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Namboothiri Yogakshema Mahaasabha
-A Historical Perspective

The Origin: A large number of Namboothiris congregated in Cherumukku Vaidikan's Illam located on the bank of the Periyar river, on the Mahaasivaraathri day of ME 1083 (Feb-Mar, 1908), the meeting being presided over by Desamangalam Valiya Sankaran Nambudiripad. This event, in fact, gave birth to "Namboothiri Yogakshema Mahaasabha" (Namboothiri Community Welfare Organisation).

The Sabha was formed initially with broad objectives, with a major thrust on eradication of both illiteracy and lack of modern education. One of the resolutions of the second annual meeting (ME 1085 Thulam 11-14) emphatically brought forth these aspects. Namboothiri settlements encompass the two princely states of Travancore and Kochi as well as a small part of the Madras Province called Malabar - the entire area from Kanyakumari to Gokarnam called Malayalam. Representations on these aspects are seen to have been submitted to the three governments.

Yogakshemam Magazine: The Sabha started a monthly publication called "Yogakshemam", as a medium to create awareness among all members of the community as to why the Sabha was formed, what its aims and objectives are and how they can be achieved. The essentiality of English education and the drawbacks in its absence, were themes which were constantly treated in the magazine.

Kurur Unni Nambudiripad: Apart from that, whenever and wherever the community members congregated - be they in temple "Vaarams", "Poorams" or "Velaas", - Kuroor Unni Nambudiripad poured out his oratories on such issues.

The eighth annual meeting at Vellinezhi (ME 1091) stood out as far superior to the earlier ones, mainly due to the oratorial skills of Unni Nambudiripad. It was insisted in this meeting that the modern education should be designed integrating the traditional culture and modernity, and that the syllabus should meet that need. If and when a Namboothiri school was to start, the students' hostel, the daily routine of the students, etc. should be based on the discussions and decisions of that meeting.

Unni Nambudiripad's lifestyle could be a role model for the rest of the community. In addition to being a good "Othan" (expert in Vedam recital), Sanskrit scholar and a poet, he could ride a horse, bicycle and in a "Manchal" (a box carriage drawn by men). He used to advise the youngsters to continue to learn Vedam and also to study English.

Modern Education: It took some time to draft the academic syllabus and to actually start a school. The central or main school - Namboothiri Vidyaalayam - started functioning in the year ME 1094 at Edakkunni, near Thrissur, with two regional schools at Peringottukara and Edappalli. Records show that in order to help in achieving the educational goals of the Sabha, and to prepare the students to get admission in the main Vidyaalayam, coaching of English by teachers appointed for the purpose was undertaken in Brahmaswam Madhom at Thrissur as well as in a few other places.

Not long after the establishment of the Sabha, a printing press - The Mangalodayam Press - was installed in the premises of Desamangalam Mana, and a monthly magazine - "Mangalodayam Maasika" - came out regularly. The press and the publication activities were later shifted to Thrissur.

On the 1st of Thulam, 1091 (Vijayadasami day), the Yogakshemam Library-cum-Reading Room was established at Thrissur, as an institution of the Sabha. It started getting a number of news magazines in exchange for Yogakshemam and Mangalodayam, as well as books for reviews. It grew into excellence and was a favourite place for researchers. It used to be considered as one among the top reading rooms in Thrissur.

The administration and governance of Namboothiri Vidyaalayam were done through an Education Committee elected by the Mahaasabha. Providentially, the running of the Vidyaalayam was not adversely affected by the later downfall of the Mahaasabha and the various institutions under it. This resulted from the general acceptance of the argument and demand of the Committee that the Vidyaalayam was autonomous, managed entirely by the Committee, and that the governing body of the Mahaasabha would not be permitted to interfere in its functioning.

One of the goals of the Mahaasabha was to promote the prosperity of the Namboothiri community in matters relating to "Dharmaachaaram". The history of the Mahaasabha shows a slow but definite change in its views on such issues, in the definition of "Dharmam" and "Aachaaram", and their practical utility. Beginning with the first annual meeting, these issues are seen to have been discussed and debated in several later meetings too. In its early years, various learning centres ("Dharmasthhaapanams") were started initially for giving impetus to the study of Vedams and other Granthhams, but decisions are seen to have been taken in later years to utilise these centres for imparting modern education. The diversion and use of the funds of such institutions in the Travancore area for the purpose of modern education resulted in starting a special school in Kulakkada; this could not be done in the Kochi region.

