With no Sense of loss: Autobiography of an Antharjanam

How was life like for a woman of high birth in Kerala some fifty-sixty years back? Popular belief has it that she had a privileged existence with the joint family set-up and the matrilineal system of inheritance, enjoying all emotional and material support she could wish for. But what was the reality?
Devaki Nilayangode’s short autobiographical piece “With No Sense of Loss” (“Nashta bodhangal illaathe” in Malayalam) gives us a glimpse of what life meant for Malayali Brahmin women or Antharjanams (literally ‘the inside folk’). It opens the doors to a world not so far back in the past in terms of time but perhaps aeons behind in terms of lifestyle and values. “With No Sense of Loss” is thus not a mere personal document. In a sense, it is a valid historical record of a culture that has recently gone extinct.

The most notable feature of this memoir is the very charitable and non-judgmental voice of the author. As the title itself suggests, it conveys no sense of regret, no undercurrent of bitterness about the cribbed and confined life she led; no harangue against the system that inhibited her growth. But is the use of understatement absolutely innocent? Are the matter-of-fact statements totally un-ironical? This translation is based on the account which appeared in the Bhashaposhini annual number of 2003.


I am a 70-year-old antharjanam, Devaki of Nilayangode Illam. I was born in 1928 to Krishnan Somayajippad and Parvathy Antharjanam in Pakaravoor Mana at Mookkuthala in Malappuram district. My father was 68 years old when I was born as his twelfth child. Another offspring was born later. It was when my mother was in childbed that my father passed away at the age of 70.

I do not remember having seen my father. But I have heard that though dusky in complexion, he was handsome and radiant looking. Even before marrying my mother, he had earned fame for performing yagas and had become Somayaji. My mother was his third wife. She was only eighteen at that time. But in those days, she was considered already quite past marriageable age. Girls were usually given in marriage at the age of thirteen or fourteen. Most often, marriages took place much earlier, when they were eight or nine years old.

My father first married when he was eighteen and his bride was Parvathy from Kandanjatha near Vadakkancherry. She was called Paappi and she gave birth to seven or eight children. I can recall the names of five of them: Narayanan, Krishnan, Thuppan, Arya and Parvathy. Paappi Valiamma died of small pox. My father’s second wife, who was the Vedic scholar Erkkara RamanNamboodiri’s sister, died during her first delivery. The baby did not survive either.

That was why my father had to marry a third time. By then, his eldest son Narayanan was already married and had children. But his wife had no skill in running the household. As a result, my father was compelled by his relatives and his Chittashi to remarry. His mother was blind. During those days, there were many blind people in illams. Chittashi lived in this illam to help manage it.

Thus my father took his third bride from Karalmanna Naripathi. He did not want any dowry but Naripathi was not prepared to give his daughter away as if she were an orphan. A solution was jointly arrived at. It was decided that my father’s three-year-old daughter Parvathy would be given in marriage to the five-year-old Narayanan Unni of Naripathi. The question of dowry could thus be solved through a mutual marriage. In this manner, my 54-year-old father gave away his three-year-old daughter and got my 18-year-old mother in return. The daughter’s marriage however took place only after she turned 14.

My mother could read the Puranas. Generally, girls were not given education. The ability to read the Ramayana was itself considered a major accomplishment. And my mother was capable of managing the house as well.

When she came to the illam, three of Paappi Valiamma’s children were there. All my elder (step) sisters had been married. Besides, there were two of my father’s younger brothers — Parameswaran Namboodiri and Neelakantan Namboodiri. The latter was a great Sanskrit scholar and Vedaratnam Ramerkkara’s (Erkkara Raman Namboodiri) guru. During those days, Ramerkkara was staying at the illam to learn Sanskrit. Two shastris had been appointed to lend assistance. Young namboodiris, desirous of learning Sanskrit, stayed in the barn house. It was like a gurukulam with 30-40 resident scholars — a smaller version of the Sanskrit gurukulam at Koodallur.

My father too was a Sanskrit scholar. After studying the Vedas, as a resident scholar at several places, he acquired a sound knowledge of Sanskrit. He spent one or two years at Koodallur as well. Koodallur was a large gurukulam and the seat of profound learning. Its collection of books was enormous. Many scholarly teachers had been appointed there and several pandits from Tamil Nadu used to pay visits regularly. Large numbers of students stayed at Koodallur. Their expenses on board, dress and recreation were met from the pooled assets of the Brahmin community. My father started a similar kind of gurukulam at Pakaravoor, though on a smaller scale. His second younger brother assisted him. The immediate younger brother was interested neither in Sanskrit nor in running the gurukulam.

The young namboodiri students who stayed at our illam would step inside only during meal times. As it was a prosperous household, two namboodiris were engaged to cook food and a Tamil Brahmin employed solely to make snacks. During those days, namboodiris would not eat rice cooked by Tamil Brahmins. Besides, there was a namboodiri woman who stayed at the illam to help assemble pooja items, feed the children, prepare libations and so on. Sometimes, there would be two or more such namboodiri women. They would take turns to be at the illam and would bring their entire family to stay.

