Nambudiri Brahmins of Kerala - their poignant decline from their heyday!! - a brief note

Kerala state Nambudiri Brahmins.

Native to what is now the state of Kerala, India, Namboodiris or Namboothiris  fall under the Malayali Brahmin caste and once they constituted part of the traditional feudal elite and rich culture steeped in  aristocrazy.  Obviously, in the land mythologically created by  lord Parasurama, they were a force to reckon with in the society and countless temples were built under their guidance. A symbol of strict orthodoxy and stickler in the matter of religious institutions, they  differed from Brahmins  living elsewhere like Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. With respect to  inheritance of  family's estate, mode of temple worship and style of living,  decades ago, the Nambudiri Brahmin families followed a more strict version of primogeniture and this custom allowed only  the eldest son to marry a Nambudiri woman with a view to  producing the heir  to the family's estate and continue the family tree or genealogy. This means  as part of feudal rule, the eldest son  had the right to manage  the whole real estate of an intestate to maintain the uninterrupted hereditary or line of descent. There was a keen desire    to carve out a place for one's family in the larger historical perspective.  In a sense there lies hidden  sense of responsibility to preserve the past for future generations, a key factor of most Nambudiri families. 

1960 Kerala state

Once rich and fame with an aura about them in their native places  in the matter of temple management and adhering to strict temple rituals,  now Namboodiris of Kerala fall on hard days forced on them by socio-political changes of the 1960s  that swept across Kerala when the Communist dominated state ministry had taken the reigns . Late Chief Minister  E.M.S Nambudripad (he himself was a rich Nambudiri Brahmin) and minister Gowri Amma  were the forces behind the reforms. 

Reduced to a  low level income group  from the past opulent  lifestyle, the members of the priestly  community have found it difficult to make both ends meet in the past few decades.  Once they had a pride of place in the rural areas with a vast  rich revenue-generating  cultivable  land, their glorious past faded on the horizon. like an evening Sun.  In the wake of the decline of their wealth and shrinkage of lands  their elegant residences have become decrepit.  Decades of social reforms, etc have pushed the top-rung Brahmins  community atop the social ladder  to the  fringes of  scrounging;  a fall from sublime to a life of unimaginable impoverishment  as a result of degeneration into decadence. 

About the origin of Nambudiri Brahmins, there are some versions.  Originally migrated from  the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh on a special invitation from the ruler of Kerala to take care of their spiritual needs, coronation, etc., Namboodiri Brahmins  got their name after their native village  Nambooru (close to Guntur city) which had a big agraharam.  Initially referred as  Namboori Brahmins after their Poorvigam, they have a domicile of origin in that village.  Their place of origin is based on  Sripada Sri Vallabha Charitaamrutham (Telugu)  written by Sankara Bhattu of the 14th century.  Centuries later the appellation  changed to Namboodiri. 

Yet another version comes up with a different postulation. Their possible migration was in the 8th century from the  Marathwada and other drought-prone   areas of present day Maharashtra and Karnataka through Tamil Nadu to the fertile land of Kerala. Reason: in search of livelihood in a new land. Their residence is called Mana meaning residence, a Kannada word, and Illam meaning home, a classical Tamil word.  The temple legends, marriage customs and rituals, gothra concepts, worship protocols of  Namboodiris have closer affinity  with the ancient customs of Maharashtrian Brahmins. 

The Nambudiris were not alone in this topsy-turvy world that is ever subject to the ebb and flow of time, and change of fortunes. Native Kerala Brahmins, to their dismay,  lost their tradition-bound  lifestyle  due to  compelling social metamorphosis that was  conspicuous after India's freedom from the British.  More or less the same predicament  was faced by countless rich and well-known Maharajas and Nawabs  who headed the Princely States across India during the colonial rule.   In the midst of disunity among them during the wily British regime, using various pretexts  they took away much of their regal power, vast revenue generating lands and allowed them to head the princely state with an annual dole from them to run their high-profile life with their retinue.  For name sake British Sahibs   allowed them to  keep the  crown on their head  and to please their ego, they  bestowed peerage on them  with funny  and weird titles; apart,  they assigned them special status guns-salute state, as part of state  protocol  as a mark of royalty.  

In 1971 the royal families of India faced  yet another shock in the form of abolition of privy purses (dole from the indian government; article 279 deals with purse sums) by the Congress ministry headed by  Mrs. Gandhi.  Privy purse was an added burden on the newly formed nation ridden with poverty and emaciated people.  The colonial rulers in 1947  left India with the  coffers almost  empty. Thank god they never stole the empty coffers.

Of course, the ex-rulers of the princely states who once wallowed in riches and expensive jewelry,  were not left high and dry, but spared with a few palaces (that are converted into 5 star hotels) to meet their additional expenses  with a fleet of expensive cars and a small  estate.  The same fate fell on vast land owners -  Mittadars, Mirasudars and zamindars across India. They lost the lands, vast income and epicurean life. Reason: to cut down the exploitation of  poor peasants who received paltry sum as daily wages from the egotistical land owners.  

Namboothiris'  traditional joint family residences exemplified their traditions and customs intertwined with local culture. Their impressive and strikingly beautiful  homes,  often called Illoms   are built, following the principles of Vedic architecture - Vastu  Shastras.  In this respect, families make no compromise on certain aspects of the illom. Sizes, architecture and embellishment may vary depending on the financial backing of the builder. Unlike Agraharam houses of Tamil nadu or Karnataka where  the Brahmins used to live  in a row  of houses with common walls on either side  of road, Namboothiris   preferred seclusion and built their homes in isolated  serene lush green places away from other castes to maintain their purity. 

The Kerala land reform bills of early 1960s and act, and finally  the historical Land Reforms (Amendment) Act, 1969 by the C. Achutha Menon government which put an end to the feudal system and ensured the rights of the tenants on land, came into force on 1 January 1970. The new land reform act saw the decline of  Namboodiris opulence and the disintegration of the joint family system into small nuclear family units to live in tune with modern living.  The restricted land holding and decline in agricultural income put a strain on their living status and family expenses. 

As for their illams, many have either been demolished or fallen apart on their own due to paucity of funds to maintain them. Some of them were sold  by the owners to settle down elsewhere.  However there are many houses that remain intact showcasing traditional Kerala architecture\, its nuances and esthetics.

Like Brahmins  of Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka  Nambudiri Brahmins  contributed a lot to the language and culture. God's own country has  various  traditional indigenous arts and culture and they owe their origin to the Nambudiris. If these art forms  such as Kathakali, Mohiniattam, Theyyam, etc  are quite famous across not only Kerala but also other states it is because of Nambudiris who never failed to encourage and nurture them with their sustained  patronage. Their obsession with these native classical  forms is  so  deep-rooted that they keep them alive  today Many famous gurus hail from this community.