This century witnessed some most remarkable changes or revolutions on the social scene of Kerala. This region which was the most caste-ridden of all the regions of India is today the least caste-ridden area. However, this volt-face did not happen all of a sudden, by means of a bloody revolution, but gradually by means of new laws under the impact of many cultural factors.
Since the arrival of Aryan Brahmis in Kerala in the eighth century, the society was hierarchically restructured on the principles of caste. The high castes enjoyed privileges and immunities: the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas (the royal families of Kerala who were Sudra Nairs were elevated to Kshatriya-status by the Brahmins who in turn were richly rewarded by the ruling Kshatriya caste), and the Nairs owned most of the land and oppressed the tenants who were mostly Muslim Mappilas, Ezhavas, Pariahs, and Pulayas.
Like the Medieval Catholic Church and its clergy in Europe, the upper castes exemption from paying taxes; the Brahmins enjoyed immunity from death penalty–after all, the Brahmins made the laws and applied them differently to different castes. The law was extremely cruel toward castes; they were sub-ject to the death penalty for offenses like theft and cow-slaughter; capital punishment took the forms of being trampled to death under an elephant, being blown from the mouth of a cannon, by hanging which lasted for three days (Citravadham), and by mutilation. Slavery was practiced with impunity even in the twentieth century at least in the form of bonded labor.
The land owners had the power to put their slaves to death. Most tenants could not keep milch-cows, wear fine clothes, live in tiled houses, use metal utensils, wear gold ornaments, and travel in palanquins, trains, and automobiles. Violators were punished by fines. There was marriage tax for the low castes, probably to prevent them from increasing and multiplying. Occupational classes had to service for the Brahmins often without compensation; their looms, oil-mills, fishing-nets, and boats were all taxed. The use of public highways was forbidden to outcastes, and anyone daring to pass within polluting distance of a Nair (unapproachability) would be cut down at once; Ezhavas had to keep a distance of 32 feet from a Brahmin! Low castes could not wear shoes and carry umbrellas in public even in heavy rains. The proper salutation from a woman to persons of rank was to uncover the bosom. The practice of pollution (untouchability) was widespread even to the point that members of the lower castes had not the right to walk along the approach roads leading to temples.
The British administration did not want to disturb the hierarchical caste-system too fast and too radically. They gradually abolished blatant forms of slavery. The Christian missionaries were given the responsibility to bring about gradual social changes by means of education and conversion of the low castes to the Christian religion -” Christians were not subject to caste laws even though they too were discriminated against. The Shanar women of South Travancore who became Christians began covering their upper bodies with blouse (kuppayam) and towel like the upper-caste-women in the1850’s; these women were persecuted for their defiance of traditional caste law on dressing. The Shanar agitation eventually led to the Royal Proclamation of July 26, 1859, abolishing all restrictions on covering the upper parts of the body by Shanar women.
Western education provided in missionary schools created a new sense of equality and an awareness of the injustice of caste discrimination not only among members of the lower castes but also among members of the upper class. Even some Brahmins like Swami Agamananda (1896-1961) of the Ramakrishna Advaita Ashram of Kaladi were champions of the civil rights of lower castes. The great reformers were the Nair, Chattampi Swamikal (1854-1924), and the saintly Ezhava, Sri Narayana Guru (1854-1928). The former encouraged the Nairs to resist Brahmin dictatorship in government, religion, and society. The latter worked for reforms within the Ezhava community. He, too, defied Brahmin authority and started consecrating Ezhava temples and Ezhava priests all over Kerala. He preached and practiced the ideal: “One caste, one religion, -airi- one God”. To organize the Ezhavas and to achieve social reforms, Narayana Guru founded the organization: Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) in 1903.
Primarily, the reformers wanted an end to untouchabiiity by opening not only the approach roads of temples to the avarna (low-caste) Hindus but also the doors of the temple to the a yarn as or Harijans, as Mahatma Gandhi called them. The Vaikom Satyagraha (1924-25) and the Guruvayoor Satyagraha (1931-32) helped create a change in public perception on untouchabiiity. As a result, on November 12, 1936, the Maharaja of Travancore issued his famous Temple Entry Proclamation which opened the doors of Hindu temples to Hindus of all castes. Ten years later. Cochin and Malabar also enacted their versions of laws on temple entry for Harijans.
The Kerala Society has come a long way since the days of the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936. India became independent in 1947 and a United Kerala came into existence in 1956. With industrial revolution, planned development, agrarian reforms, labor movement, and democratic government, Brahmin supremacy has come to an end and new economic and professional classes have emerged. The traditional Kerala Society in which land property owned by an individual determined a person’s worth and wealth has become a thing of the past. Its place has been taken over by leadership in political parties and political connections. Businessmen, lawyers, teachers, workers, doctors, engineers, aflrt” government officials, and farmers all have become pawns at the hands of the new power-brokers of Kerala Society: the party politicians and government ministers. They are the new royalty, the new aristocracy, the new Brahmins. Much has changed, but much remains the same.