Life Writings and Communities of Memory: A Reading on the Narrative self of Kuriyedathu Tatri

Abstract: This article analyses the communities of memory as reflected in life writings dealing with the Smarthavicharam of Kuriyedathu Tatri. However, it tries to examine various forms of life writing including autobiography, biography, testimonials, historical documents, newspaper records and literary narratives produced in various decades. This paper puts forth the point that the communities of memory in these life writings are constructed and there is politics of memory involved in constructing the meaning of the past. It focuses on the role of narrative in linking the life writing memory and the identity of Kuriyedathu Tatri.

Keywords: life writing, smarthavichamm, Namboodiris, communities of memory

In the social hierarchy of Kerala, the place of the Namboodiris or Kerala Brahmins was indisputably in the highest rung of society so that they obtained regard from other communities. The privileges and prerogatives in social life, however, never enabled them to retain their integrity and vitality. But these factors are imperative for any community to thrive and survive in a changing society. Apparently, the Namboodiri community was in an enviable position, blessed with all the fortunes of the society in which they lived, but actually that community was facing an inevitable social wilt, owing to certain irrational conventions and customs practiced. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the elite and the educated among them indulged in a virulent campaign against those outmoded practices and made fervent appeal to the rationale and conscience of the right-ranking people of that community.

Thus, in Kerala in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries prevailed a special trial for Namboodiri women accused of adultery called the smarthavicharam. If found guilty, the woman was excommunicated so that the social order of caste and marriage, contingent upon the chastity of upper caste women, were upheld by the state. It is clear that the trials mainly affected the Namboodiri women. While the code of restrictions on their moral behaviour was severe, it was relaxed in the case of Namboodiri men. As a result, the latter was allowed to have illicit liaisons, provided these affairs were restricted to women of castes other than their own. The virtue of the Namboodiri women was protected and preserved to prevent them from illicit affairs with men of their own or other castes; these women had to remain untouched to avoid any dilution of the Namboodiri lineage. However, this system had an oppressive effect on Namboodiri women.

In the case of Kuriyedathu Tatri’s incident, the significance of brashtu or excommunication was resulted not only in the loss of caste of women in question, but of sixty four men. Kuriyedathuathu Tatri, Namboodiri woman was frustrated by the innumerable restrictions placed on her by the conventions of the Namboodiri clan and her husband’s neglect and indifference. So, she deliberately conducted secret liaisons with prominent men of several upper caste families and kept proofs of these relationships either by way of momentos given her lovers or through recording intimate physical details such as birthmarks on the genitals. At the time of her trial, she produced these proofs and argued that if she were to be pronounced an outcaste, so too should all the men who had physical relations with her. In fact, the logic of her argument was infallible, and the brahmin judges as well as the King were forced to declare sixty-four outstanding men from prominent families as outcastes.

Historically eventful Kuriyedathu Tatri’s smarthavicharam in 1905 rocked the whole social systems of Kerala in the early part of the twentieth century. It accelerated reforms among the Namboodiris who formed a society called Yogakshema Sabha in 1908, where they promoted ideas such as abolition of sambandham and the relaxation of marriage rules for all Namboodiri men. Historical recordings of the incident can be traced mainly through the smarthavicharam documents kept at the Regional Archives Library Ernakulam. These reports include Kuriyedathu Tatri’s own statements at the time of smarthavicharam, the reports of smarthavicharam by the smarthan Jatadevan Namboodiri and the testimonials produced by the men who involved in the case in order to defend their position.

The rules and conduct of the smarthavicharam had been taken from dharmasasthras like Manusmrithi and Sankarasmrithi. In Kerala most of the brahmins followed Sankarasmrithi. There are many historians who recorded this practice in general and this event in particular. William Logan’s Malabar Manual discusses this issue in detail. L. K. A. Iyengar’s Cochin Tribes and Castes, T. K. Gopala Panikker’s Malabar and its Folk and P. Bhaskaranunni’s smarthavicharam thrash out this event in detail. There are also some newspapers which reported this case in detail especially Malayala Manorama and Deepika. Since this caste trial extended for many months, editorial of Malayala Manorama dealt with this issue in detail. At the centenary year of the smarthavicharam, some weeklies like Mathrubhumi and Samakalika Malayalam thrashed out the event in the minds of Malayalis.

Historical Narratives

There are nine volumes of smarthavicharam documents kept at the Regional archives library at Cochin. The first file document of smarthavicharam deals with the report of smarthan Jatadevan Namboodiri and the detailed list of excommunicated men of the caste trial and the relationship of Kuriyedathu Tatri with these men. The second volume of smarthavicharam files draw out the rules and conduct of the smarthavicharam; since it was the first time that a purushavicharam was introduced as a part of the smarthavicharam. The third volume of smarthavicharam files recorded the details of issuing the ‘pambu’ that is the chance given to the excommunicated men to prove their innocence.

