“Was Matriliny ever any Different? Resisting the Binary–Powerful Karanavan/Dependent Women”

Abstract: This paper is an effort towards resolving ‘twin’ questions that recur in the context of discussions of women’s erstwhile property rights among the matrilineal social groups, particularly the Nairs, in Kerala. “Is it then the legal system that made the karanavan of the erstwhile matrilineal taravad so powerful or did the legal picture only mirror the ‘real’? If the karanavan was indeed powerful then was matriliny ever any different i.e., did women have rights to property and decision making power in the taravad, at least in some distant past?” The questions impute a comparison between the contemporary, when matriliny as a legal framework is ‘no more’, and the historical experiences of matriliny. Emphasising the difficulty in drawing comparisons between social frameworks informed by different conceptions of rights, it is argued that the questions pose the issues of a powerful karanavan and women’s rights as mutually exclusive.

Keywords: taravad gender and power relations, sambadham, property rights, gender inequality, family law, kinship, colonial legal position, post-colonial ethnography

Under the colonial legal dispensation in Malabar, the karanavan or the senior male member of the taravad (matrilineal joint family) was vested with the right to manage family property. He was defined as constituting the ‘head of family’, in exactly the same manner as the father under classical Hindu law or the Patriarch in Roman law. Without, as yet going into the details of the colonial understanding of matriliny, it may be stated that matriliny under colonial law was unabashedly patriarchal. To go still further, colonial legal practice facilitated older male control and even manipulation of property in the taravad. Yet while there is no denying that colonial law vested him with heightened powers over people and property in the taravad, this was only one of several dimensions of a very complex picture.

I have a special reason for beginning this essay with reference to the legal picture during the colonial period. For the spectre of the ‘real’ has begun to haunt me as the imputed ‘other’ of the legal. And yet as the legal position (the letter of the law) is quite well known, analysis of the legal discourse was to probe the claims that were made and disputed and the manner in which cases were adjudicated for what they suggested about ‘actual’ practices on the one hand and about colonial assumptions about customary practice on the other. Admittedly, the interplay of the discursive and non discursive in colonial law can go only part of the way in answering the question of the ‘real’. But the legal position is often taken to constitute something of a default real position, giving rise to what I will term ‘twin’ questions. Is it then the legal system that made the Karanavan so powerful or did the legal picture only mirror the ‘real’? And swiftly on its heels, was matriliny ever any different i.e., did women have rights to property and decision making power in the taravad, at least in some distant past? Though not quite in the same vein, there is a third question that troubles the interested, one that could constitute some sort of baseline defence of matriliny. That is despite how it worked in matters of property and power, did matriliny confer women with a ‘status’ or with the possible basis for ‘empowerment’?

It seems to me that those who advance these questions are wrestling with two sets of issues that they see as mutually exclusive i.e., the heightened powers of the karanavan and women’s substantial rights to property, (both of which signal gender and power relations). That the questions are posed as mutually exclusive is important i.e., if the karanavan did indeed have near absolute powers over property and persons (as in the colonial discourse), then how could women have enjoyed any power or property rights? In the following pages I will argue that these are not mutually exclusive positions i.e., even with a fairly powerful karanavan, who was an older male, matriliny on the west coast (Travancore, Cochin, Malabar and South Canara)1 could and did historically provide women with a position more favourable than under comparable patrilineal kinship societies. Further, it also supported decision-making powers for women regarding specific aspects of family and property, contrary to the legal discourse. This claim is informed by the understanding that gender as much as generation and importantly personality or ‘competence’ shaped power relations within the taravad as far back as the colonial period. The matrilineal taravad was located in a hierarchical mode of land relations involving landlords, tenants, cultivators and labour in different combinations, varying with region and history. It is but plausible that these changes resonated on property relations in the taravad.

I would also like to suggest that our questions arise precisely because of the tendency to compare matrilineal practices with idealised notions of itself rather than with comparable practices of families following patrilineal norms and rules. By idealised notions of matriliny, I mean the expectation that women rather than men should have wielded authority and held property in the taravad — should have been heads of family. Apart from problems with the conception of rights that underwrite such a position, such expectations tend to mask from view the less dramatic but equally important gains for women emerging from differences in sexuality, access to if not control over taravad property, social support from residence in their natal taravad in south and central Kerala and positive attitudes towards girl children. Historically then matriliny has afforded girls and women the capability to function with less restraint than in patrilineal societies. This included the right to locally available forms of literacy, to wider sexual choices and greater mobility. Capability and functioning in all these terms are integral to issues of gendered power and property. At the first level though, matrilineally related men and women were members by birth in the property holding group or taravad.2 In contrast Mitakshara Hindu law incorporated into the modern Hindu code continues to exclude women from membership by birth in the coparcenary or property holding group in most states of India (Kishwar, 1994).

