Caste oppression was in its heyday, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Kerala (then Travancore), a fact observed by the colonial administrators and the archival records alike. Caste practices in Kerala were indeed inhuman and deplorable, including practices of both untouchability and unapproachability as well as various practices of ayyitham (pollution by contact) and theendal (caste-transgression). One such practice was that of maintaining caste distance from the Pulayas, regarded as one of the lowest castes in Kerala, having to walk at least 66 paces behind a Namboothiri Brahmins as per the caste norms followed in the then state of Travancore. The very sight of a person belonging to one of the so-called lower castes was considered to be polluting.
Folklore from this period, such as the story of Mathilerikanni, mention that the upper castes could slay a lower caste person for touching them or even being visible in their line of sight. Vyavaharamala a text written in the 16th century, very similar to the Manusmriti in its content, was used by the ruling house of Travancore as a code of law until the enforcement of Monroe reforms. The text has several chapters dedicated to punishing caste-based transgressions. Some of the punishments include pouring boiling lead into the ears of a Shudra if he happens to listen to or overhear the Vedas. Another punishment mentions that women from the lower castes if found to be having any sexual liaison with an upper caste must have their heads shaved off and starved to death after being publicly flogged. Similar to this was another punishment given to upper caste women who were found in a relationship with Shudra men. The punishment would entail the woman being exiled after having her head tonsured and smeared with pock marks indicating her ‘immorality’ and being made to ride on a donkey throughout the province.
Canter Visscher, a Dutch priest, who was in Kerala between 1661 and 1666 also notes that the lower castes were a ‘miserable lot’ and lived sub-human lives and that they were not allowed to enter the houses or temples of the upper castes. Francis Buchanan also notes that there were about 40,000 slaves in Kerala in 1801 CE referring to ‘slave-castes’ or the untouchable communities.
The case of the Pulaya women in particular was one which speaks volumes about the caste oppression that the then untouchable community were subjected to. The Pulayas were tied to the soil (as they were landless labourers who worked on the fields and their services could be transferred along with the transfer of land) as several inscriptions from the 9th century CE onward (such as the Thiruvalla/Huzur Copper Plates) attest. Along with the gifts of lands, the Pulayas who worked on them as well as their services were also gifted to the donees by the rulers.
The Pulayas and the Parayas, two castes which were deemed as the lowest in the caste hierarchy, were also prohibited from wearing new clothes or lower body garments which were longer than their knees. They were not allowed to wear gold ornaments or blouses. One of the worst forms of oppression was that they were disallowed from wearing upper body garments particularly in the presence of upper caste landlords. They were made to wear garlands and necklaces made out of stone to signify their lower caste status. It is against this backdrop, that the Kallumaala Bahishkarana Samaram (Protest for the Removal of Stone Garlands) led by Ayyankali, the revolutionary Dalit leader from Kerala, becomes significant not only as an anti-caste protest, but also as a challenge to Brahmanical patriarchy and a historical struggle for human dignity. Alas, the struggle has not yet found its place in the Kerala History textbooks or even in mainstream histories of Kerala!
So, what was the Kallumaala Samaram?
On October 24, 1915 a riot broke out between the lower castes and the upper castes at a place called Perinad in the district of Kollam in (present day) Kerala. The cause of the riot was the defiance of caste rules by Pulaya and Paraya women who had started to cast off the Kallumaala (garland of stones) which they had to wear as part of their caste insignia. These women were inspired by the rebellion of women in Shanar (1858-59) asserting their right to wear the melmundu (breast-cloth), which had angered the upper caste who attacked them.
Much like the case of the Balais mentioned by Dr B. R. Ambedkar in his Annihilation of Caste, the Pulayas were given several threats by the upper castes to stay within their caste boundaries. Ayyankali, who was by then a prominent leader of the Dalits in Kerala raised a slogan of ‘oru adikku randu adi’ (two slaps for one) against the threat. The upper caste Nairs and Namboothiris unleashed violence against the lower castes and the latter retaliated leading to a riot-like situation. It came to be known as the Perinad Mutiny.
In December, a meeting which witnessed the gathering of hundreds of Dalit women at the Peeranki Maidan (field) at Kollam in a circus tent, Ayyankali issued a declaration for the Dalit women to cast off their stone-garlands and upholding their right to wear the melmundu (upper body garment). He also asked the upper castes to accept the abovementioned rights of Dalit women. Hundreds of women who were gathered at the meeting broke their stone garlands and threw them away as a mark of liberating themselves from the shackles of caste. What is to be understood is that this was not just a historic event in the anti-caste struggle, but a milestone in the gender history of South India and also the history of human rights.
While there has been some discussion on the story of Nangeli and the breast-tax in the public domain in the recent past, the Kallumaala Samaram remains underrepresented though it has comparatively more evidence than other such incidents. There was not even a single programme held this year (2020) to commemorate the historical struggle and no mainstream newspaper even dedicated a column of news to it on October 24.
Indifference betrays bigger picture of Invisibilisation
It must also be remembered that other than a single aided college in Punalur, Kollam, there are no educational institutions or universities which bear the name of Ayyankali who when asked his greatest wish, responded that it was to see at least ten graduates from among the Pulayas. He was also the one who led an agitation at Oorotambalam in Thiruvananthapuram to enroll a Dalit student named Panchami in the public school which led to violent attacks on Dalits by the upper castes and eventually led to the burning down of the school building.
The marginalisation of Dalits and Dalit histories continue in different forms – in terms of Dalit leaders not being given due recognition, the state not recognising and acknowledging their contributions to society, the non-commemoration of historical events in which Dalits prominently figured, and side-lining them as Dalit-exclusive events, not regarding them as events that changed Indian history. This marginalisation should also be understood as epistemic violence against the Dalits. It is not only during instances of violent rape and murder such as the ones that happened in Hathras and Walayar that one’s conscience should be awakened to the issue of caste -oppression, but also in the everyday acts of caste-denial and invisibilization at both the macro level and also in acts of micro-aggression against the lower castes that caste is perpetuated and reinforced.
Malavika Binny is a historian who specialises in the History of Science and works on pre-modern Sanskrit and vernacular texts of South India.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author.)