A Deeply Caste-Ridden Society
The 19th century Kerala, India, was a deeply caste-ridden society, with the Namboothiris caste at the very top of the caste hierarchy.
They were the Brahmins of Kerala, who were also wealthy landlords and did not believe in doing any manual labor/work. Their work was knowledge related, and they were also the advisors of the Cochin King on sensitive matters.
They were powerful and wielded enormous authority over other people. They had immense social and economic capital, and nobody could dare to utter a word against their clout.
In stark contrast were the Namboodiri women who had little to no privileges. They were called antharjanam, which meant “indoor woman," which was exactly what was expected of them. They were trained from childhood to marry and only to serve their husbands and do nothing else. They were either married to a man with many wives or unmarried. To say life was a prison would be an understatement; life was a living hell.
Thathri Kutty was a young Namboodiri woman whose courage and boldness shook the entire community. In an era when Namboodiri women were not allowed to leave their houses, let alone fight battles, Thathri Kutty used her sexuality to revolt against the misogynistic system and ushered in an era for the liberation of women.
She destroyed the feudal caste system single-handedly, ending evil practices like child marriage, polygamy, and the rule of marrying off teenage girls to wealthy older men. Her courageous act made her one of the legends of Kerala.
The Discrimination Against Women
The entire Namboothiri system revolved around the preservation of the property within the family and ensuring that their property was not left to somebody else's (read: outsiders) possession. So under this system, only the eldest son was allowed to marry to produce a male heir.
The younger Namboothiri men were not allowed to marry but could have any number of illicit relations called "sambandhams" with other women. Similarly, the eldest Namboothiri could have any number of wives he wanted. In such a situation, the Namboothiri women led a very insecure existence at the whims and fancies of the male to which they were tied.
The female discrimination was shocking. Female children were raised to understand that they were inferior to their brothers. The girl child's education was reading, writing, and basic arithmetic, while that of the boy child was an elaborate learning process throughout his entire life.
A Namboothiri girl was not allowed to talk or even be seen by men. They must preserve their chastity at any cost, and a maidservant would be constantly assigned to them if they travel to "watch" over their activities.
And widowhood was a curse. As the marriage of widows was forbidden, these women would be a despised group in the Namboothiri community, only fit for household activities, sleeping, and living in isolation.
The Story of Thathri Kutty
Thathri Kutty was a young Namboodiri who was married off at 18 to a much older man in his 60s. We don't know exactly how her marriage broke up, but it is believed that she objected to her husband's debauchery and was thrown out of the house. It is unknown whether it was her helplessness or choice that brought her to the profession of being a prostitute.
One day, all hell broke loose. An old man from her community came to "visit" her. The man had the shock of his life, as she was none other than his wedded wife, whom he had unceremoniously thrown out of his house. He was humiliated and angry and immediately complained to the community elders to conduct a “Smarthavicharam” on her misconduct.
Smarthavicharam was a trial that was conducted on those Namboodiri women who were suspected of adultery. The trial was a community punishment in which the woman and all her lovers were excommunicated from the land. The trial was supposed to be fair but generally ended up one-sided, with the woman in question humiliated and thrown out and the men escaping scot-free despite their involvement.
But Thathri Kutty would have none of it. She had one opportunity, and she capitalized on it to the fullest. She did something no woman had done before. She fought like a lawyer and named every single man who had come to her.
The persons involved were all of high standings in society and “respectable” people. She gave evidence; description of birthmarks, moles, body deformities, and even genital descriptions. The trial lasted for seven months, and she kept the whole male community on tenterhooks for fear of naming them.
She finally managed to excommunicate the very men who exploit women sexually, exposing the disgusting injustice in the misogynistic system.
Thathri’s Smarthvicharam was in 1905 and was the last one before the practice itself was abolished.
Though it was an infamous episode, the trial marked the beginning of woman's liberation in Kerala, ushering in long-lasting changes in the caste system. As a single, supposedly weak woman, she would close the shutters on an unjust system of oppression and misogyny by sheer boldness and chutzpah.
Her act did not just impact the 65 men who were excommunicated. It broke the backbone of the feudal structure. Her trial opened doors to new discussions and gave women the power to question and lead their lives independently.
It was indeed a turning point in the history of India.
- Thathri Kutty, The Woman Behind Women's Liberation in Malayalam History
- How a ‘Promiscuous’ 18-YO Kerala Woman Dismantled A Notorious Caste-Based Ritual
- Exclusive Interview! Anumol: Everything I knew about Thathrikutty was wiped off after hearing the narrative of ‘Taya.’
- The case of Thathri - A sex worker vs. an oppressive system of 1905!
- Kuriyetathu Thathri - Nandan
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2023 Ravi Rajan