Although its nalukettu was rather small, the illam was very huge. Only the western section had an upper storey. My father constructed three new buildings, a playhouse and four large porticos. Each building had a big kitchen adjoining it. We used to call them dining halls. There was a large dining hall where coffee was brewed and one could consume it, leaning against the railing. A thousand people could be served in the playhouse at one time. Huge vessels remained neglected in the dining halls, gathering dust and cobwebs.

One portico was exclusively for the namboodiris, where they settled to chew betel. All the ingredients would be lined on the ledge and there were spittoons as well. It was in this place that the namboodiris assembled to swap stories. Loud conversations and laughter would always echo in that building. There was another portico for the estate managers. Adjoining it was their office room. About five to six managers were needed to keep the accounts of the illam. Whenever they felt exhausted during their work, they would retire to the portico to relax. The largest portico served as a resting place for namboodiris, both before and after meals. This stood closest to the kitchen. The barn house, which was a regular haunt of the namboodiris — inmates of the illam and those from outside — led straight to this portico. The number of those who took their meals always varied because besides the residents, there would be devotees who came to pray at the temple, passers-by and so on.

The fourth portico stood behind the western block, close to the storehouse. It was long and shaped almost like a corridor with a ledge running along its entire length. People in charge of the storehouse and the servants occupied it. It was here that the store manager sat with sackfuls of rice, to dole out a definite measure for everyone who came for gruel. Women and children would appear in large numbers and the manager would remain in the portico till the flow of people ceased.

The person next in importance was a man whom we called the ‘monkey scarer’. In the grove, close to the Mookkuthala temple, there lived a large colony of monkeys. They would usually come with their families and sit on the rooftop of the illam. They would remove lice from each other’s fur, fondle their babies and emit strange shrieks. It was fun to watch their antics. Seeing the red mugs of the she-monkeys, we thought that they had mixed brick powder with water from the pond and applied the paste on their faces as a cosmetic.

But when the monkeys began to enter the illam, we would become alarmed. As we sat at lunch, they would squeeze through the gap between the wall and the attic, fall on us and scamper away with our plantain leaves, laden with food. We would run out screaming in fear. The adult monkeys, with the young ones clutching their bodies, would use the babies’ paws to scoop the hot payasam, spread it out for cooling, take mouthfuls of it and then leave. This was a common sight.

It was to prevent their entry into the illam that the ‘monkey scarer’ constantly patrolled the courtyard. Armed with many stones and a catapult, he would walk and shout, to drive them away. As lunchtime approached, his perambulations would gain alertness and speed.

Besides those who came regularly to the illam for their meals, there would be namboodiri women, on their way to or from the Mookkuthala temple. Each would have a chaperone who would loudly announce their presence as they walked. They would stay on at the illam for three or four days. No one would ask them why they did not leave immediately. A large hall was always kept in readiness for them. A single huge rush mat covered the entire floor and it would be laid out by dusk. It always reeked with the stench of children’s urine and soiled clothes. Sometimes, my elder sisters would also lie on that mat. There was nothing exclusively for the illam inmates. Such a practice was not permitted. In the mornings, the mat would be dusted clean using a broom, folded several times and put aside. It was in this hall that several groups of older girls played games with pebbles at different times of the day. In the evenings, menstruating girls would dance the kaikottikali.

The guests were considered polluted as they arrived and had to take a thorough bath and wash their clothes. Wearing wet clothes, they would go to the temple and then come to the illam. Every year, eight to ten pieces of cloth would be bought to supply to the guests. The namboodiri women would then leave their wet clothes hanging like festoons on the clothesline in the veranda.

It was into this huge illam that my mother came. But she was adept at managing it. She was a very serious woman. I have never seen her laugh.

My father lay in sick bed for about six months. His room was near a portico that was at a good distance from the veranda used exclusively by the namboodiri women. Going against the practice followed in the illams in those days, father insisted that mother nurse him. So, leaving her baby under the care of another antharjanam, who was a permanent resident in the illam, she stood attendance on him. My kid sister grew up, suckled by that lady.

My father was very particular about giving food to maximum number of people. However, that practice waned after his demise. Guests also became scarce and, with that, the large rush mat also vanished.

I was the sixth of my mother’s seven children and had three elder brothers and two elder sisters: Neelakantan, Chithran, Parameswaran, Nangeli, Unnikkali and I. The seventh one, called Unneema, was the most beautiful of the sisters and the most energetic. She lived for ten years at the illam as the apple of our eyes. Suddenly she fell ill and lay in bed for three days. Unneema died without receiving any medical attention. I remember how I paid my respects to the little corpse that had been bathed and dressed in new clothes.

In those days, the birth of girl children was not considered auspicious. From the moment a woman became pregnant, there would be special prayers and poojas for a baby boy. The happy news of the birth of a male offspring would be loudly announced by servants with ululation. The arrival of a girl child however would be conveyed in muted whispers by the namboodiri women.

On the Thiruvonam day of the month of Edavam (May/June), there were no clamorous shouts. Only soft knocks on the doors were heard.


I was brought up, like all other children in Pakaravoor illam, by the resident namboodiri women. Besides the seven of us, there were six of Valiamma’s children. Six or seven namboodiri women lived in the illam in order to tend these thirteen children. They looked after us till we were about nine years of age and could fend for ourselves.

There was a separate set of women to look after the children of each mother — that was the custom. One of them would be the leader. My mother’s kids were looked after by Aati and her daughters — Ittippennu and Ichirippennu. Aati was naturally the leader.

