Kerala has adapted very comfortably to modern life, but retains a lot of its traditionalism. Many old customs and practices continue to be observed, especially where significant stages like birth, marriage and death are concerned. Each community has its own religious customs for these occasions.
Most important among the customs that used to be prevalent in Kerala are Marumakkathayam, the system of inheritance through the female line in the family, and the joint family system. Through legislation and the influence of changing life styles, both these practices are now dying out.
The caste system was unknown in ancient Kerala. It was with the coming of the Aryans and the adoption of Brahmin tenets that a rigid caste system developed. Society became divided into the Savarnas, the upper castes, and Avarnas, the lower castes. Within the system there were subcastes and a lot of oppression was practised within these ranks. Non-caste Hindus were prohibited from entering temples, from joining Government service, even from walking on public highways. A number of those who could not bear the anguish converted to Islam or Christianity. The middle of the 19th century saw a lot of action being taken to end the caste system; and the declaration by princely states of Kerala between 1936 and 1947 that temples were open to all Hindus went a long way towards ending the system of untouchability in Kerala.
Women in Kerala have always enjoyed more freedom than their sisters in other parts of the country. This being the most literate state, and given the existence of the matriarchal system, they have always had more power and more opportunities. In public the women deferred to their men, and seldom expressed an opinion. This is, of course, changing with more and more women going out of the home to work.
While modern life may have impacted on many have impacted on many traditional practices, most malayalis observe the significant stages of life with long-honored customs.
The arrival of a child in Kerala is an occasion for much celebration. About 28 days after the birth of a Hindu child the namakaranam or naming ceremony is celebrated where child is positioned on the father’s lap. He whispers the child’s name into the right ear.
At six months the child is taken to the temple for the chorunu ceremony. Before a statue of Ganesh, the child receives solid food for the first time. Each family member takes turn in feeding rice and curry to the child. Maybe parents visit the Sri Krishna Temple at Guruvayur for this ceremony, since the aspect of Krishna here is in the form of a small child enjoying the delights of in candy, especially sweet foods.
The next important ceremony occurs between the child’s third and fifth birthday. Usually occurring at the temple of Sarasvati, the goddess of speech and learning, the child is inducted into the letters with the ceremony of vidyarambham, Seated before the Ganesh stature, the child’s finger is placed in rice and, after a written salutation to the deity, the child’s finger is carefully guided through the rice as it traces out each letter of the alphabet. A popular place for such ceremonies if Tirur (in northern Malappuram district) the birthplace of Tunchat Ezhuthachan, the acclaimed ‘Father of Malayalam’
Another important ceremony is that of head shaving, and some parents travel to the famous Vishnu temple in Tirupathi for this ritual. In a gesture of submissio9n to the deity, the child’s head is shaved after which the family make puja ( an act of worship ) to the deity. Muslim families celebrate the birth of a child with the call to prayer, which is repeated gently into the baby’s ear. The arrival of puberty is usually a cause for celebration. A girl may have a ceremonial bath while her guests enjoy a banquet. For most boys there are celebrations with gifts.
Christian celebrate the birth of a child with the christening or baptism, Reminiscent of the bathing of john the Baptist, blessed water, symbolic of purification, is poured over the forehead of the child. The ritual has two purposes, to cleanse the child symbolically so it may be included in the church community and to give the child a name, usually identifies with Christianity, such as the name of a Christian saint. In Kerala such names might include Miriam or Chacko (Jacob). Some Christians whisper the child’s name and the name of Jesus into the child’s ear. Sometimes a sacred thread, maybe with a relic attached, is placed around the child’s neck. Ceremonies common to the other faiths are also performed, including initiation to solid food and writing.
Traditionally, the new mother has 90 days rest after a birth during which she received considerable support of relatives and was treated with herbal baths and massage.
As with other life transitions in group with its own particular rituals.
