Dr. T Madhavan Nair (Dr. TM Nair) – A Multifaceted personality

Doctor, Administrator, Journalist, Social reformer, and Politician (1868-1919)

This was a man who never had any qualms about taking on any establishment, faction, or individual if he felt they were wrong. Hailing from the Tharavath ancestral home in Palghat, he chose the field of medicine, became a well-known doctor in Madras, then decided that social work was equally important, got involved in all kinds of civic and social matters. During this period, irked by the Brahmin stronghold on jobs and their control over the bureaucracy, he took them on, starting what we know today as the Anti-Brahmin or Dravidian movement, and later co-founding the Justice party. Alongside came the much written about confrontation with Annie Besant and Leadbeater, but before he could become an even more popular leader, he passed on, while visiting Britain, in 1919. That was Dr. T.M. Nair.

In the British times, in the Madras presidency, a lot of people made a beeline for Madras, its capital, leaving their traditional occupations such as agriculture, to get educated and pick up a new trade, such as medicine, engineering, law, or whatever. And there were a rare few who ventured beyond, mainly to Britain.  Most of them rose to become noteworthy administrators and wrote their memoirs, some did not. This portly, domineering, barrel-chested and heavy mustachioed doctor, reminding you of a professional wrestler, was omnipresent in Madras during his times, and when he talked (his tongue was even more mordant than VK Krishna Menon’s) or wrote, people stopped what they were doing and took notice. That was Dr. Tharavath Madhavan Nair, or simply TM Nair, the doctor from Malabar. Strange is the fact that Nair died from complications of the very disease, he was considered an expert on – namely, Diabetes!

Madhavan Nair belonged to the Tharavath Tharavad in Vadakkanthara, Palghat, and was born in Jan 1868 (Tirur), to Munsif Chingicham Shankaran Nair hailing from Koduvayur, and Tharavath Kummini Amma. He did his initial schooling at the Municipal High School at Palghat and proceeded on to Madras, to continue his college education where he obtained an FA from the Presidency college. Madhavan Nair's elder brother Sankaran Nair had studied law and served as Deputy Collector while his sister Taravath Ammalu Amma became a notable Sanskrit and Malayalam scholar. Deciding to become a doctor, Madhavan joined the Madras Medical College but moved on to complete the course at the University of Edinburgh where he obtained his MB&CM in 1891 and later an MD in 1896. He completed his midwifery exam in 1893 and his house surgency at the Sussex hospital in Brighton. He also spent a while in Paris and Vienna, and along the way, learned Greek and Sanskrit and specialized in the ENT field, obtaining his MS and eventually the MD.

Early on in his student days, he took to civic duties, he was a member of various associations and societies. Mastery of the pen came with his position as one of the editors of Edinburgh University Liberal's magazine "The Student". He also spent a while in London as a Secretary and later Vice-President of the London Indian Society which was led by Dadabhai Naoroji. During a decade in Britain, he became what they called, ‘a thorough gentlemen’ with poise and a great education.

The anglicized Malayali

Nair was quite adept at Sanskrit and Malayalam, but English was his natural language, especially so after the British sojourn. Karunakaran Menon explains an incident before Dr. Nair’s departure for England in 1889 when “a few of us took a group photo ... A lady in England on seeing the photo enquired whether he had been once in petticoats and on that he tore the photo to pieces not to keep it any longer, as evidence of the garb in which he had been at that time dressed.”. After his return from Britain, he spoke in public only in English, was considered an anglophile and reputed to be the first South Indian speaker who introduced the “modern style of eloquence" by which it meant he had style, force, and humor, not just rambling on for hours using flowery phrases and unintelligible words like many others did.

Nair the Doctor

As a doctor, Nair presented numerous papers and participated in many committees, represented India on numerous occasions, chaired many groups, and was considered to be the first to study diabetes and write extensively about it. It is said that his book on Diabetes is still taught at some Indian universities. His ENT clinic in Madras bustled with patients and Dr. Nair had a lucrative practice. He was involved in the study of tropical diseases (Filaria, Leprosy) while practicing in India and frequently collaborated with his counterparts in Britain, often publishing the findings. As a member of the Municipal Corporation representing Triplicane, he used to take a keen interest in public health and often referred interesting cases to his counterparts abroad. According to Deborah Brunton (Health, Disease, and Society in Europe, 1800-1930: A Source Book) TM Nair endorsed wholly Western medicine, but was critical of the British for not doing more to give – or allow- India the benefits of science and sanitation.

Return to Madras, Journalism

Writing seems to have taken a grip of him, for we see his involvement in the Kerala Patrika, a newspaper started by Kunhirama Menon supporting the national movement (he used to contribute articles while in Britain) and later in the Madras Standard, then under the editorship of Congressman G. Parameshwaran Pillai. Pillai became editor of the Madras Standard in 1892 and Nair’s friendship with Pillai perhaps influenced his championship for the rights of the lower castes and the downtrodden.

