kanyakumari marriages
As the cityscape suggests, apart from Muslims and Hindus, there is a large presence of Christians in Kanyakumari. Pic: iStock

Why inter-faith marriages are widely accepted in Kanyakumari

The Tamil Nadu district has a centuries-old history of education and religious harmony, though castes still matter

In an interview with The Federal  ahead of the launch of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Kanyakumari, senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said the country’s “social fabric” is very disturbed today. Though, in many parts of the country, including the progressive state of Kerala, the social fabric is under threat by the ‘love jihad’ controversy, it appears Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu remains unruffled by such hatred.

Bitter debates in many North Indian states over ‘love jihad’ and the BJP’s zeal to discourage inter-faith marriages through administrative fiat have largely been ignored in Tamil Nadu. For, in TN, caste, not religion, plays a significant role. And inter-faith marriages have not only been accepted but also actively encouraged.

Interestingly, in general, in interfaith marriages between a Muslim woman and Hindu man, and vice-versa, caste identities tend to get overlooked.

Caste and religion

“While interfaith marriages are welcomed when a Hindu boy converts to become a Muslim to marry a Muslim girl, there’s a lot of opposition when a Muslim boy without converting to Hinduism marries a Hindu girl. Because, when a Hindu boy converts, he sheds his caste identity since Islam has no caste divisions but when a Muslim boy enters the Hinduism fold, he cannot be assigned a caste identity,” said Kanyakumari-based writer Meeran Mitheen, whose recent novel Oru Kadhal Kadhai is based on interfaith marriage.

Caste identity comes from birth and so one cannot change one’s caste but one can change one’s religion. Also, it is men who carry the caste to the next generation, he said.

“People find no problem shedding their caste identity. The anger, however stems from people’s inability to give a caste identity to a new member and this makes them oppose interfaith marriages,” reasoned Mitheen, adding that Hindutva forces, however, are not opposed to to interfaith marriages between Hindus and Christians because the latter absorbs the caste identity.

Also read: Har Ghar Tiranga, but TN Dalit panchayat heads not allowed to hoist flags

“When a person from the Nadar community (a major caste group in Kanyakumari) converts to Christianity, he will still be called ‘Nadar Christian’. It is impossible to find a person who is a ‘Nadar Muslim’. So, that is the reason Hindutva forces always targets interfaith marriages between a Hindu and a Muslim,” added Mitheen.

Muslims in Kanyakumari

TN has a large Muslim population, especially in areas like Ukkadam (Coimbatore), Melapalayam (Tirunelveli), Ambur (Vellore), Trichy and Kanyakumari.

The history of Muslims in TN can be broadly divided into three periods. Some poems from the Sangam age (circa 2nd century CE) have references to camels, implying that Arabs made business trips to the area. 

The other significant period is centred around the construction of the Cheraman Juma Mosque in Travancore in 629 AD by Malik Ibn Deenar. The mosque was named after a Hindu Chera king, Cheraman Perumal Baskara Ravi Varma. In ancient times, Chera, one of the three chieftains (the other two were Chola and Pandya) in Tamil Nadu, brought a larger part of Kerala under his kingdom.

According to legend, after the king saw a dream of a moon splitting into two, Cheraman came to know about Prophet Mohammed through Arabs who visited Travancore. Inspired by the story of Mohammed, Cheraman went to Mecca and embraced Islam.

While he was returning home along with Islamic scholar Malik Ibn Deenar, he died. However, the people who had accompanied him continued their journey and reached Travancore. As per to the king’s last wish, Deenar built a mosque named after him. It is the first mosque in India and the second Juma mosque in the world. The cordiality between Hindus and Muslims may have prevailed from then.

In the 16th century, a lot of socially weaker sections of Hindus converted to Islam during the Mughal invasion.

Early Tamil Muslims were mainly engaged in maritime trade and Kanyakumari was one of the hotspots on the Coromandel coast. The spread of Islam in south India, particularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, has been associated with maritime trade networks. A chain of Muslim settlements emerged along the East Coast from Pulicat to Kanyakumari. Hence, Kanyakumari became the foremost region to embrace Islamic culture.

Also read: Madras HC allows TN govt rule to appoint non-Brahmin priests in temples

Caste, communal forces, conversion

Apart from Muslims and Hindus, there is a large presence of Christians in Kanyakumari. According to the 2011 Census, Hindus are 47 per cent, Muslims are 4 per cent and Christians are 49 per cent. Because of this diversity, the Hindu rightwing finds it difficult to impose its agenda on the region.

“One reason for the difficulty lies in the history of the region itself,” said Kodikkal Sheik Abdullah, 88, based in Nagercoil in Kanyakumari district. Abdullah had fought along with Marshal A Nesamony, a political leader fondly referred to as ‘Father of Kanyakumari’ because of his role in merging Kanyakumari with Tamil Nadu.

