Wednesday, February 1, 2012


The caste system in Kerala differed from that found in the rest of India. While the Indian caste system generally modelled the four-fold division of society into Brahmins,Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudras, in Kerala the Nambudiri Brahmins formed the priestly class and only rarely recognized anyone else as being other than Shudra or untouchables outside the caste system entirely. Thus, the Kerala caste system was ritualised but it was not the varnamodel found elsewhere.

Origin of the caste system

One theory that explains the origins of the caste system in the Kerala region is based on the actions of Aryan Jains introducing such distinctions prior to the 8th-century AD. This argues that the Jains needed protection when they arrived in the area and recruited sympathetic local people to provide it. These people were then distinguished from others in the local population by their occupation as protectors, with the others all being classed as out-caste.

An alternate theory states that the system was introduced by Nambudiri Brahmins themselves. Although Brahmin influences had existed in the area since at least the 1st-century AD, there was a large influx of these people from around the 8th-century when they acted as priests, counsellors and ministers to invading Aryan princes. At the time of their arrival the non-aboriginal local population had been converted to Buddhism by missionaries who had come from the north of India and from Ceylon. The Brahmins used their symbiotic relationship with the invading forces to assert their beliefs and position. Buddhist temples and monasteries were either destroyed or taken over for use in Hindu practices, thus undermining the ability of the Buddhists to propagate their beliefs. The Brahmins treated almost all of those who acceded to their priestly status as Shudra, permitting only a small number to be recognised as Kshatriya, these being some of the local rulers who co-operated with them. By the 11th-century, this combination of association with kings and invaders, and with the destruction or take-over of Buddhist temples, made the Brahmins by far the largest land-owning group in the region and they remained so until very recent times. The origins of Malayalam as a language is also attributed to the Nambudiri Brahmins' mixing of Sanskrit and teh local Tamil language. Their dominating influence was to be found in all matters: religion, politics, society, economics and culture.

A theory by Barendse claims that the caste system established by Nambudiri Brahmins of Kerala was in accordance with the will of Parasurama, an avatar of Vishnu. The Nambudiris had control of 64 villages and asserted that they had powers given to them by the gods, so much so that they considered even other Brahmin groups to be outside the caste hierarchy. The Nambudiri Brahmins were at the top of the ritual caste hierarchy, outranking even the kings. Anyone who was not a Nambudiri was treated by them as an untouchable.


The Nambudiris had varying rules regarding the degrees of ritual pollution while interacting with people of different castes. In return, most castes practiced the principles of untouchability in their relationship with the other regional castes. Untouchability in Kerala is not restricted to Hindus- among Christians, the established Syrian Christians considered newly converted Latin Christians to be untouchables.

The rules of untouchability were severe to begin with, and they were very strictly enforced by the time of the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in the seventeenth century. Robin Jeffrey quotes the wife of a Christian missionary, who wrote in 1860 that

... a Nair may approach but not touch a Namboodiri Brahmin: a Chovan [Ezhava] must remain thirty-six paces off, and a Pulayan slave ninety-six steps distant. A Chovan may remain twelve steps away from a Nair, and a Pulayan sixty-six steps off, and a Parayan some distance farther still. A Syrian Christian may touch a Nair (though this is not allowed in some parts of the country) but the latter may not eat with each other. Pulayans and Parayars, who are the lowest of all, may approach but not touch, much less may they eat with each other.

Nonetheless, higher ranked communities did have some social responsibility for those perceived to be their inferiors: for example, they could demand forced labour but had to provide food for such laborers, and they had a responsibilities in times of famine to provide their tenants both with food and with the seeds to grow it. There were also responsibilities to protect such people from the dangers of attack and other threats to their livelihood, and so it has been termed "an intricate dialectic of rights and duties".

Pre-18th century caste system practices Mannappedi/Pulappedi

Mannappedi or Pulappedi was a custom which existed until 17th century. An upper caste woman could lose her caste if any male from the castes like Pulayan, Parayan or Mannan happened to see her or touch her in any way. Then she would be expelled from her caste or had to move with the "low caste" person or her outcome of her situation would fall under the jurisdiction of the elders of her caste. This custom was applicable particularly on the night of a specific day that fell in the month of Karkatakam (roughly corresponding to the dates 15 July to 15 August) in the Gregorian calendar. Given the social and economic status of lower caste people of that era, it is believed that this practice could not be perpetuated without social sanction, and definitely not without the connivance and/or tacit support of the men of upper castes. Thus, the men folk used this practice in the garb of a custom to stifle the freedom or rights of women belonging to upper castes. This practice is also seen as a chance provided by tradition to the oppressed Pulayan class for registering their intentions of revenge as a symbolic act. The practice was abolished by the then ruler, Kerala Varma in 1696 after which he had to face the ire of the royal servants (Pandarathu Kuruppus).

Caste system in colonial Kerala

By the late nineteenth century, the caste system of Kerala had evolved to be the most complex to be found anywhere in India, and the exploitation of it had become considerable. Barendse explains this development

... it turned to gross unrequited exploitation only in the nineteenth century when the British colonial pacification removed the threat of the peasant harvests being ravaged by armies or robbers and their huts being burned to the ground.

