On November 12, 1936, the birthday of the young Maharaja of Travancore, Sri Chitra Thirunal Balarama Varma, he issued a proclamation in his capital, Trivandrum. The proclamation said, in its entirety:
‘Profoundly convinced of the truth and validity of our religion, believing that it is based on divine guidance and on all-comprehending toleration, knowing that in its practice it has throughout the centuries, adapted itself to the needs of changing times, solicitous that none of our Hindu subjects should, by reason of birth or caste or community, be denied the consolation and the solace of the Hindu faith, we have decided and hereby declare, ordain and command that, subject to such rules and conditions as may be laid down and imposed by us for preserving their proper atmosphere and maintaining their rituals and observances, there should henceforth be no restriction placed on any Hindu by birth or religion on entering or worshipping at temples controlled by us and our Government.’
To us today, this may seem commonplace, but for that time and place it was revolutionary. For this was Travancore, which Swami Vivekananda had called “a lunatic asylum” for the indignities heaped on its lower castes. Today, Kerala is probably the least (overtly) casteist part of the country, although it is almost certainly the most (covertly) communal part as well. But nobody questions egalitarianism. This edict was as powerful as the ideals of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity.
But just as the revolution had its dark side, so does Kerala’s social revolution: the egalitarianism of this proclamation brought with it a reverse discrimination, so that today the Hindus are at the receiving end of what is for all practical purposes an apartheid: in every way, they are behind the Christians and Muslims, who also benefit from official benefits for them.
Be that as it may, a little history lesson is in order. What is now Kerala was, like most of South India around 1500 years ago, heavily Buddhist and Jain: and there are occasional discoveries of seated Buddhas by farmers tilling the fields. There is evidence from Xieun Tsang, the Chinese traveler, who described his trip to Sabarimala where he said the presiding deity was worshipped simultaneously as both Siva and the Avalokitesvara Padmapani.
And I am quoting Communist leader EMS Namboodiripad, so those of you about to outrage at me may calm down. An army of Hindus arrived circa 600CE, headed by Nambudiri Brahmins and defeated the Buddhists, imposing Hindu culture again over the area. Those Buddhists who collaborated became ‘high-caste’ sudras (eg Nairs), and those that didn’t became ‘low-caste’ (eg Ezhavas). This invasion is immortalized in the story of Mahabali, who ‘ruled over a kingdom where all were equal’, and was sent to Patala: thus exiled.
This situation continued for over a thousand years, partly because it was a stable equilibrium wherein all parties knew their roles in society, even those who were oppressed and at the bottom of the pile as feudal peasant untermenschen. There were also small groups of Christians (the first of them arrived around 345CE, contrary to popular mythology, as refugees led by Thomas of Canaan, a Syrian merchant), Jews, and Muslims.
The next big disruption was when the Portuguese, instigated by Francis Xavier, invaded and converted at gunpoint most of the coastal fisherfolk. They were annoyed to find the Syrian Christians who had never heard of the Pope (their allegiance was to the Patriarch of Antioch, Syria) and so proceeded to persecute and forcibly convert them as well.
Next came Tipu Sultan around 1790. He conquered Malabar and parts of Cochin, but was thwarted from entering Travancore by the use of a ‘river bomb’, wherein Travancore soldiers purposely burst a dam, causing a wall of water to course down the Periyar river. This flooded Tipu’s batteries and killed his troops, forcing him to retreat. But Tipu’s advance had caused a large number of Hindus to flee persecution and settle in Travancore. Many Hindus were also converted at swordpoint.
The net result of Tipu’s invasion was that Travancore became impoverished and thus dependent on the British, who took full advantage of the situation. They forced the regent queen in 1819 to donate Rs. 10,000 (an astronomical sum then) to set up the Valiya Palli church at Kottayam, and large-scale conversions of Hindus began, because they offered poor, low-caste people basic education if they converted.
In 1819, there were, according to the Travancore Manual, 6% Muslims and 6% Christians in Travancore. But under the stress of British overlordship, high tributes extracted by them, and the threat of conversion, paradoxically Hindu society turned destructively inwards and became dysfunctional, even suicidal. Lower castes bore the brunt of it, leading to extraordinary practices such as not only untouchability, but also un-seeability. Also, bizarrely precise laws of untouchability and even un-shadowability were in effect: a Nair must stand at least 5 feet away from a Nambudiri, an Ezhava 10 feet, a Pulaya 15 feet, and so on.
One of the most ridiculous laws prevented lower-caste Hindus from not only going to temples, but even walking on the public roads around them. Unbelievably, they had a simple way around it: just convert, and then you can use the public roads. Thus a Sankaran merely had to become a Thomas or a Bashir, and he could automatically enjoy a lot more freedom! As a result of all this, by 1930, Travancore was 33% Christian, up from 6% in 1819: Ezhavas and Nadars converted in huge numbers (data from the Travancore Manual).
Increasing awareness of their rights by the lower-castes, especially the Ezhavas, led to agitations for more rights, including entry into government jobs and the Praja-sabha (Assembly) for them. The leadership of Sree Narayana Guru and the poet Kumaran Asan ensured this anger was constructive, and not destructive. But the Vaikom Satyagraha, 1924, about access to the roads around the Vaikom Siva temple, crystallized the anger, and Ezhavas began to discuss en masse conversion to Christianity.
It was in this situation that the wise Maharaja, supported by his brilliant prime minister C P Ramaswamy Iyer, decided that natural justice and sheer decency indicated that temple entry should be granted. Thus the events of November 12, 1936. All Hindus could now, with dignity, go to all temples. In fact, police officers were required to escort low-caste people there. A great-uncle of mine, a dentist, recounted how the very lowest caste people had been led to believe that their eyes would burst if they entered temples, and so it was necessary to demonstrate to them that no such thing would happen.
The net result of all this, unfortunately, was that the previously oppressed became enamored with the siren song of radical egalitarianism and became Communists. To this day, they remain so, thus enabling Communism to retain a foothold in Kerala.
The royals of Travancore, who ruled as regents to the real sovereign Sri Padmanabha, had defeated the Dutch (Colachel 1741) and Tipu (Aluva 1790), and remained one of the best kingdoms in the country, retrieved their lost honor by this far-sighted and bold move in 1936. It was a landmark declaration, no less remarkable than the successes of human rights movements elsewhere.
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