Nair as Councilor of Triplicane

Nair decided to take a plunge into the socio-political scene and was soon the councilor for Triplicane in the Madras Corporation, a position he served from 1904-1916. He gave lectures on municipal governance in 1906 and again in 1915, and in 1912 he was elected to the Madras Legislative Council.

The quality of potable water in Madras was a favorite subject of his and he often took umbrage with FC Molony who headed the Madras Corporation.  Molony was responsible for public water supply and Nair vehemently attacked the decision by Molony to supply what was known derisively as ‘Molony’s mixture’ (Molony clarifies that it was P Rajagopalachariar who coined the term) an adulterated mix of filtered and unfiltered water (i.e., the terrible stuff) to create an unpopular derivative.

Nair soon found another nemesis, Pitti Theagaroya Chetty (Chettiar), on water issues. When Nair ordered that washing of clothes in the Triplicane tank should be stopped forthwith and that the locals be taxed for maintenance, Chettiar opposed it and won the vote which ensued. Chettiar had previously wanted free water for his temple, but Nair would not allow it. Matters would have remained thus, and the two quarreled in public all the time, but finally, Dr. C. Natesa Mudaliar, a forerunner in supporting the non-Brahmin community’s problems, brokered peace between the two. These three worked in tandem after this and until Nair’s death.

The working man’s friend

During the discussions around revising the Factory act, we can see Dr. Nair, representing the Indian worker, working ceaselessly as a member of the labor commission, issuing an oft-quoted and strongly critical Minute of dissent in 1908 (Parliamentary Papers, Volume 74) focusing on the medical as well as economical aspects. He complained about the poor air quality in the mills and high humidity, irking their owners, and had no qualms in stating that Indian employers fared worse (he however singles out Tata and Sons as an exemplary employer) and treated their laborers badly. Nair’s opinions, well backed up by evidence and strongly worded, were respected and taken seriously by the British, throughout his life.

Nair’s minority report and dissent note was the basis behind the final act of 1911. It resulted in many changes, securing a weekly holiday for all factory workers, restricting working hours to eleven for women, a mandatory hour and a half rest, prohibiting working women and children at night, raising the working age of children, and restricting their work hours, to name a few.

Antiseptic Magazine and Wartime work

Antiseptic, a monthly journal of medicine and surgery, the first of its kind in India, edited by him appeared in May, 1904 with Dr. U Rama Rao as its proprietor and manager. Later versions featured articles about Diabetes and other subjects, which were of high quality, often picked up by journals overseas. The magazine continued publication for almost 16 years.

TM Nair served on the hospital ship HS Madras (originally SS Tanda a steamship owned by BI Steam navigation Company to transport Chinese from Calcutta to the Far East) maintained with volunteer War funds during WW 1 as a full-time surgeon, and rendered medical service to wounded soldiers at Mombasa, Zanzibar, the Persian Gulf, and Europe, until 1915, after which he resigned and came back to Madras. His report on gunshot wounds is quite an interesting read.

Nair, Annie Besant & Leadbeater

Though a medical journal, Nair used to slip political articles into his Antiseptic magazine. Annie Besant had by this time, living in Madras and anchoring the popular Theosophical society, started championing the Home Rule for India. Her emphasis on the Brahmanical past of India, a base of the Theosophy ideology, placed her as the main opponent of the Dravidians or the non-Brahmins and started a massive political dispute. Natesan, Chettiar, but mainly Dr. Nair, spearheaded the opposition’s response.

One of the articles Dr. Nair published was about child abuse. Nair alleged that Besant’s associate Charles Webster Leadbeater imposed homosexual tendencies on some of the boys in his care, under the guise of “initiating” rites. Besant sued Nair in 1913, for defamation, but lost the case. Besant appealed to the Privy court in Britain but lost again. The story, covering Besant, Leadbeater, Narayanaih, his two sons (Jiddu Krishnamurthy the purported messiah, was one who later became famous), is a long and sordid one. Nair covered much of it in his Antiseptic magazine, later collated and published as a book. There was no love lost between Besant and Nair and they fought each other ferociously, on many fronts. One can assume that the home rule ideology met its end due to the efforts of Dr. Nair and the justice party.

Anti-Brahmin agitations, Dravidian movement

Madras at that time, had a strong Brahmin lobby, comprising three groups - namely the Mylapore, Vambakkam (relatively minor), and Egmore groups. The Mylapore Group, the strongest, comprising high profile lawyers and journalists, kept Congress in its moderate camp with regards to its political demands and manifesto. Many non-Brahmin Hindus and the depressed classes, for this reason, criticized the Indian National Congress for being the representative of Brahmin interests leading to the rise of a retaliatory faction, i.e., the Egmore Group - which took a more extremist stand on various subjects. The “Egmore group” comprised both Brahmans and non-Brahmans. C. Sankaran Nair and Dr. T. M. Nair were among many other prominent brahmins.