The posited exclusivity of our questions emerges from the liberal juridical discourse of rights that inform them or the liberal conception of power as property right – a right possessed like a commodity, which may be transferred or alienated in a binding way. Besides, the legal discourse on property right in the taravad was along the axis of the liberal conception of rights, elaborated in the social contract theories. The taravad was interpreted as analogous to the “antique Patriarchal form’ of the family which preceded the social contract and under which “the son was a mere appendage to his father, and had no rights of property as opposed to him” (Moore, 1905: 17). Hence our questions and the legal discourse share a conception of rights, which need not be binding on the ‘real’. Besides, our access to ‘pre colonial’ and colonial practices (as distinct from the letter of the law) is anyway mediated by colonial law, ethno-historical writing, post colonial ethnography, folk narrative or any other ‘source’ and hence embedded in specific conceptions of rights. In demonstrating the claim of non exclusivity, I will have to go beyond the conception of rights that delimits our questions and the legal discourse.

It is significant also that our questions correspond to two sets of popular reconstructions of matriliny – one romanticising it as affording female spaces and power and the other as merely glossing female power while affording dictatorial powers to the karanavan. Crucially, however, both these emerge from historical experience with matriliny. The taravad by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was torn by hostile relations among kin and accusations of misappropriation by male members in positions of authority to benefit their ‘natural’ families.3 Given the force and sweep of this picture of nepotism and decadence, it is surprising that an image of women’s rights should have survived at all. More so, when we consider the roots in more recent memory of the central role of the manipulative karanavan in the pervasive disintegration of the taravad. Indexical of this puzzle is the ‘plot’ of that celebrated late nineteenth century social-realist novel by O Chandu Menon, Indulekha. So do let’s pause at that defining moment in the history of modern Kerala to meet, within the covers of Indulekha, not only an autocratic and decadent karanavan but also a ‘modern’ and assertive woman, Indulekha. Given the tendency to resort to polarised understandings of matriliny, several features of the novel are somewhat surprising. To begin with we have its excellent credentials, celebrated justly as it is for its portrayal of the social and of conflict ‘real’ of that historical period. And then, ironically, if the groundswell of criticism of matriliny as lacking in ‘progress’ was among the educated elite with access to the ‘modern’, Chandu Menon mobilises Indulekha, her modernity and all, in the cause of a critical defence of matriliny from the point of women’s rights. To indulge the dramatic we might even visualise Indulekha surrounded by the ruins of the taravad, yet upbraiding ‘new converts’ to colonial ‘modernity’ for their double standards on women. Yet, Indulekha’s or Chandu Menon’s is a defence of ‘matriliny’ rather than of the taravad, at that particular historical moment.4 In the process however, Chandu Menon bares the fangs of the ‘natural’ and ‘progressive’ in terms of their very easy association with patrilineal patriarchal influences. That is matriliny had ‘invited’ these charges by failing to centre property relations (descent and lineage) between father and son, and by unseating conjugality as the very basis of family. He argues that contrary to charges against it, matriliny did not exclude either. But more importantly, matriliny did sustain the mother-daughter tie in these very terms – and how could this be considered any less natural? Not surprisingly then, K.N. Panikkar, (1996) otherwise a strong critic of matriliny as a feudal social and economic system, nevertheless attributes Indulekha’s characterisation in the novel to gender justice enjoyed by Nair women for centuries!4

Though critical engagement with ‘fictional’ narratives as ‘sources’ is no longer unusual in social history, I might still be charged with not having broached the ‘real’. Before I do so here is a quick survey of the problems involved in attempting to demonstrate the claim of non exclusivity of our twin issues. In the first instance they seem to impel us to reconstruct ‘actual practices’ in order to refute the legal picture. For the ‘impossibility’ of such reconstruction is assumed to mean affirmation of the legal picture, despite demonstration of its discursive character. Hence, the need first to unpack the notion of the ‘real’. I will do so here in terms of the historicity of practices (and indeed of the notion of rights itself), as well as regional and social identity (of interest to us notions of caste and territory).