By this time there were over 500 groups represented in an elaborate structure of relationships and the concept of ritual pollution extended not merely to untouchability but even further, to un-approachability and even un-seeability. The system was gradually reformed to some degree, with one of those reformers, Swami Vivekananda, having observed that it represented a "mad house" of castes. The usual four-tier Hindu caste system, involving the varnas of Brahmin (priest), Kshatriya (warrior), Vaisya (business person, involved in trading, entrepreneurship and finance) and Shudra (service person), did not exist. Kshatriyas were rare and the Vaisyas were not present at all. The roles left empty by the absence of these two ritual ranks were taken to some extent by a few Nairs and by non-Hindu immigrants, respectively.

Caste in the modern era

The process of amelioration of caste distinctions by various social reform movements were overtaken by the events of 1947. With independence from Britain came the Indian constitution, and Article 15 of that document outlawed discrimination on the grounds of caste and race. Myron Weiner has said that the ideological basis for caste "... may be (almost, but not quite) moribund" and that

No political parties, and no political leaders, no intellectuals support the idea that caste is part of a natural moral order based on hierarchy, ... that caste is occupationally linked and hereditary, that each caste (jati) embodies its own code of conduct (dharma), and that low-caste membership is the consequence of transgressions in one's previous life.

Weiner points out that despite the ideological demise

... as a lived-in social reality it is very much alive. The demise of orthodoxy, right beliefs, has not meant the demise of orthopraxy, right practice. Caste remains endogamous. Lower castes, especially members of scheduled castes, remain badly treated by those of higher castes. But the gap between beliefs and practices is the source of tension and change. The lower castes no longer accept their position in the social hierarchy,and no longer assume that their lower economic status and the lack of respect from members of the higher castes are a "given" in their social existence. But the movement for change is not a struggle to end caste; it is to use caste as an instrument for social change. Caste is not disappearing, nor is "casteism" - the political use of caste - for what is emerging in India is a social and political system which institutionalizes and transforms but does not abolish caste.

Despite being outlawed, the Indian governments – both at national and at regional level – do still recognise distinctions between the various communities but this recognition is for the purpose ofpositive discrimination. Throughout post-independence India, including in Kerala, there exists a framework of reservation which is fluid in nature and attempts to recognise the socio-economic disparities between various castes. Depending both on local circumstances and on the changing modern socio-economic environment, castes are classified as Forward Classes (or General), Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes (Dalits), and the Scheduled Tribes. These classifications determine what - if any - assistance a caste community receives in any given area. Formal classification lists are compiled for the latter three groups; any community which is not listed in any of those categories is, by default, a Forward Class.

Writing in the context of violence against Dalits elsewhere in India, Frontline magazine said in 2006 that

Successive governments have brought in legislation and programmes to protect the rights of Dalit communities. The safeguards enshrined in the Constitution stipulate that governments should take special care to advance the educational and economic interests of Scheduled Castes, that untouchability is unacceptable and that all Dalit communities should have unrestricted entry in Hindu temples and other religious institutions. There are political safeguards in the form of reserved seats in State legislatures and in Parliament ... But prejudices die hard.

However, Frontline goes on to note that the situation in Kerala now, is not as severe, to the extent that those seeking to research

... continuing inequality and deprivation among traditionally disadvantaged groups in Kerala do not include Dalits any longer in their list of communities that still represent "distinct pockets of deprivation". The list includes only the traditional coastal fishing communities, the S.T.s [Scheduled Tribes] of North Kerala, and the new underclass of Tamil migrant workers ...

As of the 2001 Census of India, there were 68 Scheduled Castes in Kerala and they comprised 9.8% of the population. They were 99.9% Hindu, with a negligible number of Sikhs and Buddhists.[15] There were 35 Scheduled Tribes, comprising 1.14% of the population and with 93.7% being Hindus. A further 5.8% were Christian, and the remainder Muslim or "not stated".

The Forward category includes castes such as Nambudiris, Samanta Kshatriyas, Nairs, Ambalavasis and Syrian Christians. They are not extended reservations in government jobs and educational institution due to their relatively better economic and educational status in pre-independence Kerala. However amongst these castes, Nairs have become most influential due to their numerical superiority. Unlike in North India, the proportion of Brahmins(1.4%) in Kerala is not very significant. Hindu Forward Castes form around 16% of the population of Kerala, while Syrians form another 9.5%. Therefore, the Forward Castes makes up around one fourth of the population of Kerala.

The decrease in the Forward caste population has been extremely steep in Kerala, compared to other parts of India. During the 1816, 1836 and 1854 censuses, the forward castes outnumbered the other Hindus by a huge margin. Despite the conversion of large number of outcaste Hindus to Christianity, caste Hindus became a minority during 1860s and 70s and during the 1931 and 1941 censuses, the Outcaste Hindus numbered almost twice as much as the Caste Hindus. For example, Nairs numbered two times as much as the Ezhavas during the 1854 census (30% to 15%). But as of 1968, Ezhavas outnumbered Nairs significantly (22% against 14.4%).

