Parashurama Kshetra – A Miscellany and the Epilogue.


Parashurama Kshetra – A Miscellany and the Epilogue

Partha Desikan

I can hear plain sighs of relief after a look at the title.

Parashurama Kshetra has no end of fascinating stories hidden in its eventful history, but most of them have been effectively narrated by competent sons of the Kshetra and competent others. I am not trying to redo the history assignment.

When I wrote my first blog on the legend of its birth and followed it up with Parts 2 to 5, sequenced narration of Kerala’s history was NOT my main intention. Not even when my pen ran away with cold heavy history in Part 5. If it had been, I would have merrily gone on for another 6 or 7 equally heavy parts and told you about how the Chozhas seemed to completely eclipse the rulers of Kerala in the 10th century and later; how the more recent Venaad/ Travancore rulers were great patrons of the Arts as were the Samudris (Zamorins) of Cochin; how the Portuguese and the Dutch came to trade and stayed on to rule and how the English contained and overpowered them; how Keralites had their own significant part to play in India’s freedom struggle; how the linguistic state of Kerala emerged by default in free India; and how the elections threw up coalition governance, with at least some components left of centre, for doing political business in Kerala, before the phenomenon spread elsewhere and finally even to the Indian Centre, the left-of-centre emphasis wafting in also from the Eastern shore.

The Miscellany

If I was not unfolding Kerala’s history in sequence, what was my message in Parts 2 to 5? I was only pointing out how Kerala was destined to shape its people in a special cast, all its own. This hilly terrain with a grey-sand beach, alive with coconuts and spice and cashew plantations today, was originally just a fantastic lush rain forest and stretches of mildly radioactive sand washed in from the sea. Profuse torrents of rain fell here in season and very quickly found their way into the sea. Optimal utilization of this annual and wayward gift was essential, and the early Keralites learnt how to step-irrigate, how to conserve. Meanwhile they fell in love with the land, this was their naadu. The verb naadu in Tamil means to seek. When derived from another root nadu it means to establish, to sow a seed. Both significances applied to this country, this naadu of these naattu gaaras. If the country belonged to them, they belonged to it as well. As well it should have been the case originally with Sage Parashurama and the Kshetra. The Vaishnavaite avatara was over. The subdued sage was teaching himself the ultimate lesson. He was banishing himself to a lonely existence in a kind of end of the earth, the Mahendragiri slopes. But life stretched ahead before him. The sea gave him his land, his Kshetra.  His further life had to synchronize with the land and this would have demanded special characteristics. The special qualities, substantially positive ones and some which could seem unattractive from outside, which the people of Parashurama’s Kshetra developed because of pioneering in the place, have endured with time. Many groups came later in several waves and if they were chosen or they chose to stay and succeeded, they were similarly assimilated and Keralized. They could have other characteristics, but the Keralite characteristics showed.

Extraordinary patience, especially while at work, is one. Their pioneering work of farming as well as building residences in snake-infested, storm-tormented, hill-forests and sand gave them this enormous patience, whenever they were doing, whatever they chose to accept as their work. In the modern Kerala industrial scene for instance, after a fierce wage-negotiation battle between a multiplicity of labour unions and the management of an industry, in the course of which every meeting appeared destined to lead to total collapse but somehow led to other meetings, finally when work was resumed, one found the labour totally absorbed in work once again and giving their very best to the production effort.

Willingness to compromise, when confronted with extremely difficult circumstances, is another.  This is a great survival quality, mistaken by some as weakness or opportunism, and understood by the discriminating as wisdom. Otherwise, the union management clashes in Kerala, that are so frequent, should have led to cessation of all manufacture. When a partner in the ruling coalition government is making things difficult for you, you welcome a helpful whisper from across the treasury benches. Ideologies and governing policy differences can be rested for the interim, while new bonds are made effective. The techniques are now common throughout the country. Was Vishnu Sharma, the old story-teller character in Panchatantra, who could teach Mitrabheda as well as Mitralaabha, a Keralite? Was not Chanakya’s success against the very intelligent Rakshasa, minister of the Nandas, also a result of knowing how much and how little to yield to the adversary and when? In olden times, remembering that Bindusara had effectively flexed his muscle and pulverized his enemies, the Cheras made friendly pacts with his son Ashoka and were friends of the Maurya kingdom. In the legendary Mahabharata war, the Chera presence was not with either warring side, but in the capacity of a mutually acceptable provider of meals! We saw too that the Cheras took special efforts to stay on the right side of the strong (sometimes arrogantly aware of the strength) Chozhas and flourished beside them for several centuries. We did not continue the Chera-Chozha chapter after Rajaraja I came to power, but if we had, we would have learnt that the Chera kings were not too keen on fighting with the mightier Chozhas. When provoked beyond endurance, they fought and lost. Tamil Chozha nadu meanwhile saw a sad deterioration of good relations between worshippers of Vishnu and Siva which reached its nadir during Kulothunga’s rule. In Kerala, the kings were both Saivite and Vaishnavite and patronage for Jainas too was substantial. Tolerance towards Jainas during this period (between the 10th and 13th centuries) had dropped to dangerous levels in Tamil Chozha land. It is the capacity to compromise wisely that has brought in recent times a remarkable social equilibrium between enterprising Christian landlords and the Hindu Nambudiris and Nairs whom they had once displaced in central Kerala. It is the same compromise that could make Malabar in northern Kerala a safe haven for Muslims after their intended rebellion against the ruling British turned violent and was wildly directed against non Muslim Keralites as well!