Sambandham: It was the Kochi Royal Family members of Thripunithura (male members - Thampuraans - of the matrilineal set up) who woke up the Namboothiri psyche. Their singular aim was to get educated Namboothiris to marry their educated girls, but did not quite support other modernisation moves. The Namboothiris did wake up and were soon on the path of a much broader transformation.

A major item was related to marriage within the same community. Tradition had it that only the eldest son married from the Namboothiri community, often more than one, while his younger brothers had marital relationships ("Sambandham") in royal or other high class ("Stthaani") families, Warier or Nair families. This practice was viewed as inhuman and as only degrading the community, and should be eliminated. The Mahaasabha had to handle this peculiarly complex issue.

Nevertheless, the Sabha chalked out progressive action plans. The first step was to understand the problems faced by Antharjanams. Along with all its strengths, the joint family system had its own problems. It was the first and foremost duty of the Sabha to find a proper solution to the problem.

The solution was to permit the younger brothers also to marry from the Namboothiri community ("Kanishttha Vivaaham"), and to stop the practice of Sambandham. These should be seen and promoted as sacred acts. An incentive of one sovereign in gold was offered by the Sabha to the first person to do "Parivedanam". The persecution which such a person undergoes cannot, of course, be compensated by gold, but the sovereign ought to be seen only as a token.

The resolutions passed by the Mahaasabha during the early years were rather mildly worded, ensuring that no party got hurt. An example of one resolution : "The practice of Sambandham is humiliating to both communities. Unless and until Nair boys are allowed to marry Namboothiri girls, Namboothiri boys should not marry Nair girls."

To help implement the resolution (eliminating the Sambandham practice), some pamphlets and literature were published, an important one being "A Misdemeanour of Namboothiris" ("Namboothirimaarute oru Durnnatappu) by A K T K M Valiya Narayanan Nambudiripad. The other ones were "Namboothiris and the Matrilineal System" ("Namboothirimaarum Marumakkathaayavum") by Kanippayyur Sankaran Nambudiripad, articles by two brothers of Kavil Avanjikkad and a booklet by Kummini Krishnan Nambudiri.

A K T K M, quoting the "Saasthrams" to prove that a Namboothiri was contrary to the "Sruthis" and "Smruthis", pointed out that Nair Sambandham can marry a Nair girl only after he first marries a Namboothiri girl, then a Kshathriyan, and then a Vaisyan. According to him, prior to the reign of the Perumaals, Namboothiris either married from the same community or observed celebacy ("Brahmacharyam") and was immersed in meditation and spiritual matters. The change came after the advent of the Perumaals. Anyway, as a part of achieving such goals, the attention of the Sabha was turned to getting a "Family Regulation" passed, especially since some "Kaaranavaars" (head of the family) started vehemently opposing such changes, which even led to some court cases.

Women's Education: Meanwhile on the subject  of women's education, a committee prepared a report based on a survey among the members of the community, through a questionnaire. In the report, it was recommended that modern education should be imparted, but the traditions should be retained to the extent possible. The rules and guidelines being practised in Namboothiri Vidyaalayam at Edakkunni was accepted, but modified to make it applicable to the girls also.

Though slow in the process of change, the Sabha was indeed aware of what was  happening elsewhere in the country. A resolution was passed for the elimination of untouchability. It read : "The same freedom of travel enjoyed by Hindus if when they change religion, should apply equally before conversion also."

The Youth Corps: The Youth Corps (Yuva Jana Sangham) which used to act only as a volunteer group during the annual meetings of the Sabha grew to be a separate and independent entity and was registered as such. The corps had actually started functioning ten years earlier (Vrischikam, 1095 ME) in the Royal School at Thripunithura under the leadership of the ever-so-young Kavil Avanjikkad Bhavadasan Bhattathiripad. And now, the Sabha and the Sangham became two great organisations of the Namboothiri community.

An important objective of the Sangham (youth corps) was to popularise and implement the aims and directives of the Sabha. It had to put an end to the polygamy of particularly those in the Sabha, who had opposed such "Adhivedanam". But, the go-slow policy of the Sabha stood against it.

It was at this juncture that many of the young Namboothiris were attracted to the Indian National Congress, Gandhiji's non-cooperation movement, picketing, fasting, etc. The implementation programmes were planned along these lines. Funds were needed for the education of Namboothiris. A "Dharma Sththaapana" Regulation Act designed to set apart small amounts from the funds of such institutions, was taken before the Kochi legislature, but could not be passed. It was said to be in contravention to the laws relating to the objectives of such institutions. Under the circumstances, the Vidyaalayam Committee took out a loan from Vadakke Madhom Brahmaswam, with the assurance that it will be repaid as soon as the Act was passed and the proposed educational fund appropriated. Later the Secretary of the Committee had to refund the loan with interest and court expenses.

