Rituals and the Namboothiri Women

Abstract: The aim of this article is to explore how the religious rituals and societal codes of the antharjanam might have been in compliance with the norms set down in the Rig Veda. It covers the study of the Rig Veda and other religious texts that highlight the discriminatory plight Namboothiri women were subjected to. They were made to follow numerous degrading and far-fetched rituals that further contained them within the patriarchal built walls of their community. Some of these included childbirth rituals, impurity rituals and marriage rituals. Aspects of women’s development are also analysed with respect to these phenomena and the access to education.

Keywords: Namboothiri women, Rig Veda, antharjanam, hindu childbirth rituals, 20th century communism, social reconstruction, women’s development, women’s status improvement, impurity rituals, women’s social subordination, discrimination against women

Till recently, the Namboothiri women or antharjanam who belong to the brahmanical class led a very secluded and cloistered life. The very name antharjanam or ‘people who occupy the interiors’ signifies their subservient status. This restriction may be a Vedic inheritance that defined the woman’s role in the family and her role in the rituals that were conducted for the maintenance of social and cosmic order. Vishvamitra considered woman to be an extraneous element – an ornamental thing. Though the Vedic pantheon began to include divine couples and recognised the importance of the complementarity of the human couple and women’s enlightenment and freedom, a close reading of the Vedic mantras attest to woman’s subordinate position. ‘The son does not give his wealth to his sister. Her husband has married (Panigrahanam in Namboothiri dialect) her only for producing sons. .. Daughters are merely ornamental things.’ (Rig Veda III.3 1 .2) ‘This is a Rik (Hymn) of revelation that demonstrates the attitude of Vedic society towards its women.’ (My Translation, Parameswaran 159) The Rik throws light on three significant aspects:

• Women did not enjoy equal rights to property.

• She is only an object of pleasure for man. The husband has sexual liaison with her for mere enjoyment.

• She is only an ornamental piece (III 31 .1 )

Taking cue from the Vedas and later religious scriptures, the Brahmanical -glasses adopted a discriminatory attitude towards women.

Namboothiris belong to three different Vedic groups those who follow the Yajur Veda, those who follow the Rig Veda, and those who follow the Sama Veda. Most of the Namboothiris are Rig Vedic and are spread throughout Kerala.

They are supposed to have migrated from the North. The Rig Veda is the oldest of the Vedas — all others being based upon it. In the Rig Veda, the daughter (duhita), and maiden (kanya) are praised for their youthful beauty and radiance, which suggests an interest in feminine sensuality and the child bearing capacity of the girl. (Young 61)

My attempt in this article is to explore how the religious rituals and societal codes of the antharjanam might have been in compliance with the norms set down in the Rig Veda. Aspects of this orientation are embedded in the three classical roles of worldly life or trivargadharma, artha and kama. Through their ideal behaviour, women were expected to contribute to dharma (the order of the family and the cosmos), to artha (by producing sons and material wealth in the patriarchal family) and kama (by desire and pleasure).The irony is that while from one perspective she remained central to its concerns, from another she became marginalised, or even excluded.

Widespread discrimination was prevalent in the Namboothiri sect and the antharjanam was often subjected to harsh laws and authority for many years. Female children were brought up to believe that their lives were circumscribed and one stage below that of their male counterparts. Since the place of education was most often the home of a teacher and was quite extensive and long, sons and not daughters, benefited from it. The daughter’s education was confined to the elementary level and consisted of the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. She would also be taught a few rituals to qualify her for her future role in the yagna — the rituals she had to partake as wife, to endow her with the befitting level of culture. This may be attributed to the pedagogical situation necessitated by brahmanical specialisation and the desire of brahmin men for an exclusive domain.

The Rig Veda censures women’s education thus, `[Lord] Indra himself has said, the mind of woman brooks not discipline, / Her intelligence hath little weight’. (VIII 33.17) It was considered that a long and extensive education might erase the youthful fertility of a woman and not ensure adequate progeny. This educational disparity led to greater differentiation of the sexes. Knowledge of the Samahitas and Vedangas defined the status of the brahmin males as gods on earth and the highest caste (varna) in the social order, while the woman was accorded an inferior status due to her lesser knowledge and role. The idea of enlightenment as extreme transcendence beyond the cycles of existence produced symbols of women as not only categorically different from men, but also lower. Since the Hindu ascetic had to renounce society and family and wander alone, he pushed the idea of separation to the extreme.

