Friday, 28 December 2012

Kerala Society in 18th and 19th Centuries

An understanding of the ground reality of Kerala in 18th and 19th centuries is essential to understand the significance of Kuriakose Elias Chavara’s contributions to the Kerala society. The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the emergence of a new social order in Kerala under the impact of the diverse social economic and cultural changes. Even towards the end of the 18th century the traditional social structure had began to show signs of tottering.  Before we deal with the various stages by which the new social order was ushered in, now we shall briefly review the state of the society in Kerala in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century.

Kerala Society in the 18th and 19th centuries
Kerala society was not based on the principles of social freedom and equality. Its chief characteristic was the deep chasm which separated the high castes from the low castes. In spite of the administration of the English East India Company in Malabar, the upper castes like the Brahmins, the Kshatriya and Nairs, continued to enjoy several privileges and immunities.

The law prevailed in the land was not equalitarian. The upper castes enjoyed exemption from the payment of land tax. The Brahmin even enjoyed immunity from death penalty. It was also the privilege of Brahmins Judges to give judgements in all important cases. The penal code was extremely severe as far as the lower castes were concerned. The death penalty was imposed upon low caste even for ordinary offences like theft, killing of cows etc. and  was some laws of our realm were thus set forth

1.      As to how questions regarding the adjustment of legal relations between person, the rights and duties of vendors and purchasers, and disputes concerning lands and tracts settled.
2.      As to how grave crimes such as causing death or hurt, highway robbery and theft, injuries and offences involving loss of caste are dealt with.
3.       As regard the question of how the laws specified above are ascertained.

Early administrative and social changes
The British and the Indian administrators introduced a series of administrative and social reforms with the view to modernising administration and the society in Kerala. The important one was the abolition of slavery in Malabar, then establishment of new society, concept of Government, etc. 

Shanar Agitation
Special mention may be made, in this connection, of the struggle of the Shanars of South Travancore to secure for their womenfolk the same rights in regard to dress as were enjoyed by the upper sections of the Hindus. There were so many problems in connection with this issue and they were helped by the Christian Missionaries. Later the British Government changed this law and they were given permission to put on the upper cloth.

Western Education and the work of the Christian Missionaries.
The different communities of the land, particularly the Nairs and the Christian, soon took to western education in order to become eligible for recruitment to Government service. The role of the Christian missionaries in the spread of western education and liberal ideas deserves special mention in this context.

Religious and Social Reform Movement.
The early decades of the 20th century witnessed the beginning of powerful social reform movement in Kerala, the impact of which was felt by the members of the upper castes too. Even Brahmins, kshatriyas and other upper castes came within the fold of these movements an advocated radical social reform. The prominent persons are:
Chattampi Swamikal
Kuriakose Elias Chavara 
 Sri Narayana Guru
Brahmanada Sivayogi
Swami Vagbhatananda
Vaikunta Swami
Vakkam Abdul khadir Maulavi ( Muslims)

Rise of Communal Organisation
The rise of communal organisation dedicated to the case of social reform helped to supplement the activities of these people. The most important of the social reform movement of Kerala was the agitation for removal of untouchability.   

Vaikam Satyagraha
Its aim was to get the approach roads to the Vaikam temple opened for the Avarnas of the Hindu community. One of the highlights of the Satyagraha was the Savarna jatha organised under the leadership of Mannath Padmnabhan.

Guruvayur Satyagraha
It was to get Guruvayur temple opened for all Hindus. Thus though the Guruvayur Satyagraha failed to achieve its immediate objective, it had helped to create a climate in favour of the eradication of untouchability. 

Temple Entry Proclamation
The temple entry Proclamation of the Maharaja Travancore came as a bomb-shell in orthodox Hindu circles, but it gave a massage of hope and good cheer to the down-trodden Harijans and other backward class.   

The last but not the least important factor that has contributed to the elevation of the new society in Kerala in decades is the emergence of the new economic and professional class and the increasingly important part they have come to play in public life. In recent decades, there has been a steady outflow of Keralites to foreign countries particularly to the Gulf area, in search of employment. This has led to the emergence of a neo-rich class which has come to exercise a deep influence on modern Kerala society and economy.  Thus a new and dynamic society is gradually taking the place of the decadent stationary society of the 19th and early 20th century.

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