Importantly, the issues of property rights or authority practices push heavily against the historicity of the notion of rights. It is possible to show that the notion of rights that held together the taravad in the legal discourse was specifically colonial. Similar points could be made about the notion of property, in land for instance – as in the ‘novelty’ of the notion of ‘ownership’ as unmediated possession of the jenmi (landlord). This complicates greatly our twin questions. For if the liberal conception of rights is specific to colonial law, what notion of rights prevailed ‘on the ground’? Or given the force of colonial law as arbiter of disputes and its implications for shaping or directing practices, we are expected by the force of our twin questions to unravel the notion of rights or property say in the immediate pre colonial period or to replace the colonial notion with something else.

Historicity of practices

If the institution of sambandham (socially sanctioned form of cohabitation) was notorious during the colonial period for the ‘land for sexual relations network’ that it facilitated between Nambudiri jenmis (landlords) and women of tenant taravads, there is evidence to suggest that this particular expression of sambandham was specific to the colonial period. Clearly, colonial land policy in defining jenmis as landlords with absolute rights over land and kanam as merely a tenure, made it possible for Nambudiris as jenmis to use their position in the land hierarchy to coerce women from tenant taravads to enter into sambandham with them. Denial of such a demand risked foreclosure of tenancy. However, this tension between tenancy and sambandham was not new or specific (though the outcomes of the tension may have differed) to the colonial era. Narayanan and Veluthat (1983: 262) point out that in the later Cera period at least two Nambudiri settlements, Sukapuram and Avittatur sought to monitor and prevent ‘misuse’ of such sexual ties.5 These settlements proscribed cohabitation with women from taravads that held land under tenancy from them. Necessarily, such rules prevented ‘misuse’ on both sides – Nambudiris from exploitation of women from tenant taravads and tenants from using sexual relations to claim beneficial tenancies. If British policy was in stark contrast to this, Ganesh’s (1991: 316-321) work on land relations in the late medieval period could be used to think about the resonance on social relations (such as expressed in sambandham) of the changing historical dominance of different social groups in land relations. Ganesh argues that by the eighteenth century the indigenous tenures underlined the autonomy of the intermediate tenants growing out of permanent leases and their mediation of the customary rights of the jenmis.6 This could then be used to place in context Panikkar’s (1995: 188) point that the Nair middle class, which emerges in the second half of the nineteenth century and ironically enough which was most vocal in denouncing the exploitative hypergamous sambandham, had roots in the intermediary tenant class and was mediated by favourable tenancies from Nambudiri jenmis.7

There is another point of importance here (of the interface of history and region). Narayanan and Veluthat indicate the Nambudiri settlements were on land most suitable for paddy cultivation and concentrated in central Kerala. Only two ‘original’ settlements (Payyanur and Perincellur) were in north Kerala separated from the others by about 150 km (Ibid: 1984: 412). It is notable that Nambudiri influence and the preference for hypergamous sambandhams were not as pervasive in north as in central Kerala.8 This was also linked to agrarian relations in north Kerala as distinct from central Kerala – the predominance of fairly independent small peasantry as against the greater sub-infeudation of land in central Kerala.9 In that there is nothing to suggest the presence of the intermediary tenant class – which Panikkar argues had its roots in hypergamous sambandham – in the taluks of north Malabar. This provides the context for the very different concerns expressed and trajectories of reform of land relations and family law (matriliny) in north and central Kerala in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The greater general familiarity with the central Kerala pattern has not only masked the differences with the north (and far south) but also spawned the tendency to generalise the central Kerala pattern as a pan Kerala one.

Conception of rights

In the legal discourse, a taravad, defined by collective rights, was held to exclude individual rights. While there is nothing to suggest that the colonial notion of collective rights was based on local practices, it had two kinds of outcomes in colonial law. One, the karanavan was held to represent the collective interests (eclipsed with collective right) of the taravad and hence decision making powers regarding regulation of its affairs both internal and external were vested in him, subject to specific restraints on alienation of property. Two, in one important aspect of the articulation of property rights individual rights entered as if by default. On the question of partition of the taravad, it was maintained that while no one member had the right to enforce partition, every member had the right to deny the same– providing for the possibility of the assertion of individual interest against that of the collective. This confinement of the notion of rights to the dichotomy of individual/collective (which were on the same axis) excluded any other understanding (axis) of rights or justice – such as based on compromise – and was, like the understanding of custom, discursive.