My mother suckled me only for a year. Subsequently, I was transferred to the care of Aati. The servants would do everything except feeding and suckling the babies. As shudra women, they could not give us breast milk. Sometimes, antharjanams from other places were made to stay in the illam to serve as wet nurses. This arrangement was made when the mother became pregnant within a year of childbirth and especially so when the one-year-old infant was a boy. The wet nurses would go to prosperous illams when life in their own illam became intolerable — due to poverty, neglect or harassment from co-wives. Where they stayed as wet nurses, they were accorded privileged treatment. One could often hear commands like ‘Serve those wet nurses more food . . . let them take oil bath . . .’ Sumptuous meals and elaborate oil baths were considered good for the production of milk. Suckling their own children only for a short while, these wet nurses would give the offspring of the illam a lion’s share.

The children were not given cow’s milk even in the absence of breast milk. This was not because there was no milk in the illam. Rather, there would be plentiful quantities of it. One of my childhood memories is the scene of the storekeeper Nambisan measuring milk, sitting in the portico next to the storehouse, with a nilaathu by his side. Many people would come from the neighbourhood to supply milk. My father’s standing order was that all the milk brought to the illam should be bought. Before noon, the nilaathu would be full, to the brim. It required two men to transfer the vessel to the kitchen. Besides this, there was the milk the servants brought in after milking the cows that thronged the sheds of the illam. A large measure of it would go to the Tamil Brahmin’s kitchen for preparing coffee.

The milk thus collected was never given to the children or anyone else in the illam. Deprived of breast milk after a year of birth, most children wore a consumptive look. Yet we were not given any milk. It was used to make either ghee for lighting lamps at the temple or buttermilk for preparing kaalan to be served at feasts.

All the surplus milk would be made into buttermilk and butter in the kitchen. The namboodiri women were in charge of it. Some of the ghee, made by boiling and clarifying butter, would be stored away, to serve the namboodiris during feasts and the rest would be taken to the temple. A small quantity of buttermilk would be diluted and served as sambharam during lunch. At night, when little children cried of hunger, they would be given two gulps of sambharam. That was the nature of childcare during those days. The prevalent belief was that the glow of the ghee-lamps in the temple was enough to ensure children’s health and prosperity.

One of the main chores of Aati, Ittippennu and Ichirippennu was making loincloth out of plantain leaves. As the children grew up, they would be given loincloth made of the tender film of arecanut spathe. Till the age of eight, we girls wore leaf loincloth. Two pieces of a plantain leaf, warmed over a fire to make them soft and pliable, were tied together to fashion a loincloth. As the sun became hotter, however, it gradually lost its softness and gave us pain. The arecanut spathe loincloth was much softer and lasted longer. No undergarment made of cloth was permitted because of the belief that on touching the Nair women who looked after us, we ran the risk of polluting it. Therefore, until girls underwent the formal ceremony of uduthu thudanguka and boys, the ceremony of upanayanam they never wore loincloth made of cotton linen.

Aati and others would prepare loincloth the previous night. After bath every morning, we were made to wear it and taken to the temple. They would carry us on their hips and go on a round to Melekkavu, Keezhekkavu, Kannankkavu and Pakaravoor Shiva temple. Children up to the age of four were permitted to be carried by these women. Older children were expected to walk. The boys had to worship at Shukapurathu, the village temple, every month. They were carried by the servants. Sitting on their shoulders, the boys held on tightly and their legs were clutched securely by the servants.

By the time we returned from the temple, the sun would be high in the sky. The maidservants would take the children inside for breakfast. Invariably, it was steaming rice with buttermilk and mango pickles. By the time we finished our breakfast, Aati and others too would have come after theirs. The previous day’s gruel was usually their morning meal.

The four and five-year-olds would then start playing in the courtyard or the garden where they remained till noon under the supervision of the servants.

Girls would be served lunch only after the namboodiris, children, young mothers and menstruating women were given food. Cooked rice, mezhukkupuratti, kaalan and mango pickles constituted our lunch. This was the first meal of the day for the antharjanams. After the regular temple visit, they were mostly engaged in preparing offerings for the deity and had little spare time. The servants had at least the previous day’s gruel for breakfast. But not the mothers and the other antharjanams. After the children’s turn, it was time to serve outsiders — the servants, the nair retainers and so on. Each would be served a lot more than they could consume. The maidservants would eat a small portion and either send or take the rest to their homes. There was a special room called ‘chotta’, exclusively to store their containers. By afternoon, the chotta would be full of brass vessels, heaving with rice.

During early evenings, the older girls were trained to make garlands of karuka and prepare wicks. By dusk, everyone had to wash their faces and feet in the pond and assemble in the nalukettu. Dashapushpam would be kept ready. Each type had to be identified and tied into garlands. The karuka garland has a special significance in an antharjanam’s life. She has to wear it on all special occasions like birthdays, wedding day and so on. None of the ten flowers had either any colour or fragrance. Colourful and sweet-smelling flowers were used only in poojas for deities residing in the northern wing of the naalukettu or the temple. The antharjanams would never wear flowers.

