The Many Incarnations of Kuriyedathu Thatri

[These are excerpts from my introduction written for the translation of Madampu Kunhikkuttan’s acclaimed novel, BhrashtOutcaste (trans. Vasanthy Sankaranarayanan, OUP, New Delhi, 2019) ]

More than a century after the sensational excommunication of Kuriyedathu Thatri and a very large of men who she allegedly reported to be her paramours shook the aristocracy of the Hindu kingdom of Kochi, the story continues to haunt the imagination of Malayalis.

… the uncanny quality of her story of revenge has invited very many interpretations and the implications that it carried for the destruction of traditional order – through the very eruption of sex,  like a flood of lava, decimating hierarchies, revealing their fragility– have been exploited by writers inspired by the range of literary movements. These rewritings have appeared in ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ literary writing. Lalitambika Antharjanam, one of the earliest women to gain recognition in the field of Malayalam literature, retold Thatri’s story, hailing her as the Goddess of Retribution who struck at the roots of the rot that had beset traditional Malayala Brahmin life…

The Event of 1905

The event mentioned here was the Smarttavicharam of the Antharjanam named Thatri (Savitri) of the Illam(a Nambutiri homestead) called Kuriyedathu, which occurred in 1905, which was exceptional in that she named sixty-four paramours, and included scions of the most esteemed and powerful families of the Malayala Brahmin aristocracy besides Nair and other sudra men. The extraordinary nature of the case prompted the Raja of Kochi to allow a Purushavicharam in which the accused men were allowed to cross-examine Thatri. But no one escaped. All sixty-four, along with Thatri, were excommunicated. The Malayala Manorama (henceforth, M.M.) covered the case in detail in a series of reports from June 1905 until mid – 1906. The case severely jolted the idea of the Antharjanam (literally, ‘indoor-people’, referring to their extreme confinement to the interiors of the Illam) as meek and pious, and with no connections whatsoever with the world outside. According to reports in the M,M, this woman appeared unrepentant, ‘sinful’, calculating, ruthlessly bold and outspoken, someone who could argue “like a barrister” and defeat her opponents.[1] The M.M. felt obliged to explain:

            In earlier times, human beings were much less crooked and false. In those times if Antharjanams happened to commit some folly out of foolishness or innocence, they would readily confess….. they had no intention of deliberately defiling anyone. The Antharjanams subjected to smarthavicharam these days must be smooth operators.[2]

The rumour was that she collected information about the moles, discolouration, warts, and scars in her paramours’ intimate body parts, which formed incontrovertible evidence. After the trial, she was excommunicated along with the men she named and was reportedly sent to Coimbatore and was never heard of after. There have been other rumours that claimed that a popular Malayalam actor of the mid-twentieth century was her granddaughter, which she has denied.

The excommunication of Nair and other sudra men led to a flurry of protests against the Malayala Brahmin orthodoxy and the active encouragement of it by the ruler of Kochi from the modern-educated sections of society, but that did not stop the trial and the subsequent out-casting. However, the Brahmin scholar Kanippayur Sankaran Nambutiripad, a keen observer of his community, recalls in his memoir that since the majority of Malayala Brahmins were distant from the newspapers, and almost totally isolated from modern ideas, they were hardly touched by it.[3]

For Malayala Brahmin authorities, far from signifying a lack, a failing or a state of decadence (as it did to the newspapers), the successful conclusion of the Smarthavicharam could clearly signify the good health of the mechanisms of regulating sexual conduct.  It was an extraordinary ritualized ‘anti-trial’, the aims of which were not so much justice for all parties, as a confession of guilt from the accused woman. It suspended the accused Antharjanam of human status until proven innocent. In the period of the vicharam, she was referred to as ‘Sadhanam’ – translated here as ‘object’, but in strict terms, ‘instrument’, or ‘means to an end’. Confined to a special chamber, she was subjected to questioning by authorities, the Smarthans, and representatives of the community and the King until she confessed. The confession was the only way a conviction could be obtained and the trial would continue till then. Reformers in the community pointed out that since the trial involved feasting every day, it could ruin the family if the accused woman did not confess soon. And so, they alleged, the accused woman was subjected to violence to make her confess early. Once the confession was obtained, the woman and the men she named would be excommunicated through a series of very dramatic rituals and she would be considered dead. The excommunicated Nambutiri, however, could seek a chance to prove his innocence through getting a pampu – a ‘letter’ from the relevant authority granting such an opportunity – but the woman was cast away permanently.

But in the Thatri incident, few men escaped thus…

…One of the major axes of internal regulation among the Malayala Brahmins was undoubtedly sex.  Within the Illam, the relations between men and women and their everyday routines were carefully delineated. Women had to observe elaborate seclusion, and they traveled fully covered, virtually invisible, wearing the cloak (putappu) and holding the large cadjan umbrella (kuta). Many male reformers have remarked that a naked and brutal sort of patriarchy operated in the Illam, and that a powerful if subtle network of reminders worked tirelessly to instill in women a sense of inferiority right from their infancy. Polygamy was permitted to the eldest son of the Illam, who alone was allowed to marry from his caste, as a male heir was indispensable. Widow remarriage was proscribed; indeed, the plight of young widows and Antharjanams married off to men on their deathbeds (who, the reformers often pointed out, married these young girls sometimes to facilitate the marriages of their daughters!) was to be frequently evoked in defense of radical Nambutiri reformism. Women could not inherit land, and so their dowry was given as moveable property.

