Heritage house freed from caste claws gets dragged into political tiff in Kerala

Heritage house freed from caste claws gets dragged into political tiff in Kerala

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Indamthuruthi Mana, a heritage house in the temple town of Vaikom in Kerala’s Kottayam district, exudes a sense of the past and reflects a present that stand in contrast to each other. The two-storey building steeped in traditional Kerala architecture has seen it all – from Brahminical hegemony to a revolution that finally freed the temple town from the clutches of caste oppression. Nearly...

Indamthuruthi Mana, a heritage house in the temple town of Vaikom in Kerala’s Kottayam district, exudes a sense of the past and reflects a present that stand in contrast to each other. The two-storey building steeped in traditional Kerala architecture has seen it all – from Brahminical hegemony to a revolution that finally freed the temple town from the clutches of caste oppression. Nearly a century after that revolution – Vaikom Satyagraha (March 1924 to November 1925) – Indamthuruthi Mana today finds itself in the middle of a political debate over ownership.

The Mana, which was once a Brahmin power centre attached to a prominent family of the Travancore Kingdom, is now the headquarters of the toddy workers’ union that’s affiliated to the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), the trade union arm of the Communist Party of India. It is this ownership that the Bharatiya Janata Party is questioning. Recently, the state BJP unit accused the Left party of converting the heritage building into a “toddy shop”. There is more to the entire drama, but first the backstory.

Vaikom Satyagraha

On March 9, 1925, Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Vaikom to hold negotiations over letting people who were considered lower in the caste hierarchy access roads adjacent to temples and enter the Vaikom Mahadev temple. While even Christians and Muslims were allowed to walk through the roads adjacent to the Hindu temples at the time, ‘lower caste’ people had to traverse a circuitous and longer distance to ensure that rules of ‘untouchability’ and ‘unseeability’ were not violated.

Mahatma Gandhi, historians say, was not allowed entry into the Indamthuruthi Mana because he was Vaishya, a caste considered lower in the social order.

In 1924, this caste-based discrimination sparked off the famous Vaikom Satyagraha — a struggle for temple entry by the backward communities — and Gandhi landed in the town in 1925 to give his support to the struggle and reason it out with the then owners.

However, little did Gandhi know that the caste system that he was trying to challenge would not spare him as well. While he was called to Indamthuruthi Mana for negotiations, a little surprise awaited Gandhi.

According to historians, a makeshift structure was raised a few feet away from the Mana and Gandhi was offered a seat over there because he being a Vaishya, a caste considered lower in the social order, would make the Mana impure if allowed to step inside.

Gandhi was supposed to meet Neelakandan Nambyathiri, the then owner of Indamthuruthi Mana, which was the centre of a group of 48 powerful Brahmin families. As the name suggests, Mana is the Malayalam term used to refer to the dwellings of Kerala Brahmins (Nambudiris). Indamthuruthi also controlled the Vaikom Mahadev temple.

That the Mana today is open to people of all castes is an example of time course-correcting historical wrongs. Not just that, today it is the headquarters of the toddy workers’ union. Toddy tapping is conceived as the caste occupation of the Ezhava community, a group considered untouchable in the 1900s.

How the ownership changed

The first thing that strikes one upon entering the compound of the Mana is the sickle and hammer placed on an elevated platform painted red. Further, one can see a red flag flying high above the roof of the ancient building encapsulating the transformation that the Kerala society has gone through. A Maruti Omni, named Comrade, is parked on a corner carrying the banner of the All India Youth Federation, the youth wing of the Communist Party of India.

Indamthuruthi Mana has a unique mention in the history of Kerala’s renaissance movement, which witnessed epic struggles against untouchability and caste discrimination led by the backward communities in 19th and 20th centuries.

It was an unwritten rule that the lower caste people had to take permission from Indamthuruthi Mana even for a wedding in their family even though they were not allowed entry into the Mana. The entire locality was under the complete control of the members of Indamthuruthi Mana.

Comrade, a Maruti Omni, parked in a corner carrying the banner of the All India Youth Federation.

