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Social Situation: The Caste system in Travancore

The social situation deals with the formation of different communities, their position in the social strata and their mutual relationships. This is closely linked to the culture of the place.
  1. Travancore: A Rigid Caste System

  2. Caste system with its social disabilities worked in its rigid form in Travancore. It was not so rigid in other parts of India1 and it was so rigid because of the fact that Travancore was little affected by foreign invasions and much retained old superstitions and socio-religious prejudices.2 Thus the caste system practiced there was “the worst and also highly obnoxious”.3 The people were very touchy in matters of caste and caste-based religion, particularly as these customs were observed as laws, customs manners and traditions of the country. Any violation of these practices was considered a betrayal of one’s clan and it incurred punishments such as heavy fines, excommunication and permanent marginalization. People held to “the minutest distinctions and privileges” of the caste.4 Because of these things, Swamy Vivekananda called this region `the lunatic asylum’.5

  3. Domination of High Caste over the Low Castes

  4. There were a number of castes and sub castes, divided against each other by rigid rules operating through extraordinary pollution taboo. People of these castes could broadly be divided into high castes and low castes. Namboodiris and Nayars were the high caste people.6 Vellalas, immigrants from Madurai and Tirunelveli, were also considered a high caste, equal to the Nairs. The high caste people had extraordinary influence over the rulers of Travancore and carried out the Government functions. They were the landowners too.

    The Brahmins, the highest caste in the social hierarchy in India, were divided into two groups, namely, the Nambudiris and the Pottis.7 Nambudiris were more in number and more powerful. They were considered as equal to gods. What they did and used were sacred.8 They were exempted from paying land tax and were not punished for even severe crimes.9 Wearing the Poonul or sacred thread, they performed religious duties and claimed superiority and were accorded superiority over other castes.

    They practiced the custom or law of untouchability: They were considered polluted by the touch as well as the approach of the persons of castes below them. The Brahmins followed rigid caste observances and occupied a position in society as God-compellers. Almost every temple of importance had a synod of wardens who were all Brahmins. Well-versed in Sanskirit, the Vedas and Sastras, they were considered as authorities in matters concerning all religious practices and rites of the Hindus as well as the Hindu temples.