A third important characteristic is the instinctive look out for men of one’s own naadu when one is away from Kerala. Poor migrants to far away cities like Mumbai and Delhi will be able to recall helping hands from strangers from the mother country, who gave that right direction or introduction, which changed their lives and gave them security. The phenomenon has worked too in foreign climes, notably in the Gulf countries. One’s micro identities like the exact district of nativity, religious denomination, caste and economic status did matter in general, but being a fellow Keralite often over-ruled every other consideration.  This fellow feeling occasionally and often without malice did affect the competitive ability of other non-Keralites who formed a part of the scene, and has created  a number of stories which got strengthened in belief ratings over time.

Literacy has been a great priority with Keralites for centuries. Several villages in this state now have one hundred percent literacy. Strong caste feelings and conservative mores had every now and then kept down the avenues for educating people of backward communities and women in all communities. This is no longer valid. Also, a variety of social taboos have been removed by voluntary social actions which have always won acclaim all over the state. Narayana Guru of Sivagiri, did not merely call out to the much maligned Ezhavas to rise and protest. He taught them to rise and shine and also follow the Indian sanatana values. The hugging saint Mata Amrutanandamayi has been able to mobilize funds from all over the world to help humanitarian causes everywhere, primary education in Kerala taking a sizeable share, while teaching her followers the essence of caring in a Universal framework. Nambudiri scholars in Persian or Arabic, Muslim and Christian experts in Sanskrit, Ayurveda and Yoga, non-Hindu practitioners of Carnatic classical music and classical Indian dances are no longer subjects for Newspaper headlines.

A significant fifth feature is the great place the mother has in every Kerala family unit.  This is even in families not observing matrilineal inheritance. These unique matrilineal inheritance rights of the kshatriya and ancillary warring caste families in Kerala are very well documented and written about. This right used to give maternal uncles a rather special unofficial advantage in joint families, but only so long as women preferred not to come out to attend to out-door obligations. The matrilineal system of inheritance, known as Marumakka thaayam is interestingly current also among a community of very old Tamil settlers in Mattakkalappu (Batticaloa) in Eastern Sri Lanka, who are different from the larger Tamil groups which arrived as indented labour during British rule. The Mattakkalappu Tamils probably came to Sri Lanka from Chera Tamil land along with the Lankan King Gajabahu, who was an invited guest at the purification ceremony and installation of the Kannagi image in a temple in Cheranadu during King Chenguttuvan’s time! Prof. Sankaranarayanan of Madras University, who has studied these people in depth, feels that this inheritance system is very close to one that prevailed among Polynesians in prehistoric times. Even in recent history trading itinerants are known to have found comfort in the countries of the Malaysian Archipelago, where the local women agreed to become their wives. The resulting children called first generation Peranakans had been essentially nurtured by their mothers and grew to become leaders of their societies not unlike the Nair warrior clans of Kerala. Did some Chera Tamil people have a Polynesian origin? I would rather venture to think that Polynesians were very much a part of the grand mix that had thrived in the Sindhu Saraswati region, and the wanderers that chose to travel when the mighty river dried up all the way South along the west coast and liked it may have had substantial Polynesian stock in their make up. The sea-faring tastes of the Tulus and the migration of marumakka thaayam communities to Lanka are both indicative of this possibility.

In regard to these and other typically Keralite characteristics, whom should you define as a Keralite?

