malabar, Pooram was celebrated to praise and please Kamadeva, the God of Love. On each of the day an idol of Kamadeva made out of clay, is worshipped at different locations starting from the steps of the pond (first day) to the inner house (ninth day). The song sung by the group leader is repeated by the others and the song begins Thekkan dikkil povalle kamaa. Eendola panayil iruthume kamaa. (Do not leave us and go the south and various reasons are provided as to why he will be treated better in the north. These are sung in the form of puns). Dances are performed around a sacred lamp with elegant steps resembling thiruvathirakkali. While dancing, the players clap their hands uniformly to the tune of the song and to the thaalam (rhythm or beat) of the group leader. Poorakkali has 18 different forms.

Stories from the epic Ramayana often constitute the subject matter of the ritual songs. The ritual dance form warrants intense training and good physical stamina. The forward and backward movements and the abrupt variations in the speed and directions enthralls the spectators. Invariably, Poorakkali is followed by a duel of wits staged to test the intellectual capacity of the rival group leaders. This is known as Marathukali. During the debate, intriguing questions are put by one leader to the other side.

In central and south Kerala, several poorams or festivities during this season are observed in all important temples of the different deshams. The most famous of all these, is the Thrissur Pooram. Before the advent of the Thrissur Pooram, the largest temple festival during summer in central Kerala was the one-day festival held at Aarattupuzha. Temples in and around Thrissur were regular participants of this religious exercise until they were once denied entry by the responsible chief of the Peruvanam area of Cherpu, known for its Namboothiri supremacy. As an act of reprisal, and also in a bid to assuage their wounded feelings, Prince Rama Varma (1751-1805), also known as Sakthan Thampuran (ruler of the erstwhile Cochin state) invited all these temples to bring their deities to Thrissur where they could pay obeisance to Lord Vadakunnathan, the deity of the Vadakunnathan temple. Further, he directed the main temples of Thrissur, Thruvambadi and Pamamekkavu, to extend all help and support to these temples. It is this historical background that determined the course of the Thrissur Pooram program and it is specifically because of the ruler's antipathy to the Brahmin aristocracy, that he opened Thrissurpooram to the common man.

Caste system

Kerala, referred to as a "lunatic asylum of caste" by Swami Vivekananda, had a system of untouchability and caste discrimination that was not seen in other parts of the subcontinent. The Nairs, along with the Nambudiri Brahmins played a major role in upholding this system.

"Their [Nair] submission to superiors was great; but they exacted deference from those under them with a cruelty, and arrogance, rarely practised but among Hindus in their state of independence"

"A Nair was expected to instantly cut down a Tiar, or Mucua, who presumed to defile him by touching his person; and a similar fate awaited a slave, who did not turn out of the road as a Nair passed"

Fortunately, especially after Indian Independence in 1947, the rigid caste barriers upheld by the Nairs began to break down. Today, Kerala is known for communal harmony and a lower level of caste violence than in other parts of India.

Socio-political movements

A number of socio-religious reform movements, which were also the earliest democratic mass movements in Kerala, took shape from late 1800s. The Nairs also felt the need for reform in response to such changes. Throughout the medieval period and until well into the 19th century, the Nairs had a pre-eminent role in Kerala. By the middle of the 19th century, however, this dominance started waning. Institutions like the sambandham and the matrilineal joint family system which had ensured the strength of the Nair community earlier, now became productive of many evils in changing socio-political background of Kerala. The impact of the market economy, the disappearance of traditional military training, the absorption of new values through the new system of education, the self-consciousness being generated among the lower castes and their cry for equality and privileges - all these factors brought about a decline of Nair dominance. The sense of decline gave an impetus to the spirit of reform that expressed itself in the work of religious men like Chattambi Swamikal, in literature, on the press and platform and later in legislative enactments in respect of marriage, inheritance, property rights, etc. Ultimately, the movements crystallized in the foundation of the Nair Service Society, in 1914.

The Nair Service Society (NSS) is an organization created for the upliftment and welfare of the Nair community. It is headquartered at Perunna in the town of Changanassery in Kottayam District, Kerala State, India. It was established under the leadership of Mannathu Padmanabhan. The NSS is a three tier organisation with Karayogams at the base level, Taluk Unions at the intermediate level and the Headquarters at the apex level.

The Society owns and manages a large number of educational institutions and hospitals. These include the NSS College of Engineering at Palakkad, NSS Hindu College at Changanassery, NSS College at Pandalam, Mahatma Gandhi College at Thiruvananthapuram, SVRVNSS College at Vazhoor, Pazhassi Raja NSS College at Mattanur, Kannur and the Women's College at Niramankara, Thiruvananthapuram. The N.S.S. runs more than 150 schools, 18 Arts and Science colleges, 3 Training colleges, 1 Engineering college, 1 Homoeo Medical College, several Nursing Colleges, Polytechnic college, T.T.C Schools, Working Women Hostels and Technical institutions.

Taking the lead given by Mannathu Padmanabhan, expatriate Nairs both in other startes of India as well as in countries other than India have formed Nair Service Societies in their states and countries of domicile. Examples are Karnataka Nair Service Society with 21 karayogams in Bangalore, and the Calcutta Nair Service Society in Kolkata. These Societies of Non Kerala origin retain the cultural uniqueness of the Nairs at the same time adapting many practices to the times and country of their adoption. Efforts are on to bring together all Nair groups the world over under an umbrella " International Federation of Nair Societies".

National Democratic Party (NDP)

The Nair community had a political outfit called the NDP (National Democratic Party), and it had 5 MLA's in the Kerala Assembly. From 1994 and onwards, the Nair Service Society adopted an equi-distance policy.


Notes and References

See also

External links

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