It is apparent that the powers of the karanavan and the dependence of women rested upon the liberal juridical discourse of rights, which could not allow for more than one node of power. While there is nothing to suggest that this conception of rights informed local practices, scattered information about practices suggest otherwise. What do we make for instance of Gough’s narration of the mutual respect between the karanavan and his mother or older sister– they stood in each other’s presence and the older woman advised him on matters of management of property and regulation of the taravad. Gough (1961: 345) also makes a reference to a relationship of exchange of protection and devotion between karanavan and women and yet at another place speaks of the devotion of the karanavan to his kin and to their interests.

Caste and territory

Even as late as the early twentieth century, the Kora river constituted a cultural (also the political boundary between the territory of the Kolathiri to the north and of the Samudiri to the south) boundary between north and south Malabar. Further north in Kasargod (South Canara district)1 the Chandragiri separated what was known as Malayala nadu (to the south) from Tulu nadu (to the north). These territorial distinctions found specific expression in social rules. For women were forbidden to cross these rivers, and doing so risked loss of caste. Raghava Varier (1994: 23) suggests that the nadu divisions were units of kinship relations as well as administration and the prevalence of such an idea implies a densely-imagined territory. That in the nineteenth century the prohibition was against only women had been seen in association with certain caste based ‘purificatory’ practices – such as removal of menstrual pollution by receiving fresh clothes from women of a specific caste. While this leaves the question of how emblematic were women of caste and territory, the mobility factor is more complex. Consider that in working to break this barrier in the name of ‘progress’, Nair reformers underscored the acute inconvenience caused to men employed outside north Malabar who if they married in north Malabar could be prevented from taking their wives with them. Alongside this we are also aware of crucial points of difference in matrilineal practice and land relations in north and south Malabar, the most prominent of these being that in north Malabar post marital residence of women in north Kerala was virilocal (among Tiyas and Nairs but not among the Mappillas) and that the ‘rent receiving-rent paying’ group of intermediary tenants (kanakkar) were virtually absent. Given this picture of variation during the colonial period, it is hardly tenable to speak of a uniform set of matrilineal custom across Malabar or Kerala.

Keeping these caveats in mind, I will engage with matriliny on three different planes. At the somewhat abstract level of kinship and gender, not losing sight of the sub continental experience (which should help deal with the third question); at the level of the colonial discourse by pushing at its boundaries to see just how much it allowed the karanavan, women and other junior members; and at the level of the diversity and flexibility of practices with specific reference to history, region and community. Each attempt will provide partial answers and yet taken together I hope they will go some way in doing away with certain misconceptions about the nature of rights and property and power in the taravad.

Gender, kinship and identity

The notion of the ‘genealogy of the genders’ advanced by Luce Irigaray may be used to open up the implication for women in terms of interests and identity in patrilineal kinship groups/families. “Under the rule of patriarchy the girl is separated from her mother and from her family in general. She is transplanted in the genealogy of her husband; she must live with him, carry his name, bear his children etc.” Irigaray argues as follows: that reducing the genealogy of one into the other’s it becomes, difficult for the casual thinker to think in terms of two different genders or sexes rather than one human race/gender (the ever casual reference to human rights rather than women’s rights). “Gender is confused with species.” And species takes precedence such that the only real value of sex is to reproduce it, in so far as sex/gender, do not constitute the basis of identity. From this point of view, gender is always subservient to kinship. Hence when women are forced to bear children within the genealogy of the husband, this historically marks the setting up of a new notion or concept of nature, which, importantly for us, abandons the mother-daughter relation. “It is true that in patriarchal genealogy then we are dealing with the cult of the son’s mother, to the detriment of the daughter’s mother.”

Social anthropologists accustomed to consider the relation between property transfers at marriage, residence pattern and the degree of incorporation of women into the kin group of their husband (Tambiah, 1973, Goody 1999)10 , do not extend their analysis to the consequent fractured/shifting kin/family identity of women as a gender. In emphasising rather that despite being unilineal, most societies supported bilateral kinship, they further underscore this difference. The point about genealogy is important here also in the nature of incorporation of women. Take for instance under pre-independence Mitakshara Hindu law. Male children but not female children at birth gain membership in the coparcenary – property holding group. Besides, when women are transferred from the kin group of their birth, father to their husband’s, they are incorporated in the latter not on equal terms (with the same rights to property) as the husband but as the wife and a lesser person in terms of relative rights to property. This fundamental relational inequality (of distinctly defined rights to conjugal property) is glossed over in discussions of property relations that seek to present dowry as pre-mortem inheritance or as women’s property. Goody (1999) for instance argues that dowry in Eurasia in contrast to societies such as in Africa, “where a daughter rarely inherits any male property, indeed little enough from her mother either” is a measure that “she does get something, even though certain categories of property (for example, land) may be excluded and her share may be less than that of her brothers. But why should the share of all siblings be equal? If it is a man (such as the astrier) who has to stay and maintain the parents in an agricultural society, what is unjust about his having rights to a greater amount of the family property he is looking after?” However this fails to account for the rule regarding who (sons or daughters) inherits family property, which is far from arbitrary or contingent, and hence for the more basic inequality involved in subsuming gender to kinship. As Irigaray (1993: 4) points out,

