Kerala is renowned for being the most progressive state in the Republic of India. Despite its rather lackluster economic performance and chaotic political culture, Kerala has accomplished extraordinary feats which include achieving 100% literacy along with the highest HDI, life expectancy and sex ratio in the country. Thousands of unskilled laborers from the northern states of Bihar, Bengal and Assam flock to Kerala to take advantages of higher wages. And unlike most parts of India, communal violence is relatively rare in Kerala, where it’s not uncommon to see a Hindu temple host an Iftar!
However, Kerala has not always been the liberal utopia we know today. In fact, before the eve of Indian independence, the region that now constitutes present-day Kerala comprised of two kingdoms in the south, Travancore and Cochin, while the northern region, known as the Malabar district, was directly governed by the British Raj through the Madras Presidency.
Within Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, a smorgasbord of ethnic and religious communities interacted, though not always peacefully. The caste system was in full effect and if you knew what was good for you, you’d remember to be mindful of your place.
In the small, coastal kingdom of Cochin, sandwiched between Travancore and the Malabar district and overlooking the Arabian Sea, there was a mesmerizingly beautiful young woman named Savitri.
Savitri, also known as Thathri, was from a village called Ezhumangadu. She was born into the Kalpakasseri Illam, a prominent Namboothiri Brahmin clan. In the Malayali caste system, the Namboothiris were considered the most pure and elite of all Brahmins. In the early 1900s, the Namboothiris commanded respect and reverence with an iron fist. The Kalpakasseri Illam was no exception.
When Savitri was born, her father was informed by an astrologer in the village that because Savitri was born in an inauspicious time, she would be destined to “bring calamity, destroying the family honor”.
Now, I don’t believe in astrology or any supernatural superstitions. However, in hindsight, the astrologer did foreshadow the dramatic events that would transpire in Savitri’s life, affecting not only her and her family, but her entire community.
Despite being barred from enrolling in school, as was the custom for Namboothiri girls during that period, Savitri was said to be incredibly intelligent, exhibiting a keen interest in literature, music and the performing arts. She was also said to be tactical and mischievous, as later events would demonstrate.
In colonial India, girls were married off at outrageously young ages. In those days, the age of consent was ten years of age (and Indians weren’t too pleased when the British authorities attempted to raise the age of consent to twelve years of age).
Savitri, in accordance with the prevailing custom, was married off, at the age of eleven, to Chemmanthatta Kuriyedathu Raman Namboothiri, a well-to-do Brahmin who was old enough to be her grandfather!
In a Namboothiri clan, only the oldest brother was afford the right to marry a Namboothiri girl. The younger brothers were supposed to invest their life in ritualistic worship and scriptural study, however, to no consequence, they often engaged in sexual relationships with Nair (warrior/royal caste) girls. Meanwhile, the oldest brother could have as many wives as he desires, to quench his sexual appetite. The wives were known as the Antharjanam, or women of the house. They were confined within the walls of their own homes, rarely going out unless accompanied.
Chemmanthatta Kuriyedathu Raman Namboothiri had a unusually unquenchable libido. Despite having multiple wives at the age of sixty, Raman unapologetically visited numerous prostitutes to get his dick wet!
One day, in the year 1905, Raman felt satisfied after one particular session with a young girl, whose face was concealed with a veil. Upon lifting the veil, Raman was shocked to find that the girl was none other than his teenage wife, Savithri!
This unforeseenable episode brewed a scandal in the entire locality. Raman accused his wife of adultery, ushering in a Smarthavichanam trial.
According to Namboothiri tradition, Smarthavichanam trial was called as a woman was accused of adultery. The trial would unofficially began with the interrogation of the accused woman’s maidservant. If the maidservant incriminates her mistress, the local community would inform the Maharajah (in this case, the Maharajah of Cochin). The Maharajah would dispatch a group of judges (or smarthans), officially beginning the trial.
The accused woman would be subjected to intense interrogation, which usually involved physical and mental torture. The woman would be isolated in a cell where she’d be forced to befriend snakes and rats. Sometimes, the smarthans would place the woman in a mat, roll it up, and throw it from a housetop!
If, after all the physical trauma, the woman maintained her innocence, the smarthans and the elders of the community would find her “not guilty” and, out of the goodness of their hearts, invite her to join them in a celebratory meal.
However, if the woman is found guilty, she would be disowned by her family and ostracized from her village. Furthermore, she would be stripped of her Brahmin privileges.
Savithri stood bravely as the defendant of the Smarthavichanam. However, she requested that if she is found guilty, her lovers should also bare the consequences that are destined for her. Savithri admitted her guilt. When she was requested to name each of her male lovers, Savithri named each of them, one by one, identifying them by certain physical “markers”.
After six months, the number of lovers had amounted to sixty-four men, including thirty Namboothiri Brahmins, ten Tamil Iyer Brahmins, eleven Ambalavasis (assistants to the Brahmin priests), and thirteen Nairs. Many of these men were prominent writers, artists, scholars and religious leaders. Even more surprisingly, two of Savithri’s lovers were brothers of the head Smarthan of the trial! These men were considered the pillars of the local community. However, thanks to this trial, their moral shortcomings and sexual deviance were exposed, and they lost all credibility with the community.
Savithri had implied that there was a sixty-fifth man. Before she named this elusive figure, Rama Varma XV, the Maharajah of Cochin, abruptly called off the trial. This unpredictable action triggered a widespread rumor that the maharajah himself was the sixty-fifth lover. One could only imagine that chaos that would have erupted following that revelation!
As expected, Savithri and her innumerable lovers were outcasted. Savithri’s father commited suicide following the conclusion of the trial. The other members of the Kalpakasseri Illam feld their village in effort to flee their family shame.
No one knows exactly what happened to Savithri after leaving her village. Some claimed she married an Eurasian railway worker and eventually settled within the interior of present-day Tamil Nadu. Others claim she assumed a totally new identity and married into a Nasrani Catholic family. Proponents of this rumor claim that the famed veteran Malayalam actress, Sheela, is the granddaughter of Savitri (which she denies). Some even claim she moved to Ponnani, converted to Islam, and assumed the name Sainu Beevi.
Although her identity and whereabouts remain elusive (although I think by now, it’s safe to assume she has passed away), Savitri’s action had a lasting impact not only on the Namboothiri community but Malayali society as a whole.
Savitri had single-handedly exposed the moral hypocrisy of her community. The men who were hailed as revered role models were revealed to be libidinous perverts masquerading the image of purity and chastity. It’s a classic “preacher-in-a-brothel” situation.
After the trial, more and more people started questioning the castist values that insisted on purity. In the 1920s, a group of young, western-educated men formed the Namboothiri Yuvajana Sangam, which aimed as promoting societal reform within the Namboothiri community. The Sangam was successful in eradicating the practice of Smarthavicharam. Eventually, other social reform movements formed, urging people to question the regressive values to which they were bound. By the 1950s, caste norms were relaxed and the feudal system was eradicated. Women in Namboothiri clans were free to venture out in the world and pursue a career of their own.
Today, women in Kerala are considered to be the most liberated in India. Intercaste relations in Kerala are seen as a model for the rest of the country, as even intercaste marriages are common. Religious superstitions are not taken seriously. Despite all its political grief, Kerala is a beacon of human progress.
It’s bizarre to believe that a teenage nymphomaniac from the 1900s could have had such a profound influence.
Then again, sex can be a potently effective weapon 🙂