The Consolidation of Patriarchy in Kerala as a Consequence of British Colonial Influence

By Ashwati Kartha


“Women… always had a voice; and in Kerala, a woman knew how to make herself heard” (Jeffrey, 1992). The rise of feminist consciousness in India has sparked new tangents within the discourse about the conditions of women within the subcontinent. Kerala, located in Southeastern India, currently boasts of exemplary statistics in gender parity indicators, such as highest female literacy rate, longest life expectancy, and lowest infant and maternal mortality rates. Most notably, Kerala boasts of a sex ratio of 1084 females per 1000 males, as opposed to the national average of 946. Kerala’s developmental processes has been rather unique, as displayed by excellent performance in Human Development Indicators despite persistently low GDP per capita (Jeffrey, 2004). Further research on the “Kerala model” of development allows researchers to delve into the rich culture of matrilineal inheritance followed by large sections of the Keralite population. Within the context of feminist consciousness, Keralites, particularly Nair families, describe their matrilineal system with great pride.  

The joint-family matrilineal inheritance system, called the marumukkatayam system, is a practice in which family property is passed down through the female line. It is markedly different from the rest of Kerala, which followed patrilineal and patrilocal systems of family governance. However, the significance of the system diminished sharply under British colonial rule. Today, the system has been abolished legally, and the joint family system is rarely ever practiced. This paper contends that British influence led to the decline of matriliny through shifting legal, economic, and social systems away from pre-colonial modes of governance, and through popularizing the patriarchal family structures. The paper begins by throwing light on the functioning of the matrilineal system, thereby establishing a base upon which the rest of the argument stands. The second section of the paper describes the reasons for the shift away from the marumukkatayam system towards a patrilineal inheritance system. Finally, the paper traces the legal reforms which led to the breaking up of joint families and the dissolution of matrilineal practice in Kerala.

Historical Background

The matrilineal system in Kerala, according to some historians, grew out of the martial significance of the Nair (Kshatriya) caste. It is hypothesized that this unique system of family governance grew out of an extended war between the Chola and Chera dynasties (11th century CE) (Jeffrey, 2004). The Kshatriyas gained training in the art of warfare from the age of eight until their (preferred) demise on the battlefield, which left little time for familial engagements. The men would conduct visits purely for sexual purposes (called sambandhams) and become fathers while continuing to focus on their military training. As a result, the children would be under the sole care of the mother, and property would thus be passed down through the generations through the female line (Jeffrey, 2004; Pillai, 2016).

This marumukkatayam system meant that the freedom experienced by women in Kerala was unlike any other community or region in India. Women possessed the unique ability to manage their affairs largely independent of male influence. Women were not dependent on their husbands and were not considered transient members of their families, as they had the security of their familial home (their mother’s house) throughout their lives (Saradamoni, 1999). They were further allowed a degree of sexual freedom, as displayed by the acceptance of polyandry and termination of sambandhams (Jeffrey, 2004).

The system followed in Kerala, however, was not matriarchal. The karanavan (the senior male of the family) controlled the assets of the joint family as though he was the sole owner (Menon, 2012). Originally, the broader decision-making authority was often split between the senior women of the family and the karanavan. Age was the determining factor in shaping the power relations within the family. If the karanavan was the son or younger brother of a senior woman, she would be the head of the family (or the karnavatti); otherwise, it would be the male (Gough, 1961; Pillai, 2016). The karanavan, in this case, was extremely important to the family structure and exercised extensive social and economic control over his nieces and nephews (Menon, 2012). The karanavan’s children, however, lived with their mother, outside the realm of his influence. However, this system was in no way limited to Nair families. In an effort towards upward social mobility in the caste system, people of lower castes would also imitate higher castes. Prior to colonization, the matrilineal system had turned into a cultural tradition of the Malabar region, followed by a diverse group of individuals, including Muslims, such as the Mapillas[1] (Jeffrey, 2004; Menon, 2012). The matrilineal system was thus seen as a Malabar custom, largely free of religious affirmation (Saradamoni, 1999). “At the end of the nineteenth century, … 56 per cent of all families in Travancore, regardless of religion, were matrilineal. The proportion in Cochin and Malabar would have been at least that high. Obviously, the majority of Hindu families were matrilineal” (Jeffrey, 1992). Christians, however, exclusively followed the patriarchal system.

