Column | A Malayali ethnographer's pioneering book on Kerala society

The book, 'Malabar and Its Folk...' by T K Gopal Panikkar covered more than just the area that is known as Malabar. Image courtesy:

We often learn about the history of Kerala by reading old accounts of foreign travellers, or journals and manuals written by colonial administrators who worked there. Most of the great Indian scholarship about the customs, traditions and culture of places that make up modern day Kerala came after India attained independence. One notable exception is a book written at the turn of the 20th century by T K Gopal Panikkar, an alumnus of Madras Christian College.

Titled 'Malabar and Its Folk: A Systemic Description of the Social Customs and Institutions of Malabar', Panikkar’s book covered more than just the area that is known as Malabar, focussing on the land between Gokarna and Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari).

“Never perhaps have the national customs and beliefs of an Indian district been set forth in fresh light so freely by a native of that district as in this book,” Frederick W Kellett, who taught the author at Madras Christian College, wrote in the introduction. “Mr Gopal Panikkar has not lost his affection for the customs of Malabar, any more than the ethnographer of the West has lost his love for May-day customs because he sees in them survivals of obsolete modes of life; but he sees them from a higher point of view and with a truer and more comprehensive vision than the mass of his neighbours. And so his book should have for them the value of interpreting to them some of the practices whose meaning they have wholly or partially lost.”

The book described some of the festivals of Kerala like Thiruvathira, Vishu and Onam, feudalism, village life and castes such as Nairs (whose customs dominate the text), Nambudiris and the oppressed groups, as well as Syrian Christians.

Panikkar also covered the prevalent beliefs in spirits and demons. “Mythical accounts of demons and monsters are very common in Malabar,” he wrote. “There are, in parts of the country, old dilapidated buildings, wells and tanks, of which no one knows the makers or builders. They are ascribed by the common people to labourers of the demon class who existed in the country in very early times, and who went by the name of Bhuthathanmar.”

Panikkar added, “The accounts given of these beings are very curious. Herculean labours are attributed to them. They are believed to be a kind of ‘midnight wanderers’ under a demon chief who regulates and directs their night work. They must not go out in day-time, but must shut themselves up from human gaze.”

Another absorbing chapter is on snake worship. “Malabar is a country which preserves to this day primitive institutions of a type peculiarly fascinating to the ethnologist.” Panikkar wrote. “Of the various kinds of primitive worship still practised in the country, that of the serpent occupies a prominent place. Here the serpent is deified and offerings of poojahs are often made to the reptile. It has got a powerful hold upon the popular imagination.”

There is almost no information about Panikkar available in the public domain. His education at the Madras Christian College gave him a worldview that was almost radically pro-Western. He nonchalantly wrote about the “civilising influences of Western refinement” in the book.

Interestingly enough, Panikkar compared Kerala to Scotland and Ireland. He wrote: “Malabar presents striking analogies to Scotland on the one hand and to Ireland on the other, not in the degree of civilization attained by its people, not in the deep-seated elements of culture and spirit of progressive enlightenment, nor in the stern hardihood and the persevering industry of its people, but in the fascinating charms of its native scenery, in its systematised clan-organisation, and in the primitive religious conceptions of its people embodied in ridiculously superstitious tales about fairies, witches and demons in the one case, and in the other, the politics and the stirring political history marred constantly by the repetition of tales of bloodshed and uprisings on the part of a people groaning under the oppressive yolk of an agrarian despotism and in their blind submission to the mandates of a privileged class.”

With its critical look at Malayali society of that time, Panikkar’s book helps a 21st century reader understand how much social progress Kerala has made since 1900. It is also a good way for those who are disconnected and uprooted from the state to have a better understanding of the Malayali mindset. Later editions contained a dedicated chapter on the Muslim community, written by lawyer Hamid Ali, making the book more comprehensive.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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