Though the rites and rituals accorded to the antharjanam were only of a secondary nature, she often had the prerogative in childbirth rituals. Separate female rituals for fertility, which later became the hallmarks of the female sphere in Hinduism, dates from the Rig Vedic period. (Young 100) Doranne Jacobson in her article on ‘Hindu Childbirth Rituals’ observes:

Childbirth rituals are unique in the degree to which they are the domain of the women in a culture where men often seem to dominate. . . . In childbirth rituals, however men play only minimal supporting roles. Giving birth is a skill in which no man can claim expertise. This is the heart of the domestic sphere, the woman’s domain par excellence. (76)

Pumsavanom, a ritual ceremony for the expectant child to be a male, reveals the prejudice towards the girl child. Performed on an auspicious day in the third, fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, the husband, through a mantra, asks his wife whether the concoction she consumed would give a boy or girl. She replies that it would be Pumsavanam meaning that she consumed it with the intention of producing a male progeny. Many hymns in the Rig Veda express the desire to beget heroic sons. There are no similar prayers wishing for a girl child. This ritual is followed by a request to God in the form of mantras to induce the conception and pave the way for a smooth delivery. The Rig Veda also emphasises woman’s reproductive role:

May Prajapati grant to us an issue, Aryaman keep us till death in holy marriage! Free from ill omens, enter the home of your husband. Bring blessing to both humans and cattle (Rig Veda X, 85. 43)

These mantras are chanted to develop female fertility, to advise the wife on her role as mother, to enable breast feeding and the health of the newborn. As the importance of the son increased — since he was the boat that carried his father to heaven — rituals to prevent the birth of a girl came into vogue and daughters came to be disparaged. Another significant ritual for the expectant woman is Seemantham, mostly celebrated during the eighth month to purify the foetus and to make the son intelligent.

‘The naming ceremony or naamakaranam of the girl child takes place on the twelfth day after birth, since any delay meant a consequent delay in ,marriage,’ (My translation, Sumangala 2) The eldest girl child was named after ‘her father’s mother, the second after her mother’s mother and the third after her mother. The father whispers her name into her ear thrice and the mother calls her by her caste name of Nangema, Ittithatri or Unniyema. The child is also given the traditional Vayambu for the acquisition of good health and knowledge. However, discrimination is prevalent in this ritual also, since the girl child was not given gold along with Vayambu – a traditional medicine. The Namboothiri men probably thought that since the girl child was not in need of intelligence, she need not be fed the gold. However, in homes with a single girl child there was the practice of adding gold. The child was shown the outdoors only after four months. This is the Nishkramanam ceremony or the Vaathil Purappadu when the child was taken outdoors for the first time by the father. He takes the child to a holy tree and then comes back.

Choroonu, the ritual of feeding the child rice for the first time, takes place after the fifth month. After Punyaham or the sprinkling of holy water, mantras are chanted to God Agni or fire to purify the food. The child is fed ghee and honey along with rice, with the mother sitting on the right side behind the traditional umbrella so that she may not be glimpsed by the men folk.

At the age of seven is choulam or the hair shaving ceremony, after which the concept of Shudham (the concept of purity) is introduced. Henceforth the girl child is forbidden to touch any member of another caste. As the polarity of pure (sauca) and impure (asauca) became popular as a religious category, women came to be viewed as impure during times of menstruation and pregnancy. (Kane 2:803) Rigorous rituals are enforced on the girl when she attains maturity. As she is considered impure on these days she is bathed and made to sit apart. She is forbidden to see the sun for three days and has to abstain from eating salt. She must not brush her teeth or take a bath for three days. On the third day, she has her meal before sunset. On the fourth day the adiyathi, usually a Nair woman who attends on her, takes her to the pond for bath, and dresses her in new clothes. Married women of the household accompany her and have an oil bath. But the girl does not put oil on her hair since it denotes infertility. According to the norms of society she is still impure and only on the sixth day after she is sprinkled with holy water, can she become pure. Every month the same practice of abstaining from salt and the isolation is repeated. She is forbidden from seeing or speaking to men outside the family, and has to carry the traditional umbrella. This is the Ghosha custom or wearing the veil, which was enforced until recently. The Rig Veda also has enshrined in it the etiquettes of proper behaviour for a Brahmin girl after puberty.