[t]he law has not been written to defend the life and property
of women. A few partial changes in rights for women have been won
in recent times. But even these are subject to recall. They are won
by partial and local pressures whereas what is needed is a full-
scale rethinking of the law’s duty to offer justice to two genders
that differ in their needs, their desires, their properties.

Importantly, if in patrilineal societies, authority and lineage/descent of property flow together among the same set of persons (father to son). In contrast, in matrilineal societies, and when patriarchal as in the legal discourse in Malabar, authority (uncle to nephew or senior males to next senior male) and lineage/ descent (mother to children) flow separately to different sets of people. This introduces simultaneously a tension and diffusion in the distribution of rights within a taravad. By virtue of being the custodians of descent/lineage, women ensure, unlike in patrilineal societies, a genealogy for their gender arising from a complete and continuous rather than fractured identity. Unlike their patrilineal counterparts their identity is not mediated by the husband, it is achieved directly by birth (mediated by the mother).

Hitherto in our tendency to compare matriliny with an idealised version of itself, we have failed to probe the implications of female lineage and descent of property on authority practices. It might also be asked whether property rights and indeed power are ever complete without descent/lineage. The karanavan was powerless to channel taravad property or lineage to his children.

Women’s rights under the colonial legal regime

Contrary to their stated intention, in the determination of custom in Malabar the British relied on a theory of matriliny – informed by a theory of the evolution of the family and frameworks variously of Roman and Hindu law –and not on local practices, imputing to valid custom the features of timelessness, immutability and spatial homogeneity.11 Hence matriliny (as indeed patriliny) was understood as ‘systemic’ – characterised by a rigid set of rules. In this formulation of a unitary matrilineal system across Malabar, the father or grandfather under Roman or classical Hindu law was merely replaced by the maternal uncle – the karanavan or the oldest male member of the taravad. Substantially then, matriliny was understood as the binary or the absence of patriliny, with which the British were already culturally and legally familiar. This also gave rise to an idealised conception of matriliny. In deriving rules analogically from familiar patrilineal rules the tension between lineage/descent of property in the female line and significant roles of authority/responsibility for men was seen as destructive. Colonial judges and jurists then worked to curb the possible influences of female lineage and descent on authority practices. This is signalled in their interpretation of descent of property as conferring merely a theoretical right to property to women collectively (which they implied had no practical bearing). Alongside colonial judges were exhorted to “maintain the distinct powers as to the karanavan” so as to avoid that anarchy that was only to be expected of a system so “peculiar” and “difficult”. Substantial regulatory powers of the karanavan, leading to a polarisation of authority and dependence in the taravad, were derived from a theory that was deductive. Hence it is precisely on the terrain of historical negotiation of the tension between authority and descent that we might locate productively the historical growth and colonial decline of matriliny in Kerala. More importantly it signals the need to open up the liberal idea of property right.

If women were the custodians of property in theory, but denied any practical expression of this right, it might be pointed out that in theory (though with little practical force), the karanavan did not enjoy superior ‘property rights’ as he could not alienate property – except for taravad needs. He was expected by the ‘theory of the law’ to use his powers in the interests of the taravad, bringing his position close to that of a trustee. The emphasis on his moral role, evident in an early judgement, is lost in later judgements that move from the emphasis on his responsibility to defining his discretionary powers.12

Besides, while it is true that virtually the only enforceable positive right the women and junior members had was to claim maintenance on taravad resources, they had a range of negative rights – prominently against misuse of powers by the karanavan prominently against alienation of property for reasons other than taravad requirements. However, institutional factors as much as inadequate information and difficulty to prove misuse made it difficult to monitor the karanavan effectively through the courts.