The fourth volume of the smarthavicharam file reported the undertakings of the smarthavicharam from the date of beginning to the end. The fifth volume of the smarthavicharam documents dealt with the proceedings of the Malayala Brahmana Sabha at the Sri Padmanabha Swami Temple Thiruvananthapuram regarding this event. Sixth volume is the smarthavicharam correspondence file which gives a light on the information regarding the letter proceedings between different Government officials including Cochin Government, police quarters, civil court etc… This file also included the complete Government records on the expenditure of the smarthavicharam. The volume eighth and ninth of smarthavicharam documents contain the statements by Kuriyedathu Tatri herself and the corresponding reports by the smarthan as well as the jaarans or men involved in the case.

Thus analysing the first volume of smarthavicharam documents contain mainly the report of smarthan regarding the men involved in the Tatri case and how they related with Kuriyedathu Tatri brings into light the fact that most of these men from the upper class community of the time or from the savarna castes including scholars, musicians, Kathakali artists and many other prominent people of that time, not only of the Cochin state and the entire Malabar belt. They included thirty Namboothiris, ten Iyers (Pattars or Tamil Brahmanans), thirteen Ambalavaasis and eleven Nairs. The list even, contains her own kinsmen including her father, husband, uncle, brother-in-law and her teacher.

Thus the report brings to forefront the information that the code of restrictions on the moral behaviour of men was relaxed. As a result, the latter was allowed to have illicit liaisons, provided these affairs restricted to women of castes other than their own. The virtue of the Namboodiri women was protected and preserved to prevent them from illicit affairs with men of their own or other castes. It is noted that there is not a single man from the lower caste included in the names that Tatri revealed during the caste inquisition. It shows caste hierarchy existed during that time was severe.

Thus it shows that how the individual is connected to the larger political structure. It is in this sense that the family triangle is connected to other commercial, economic, bureaucratic, and judicial triangles which determine its value. This is evident in the reports provided by smarthan about the trial. Here cites one example from the smarthan’s report regarding accusation against Tatri’s father. Smarthan writes:

Purushan: Kalpakasseri Ashtamurthy Namboodiri.

Note: He is the father of sadhanam. He says that daughter felt displeasure towards him when he had not admitted her towards the illam after this incident. Srnarthan rejecting this response by saying that there is not any base to think that a daughter would react like this to one’s father. Moreover Ashtamurthy Namboodiiri cannot bring any evidences to prove his exoneration. (SV-1)

Malayala Manorama reported in 1905 July 5 about Kuriyedathu Tatri’s skill in defending her position. Report says:

The smarthavicharam of 1905 provided the facility to question the sadhanam (accused woman) directly by the jaarans involved in the case. She would answer the questions explicitly in the smarthavicharam court. Tatri candidly defended her position like an experienced barrister. (Thrippunithura varthakal 16)

Similarly the same news paper also reported that one of the Namboodiri who involved in the case accompanied a famous advocate and when this former judge enquired certain questions to Tatri and she shielded it with great wisdom.

Literary Narratives

There are many books based on Kuriyedathu Tatri’s smarthavicharam came out in Malayayalam Literature. Expanding through many genres, these nartratives characterised by a tone of resistance and a subverstion of the Metanarratives of those times. Madambu Kunjukkuttan’s Bhrashtu published in 1973 in which Tatri’s act is reinterpreted as an act of subversion against the male oppression and not simply as excessive self-indulgence. The novel assumes a greater significance, in that he man, is apparently able to view the woman’s pivotal role in this revolution in the social structure of Kerala and the Namboodiri community in particular.

The structure of the novel is very interesting. While the narrative element is preserved, the linear structure is bracken by simultaneous introductions of distinct stands of sub – plots in the story. While the central story takes its own course the five sub-plots also flow alongside to their own conclusions. While the heroine, Paptikutty’s story is the major theme, the five sub- plots also gain importance, in that they provide the social and the political fabric which led to Paptikutty’s story.

Thazhamangalam Achan Namboodiripad’s family story gives us glimpses into the lives and activities of powerful Namboodiri household which existed in the earlier part of the Twentieth century. The feudal system of land ownership, the joint family system, caste- hierarchy, religious as well as secular superiority of these Namboodiri families over the entire land, the corrupt and pleasure loving practices indulged in by the men of the family, harassment and oppression of women of the family, all these form a general background for a story which gives credence to turn of events narrated therein.

The second stand, Chemmadiri Otikkan’s story, with his saintly father Akkithar, his revolutionary son Ichata, and his two week brothers Panchu and Vasu, forms a counterpoint to the Thazhamangalam episodes. One gets a glimpse of another powerful upper caste community of Kerala – the Thampurans or the ruling caste. The corrupt and excessive practices followed by them are well described in the episodes of Chinnammu Thampuran, Ramanikkutty and Kunhaniyan. Nambyattan’s relationship wih Mathukkutty and the revolutionary activist of the Young Otikkan and his mentor Unni Namboodiri also form multiple stands of the story.