Dr. Nair was a regular at the Indian National Congress gatherings until 1916 starting as a volunteer, he even presided over the North Arcot Congress conference at Chittoor in 1907. However, he blamed it and the Brahmin lobby for his loss in a 1916 election (a seat to the Imperial Legislature in Delhi), due to it not backing him sufficiently. He left Congress, in a huff. Another wounded ego was that of Thiyagaraya Chettiar, who was denied a seat on the podium at a temple festival, as a lower caste, even though he had been the biggest donor for the celebration. The common grouse of both Nair and Chettiar was thus the Brahmin posturing at the prime position in the caste ladder, something they would not tolerate. Everything they did later, was to bring down the pillars of this caste hierarchy. Notwithstanding all that, Nair also cared about the common man and the Swadeshi movement was something he stood for, and in 1905, he referred to the exemplary decision by the Irish house of commons to use locally made apparel and furniture.

Even though Nair was not anti-brahmin and did admire some of their educated and good qualities, he maintained that the non-Brahmin who could be as good, or better, was unnecessarily kept down. His opinion put eloquently was – The brahmins toiled not, neither did they spin – The sweating slaves supplied them with everything, and they, in turn, cultivated spirituality. Soon Nair was frequenting stages with his popular and strident anti-Brahmin tirade which many thousands attended, which was the start of the Dravidian movement of 1916.

Nair’s tenure in the Justice party

In Nov 1916, some 30 odd leaders, including T M Nair and P Tyagaraja Chettiar, met at the Victoria Public Hall in Madras to form a joint-stock company, the South Indian People's Association, to publish newspapers in English, Telegu, and Tamil to express non-Brahman grievances. Within a month, they issued the 'Non- Brahmin Manifesto' and announced the formation of the South India Liberal Federation with explicit ideological and political lines. That was the start of the Justice Party. Nair never attacked religion but always focused on representation. Heavily funded, the party had no difficulty taking off. The party ran an English newspaper called The Justice, with Nair editing it, until his death in 1919. At that time many opined that the Justice Party was supported by Montague to get support for his reforms, and people had a feeling that the Justice party was too pro-British, augmented by the fact that Justice condoned Gen Dyer for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and also opposed non-cooperation. The Justice Party also supported the relative continuance of British rule in return for a proportionate reservation of seats in the Madras Legislative Council. Even though they did a lot of good for the local non-Brahmin populace, they were often accused to be British puppets, and in nonconformance with the national movements led by Congress.

Montford reforms

Dr. Nair was the only non-Brahman leader who made a strong impression on Montagu. Montagu concluded that Dr. Nair was “most eloquent, rather impressive, and a vigorous personality, but he has obviously got a bee in his bonnet, because he explained that the Home Rule movement was financed by German money, nevertheless pointing out that he was very fierce on communal representation. Montford reforms – a usage coined by Nair (Montague Chelmsford) covering the introduction of self-governing institutions, gradually in British India, was not very popular upon release and felt to be insignificant. Nair did not agree to its meager non-brahmin representation and eventually got a chance to go and argue his case in Britain, in 1918. His connections with Britain and his ability to speak forcibly were of critical importance in the demand for communal representation from Parliament, and the reason for the party’s choice as their spokesman.

A furor erupted when he was issued a passport - Tilak was not issued a passport, but Nair was, resulting in rumors that it was because the Justice party supported the British. A new report said – The Government had granted a passport to, of all persons - Dr. T. M. Nair, the anti home ruler, the political renegade, on the allegation that he (the sturdy, stalwart, stupendous Madras doctor) had become such a physical wreck - as to require attention in Britain. The British administration clarified that they granted it only due to health reasons. In reality, he was in poor health and suffering badly as a result of advanced diabetes.

Final visit to Britain, death

Nair’s trip to London in 1918 was a success, he spoke well and his arguments were listened to carefully. Upon his return to Madras, he was convinced that modified reforms would pass.  But the situation did not change and the representation demands did not pan out.  Things went from bad to worse and Nair was deputed again to go to London and argue the case. Nair quite ill by now knew that his return to India from that trip was no longer certain. On reaching London, preparations for the speech started, Nair finalized the draft and provided key contact details to his team, as his health was failing rapidly.  Eventually, he passed away in his sleep, on July 18th, 1919, and was cremated at Golden Green. KPS Menon studying at Oxford attended. Many obituaries were written, and his passing left the Justice party rudderless, for a time.

