Kerala: society

Kerala has the geographical and cultural components necessary to be considered a country. As if this were not enough, it harbors so much social diversity that it is indeed a much more complex society than most of the nations that make up the European Union. The country is full of social groups, ethnicities, castes or religious minorities; so many that it would be boring to list them. It is worth, however, to illustrate this complexity with four or five examples.

Women in Kerala

Kerala is unique in the world for having been able to perpetuate (for at least five centuries, until its outlawization by the Indian government in 1958), a system of kinship and strictly matrilineal inheritance, called marumakkathayam. It is typical of the macrocasta nayar (or nair), to which Ramuni Paniker belonged by birth, but emulated by other gigantic castes such as that of coconut trees, Christian-Syrians and even Muslim groups.

The system established that the women of the family inherited the property, taravad, brought their husbands to live with them and pass their surname to their offspring (exactly the opposite of the traditional Indian norm); without ruling out the practice of polyandria (one woman, several lovers). This system was heavily attacked by the missionary-colonial-reformist apparatus, but it has certainly given keralate women an appreciable – and notorious, to the naked eye – a sense of empowerment and autonomy. Women like writer Arundhati Roy give a good account.

Cultural and religious diversity

In Kerala some of the most interesting Jewish communities in the diaspora prospered (although most chose to “return” to Israel with the creation of the state in 1948). Communities that we generically call “Christian-Syrians” or “Sea Toma” form an essential part of Keralate society, in which they had taken root a thousand years before the arrival of Europeans (if not in the time of the Apostle Thomas, as their legends tell).

Another case is that of the mukkuvars fishermen, of extremely humble (untouchable) origin, half of whom professes Islam, the other Christianity. The bulk of Kerala’s Muslim community is made up of the community called mappila, which descends from Arab and Yemeni traders who for centuries were brought to the shores of Malabar and married Malayal women. Consequently, their mosques follow Malayal architectural patterns, women rarely wear veils and even have been able to follow in the past the same matrilineal system of Hindus.