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The Nambiathiris are a sect of Braahmanans who were part of the Braahmanan communities once spread widely in Kerala from Kozhikode to Kollam. However, today they are largely confined to a few scattered Thaluks in the districts of Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kollam. These days, few people seem to care about either the significance or the real denotation of the word Nambiathiri. Worse, the Nambiathiri are erroneously, unfittingly and undeservingly associated and even identified with Elayathu, a different sect of Braahmanans from central and northern Kerala.

Who really are the Nambiathiris? What really does the term signify ethno-demographically? Why are there no more Nambiathiris north of Haripad? To get an answer, one must really take a deep and careful look at the history of Travancore and of Kerala as a whole. Furthermore, one should also listen to and evaluate carefully the heritage lore passed on inter-generationally among the traditional Nambiathiri households in Onattukara and surroundings.

Who are the Nambiathiris really? Where are they now?

The term Nambiathiri was in reality used to refer to Namboothiris who specialised in the field of regime administration, having mastered Dhanurvedam (a part of Yajurvedam), the "smrithis" which defined the administrative tenets of ruling, and various other such subjects concerned with the science of governmental skills. Just as the title Bhattathiri was given to scholarly Namboothiris who mastered and specialised in the Vedams, Saasthrams, Samhithas, Vedaantham, Meemaamsa, dialectics, etc., Nambiathiri was just a titular designation awarded to some Namboothiris associated with governmental work. The suffix "thiri" was no more than a symbol of reverential esteem. It is unlikely that they would have been assigned the "thiri" title if they were merely fulfilling the priestly requirements of the Nair community. The Nambiathiris, no doubt, were also functioning as ministerial advisors to Kshathiya kings and occasionally as rulers of small territories. Being preoccupied with ruling and administration, the Nambiathiris were exempt from Vedic studies and practices, though not from the obligatory "Muthal-mura" (one-time mandatory Vedic study and recitation, in between the Upanayanam and the Samaavarthanam). As they did not involve themselves consistently and continually in Vedic studies, they did not have the same esteem and spiritual status as those Namboothiris who performed Yaagams (click) and pursued Vedic practices. However, on important official ceremonies they were accorded the same status and deference as elite Namboothiris. Padmanabha Menon, in his history of Kerala states that the ruler of Kochi had awarded the Nambiathris who were in charge of the regions of Edappalli and Paravoor such a high status, most likely as a reflection of their responsibilities related to governance.

  1. It is quite obvious to anyone who cares to look into the history of Kerala that the Nambiathiris were around and about in the region between Kozhikkode and Kollam. There were also quite a few Nambiathiri ménages, large as well as small, some of whom like from Paravoor, Kodungalloor, Indanthuruthi, Perumbilli, Onikkutti, Edappally, Purakkad, Thirumalasseri, Mamalasseri and so on had made their names in history. There are plenty of individual instances that could be cited. In AD 1500, a Portugese sea captain called Albuquerque had visited Kollam, which at that time was ruled by a queen. He has recorded that upon landing, he was received by a Nambiathiri, the then governor of the province. This fact is also recorded in the history of Travancore written by Naagam Ayya. The history of the Cochin dynasty records an instance of a Nambiathiri being married to the sister of the ruling Samoothiri of Kozhikode. It appears that in those days no one below the status and rank of a Namboothiri was considered good enough to marry into the royal household. It is mentioned in the documents of Kunjikuttan Thampuran that there were Namboothiris with the title of "Nambiathiripad" in the village of Panniyoor, up north, and they probably migrated into Paravoor to establish a Nambiathiri household there. One of the eight patrons of the Ettumanoor temple was a Nambiathiri, and the head of that family was the chief patron. It is also attested by Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai in his works that the chief priests of the temple at Trikkakkara were the Nambiathiris of Edappally. (Those historians who confuse Nambiathiri with Elayath and Nambiathi communities should take into account the above facts.)