Clocks were rare in those days but there was one at the illam. It was in the barn house. So the illam inmates had to go out into the courtyard to measure the length of the shadow or look for a star in order to know the time. When they counted five feet on the shadow, it was time to prepare the karuka garlands.

In the meanwhile, coffee and snacks would be served — only to the resident namboodiris, guests and students — in the dining hall. The Tamil Brahmin would have prepared coffee and several snacks like aval kuzhachathu, kaarolappom, ada, malarpodi and so on. A small portion of these would reach the inner room and would be distributed among us.

It was perhaps when I was five or six years old, that some of us had an intense desire to drink coffee. The wafting aroma of roasted coffee beans virtually unsettled us. One day, we stole into the kitchen and took some coffee powder and sugar. We also managed to take away a huge quantity of thick milk that the store manager Nambisan had left on the stove. Under my elder sister’s supervision, we started making coffee. But just as it was getting ready, we heard a knock on the door. Whenever namboodiris entered the naalukettu, it was customary for them to announce their presence by clanging the chain that hung rom the door. It was a warning to some anthajanams to keep out of their sight. From the pattern of sound that we heard, we assumed it was our elder brother. We fled to the side room and deposited the coffee and all the vessels there. After he walked away, we stood behind the closed door of the room, still trembling with fear, and drank the coffee, that had gone cold by then.

In the evenings, after a bath, we would go to Melekkavu to pray. On return, we would smear sacred ash on our foreheads and chant the Namashivaya. When the glass tile on the roof of the kitchen became dark, it was time for dinner. Pulinkari, mezhukkupuratti, pickles and buttermilk would be served with rice. Thereafter the maidservants would put the children to sleep on mats laid out on the floor of the corridors. That would bring the day’s activities to a close. The same routine would repeat itself day after day, without an end.


Every year, father’s younger brother and his two daughters would come to stay at the illam for a couple of days. He would be on his way back to Palakkad after taking part in a literary discussion at Thrippunithura. Those would be festive days for us.

Neelakantan Namboodiri was a good Sanskrit scholar. He had spent long years at several places, including the Koodalloor gurukulam, to study Sanskrit. He had also started a small gurukulam at the illam. His wife belonged to the famous nair family of Ekkanathu of Palakkad. They had three sons and three daughters. He taught all his children Sanskrit and among them Subhadra and Bharati became great scholars. Every year, they would participate in the literary discussion conducted by Pareekshit Thampuran at Thrippunithura. On most occasions, they won prizes. It was on their way back to Palakkad that they visited us at the illam.

Large illams usually had separate quarters called madhom to house the nair wives of the younger namboodiris when they came visiting. There was one such building at Pakaravoor. As these women were nairs, they were not permitted entry into the illam, lest the illam should be polluted. Therefore, they spent their time and took their meals at the madhom. There was a cook to serve them while they stayed at the madhom. In those days, only thampurattis married to namboodiris refused to stay there.

After lunch, Subhadra and Bharati would come to the illam. They would sit in the northern block. Their presence was a source of perpetual wonder for us. Subhadra was twenty years old and Bharati eighteen. They had knee-length hair, wore colourful blouses and zari-bordered upper cloth, put on plenty of ornaments made of gold and used perfumes. A lovely fragrance spread as they arrived.

It was on seeing Subhadra and Bharati that we girls suddenly became conscious of our own primitiveness. My elder sister was almost as old as Bharati. But how different she looked! Her hair was not well brushed. She wore no blouse, had neither zari-bordered upper cloth nor a profusion of jewellery. So she refused to enter the room and hid behind the door, trying to conceal herself as much as possible. Even I, barely six or seven years old then, felt inferior, with my lice-ridden hair and wearing only a loincloth.

But that was not what overwhelmed me. Sitting on the threshold, they would put me and my younger sister on their laps, hug and caress us. As we were not yet nine and wore no cotton loincloth, we could not be defiled by their touch! No one had either touched or caressed me ever before. My mother would never do such a thing. In those days, that was the practice at all illams — children were never petted. It was very rarely that fathers saw their daughters. Conversation between them was rarer still. It was considered wrong to give any special attention to one’s children, in those days. Even mothers would refer to their own children as ‘the nephews or nieces of so and so’.

It was at such a time that Subhadra and Bharati showed their love and affection so openly. When they left, they gave us a gift — a small toilet soap. That was the first time that we saw such an object. We were used only to oil, vaaka and thaali in the bathing house of the illam. None of us used soaps. I carefully preserved the soap they gave me and used it only for washing my face. What if it got over quickly!

I was not used to brushing my hair either. There was no such thing as a comb at the illam. Most had plenty of lice in their hair. And the mirror was a thing of sheer wonder. It was when I was six years old that a small mirror made its appearance at the illam. I saw it for the first time in the box carried by a bookseller during one of his periodic visits. He was one of the very few vendors who came there. Wearing a coloured dhoti, with a towel tied round the head, he would squat before the portico of the manager’s building. His stock contained volumes on Vakya, Manipravalam, Jnanapana and the like. Only small children were allowed to see him. I was very enthusiastic about picking out various objects, one by one, from his box and taking them inside for my mother and sisters to see. My mother would purchase religious books for my sisters. It was after a lot of pleading and sulking that I could get mother’s permission to purchase a mirror and I treasured it for a long time.

