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So I’m Malayalee, but more specifically, I’m a Nair. Nairs are one of the many castes in Kerala, and were traditionally warriors and rulers, so something a la “kshatriyas” for those more familiar with that term. This is meant to be an informal, yet informative piece. It’s based on my own understanding, what I’ve been told, and what I’ve read from various sources.
By the way…as a sidenote, we are not in any way associated with the hair-removal product of the same name. In fact, Nair isn’t even pronounced the same way. Nair, the caste, is pronounced “na-yer.” “Na” as it sounds in “narwhal” and “yer” as it sounds in…yer… Please get this straight, I can’t tell you how irritating it is when people mispronounce it. Of course, I’m not assuming people are born with the innate sense of how to pronounce “Nair.” Now you know.
Nairs themselves can be subdivided into a whole host of subcastes. For the life of me I don’t know the differences between all of them, but there are at least four or five I can name off-hand. Nair, Kurup, Menon, Pillai, Nambiar, Panicker, and Paliath, to name a few. Nairs have, traditionally, held a pretty prominent place in Malayalee society. Sometimes a bit too prominent, and this gets into the whole mess of caste discrimination.
The most curious aspect of Nairs, I think, are their origins. I don’t mean mythological, though from what I understand, the claim is that they were from the North and fled to the South to escape Parashurama. However, perhaps even more interesting than that, is their ethnic origins. While there is one school of thought that claims that Nairs are most likely descended from the Newars (from Nepal/Tibet)–owing mostly to the presence of pagoda-like motifs in traditional Nair homes and temples–there are others that claim alternate origins. A friend of mine sent me an article a while back, the citation is below:
Thomas R, Nair SB, Banerjee M. A crypto-Dravidian origin for the nontribal communities of South India based on human leukocyte antigen class I diversity. Tissue Antigens. 2006; 68(3): 225-234
This article analyzes a set of South Indian nontribal and tribal groups to determine their similarity to other ethnic groups. For Nairs, what was found was that according to the analysis of HLA Class I haplotypes was that, Nairs were most similar to Western Europeans. I am incredibly curious to know if any migration theories exist for this postulation. Another existing theory places Nairs under the same umbrella as other supposed Indo-Scythian descendants (Pashtuns, Jats, Rajputs, etc.). Indo-Scythians spent most of their heydey in the region from present-day southern Afghanistan to around present-day Mathura, in northern India. This ties in weakly with the mythological origin of the Nairs having Northern ancestry.
I suppose if Nairs are related to Jats, that justifies my love for bhangra…right? Maybe? Ok, I’m getting off topic.
Nairs have their own martial arts system, known as kalaripayattu (color-ee-pie-yettu). It is most notably a form of swordfighting, but it does incorporate hand-to-hand combat as well. It is an incredibly elegant system of fighting (note: the fighters may look wiry but they are fast!). There has been speculation that kalaripayattu found its way into East Asia, by way of Bodhidharma–a Buddhist monk supposedly from Kerala–and this gave rise to the modern system of kung fu. Again, just speculation…but it would be pretty cool if someone definitively proved this to be the case.
Nairs were (and to a degree still are), notably, matrilineal. This is a rarity in most of the world, let alone India, where patrilineal societies are still the norm. Indeed even among Nairs, this has taken root. Yet it used to be that the women, not the men, were the real power-wielders in the household. Women were the property owners and family heads, though men were the legal heads of household in some cases.
Nairs have also had an enduring tradition of snake worship. I actually don’t understand the nuances of this, aside from the fact that most Nair households in Kerala had a sarpa kaavu on their property for the worship of snakes. The tradition fits in alongside traditional Hindu practice, but I believe this may be something that even predates Hinduism in the area.
If anyone else happens to have some cool/interesting Nair facts, or other information related to what I’ve presented here, feel free to comment.