It was during the 1918 trip that KM Panikkar, then studying at Oxford, met him. He records this in his autobiography - Dr T. M. Nair was a very different type. There never was a manlier Malayali. A leonine face, a long curving moustache, massive chest, a somewhat portly figure and powerful arms made up his impressive physical presence. His intellect and powers of expression were equally uncommon. One had only to talk to him for a couple of minutes to fall under his spell. In the most eminent company. he achieved effortless primacy. I have never seen an Indian to equal him as a conversationalist. Although T. M. Nair achieved fame as a skilled physician, his astonishing intellect could master any subject with equal ease. As leader of the Madras Corporation, he was ready to discuss engineering with engineer and law with lawyers. In civic administration, he had no peer in South India. As an editor and orator, he was matchless. Above all, he was eminently sociable. He was a connoisseur of food and drink, with unerring taste for wine, tobacco and good cuisine. A bon vivant, Nair was always open-handed with his money. In spite of this cosmopolitanism, Dr Nair never ceased to be a Malayali and I have often heard him quote Nambiar and Ezhuthachan in conversation. People remember him today as the founder and leader of the non-Brahmin movement. Although the force of the movement has now waned, T. M. Nair will not be forgotten by Madras. Nair had come to London to lobby against the Montague-Chelmsford reforms. Although I had no sympathy for his views, I was eager to meet such an eminent personality. I was introduced to him by Sir Frank Brown, an assistant editor of The Times. We were close friends for about three or four months and I used to meet Dr Nair almost daily in the period just before my return to India. He returned to India a month after I did, but ironically, we were not able to meet in India.

Post Nair years – Justice Party

After his death, the party declined to cooperate with the Southborough committee which had been appointed to draw up the franchise framework for the proposed reforms, due to Brahmin presence in the committee. After negotiations, a compromise ("Meston's Award") was reached in 1920. 28 of the 63 general seats in plural member constituencies were eventually reserved for non-Brahmins.

The Government of India Act 1919 implemented the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, instituting a Diarchy in Madras Presidency.  The diarchal period extended from 1920 to 1937, encompassing five elections. Justice party remained in power for 13 of 17 years, save an interlude 1926–30. After Justice won the election and got into power, they initiated several egalitarian moves such as the upliftment of women and the marginalized, access to water (for the lower castes) from public ponds, women’s suffrage, abolishment of the Devadasi system, regulation of college admissions, etc.

Nevertheless, many of Dr. Nair’s ideals were forgotten after his death. Social injustice perhaps dropped lower in the list of concerns, and party infighting ensued. Neither Brahmins nor Muslims supported Justice and membership declined when some lower castes also left the party in a huff. Eventually, the party was voted out of power and remained in the political wilderness until the arrival of Periyar EV Ramasamy in 1938 who transformed it into the Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944. 

Though there are roads, medals, and schools, still around, instituted in Nair’s honor, nobody quite connects those to the persona who once was a byword in Madras. In his heydays, any luminary visiting Madras made it a point to call on him and a notable mention is that of the great painter Ravi Varma and his uncle, who called on him often when they visited Madras in 1902, recording the event. Many papers and booklets authored by him are testament to his brilliant mind, medical, social or political.

Kerala forgot Dr. Nair a long time ago and only a few in Palghat still connect to the name. The Tharavath home is a Kalyana mandapam these days. But I think this essay may go on to remind some that a great man once lived a short life, fought for the repressed and for their equality, always standing up and talking to the British, on equal terms.

Major References
Politics and Social Conflict in South India - By Eugene F. Irschick
The Justice party – Dr P Rajaram
Parliamentary Papers, Volume 74
The non-Brahmin movement and Dr. T.M. Nair – T.P Sankarankutty Nair
Dictionary of national biography vol.3, TM Nair – TK Ravindran
An Autobiography - KM Panikkar
Intach Palghat - Arun - for articles on TM Nair ( K Vipinkumar) and RK Pillai (V Shanmugha Das)

On a lighter vein

AV Menon contributing to a Khushwant Singh’s joke book has this to add - Dr. T. M. Nair, a well-known politician of Madras of the early nineties, while in London used to frequent a particular pub in the East End. His usual drink was a cocktail of vermouth and gin, the code word for which between, his regular waiter and himself was ‘virgin’. Once in the absence of the regular waiter, the one substituting for him came to take Dr. Nair's orders. "The usual virgin", Dr. Nair said. After a minute or two, the waiter came back and whispered into the ear of his client, "One cannot be found in London at present, Sir."


Nayadis – An accursed lot from the Malabar of Yore

The Nayadi has always remained a constant reminder of the still prevalent caste rigidity in Kerala. I recall the visits to our ancestral home at Palghat and to this day, the guttural howls of the invisible Nayadi, begging for alms, resonate in the deep recesses of my mind. We would hear the plaintive cry announcing his arrival, the Nayadi would then run and hide in the bushes near our homestead, waiting for his alms. A servant from the kitchen would be tasked to deposit some gruel, rice, and other grains into his bowl, which she would quickly do and hasten back to the kitchen. He would trudge away, to the next homestead, a little distance away, to continue the begging rounds. It would repeat the next day, and the day after, for the Nayadi was not permitted to do anything else, all he could do was beg. Tragically, even after many from the lower castes managed to blur the caste borders and come up in this modern world, the Nayadi still remained at the bottom rung or even below it, as always, wallowing in the muck.