Another object in that man’s box was the polish used to clean bronze bangles worn by the girls. The antharjanams and girls of illams — however prosperous they may be — could wear only bronze bangles. Gold was not allowed. However, the design of the bangles differed according to the financial status of the household. The prosperous ones wore rounded bangles and others wore flat ones. This polish could be used to make them clean and bright. Those who could not afford the polish sported dull bangles.

Another visitor to the illam was K. P. Namboodiri — Kolathappalli Pothayan Namboodiri. He had studied at the Sanskrit gurukulam of the illam for some time. Later he became the owner of the famous K. P. Namboodiri’s Tooth Powder. But at that time, he had not started this business on a large scale. He would come on a courtesy visit to the illam occasionally and also to attend the festival at Mukkolakkavu. He would come from Vanneri on foot, crossing the Naranippuzha ferry on the way. The cloth bag that he carried would be full of packets containing the tooth powder. The packets were pegged at various prices, depending on the quantity they contained. To the buyers, he would give a free printed leaflet which carried a song that elaborated the virtues of his invention.

As we were children, we could go to see K. P. Namboodiri. Once, we purchased a couple of those packets with the money got after pestering our mother and received two songbooks. Soon we learnt the poems by heart. We carefully put away the packets and used them only sparingly. However, we recited the poem regularly. Like the soap and the mirror, the tooth powder too was a curio.

The priest of Mookkuthala Melekkavu would give us a special kind of stone from near the Devi temple. It would be set in gold and put round the neck of a child on the occasion of the rice-giving ceremony, to be removed only on the wedding day. I had a chain that carried three such stones as amulets, along with ilanjikkuru and kadukka. I also wore a silver waistband. These and the bronze bangles were my usual ornaments. Gold jewellery was allowed only on special days. Kuzhalumothiram, palakkamothiram and gold waistband were some of them. Besides, it was compulsory on such occasions to put a tilak of sandal paste on the forehead. Later on, bindis made of burnt rice powder became fashionable. By afternoon, we would wipe away the sandal tilak and put on the homemade bindi. Rice grains would be fried till they turned dark black. Then, that would be ground into a thick paste, mixed with oil and stored in bottles. All of us liked the glossy black bindis. Kohl was used to adorn the eyes.

After all this make-up, we considered ourselves beautiful. In those days, short build, light complexion and thick hair were considered signs of beauty. The prospect of having tall daughters terrified my mother.

My elder sisters were very tall. When one of them got married, her height became a subject of discussion. The scornful statement ‘Now we won’t need a ladder to take firewood from the kitchen-loft’ must have pained my mother greatly.

‘If only one of them were of medium height,’ my mother would say fervently, as if in prayer. And in order to prevent me from becoming tall, she would occasionally hold my shoulders and press them down. Her wishes were fulfilled and I did not become tall.

However, Subhadra and Bharati conquered our hearts by setting new aesthetic standards. One of our daily prayers was ‘If we get born again, let us be born at Ekkanathu.’


I was initiated into learning in my fourth year. By then, my father was no more. It was his younger brother who conducted the initiation ceremony. A pooja was done to propitiate Goddess Saraswati, Lord Ganesha and Veda Vyasa; alms were given to a namboodiri; my uncle wrote ‘Harishri Ganapathaye Namah’ on my tongue with a gold ring; and holding my finger, he made me write on rice in an uruli. It was this rice that was cooked and given to me to eat for the next couple of days.

The very next day, a Brahmin lady came to teach me the alphabet. There was no need to formally summon her. As soon as she heard that a child of the illam was initiated into learning, she would come on her own. She carried a casket of sand with her. She was called Kuttipurathe Paappi and must have been about fifty-five years of age. She was the ‘writer’ at the illam. It was Paappi who taught the alphabet to all the children of the illam.

My teacher was also a worker at the Mukkola temple. After completing her chores, she would reach the illam by about ten in the morning. The northern block served as our study. She would spread the sand from the casket on the floor, make me sit by her side and write on it. As we wrote each letter, she would loudly pronounce it and make me repeat after her. If I committed a mistake, she would press my finger with great force. My fingertips would shrink back with pain. The fear of hurting myself made me very careful. The study session would extend till noon and in two months’ time, I mastered the alphabet.

Learning to read was the next step. My Valiamma’s grand daughter also studied with me. Both of us were taught to read together. A copy of the Ramayana, which we had at the illam, would be spread open before us. The Brahmin lady would read aloud. This went on for two months. By then, we had read the epic three times.

Initiation into learning, studying the alphabet and reading the Ramayana — this completed a girl’s education. At the end of six months of studies, we gave guru dakshina to our teacher — two pieces of cloth and a sum of ten rupees.

As the girls became older, they were made to learn kaikottikali. It was in my eighth year that a nair woman, Ammalu Amma from near Thriprangottu temple, came to stay at the illam to teach me this dance. Her salary was four rupees a month. The lady who taught kaikottikali to my elder sisters was Marvolamma, who belonged to the poet P. C. Vasudeva Nilayam’s family. As she was not available then, Ammalu Amma was invited to teach us. The training took a year and a half. The forenoon was devoted to learning the first stage of kaikottikali, that is, learning to sing the songs. In the afternoon, we were taught to dance to the tune of the song. We two were her only students. To make up the numbers, the daughters of the antharjanams staying at the illam were included.