Power and property in the taravad: Evidence from ethnography

In this section I will ‘present evidence’ of practices that went against the grain of the legal discourse relying mostly on post colonial ethnography. Given the discursive character of this material, it is nevertheless important for what it reveals about practices in an earlier period as for the tensions so evident in its narrative – tensions that emerge from having to contend with contending notions of property and power. Besides, internalisation of the colonial position as the bearing legal position cannot be discounted in the author’s analysis/informant’s views.13 The contrary pulls so evident in Gough’s narrative emerge then precisely from these factors. Quite unlike the legal discourse, which outlined a homogenous system of matriliny for all social groups, this material is mostly with reference to the Nairs, the single largest and best known of the matrilineal groups in Kerala.

Decision making powers

Gough maintains that the karanavan was indeed the boss and arbiter of property and persons in the taravad. Given this baseline adherence to the colonial legal position, however, she goes on to give us a much more varied and complex account of power and property in the taravad. Of particular importance here is the position of the senior woman, who, Gough indicates, was not necessarily determined by seniority and might well be the oldest competent woman. She seemed to have played a significant role in the inner domain of the taravad with authority over women and children on the one hand and management of resources on the other (Gough, 1961: 338-41). Gough’s statement that management ran particularly smoothly when the karanavan was the son or younger brother of the senior woman is particularly instructive of power relations and indicates the power of the senior woman to be ‘difficult’ when a karanavan and she were not so closely bound or willing to go along with her wishes/advice. “Even traditionally, however, both junior men and women were often consulted in the management of the group’s affairs.” (Ibid, 341). Besides, Gough also points out that in case of disputes between “minimal segments of the taravad” an arbitrator from the caste from outside the lineage was usually called upon and settlements arising from such negotiation were embodied in a karar (contract). However she indicates that karars were usual only among groups with extensive property. Interestingly, according to Gough, these karars sometimes allocated separate houses and sometimes even separate land to different segments. Besides, “all land continued to be managed by the karanavan but he paid a sum of paddy each year to the senior woman of each household from the land allotted to her segment” (Ibid). Aside of the context of karars too, it was usual to for the karanavan to supply grain and other necessities to each ‘separate’ residence periodically and this was managed by the senior woman (Ibid, 337).

In Gough’s account the role of the senior woman extended as far as at least the interface between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ domains. Gough points to the critical role of seniority in determining power relations between the karanavan and the senior woman. That is, if the karanavan 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 (Gough: 1961: 341-42). Gough points out that whatever the karanavan’s de jure authority in central Kerala, his de facto authority was greater over women and children than over junior male members, who were often absent on military service (Gough, 1961: 340); and yet we know that this was moderated by the authority of the older women. In north Kerala it is difficult to think that the karanavan had authority on a day to day basis over married women and children living in the matrilineal household of the husband/father. Gough (Ibid: 391) also indicates particularly of north Kerala that when women received land as gifts from their husbands, this was not always incorporated in the collective property but managed separately and descended to her children and then her matrilineal descendants and could eventually form the basis of a new taravad (See also Moore 1983).

Decisions regarding marriage were regulated by the taravad and here mothers, their older brothers and the karanavan seem to have played varying roles (Gough, 1961: 398-400). Gough points out that a man’s most important role was towards his mother — his respect for her implying that she took priority over his other relationships, such as with his wife (Ibid: 345). Daughters on the other hand had less formal relations with their mothers and yet a mother’s favour towards their husband’s was important. A mother according to Gough could advise a daughter to sever a marriage and if she did not comply, advise the karanavan. On the other hand mothers also mediated favourably their daughter’s position with the karanavan(Ibid: 346).


The colonial legal position was that women and junior members had rights to maintenance within the resources of the taravad. The karanavan however was given a fairly wide berth in determining the kind of maintenance provided. Contrary to the grain of the legal discourse, there is reference to property set aside specifically for the maintenance of women and children, which were managed by women. The karanavan was also expected to furnish resources and organise the celebration of life cycle rituals, which formed a defining aspect of women’s position.

In north Kerala women were accorded the right to maintenance in their ‘marital’ taravad (as an ‘exception’ to the ‘norm’). Gough, (Ibid: 398) is more elaborate pointing out that they also had a right to receive a share of the harvest and other material goods annually from their natal taravads. Besides it was usual for them to spend long stretches of time at their natal taravads. Respondents to the Malabar Marriage Commission from north Malabar have pointed out that material obligations towards the wife and children of deceased members of taravads were generally recognised and were imperatives when the wife and children were in want. (Government of Madras vol 2, Appendix IV).

