The Nayar of Kerala

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A Brief Introduction to the Nayar

In Kerala of southwest India lives an indigenous people, called the Nayar. They are known for having a highly complex and intriguing culture. The Nayar are a warrior caste who follow matrilineal dissention and are said to practice polygyny. (Nowak & Laird, 2010) Their villages are primarily sustained thru agriculture and display little significant difference between wealthy and poor families socially or economically. This society is unparalleled in many cultural aspects by any other culture even within India. Their traditions, beliefs and customs have been the subject of much debate and fascination among scholars and authorities for generations.

Birth and Infancy in Nayar Society

As with many cultures, the arrival of a Nayar child marks a blessed and celebratory event. It is the beginning of life, a journey full of ups, downs, hardship and elation. For the first few days of a Nayar infant’s life, he or she will spend all of their time secluded in a sacred room bonding in private with his or her mother, no man or unmarried woman is permitted to enter the area. A baby whose mother dies in child birth may be raised by any woman who is in milk within the village and will be seen as her child for all purposes. It is important that the child be claimed by a woman in milk for two reasons, one because a Nayar baby may not receive any food aside from its mother’s milk for quite some time, and two because Nayar children reside in their mother’s home all their lives. (Panikkar, 1918)

Once the child has reached twenty-eight days old and its umbilical cord has been buried or burned, the child may then be brought out of seclusion and accompany its mother to the local temple. Once at the temple, the child will undergo two consecutive ritual ceremonies. During the first ceremony a beautifully adorned belt will be place around the child’s waist, this is a rite of passage which now allows for the child to be clothed and adorned with ornaments. The waist garment often includes a special amulet or jewel which is meant to ward off demonic presences and evil. The second ceremony entails naming the child and is done by having a priest or an astrologer read his or her horoscope, the clergymen then recites the initials of the stars, planets, or deities that accompany the reading and the child’s name is forged with the use of a chosen set of those letters. (Panikkar, 1918) The child is now part of the village and is no longer a newborn. Around this time a he or she may receive their first taste of food when they are introduced to cooked flour made of dried fruits.

Childhood as a Nayar

When a Nayar baby reaches six months of age another ceremony takes place, the child is taken once again to the temple where he or she and their family are purified and cleansed. This is done through the reciting of chants and bathing in the temple bath, then dressing in white. Once cleansed, a male relative will offer a gift to the gods and then feed the child a bit of rice from his bare finger. It is believed by the Nayar that during this ritual a child will receive the positive aspects of the person feeding them. (Panikkar, 1918) When this ceremony is complete the child’s life will go on somewhat uneventful for some time. There appears to be little information regarding the life of a Nayar child after infancy aside from the occasional mention of assisting an older relative during various ceremonies

Due to the fact that the Nayar are somewhat of a matrilineal society, the Nayar child has very little need for a patriarchal figure. (Lee, 1982) It is a highly beneficial set up since many Nayar children may not be aware of the father’s paternity, they simply refer respectfully to all of their mother’s lovers as lord or leader and to her first husband as little father though even he has no patriarchal authority over them. (Lee, 1982) Nayar women have sole parental responsibility for their children. (Nowak & Laird,...
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