Cast down thine eyes and look not up.

More closely set thy feet. Let none

See what thy garment veils, for

Thou, a Brahmin, hast become a Dame (Book XXX 13)

Insensitivity to women was also expressed through marriage and other numerous restrictive codes, including Smarthavicharam. Almost twenty percent of the Namboothiri women remained unmarried, and there were strict moral and behavioural codes imposed on them to keep them lifelong virgins. Heartless punishments up to excommunication, were reserved for non-compliance with these harsh moral codes. According to the Sanskara Smruthi or Brahmin law, girls were to be married before they attained puberty. As only the eldest son of a Namboothiri family could marry, many antharjanams remained spinsters, or were married off as the fourth or fifth wife of an elderly Moosad or eldest son. Though the men could marry from outside the community, the women were forbidden to do so. These marriages called Sambandham were informal relationships Namboothiri men had with women of Malayali Kshatriya, Ambalavasi and Nair communities. The men could indulge in all sorts of sexual liaisons but the women were curbed in their sexual life and at times denied the right of begetting children. The Vedas also attest to the custom of polygamy, here men not only had many wives, but there were cases of many men having a common wife. The Rig Veda consists of many Riks, where women are referred to in the plural and men in the singular. ‘So maidens bow before the youthful gallant who comes with love to them, who yearn to meet him’ (Rig Veda X 30.6) again ‘Like rival wives on every side enclosing ribs oppress me sore.’ (Rig Veda I 105.8) The palpable effect of this heinous act was experienced for centuries this unjust law was not questioned.

The very high bride price and expensive marriage ceremony were other acumbrances to marriage for the Namboothiri girl. The Vedas prescribe, as do ancient cultures, that a dowry be given by the bride’s family to the groom a token for supporting the woman. In Rig Veda X there is a mention of the righteous dowry that Surya took to her groom’s house:

8 Her treasury was earth and heaven, when Surya went unto her Lord.

10 Her spirit was the bridal car; the covering thereof was heaven:

Bright were both Steers that drew it when Surya approached her husband’s home

The tenth book of the Rig Veda is devoted to woman’s role as wife and in her husband’s home. The hymn on Surya’s marriage is full of advice on the numerous roles a wife has to play but there seems to be none for the husband. As in the Rig Veda, the Namboothiris also prescribed the woman’s roles as jaya (a sharer in the husband’s affections), jani (the mother of children) and patni (the partner in the performance of rituals or yagna). But most often, the woman was no more than a silent partner in the rituals and hence had minimal training in it. Even in the choice of her partner she had no voice and was kept in the dark about it. Only when the preparations began, she was informed about the event by her maid or attendant. However, the details of the groom or the family were not disclosed. But .the antharjanam never harboured any fantasies about a blissful life since she knew the complacent and dull life inside an illam (namboothiri home). Though the marriage ceremony has been reduced to a few hours today, earlier it was a four day long ritual that involved the chanting of mantras and vows taken by the bride and groom. The marriage ceremony may be the direct outcome of Surya’s marriage considered ideal, and elaborated in the Rig Veda X 85 ff with several invocations to the gods.

The Namboothiris believe that the girl, during infancy, childhood and youth, is under the wings of the gods Soman, Gandharvan and Agni respectively. God Viswavasa protects her virginity. The bridegroom has to appease these gods through mantras and rituals, thank them for protecting her until marriage, and marry her in the presence of Agni. Book X contains many interesting messages and blessings given by the relatives to the bride. The bride who is called sumangali (fortunate) and siva (auspicious) was decorated with ornaments, and prayers were offered for the couple’s good fortune (saubhagya), prosperity, progeny and the unification of hearts.

27 Happy be thou and prosper with thy children here: be

vigilant to rule thy household in this home.

Closely unite thy body with this man, thy lord. So shall ye, full of years, address your company

45 O Bounteous Indra, make this bride blest in her sons and fortunate.

Vouchsafe to her ten sons, and make her husband the eleventh man.

The following hymns prescribe certain rigid norms of behaviour for the bride in her husband’s home. She was not to be angry or hostile to her husband, she was to be tender, amiable, glorious, the mother of males, devoted to the gods, the bestower of happiness. . . .(Young 61)

44 Act like a queen to your husband’s father, to your husband’s mother likewise, and his sister. To all your husband’s brothers be queen.