Swami Vivekananda visiting Kerala, after meeting Dr Palpu in 1892, compared it to a “lunatic asylum'' because of the all prevalent and oppressive caste system existing since the early medieval. I had written about this earlier (see link). He added - What inference would you draw except that these Malabaris are all lunatics, their homes so many lunatic asylums, and that they are to be treated with derision by every race in India until they mend their manners and know better. A district collector of Malabar TB Russel concurred - Nowhere in India, perhaps nowhere in the world, are the distinctions of class insisted upon so stringently as in Malabar. If one admires her aristocratic traditions, it is at the same time permissible to criticize her innate snobbery. Namputiri, Nayar, Tiyan, Cheruman, Nayadi, one has but to mention the names to realize how intolerant the one class is of the next below it and how that class keeps up the traditions by its intolerance of the next, until at last we get to the unfortunate Nayadi who has nobody but animals to look down upon.

Getting back to Palghat and our childhood - We children would still rush out despite dire warnings from the elders not to, for the Nayadi was not just untouchable, but also one you should not look at. Almost always there would be nobody around the gate, and he would be hiding. We would get admonished severely, and ordered never to repeat the attempt. Later after the coast was clear, 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. If you did wonder if I suffered from any ill luck after seeing him, let me assure you, none at all...

Now how and why did the Nayadis become an untouchable and an un-seeable community? Let’s find out a bit about them, drawing from the seminal anthropological research conducted by Dr A. Aiyappan, over eight decades ago. Interestingly while some anthropologists believe them to be a regular hill tribe, hunters by nature, many a legend connect their origin to outcaste Namboothiri’s who intermixed with hill settlers, eons ago.

Let’s, therefore, start to check out some of those legends, by going to a Malabar which Dr Aiyappan describes using a proverb- Malabar was a heaven for the Brahmins, but a hell for others – where at the turn of the 20th century, the weight of caste tyranny on the lower castes was the severest. It was a time where the motto of the native rulers was primarily to protect the Brahmins and the cows, but leave all others to flounder and wallow, in their dirt.

Most early references point out that they were hunters and even though a pollution distance had to be kept between them and the upper castes, they did accompany them for hunts deep in the jungles of Malabar, closest to the hills. One of the first Europeans to work with them effectively was the eminent Thomas Baber who used them as runners and trackers, for his hunts. Welsh writing about them (but terming them Nairee - I.e., Naidee) – explain they hardly wore any clothes, had no houses, and spoke an unintelligible dialect. He names two Nayadis named Kelu and Kannan who accompanied Baber as bushmen in those jungle hunts. Francis Buchanan one of the earliest to mention them said - A wretched tribe of this kind buffeted and abused by everyone, subsisting on the labour of the industrious is a disgrace to any country; and both compassion and justice demand that they should be compelled to gain a livelihood by honest industry and be elevated somewhat more nearly to the rank of men.

In 1931, there were just about 600 Nayadis in Malabar, one among the 16 hill tribes and loosely grouped as one of the four Nattu Neechanmaar, the others being Parayas, Pulayas and Ulladans. Over time, the Ulladans and the Nayadis got mixed up in studies, though they are quite different and keep apart from each other, never inter-dining or inter-marrying. They fall below the Cherumars in the caste hierarchy and used to add the word Molayan (Muttappan for Izhuvas, Thampuran for Nairs) to the Cheruman’s name as a mark of respect, while calling them. The Nayadis eat food cooked by Cherumars, but not by the Parayas since Parayas eat carrion or meat of dead animals. The Keralolpatti also terms the Nayadis as Chandalas, but this is incorrect - for a Chandala is the offspring, where the mother is of a higher caste than the father. The lower castes of Malabar do not meet this definition and cannot, therefore, be termed Chandalas, though that is how they were termed. Some historic mentions say the name comes from ‘dog (naya) eaters’ which is quite incorrect for they do not eat dogs, while others connect it to Nayattu or hunting. Rat catching, quite important in Palghat due to paddy cultivation, is a profitable occupation for the Nayadis. Rats are caught from the mounds or nadavarambu’s separating the fields, quite critical before the harvests.