Within a few months of reading the Ramayana, I started forgetting the letters one by one as my interest lay in playing games. We would play in the temple compound. By the time we were seven, we would go to the temple without the maid servants. We would not return immediately after offering worship. The compound of Melekkavu was densely wooded and there was a small grass-covered ground in its midst, with swings made of Njanna creepers. There would be many children of our age from the nearby illams. Busy with morning duties and rituals, no one at the illam would enquire about us. We would play to our hearts’ content and return home only when we felt hungry.

At the age of nine, I had to discard the leaf loincloth and wear cotton undercloth. An auspicious day had to be selected for the ceremony. Consulting the almanac, my mother and my aunt decided the day. As was the practice, the manager of the illam was informed of it. That very evening, he brought in a huge box made of jack wood with brass fittings and deposited it in the southern room. But my box was not as grand as those of my elder sisters. After my father’s death, the show of pomp and splendour had been on the wane.

Inside the box, lay a measure of pepper and two rupees in small change over which twenty dhotis and four towels were stacked. This box was meant to remain with me throughout my life, holding all the items that I considered personal and private. This was the only possession a namboodiri woman could claim as truly her own. After marriage, it accompanied her to her husband’s house. A servant carrying the box formed the vanguard of the marriage procession. He would place it in the southern room of the groom’s house.

My mother dressed me with the cloth before a lighted lamp and prayed ‘Let her have plenty to eat and wear, let her enjoy marital bliss . . ..’ She asked me to pray as well — that was the only prayer for the namboodiri woman in those days. Uduthu thudangal was the first step towards womanhood. This dress style was to bring tremendous changes in my daily routine. Wearing a cloth that could get defiled, a girl had to take a bath every time she touched an outsider or a person from another caste. As a result, gradually my life thereafter was confined to the inner rooms, in the company of my elder sisters. I could go out to pray at the temple but not stay back to play. I could see the boys and take walks in the portico and the courtyard — only until puberty.

By then I had started forgetting the alphabet. My elder sisters were very keen on reading. But what was there to read? I am not sure whether newspapers had made their appearance at Pakaravoor then. Perhaps there was one at the barn house used by the namboodiris. But it never reached us. The only books available to us were the ancient epics. My mother had the Sivapuranam, the Bhagavatam, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in her possession. My eldest sister was highly interested in ancient works. In the evening, mother would sit at the nalukettu and read the Bhagavatam loudly. The other antharjanams would say the beads — uttering endless prayers in order to be blessed with married life.

In this atmosphere, I got interested in the ancient legends again. Recalling the nearly forgotten alphabet, I too began to read those books.

My elder brother Neelakantan was a voracious reader. Chithran and Vasudevan were like him. Parameswaran was then a little boy. Strangely enough, there was a small library at Mookkuthala in those days. Who was in charge of it? I have no idea. Most of the books were poetry collections. The library had most of the works of Kumaran Asan, Vallathol and Ulloor. There were also translations of some Bengali novels. My brothers had already undergone Upanayanam or completed their Vedic studies. They had never been to school. I don’t know how they cultivated this habit of reading. They would go out in the evenings. There was a building called Koodalloor Madhom to the south of the Mookkuthala temple. It was intended for the namboodiris of Koodalloor to stay whenever they wished to pray at the Mookkuthala temple. A small room with a veranda in this building housed the library, with consent from the Koodalloor Namboodiri. It was open for one or two hours in the evenings. Very few people went there to read. It was from this library that my brothers brought home books. Gradually, in a very secretive manner, they began to pass on the books to us.

The large room in the barn house was my brothers’ usual haunt. The books from the library were usually kept there. At dusk, after taking their bath, they would come for the evening prayers. They concealed the books inside their dhotis. There was a ritual called ‘chamata’ for boys who had undergone the Upanayanam. Everyday at dusk, they had to conduct the ritual of burning the ‘chamata’. It was the duty of the sisters to organise everything for the ritual. As my brothers sat to do it, they would secretly leave the books underneath the low wooden stools they sat on. As the surrounding darkness was relieved only with the flickering flames of small oil lamps, this would go unnoticed. After they left, my sisters would secretly put away the books into the built-in cupboard in the northern room. Girls were not permitted to read books and if the hidden books were discovered, punishment was certain. So my sisters would go to the room when there was no one in the vicinity and read behind closed doors.

The three-day monthly rest given to menstruating girls helped them to read books. For three days, they had to remain confined to a room, without touching anyone. No one would go to the room either. Thus it was possible to read uninterruptedly and without attracting attention. Even then, there was some small difficulty. During those days, when one was considered impure, touching books was taboo. We lacked the courage to break the custom but here the servants’ children came to our aid. One of them would sit in front of us and turn the pages. Thus we succeeded in reading books without touching them.

My reading began in such a manner. It was amusing to watch my sisters take such pains to read in secrecy. My eldest sister would read the puranas. The second eldest, Unnikkali, was more drawn to poetry. She would not merely read the poems of Kumaran Asan and Ulloor but learn them by heart as well. Even now, at the age of 81, she remembers many lines. Recently, as she lay in sick-bed, she asked me to recite Karuna for her. ‘Listening to those lines will give me much comfort . . .’ she said. I recited the poem from a book. To this day, she can recall the whole of Umakeralam.

