Vivekanada's Lunatic Kerala

Watching a totally loony & horrible movie ‘Bharghava Charithram Moonam Kandam’ scripted by Srinivasan and based loosely on the fantastic ‘Analyse this’ starring Robert De Niro & Billy Crystal, I was wondering about the comment Sreenivasan makes during the opening scene. He refers to Swami Vivekananda’s statement about Malayalis being lunatics. I thought I must be crazy one to be watching this miserable movie…First & foremost – Do not see Bharghava charithram…It is probably the worst movie you can see, but then you should watch ‘Analyse this’…

Kerala today - is a tropical paradise, God's own country, recommended by the National Geography Magazine as one of the 50 destinations in the world that one should visit. Kerala is a land of great natural beauty, one of the smaller states of India. From the majestic heights of the Western Ghats the land undulates westward presenting a vista of silent valleys clothed in the richest green. A place
Bill McKibben describes thus in National Geographic – The real reason to visit Kerala, which lies at the southwestern tip of the subcontinent, is for the intellectual adventure: Kerala is a bizarre anomaly among developing nations, a place that offers real hope for the future of the Third World. Consider: This small state in India, though not much larger than Maryland, has a population as big as California's and a per capita annual income of less than $300. But its infant mortality rate is low, its literacy rate among the highest on Earth, and its birthrate below America's and falling faster. Kerala's citizens live nearly as long as Americans or Europeans. Though mostly a land of paddy-covered plains, statistically Kerala stands out as the Mount Everest of social development; there's truly no place like it.

Now what exactly did Vivekanada feel or see to say what he said, when he visited Kerala some 100 years ago?? “I have wandered into a lunatic asylum!' Swami Vivekananda concluded after touring the princely states of Kerala (See exact remarks at the end of this note!!). He was appalled by the horrors of the caste system practiced in Kerala at that time. This was some 100 years ago, when Hindu society in India were divided into several castes and sub castes. The many groups bickered & quarreled about rights and privileges and argued over who stood higher on the caste ladder. The miserable custom of untouchability existed and a large majority were denied entry into temples. Vivekananda was horrified by these terrible practices that were imposed on lower caste people prompting him to call Kerala a "lunatic asylum".

The other day I read about a
Dr Bahuleyan in America, also a Malayali, who was giving back many millions of dollars to his village in Kerala. He mentioned that in his younger days, he had to take a circuitous route to school since the temple was on the main route and he as an untouchable could not go near the temple.

Can you imagine that temples, wells, eating halls were all out of bounds for the lower classes? Can you imagine a scenario where lower class women were not allowed to cover upper part of their bodies or wear jewelry? That "Untouchable" Hindus were required to maintain a prescribed distance from the upper-castes at all times so as not to pollute them. The distance was at least 64 feet from the priestly Brahmin caste and 30 feet from artisans. The untouchables belonged mainly to the Pulaya, Paraya or Nayadi community.

I still remember days as a child at Pallavur, when during midday or dusk a sharp howl would be heard on certain days. It was a Nayadi announcing his arrival. We children would rush out despite dire threats not to, by the elders, but there would be nobody at the gate. All we could see was a pot into which old rice gruel was poured by the maid servant for the Nayadi beggar, sometimes it was old clothes. We all had to leave and then the Nayadi would come and pick up his bowl. One day I did see the chap, he was no different from anybody else…A bit darker from all the wandering around in the sun and rather disheveled in looks & attire (a single tattered towel round the waist) that was it. However, we did not have any ill luck seeing him, ever, if one wondered about that..

How did Vivekanada land up in Kerala? Well, it all started in 1892 when Vivekananda stayed at the house of a
Dr Palpu in Bangalore, just before his trip to USA. Dr Palpu an Ezhava from Kerala, was forced to move to Madras for medical studies due to the fact that he could not do so in Kerala (even though he passed the entrance exams, he was not given a seat) and was later educated in Europe with a Mysore government scholarship. Even after becoming a doctor with a European degree he was not allowed to practice in Kerala!!