Not just the earliest settler, who believes he is just a few centuries later to Mahabali or Parashurama. Not just the Hindus, by whom you may mean the priestly Nambudiris, to whose clan Adi Sankara belonged, or the practitioners of Vama shastras namely the Tantriks. Not the other Hindus, namely the descendants of the warring castes, the Nairs who now lead the educated middle class and occupy every kind of coveted Government office in the state and in Delhi. But also the Christian converts, who are among the brightest scientists and educators of our country, who continue the habit of providing sons and daughters to the priestly orders which involve educational and para medical careers on the side. Some of these believe that their ancestors landed in India along with St Thomas. Also the Keralite Jews, whose synagogue at Cochin could be among the oldest in the world. Also the Muslim merchants, whose children have done their stints in Persian Gulf countries taking on a lot of personal suffering to save money for their ancestral houses. Also the Ezhavas, who are distinguishing themselves in every field open to men of self-belief, whose ancestors of just a few generations ago were lifted from great penury and suffering by following the inspirational teachings of Narayana Guru. Also the Brahmin settlers in Palghat and Tiruvanantapuram neighbourhoods, who came from Thanjavur and southern Pandyan districts of Tamilnadu, when they felt that they could practise their rites and studies with more appreciation and comfort in Kerala. Their descendants may have given up old practices and may now own apartments in Matunga and Chembur in Mumbai and they may work in the USA. It is typical to find these guys after retirement not being able to decide whether to return to their Mumbai addresses so that their partners in life continue their acquired consumerist lifestyles or to their Palghat addresses where they can get back to the study of Vedas, attend Carnatic musical concerts and visit the Guruvayur temple frequently in peace.

The Epilogue:

One of the Medhavis had noticed that I had started the series with the inclusion of Konkan-Maharashtra coast and the Kerala coast together as the land reclaimed by the Avatara. She and other friends would have noticed too that in the subsequent parts, I have divided the Kshetra and dealt only with the southern component of this reclaimed west coast, namely Kerala. Kerala and Konkana are two distinct regions alright, in more ways than one. As the west coast lay waiting at the foot of the Sahya range, bathed both by the tropical Sun and the salt-laden spray of the Arabian Sea, Kozhikode (Calicut) and ports south of it received more visitors than they sent away. From the ports in the Northern part of the coast, sea-faring Tulus and Konkanis had been going out to Arab, African and European regions for trade as well as for sheer adventure for a very long time indeed, some of them not averse to settling abroad. The home-bound ones resisted irreversible changes which the Moslem invaders from further North were capable of demanding and inflicting. Goa, however, was invaded by the Portuguese and was irreversibly changed (Diu and Daman became part of this political province). Except for the Goan conversion, Konkana and Maharashtra continued to remain substantially unchanged from the cultural Saraswati basin identity, which they carried from the time before the famous river dried up.

Not so Kerala. After all, the old proto-Dravidian, Saraswati basin people looking for alternate pastures, did not stop their journey when they arrived in Konkana. They kept their travels alive in the Eastern and the Southern corrections, settling in groups in different parts of what are now Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra and Tamilnadu. Waves from Gauda- Bangla and this Saraswat wave could have met in Vidarbha, some parts of Andhra and Orissa. While most of these found their river basins to settle and create their own identities, evolving away only gradually from their Saraswata identity, the ones that arrived south of Calicut and west of the Sahya ghats had to work hard for their hill slope farming, reaping however a happy blend of the poor man’s grains along with cash crops which included several spices. They could fish away in glory, and fish and rice became the staple diet of the majority among them. They carried with them the older form of Tamil, which was to mature as Sangam Tamil only in interior Tamil land and wave back into Kerala land in modified form. Meanwhile the Grantha (Brahmi) script, which both Tamil groups had carried with them, could serve them to write both in Sanskrit and in Tamil and in the new west-coast language which was evolving, the Malayalam tongue. Malayalam is the formalization of spoken Chera Tamil, with the highly softened Tamil pronunciation of hard consonants intact, yet with the full consonantal back up of Brahmi and Sanskrit Devanagari available for writing alone (unlike the eastern Tamil, which had excised three out of four forms of all five hard consonants in its script.) The modern Malayalam script is a modification of the Brahmi-Grantha script. One extant form of Grantha is still in use in transliteration of Sanskrit into Tamil by Tamil-Sanskrit scholars. The annual Tamil almanac from Thanjavur uses the script for a few pages which are mostly not read by the typical user. Early Malayalam speakers found the conjugation of verbs with tense number and gender in Tamil and tense and number in Sanskrit to be too tough. International trade had exposed them to the simplicity of conjugation in western European languages. This they adopted in their tongue, making a significant departure from all other sister-Dravidian tongues in South India.

I claim, and I am willing to be questioned on this, that this magical land is a converter and homogeniser. If two generations of a family have lived in Kerala, they and their descendants are Keralites for ever. Watch them speak every language (including English which they may have learnt at Mumbai, Delhi, Oxford or Harvard) with the same permissive softening of guttural sounds and sing song accent, which some early Brahmi (part-Polynesian too, if you will) settlers brought from Saraswata land. Watch them gesture more elaborately than the most eloquent Yankee, when they speak, their flailing hands reaching out to you expressively with the fingers making elaborate mudras, their necks oscillating forward and back, every square inch of their intense faces participating in the communication with suitable bhavas. They have their lives and they know in great detail how their lives have to be lived. If their immediate neighbours at any given time or place are either well aligned with them in their thinking or in any case not in objection-mode, they readily resonate with them.


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