  2. The term Nambiathiri has been glossed as the head of Braahmin-controlled Armed Forces in both the first ever Malayalam dictionary of Gunthert and in the century-old lexicographic work of Srikanttheswaram.

  3. The Nambiathiris, who at one time were rampant across entire Kerala are today confined to a few Thaluks in the south, and have become totally extinct north of Haripad. Where indeed have the Nambiathiris that used to live in Paravoor, Panniyoor, Thirunavaya, Kodungalloor, Kozhikode, Vaikom, etc. disappeared? There are no reports anywhere at all about the possibility of their having been wiped out or annihilated either. On the other hand, discreet and careful research indicates that they may all have willingly given up the Nambiathiri title and merged into the Namboothiri community at large by reverting to the simple Namboothiri caste name and by inter-marrying into Namboothiri households. It is quite likely that this reversion into the generic caste name may have been a defensive gesture perhaps to escape from the slight stigma that the southern Kerala Namibathiris were pushed under. Some noted instances of this reversion to Namboothri are given below.

    a) The patrons of the very famous Vaikom Mahadevar Temple were the Nambiathiris from Indanthiruthi Mana of Udayanapuram. They are now known to have renounced their title and reverted to being Namboothiris, and two members of this family were known to be chief priests at the Sabarimala temple.

    b) The Nambiathiris of Perumbilli, once very well known in central Kerala, have now become Namboothiris, and are now serving as priests in major temples.

    c) The family in Kudamaloor of Ambalappuzha Deva Narayanan, who was once known as Purakkad Nambiathiri, is now living as Namboothiri.

    d) Of the eight patrons of the Temple of Mahadeva at Ettumanoor, one used to be a Nambiathiri, and he has today reverted to the designation Namboothiri (according to information received from M N N Namboothiripad, formerly with the Malayala Manorama).

The saga of Nambiathiris, who preferred to revert to the designation Namboothiri continues; but for limitations of space, we shall rest here.

What was behind the Nambiathiris' decision to relinquish their titles unlike the Bhattathiris and Nambudiripads? There are reasons to believe that the oppressive measures of Ramayyan Dalava against Namboothiris, and in particular against the Nambiathiris, in and around Onattukara may have instigated the decision. The whole picture will emerge more clearly if we take a look at the Nambiathiris of southern Kerala.

Nambiathiris and Namboothiris

The community that used to minster to the priestly work of high caste Nairs in central and north Kerala were known as Elayathu. The Braahmanan community in southern Kerala that corresponded to the Elayathu of the north and centre were known as "Nambiathis". A few historians like K P Padmanabha Menon and Thiruvangat Krishna Kurup have posited that these Nambiathis were a different community from the Namboothiris. The Malayalam Lexicon (Vol.7, p. 432) has specifically listed Nambiathi and Namboothiri as separate entries. How then did these Nambiathis come to be re-classified as Namboothiris later is an interesting historical matter. Originally, there were quite a few Nambiathiris who were reigning functionaries for various rulers in and around Onattukara. As part of a rancorous attempt to downgrade them to the rank status of the Nambiathis, Ramayyan Dalawa tried to force them to do the priestly rites of the Nair community, which social relegation also resulted in their inability to continue equal status dealings with their kith and kin in other areas. Those who were in commiserative support of these Nambiathiris were not spared persecution either. (vide: Copy of the Report Submitted to the Yogakshema Sabha).

Thus, it so happened that many Nambiathiris lost their real status and were dispossessed and downgraded, partly as a result of the vengefulness of Ramayyan Dalawa, and partly as a way of pre-empting their further initiatives towards organised military activities. Over the years, sharing of the priestly vocation blurred the distinction between the three communities of Elayathu, Nambiathi and Nambiathiri and as the former two communities started taking on the designation of Nambiathiri while still doing their priestly work for the Nairs, the real Nambiathiris tried to shy away from both the designation and the vocation. In any case, in southern Kerala, in particular around Onattukara, the distinction between Nambiathiri and Nambiathi completely disappeared. The potential disgrace of being associated with or identified as a socially inferior community made even the unsullied Nambiathiris in other places shy away from the designation and revert to the simple title of Namboothiri.