It was Palpu who explained the horrors of the caste system to Vivekanada.
Vivekanada replied Dr Palpu that they should find their own leader and not look up to somebody else. Palpu went along to rally support with a signature campaign in Kerala, created an association with Sree Narayan Guru & the starting of SNDP plus raised the matter to Sr Nivedita in England, who using her connections passed it on to the British government for action. Thus started the mass awareness phase.

During 1924-25, Gandhiji got involved in this uprising, starting with the Vaikom Satyagraha. Sree Narayana Guru who spearheaded the cause rallied to convert it to a mass movement. This forced the Maharaja of Travancore to issue the 'Temple Entry Proclamation' on November 12, 1936, throwing open all temples to all Hindus.

PJ Cherian puts it perfectly - During the last years of 1930s tremendous changes occurred both in the political and cultural spheres of Kerala. In that period anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, national, democratic movement strengthened in an unprecedented fashion all over Kerala. Modern value concepts which was confined to the upper strata of the society in the early phase, now began to spread to the lower layers of society. In addition to the middle class, various other sections consciously entered into the mainstream of public life. Consequently political and cultural spheres became more popular based and it acquired democratic character.

Thus started the renaissance in Kerala. Since then, Malayalis got involved in public work and politics in an effort to rebuild their disintegrating society. Women, who have long comprised over half the state's population, began working in fields such as teaching, as early as the 1920s. Unlike the Indian north, where knowledge has mostly been the privilege of the upper castes, Kerala experienced an even spread of education thus becoming highly literate and today a place where 90% of people own land. Today, ten decades thence, Kerala is an egalitarian state, perhaps the only place in India where castes and religious discrimination are relatively absent. It is also the only state where women outnumber men 1090:1000.
Paul Zakariah adds - Today caste is no more a tool of social domination in Kerala. In fact, lower caste status is shrewdly used as a tool for social bargaining. But Kerala continues to be a sociological madhouse of unparalleled dimensions. For example, perhaps this is the only society in India where ideology has got so intertwined with culture that people have ceased to understand the difference.

Exact text of Vivekanada’s statement (Text obtained from Colombo to Almora – Vivekanada’s notes 1904) Note that Vivekanada mentions Malabar, though I believe he meant Travancore & Cochin as Dr Palpu referred Vivekanada to those Kingdoms during his discussions.

In 1897, Vivekanada remarked in a public address – Was there ever a sillier thing before in the world than what I saw in Malabar? The poor ‘Paraiah’ is not allowed to pass through the same street as the high caste man, but if he changes his name to hodge-podge English name or to a Mohamedan name, it is alright. What inference would you draw except that these Malabaris are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums and they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better. Shame upon them that such wicked and diabolical customs are allowed.

The comment about the name is interesting – If you were a non Hindu trader such as an Arab, a Christian, an Englishman or a Jew (As you know Malabar was a trading capital in the world for many centuries and we had people of many religions and cultures inhabiting the coastal lands) you were classified as a Vaishya and were in the touchable-seeable class!!

For those who don’t know – Nayadis are mountain people who came from the Western Ghats. They were lowest in the social strata and were not even allowed to use the public road and had to use side roads (This I did not know, I learnt
this from Gandiji’s notes). They were apparently also not allowed to come out before sunset, this I am not in agreement with.

PJ Cherian explains the system in detail in Essays on the Cultural Formation of Kerala (the situation which infuriated Vivekanada) - Nayadi is the caste which has to observe the farthest distance from the Namboodiri Brahmans to avoid the polluting effect caused by it. If a Nayadi pollutes a Brahman the latter can regain his purity not only by a ritual bath but after the ritual bath he has to change the sacred thread and to eat the five products of the cow (milk, curd, butter, liquid and solid excreta used in the rituals of purification). For this most abhorred Nayadi the food polluted by a Pulaya or Paraya is forbidden but this Pulaya and Paraya are castes mutually polluting by touch and have to be themselves purified through a bathing by immersion. If an Ullada pollutes a Pulaya he can only be relieved from it by a seven course bath and by trickling out a few drops of blood from his little finger. But this Ullada is one who considers himself as holy as to abandon the food touched by a Pulaya.