Acclaimed historian Robin Jeffrey, in his book Politics, Women and Well-Being: How Kerala became ‘a Model’, describes the Princely State of Travancore as a place that practised a rigid and ruthless system of caste. “Men polluted their caste superiors not merely on touch, but on sight,” says Jeffrey. Some castes were not just untouchable, but also unseeable. In the early 20th century, among the Avarna Hindus, the largest section was that of Ezhavas (an OBC caste), which constituted 16.5 per cent of the total population. It was believed an Ezhava could ‘pollute’ a Nair from 12 feet away and a Nambudiri Brahmin, at the top of the caste hierarchy, from as far as 32 feet away, and considered himself polluted by the mere sight of Dalits. Predominantly, Ezhavas engaged in weaving, farming as tenants, subtenants and caring for coconut palm and toddy tapping, a traditional occupation of their caste.

Kerala has a rich history of anti-caste movements led by leaders like Ayyankali and Sree Narayana Guru. The Vaikom Satyagraha of 1924 is one such significant episode of the emancipation of the lower caste that led to the temple entry of socially backward communities. Vaikom, a temple town, in the Princely State of Travancore (currently Vaikom Municipality in Kottayam) is home to the popular Shiva temple and was a place that rigidly followed the social order based on caste hierarchy.

Inspired by the teachings of Sri Narayana Guru and the formation of SNDP (Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam), the Ezhava community took up the issue of temple entry with the Travancore Legislature in the early 1900s. When freedom fighter and a former SNDP secretary TK Madhavan, who was a member of the Legislative Assembly at the time, tried to raise the issue in the Assembly, he was not granted permission. In March 1924, the suppression made way for an agitation predominantly under the leadership of the Ezhava community. Members from the Dalit and Nair communities also joined in the agitation.

Office of the toddy workers’ union in Indamthuruthi Mana.

The King of Travancore tried his best to quell the struggle but it only led to a greater support for the agitation with more and more people joining in.

As the fire of Vaikom Satyagraha spread all over India, leaders from other states also joined in. While Dravidian stalwart Periyar, along with TK Madhavan and K Kelappan, took the lead role, Communist Party leaders such as P Krishna Pillai, AK Gopalan and K Madhavan also played a pivotal part in the agitation. The culmination of the epic battle for the civil rights and dignity was the historic Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936 issued by the then Travancore King, Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma.

There’s, however, a backstory to the satyagraha and the subsequent temple entry proclamation as well.

Caste killings in 19th century Travancore

The struggle for the right to tread the public roads near the temple had actually begun much before the Vaikom Satyagraha. In 1806, a group of Ezhava youth in Vaikom publicly expressed their intention to use the roads as well as enter the Vaikom Mahadeva temple and began mobilising for their right. Velu Thampi Dalawa, the then ruler of the Kingdom of Travancore (1765-1809), ordered the massacre of the protesters and as many as 200 men who participated in the struggle were brutally beaten and killed. Their bodies were then thrown into a pond.

While the term ‘Dalawa’ refers to the ruler of the Kingdom of Travancore, ‘Kulam’ means an enclosed water body – a pond which used to be the major source of water for the public. The pond in which the warriors against caste oppression were drowned was known as the Dalawa Kulam. Eventually, this pond was filled with mud and on its remains now stands the Vaikom municipal bus stand.

Much water has flowed under the bridge since the Vaikom Satyagraha. The three Princely States of Malabar, Cochin and Travancore were joined together to form the new state of Kerala in 1956 with a unique world record of having the first democratically elected Communist government. The first government under EMS Namboodiripad brought the Land Reforms Act which saw the birth of a modern Kerala that put an end to feudal landlordism. The upper caste families that enjoyed absolute power over land, wealth and the life of the lower caste people became a story of the past.

The Brahmin leaders of Indamthuruthi Mana wanted to sell the property to raise funds for the wedding of a girl in the family.

The heirs to Neelakandan Nambyathiri could not hold on to the past glory and were compelled to dispose of properties to make a living. Advocate VB Binu, president of the toddy workers’ union of Vaikom Taluk, narrates the rest of the story to The Federal: “The toddy workers union was formed in 1943 due to the efforts of then Communist party leaders such as CK Viswanathan and PS Srinivasan. It was a time when the party laid a strong foundation among workers and peasants.”