Pre-Conditions for the Shift to a Patrilineal Structure

This section of the paper traces the history of matriliny in Kerala’s society, particularly in the case of Hindu Nair families, and the systematic destruction of the marumukkatayam system as a result of shifting familial structures brought about under British rule. It first describes the way in which British influence led to rigidity in political and social structures that were previously fluid and dynamic, thereby causing issues that may have naturally been circumvented. Next, it describes the economic reasons for the decline of the matrilineal system, owing to British policies of development and economic administration. Finally, this section discusses the effect of cultural imperialism by the British in shifting popular opinion in favor of a patriarchal system, similar to that of England between the 18th and 20th centuries.

Rigid Legal System

British theories of jurisprudence that gained significance during the Enlightenment were in stark contrast to the pre-colonial Indian legal system. While the British focused on rationality and a codified system of rules and regulations, Indians focused on a more contextual and discretionary approach (Jeffrey, 2004). The Malabar region of India was governed primarily by the Houses of Cochin and Travancore, where the rulers, internal administration committees in each village, or people of higher castes would be involved in the arbitration of disputes and provision of justice. This was done on a case-by-case basis, keeping in mind the unique cultural traditions of each family (Jeffrey, 2004; Pillai, 2016; Galanter & Dhavan, 1989). The British, in turn, attempted to centralize the earlier modes of dispute arbitration into a multi-tiered judicial system. British rule, as well as British influence in the princely states, worked towards the systematic codification of laws pertaining to the governance of Indians, which was to be used in dispute arbitration along with customary law. In fact, it is theorized that a written legal text may not have come about if not for colonial perceptions of proper jurisprudence (Derrett, 1968).  As a consequence, a series of changes were made in the Kerala joint families’ modus operandi. For example, as described in A Treatise on Malabar and Aliyasantana Law (1922),

While the law of property among the marumakkatayis was based entirely on usages, British exponents of the law allowed little weight to the views of the people and were guided by their own notions of a perfect system of marumakkatayam law. (p.13)

Thus, this codification led to rigidity in legally accepted methods of functioning. An example of this rigidity was the colonial-era law related to the division of the joint family. Prior to the law, large taravads (matrilineal joint families)would split into fragments as the number of members grew to a point where family affairs became difficult to control. The new law, however, required that matrilineal joint families are “impartible” units, where “no member can claim any specific part or share of it as his own”. This put immense pressure on taravads, as all members of the family had to agree unanimously upon the mode of division of assets (Jeffrey, 2004). This made the matrilineal joint-family system highly impractical, as such issues could easily be circumvented by a shift towards a nuclear family system.

Further, the codification was often done within the context of British ideals of gendered power differences and “morality,” which changed the power relations within the taravad. During the latter half of the 19th century, the Madras High Court issued a decree legitimizing only male control of the taravad, effectively stripping karnavattis of their authority. This was done as a testament to Western ideals of the “natural dominance of males.” In fact, according to Arunima (1995),

A landmark judgement of 1855 argued that it would be a “violent interference” on the part of the court to “allow a precedent for women” to head households, as there was insufficient proof to determine the authority of a female over a male. (p.160)

Arunima further explains that this law served as an avenue for exploitation, in which “petty disputes flared up into legal cases”. Thus, this decree led to turbulence in the natural functioning of the taravad system where custom and legislation were in opposition to each other. Thus, the new rigid laws about the “perfect” matrilineal joint family system made the rather contextual working of this system difficult, which facilitated a shift towards the patrilineal system of inheritance.