Meanwhile, resolutions were passed in the annual meetings of the Sabha exhorting the members, especially, the older ones, to give up Sambandham, which was shown to go against "Dharmam", and polygamy, which was dangerous. These resolutions were passed also by the subordinate Sabhaas. In addition to newspaper articles, leaflets were also distributed.

The school (Namboothiri Vidyaalayam) was shifted from Edakkunni to Thrissur. For a while the students could get help from Vadakke Madhom Brahmaswam in the form of free food. There again, severe resistance was manifested from the traditionalists. The Sabha was absolutely convinced about the need to raise adequate funds to help students from not only poor families, but also from well-off ones where the students did not get any kind of support from their families. Thus, the Sabha started a "Yogakshemam Lottery", after getting approval from the Government in Kochi. The effort did raise some funds.

Fund Raising: The Youth Corps also raised some amount through a fund-raising tour, which actually turned out to be very successful in terms of convincing a large number of parents on the need for modern education. Many started sending their children to nearby schools. Also as a result, Varikkasseri Unni Namboodiripad financed one selected bright student right through the degree course. The student was one Sreekumaran of Thottappaya Illam near Anjoor, who took his B A from Annamalai University.

Kochi Legislative Council: In the first Legislative Council of Kochi (erstwhile Cochin State) during ME 1100, Kaplingat Sankaran Nambudiri and Chelur Ittiravi Namboodiri were elected as members. The former introduced a "Namboothiri Bill" covering the main issues, which was passed by the house in spite of severe objections from the traditionalists. But, the Maharaja's approval is required for the Bill to become an Act; and this did not happen, owing, perhaps, to lobbying from certain quarters.

Meanwhile, in Thiruvithaamkoor (erstwhile Travancore State), the Legislature had no such difficulties for passing a Bill which included most of the recommendations of the Sabha, and the Bill became law. Similarly, a Namboothiri Law came into effect in the Malabar region through legislation in Chennai (old Madras), of which Malabar was a part. These had occurred when, in Kochi, the Bill was rejected three times. During the third effort, in fact, the Maharaja used a clever delay tactic, but finally dropped the Bill, when the Sabha activities succeeded in making an issue of it through the Gandhian way of fasting and that too on the birthday of the Maharaja, and with the newspaper flashing it well.

The Sabha and the Sangham, though discouraged, did not give up, and once again introduced the Bill, a more modest one, this time. But the Select Committee diluted it much more. The Sangham, however, could convince the legislators about the seriousness of the problems by dramatizing ("Prahasanam") the sufferings of the women, and thus the Bill was passed again. Thereafter, a "Namboothiri Bill Jaatha" was taken out from Bharathapuzha to the Hill Palace and gave representations to the Maharaja, who finally gave his approval and the Act became Law.

After many a year, the State of Kerala was born. A "Namboothiri Act" applicable to the entire community was passed without anyone clamouring for it. The Union Government enacted the Hindu Code Bill applicable to all Hindus and consisting of separate laws for marriage, divorce, guardianship, succession, etc. And thus the transformation of the Namboothiri families was complete.

The Kerala Namboothiri Act and the Centre's Hindu Code together satisfied most of the aspirations and long-standing demands of the Sabha. The Sabha used different strategies to prevent polygamy. Physically preventing such marriages through pickets and serving of court injunctions, and sometimes even getting the bride married to another suitable person on the same auspicious day ("Muhoortham"), were mostly successful.

"Ghosha" (Veil): The Sabha started effectively implementing the elimination of "Ghosha" (Purdah) practice from its annual meeting of ME 1105. The venue was coincidentally the same Edakkunni where eleven years previously, the educational revolution in the form of the Namboothiri Vidyaalayam had started and later flourished. That had already enabled V T Bhattathiripad to prove his leadership qualities. And now in 1105, V T could organise and stage "Atukkalayil Ninnu Arangathekku" (from the kitchen to the stage) in Edakkunni, the venue of the Sabha's meeting. Staging of the drama had a revolutionary impact on the Antharjanams, especially the younger ones. While V T's drama could motivate only a few like Parvathy Nenminimangalam, Arya Pallam and a small group of their followers, M R Bhattathiripad's "Marakkutakkullile Mahaa Narakam" (The Hell inside the Palmleaf Umbrella) instigated the entire community to throw away this umbrella!