An important indicator of women’s position in the taravad was in their claims to ‘residential space’. Gough points out that the relationship of deference and respect that prevailed between karanavan and junior members implied restraints on interpersonal behaviour and expressions particularly of affection. This implied that they were not often together. Gough points out that in deference to the constraints this placed on women, the karanavan usually kept away from the main residences, occupying rather the first floor of the granary, where he worked and even preferred to be served his food (Gough, 1961: 335, 349). Women then seemed to have a privileged access to the taravad residence, which was where they entertained their husbands, and worked. Gough (Ibid, 338) also points out that young girls and boys were taught to read and write,14 and it is likely that girls as much as boys learnt about management of taravad property, relations with tenants and maintenance of accounts.


It might then be said that a ‘moral’ economy mediated rights and relations within a taravad. The norms of this moral economy were sought to be replaced by individual/collective rights inferred the legal discourse. This led to conflict emerging from different rules of negotiation of the tension between lineage/ descent of property on the one hand authority roles defined so sharply in the realm of the karanavan. The implications of this tension for power relations in the taravad or more importantly for women’s ‘rights to management’ and for the karanavan’s ‘moral powers’ were not addressed. On the other hand, the delicate balance between the two was overridden by ‘discretionary powers’ of the karanavan and replaced by a polarisation of authority and dependence between men and women and between senior and junior members. On a different scale of rights, however, it may be argued that women as well as men had responsibilities towards their younger kin and ‘wards’; that divisions of labour and authority were such that women were not excluded from wielding authority over property and persons and karanavanmar could be dependent on women for advice on management of property as well as for regulation of the affairs to the taravad.


1 This included a number of caste and social groups, Hindu, Muslim and Christian with variations in terms of practices.

2 The taravad, or joint property holding group, was legally dismantled in 1976 by the Kerala government.

3 This tension manifesting itself in misappropriation of property by the karanavan, was seen in the legal discourse as natural     growing out of supposedly ‘unnatural’ character of the taravad in disallowing relations of property between father and     children and husband and wife.

4 For this defence is also in the face of the worst expressions of nepotism by the karanavan – forced to arrange a sambandham between a girl of his taravad barely out of her teens and a rich and repulsive Nambudiri, advanced in age whose advances Indulekha spurns. The karanavan had specifically invited the Nambudiri with the intention of arranging a match with Indulekha.

5 It must be noted here that matriliny in Kerala has been seen as so inextricably linked to the feudal and exploitative role of the Nairs as jenmis and intermediary tenants that it had become virtually indefensible. This is true particularly of Marxist historians. That strong patrilineal and patriarchal descent groups played exploitative roles in feudal economies is somehow elided over. These groups from upper India were instrumental in resisting and foiling the attempt to do away with the mitakshara coparcenary in which only male members had rights. (Kishwar, 1994)

6 Surprisingly, they choose to term these relations clandestine. This is doubtful on two counts: it involves a prohibition of an already clandestine relation and the prohibition was of only one specific form (involving Nambudiri jenmis and tenant women) of the relationship.

7 For the relative strength of the intermediary tenants continued into the early decades of the nineteenth century until rise in prices of agricultural goods and land itself led to jenmi assertion of British land policy in their interests (Panikkar, 1989).

8 At least one taravad in Kasargod taluk of South Kanara district prevented its women from establishing sambandham with Brahmins (Kurup, 2000).

9 Gopinath (1994)has argued that kanam in north Malabar was a full mortgage rather than lease as understood in south Malabar. This meant that a jenmi could be taking possession of land from another jenmi on kanam (mortgage) because the latter is in need of money. The amounts paid as kanam were much higher (corresponding to otti in south Malabar) and the jenmi taking possession of land was not expected to pay a rent such as the kanakkar of south Malabar.

10 Tambiah (1973) writes that dowry in movables in the classical Indian pattern relates logically to virilocal residence and the right of wife–removal with deviation to uxorilocal residence allowed only in somewhat extreme circumstances, bit in Ceylon the fact that women can themselves inherit land or receive it as dowry opens the possibility of a wider and freer occurrence of uxorilocal residence together with virilocal and neolocal residence. In my view these circumstances provide the shift and transition to bilateral kinship and ambilocal residence.

11 Though for the greater part of colonial India, customs/law was sought to be determined on the basis of written sources – the shastras and smritis or commentaries on the shastras, (Kishwar, 1994) in certain cases as among the matrilineal social groups of Malabar district of the Madras Presidency, custom was to be determined from practices.

12 These inferences are drawn from judgements presented in Moore (1905: 95, 99), are borne out by accounts of power relations in post colonial ethnography. See Gough (1961).