Almost all stories of their origin point to Nambudiri outcastes. There is the story of the Namboothiri marrying the Malayan girl and the resulting progeny becoming the Nayadis. Another relates to a Namboothiri who would not bathe in the pond with his caste brethren, resulting in them outcaste-ing him, and one mentioning a Namboothiri lost and hungry in the forest, eating a mango which had been half-eaten by a monkey, resulting in his ex-communication – all resulting in them founding the Nayadi tribe. Another curious story mentions that an excommunicated Namboothiri in one legend was asked to stand on one leg to expiate his sins and for that reason, many Nayadis can be seen standing on one leg! Then also the legend of a few Namboothiri’s who were expert archers (in the past they too bore arms, not just Kshatriyas) and killed a number of animals wantonly, after which the society excommunicated them, and thus came about the Nayadi tribe of hunters! Finally, there is the mention that the Ulladan tribe was connected to a Namboodiri girl who had once been excommunicated for adultery. While all of these are extant, the general opinion is that they were one of the aborigine peoples from the Western Ghats. Perhaps there is some truth about Namboodiri exiles intermingling with these tribes, for the rest of their lives. Of course, one may ask why upper-caste intermingling did not improve the linguistic and other abilities of the entire community, for which I do not have a satisfactory answer. But it is also felt that the Nayadis by virtue of their eating habits are considered the Brahmins among chandalas, and that the term illam used for their houses, signifies some higher caste connections!

The story of Palghat Iyers is also connected to the Nayadis, a very interesting tale narrated by the eminent LS Rajagopalan. As the story goes, the Palghat Raja is enamored seeing a pretty Nayadi girl and desires her. The minister sets up a physical tryst at a distant hunting lodge between the Nayadi and the king on condition that the room is pitch dark, that they do not speak, and goes on to surreptitiously arrange for the king’s wife to be in position (not the Nayadi girl), so as to avoid terrible repercussions.  The king has a satisfactory session and the following day, the minister explains what happened. But the king feels terribly guilty saying that in his own mind, he had the physical liaison with the Nayadi girl (the mental feeling was in his opinion more important) and so he did not any longer have the right to enter the Hemambika temple again, before sitting on the throne, like he did traditionally every day. Word spread that the king would not enter the temple, and eventually, the Namboothiri priests protest and left Palghat en-masse. That apparently was the reason why the Raja and the minister invited Iyers from Tanjore to come and take care of the priestly work. Thus, came about the PI migration to Palghat.

An interesting case in 1802 is narrated at the Namboothiri’s site where two Namboothiri lads under trial for a caste issue decided to approach their high priests to get to a verdict. The decision was that they could either become Chakiars, or prove their innocence through the oil ordeal. The younger opted to be a Chakiar, but the elder one was ready for the trial, even though failure would mean becoming an out-caste Nayadi, quite humiliating in those days. During the Kaimukkal, Narayanan Nambuthiripad’s palm did not get burnt, though some nearby persons did get burns as he shook his hand after removing the silver ox replica from the boiling ghee. Thus, he proved his innocence and avoided being ex-communicated. So, it is quite clear that the outcasted Namboothiri could end up as a Nayadi and I guess you can now understand the absolute fear and terror, a person from the upper castes had when it came to ex-communication and outcaste-ing.

Going back to pre-British times, we can note from one Keralolpatti, that hunting is the profession allotted by Sankara to the Nayadis, though as time went by, they hardly hunted on their own and served as beaters in hunting parties organized by upper castes. It is mentioned that their skill as beaters and trackers was excellent and that they manufacture top-class hunter’s ropes. On can even note that their hunting songs induced sleep in wild boars and other game animals. The Malaidaivam protected them from carnivorous wild animals like the tigers and the Nayadi’s usually worshipped Sasta or Ayyappan (Aiyanar). An old record adds – The distribution of the meat of the game killed is a formal matter and has to be done in the manner traditionally prescribed. In the Walluvanad taluk, the head of the animal is given to the villagers, one of the hindquarters to the Nayadis, the other to the Nayar chief of the locality, one of the sides to the man who shot the animal first, the other to the person who shot it second, if a second shot was needed. Some meat is also given to the carpenter and blacksmith of the village. What remains is given to the other people who partook in the hunt. The urpalli (a place in the jungle duly consecrated to the hunting deity Ayyan or Ayyappan) was the place where by custom, the game must be broken up, as above.

As time went by and the caste lines became even more rigid, the Nayadis found menial work in Moplah and Christian homes, out of necessity. In Valluvanad, the Thindal Para (Pollution rock) half a mile away from the village, could not be crossed by the Nayadi. If at all you saw one or were polluted, you had a tough time - you should bathe in seven streams and seven tanks, and then let out a few drops of blood from a little finger! Just imagine, the Nayadi had to maintain 74-124’, the Cheruman 64’, the Izhuvan or Tiya 32’ and the Nairs 7’ from a Nambuthiri in those days, to avoid pollution! The Nayadi could not use roads used by others or bathe in a pond used by others, lest it lose its purificatory power! The Pulapidi tradition, connected to them, as related to stealing high caste babies and girls (duly noted by Barbosa) during a certain month in the year, is a topic which I will take up, separately.