In southern Kerala, it is not difficult even today to find real Nambiathiris who got re-classified as Nambiathis because of Ramayyan's spite. Real Nambiathiris have nearly all retained in their homes as keepsakes the sword and shield that used to be the symbols of their power and political sway. These people were patrons of temples and used to have special places in the local temples at festival times. They also had residences with the distinctive style of naalukettu or ettukettu, complete with accompanying snake shrines, domestic ponds and worshipping huts. They didn't do priestly work for the Nairs, and despite some dispossessions during the reigns of Ramayyan and Raja Kesavadasan, they still had substantial land assets.

There may well be another reason why the Nambiathiris and Namboothiris of Onattukara continued to be dispossessed of their status, and this was the arrival into Thiruvananthapuram from Kolathunad of two special clans of Saagara (click) and Samudra Braahmanans, who were given refuge and special protected status from the ravages of Tippu by the Maharaja of Travancore. Their history may well be worth a brief look. [Onattukara is the place where the Thaluks of Karunagappalli, Karthikappalli and Mavelikkara merge.]

Sagara-Samudra Dwijans (Native to Thiruvalla)

The Namboothiris from the Perinchalloor village were the traditional Namboothiris from Kolathunadu. They happened to fall out with the Kolathiri Raja, which resulted in their falling from royal grace. The Namboothiris' growing disinterest in conducting the many Vedic rituals that required their exclusive officiation, displeased the king, who then vowed to teach them a lesson by totally laying them off. With the collaboration of his counterpart from the neighbouring state of Thulunad, the king invited and repatriated 237 (SAAGARA, in Katapayaathi system) (click) families of Haveeka Braahmanans into his own state, by virtually offering them an open hand in meeting all their demands and requirements. These Braahmanans had a life style and priestly traditions compatible with the out-of-favour Namboothiris, particularly in their observations of bereavement-related defilement and related pollutionary practices. These families were settled into five villages. The status, honour and privileges of these migrants soon lured another 257 (SAMUDRA, in Katapayaathi system) families of the same group, who invited themselves in. Not only were they not made to feel unwelcome, but the king also helped them settle by allocating them four new villages. The former, in the five villages, were dubbed as "loners" (Otta) and the latter in the four villages, as "duals" (Eratta). The former group of "loners", however, snobbishly deemed themselves a cut above the "duals" and declined to mix or intermarry with them. Soon, the original Namboothiris of Perinchalloor managed to patch up their differences with the King, and slowly regained their prime status. Over a hundred families from these migrants sought refuge in Travancore during the period of Tippu's military advancements. The king of Travancore not only gave them refuge but also provided them with facilities for communal settlements as well as priestly work in near-by temples. He also built for them a temple at Chakrakshaalana Puram, near Thiruvalla. These charitable deeds apparently earned the King of Travancore the title of "Dharma Raja". It is possible that the king of Travancore's special welcome to these migrant Braahmanans may have been partly a gesture of goodwill towards the king of Kolathiri and partly a snub for the local Braahmanans, who were unconvinced of his rights to royalty as he was not a Kshatriyan.

The acceptance and integration of these migrant Braahmanans, and the subsequent assignation of "Namboothiri" title to them were politically astute moves. It pre-empted the possibility of the resurgence of local Braahmanans. In a few generations, it became impossible to tell the migrants from the original locals as they all were designated by the same label of Namboothiri.

On the league with the Sagara-Samudra Dwijans, the Pottis ("Embraan") from Thulunad and from Tanjavoor in Tamil Nadu, who arrived in Kerala as temple priests, are also currently known as Namboothiris. Lack of real information about who really and originally was a Namboothiri has casued a trend in southern Kerala, from Ernakulam southwards, to associate the title Namboothiri with any person who does the priestly duties in a temple.

