Rituals and Ceremonies of the Nair Community
The Nairs were the swordsmen, the military caste of the west coast of India. They constitute the majority of the Kerala Population. The ever so many rituals performed by this community reveal their matrilineality and their unique social setup.
A Nair woman has to observe certain ceremonies during pregnancy. Puli-Kuti, literally meaning drinking tamarind juice, is one among them. It is performed on a particular day in the ninth month. Not only the day, even the hour is fixed by the local astrologer. The pregnant woman, after having bathed and properly attired, is seated facing eastwards in the principal courtyard (natu-muttam) of the Tharavaad (ancestral family house). The Ammayi or maternal uncle’s wife and the brother of the pregnant woman officiate this function.
As soon as a child is born, the mother and the baby have to undergo some rite of purification. The baby is placed on the naked floor, and its father or uncle sprinkles a few drops of cold water on it. Pollution is observed for fifteen days after delivery, by all the members of the Taravad, during which period they are prohibited from entering temples and holy places or perfoming any ceremonies.
The Naamakarnam is performed on the twenty-seventh day after the child’s birth, when the Kaaranavan (senior most elder) of the Family gives to the child a spoonful or two of milk mixed with sugar and then names the child by calling it in the ear by the name three times. The Annaprasaanam is choroonu takes place on an auspicious day in the sixth month, when the uncle or the father of the child first feeds it with rice. It is only after this ceremony that the child can be fed with rice. The ear boring takes place at the end of the first year after the child’s birth,and the vidyaarambham in the third on fifth year.
Marriage among the Nairs used to mean either the formal ceremony of tying a Thaali round the neck of a girl, accompanied by festive celebrations, known as the Thaalikettu or Kettukalyaanam, or the ceremony of actual alliance as husband and wife known as the Sambandham or Pudavakoda. Now marriage is only the ceremony of alliance as husband and wife.
Kettukalyaanam or Thaalikettu
This is an indispensable rite in the case of every Nair girl before she attained puberty. This ceremony was performed within the age of eleven. The bridegroom who ties the Thaali can only be selected from certain well recognised families in the village called Machchampikkars. Those were the members of the earliest Nair families appointed for this purpose by Royal writs. This ritual has not been found in these days.
A day was fixed for arranging the preliminaries of the wedding. When all the relatives and men of the village were invited as also the astrologer(Kaniyaan), who forthwith fixed the most auspicious day for the celebration of the ceremony and noting it down in what was called a chaarthu or cadjan-writ, handed it over to the uncle or Kaaranavar of the family who then dismissed him with presents. The chaarthu stated that a boy should be selected as bridegroom whose natal star agreed with the girl’s and also decided what star would be agreeable and fixes a muhurtham for the ceremony as well as for fixing the main pillar of the marriage pandal. A few days before the commencement of the building of the pandal, invitations were sent round to all the relatives, friends and villagers.
The main pillar of the pandal is generally made out of the jack or Mukampala tree which is cut for the purpose that same day and raised at the south west corner of the pandal,which itself has to be built on the eastern side of the house. A Kathir Mandapam, a raised floor with a grounded roof beautifully decorated with pictures, mirrors and glass globes,was erected inside the pandal, and it was here that the actual wedding took place.