13 Crucially Gough was retrieving ‘traditional’ matriliny, in the mid-twentieth century, and there are suggestions of the assumption of colonial judicial practice as law. For instance, she writes that gifts of land occasionally by men in north Malabar to their wives and children was known long before the colonial period, although they were against the law. The law on this point, long before the colonial period, is unclear and certainly not addressed by Gough. The problems in directly accessing this ethnographic material is at least two fold: its easy categorisation of matriliny as ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ and the whole range of problems associated with the relationship between law (colonial) and customs.

14 The thottampattu (of song of the Teyattam) of Makkampothi (Makkam Bhagavathi) underlines the importance of the education of Makkam, the only girl child of a wealthy taravad, through the gift of a gold ezuthani (instrument used to write on palm leaves) as gurudakshina (Nair: 1979).

Arunima G. “Multiple Meanings, Changing Conceptions of Matrilineal Kinship in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Malabar”, The Indian Economic and Social History Review. Vol. 33 (3), 1996. —. “A Vindication of the Rights of Women: Families and Legal Change in Nineteenth-Century Malabar”, in Changing Concepts of Rights and Justice in South Asia. Micheal Anderson and Sumit Guha, Eds. . New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Chandu Menon O. 1890. Indulekha, A Novel from Malabar. Kozhikode: Mathrubhumi Printing and Publishing Company, 1965.

Gopinath, Ravindran. “Garden and Paddy Fields: Historical Implications of Agricultural Production Regimes in Colonial Malabar”, in India’s Colonial Encounter: Essays in Memory of Eric Stokes. Mushirul Hasan and Narayani Gupta, Eds. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 1993.

Irigaray, Luce. Sexes and Genealogies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Ganesh K. N. “Janmam-Kanam Maryadai: Changing Land Relations in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Kerala”, The Indian Economic and Social History Review. Vol. 28, no. 3, (1991).

Goody, Jack. “Dowry and Women’s Property Rights” in Property Relations: Renewing the Anthropological Tradition, C. M. Hann, Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Gough, Kathleen. “Nayars: Central Kerala;” “Nayars: North Kerala”, in Matrilineal Kinship. David Schneider and Kathleen Gough, Eds. Berkley: University of California Press, 1961.

Government of Madras: Report of the Malabar Marriage Commission. 2 vols, Madras: Lawrence Asylum Press, 1891.

Kishwar, Madhu. “Codified Hindu Law: Myth and Reality”, EPW, Aug. 13, 1994. Kurup, K.K.N. Land Monopoly and Agrarian System in South Kanara with Special Reference to Kasargod Taluk, Calicut: University of Calicut, 2000. Moore, Lewis. Malabar Law and Custom. Madras: Higginbothams, 1905. Moore, Melinda. “Taravad: House, Land and Relationships in a Matrilineal Hindu Society”, Unpublished Ph.D Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, Illinois, 1983.

Nair, Balakrishnan, C. Kerala Bhashaganangal, Trichur: Sahitya Academy, 1979. Narayanan M. G. S and Kesavan Veluthat. “A History of the Nambudiri Community in Kerala”, in Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Alter. Frits Stal, Ed. Vol. 2, Delhi: Motilal Banarasidas, 1983.

Panikkar K. N. Culture, Ideology and Hegemony: Intellectuals and Social Consciousness in Colonial India. New Delhi: Tulika, 1995.

—. Against Lord and State: Religion and Peasant Uprising in Malabar, 1836- 1921. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Raghava Varier, M.R. “Village Communities in Pre-Colonial Kerala”, Ku. Si. Haridasa Bhat Shastipoorti Endowment Lecture Series no. 8, Madras: Asian Educational Services, 1994.

Tambiah, S. J. “Dowry and Bridewealth and the Property Rights of Women in South Asia” in Bridewealth and Dowry. Jack Goody and S. J. Tambiah, Eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Post doctoral scholar at the Kerala Research Programme on Local Level Development, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Working on “Family and Property in Contemporary North Kerala”. Doctoral dissertation was entitled “Women’s Property Rights: Study of Land Tenure Structure and Personal Law in Malabar, 1880-1940”. Research interests: Gender, Law and Property Relations.

Default image
Post doctoral scholar at the Kerala Research Programme on Local Level Development, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. Working on “Family and Property in Contemporary North Kerala”. Doctoral dissertation was entitled “Women’s Property Rights: Study of Land Tenure Structure and Personal Law in Malabar, 1880-1940”. Research interests: Gender, Law and Property Relations.

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124