An ancient kingdom, its people

An ancient kingdom, its people

My mother’s family came from the very southern tip of India, an area then known as Naanchinaad. It included present day districts of Kanayakumari, Nagercoil and possibly parts of Thirunelveli. I say so because we had branches of the family settled all over the place till about fifty years ago.

Though largely Tamil speaking, till Indian independence, many of these areas formed parts of the ancient Malayalam speaking kingdom of Travancore. In stark contrast to the soft and musical Tamil, Malayalam is full of hard consonants, true to its Sanskrit influence. A Keralite living in these parts picked up Tamil easily, but for a Tamilian, Malayalam proved to be a life long struggle. It is still so, with many Keralites becoming Tamil movie stars and politicians, blending easily with the culture on the other side of the huge Western Ghat mountains. Thanks to their roots, my maternal relatives were naturally bilingual, at home both with Tamil and Malayalam.

Till 1795, The capital of Travancore was situated at Padmanabhapuram, near today’s Nagercoil city. It was moved to Trivandrum, a completely Malayalam speaking area of the kingdom by King Marthanda Varma. Padmanabhapuram is now in Tamilnadu, though many Malayali families are still living around the sprawling four hundred year old palace. This well preserved palace is now a protected monument and a major tourist destination.

Naanchinad was known as the granary of Travancore, and comprised of vast paddy fields, broken mountains, many rivers and ancient Hindu temples with stunning entrance towers that stood seven storeys tall or more. Here, the earth was rich and the climate kind. There were large ponds sporting bright crimson lotus flowers by day. At night, the blue and ivory water lilies opened up as if by magic. Folklore has it that the lotus is in love with the sun and the water lilies favour the moon. Black granite cliffs rose abruptly from the plains and flashed crystal bright waterfalls and rainbow spectrums during the monsoons. The people were gentle farmers with open smiles and simple needs. It was a beautiful, evergreen landscape and in many places, retains its charm even today.

Those were times when castes and communities were serious issues and set clear divisions among men. Muslims and Christians were almost unknown in the area in during the early reign of Travancore kings. My mother’s folks were of a Hindu community called Naanchinattu Pillais. Though not Brahmins, they were vegetarians. and married their women in front of a sacred fire. The bride and groom then walked seven times clockwise around the holy flames to seal the bond. Essentially landlords, they owned vast tracts of paddy fields and everything around it. Well literate, they were also very shrewd businessmen. There were also other Pillai communities in the area such as Chetty Pillais, Eranial Pillais, Konars etc. These are not to be confused with Naanchinaatu Pillais though some intermarriage must have taken place in later years when the caste system lost its rigidity.

The men who worked in the fields were of lower castes, but were treated fairly by the landlords. The relationship between the workers and the landlords continued unbroken for centuries without any actual oppression. Half a century ago, the socialists and communists came along and convinced the workers that they were little better than slaves. Their governments restricted land ownerships to a few acres and organised farming went to the dogs. Strong ethnic varieties of seeds and livestock were replaced by tissue cultured impostors that did not last two monsoons. Christian missionaries came along and offered racial equality through religious conversion. On the good side, the missionaries also brought good schools for the converts’ children. The educated children turned their backs on farming and wandered away happily to become bus conductors and office clerks. Time, the ever great time, had finally brought an end to a beautiful way of life, an agricultural system and everything else that went with it. Naanchinaad died and the Pillais strayed away like schooner captains set adrift on small dinghies. The communists and socialists went away too, to destroy other citadels of exploitation, never offering a stable substitute to sustain the traditions and culture that give a land and its people their proud and colourful flavours.

Besides being vegetarians, the Naanchinattu Pillais followed the very strange inheritance system of Marumakkathayam. Explained simply, under this system, a man’s wealth was inherited by his sister’s sons rather than by his own children. This ensured that women became secure and that the wealth was gathered around them, allowing an unbroken chain of agricultural practices and traditions. The Maharajas of Travancore followed the same system, whereby the next king was a direct nephew rather than a son. Since the Nanchinattu Pillais understood the system, they found favour with the king. The fact that they were educated and shrewd found them key employment with the government. Many became ministers, accountants and heads of various departments when the kingdom shifted its capital to Trivandrum in 1795. A great granduncle of mine, Sthanu Pillai, was the automobile engineer at the Travancore Palace. He looked after the maintenance of a large fleet of limousines owned by the king. A great grandfather, Madhavan Pillai was a civil engineer who built several of the aqua ducts in the Kanyakumari and Nagercoil districts. Many of these still exist and are functional. Most Nanchinattu Pillais eventually settled around Trivandrum and became qualified professionals and businessmen. They also intermarried with the Nair community and shed their vegetarian ways.

Once in a blue moon, I visit the imposing stone temples at Sucheendram, Padmanabhapuram and Kanyakumari. Once inside, it is several measures cooler and calmness descends on me. I run my fingers over the carved granite pillars near the sanctum sanctorum and marvel that blood of mine has stood in the very spot and touched the same stone many centuries ago. Temple bells ring out, incense is burnt and bright camphor fire lights up the Lord’s silver masked face. The main evening worship has begun.

Another time, when I came out of the Aadi Kesavaperumal temple, I saw a red flag and a huge poster. The temple employees have formed a communist union for themselves. I walked away quickly before anyone could recognise and exterminate another surviving feudal pest.

I have never forgiven the men who decided on the boundaries of states when India became a republic. Nor the ones that weeded out systems and their inherent harmonies, without offering any alternatives. Remember, next time you visit this place, if you find anything beautiful on this ancient land, it was created a long, long time ago.


a) The Nairs were another upper class community of landlords living in the area near Padmanabhapuram. Many Nair men were soldiers by profession and later the Nair Brigade formed the backbone of the Travancore state army. However there were very few Nair families living in interior Nanchinaad to the east of Padmanabhapuram.
b) Little of this content is researched. Nor should it be considered the work of a professional historian. The knowledge comes from listening to three older generations, none of them alive today. Some of the old folk might have added a little colour to their memories. Most of the facts fit together, and so, there must be a large amount of truth in the stories. I wish to offend none, except perhaps the Communists. Ha ha, there, I have taken bail again.


4 responses to “An ancient kingdom, its people

  1. That place still has an old world charm. My grandpa came from Minchira in KK dist.

  2. nice reading;
    however, i have a few nanchinattu pillai friends; they are non-vegetarians.
    however, the saiva vellala pillais of nellai district are vegetarians.
    karpaka rajan v chettiar

  3. I am also a Nanchinattu Vellala Pillai . My family was settled in Cochin/Vaikom a long ago.

  4. Krishna Raj V.P.

    I also happen to be a Nanchinattu Vella Pillai. Find some reference about the community in the Novel “Dharmaraja” by C.V. Raman Pillai. Does any one have any details about those who were in the service of Travancore Kings?

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