The younger, more recent generations are most likely unaware of several realties that defined and identified the original Namboothiris:

  • that their residences extended to sacrariums, cleansing ponds and (snake) shrines;
  • that they performed ritual worship and held temple patronages;
  • that they were the originators as well as patrons of temple arts;
  • that they were known for their scholarship, modesty and integrity;
  • that they were both proponents and patrons of the arts and the sciences;
  • that they were highly honoured and respected in royal courts, etc.
Anyone who cares to turn the pages of Ullur's History of Kerala Literature will need little convincing that the Namboothiris dominated the Sanskrit and Malayalam literary scene until as recently as a few decades ago. The dominance of the Namboothiris in several fields of knowledge like astronomy (e.g., stalwarts like Vadasseri Parameswaran Namboothiri, Neelakandha Somayaagi, Madhavan Namboothiri) (click)), astrology, medicine, and the uniquely Indian science of Vaastu is well known and well acknowledged. Even many of the authoritative texts in these fields are written by Namboothiris.

Some Nambiathiri Families
  1. Pooyappalli Illam, Haripad. (Even now called Pittambil Kottaram by the locals). This family had patronage of five important temples. They still own an ancient temple of Sastha.
  2. Meppilli Illam, Kayamkulam. (Also known as Vettikkottillam). This family also owns a famous temple of Nagaraja, believed to have been installed by Parasuraman, where thousands of devotees congregate daily.
  3. Chiramukathu Illam, east of Mavelikkara. (The family is also known as Chiramukathu Panikkar). Patron of Ayyappa Temple at Kottukulanji.
  4. Ayiratathu Illam, Mallappalli

Editor's note: The following is the English version of the report of the two-member committee formed to consider the directive to accept membership of Nambiathiris into the Yogakshema Sabha, in 1923 AD. (click : Namboothiri Yogakshema Mahaasabha) The original Malayalam version of this letter is available with Adv. B Agnisarman Namboodiri, Athrasseri Mana, PO : Thrikkalathur, 683 557, Ernakulam Dist., Tel : 0484-2652450.

18-09-1098 (ME)

Received the letters authorising the submission of report investigating Section C of the decision over the petition to the Sabha by N Govindan Nambiathiri and others on 23, Medam, 1097. We have taken note of the registered deeds and other documents prepared by N Govindan Nambiathiri and other Malayaalee Braahmanans over a period of time. However, before exploring their current status, we think it is appropriate to say something about their previous history, based on our own experiential evidence and on hearsay information made available to us.

The history of Kerala suggests that during the reign of Thaliaathiris of Kerala, the Malayaalee Braahmanans who assisted the rulers in the governance and defence of the realm by bearing arms as well as by organising the armed forces were awarded various titles like Ooril Parisha, Thangal, Yathrangal, Nambithiri or Nambiathiri. It is an educated surmise that executive assistance to the Pandarathil branch of Thaliathiris of Chengannoor Kazhakam, one of the four administrative units, was given by the people known as Nambiathiris in central Travancore. Their martial skills are clearly evidenced by the Kalaris and the various titles like Panikkar, which still exist.

Their eagerness to assist in the defence of the realm continued unabated even in the Perumal era. Even so, history shows that it was indeed a Nambiathiri who saved the regime by slaying the turncoat Bhootharaya Perumaal. It appears that the Nambiathiris continued to provide support and assistance to the various new rulers even after the kingdom was divided and split among them by the last of the Perumaals, Cheramaan. However, evidence shows that some of the Nambiathiri warriors, those that helped and supported the King of Onanadu (Kayamkulam), came to grief after an invasion from Travancore.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the Nambiathiris who assisted the Kayamkulam king very loyally and patriotically without getting involved in the intrigues of Ramayyan were harassed after the fall of Kayamkulam. They were deprived of many of their rights and privileges and dispossessed of their temple patronages and these were then awarded to Braahmanan immigrants from other parts. Soon their power and influence waned and they suffered from considerable loss of face and social deprivation. At the same time, those loyal to the Travancore dynasty were rewarded with status and privileges.