46 Over thy husband’s father and thy husband’s mother bear full sway. Over the sister of thy lord, over his brothers rule supreme.

47 So may the Universal Gods, so may the Waters join our hearts. May Matarisvan, Dhatar, and Destri together bind us close.

An unusual custom is that the traditional thali (a yellow thread with a gold pendant) is tied by the father, rather than the husband, since this enables her to perform the funeral rites of her parents and partake of other rituals within her home. On the wedding day she has to please the various deities by performing the Ayaniunnu. After an oil bath with other married women of the household, she is made to sit on a stool in the northern portion of the house. The groom would be enacting the same ritual in his house.

Till recently, the bride used to be covered fully with unbleached long cloth, in the traditional manner. This was followed by the lifting of the veil of the bride and viewing her face the ceremony of Mukhadarshanam. A significant ritual is Veli Othu, when several Brahmins chant the veli othu mantras for enlightening the bride and to mentally prepare her to face the challenges as a wife and a mother. Veil Othu is a fairly long part of the Rig Veda that narrates the feelings of a bride on the pre-marriage and post-marriage period and also the duties of a wife and a mother. Veli Othu ends with the advice of the bride’s father and prayers to several gods. Worthy of note is the prayer to Visvavasu, protector of virgins, in Book X to transfer his guardianship to another:

21 I laud Visvavasu with hymns and homage.

Seek in her father’s home another fair one, and find the portion from of old assigned thee.

22 Rise up from hence, Visvavasu: with reverence we worship thee.

Seek thou another willing maid, and with her husband leave the bride.

The most sacred part of the ceremony involves circumambulating the sacred fire in seven steps to a Vedic mantra. Just after the marriage rites, the bride is taken to the northern portion of the house, the Vadakkini, and made to sit on a woollen carpet till the fourth day. After a small homam (a Vedic ritual) own as Randaam Homan, the Oupaasanam Homan begins. It is a ritual to be performed daily in the Vadakkini by both husband and wife until death. The fire from the marriage fire-pit is used to light the fire-pit for their first Oupaasanam. It is their duty to keep this fire going till their death. The Sruvam (a long wooden spoon) used for their first Oupaasanam has to be kept for later use, during the husband’s cremation. This ritual is performed twice a day for four days. On all these four days, the wife sits beside the husband and is symbolically connected to the husband using Darbha (a type of grass). She bathes only on the morning of the fourth day, while the husband takes a daily bath and performs daily rituals. If the fourth day is propitious, then the ritual of Sekam takes place. The bride is made to sit on a decorated cot surrounded by sixteen lamps. The groom enters the room and adorns his bride with flowers and kohl and chants mantras for progeny. With the performance of this symbolic act of consummation he leaves the room while the bride, who is presumed to have become impure by the act, has to have a bath before she can come out. After being sprinkled with holy water, the groom is served food by the bride, and she has to eat from the same plantain leaf after he has completed the meal. This was a compulsory custom till recently. The couple is then led to their room where they are given milk and betel leaves.

On an auspicious day after marriage is the Koodiveppu — the bride’s first entry to her husband’s home. The most fascinating aspect about this ritual is that it is mostly women who accompany the bride. Before she leaves her parents’ home, she has to sever all links with her family. Symbolically this is enacted by sprinkling water on a mound of rice and cutting a plantain plant. The groom walks in front holding an umbrella while the bride walks behind covered from head to foot.

This emphasises the subordination of women – they were always to walk behind their husbands. As soon as the groom enters the house he closes the door. The bride has to break it open, signifying that she has henceforth full rights in her husband’s home. She is welcomed with prayers such as the ones in the Rig Veda X 85:

May happiness await you with your children! Watch o’er

this house as mistress of the home. Unite yourself wholly

with your husband. Thus authority in speech till old age

will be yours ( 27).