New Economic System

The shifting economic structures further highlighted the futility of the matrilineal system, owing to the preponderance of salaried administrative jobs (Jeffrey, 2004). There were two primary modes of income for Nairs: military service and land revenue. Nair men would often be paid in cash by kings in exchange for military service. Landed income was also crucial to the maintenance of the joint family system. Traditionally, Nairs derived most of their income as land managers (long- term, non-cultivating tenants of land), who would receive rent from agricultural laborers and pay a smaller sum as rent to land owners, often Nambudiri Brahmins or kings. They would sometimes be outright owners of land. In this way, the economic situation of Nairs mandated that all members were jointly dependent upon the karnawan (or the karanavatti) and land for their material needs. However, there was a significant shift to a capitalist structure in the 19th century, due to British efforts to expand their centers of manufacturing, and to increase their trade. This period was characterized by wage occupations and a variety of jobs in the rising industrial and agricultural occupations. These forms of salaried occupations allowed multiple people within the taravad to earn an income, which facilitated the split to smaller nuclear families. Nairs often found jobs in different towns, and their sole income allowed them to buy or rent houses and land, where they would live with a small section of the family that was dependent on them as the sole provider (Gough, 1952).  The joint taravad system no longer held the same level of significance.

Further, a shift in Nair males’ primary modes of employment from warriors to salaried occupations allowed them to live with their families and raise their children. The earlier need for a matrilineal system of property inheritance had declined considerably. Men now wanted their share of the ancestral property, as well as their individual property, to go to their children rather than their sisters’ children. This was carried out in practice from time to time, but the idealized British notions of the marumakkatayam system considered this to be “against the law” (Jeffrey, 2004). This, particularly in cases of disputes, symbolized a new need for the legal recognition of patriliny in the Malabar region.

Cultural Imperialism

Finally, this period was characterized by an imposition of Enlightenment-era reasoning of correct family structures onto the Indian population. Enlightenment thinkers in Europe believed strongly in the natural dominance of males, which automatically put female-headed households in an inferior position. They also believed strongly in monogamy and the consecration of marriage, which was in direct contrast with Kerala women’s sexual freedom, and the practices of polyandry and “divorce” (termination of sambandhams), followed by pre-colonial Keralites. There was also intense discourse about the proper place of women, which was believed to be in service of the surrounding males, which directly contrasted with Kerala women’s independence (Hawkesworth, 2012). These schools of thought were brought to Kerala through the aid of Christian missionaries, who had grown in prominence and had begun to conduct sermons in an attempt to bring patriarchal family structures into the “backward” Keralite system of family governance. Their influence cannot be discounted as being aimed towards a select portion of Kerala’s population, as they had set up schools which were attended by a large section of the people. Literacy had always been an integral part of Kerala’s society, as even women received an education. It was in these schools that children were taught that matriliny is an abomination which would earn its practitioners a place in hell (Jeffrey, 1992). Thus, the blow to the matrilineal system through Christian influence in schools had been severe. However, matriliny was not only ridiculed by those under British influence. Hindus from other states and provinces who followed a patriarchal system were also highly critical of the marumukkatayis. Nairs were forced to deal with criticism from other caste-Hindus as well, who would say that “[Nairs’] wives are concubines and [their] sons are bastards” (Jeffrey, 1992).

Colonial influence in Kerala, in combination with the influence of other Hindus, constructed contemporary notations of morality and barbarity, which were slowly integrated into Nairs’ identities. By the end of the 19th century, the Nairs’ matrilineal kinship system began to take on negative connotations to the Nairs themselves. In line with the English ideology, Nair men too began to believe strongly in the importance of the family as a conjugal unit, characterized by control of female sexuality. Within the context of a newfound significance of women’s chastity and consecration of monogamous marriage, women also supported a shift towards the patrilineal structure, asserting that this would improve the “self-respect” of the Kerala woman (Jeffrey, 1990). The patrilineal inheritance system became popularly accepted as the proper method of kinship, and significant efforts were made to shift from the “barbaric” matrilineal system towards the “modern” and “progressive” patrilineal system (Arunima, 1995). In fact, one of the main goals for the Nair Service Society, a caste-based advocacy group, was the abolition of the matrilineal system in Kerala (Jeffrey, 1990). Thus, Christian European influence, combined with the other factors, served to convince large sections of the young population of the need to shift away from matrilineal systems to the system of patriarchy.

