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Caste Atrocities: Struggle to wear blouses, in the last century in south! May 21, 2006

Posted by chella in Hinduism.

Most of the Nadars, or Shanars as they were called sometimes, in the southern parts of Travancore were impoverished migrants from the areas of present Tirunelveli and Ramnad districts that lay to the east of the Travancore state. These poor migrants were members of the land-owning agricultural community which was well off in its native regions. The poor Nadars were driven into the parts of Travancore by famine and a hostile social condition in their native areas where they had come under increasing attacks by the Marava and Nayakka castes. The migrants were only economically weak while being socially at par with the Nairs of Travancore.

The struggle began when the Nairs, fully supported by the Namboodiri Brahmins and Pillais (VeLLALAs), began depriving the Nadars of their social status by imposing various caste codes on them. The Nadars, being new-comers and far less in numbers, initially submitted to the dictats of the ‘National Council of Pidagaikars’, the supreme caste council of the Nairs of Travancore which annually ‘reviewed’ the compliance of caste codes by various castes in the state and devised new codes to ‘maintain’ the caste hierarchy while supervising and reinforcing the existing practices—all, under the sanction of the rulers (who belonged to the Pillai caste) and the Namboodiris.

The codes imposed on the Nadars included the following: Nadars must remain 36 paces from a Namboodiri and 12 paces from a Nair. They should not carry an umbrella, or use foot-wear and remain bare-foot always. The wearing of golden ornaments was prohibited. No Nadar should build a house with more than one storey. They should pay an exorbitantly high annual poll-tax. The Nadar women should not carry water pots on the hip, as was the custom, but should carry it on their head instead, as a sign of subservience.

The ban on covering the breast was only one among these numerous ‘rules’. This was strictly implemented by the state officials, who were mostly Nairs, among the other similar restrictions. They went to the extent of stripping the Nadar women in public, when found guilty of wearing the ‘sari’ with its one end passing over the breasts.

It must be remembered that the Nadar women in the Tamil country wore the ‘sari’ covering the breasts just as the women of any other caste there. The Nadars were not used to such repressive practices in the regions where they lived prior to the migration into Travancore. Hence, the struggle was only inevitable, given the violent repression unleashed by the Nairs with the blessings of the rulers. It was a case of state terror.

That the missionaries sided with the numerically weak and impoverished Nadars was only a natural course any modern and humane persons would take to. There was no enmasse conversion of the Nadars to Christianity as Radhakrishna Warrier states. The percentage of Christians among the Nadars of this area, even today, is only about twenty, while the number of Christians among the Nairs and Vellalas is only close behind.

Moreover, branding the Nadars as very low in the caste hierarchy, as being lower than the Nairs, is also basically wrong. There was a large Nadar population in the Tamil country, in areas from Tirunelveli to Tiruchi and
Coimbatore. They were never known to be inferior to any other major caste in the region. They were in no way less equal to the Nairs of Kerala, though it is true that the migrant Nadars in Travancore were an economically weak and ‘yet to be naturalized’ group in the place of their domicile.

The migrant Nadars possessed no agricultural lands in their new home. They had become landless labourers. One occupation that a large number of them took up, in circumstances where there were no opportunities for better undertakings, was toddy tapping. Their counter-parts in the Tamil country were mostly a land-owning agricultural community that was also traditionally involved in mercantile activities. (Toddy tapping was the vocation of a section of all communities in their respective areas of domination. The Maravas, Vannias, Mudalis, Gounders, etc. did the toddy tapping themselves in the respective areas where they formed the majority of the population. It was not an exclusive craft of the Nadars.)

It may be recalled here that the Nairs were the backbone of Travancore’s administration as they formed the majority of the state’s officialdom. The police and army were made up of them. More importantly, they were among the ‘original inhabitants’ of the state juxtaposed to the ‘alien’ Tamil speaking Nadars. The rulers naturally sided with these numerically superior ‘locals’ who also formed the major portion of the population of the adjacent state of
Cochin and the other petty kingdoms on the western coast.

Language also played a significant role. The language of the state of Travancore was Malayalam, which was also the mother-tongue of the Nairs, Namboodiris and the Pillais, the three communities that allied against the newcomers who were Tamils. That the Nadars were required to pronounce the word ‘kOzhi’, etc. to ‘qualify’ to cross the border check-posts (a discriminatory visa rule?) was an insult since any migrating poor and unlettered people can not be expected to pronounce difficult words properly.

The story of the Nadars in nineteenth century Travancore state is one that clearly depicts how a section of a well civilized community is subjected to degrading and discriminatory suppression in its adopted home by a numerically and politically more powerful community of equal status that is driven by selfish economic and social policies.

The stigma of the Travancore suppression still remains. The Nadars are generally thought to be toddy tappers by others as a result of the large-scale adoption of that vocation by migrant Nadars in Travancore under repressive conditions during the eighteenth century.

Sorry for having written a long message. Thanks.

R.M. Paulraj



1. abc - June 27, 2006

Thanks a million. I was searching this article for such a long time as im a school student. And urs was the only one which was relevant. Thanks again

2. abc - July 4, 2006

u wiped off my comment??

3. abc - July 4, 2006

sorry the previous comment was a mistake ((JUL 4)

4. none - December 30, 2006

Nadar community struggle to rise above their depressed economic and social condition were through raise in mercantilism activities through formation of sangams, claiming of Hindu Kshathriya status with the objective for rights in Hindu temples, few members taking up to Christian base; The Nadar Mahajan Sangam and Dakshinamara Nadar Sangam, exemplified further the processes of mobilization for peaceful and respectful higher status of the community

5. none - December 30, 2006

Among the various communities of South India, the Nadars have perhaps clearly evidenced the impact of change over the past 200 years. Considered by high-caste Hindus in the early nineteenth century to be of extremely low status, the Nadars – toddy-tappers, climbers of the palmyra palm – suffered severe social disabilities and were among the most depressed communities in the Tamil country.

When history dawned on the Nadars, traditionally known as Shanars, they were found principally in the two southern districts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. Palmyra climbing and toddy tapping were their traditional occupations. The entire family was engaged in producing different palm products such as fermented juice, jaggery, baskets, mats, cots, and roof beams.

Trade in a small way supplemented their livelihood. Local caste associations (sangams) grew out of this channel of commerce. A tiny fraction of the caste, known as Nadans, were wealthy landowners. In the Hindu caste hierarchy the Nadars ranked very low because of their association with alcohol.

The Nadars have had a turbulent and colourful history. Nadar community struggle to rise above their depressed economic and social condition through raise in mercantilism activities through formation of sangams, claiming of Hindu Kshathriya status with the objective for rights in Hindu temples, few members taking up to Christian base; assumed dramatic forms in a series of escalating confrontations between the caste and its antagonists.

Hostility to the efforts of Nadars to establish a new status resulted in a series of violent outbursts culminating in the riots of 1899 known as the Sivakasi Riots. Their old name of ‘Shanar’ was abandoned and the honorific title ‘Nadar’ was adopted. The Justice Party government adopted the term in all public records from 1921.

Because of their sensitive response to social and economic change over the past century and a half, the Nadars have today become one of the most successful groups in the South, in both economic and political terms, and command considerable respect. From among their numbers have come leaders in business, industry and other professions; With foresight, the Nadar community elite controlled management of local temple festivals and established a network of institutions such as schools, colleges and hostels.
From the breast-cloth controversy through the sack of Sivakasi to the Nadar Mahajan Sangam, the Nadars’ rise, exemplifying the processes of mobilization in Indian society, provides rich material for an analysis of the social life of a community in change.

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