The first item in the celebration was what is called the Ayani oonu, a sumptous banquet given by the bride’s people to the selected bridegroom or manavaalan as he was called. On the morning of the first day of the marriage the girl wa s taken to the bathing tank in regular procession headed by one of the machampi women (sisters-in-law) well dressed and decked with costly ornaments and holding a plate containing the girl’s wearing apparel to be used after bath, a mirror and other toilet articles in her left hand and a metal hand-lamp called Changalavatta in her right. After bath the girl was taken back to the house and seated in a separate room, and then the assembled guests were served with a rich feast. Then came the rite called kaappukettu or tying prathisarabandham (a piece of string ) round the wrist of the girl. This is done by Maaran, the Brahmani or sometimes the brother of the girl, accompanied by a song called Subhadra Veli (the account of the famous marriage of subhadra by Arjuna) by the Brahmanis, a class of Ambalavaasis, who were accomodated inside the house and placing a garland around his neck formally invited him to start for the marriage pandal. A procession was then formed at an auspicious hour from the bridegroom’s house, the bridegroom mounted on an elephant or walking on foot and holding in his hand a sword covered with a palmyra leaf or sword case. He was received at the gate of the pandal by a few female members with the Ashtamangalyam in their hands and was then conducted to a seat of honour in the centre of the pandal where his feet are washed by the brother or maternal uncle of the girl. The girl was then brought by her brother, covered up like a ghosha woman holding in her hand an arrow and a looking glass and seated either next to him on the left side both facing the east. At the auspicious hour fixed by the astrologer who was in ready attendance, the bridegroom received Thaali (wedding jewel) and placed it round the neck of the bride, whereupon the groom’s sister tied it round the neck of the girl. Then the bridegroom’s own men, a machchampi, took the girl into the Manavara, a decorated apartment in the inner part of the house, where both the bridegroom and the bride were required to remain under a sort of pollution for three days. Then followed a sumptous meal in which the women were served first. Earlier marriage was celebrated for four days with various sports and amusements for the delectation of the visitors. On the fourth day a ritual called mannu-neer-korikondu varika (bringing of water from a neighbouring tank or well) was conducted with songs, music, and much pomp. On this night the females closely related to the girl make presents of sweetmeats. That same night the Maran removes the kaappu or string tied on the first day from the hands of the bridegroom and bride and performed certain purificatory rites, after which the couple went pto the neighbouring tank to bathe. This part of the ceremony is also attended with some pomp. The water brought during the evening will now be utilised to purify the bride and bridegroom. Then the bridegroom was dismissed with presents of rings,ear-rings etc. money and clothes by the father and uncle of the bride. This concludes the marriage ceremony.
These elaborate rituals are not found in the Nair marriages of the present day. The present day Nair marriages last only for a few hours. It is now mainlu conducted in some auditorium expecially in urban areas. The bride and bride groom stand on the exquicitly decorated stage and exchange garlands. The groom then ties Thali (mangalyasoothra) around the brides neck and gives her a sari which is of a typically traditional kerala style. They circumambulate around the stage with right hands clasped. Now the marriage is considered to be over. 
Death Ceremonies
When a person is about to expire all members of the Tharavad, one by one pour a few drops of water into his or her mouth, holding in the hand a piece of gold or a gold ring. If the Tharavad is rich enough to afford it, a small gold coin is placed in the mouth, and the lips are closed. As soon as death has taken place, the corpse is removed from the cot or bed, and carried to the Vatakkini (a room in the northern end of the house) where it is placed on long plantain leaves spread out on the floor. The corpse is covered from top to toe with a washed cloth and placed on the floor with the head towards the south. Two lamps are kept burning, one near the head and the other near the feet of the dead body and here the neighbours come to take a farewell look at it. Then comes the Pattum Kachayum Iduka or the placing of new clothes over the body by all the relatives outside the Tharavad. The body is then removed to the cremation ground in the south eastern corner of the Tharavad garden, where the funeral pyre is prepared of the wood of a mango tree cut for the ocassion. The corpse is generally carried by the Machampikkars on a bier made of bamboo. The body is placed on the pyre with the head towards the south. The junior members go around the pyre three times, throw paddy and rice over the dead body, prostrate at the feet of the corpse and then set fire to the pyre, the senior Anantharavan (nephew), who is next in age to the deceased, leading them. When the body is burnt the funeral party bathe, and then follows the breaking of the pot. This consists off the chief mourner carrying on his head an earthern pot filled with water with a small hole at the bottom, thrice around the pyre and then breaking the pot near the head of the corpse. When the water thus trickles down from the pot, the junior members direct the particles to the corpse, probably to purify it.
The Sanchayanam or the collection of the cremated remains takes place generally on the seventh day. The bones are collected in the new pot and deposited at the foot of a fig or jack tree, and at the next convenient oppurtunity removed therefrom and thrown into the waters of a sacred river. The ground itself, where the body has been cremated, is dug up and sown with grains or planted with a coconut tree. After the Sanchayanam funeral cakes are offered to the manes of the departed, in which the Maran officiates as priest.
Pollution is observed for fifteen days by the members of the Tharavad and by the widow and children of the deceased. The sixteenth day is the day of purification. On that day, a grand feast is given to all the relatives and friends of the Tharavad.
1. Fawcett.F Nairs of Malabar. Asian Educational Services, NewDelhi. 1990.