The caste system in Kerala differed from that in the rest of India. The latter was the four-fold division of society — Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. But in Kerala, which, prior to independence, comprised Malabar district, Travancore and Cochin, the Namboodiri Brahmins formed the priestly class and reigned over all other castes in the society.
Until the Kerala Land Reforms in 1957, Namboodiri (or ‘Nambudiri’ and ‘Namboothiri’) Brahmins, who were traditional feudal landlords, owned a large portion of land in the Malabar region. They dominated all matters of Kerala — religion, politics, society, economics and culture. They were also advisors to the king of Kochi, and held much power and influence over him.
While the Namboodiri women struggled to find any sense of justice or equality, the men enjoyed abundant financial security because of the amount of land they owned. The women were branded as antharjanams, which meant ‘indoor persons’. It made their social position abundantly clear. With the advent of colonialism, many areas of the country saw several toxic religious practices dissipate, but Namboodiri women continued to remain under a veil, and were denied rights to own property, or even pursue education.
‘Destined to bring calamity’
To keep the property within the family, only the eldest brother in a home could marry an antharjanam. The younger men in the family were to dedicate their lives to worship and scriptural studies. At the same time, it was acceptable for the oldest brother to have as many wives as he desired. This courtesy was not extended to women, of course, who were to remain monogamous and inside their homes most times, and only step out when they were accompanied by a servant or their husbands. As the age of consent was 10 years around the time, little girls would be widowed early when their much older husbands would die, and resign their fates to remaining an antharjanam for the rest of their lives.
Among these women was Kuriyedathu Thathri, also referred to as Dhathri or Savitri in varying accounts. Thathri was born in Ezhumangadu village into the Kalpakasseri Illam, a prominent Namboodiri clan. It is said that an astrologer told her father that her birth was “destined to bring calamity and destroy the family’s honour”. Thathri did just that, but in a way that was monumental in the liberation of many Malayali women.
Despite being barred from pursuing education, Thathri showed keen interest in literature and performing arts. She was extremely intelligent, and often, tactical and mischievous.
At the age of 11, she was married to 60-year-old Chemmanthatta Kuriyedathu Raman Namboothiri. Raman had multiple wives, and regularly hired prostitutes. While the accounts of the exact reason Raman and Thathri split differ, the most popular ones say that he abandoned her after she protested against him bringing other women into their home. When Raman left, Thathri took up sex work.
It is said that Thathri was extremely beautiful, and that many men flocked to her. These men came from across different castes and some were extremely powerful and influential. They didn’t know she was an antharjanam for a number of reasons. She arranged these visits through her thozhi (servant or companion), who would communicate with the men and set up the visits on her behalf. Namboodiri women were not allowed to be seen by any man other than the father before marriage, and husband after marriage, so hiding her identity was not difficult for Thathri.
Things changed with the visit of a particular old man. Satisfied with their union, the man asked Thathri, whose face had been hidden behind a veil the entire time, to let him have her permanently. He lifted her veil, and her identity was revealed. The man, who was none other than Raman himself, was enraged that his young wife had chosen a career like this for herself.
Left to be tortured by rats and snakes
A woman’s honour has been tied to her sexuality since time immemorial, and Thathri’s case was no different. On 13 July 1905, she was put to trial for her infidelity and promiscuity. A part of the Namboodiri tradition was the ritual of Smarthavicharam, which means ‘inquiry into conduct’.
This practice existed specifically to put Namboodiri women and their fellow adulterers on trial if they were accused of illegitimate sexual relations. If found guilty, the woman was excommunicated and branded as sadhanam, which literally meant ‘inanimate object’. Her family would conduct irrike pindam, which are the last rites of a living person. The general practice at the time was that the male adulterers would pay a sum of money to the women to keep their names out of the trial. So, the woman single-handedly bore the consequences, while the man got away scot-free.
In the trial, the accused woman would be subjected to severe mental and physical torture. She was often isolated in a cell, where the smarthans (judges) would send in rats, mice and snakes. A popular practice at the time was to pack the woman up in a mat, like you would a dead body, and then roll her down from the housetop. If, after all the physical torture, the woman maintained her innocence, she would be accepted back into the community and invited for a “celebratory meal” with the smarthans. If she admitted to her guilt, she would be disowned and stripped of her Brahmin privileges.
Thathri, already aware of her fate, immediately accepted the accusations. But she made it clear that it wasn’t a crime she had committed alone, and insisted that the men bear equal consequences of their actions.
The trial went on for six months, and by the time it was done, Thathri had named a total of 64 men from across castes and professions. These included Namboodiri Bhrahmins, Tamil Iyer Brahmins, Ambalavasis (assistants to Brahmin priests) and Nairs. Many of these men were prominent artists, scholars, and religious leaders, and two of them were the brothers of the head smarthan of the trial. These men were considered pillars of the local community. The King abruptly shut the trial and rumours suggest it was because he thought he would be the 65th name to be revealed.
Many men she named denied being involved, but she confirmed their identities by recalling moles and birthmarks on their bodies, and even remembered the exact date, time and place of their visits. These men lost all credibility in their community. What’s more is that because of the power these men held, the community suffered a severe economic loss due to their ostracisation.
The downfall of an oppressive system
Little is known of what happened to Thathri after her trial. Her father reportedly died by suicide, the 64 men she called out were all excommunicated. Other members of Kalpakessari Illam also fled the village in shame. Some accounts report that she married a Eurasian railway worker and settled in present-day Tamil Nadu, while some say she assumed a new identity and married into a Nasrani Catholic family. Believers of this theory often say that popular Malayalam actress Sheela is a descendant of Thathri, though she denies this. Some accounts claim Thathri converted to Islam and changed her name to Sainu Beevi.
Regardless, Thathri’s defiance of a grossly casteist and patriarchal society made a lasting impact on the Namboodiri community and Malayali society in general. After her trial, many came forward to question casteist values that dictated what was considered pure and what was not. Thathri’s was one of the last few cases of Smarthavicharam, and the practice eventually died out. The formation of the Namboothiri Yuvajana Sangam 1920 was the final nail in the ritual’s coffin, and the Namboodiri community saw many social reforms. Slowly, the women in the community gained a stronger foothold, and were allowed to venture out and carve niches for themselves.
Matampu Kunukuttan’s novel Brushte (Outcaste), published in 1969, is based on Thathri’s story. Matampu is the grandchild of the chief priest who conducted the trial. In the book, he says, “The extraordinary nature of the case prompted the Raja of Kochi to allow a purushavicharam in which the accused men were allowed to cross-examine Thathri. No one escaped. All 64 along with Thathri lost caste.” The story has since gained notoriety for telling the tale of revenge, and the downfall of an oppressive system.
The case is almost 116 years old, but even today, sex workers continue to be viewed from a lens of stigma and shame. Caste barriers and prevalent misogyny continue to define “purity”, but Thathri’s courage was instrumental in letting women know that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Using her own oppression as an instrument of change, she dismantled the very idea of what a Brahmin man was at the time — no longer a God-like figure that lived above everyone else, but someone who was prone to far more degeneracy than society could fathom at the time.
Edited by Yoshita Rao