Women welcome both bride and groom inside the house, lead them to Nadumittam (central quadrangle of the house), and the eldest married woman in the groom’s family performs Nedikkal of Appam, a sweet. (‘Shodasakriyakal,’ Namboothiri Website Trust) The bride’s mother remains in the groom’s house for a certain period, to teach her daughter the necessary etiquettes of living in her husband’s home. (Sumangala 18-32)

Namboothiri women were sometimes subjected to smarthavicharam – a trial for adultery imposed by the Namboothiri patriarchs. Fortunately this is no longer in existence. It comprised six stages. The first was dasi vicharam or the trial of the maid for a prima facie report of the antharjanam’s sexual misdeeds. If there was proper evidence, the accused would be isolated in a cell, and the ruler was informed about the crime. Lawyers were sent for enquiry by the king – the third stage of the trial that takes place outside cell. The questioning continued until the accused admitted her guilt. Thenceforth she was reduced to a saadhanam – a thing – a vile way of addressing a human being. She was also subjected to physical torture. The king would be informed of the men or thejaarans involved in the offence. If the accused men denied the accusation, they were subjected to sathyapariksha (a test of truth) at Suchidram temple to prove their innocence. The fourth stage was soruparncholial. If the accused men were found innocent through the test, they were declared innocent. The fifth stage was dehavichedam in which the saadhanam, as well as the involved guilty men, were ceremoniously excommunicated. In the sixth stage, sudhabhojanam (pure meal), there was a sharing of a meal among the accused and the trial team, once the accused was proved innocent.

For an antharjanam, to become a widow was considered inauspicious. There was a law that the wife should not see the dead body of her husband and vice versa. So when she became a widow she was isolated and made to occupy the room in which she stays in during her monthly period. She had to remove all her ornaments and halfway through the funeral rites the thali would be removed and cast into the funeral pyre. During the ten days of impurity, she must not dry her clothes or eat salt. The sons performed the daily ritual for ten days while she sat by their side. On the eleventh day she performed the ritual with her sons. The rigid diet of the widow has been relaxed in modern times, but she must abstain from salt. Widows were also prescribed special garbs. They were to wear plain white mundu without borders, must not wear the tikka or adorn the eyes with kajal. They could not partake in any auspicious ceremony or sleep on a bed. Their whole life would be spent in prayers and fasting. Though it is attributed that during the Vedic age widows were forced to die by jumping into the funeral pyre along with their husbands — Sati — or condemned to a life of austerity, modern interpretations deny such a reading. Rig Veda X 18 is addressed to the widow, who is called upon to rise and take the hand of her new husband, doubtless a brother of the deceased, in accordance with an ancient marriage custom:

Rise, come unto the world of life,

O woman: come, he is lifeless by whose side thou liest

Wifehood with this thy husband was thy portion, who took

thy hand and wooed thee as a lover. (Rig Veda XVIII 85.8)

Thus the constrained and confining space of the antharjanam in the past may be ascribed to the rigid codes of the Vedas. The Hindu Marriage Act and the influence of Communism in the beginning of the twentieth century wrought drastic effects on this community. With emancipation and education, several stringent codes have been ‘removed and many antharjanams have attained pinnacles of success. The traditional dress of the antharjanam is rarely to be seen and most of them don the saree or other Indian dress. Marriages are no longer elaborate affairs but have been simplified and moving around in a veil is no longer practised. However, by and large, the life of the antharjanam is still circumscribed by rituals, especially those of impurity associated with menstruation and childbirth. Though sambhandham and smarthavicharom have been eradicated, the patrilineal system is still in vogue. Hence it seems apparent that conservatism still reigns within the Namboothiri fold and they remain an exclusive community. New programmes for social reconstruction and women’s development are required to improve the status of the antharjanam.


Griffith, Ralph T. H, trans. The Rig Veda. 1896. <http://www_sacred texts.com/hin/ rigveda>

Jacobson, Doranne. “Golden Handprints and Red-Painted Feet: Hindu Childbirth Rituals in Central India”, Unspoken Worlds : Women’s Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980. 73-94.

Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmasastra, 5 vols. 2nd ed. Poona:Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute,1974.

Namboothiri Website Trust. “Shodasakriyakal” <www.namboothiri.com/articles/ culture.htm>

Parameswaran, C. N. Rigvedaparyatanam. Aluva: Pen, 2003.

Sumangala. Antherjanategalum Acharangalum. Kunnamkulam: Panchangam Pusthakasala, 2003.

Young, Katherine K. “Hinduism”, Women in World Religions. Ed. Arvind Sharma. New Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1995.

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