Legal Dissolution of Matriliny

Even after Indian independence in 1947, the rigid legal system and the negative attitudes towards marumukkatayis persisted. Numerous efforts had been made, by the Nair elites as well as the courts of Independent India, between the 19th and 20th centuries to reform Kerala’s family law. As the matrilineal system came under scrutiny within the context of the larger system of family structure, efforts were made to “legitimize” sambandhams. One of the earliest instances of legal reform can be traced back to 1896, when the Malabar Marriage Act was passed, which allowed couples to register legally their marriage. However, this Act had little impact, as less than 100 marriages were actually registered (Arunima, 1995; Jeffrey, 1990). Those who practiced matriliny had little reason to begin registering their sambandham, except for particular cases of legal dispute. Thus, the Nair elites’ effort to make matriliny “respectable” again had failed. The Travancore Marumakkattayam Act, or Nair Regulation Act I of 1912 was the next legal step towards the propagation of a nuclear, patrilineal family system, against the marumukkatayam system of bequeathal of assets in the princely state of Travancore. It describes laws for marriage as recognized by the state, the children’s right to the succession of their father’s separate or self-acquired property, and legal guardianship of the father to his minor children, and husband to his minor wife (Puthenkalam,1966). In 1914, Mannath Padmanabhan founded the aforementioned Nair Service Society (NSS), which advocated for further action on legal recognition of patriliny, legal rights to family property, and the abolition of the “evils” of the matrilineal practice. The NSS served as an organized front for the Nair community to engage in activism, particularly in a legal context. A second bill was set to be passed as per the request of what seemed to be the “community as a whole.” As a result, the Nair Regulation Act II of 1925 was passed in Travancore, which facilitated the partition of the joint family into smaller units. Every adult member was now guaranteed a right to individual partition, with safeguards such as separate shares based on the number of children per nuclear unit. This Act was extremely successful to their cause. During the period of 1925 to 1947, over 100,000 partition deeds had been registered in Travancore (Puthenkalam,1966). The Malabar Marumakkatayam Act of 1933 then allowed men to claim their share of the ancestral property in the rest of the Malabar region. On 1st December 1976, the Kerala Joint Hindu Family System (Abolition) Act was passed, which considered joint families as simply co-tenants of land (Jeffrey, 2004). Thus, patriarchy in Kerala was fully consolidated.

It is crucial to reiterate the point that legislation passed during the British rule only solidified and consolidated this decline. It was not an imposition of legislation that signaled the customary end of the matrilineal system. Rather, the legal consolidation of the patriarchy was a consequence of Hindu efforts to counteract the negativity surrounding the matrilineal system, by shifting to the more widely accepted (and respected) system of patriliny (Jeffrey, 1990). Further, perhaps as a natural succession to matriliny, daughters were given the same right as sons to be inheritors of their father’s property – a privilege unavailable to a large proportion of women in the rest of India until 2005.


In conclusion, this paper explains the ways in which British influence led to the systematic destruction of the matrilineal system in Kerala. First, British rule led to the imposition of rigid codified laws of the ideal type of the taravad system, which highlighted, if not created, impracticalities of a matrilineal kinship system. Further, the British expansion of their economy into Kerala had the effect of changing economic systems from joint income to individual salaried occupations, which allowed taravad systems to break down into smaller nuclear units. Finally, cultural imperialism by the British shifted public opinion away from matriliny towards the system of patrilineal kinship. In an effort to reform the system of family governance in Kerala, Nairs began to advocate for the legal dissolution of matriliny. Gradual systematic reforms were passed by the concerned legislative bodies, both in. Travancore and Malabar prior to independence and by the Kerala High Court after independence. These factors contributed to the consolidation of the patriarchy in Kerala, as Nair families today follow a patrilineal inheritance system.


[1] Mapillas are members of the native Muslim community in Kerala.


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