Besides poems, she would read novels as well, though they were rare. It was on seeing her read translations of Bengali novels like Durgeshanandini and Anandamath that I began to take interest in books. My eldest sister liked Sanskrit as much as she liked the puranas. She yearned to study Sanskrit. Those were the days when my father’s gurukulam was still functioning. She had grown up hearing the mellifluous notes of clearly articulated Sanskrit shlokas rising from that building. So she begged my mother for permission to study Sanskrit. Although my mother repeatedly told her that girls ought not to learn Sanskrit, my elder sister was adamant. Mother somehow managed to secure father’s permission. ‘She will be taught a little,’ he finally promised.

He did not have the courage to teach Sanskrit to his daughters. But he had given his word to mother. So he decided to teach her some of the basics of astrology. Maybe he consoled himself thinking that it would help his daughters calculate the stars of the lunar month as well as the anniversaries, without consulting the almanac.

My father employed a nambisan to teach her astrology. But something untoward happened just then. My elder sister’s puberty set in. Thereafter, a girl was not permitted to look at strange men. If the teacher and the taught had to face each other in order to do astrological calculations, how could her studies continue? My father found a solution to that problem as well.

The teacher and the student would sit in adjacent rooms so that they could not see each other. Father would seat himself at the doorstep between them. The teacher would loudly recite the shlokas and read the lessons. Without seeing him, my sister would repeat them. Thus the tuition went on for some months. But my father was a very busy man. Soon it became impossible for him to find time to oversee her studies. In due course, my sister’s studies came to an end. That was never to be resumed.

Unnikkali was not interested either in Sanskrit or in kaikottikkali. Reading was her passion. I was also unconsciously drawn towards reading. Having almost forgotten the alphabet, initially I could read only haltingly. It took me several days to read books with some ease. It was 1940-41. By then, some works of
S. K. Pottekatt, Thakazhi and Kesava Dev were available. However, the book that attracted me the most was Paavangal, the translated version of Les Miserables. My elder brother had even bought a copy of that novel. So I could read it without depending on the library. And that was the book I read the most number of times. So every morning, I would bow not only before Lord Vishnu and Shiva but the Bishop of D. as well.

Another novel that I read several times was Indulekha. Maybe because the Mookkuthala reading room did not have C. V. Raman Pillai’s novels, I did not get any of them. I was not greatly interested in poetry and so did not commit poems to memory as my elder sister did. The other day, when she asked me to recite ‘anupama kripanidhi’, I had to read it from a book.
By then, the atmosphere at the illam was changing. My eldest brothers, the two sons my father had by his first wife, were conservative in temperament. They left the illam after the partition of property. With this, my elder brothers, born of my mother, began to run the household. Maybe because I knew that my wishes would be granted, I insisted on learning English — just as my elder sister had earlier wanted to study Sanskrit. At last, they gave their consent. A nair woman called Thankam was summoned from Guruvayoor for this purpose and made to stay at the illam. She had passed the tenth standard and she taught me English. Besides, lessons in History and Geography were also included. I did not like Mathematics; so she did not teach me that subject.

Thankam teacher taught me for six months. Under her, my proficiency in English reached such a level that I could read and understand textbooks prescribed for the eighth standard. I could by then write addresses and read boards. After marriage, with this knowledge, I even read some English novels on my own — Pearl S. Buck’s Good Earth, Tagore’s stories, Pride and Prejudice and so on. For some reason, this habit gradually faded.

My marriage took place when I was fifteen. Thankam teacher was at the illam till then. Subsequently, she left for Guruvayoor and I went to my husband’s house. My studies thus came to an end.


Although our ambition to learn reading and writing and our desire to explore the world of ideas were fulfilled, in however limited a way, the practices followed at our illam continued to be largely conservative and narrow in outlook. The situation at the other illams in Mookkuthala was no different. However, outside, the winds of change had started blowing within the namboodiri community. Though it began when I was only around three years old, I have some memory of what my sister told me about the initial phase of the transformation process.

There was a madhom and a compound on the way from the illam to Mookkuthala temple. It belonged to the Kanjoor mana which owned vast areas of paddy fields there. The madhom was constructed in order to facilitate the supervision of agricultural work and for the family to stay when they wished to worship at the Mookkuthala temple. When I look back now, I remember the year. It was 1931. One evening, many men and women assembled at the madhom. They were namboodiris and antharjanams. The antharjanams sported ear rings and wore blouses. The namboodiris had cut off their tufts of hair and wore shirt and dhoti. They were forty to fifty in number.

It was our maidservants who passed this information to the antharjanams at the illam. All the antharjanams became frightened. They did not know how they could go to the temple the next day. By then, some antharjanams, who came that way to the illam, reported stories about the women they had seen. ‘If they see us, they will coax us to join them. We will feel like going to them. We will then be compelled to be with them!’ The question that now arose was — how could the girls be sent to the temple? Breaking the practice of daily worship at the temple could not be imagined either.

Together, they arrived at a solution — take a detour. There was another path leading to the Mookkuthala temple that did not touch the Kanjoor madhom. It was a long-winding road that passed in front of the Erkkara illam gates. Finally everyone agreed that this road should be taken. After all, wasn’t the danger facing them on the usual route very grave?

