Of Genealogy and Land Deeds: Some Thoughts on Family Histories in Kerala

Sarath Pillai writes about private collections of land-deeds and official records of Malayalees, and how they could be valuable sources in constructing micro and family histories in Kerala.

Sarath Pillai

Kerala has been a leading state in the fields of education and literacy. Even in the colonial era, the princely states of Travancore and Cochin excelled in these indicators. But what about the historical consciousness of the Malayalis and their attitude toward things historical? How do we reconcile the innate longing for things modern and things traditional?  Malayalis have a long tradition of keeping documents of things personal and public. It is to think about the “small voices of history,” as unremembered in the spaces we call home, that this article is devoted. Specifically, I reflect on the notion of Nair family histories in Kerala, particularly in the areas that were part of the erstwhile Travancore state. This article recuperates land records and property deeds as a major source of Nair family histories. Passport applications, civil lists and electoral rolls, held in public archives, are some complementary sources that might point to genealogical traces and help us reconstruct family histories.

While researching the currency of federalist ideas in the princely states, I came across a set of documents held in the Rare Books Library at Columbia University, New York. The catalogue description suggested that they were legal documents pertaining to various princely states, including Travancore, for the period 1860-1960.1 I travelled up to New York (from Chicago) in December 2014 to see those documents. However, when the boxes started arriving at my desk, my enthusiasm started to wane. I was expecting to see legal documents pertaining to the state governments, and—in the case of Travancore—papers relating to maritime customs, federal negotiations, and the like. Instead, there were court affidavits, land deeds, and stamp papers from various states. One significance of these collections, as the librarian remarked, rested on the various, colourful state emblems/seals/stamps that these papers carried. For Travancore, the court affidavits and briefs, to a great extent, pertained to land disputes between family members.  These were written in Malayalam and often adjudicated at subordinate courts. 

A few years later, I came across a similar collection at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.  Upon a visit to the library in August 2019, I realized that the collection of legal and commercial documents from princely states2 were of a similar nature as the Columbia collection. Jonathan Loar, the South Asia librarian at the Library of Congress, informed me that the University of California-Berkeley also has a similar collection of legal documents from the princely states.

What struck me most about these two collections, in New York and Washington D.C., is their mundanity—documents talking about family politics and land disputes,  common to most  Malayali families even today. It made me wonder about the many land deeds that might be lying in old, unopened almirahs in Malayali households with the occupants blissfully unaware of their historical value. The Nair tharavadu (Nair joint-family households, where multiple generations of one matrilineal line lived and held land together), especially, were made and unmade over control over land. Sisters and brothers litigated each other for control over family lands. On my next visit home to Kerala, I found a folder full of old land records, mostly pre-1957, and some usufructuary agreements (otti aadharam)3 that my paternal predecessors had entered into about a century ago. The oldest was from 1925. These were some documents that my father carried with him from his dilapidated ancestral house. When I asked a member of my mother’s family, they could also find such land records that were very old. These documents had a strong resemblance to the collections that I came across in the  US. 

6 land deed letterheads showing partitions in family, land property ownership, etc. from 1939, 1925, two from 1953, 1963 and one undated
Land deeds from different years. Personal Collection.

Anyone who has read an old land deed (aadharam) knows that they contain some of the most accurate information possible about a family. Not only do they contain the actual names of the individuals (and not generic nicknames like “kunjulakshmi” or “kuttan”), their age (often unknown if you go back two generations), their parents’ names or their uncle’s name, but also the house name (a good way to trace the ancestral house), and some more biographical details about the place and the transactions themselves. These details are important because, for instance, living members of the family are often unable to recollect biographical details of their predecessors two or three generations removed. Thus, making efforts to preserve the records in our own homes might be the most significant way to preserve family histories in Kerala. Besides, most of these documents also have historical properties, as was the case with those preserved in the US.

If one visits (even digitally) the National Archives in the UK or the US, one will have noticed how important it is in these countries to preserve family histories and help people find their lost histories. In fact, a lot of foot-traffic that these archives see has to do with family members trying to trace the documentary trail of their ancestors. To be clear, it is often the case that those they are searching for had some connection with the government, or served the government in some capacity. In both places, family history research, or genealogy as it is sometimes called, often revolves around census records, immigration records, land records, military records, adoption records, and so on. To the best of my knowledge, archives in India do not consider preserving family histories, or even helping people find details of their family ancestors, as their task. 

One common way to find traces of ordinary individuals, both in the National Archives of India and in the Kerala state archives, is through passport applications. In Travancore, they are indexed in hand-written catalogues kept at the main centre in Nalanda, Thiruvananthapuram. So, if you know that you had a family member who travelled abroad, say, in the 1920s or 1930s, you could potentially find a file with an entry on that, and the name of the applicant. These entries cannot be comprehensive, are dispersed across departments, and it is unclear if all or only some individual applications were actually filed. It might be that only those applications that needed extra procedures and investigations have ended up in the archive. Such assumptions might also be misplaced, since some files merely contain factual details of applicants. There are also the civil lists that the governments created; a good place to find the names of government functionaries in a given year.