Yet one must remain cautious about attributing to the Antharjanams the sort of passivity and meekness that twentieth century observers and reformers saw. Antharjanams, especially among the Malayala Brahmin aristocracy, often obtained some knowledge of the letters; pre-pubertal marriages were uncommon, not sanctioned by custom. Everyday life in Illams was organized in a highly complex set of rules of conduct upholding various hierarchies. Sex difference was certainly important, but not the sole base upon which this structure of regulation rested; considerations of age, position in the kin network and intra-Jati hierarchy, marital status and other factors were also crucial. The very structure of regulation itself permitted potentially subversive spaces. The Antharjanams’ extreme seclusion, the practice of their travelling without husbands escorted by servants, the extreme difficulties, material and otherwise, in conducting the Smarttavicharam, all left spaces in which the rules ordering everyday life could be potentially upturned. To modern observers, the presence of such spaces indicated the ‘decay’ of the community. Indeed, in the early twentieth century, in the wake of the Kuriyedathu Thatri case, the M.M. was raising the alarm that the women and the servant-class in the Illams were colluding against the men and that breaches of chastity were on the rise among Antharjanams, and pleading that patriarchy among the Malayala Brahmins should be reinstated on more modern, stronger foundations4.

 

The Smarthavicharam and the Suffering Antharjanam

During my research into the modern language of binary gender in the early twentieth century Nambutiri reform movement, I collected news reports of several Smarthavicharams that were conducted at that time, and also memories of Malayala Brahmin women and men who recalled the stories of such incidents that circulated in their kin circles. Interestingly, I found that they did not always confirm the figure of the passive and suffering Antharjanam who lacked all individuation that dominant Nambutiri reformists upheld; rather, the figures that emerged from these sources were closer to the fictional Antharjanams who appear in the early short stories of the first-generation Malayali feminist author, Lalitambika Antharjanam, who suffer within the Illam but are neither passive nor incapable of strategizing.

In one instance, for example, the accused woman confessed that she mixed poison in her husband’s milk, and confessed only because her daughter had consumed it. In another, the young woman had a lover who regularly visited her in secret. The local community tried several times to investigate but could not find him anywhere in the Illam even after repeated inspections. Each time the men from the community entered the inner-quarters of her Illam to check, she would stand in a dark corner of a room behind her large cadjan umbrella, hidden from the view of alien men, as was expected of her. But after many such inspections, one of the inspectors noticed that there were four feet under the umbrella, instead of the expected two, and the culprit was caught. The woman left with him after excommunication. In a third, the woman sought to send money and valuables to a non-brahmin lover with the active help of Nair maidservants. There were even love stories – in Kottayam, of a young girl of the Illam who fell in love with a Nair student at the CMS College who was a lodger in their outhouse. Her father conducted the Smarthavicharam, but immediately married her to the young man endowing her with a handsome dowry, finding her husband a paying job, and gifting the couple a house to start their new life in.

But the most intriguing account I heard was from a younger brother of some men who were excommunicated after Thatri named them, which seemed to strip the event of its mystery, but appeared quite realistic to me. According to him, this event was stage-managed by the King of Kochi, a known diehard conservative, and many senior Nambutiris of the leading aristocratic houses, to eliminate the younger men who were starting to demand modernization and question their authority. Thatri who was apparently known to have several lovers and was at the brink of being ejected anyway, was persuaded to be the centre of a trial, and supplied with details of sixty-four men (the number sixty-four being endowed with special significance in the brahmanical traditions was apparently chosen for effect) and even more, and asked to recite them during the trial. Since she was being supplied with information through the agents of the state, she was undefeated in the Purushavicharam as well!!vIn other words, Thatri’s fabled memory which recalled intimate details of encounters and physical marks was not even real, according to this account. He claimed that this is the reason why so many younger males from leading Brahmin families were in her list. Thatri was sent away immediately and handsomely rewarded to stay untraceable. But this was a lesson: the effort to modernize the community began in right earnest after precisely to stall any disorderly moves.

Now, I cannot say if this is the ‘true story’ of KuriyedathuThatri though it accounts better for some of the mystifying bits, such as about her memory; there is no way one can really prove it to be so. All one can say is the story keeps growing and as a tale of revenge and the fall of an oppressive order, it will be retold as long as patriarchy continues to structure our lives in Kerala and elsewhere.

Notes

[1].          M.M., Report on Smarthavicharam, 22 July 1906, 1.

[2].          M.M., 22 July 1906, 1.

[3]           K.Sankaran Nambutiripad,  Ente Smaranakal vol.3, Kunnankulam: Panchangom Press, 1966, 116-117. For a detailed account of Smarttavicharam as it was practised in the early twentieth century in Malabar, see, C.A. Innes and F.B. Evans (eds.), Madras District Gazetteers: Malabar (Madras: Government. Press, 1951), 383-384.

[4] This and subsequent sections draw heavily on my earlier research on reformism among the Malayala Brahmins, published in my book En-Gendering Individuals: The Language of Re-forming in Early Twentieth Century Keralam, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2007, pp.111-71.

4           M.M., 12 July 1905.

 

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