V T's "bombshell" of 1105 was considered by the long-time Sabha activists to be too revolutionary and prompted them to lie low. The activities of the Sabha went into the hands of V T and his followers.

Inter-caste Marriage: V T's next step was to promote inter-caste marriages. His own sister, then a student of the Vidyaalayam was married off to a Nair. This act in fact, resulted in court proceedings against him for breach of contract within the Vidyaalayam Committee. The Committee could get a judgement in its favour to recover all the educational expenses incurred by the Committee on V T's sister, and got it implemented too.

"Bhrashtanmaar": The Sabha moved forward partly in line with the ideas and programmes pursued by V T. He and the Sabha now rose above the problems of intra-communal inequalities ("Avaanthara Vibhaagam", "Aabhijaathyam", etc.) and turned their attention to bring back the excommunicated families ("Bhrashtanmaar", included in the infamous '64') and those who had changed faith during Tippu's attack. Their children were encouraged to apply for admission in the Vidyaalayam. But the Committee, fearing adverse impacts, refused admission. For such people to be admitted as members in the Sabha, they had to wait till the annual meeting of ME 1110 at Haripad. It was in that meeting that a decision was taken to consider all such persons as equals. In the next year's meeting (ME 1111) at Thrissur, a "Bhrashtan", V K Narayana Bhattathiri was elected to the Executive Committee.

The leadership of the Sabha, who could not quite catch up (agree) with the somewhat extremist views of VT, did not pursue many of his proposals. For instance, the Vidyaalayam Committee, though elected from the Sabha, held its ground and argued that it is autonomous, and did not permit the Sabha's Executive Committee to interfere with its management and policies such as the criteria for admission, etc. The result was that the Vidyaalayam continued to flourish even after the Sabha and the Sangham became defunct.

Silver Jubilee: The Silver Jubilee celebrations of the Sabha were held at Karalmanna (ME 1108). A large number of Antharjanams, numbering over a hundred, attended. A "Prahasanam" (drama) was enacted. The play was written by a novice, Matamp Narayanan Namboodiri, and the actors were also newcomers. But things went quite well.

Widow Marriage: The next annual meeting (ME 1109), held at Peramangalam had a lot of fireworks and had to be dispersed without staging the drama. A resolution for "widow marriage" was introduced, but was strongly opposed. The presidents of both the Sabha and Sangham, and the reception committee chairman and secretary were all advocates, coincidentally. Replying to the opposition, they explained about a similar Bill which was passed by the Government of India about a hundred years earlier and applicable to all Hindus. At that time, it was passed in spite of tremendous opposition, after quoting Dharma Saasthrams permitting widow marriage. In the Sabha, when put to vote after such explanations, the resolution was passed.

Implementation of the resolution did not take long. Just as another important resolution for bringing excommunicated persons back into the Namboothiri fold, was passed one year and implemented the next year, the widow marriage resolution was also first implemented a year after its adoption. M R B married a widow, arranged and conducted by V T himself. In addition to Namboothiris themselves, persons from other communities also opposed this revolutionary movement. But, more interestingly, Antharjanams and unmarried girls opposed it, fearing that it would adversely affect their daughters' and their own marriage prospects.

The II World War and After: It was soon afterwards, when the Sabha's activities were on the decline, that the Second World War broke out. Hitler started attacking and capturing the smaller countries around Germany, leading ultimately to a World War, with Britain and her allies on one side and Germany on the other.

Towards the end of the war, in ME 1120, the Sabha met at Ongallur and the communist theoretician, E M S Namboodiripad was chosen to preside over. He gladly accepted it, perhaps with an indirect objective to infuse marxist political ideologies into the community. But, since he was a full-time party worker, he could not devote much energy to Sabha activities, and hence delegated that work to his followers. His main theme was to transform "Namboothiris into humans".

Efforts to take over the Vidyaalayam failed. Even the Yogakshemam Reading Room, which had been running well, was now on its decline. Then the old-timers once again took over the management. In the next year's (ME 1121) annual meeting (35th) held at Sukapuram, the main topic for heated discussion was about the dissolution of Namboothiri Vidyaalayam. Then EMS brought an amendment which was satisfactory to everyone, and it was passed. In fact, it strengthened the very foundation and autonomy of the Vidyaalayam.