The Brahmin leaders of Indamthuruthi Mana, VB Binu adds, wanted to dispose of the property to raise funds for the wedding of a girl in the family. The Communist Party wanted to buy the property and expressed interest. The fund was collected from the workers and supporters of the party. The registration was done on May 22, 1964. “Thus, Indamthuruthi Mana became the headquarters of the toddy workers’ union of Vaikom Taluk.”

‘History is unforgiving’

In 2018, Kerala witnessed large-scale protests organised by the BJP against women entering the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala. Kerala, which has a history of struggles and movements for civil rights, witnessed violent clashes unleashed by conservative groups against women of menstruating age entering the temple. The ‘rule of purity’ which was abolished decades ago was reincarnated in a different form. The Left parties headed by the CPI(M) and the state government that supported the entry of women in Sabarimala, launched a campaign urging people to reassert the values set by the renaissance movement and anti-caste struggles in the past.

Sunil P Ilayidom, a university scholar and a prominent Left intellectual in Kerala, referred to the story of Indamthuruthi Mana in his public speeches during the campaign against the Sabarimala protest. The Mana, which once kept the members of Ezhava community 32 feet away, came to be owned by the same community. The toddy tappers purchased the Mana that had denied them social equality and it has been functioning as the office of the toddy workers union ever since.

“History is unforgiving, it will make you pay for all your wrongdoings,” Sunil said in a public speech, bringing back to public memory the Indamthuruthi Mana and Vaikkom Satyagraha.

The Sabarimala verdict was referred to a larger bench for review and the dust slowly settled down. As a result of the Left-led counter-campaign demanding entry of all women into the Sabarimala temple, Indamthuruthi Mana became a centre of attraction and has been frequented by visitors.

The BJP’s discomfort

A few weeks ago, the Kerala unit of BJP stirred a controversy by demanding that the ownership of the building must be handed over to the government as it is a structure of historical importance. State BJP chief K Surendran has gone on to allege that a place where Gandhi had set foot is being used for promotion of toddy culture. This has led to a debate over what Indamthuruthi Mana stands for.

Surendran, in a press conference in Kottayam, said the transfer of ownership of the property to the CPI was ‘dubious’.

Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Viswam–son of CPI leader CK Viswanathan, who was a signatory to the registration of the purchase of the Mana by the party– challenges Surendran’s claim.

“Surendran’s statement is part of BJP’s national agenda to get hold of the historic monuments and to twist history. My grandfather [father of CK Viswanathan] was a toddy tapper, but he never consumed liquor. My father was a full-time activist of the Communist Party and was a member of the Legislative Assembly. I followed his path. The toddy workers’ union of CPI has owned this ancient building since 1964. It is the headquarters of the party in the locality and a place where anyone, irrespective of their caste, creed or political alliance, can come if they need to,” Binoy Viswam tells The Federal.

That the Mana today is open to people of all castes is an example of time course-correcting historical wrongs.

“We have conducted weddings of party workers and economically backward people who do not have a space to conduct such functions at Indamthuruthi Mana. The BJP wants to bring back the Brahmanical hegemony which is why Surendran has a problem with the Mana being owned by the Communist Party,” he says.

Binoy Viswam recalls childhood memories spent mostly in and around Indamthuruthi Mana. “After coming back from school, I would go and play there. My social life begins from that place. I used to meet a lot of comrades and was pampered by everyone.”

As far as the CPI is concerned, Indamthuruthi Mana is very much a part of the history of the party in Kerala and party members share a strong emotional bond with the property. “The Mana was purchased with the hard-earned money of the toddy workers in Vaikom. It was so hard for the party in 1964 to raise the money to buy the property. Mana is not only a symbol of Kerala’s fight against Brahmanical social order, but also a monument of our own struggles in building up the party,” says Binu, an advocate and Kottayam district secretary of CPI.

According to Binoy Viswam, it wasn’t easy for the Brahmins to part with the property. Vasudevan Nambyathiri, the legal heir of Indamthuruthi Mana, faced a tough choice when it came to selling the property in 1964.

“There were two buyers – one was the Catholic Church and the other was the Communist Party,” he says, adding that Vasudevan had to take a difficult decision over what would be placed on top of the Mana — a holy cross or a red flag. He went for the latter.

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