Pic – courtesy Wikipedia


humbl devil said...

first of all, loved the new template!!

hmmm, nice topic to ponder upon...
but did you know there still are temples where only which allow entry to nairs and above only...
apparently these are run by privately managed trusts, which are family(clan) run...

harimohan said...

maddy as usual it was in depth with so many qoute i enjoyed it and am forwarding it hope u dont mind

Pradeep Nair said...

For a state Kerala, gifted with amazing resources in terms of historical legacy and current intellectual strength, it can achieve much more.

Unknown said...

Thought provoking article. Congratulations. The comment that I started earlier turned out to be too long. So I converted it to a post on Song of the waves

Nanditha Prabhu said...

that was a good topic to ponder upon.really liked the way you have put it here.

diyadear said...

hey nice template.. n thanks a lot for jo's link. will do some homework on it :)

Happy Kitten said...

That was beautifully written..

Kerala still a land of lunatics and unfortunately we have elected most of them to power.. nd they keep shifting from the ruling to the oppostion parties..

Even I saw that movie, but I liked some of the comments that Srinivasan passed in his usual sarcastic way.. dont u remember his last speech? if you get a chance please get out of this lunatic asylum.. something along that line...

Maddy said...

Humble devil, Diya - the template is my sons handiwork, he kept on telling me that my old ones were junk. After he completed this for me, we had much argument on minor things. Finally we agreed...

Yes HD - I have heard about those family temples. We have many in Palakkad.

Thanks Hari, Pradeep, Abraham & Nanditha

Happy kitten - yes, as expected there were flashes of Srinivasan in this too, I am waiting to see his Arabikatha.


Really impressive piece of writing. I congratulate you.

However, the conditions which prevailed in Kerala between 1892- to 1897 were not exclusive to Kerala. Such atrocious conditions were omnipresent in India. They were present even in Bengal and Andhra Pradesh (my State). There were no exceptions. Conditions in Calcutta City might have been somewhat better by say 5% as it was the Capital of the Country at that time and the Vice Roy was ruling from there. In Telangana the conditions were worse than those in Kerala.

Hence I do not appreciate Vivekananda calling Kerala (or Malabar) a lunatic azylum. He must have called India a lunatic azylum. Then was USA where he wanted to settle down, a heaven? The Negros and Red Indians were hunted and annihilated by treating them as animals. But he did not say even a word against US because he was touring the country for Dollars. He believed that he was an Aryan and tried to impress on the American Big Hotel Owners that he was an Aryan (European-German white descent).

His anger originally seems to have been intended for the Maharaja of Travancore and its Divan (CM) who gave him facilities for his stay of nine days. But the King and his Divaan did not give him 100% attention or large money as did the Rulers of Baroda and Khetri. He was kept as a guest with a Brahmin who did not give him meat for which Swami was craving. There was also some heated discussion about his eating beef, fish and meat while wearing ochre robes of monk. Sufficient evidence is available for all this. If he really loved the lower castes of Kerala and expressed his resentment against their oppression, he ought to have met the common people. He always met kings and top people in the society for his own reasons. His taking up the matter with the British Parliament through Nivedita, I greatly appreciate. She seems to have done some very good job.

Rachana , Appu said...

Hi ,

I accidentally came across your blog..Good one..

God's own country is beautiful , lovely..but dont know whether it is true with the people , their attitude..

May be the new generation has a better outlook..Still a long way to go..



History said...

