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The Nair Heritage

K. M. Parinikar justly remarks:  "The Nayars [Nairs] were not a caste, they were a race."  Few historians will reject this contention because many customs  and traditions distinguished the Nairs from the other Keralites.  They had their own marital customs (Sambandham), their own form of inheritance (Marumakkathayam). their own art of warfare, their own war goddess (Bhadrakali), their own cult of ancestor worship, and their own art form, the Kathakali. (dance drama).  In swordsmanship and suicidal squads (Chavers), they are similar to the Samurai of Japan; as the warrior class they used to look down upon manual work and entrust their lands to tenants to till and plant. Though Nairs were once technically classified by the Brahmins under the name of the pure Sudras of Malayala, they were always an honored caste. Some think nair is the honorific plural of nayan which is derived from the Sanskrit nayaka (leader).  Others derive nair from the naga (snakes) which they worship.  The Brahmin-inspired Keralolpathi regards them as the descendants of the Sudras who accompanied the Brahmin immigrants from outside Kerala. 

Obviously, like all Keralite tribes, the Nairs came from outside. There is a great deal of truth in the theory that they came from the Nepal Valley, adjacent to Tibet.  Some consider them to be early descendants of the Newars of Nepal.  The Kathakali which is a Nair art-form is closely related to Tibetan dances; Nair polyandry is very similar to Tibetan marriage customs; in the mode of inheritance the Newars are like the Nairs; like the Newars, the Nairs are distinguished by their lighter coloring, Mongolian features, and smooth hair.  The most remarkable thing about the Nairs is their style of pagoda-like temple architecture and house construction which are almost identical with the Newar style of temples and houses found all along the Kulu and Nepal Valleys.  Serpent worship is another common custom between the Newars and Nairs.  As mentioned earlier, the settlers of Kerala came from the northwestern parts of India and the Nepal Valley.  My theory is that groups of Newars who were partially Aryanized and would be later Dravidianized joined the Munda exodus and finally settled down in Kerala after a long period of sojourn in the eastern plains of Tamil Nadu.  It is the Newar-Nair builders who have given Kerala both the pagoda-type architectural style of the Hindu temples and the angular roof and dormer of Kerala houses.

One fact appears to be certain:  the Nairs were in Kerala before the Brahmins arrived in the seventh century A.D.  The Chera kings were Nairs, and the Nairs were also Dravidians and not Kshatriya Aryans; the Brahmins, in fact, considered them as Sudras.  However, the younger sons of Brahmin families could form morganatic relationships (Sambandham) with Nair women, the children remaining Nairs and thus introducing a new element in the race. This helped the junior members of the Brahmin family to be relieved of their life-long bachelorhood without the responsibility for supporting their wives and children from their family property.  It was, on the other hand, to the advantage of the children to carry the genes of the Brahmins, apparently. It does not mean that the Nairs had loose marriage morals; it only means that this type of relationship was tolerated as an exception for its advantages for the Brahmins and Nairs; the rule of real marriage was endogamous monagamy between Nairs especially between the daughter of a maternal uncle and his nephew.



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