However, both passport applicants and civil list entrants together constituted only a minuscule percentage of the population in Travancore.   Most families, however illustrious, might not have had any member who travelled abroad, or was employed with the government at the time. In fact, many aristocratic Nair families took pride in being just landlords and not being employed elsewhere for a livelihood. It was the middle-class communities, educated and desirous of a job, that mostly gained employment, even as they married into wealthy landed families. However, one factor that united Nair communities in Kerala, regardless of their class-status, was their attachment to land as owners or labourers, or by virtue of usufruct. Court records, which often pertained to land disputes within the family or land-transactions, and land deeds are a set of documents that might cover a large number of people and not just people of a certain class or caste.  

Pages from Travancore Electoral Rolls, 1925: KLA

Yet another source, albeit a very exclusionary one, are the electoral rolls. The electoral rolls for the Travancore state are available in the Legislative Assembly Library in Thiruvananthapuram. Unused and uncared for, these rolls are one of the most useful documents for tracing family histories. They contain basic information like the name of the voter, that of their father/mother or uncle, and the class of eligibility, landed or educated, and so on (see illustration). A significant social history facet contained in these rolls is the absence of caste surnames used by most of the Nairs today. In fact, a very small number of Nairs at the time used caste surnames, even as they would have been of some standing to be a voter in the first place (suffrage was granted on the basis of the tax one paid or on the basis of one’s education). This absence of surnames is also prevalent in old land records. There is an interesting history to be written about the use of Nair caste surnames and why the patriarchs of some of the prestigious Nair families did not carry caste surnames as the rolls reveal. However, some others did use them, and consistently so. The upshot of all this is that if you are a Nair with a caste surname, perhaps three generations ago your ancestor would not have had a surname. On the other hand, these rolls might also help you find your real family surname, if there was one. Nair caste surnames are, therefore, a more recent practice of claiming social status, and for a historian, an imprecise and whimsical one. It is quite plausible that many Nairs adopted caste surnames for the first time at the turn of the twentieth century.4 Often, there is no traceable history behind why someone has a caste name like “Pillai” or “Panikkar”, or more recently “Nair” itself. “Nair” has become the most generic caste surname for Nairs today, just as “Pillai” was for the Travancore Nairs in the last century. Historically, most of these were titles and not surnames that were necessarily tied to one caste or community. 5 

The Need for Family Histories

But when all is said and done, do Malayalis need family histories? Are they just signs of caste privilege for some and an unsavoury past of discrimination to be forgotten for others? Furthermore, are the documentary pasts of a family to be discarded,  as the Malayalis make modern concrete-roof homes everywhere? The Malayali obsession with material newness is remarkable. We demolish old houses and make new ones; throw out old furniture and buy anew. But do we need to throw away the documentary trails of our families? Perhaps not. Old land deeds are historical documents, telling us the history of a particular time and space through the lives of certain individuals. Land deeds are prime sources for constructing family histories today.  Family histories, in turn, are important for writing local and micro-histories, be they of a village or a community or an event.6 If one were to write the history of a local miller in 19th century Travancore, as opposed to 16th century Italy, we would be hard-pressed to find sources without taking recourse to examining the land records kept in various houses in that area. Thus, land deeds, and family histories that arise from it, have the potential to recast common individuals and the spaces they inhabit as purveyors of history.

However, it is difficult to appreciate the value of family histories when there is an absence of archival consciousness among the public. A major feature of the preservation efforts of historical documents in Kerala, and India at large, is that they are highly centralized.7 Record-preservation is still overwhelmingly the responsibility of the state. Without a grassroots interest in historical documents and preservation, robust archival consciousness will be hard to cultivate. Local libraries, associations or groups have a crucial role to play in this. Furthermore, those in possession of records and historical materials should have the willingness to donate them to organizations that can preserve them. Unlike in the US or Europe, where donating private papers and archives, is a major feature of the archival culture, in Kerala, as well as in India on the whole, we still do not have a culture of preserving our documentary inheritance. Kerala state archives do not hold the private papers of any well-known Malayali. Higher educational institutions have a crucial role to play in this endeavour as well. Often, alumni donate their papers to their alma maters, be it a college or university. The extensive private paper collections in Oxbridge is no less due to the loyalty of alumni to their alma maters as due to the willingness of these institutions to preserve the documents. Kerala’s higher educational institutions, except a handful, lack any proper archives to begin with.  Thus, a collective endeavour—both at the state and local level, with institutions of higher-education playing an intermediary role—is essential for generating a sense of archival consciousness–and thereby, the importance of family and local histories–among the public.

 About the author: Sarath Pillai is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Chicago, USA. He can be contacted at sarathpillai@uchicago.edu

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