The book offers a glimpse of the socio cultural and political set up of Kerala of the later Nineteenth and early twentieth century. The repression of the caste and class system, the oppressive feudal land-owning system, the subjugation of women, the restrictions wrought by extremely ritualistic, religious practices, the self indulgence and profligacy of the upper caste males and its effects on the lower castes, the native ruler’s submissive attitude to the British and the indifference to the fate of his subjects are all subtly pointed out. It is a keen study of the life, character, architecture, customs, rituals and relationships of Namboodiris at the turn of the century.

Another novel emerged out of this historical subject is K. B. Sreedevi’s Yagnam (Sacrifice). This novel dealt with the family life of an ostracised man. Here the focus of concern has changed to the excommunicated men and their family life. The two plays based on this event are Marattam by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar and Ororo Kalathilum by K. V. Sreeja.

Having the fourth edition of a novel sold out within a span of less than four years is no small achievement, especially when the writer is not a well-known one. The Edappal-based writer Nandan’s debut novel ‘Kuriyedathu Thatri’ has this enviable credit to claim suddenly. The story was weaved around a romantic but revolting woman character from Kerala history, who had made her own body a weapon to fight against a system. The novel came out at a time when ‘Thatrikutty’ (Savitrikutty) had almost become a myth in the cultural psyche of Kerala – a woman who boldly stood up and said bluntly on the face of the authorities that the whole system was rotten.

The historic smarthavicharam of Thatrikutty had taken the whole Brahmin community by storm. She threw grave questions on the decadence of a system that was apparently putrefied and anti-woman. During the Smarthavicharam, Thatri revealed the names of as many as 64 persons including her brother, father and uncle, who according to her, had sexual intercourse with her. “In fact, it was a challenge to deal with Thatri as the main character of my novel,” says Nandan. But his dream objective of writing the novel was different. Nandan was obsessed with cleansing the century-old social stigma attached on Thatri. The beautifully written novel is unfolding in three different sections called Aitheehya Khandam (mythic part), Charithra Khandam (historic part) and Swapna Khandam (fantasy part).

Nandan has shown magnificent skill in the subtle narration of the story. Another novel came out of the same incident is that of Amrutharnadhanan by Unni Krishnan Puthur. This novel has given more significance to the authorial nature of smarthavicharam rather than the excommunication process. Puthur has come up with the novel after studying the smarthavicharam documents and tried to fictionalise the historical evident.

In the genre of poetry Oduvil Kunjikrishna Menon has come up with a poem titled “Aparadhiyaya Antherjanam” (“Guilty Antherjanam”). In this poem, he tried to laugh at the people involved in the famous kuriyedathu Tatri case. At the same time kunji Krishna menon tried to appreciate Tatri’s act in an age where played serious immoralities of the time. M. Govindan wrote Oru Kudiyattathinte Katha where the major characters are Tatri and the famous Kavungal Sankara Panikkar. Their relationship is romanticised through this poem.

Autobiographical Narratives

The consequences of this culture — specific caste-trial is reinvented in life writings like Avasanathe Smarthavicharam, an autobiography by A.M.N. Chakyar, a victimised ostracised Nambuthiri which problematises the issue of the ostracised men, and Devaki Nilayamgode who wrote in her memoir seventy years later about the smarthavicharam” of Kuriadethu Thatri, the ostracised antherjanam. The caste-trial is reinvented by Devaki Nilayamgode with realistic accounts of the “indigenous exotica,” in the “Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman” to signify how the “smarthavicharam” of Kuriadethu Tatri coincided with reform movements like the inception of the Yogakshema Sabha. Lalithambika Antherjanam, the well – acclaimed writer in Malayalam contextualises in her autobiography A Preface to an Autobiography the epoch – shifting “smarthavicharam” that shaken the polity. V. T. Bhattathiripadu in his autobiography Kanneeruni Kinavum deals this issue in detail.

In many of these life writings, the authors of these accounts lived after this event and formulated their own memories on the basis of oral narratives and news paper reports of that time. V. T. Bhattathiripadu in his autobiography writes that Kuriyedathu Tatri tried to protest the sexual desire of male hegemonic world by using the similar weapon. He observes:

There are three reasons for committing prostitution normally. One is out of desire; secondly it is for the economic need, thirdly it is out of protest. In the case of Tatri it is evident that if she had approached men for money and desire she would have been satisfied with that; but in her case it is the spirit of protest that made her to act like this. (627)

Devaki Nilayangode reveals in her autobiography that Tatri’s story is a story that is often discussed by elders in hushed whispers in illams, manas and kouilakams and yet a story that relentlessly piques the curiosity of many creative minds, a century after it happened. In all these stories the blame was always put on Tatri; she was the fallen woman who had enticed and insulted great Namboodiris as well as vedic teachers. But Devaki Nilayamgode memorises that beneath the tone of accusation, they were unconsciously congratulating Tatri and she argues in her memoir: “They mentioned Tatri’s name in low, frightened tones. Today, when I look back, I wonder: didn’t those poor antharjanams derive a mysterious sense of joy, satisfaction, and energy in repeating Tatri’s story endlessly” (114).