Now seen mostly around Palghat (there were also a few in old Travancore), they have little work to do other than make ropes and other minor artifacts for sale, but begging is usually their mainstay. They lived in their illams – mostly hovels, with their Mannu (stone objects for worship) and small joint families in tow. Most anthropologists note their free and easy communication across generations, without strains of age and unnecessary respect. A document of 1924 accounted that they cover their nakedness by tying around the waist strings of leaves and plants. They even wrote about the fact that Nayadi husbands and wives (Nayadichi’s) went together to a toddy shop to drink. They had a Moota Nayadi to take care of law, order, and administration. In the old times, the Nayadis were spread across 18 nadus and the Moota Nayadi, was a hereditary head ruling over them. Interestingly, Nayadis of yore buried their dead (but elderly dead are sometimes cremated) and their marriage ceremony was more like a formal business transaction. They believe in the existence of the spirits of the dead and in some places the community elder is called a Samutiri (like the Zamorin). As we noted previously, they worshiped the Malai deivam, their elders (Muthappan), Bhagavati and Ayappan (Shastan or Chattan). In the old times, they were also credited with the knowledge of black magic.

Special days are fixed for giving charity to the Nayadis as we can take note—Saturdays and Wednesdays in the Palghat taluk, Fridays in other parts of Malabar. In addition to these, there are also special days such as the twelfth days of both the waxing and waning phases of the moon, and important festive days such as the Onam Vishu etc. When it comes to begging which was their main trade, we can see that he stands at a great distance from each house to which he goes and cries out ‘Tamprane, Tamprane’ (Oh Lord, Oh! Lord) in his loud voice till one of the inmates hears him and brings something for him; it may be a couple of handfuls of husked or unhusked rice, while he remains hiding. The Nayadis remember the asterisms under which all the important men and women of their particular villages were born and have a wonderful memory of them. When a child is born, they enquire and make mental notes of its name, the star under which it was born, etc. In the following year they remember to visit the house and standing at the usual distance cry out, “Today is the birthday of so-and-so. May the little tampran live long.”

Of greater importance economically to the Nayadis are the gifts which are given them to ward off death. Such gifts arc known as kala-danam, Kala being the god of death. The hour of death is supposed to be presided over by Gulika, the son of Saturn and the object of the offerings made to the Nayadis is to avoid death by placating Gulika, Saturn, and other demons.

Joseph Mullens writing about the Missions in S India states - A humane gentleman, of the name of Conolly, deeply sympathized with the miserable condition of the Nayadis, in the forests beyond Ponnani. Mr. Conolly applied to the Basel Mission for assistance around 1850, and Missionary Fritz was sent to the chief town of Malabar, and a native catechist stationed among the Nayadis. These poor people rank in the community even below purchased slaves. They live only in the jungle, like wild animals, they sleep in the branches of trees, and at the most only build the poorest hut for themselves. They are looked upon by other branches of the community with the greatest contempt. If a Brahmin comes in their way, they must move off at least sixteen paces; and they must never dare to touch any one of a superior caste. Mr. Conolly formed a plan for drawing some of this degraded class within the bounds of civilization. He built them (at Kodakal) houses, set apart some ground for them, and gave them fields to cultivate. The Government after a time relinquished this effort, and the Basel missionaries took it up. They persevered in spite of the almost hopeless apathy and idleness of their protégés, and at last two or three were baptized. The Mussulmans, however, some three years back, made up their minds to proselytize the little colony. Suddenly the whole of the people left, with the exception of the three converts, and were received into the Moplah community. Quite a few of them subsequently became capped or Toppiyitta Nayadis.

As time went by, reclamation and rehabilitation schemes by successive governments helped the small community survive and develop, albeit slowly. Colonies at Kunnamkulam, Olavakkot, Kuzhalmannam, Manjeri and Chaliyam resettled them with some other lower castes. At Kuzhalmannam however, the other lower-caste communities refused to mingle with the Nayadis and finally one Mr Carleston who formed the ‘Carleston Nayadi home’ at Kuzhalmannam - Palghat, issued a proclamation in 1932 which formalized some rights for them, for the very first time.

The Right of the Nayadis. Not being certain that the recent Government Order establishing the rights of the Nayadis has been brought to the notice of all the public, we hereby make it known to everyone:  The Nayadis have as much right of using public roads, market places and other public buildings as any other castes, and anyone who interferes with their right will be liable for criminal action.