Good topic to ponder and very objectively analyzed.
There are still problems in our society but the age under review was terrible for the lower castes.

Maddy said...

Thanks Rachana and Suja...yes a long way to go, unfortunately..

WhatIwrote today - well, if you read how the lower classes were treated in Kerala those days, one does understand Vivekananda's mindset. It was only by 1900 that lower classes could own property .. but i think the subjugation was slightly better than abject slavery. Agreed that it was prevalent in other places too and not just Kerala.

Rajesh Venugopal said...

Interesting thoughts. Kerala needs new thoughts. I was researching the evolution of Kerala's culture and where it is today. Here is Kerala today, not any different from Vivek's statement which I googled for:

- Alcohol sales $ 1 bil through Bevco. Add toddy and others - 3 times rest of country.

- Consumes 25% of national production of Psychotropic drugs.

- 100 suicide attempts a day, 28 find realisation.

- Economic output is $20 Bil. Exclude $4 bil remittance from overseas.

- 23% of women are beaten up.

Kerala does have a problem.

Please visit the Facebook group Young Kerala.

Rajesh Venugopal

Unknown said...

Still kerala is a lunatic asylum. Despite their high litracy rates, keralite men have brought so much a disgrace to their women through their adult film industry which exploit their women. This has lead to people from all over india fancying them for cheap/dirty things. Only God can save God's own country.

Boopathy said...

Hi Maddy,

When I was watching asianet at my mallu friend's house, one comedian (Jagadish I guess) mentioned about what Vivekananda said about Kerala in a movie dialogues. I got interested and googled for "What Vivekananda said about Kerala" and found your blog. Amazing!

I think the emancipation for kerala lies in the power media - Mallus dominate the media world - if the ones in media decide to bring about a change - they can do it.

Women rights should strengthen. Selling very young women to wealthy arabs by way of so called marriage - is a shocking think that can be targeted by women rights groups.

Delighted to have found your blog.


Maddy said...

thanks rajesh, idiot & bhoopathy..

first comes awareness, then comes realization and then comes correction. we are still in the realization stage. After all the caste system lasted many thousands of years, it will take at least a few decades or centuries to clean it up, not overnight..

remember that there is still not even an awareness in much of India...

John D said...

Hi Maddy

Thanks for the well researched article.
Came across you article which searching for the reasons which prompted Swamy Vivekananda to make this comment.


Maddy said...

thanks john - keep coming back ...

Unknown said...

Whoever said Kerala is God's own country, he is wrong, I am sure he was drunk.. This is the worst place on earth filled with lunatics.

inaturalscience said...

@WhatIWroteToday Writing stupid and baseless is a real trait of the stupid and you proved it again.

You have written things out of hate but that it’s your personal opinion which is historically unfounded and a big lie.

I write here to show the hate and lies so that the readers may not be tempted to misunderstand the great man and his philosophy.

1. You have said Vivekananda went out against Maharaja of Travancore because he had not been given a warm welcome and kept with a Brahmin who refused him meat. Now I ask where from have you got this fanciful story to bluff the readers? Show me a historical document that proves your claim that Vivekananda was outraged by the hospitality of Maharaja of Travancore . Vivekananda's comment on Kerala led Maharaja of Travancore to enact "Temple Proclamation Act"

2.1 You wrote that Vivekananda pretended as if he were an Aryan of German European descent (Nordic) in the West but his standard biographies do not support your claim. Refer to Vivekananda: A Biography “[Vivekananda] never resented being mistaken for a negro [in the U.S.]. … When the Swami related these incidents to a Western disciple, he was promptly asked why he did not tell people that he was not a Negro but a Hindu. ‘What!’ the Swami replied indignantly. ‘Rise at the expense of another? I did not come to earth for that.’ … He was scornful in his repudiation of the pseudo-ethnology of privileged races.”