The “smarthavicharam” of women, who transgressed sexual norms, was an act of abandonment masked under religious belief. T. K. Gopala Panikkar described the “smarthavicharam” as it was practiced in Malabar in the early twentieth century, in his description of social life in Malabar, Malabar and its Folk (1900). It is evident from his account and many other contemporary accounts that this ‘trial’ was actually its exact opposite, an anti- trial as the chief intention of thejudges was not to provide the accused a chance to defend herself, but to extract a damning self-condemnation from her. smarthavicharam proceedings began when the husband of the woman suspected of ‘adulterous conduct’ informed the local caste elder, who then communicated with the local chieftain who was considered the guardian of caste order. The Rajas of Cochin and Travancore, the Zamorin of Calicut, and other chieftains usually received such information and commissioned four caste elders to hold the ‘trial: The ‘trial’ was held in the woman’s Man and involved considerable expense which could even ruin the family.

Devaki Nilayamgode, a representative of the Malayala Brahmana community, reflects on the limitations of such incarcerations in Antherjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri woman. If the Antherjanam in any sense associated with the incarcerated accomplices had a child, in due course, the information was conveyed to the king and the smaarthan. The judge decreed that the child had to be excommunicated and thus an infant was born an outcaste. If a Namboodiri is excommunicated at birth, he becomes a Chakyar, an outcaste antherjanam becomes a Nangyar. They live lives of outcastes. These incarcerated antherjanams became emblematic figures as they represent a removal from old foundations and from previous grounded ways of thinking. Recasting the antherjanam as a nangyar. The historical embeddedness of these narratives is fathomable in view of future reform endeavors. Smarthavicharam as a caste trial thereby signals the suppression of women played by the exigencies of man’s affective diminution.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, when the Kuriyedathu Tatri case broke out, the news papers were vociferous in their criticism of such practices as the smarthavicharam, interpreting it as evidence of the breakdown of patriarchal power, and the morality that accompanied it. A. M. N. Chakyar reveals in his autobiography that traditionally, smarthavicharam questioned and punished only women if others doubted their chastity. As the trial began, a composed and unruffled Thatri proudly named one after another, many prominent men, all heroes in the minds of people, who had slept with her. This caused a furore amongst the Malayans. Many of the accused outrightly denied being involved with the antharjanam but Tatri insisted that she had sufficient evidence. Being a highly sensational case involving high profile public figures, the Maharaja was forced to grant Tatri a fair trial. The cultural scholars, musicians and dancers from various regions of the state named by her were summoned before the Maharaja and the Smarthan. For each man, Tatri provided visual evidence (letters, gifts presented to her by the accused) or she substantiated her charges by giving evidences of prominent marks on their genitals.

The healthy change was hailed by the people and the newspapers and Kuriyedathu Tatri’s case was conducted accordingly. A set of rules were framed and the power of the caste council was not totally curtailed, but the right of the accused persons to explain themselves and plead innocence was safeguarded. In Tatri’s case, the benefit of this change did not help any of the accused persons because the prosecution was strong and unassailable.

Many of these writings shared communities of memory, each possess a unique personal memory but also share certain memories experienced as well as non experienced. Thus the self reflected in these life writing forms is a manifestation of thoughts built up from various discourses including dharmasastras, historical narratives, oral narratives, newspaper, magazines of that times. The self reflected through these communities of memory is constructed and there is a politics of memory involves in constructing the past and propagating them more widely or imposing them on other members of society.


Antherjanam – Namboodiri woman

Arthasasthras – An anicient Indian treatise

Dasi – maid servant

Dharmasasthra – An Indian branch of learning, pertaining to Hindu Dharma, religious and legal duty.

Namboodiri – Brahmins of

Nangyar – the female members of the Chakyar community.

Smarthan – A judge who is conducting the caste trial

Smarthavicharam The ritualistic trial of a Nambudiri woman and fellow male adulterers who were accused of illegitimate sexual relations.

Vaidikans – Caste priests

Vicharam – trial

Yogakshema Sapha the first official organisation of Namboodiri community of Kerala


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MEERA K.G. Assistant Professor of English , N.S.S. College, Nilamel, Thiruvanathapuram.

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Assistant Professor of English , N.S.S. College, Nilamel, Thiruvanathapuram.

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