Traditional elites harboured peculiar notions of purity and pollution in pre-modern Kerala, which were revised by the neo-savarna of twentieth-century. This article reflects on notions of personal hygiene, cleanliness and clothing, using two excerpts from early-modern Kerala. The prefatory note below is by J. Devika. The excerpts have been chosen and translated by S. Harikrishnan.
The neo-savarna refers to a twentieth-century social formation that comprises of the upper-caste elite of traditional Kerala—the sudras (nair and ambalavasi), the samanthas and kshathriyas (the members of erstwhile ruling houses, minor and major), and the brahmins. The richer sections of the ex-untouchable Ezhava caste-community who have in effect abandoned the teachings of their chosen Guru, Sree Narayana, now actively seek membership in the neo-savarna, but are yet to be accepted fully.
The neo-savarna in Kerala use the BJP and the RSS as vehicles to recapture caste-power and deploy their education and technical skills to that end, as evident in the neo-savarna riots of 2018 over the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple. The victory of Hindutva in India and the destruction of all political morality in the pursuit of power actively justified by Hindutva leaders using jingoistic nationalism and a cynical reading of key Hindu texts have enlivened their efforts to regain the power and influence lost in the twentieth-century democratisation of Malayali society.
One of the implicit claims that the neo-savarna make in their conversations, especially in private circles, is about how ‘clean’ they are. Anyone born into a neo-savarna domestic context in my generation will know this: even despite ‘progressive’ credentials, many neo-savarna harbour ideas about the ‘unclean’ nature of Muslims and Dalits; I as a child was persuaded to think that glass tumblers in Christian homes reeked of egg-yolk and fish!
Cleanliness was often projected as ‘traditional’ and characteristic of neo-savarna—and this impression was strengthened by the sight of the older and middle-aged neo-savarna women whose attire was the starched white mundu-neryathu. As a child, and later in life too, whenever I saw an older neo-savarna woman wearing a mundu-neryathu as regular day-wear and taking care to wash it at night, dipping it in starch and blue, I identified that with the concern for cleanliness – though it did strike me that such washing was often really light, too light to remove dirt properly.
Only much later, as a research student, did I learn that such light washing had less to do with a concern for cleanliness, and much more to do with the aachaaram (or, more properly, anaachaaram, since this was a rule specifically set for Malayalis) meant to ‘remove’ ‘pollution’! Faced with stiff challenges from the avarna communities in the twentieth century after savarna material domination had crumbled under British rule, the upper-caste elite re-wrote their ‘social contract’ (and thus began to shape themselves into the neo-savarna).
An important aspect of this re-writing was that many aachaarams which were actually institutionalized caste paranoia would be now reinterpreted as ‘modern’ and even ‘scientific’ practices. Thus the paranoia about removing pollution from garments that may have come into contact with avarna people was now disguised as a general concern for hygiene!! That explained why the light washing seemed to suffice even when it was evident that dirt was mostly unaffected.
Below are two excerpts : one, from the work of the conservative brahmin scholar, Kanippayur Sankaran Nambutiripad (1891-1981), which documents closely the traditional aachaaram regarding the removal of pollution from clothing observed by the Malayala brahmins in all its paranoia, and the other, a very early questioning of it that appeared in the early Malayalam journal Vidyavinodini in 1891. What is striking about Kanippayur’s narration of ‘customs’ in his memoir Ente Smaranakal is, first, the sense he conveys of all of it being essentially over, in the past, to be recalled for purely academic purposes. Secondly, the isolation of the brahmins is projected as a kind of sacrifice for the greater ‘good’—and not really privilege or its preservation. The questioner in Vidyavinodini is armed with a notion of hygiene and seeks to clearly distinguish between the concern about hygiene and the anxiety about removing pollution.
Traditional caste society of nineteenth and early twentieth-century Kerala was one in which not just untouchability, but also unseeability was justified. The paranoia about caste-pollution institutionalized at that time through elaborate rules constituting and regulating pollution and its removal is hard to grasp today, for its sheer irrationality. The success of the neo-savarna lay in their success in preserving/modifying that in ‘modern’ guises.
Excerpt from Kanippayur Sankaran Namboothirippad (2004, first edition 1963), Ente Smaranakal (Part – 1). Kunnamkulam: Panchangam Press, pp.242-244.