For Hindus, death is a time of transition and detachment form physical and earthly realms The rituals surrounding death are based on this belief and may last 15 days. Cremation, the chosen method for disposal of the body, is founded on the premise that burning the body is the quickest way to release the spirit from its physical state and form any remaining links to its life on earth. On death the body is washed and anointed with sandal paste and blessed ashes. It is then dressed and placed on a base of leaves. The body of a saint is placed in a meditation position. With the initial preparations completed the body is taken to the cremation ground. The eldest son lights the pyre, and circumambulates it three times. On the fifth day after cremation, sanchayanam takes place, where relatives return to collect any remains form the pyre. These are placed in a pot and positioned in the relatives’ garden. Here people come to pay their respects to the dead person. Following further rituals the remains may be buried in the garden. But they will not stay there. The ashes of every Hindu will not stay there. The ashes of every Hindu will be eventually released to the waters of a sacred river.
At the end of each Keralan year (July/August), the ritual for moksha (liberation from rebirth) is performed for the deceased. This ritual, particularly common in south Kerala, is especially important at the Tiruvallum Temple near Thiruvananthapuram.
For Christians the time before death is a time for reconciliation with relatives and friends as well as their God. With the person facing east, the priest anoints each of the senses with oil. Prayers are recited giving thanks and requesting forgiveness for the person’s life and requesting a contented life after death. The body is then buried and the mourners return with the priest to the home where vegetarian food is eaten.
On the death of a Muslim the body is dressed in fresh white clothes and is sprinkled with rose-water . the Mullah (religious leader or teacher) visits the home to recite the Holy Quran (Koran). The body is placed facing Mecca and following the burial the mullahs usually continue to recite the Our’an at the grave and within the mosque. In the days following the funeral it is customary for friends and relatives to donate to charity.
Marriage is important socially, emotionally and economically. Parents often go to great lengths to procure a suitable partner for a son or daughter. Desirable attributes in the potential partner include a good job, a good position in society, upstanding character and reasonable looks. Discreet in queries are made within the community and sometimes the family deity is consulted.
Marriage has traveled through a long and varied evolutionary path in Kerala. Each section of society has its own rituals and practices but there are two practices common to all –tali-tying and celebration. Tali-tying is an old custom that, although altered over time, involves the tying of a thread by the groom around the neck of the bride. In Christian weddings, the thread contains a cross. In the Adivasi communities it is often adorned with beads.
For the Hindu marriage jatakam koda, the exchange of horoscopes, takes place to determine the compatibility of the couple. Astrologers ordain the auspicious time for the marriage. Most marriages take place in a temple or the kalyanamandapam, marriages hall. Of all the Hindu groups , it is probably the Brahmins who have the most intricate ceremonies, involving not only the tali-tying but also an exchange of gifts and ritualistic circling of ire by the bride and groom, Other Hindu ceremonies are usually of a less formal nature. The bridegroom is presented with ashtamangalyam, eight items of good fortune that include rice, coconut flowers, a lamp, and cloth-reminiscent of the days when men indicated their desire for marriage by placing cloth on a woman.
The Muslim marriage begins with the nikah, a ceremony involving the members of the family. With hands joined the father-of-the-bride and the groom listen to the reading of the marriage speech and the contract. When the groom agrees, the amount that he will pay is publicly announced and agreed to by both members of the family. The wedding feast follows, during which the groom is surrounded by guests who celebrate by singing. The groom and his sister tie the tali around the bride’s neck.
Christian marriage are performed in a church where the priest outlines the importance of the marital relationship, particularly in respect of children. Relatives and friends witness the bride and groom pronouncing their marital vows, after which the priest proclaims that the marriage may never be terminated, except through death. The pries t and guests pray for the couple’s future and often a mass is celebrated. The dowry system was abolished in 1961, but it persists in some quarters creating financial pressures on the bride’s family.
Divorce & Remarriage
Although divorce is more common today , it is still strongly resisted within the Christian and Hindu communities, where religious authorities and families will actively work to help the parties to stay together. Hindus in particular consider divorce acceptable only in cases where there is no other option-where one of the partners is insance, has an infectious disease or if the wife is infertile. Although the constitution allows for divorcees (and widows) to remarry, few women can avail themselves of this option because of the stigma attached to divorce and the resources required to amass another dowry. In some cases a divorced woman’s won family will reject her, and there is no social security net to provide for her. On the whole, however, a womanb can expect family support, especially if she is widowed. To neglect such support attracts strong social dispproval.
The departure of so maby people to the Middle East (albeit temporarily) has created new pressures sometimes resulting in the breakdown of marriage, family and social life.