2.2 The western racists had invented so called "Aryan race" The word Arya was itself borrowed from Vedas. Vivekananda gave his idea of Aryan in his book "East and the West". "In the opinion of modern savants, the Aryans had reddish-white complexion, black or red hair, straight noses,... They hold that there are still some tribes to the west of the Himalayan borders, who are of pure Aryan blood, and that the rest are all of mixed blood; otherwise, how could they be dark? But the European Pundits ought to know by this time that, in the southern parts of India, many children are born with red hair, which after two or three years changes into black, and that in the Himalayas many have red hair and blue or grey eyes. Let the Pundits fight among themselves; it is the Hindus who have all along called themselves Aryas. Whether of pure or mixed blood, the Hindus are Aryas; there it rests. If the Europeans do not like us, Aryas, because we are dark, let them take another name for themselves — what is that to us?

Whether black or white, it does not matter; but of all the nations of the world, "
So, Vivekananda clearly against racism and he thinks that traits occur because of adaptation and European traits can appear even in the blacks. (This is in par with current "Out of Africa theory")

3. You claimed Vivekananda hankered for money. That's wrong he earned most of the money by lecturing and publishing. If he really had hankered after money he would not have rejected the post of professorship (HOD) at Harvard University for the department of Indic studies, he rejected it because it would not fulfil his mission of life of awaking India.
4. You claimed Vivekananda eating Beef. Show I challenge you to show a historical document on it. Moreover, you cannot impose food restrictions on an Advaita Vedantist who do not go after taboos food is taken to make the body work properly. Sankaracharya said food or "ahara" to be amount of thoughts in the brain.
Your lies on a great person have no ground. If Vivekananda had faults today after so many researches it would have come out. Today Left or Right, Congress or BJP revere him because of his deep thinking.
To tell about Vivekananda a lot of people are there who deserves to comment on him...Nikola Tesla, Romain Rolland, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, R.N. Tagore, J.D. TATA, Barrack H. Obama, S.C. Bose, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Moni Bhowmick entire Indian Institute of Science (which Vivekananda had co-founded) and certainly you are not of that level.

Maddy said...

thanks inatural science.
please do not abuse somebody who has commented even though you may not share his opinion. it is correct to express your views and in a nice way contradict the others. You may have felt strongly about the comment, but it is not right to vent out. Vivekanada whom you admire, would not have done that.

Aravishiva said...

Cast system is not limited to Kerala alone, please mention that in your article, at least Kerala is far better in that compared to few other states in India as of now.

Maddy said...

thanks for teh comment, the article was about Vivekananda's comments when he visited Kerala and the situation prevaling then. Yes of course caste systems were prevalent in many other parts doubt about that!!

Anonymous said...


Vivekananda's comments were about the rampant conversions going on in Kerala, he was aghast that people were giving up the Hindu tradition to embrace Christianity and Islam.. I don't think his observation was related to the caste system at all. Caste system and related atrocities existed throughout India at that time, but it was only in India that large scale conversions of Hindus was taking place!

Anonymous said...

Sorry, a correction in the last sentence.. read as "but it was only in kerala that large scale conversions of hindus was taking place!"

Maddy said...

Thanks weebeewee..
I dont think so, for Dr Palpu had prepared him about the problems faced by him and others from lower castes. The Christian missionary movement had by that time slowed down, though ramping up a little in the Nagercoil area.

fun n fast indian foods said...

Hi, as usual enjoyed your ramblings, I know some of the people and places you have mentioned very well and has vague memories of the tail end of untouchable era where there was areas where entry was restricted to them. Yet it is strange for a deep thinker to make an encompassing statement like that.. A case of logical fallacy...making a general statement based on limited particulars..:)

PS. I seem to have signed in with an old food blog Id i had created which I am not able to shake offto make this cimment..not very experienced with asking your pardon.

Anotherview said...

Caste System is alive and still pushing discrimination. Vivekananda supported the caste system. Now face-to-face with it, he found it lunatic. Strange.