Although Veluthedathu Nairs are a rank lower than other Nairs in the hierarchy, it is believed that their washing of clothes has the power of a vaccination when it comes to matters of untouchability … While travelling, it is common to carry as many clothes as one needs for the journey. When Namboothiris—especially when Antharjanams—travel to a relatives’ place for functions such as marriages or house-warming, it is customary to carry good pudavas to wear while there. These become polluted while travelling. It is difficult to wash and dry them after arriving there, and doing so would make it lose its sheen. A trick has been devised to avoid such difficulties: clothes thus polluted are purified by a Veluthedan. “To purify” is the term used for this. In the above-mentioned situations, a Veluthedan is prepared—meaning that he waits with a container with some water mixed with ash. When the relatives arrive, they hand over the case or bag of clothes to the waiting Veluthedan. And he purifies them within a second. Do you know the ritual that he performs? He opens the case or bag, dips his finger in the ash-water mix and sprinkles it on the clothes. Now it is purified! It may be taken indoors. The implication is that the clothes have now been washed by him.
A kodi-mundu has no pollution whatsoever. The same one that has been worn to the market may also be worn to the temple. However, once it has been washed by a Veluthedan, everything changes. If it has been just washed, it has no pollution, meaning that it will not be polluted by the touch of Veluthedathu Nairs or any castes above them and it can be worn to the temple. It is only polluted by the touch of anyone below the Veluthedathu Nair caste.
(I request that the reader not be annoyed at me for saying higher caste or lower caste. I do not say these out of wrong motives; in fact, it troubles me. But while analysing the practices of the time, one cannot but use the terms used at the time, even to make it easier for a reader to understand. I would like to clarify specifically that this is the reason I use these words).
[Article published in the Vidyavinodini 3(10), 1891 (Malayalam Era 1067), pp.223-224]
There is a practice in Kerala by which pollution is removed from a washed cloth by making a rajakan sprinkle ash-water on it. The pramaanam (warrant)sanctioning this practice is unknown. In terms of logic, this seems like an absurd practice. Firstly there does not seem to be any reason to suppose that cloth woven out of cotton fibre may be any more polluted than others such as coconut fibre. Therefore cotton cloth may be considered soiled only by dirt [and not by pollution]. But then, according to our aacharam, a newly-woven cloth (kodi-vasthram) cannot be polluted no matter who touches it or how soiled it is. But once it is washed, it can potentially get polluted by touch. This suggests that it is not dirt that pollutes a cloth. For the paradesis, however, washing a newly-woven kodi cloth makes it impure, and so they soak them [in blue and starch]. For Kerala, the soaked cloth is as good as a kodi. The warrant for this anaachaaram is rajakena neelaranjanaal navavasthra suddhi [The rajakan‘s soaking cloth in neelam makes it as good as a new cloth – nava-vasthram]. If a cloth dipped in blue by a rajakan is deemed as pure as a newly-woven kodi cloth, then how can those who do not pollute a kodi cloth with their touch pollute the aforementioned blue-soaked cloth? If as is believed, lower castes have an invisible impurity that pollutes every object they touch, should this law not apply also to kodi-vasthrams? There is no logical coherence in arguing that a kodi-vasthram does not get polluted even when soiled, but a washed cloth [and soaked in blue, by a rajakan], which the Kerala aacharams have decided, is as pure as a new cloth gets polluted when still unsoiled.
The prescribed way for purifying a cloth that has been thus polluted is even more amusing. If a washed cloth becomes impure by the touch or the approach of the impure [caste], the pollution is considered to be lifted if a rajakan makes it dirty by sprinkling on it a mixture of water and ash. By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that the rajakan’s sprinkling of ash is the equivalent of a cloth being washed, and soaked in blue and starch. We have noted above that for the removal of pollution, the cloth should be soaked in blue and not ash. Therefore even if the cloth is dipped in ash instead of being sprinkled with ash, it is clear that the pollution cannot be removed unless it is dipped in blue. In this situation, what is to be achieved by sprinkling ash? From the point of logic, it looks purely absurd. If any reader is aware of the warrant in customs that justifies this practice, kindly make it public through Vidyavinodini.
- Rajakan: A washerman caste (also called Veluthedan)
- Neelam: A bluing liquid made of a mixture of ferric ferrocyanide and water used while washing white clothes to retain their whiteness.
- Kodi-vasthram: A newly woven, fresh (unused) cloth.
- Anaachaaram: Special caste rules prescribed by Kerala – according to the Saankarasmriti, by Sankara himself. These were also referred to as Keraleeyaaachaaram, or often simply as aachaaram, wherever it was implicitly clear that the broader reference was to Kerala.
About the authors: J. Devika is a feminist researcher and a professor at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram. S. Harikrishnan is a doctoral scholar in the Dublin City University and co-editor of Ala.