All the mothers and their children moved in one group along the road. They returned the same way. I was carried by a maidservant. But my elder sister Unnikkali and two others did not join us on the way back. They lingered behind and decided to take the road that went past the Kanjoor madhom. Didn’t one need to know what was taking place there? Though afraid, they walked along the usual path. On reaching the madhom, they remembered what the antharjanams had said the previous day. Their fear grew and they walked faster.

What a wonder! As had been said, a woman was seen standing there. She wore a sari and blouse. Her ear lobes had not been elongated. Instead she wore studs on them. Her hair was bobbed. The very person, who had been described earlier, now stood right in front of them. My sister and her friends began to quake in fear. As they began to run, the lady smiled and blocked their way. ‘Wait a minute. Take this with you. Give it to everyone at the illam to read.’ Saying this, she gave them some printed sheets of paper. One for each. ‘Now you may go,’ she gave them permission to leave.

My sister and her friends wondered whether they should keep or throw away the magical papers the stranger woman had given them. It was not possible to give them publicly to anyone at the illam. That would be a grave sin. But they could not throw it away either. Curious about the contents, my sister and her friends folded the papers, kept them in their hands and sped to the illam.

On reaching home, the fear, instead of abating, suddenly increased. What if someone saw it? Where should it be hidden? If anyone spotted it, all hell would break loose. They would lose the paper as well. So they folded it many times and tucked it away safely in their dhoti at the waist.

Keeping it safe was not enough. Shouldn’t one read it? But there was no place in the illam that afforded them privacy enough to unfurl the paper and read what it contained. Finally they decided on the bathing shed by the pond. Choosing the time when there would be no one in the shed, they went there, took out the paper carefully, opened the folds and started reading slowly.

It was a letter to the namboodiri girls.

Dear Sister,
What sort of a life are you leading today! How many of you know that there is a world beyond the temple pond of your maternal home? Do you have the freedom even to untie your hair knot or part and comb your hair, that stinks like the decaying weeds drawn from the pond? What about your educational status? I would have insisted that you have not even savoured the taste of literacy if your father had not written the fifty-one letters of the alphabet on your stretched tongue with his pavithramothiram amidst the din of all those rituals in your childhood. Dear sister, think well . . . ponder over . . . adapt to change and adopt reforms. Allow the rays of light to enter inside. Won’t it be an achievement if you manage to shake even one brick of that impenetrable fortress of orthodoxy? We will be with you in all your difficulties. If we eat, you too will. Rather, we will eat only after serving you food. If we laugh, you too will. Or rather, we will laugh only if you do.
Humbly yours,
V. T. Bhattathirippad

My sister and her friends read the letter a number of times. Putting it back securely in their dhoti at the waist, they returned to the illam. None of them understood it fully but they had an urge to read it again and again. They felt an indescribable closeness towards those words. Whenever they felt like reading it, they would go to the bathing house. Taking out the paper carefully, they would go through it once more and put it back before returning to the illam.

The paper was rather thin and with repeated folding and unfolding, it began to tear. In course of time, it came to shreds. I could not read that pamphlet. The letter that V. T. Bhattathirippad had written to the girls became wet with their sweat and got destroyed.

Looking back at it now, I think what took place at Kanjoor madhom then must have been a sub-committee meeting of the Yoga Kshema Sabha. It had become a practice with the Sabha to hold meetings at places where the old namboodiri traditions were most rigid and strong. Consequently, about forty people had assembled at Kanjoor madhom to hold a meeting at Mookkuthala where namboodiri orthodoxy was more than commonly intense. The lady who gave my sister that pamphlet must have been Arya Pallom. She was one of its prominent activists and wore her hair short.

The meeting must have gone on for one or two days. It was rounded off with a community feast with members of all castes participating. The namboodiris and people belonging to the lower castes ate at the same table.

Three of my brothers – Neelakantan, Chithran and Vasudevan – who would unfailingly do their evening worship under the iron rule of my father’s younger brothers, also took part in the meeting and partook of the lunch. They asked no one nor did they seek anyone’s permission. They went to the meeting without anyone’s knowledge and had their meal at the community feast.

When they returned to the illam, my uncles were beside themselves with fury. None of my brothers was permitted to step into the portico. If they wished they could go and sleep in the barn house. They could not eat along with the other namboodiris. They ought not to defile anything. In short, my uncles ostracised my brothers. Those who joined my uncles and took the lead were my Valiamma’s sons. They also scolded my mother for not keeping her sons under control.

My brothers stayed at the barn house like outcastes, without touching anyone or entering the nalukettu. In the meanwhile, an astonishing thing happened. They began to disappear, one by one! First, Neelakantan, next, Chithran and last, Vasudevan.

My uncles said sarcastically, ‘All of them have run away, God knows where!’

They had not run away, but had left the illam to join school. Neelakantan joined the Kumaranalloor school; Chithran and Vasudevan, the Ponnani school. Without guardians, they sought admission and started learning.

( to be continued)

Translated from Malayalam by P.Radhika

Teaches English at the Fatima Mata National College, Kollam. Has contributed articles to numerous research journals. Interested in translating. She is at present Assistant Editor, Samyukta.

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