Nambiathiris from Desinganaadu (Kollam) and Elayathunaadu (Kottarakkara), and Pandalam, who commiserated with and supported the Onanattukara Nambiathiris also got caught in the ripple of dispossession and harassment. On the other hand, none of the Nambiathiris, or Braahmanans of equal status like Nambis and Nambithiris have ever been subjected to such adversities. It may well be so that the Braahmanan community in Kerala became very divisive and divided themselves into upteen sects owing to ego-centric strifes of power, status and self-importance; but even so, it looks certain that despite their temporary socio-historical contretemps, the Nambiathiris are in no way any cut below Malayaalee Braahmanans. From the documentation received form Govindan Nambiathiri and others, and from our own experiential evidence it is now clear and known that:

these people,

  • that is the members of the Braahmanan community from central Travancore, have always had epistolary documents designating them as Nambiathiris; they have Braahminical privileges;
  • they have been intermarrying with other Malayaalee Braahmanans including Pottis; they hold priestly positions in public-funded and privately owned temples with full devotional rituals;
  • the offerings prepared by them in their temples have been accepted and consumed by the Pottis;
  • and finally in earlier times, they had food and feeding rights in Mavelikkara, Pandalam, Kandiyoor and Krishnapuram.
The Nambiathiri is different from the Elayathu, in that the latter has diminished priestly duties, and that too almost exclusively in within-house rituals of high-status Nair families.

It is thus our considered view that owing to all the above facts and factors, this community should be accepted as part of the Yogakshema Sabha and that the Sabha should support their candidacy and right to avail themselves, as any Kerala Braahmanan, of the facilities of the institutions that train and ratify their Brahmacharya privileges.

(Signed)Prabhakararu Thanthri
(Signed)Vak Vanjippuzha Iravidayar Pandarathil
Thazhaman Madhom, Chengannoor
/ True Copy /

English Translation: Prof. P Bhaskaran Nayar, Lincoln University, UK

| Article No:3.1 | Last update of this article:27th April 2009 |
Article written by:
T. J. Unnikrishnan
, Thottathil Illom, Valiyakulangara, PO : Oachira 690 526, Kollam Dist. Tel: 94470-74175 (m)

With inputs from:
1. Adv. B Agnisarman Namboodiri, Athrasseri Mana, PO : Thrikkalathur, 683 557, Ernakulam Dist., Phone : 0484-2652450
2. Harshan, Thottathil Illom, Valiyakulangara, PO : Oachira – 690 526, Kollam Dist. Tel: 94472-41113(m)

1. A History of Kerala - K P Padmanabha Menon
2. Travancore History - Nagam Aiya
3. Kochi Rajya Charitram - K P Padmanabha Menon
4. Several works on History - Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai
5. Kerala Charitram Parasuramaniloote – Tiruvangat Krishna Kurup
6. Ambalappuzha Srikrishnaswami Kshetra Charitram – Prof. Ambalappuzha Gopakumar
7. Charitrakkurippukal - Kodungalloor Kunjikkuttan Tampuran
8. Tiruvitamkoor Charitram - Vaikkom Paachu Moothathu
9. Tiruvitamkoor Charitram - Sankunni Menon
10. Ente Smaranakal, - Kanippayyur Sankaran Nambudiripad
11. Aryanmarute Kutiyettam, - Kanippayyur Sankaran Nambudiripad
12. Jaativyavasthithiyum Kerala Charitravum – P K Balakrishanan
13. Sancharikal Kanda Keralam - Velayudhan Panikkasseri
14. Aithihya Maala - Kottarathil Sankunni
15. 19th Century Keralam – P Bhaskaran Unni
16. Kerala Sahitya Charitram – Ullur S Parameswara Iyer

English Translation: Prof. P Bhaskaran Nayar, Lincoln University, UK

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