Along the way many social reformers took note of them, though nobody did more than Dr A Aiyappan, who penned his seminal study about them, visiting each and every Nayadi settlement and home in Malabar. Earlier we saw how TH Baber tried to do some service to them, employing a few as runners in his hunts, then we saw how HV Conolly tried to help them by creating a settlement close to Calicut, but that experiment failed when these Nayadis were wooed into the fold of Islam. The story of the Tiyya doctor, Dewan Bahadur Dr K Krishnan who was appointed to Palghat may be recalled by some, where the upper castes of Palghat strenuously objected to his appointment as a government apothecary, and how he later worked tirelessly for the Nayadis pf Palghat.

Gandhiji had this to say (Jan 10th 1934 when he visited Kuzhalmannam -Palghat) - "Early in the morning, I entered Malabar—with due deference to our friends who call themselves sanatanists—the land of iniquities. As I was passing by familiar places, the face of a solitary Nayadi, whom I had seen during the previous visit, rose before my eyes. It was about ten or eleven in the morning when, in the midst of a discussion about untouchability, and unapproachability and invisibility, all forms of which are found in no part of the world except in Malabar, a shrill voice was heard. Those who were talking to me said, 'We can show you a live Nayadi.' The public road was not for him. Unshod he was walking across the fields with a noiseless tread. I went out with my friends and saw the Nayadi. I requested him to come and talk to me. Evidently, he was frightened and he did not know when a blow would descend upon him.

The previous 1927 visit to Palghat diary record mentioned Gandhi saying - Within an hour after we reached Palghat, Mr. C. Rajagopalachari came to me and asked me whether I was hearing any strange sounds. I told him, yes. And he straightway asked me whether I knew what it was. He told me that that was the voice of a Nayadi. On hearing that he was within a stone's throw I hastened out to see who this man could be, who was making all that sound. He was not walking along the road, but he was at some distance from the hedge that guarded the road. I asked him to come near and he came near but not at the roadside of the hedge and told me that he dared not come on the roadside.

Tremblingly he talked to me. I told him that the public road was as much for him as for me. He exclaimed, 'It cannot be so; I may not walk on the public road.' I close that scene and ask the sanatanists or anybody else to show me the authority in defense of this inhuman conduct. You will find me smiling with you, laughing with you, and cracking jokes with you, but you may also know that, behind all these jokes and smiles and laughs, the face of the Nayadi and that scene will keep haunting me throughout my tour in Malabar.

He added though, the solemn message - "I have come to Malabar to speak out of the very depths of my soul. There are many things in Malabar over which, as you know, I have gone into raptures. You have here scenery which is second to none in the world. Man, if he behaves himself, can live an easy life in Malabar. Woman in Malabar is the freest in India. All the women I have seen in Malabar have a majesty which has commanded my respect. But there is nothing to be proud of in the Malabar untouchability. It is the vilest thing on earth. I want you to wipe out this shame of untouchability from Malabar. If you can do it, the whole of India naturally will follow; and you can do it if you will. I have entered Malabar in high hope. It is for you to fulfill it or frustrate it. Only write down this prophecy of mine in your hearts that, if untouchability as we practice it today lives, Hinduism perishes”.

It was around 1930 that a young Nayadi of the Olavakkot colony, Teyyan by name was appointed as an 'attender' in the court of the District Munsif of Palghat and went on to do well. Needless to mention that he had a very tough time and was almost always shunned by others at the court. Nevertheless, other Nayadis followed his example, gave up begging and got into government jobs.  Today even though there is some amount of acceptance, you will still come across Nayadi beggars, and most of the 2,000 -5,000 large community is struggling to get along, fighting with marginalization, alcoholism, and what not. Sadly, it may take centuries before they are fully integrated into the larger community.

No writing about the Nayadi community would surpass the lovely novel (based on real incidents), titled Nooru Simhasanangal (One Hundred Thrones) penned by B Jeyamohan, who retells powerfully, the story of a Nayadi Civil services officer named Kappan and his travails. The administrative officer who comes up in life, is later well established in society, becomes a family man, but has a turbulent relationship with his unbalanced mother who refuses to leave begging, her lowly traditions and fears society. The short read will stir your conscience without doubt and introduce you to the yawning disparity between the Nayadi community and the rest of nation. It is available online and I would encourage anyone who can read Malayalam, to read it. It is most of all, a study in humanity, if not anything else, and will remain deeply etched in your mind, for a long time.

Thank you Jeymohan, for writing it.

Social and physical anthropology of the Nayadis of Malabar - A. Aiyappan (Dec 1937)
Prachina Kauthuma traditions of south India: letters from L. S. Rajagopalan, 1985-1988 - Wayne Howard
Mahatma - Volume 3 [1930-1934]- D. G. Tendulkar
Continuing untouchability: the case of Nayadis of Kerala – K Rajan
Nooru Simhasananagal – B Jeymohan (a novel without copyright)

Nooru Simhasanangal – Audiobook (if you can understand, but do not read Malayalam)
Episode 1 
Episode 2 
Episode 3 
Episode 4 

A documentary
Their dances 
Their music