The history of Kanyakumari as a separate district starts from 1956 after it was merged with Tamil Nadu. When it was under the Travancore regime, the people, who were mostly Tamils, are said to have faced a lot of oppression in the form of caste. The women from 18 castes were not allowed to cover their breasts and the fight against it later came to be known as ‘Upper Cloth Revolt’.

“It was the time Christian missionaries came here and they helped the people to get their right to wear the upper cloth. The struggles resulted in allowing converted Christian women to wear the upper cloth. Because of this a lot of people converted to Christianity,” said Kumari Kizhavanaar, who researches and writes about the district.

The missionaries also built schools. This created fear among the dominant castes and they allowed the depressed class women to wear the upper cloth. In order to prevent  conversions, the dominant castes started building schools as well.

“After conversion to Christianity, the people who had no stake on their lands, reclaimed their rights. Thus, the conversion gave the people a much-needed freedom in areas of economy, education and religion,” said Kizhavanaar.

The reformers

Nesamony spearheaded the struggle to merge  the district with Tamil Nadu. Conversions from one religion to another continued to happen even after the merger. “The district has 210 years of literary history. People from here started to go abroad for work. They are economically strong. So people do not worry about caste or religion when it comes to marriage,” he said.

When the region was part of Travancore state, leaders such as Ayya Vaikundar, Narayana Guru and Ayyan Kali undertook initiatives that built communal harmony between the religions, said Abdullah.

The communal harmony efforts ranged from allowing the depressed classes to walk on the same road as others to organising a common feast for all the religions. All the three activist leaders were from castes once regarded as depressed class. 

Vaikundar’s life is an interesting one. Born in the Nadar community, his given name was ‘Mudisoodum Perumal’. But the dominant castes objected to the name, saying it’s not meant for lower castes, and forced him to change his name. So his name was changed to ‘Muthukutty’. He spearheaded struggles against caste atrocities and demanded that his female followers wear clothes covering their chests.

Born in Ezhava caste, Narayana Guru, on the other hand, while fighting against caste discrimination, also organised an ‘all-religions conference’ to create harmony between the religions and the conference tradition still continues.

Ayyankali, born in the Pulayar community, brought in converted Christians to fight against the caste system by founding a movement called ‘Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangam’ (Association for the Protection of the Poor).

Vaikom struggle  

The efforts of all the three culminated in the ‘Vaikom Struggle’, also known as ‘Temple entry movement’. Its history spans a period between 1800 to 1925. In those days, the depressed classes were not allowed to walk in the main roads which were used by kings. Neither were they allowed inside temples. It was after social reformer Periyar took part in this struggle that it gained momentum.

Periyar himself has written and spoken about that struggle. In a speech delivered in Kanyakumari in 1958, he reminisced how Islam gave more push to their struggle. “In a conference held at Ernakulam, a resolution was passed condemning castes and urging Hindus to become Muslims, as there are no castes in Islam. The same day about 50 Hindus joined Islam. This trend started even outside and it terrorised the orthodox Hindus and Brahmins,” he said.

In order to prevent the opressed class Hindus from converting to Islam,  king Moolam Thirumal allowed all the people to enter temples.

No conversion, but solemnisation

When the Arabs came to the Coromandel Coast, they married women here and their progeny continued to live on this land. For this reason too, interfaith marriages are not new here. In interfaith marriages, the question of conversion would be left to the couples. However, the marriage would be done under one religious format.

“In my family, since I am the elder son and my wife was the younger child in her family, the marriage was performed with Christian rituals. But, since my brother was the youngest child in my family and his wife was an elder child to her family, his marriage was done according to the Hindu style,” said Kizhavanaar, who married a Hindu girl.

If either one likes to convert to their spouse’s religion, they are welcome to do it. That’s why, in one family, the elder sibling can be a Christian and the younger one, a Hindu, or vice-versa.

“The interfaith marriage between a Hindu and a Christian is more easily approved by the society in this district than between a Hindu and a Muslim, because in the former both belong to the same caste. But, in the latter, there is no caste. This reflects even in the elections. A Christian may vote for a BJP candidate just because he is from the same caste or the voter may have blood ties with the contestant,” said Mitheen.

Writer and translator Colachel M Yusuf said when a person converts to Islam from Hinduism, he or she sheds caste identities.

“But in North India, even after converting to Islam, people use the suffix after their names like Ahmed Patel. One cannot see Ahmed Pillai or Ahmed Mudaliyar in Tamil Nadu. This uniqueness also plays a role in Hindu – Muslim amity,” he concluded.

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