But, the dynamism and vigour seen at Sukapuram was only momentary. The Sabha became quite inactive, although annual meetings were held at different places like Pazhur, Cherpu, Thrissur and Cheruthuruthy (Kalaamandalam). In the last mentioned, several of the earlier leaders were present.

Sudhham, Misrabhojanam: During the annual meetings of the Sabha in the earlier years, everyone observed "Sudhham" (non-pollution). They used to remove "Asudhham" (pollution, or defilement) by bathing and wearing the wet or fresh clothes. If anyone was suspected to have become polluted during the proceedings, he/she took bath before entering the dining hall. There used to be volunteers for safe-keeping of clothes and other belongings.

Gradually, over the years, such strictness started disappearing. Wearing of shirt was then prohibited only in the dining hall. Such changes and transformation reached a zenith during the Silver Jubilee celebrations in ME 1108 at Karalmanna. By then, the Namboothiri youth had already started participating in public and social activities. Removal of untouchability was one such issue. Caste difference began to be ignored. It was in the Kumaaranallur meeting that Namboothiris and other castes ate sitting next to one another. Among the other castes were Sahodaran Ayyappan, Mannathu Padmanabhan Pillai and advocate and rationalist M C Joseph.

Thus the transformation of Namboothiris was indeed quite praise-worthy.

Antharjana Samaajam: There was yet another movement by Namboothiri women which resulted in the establishment of an "Antharjana Samaajam", with a central unit and sub-units, similar to the Sabha. The Samaajam originated at Vellinezhi in ME 1107 following the "Kutiveppu" after O M C Narayanan Nambudiripad's marriage, which itself was conducted in the traditional manner. The leadership came from Mrs Moothiringod, Devaki Narikkattiri and others, and developed into a well-organised unit under C K Parvathy who got her motivation and capabilities from her father, C K Namboodiri. The Sangham used to hold its annual meetings in conjunction with those of the Sabha in the same shed. In the end, the roles were reversed, with the Sabha meeting in the shadow of the Samaajam.

A play by Lalithambika Antharjanam, "Savithrykutty, athhavaa Vidhavaa Vivaaham" (Savithrykutty or widow marriage) was staged in the Haripad anniversary in ME 1110. Because of the problems which marred the meeting at Peramangalam the previous year, the Haripad meeting had a very poor attendance. A proposed resolution to felicitate M R B for his marriage to a widow was rejected by the Subject Committee. But a resolution proposed in the general meeting with the special permission of the president was adopted by voice vote.

In the annual meeting of ME 1111 at Thrissur, for the first time an exhibition of the handicrafts made by Namboothiris was conducted. Two years later it was repeated, but with more crafts from Antharjanams, and the Sabha gave away awards for the best works. It was unfortunate that this idea fructified only towards the end of the Sabha.

The Tree Withers: The degradation of the Sabha was manifested first in the Peramangalam meeting where the conflict between the Sabha and the Sangham had come out in the open. Yet the routine annual meetings were held. No meeting was convened in ME 1116. In ME 1117, the meeting held at Thrissur in the Namboothiri Vidyaalayam was purely a business meeting, and could be termed as the end of the Sabha. Only 65 members attended. Even the first meeting of the Sabha in 1083 had much larger attendance, over 150. Of course, there were reasons and demands then, but 33rd meeting had outlived the goals and the tree withered and dried owing to the drought (of purpose and ideas).

Grieved and frustrated by the wayward moves of the Sabha which was getting farther and farther away from true and permanent values and culture, and though the Sabha was practically dead, some of the old presidents and stalwarts like D H Nambudiripad and Chittur Kunjan Nambudiripad did make a rejuvenation effort. The leaders met in ME 1137, chaired by DH and took a decision to revive the Mahaasabha. And then it was on the shoulders of the latter alone. Some even suggested to change the name from "Namboothiri Yogakshemam" to "Kerala Yogakshemam".

The simple truth was that when most of the goals of the Sabha and the Sangham were achieved, there was purposelessness which led to the natural death of the organisation.

Many years later in 1980 (ME 1156), a group of young Namboothiris established a "Yogakshema Sabha". It does have sub-units like the Mahaasabha used to have. With clear goals, it is possible to regain the lost name of the Mahaasabha. It can have a purposeful future.

| Article No:24.7 | Last update of this article:9th November 2000 |
Source: Malayalam Manuscript prepared by late Matamp Narayanan Namboodiri, advocate, (1990), who passed away recently (on 11-08-2000).
Abridged by Prof: V M N Nambudiripad;
Translated by K D Nambudripad

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