The upper cloth controversy or upper cloth revolt refers to incidents surrounding the rebellion byNadar climber women asserting their right to wear upper-body clothes against the caste restrictions sanctioned by the Travancore kingdom, a part of present day Kerala, India.

In Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, no female was allowed to cover their upper part of the body in front of Brahmins until the 19th century. Under the support of Ayya Vaikundar, some communities fought for their right to wear upper clothes and the upper class resorted to attacking them in 1818. In 1819, the Rani of Travancore announced that the Nadar climber women have no right to wear upper clothes like most non-Brahmin castes of Kerala. However, the aristocratic Nadan women of Kerala, their counterparts, had the rights to cover their bosom. Violence against Nadar climber women continued and reached its peak in 1858 across the kingdom, notably in Neyyattinkara and Neyyur.

On 26 July 1859, under pressure from the Madras Governor, the king of Travancore issued a proclamation announcing the right of Nadar climber women to wear upper clothes but on condition that they should not imitate the style of clothing worn by upper class women. Though the proclamation did not quell the tension immediately, it gradually subsided as the social and economical status of Nadar climbers progressed in subsequent decades with significant support from missionaries and Ayya Vaikundar. Cause

19th century Travancore had a rigid caste hierarchy. There also existed a strict code of respect and mannerisms enforced by the state. The women were not allowed to carry pots on their hips or wear clothes that covered their breasts. Baring of chest to higher status was considered a sign of respect, by both males and females. The Nadar climbers of Travancore fared a little better than their Tirunelveli counterparts, but, however, suffered severe social disabilities ,unlike their Tirunelveli counterparts, under the rigid caste hierarchy of Travancore. As Swami Vivekanandha stated, Kerala was a mad asylum of castes. The Nadar climber women wear not allowed to cover their bosoms, as most of the non- Brahmin women, to punctuate their low status. However the aristocratic Nadan women, their counterparts, had the rights to cover their bosom. Uneasy with their social status, a large number of Nadar climbers embraced Christianity.


Proselytization to Christianity by missionaries started in Tirunelveli and started spreading to Travancore. In 1813, Colonel John Munro, British dewan in the Travancore court, issued an order granting permission to wear upper cloth to women converted to Christianity. The order was downgraded to wearing kuppayam, a type of jacket worn by Syrian Malabar Nasranis upon pressure from the pidakkars, the king's ruling council. Christian missionaries continued proselytising the Nadar climbers and helped the women train in lace making and other profitable business. The Nadar Christians became upwardly mobile.

1858 revolt

Though the Nadar Christians improved their status with the aid of Christian missionaries, the outcome of the conversion was not according to the point of view of the missionaries. The Christian Nadar climber women, along with the Hindu Nadar climber women, wore the upper jacket in the manner of upper class women and also their Tamil counterparts, inorder to improve their social status. In turn they were discriminated and even abused by upper class men. One of the Nadan families of Agastheeswaram, instead of supporting their depressed counterparts, supported the upper class men and claimed that only their women had the right to wear an upper cloth.

In 1858, fresh violence broke out in several places in Travancore and the governor of Madras presidency, Charles Trevelyan pressured the Travancore king. On 26 July 1859, the king issued a proclamation leading to the restoration of equal rights to wear upper cloth to all Kerala Nadar climber women

Sambandham (literally "relationship") was a form of marital system primarily followed by the Nairs in Kerala. This system of marriage was followed by the matriarchal castes of Kerala, though today the custom has ceased to exist. Alternate names were used by different social groups and in different regions; they included Pudavamuri, Pudavakoda,Vastradanam, Vitaram Kayaruka, Mangalam and Uzhamporukkuka. According to Act IV, Madras Marriage Act, 1896, a Sambandham means:

an alliance between a man and a woman, by reason of which they, in accordance with the custom of the community to which they belong, or to which either of them belongs, cohabit or intend to cohabit as husband and wife

On a suitable date fixed by the astrologer, the groom and his family would arrive at the house of the bride. They would be entertained in the southern hall of the house which would be specially decorated for the ceremony. Two big brass oil lamps and paras of paddy would be kept in the centre of the room, with a bunch of coconuts in front of the lamp. The groom would be seated before the lamp. At the auspicious hour, and the bride would be brought in by an elderly lady before the groom. With the permission of the elders of the bride, the bridegroom would present the bride a wedding shawl orpudava . Once the bride receives the cloth she presents the bride groom with "thamboola" (betel leaves and arecanut). Following this a feast would be given in the house and the ceremony would be concluded. It may be stated that a Sambandham may take place only if the bride had already had her elaborate ritual marriage known as Kettu Kalyanam previously.

Status of Sambandham

This strange law (Sambandham) was established to prevent them (Nair men) from fixing their love and attachment on their wife and children. Being free from all family cares, they might be more willing to devote themselves to warlike services,for which they were born

- wrote Wingram, Malabar Law and Custom

As per the general definition, marriage is expected to bind the man and woman involved into a permanent alliance. However under the previously existent Marumakkathayam law of Kerala, this kind of life long alliance was not considered the most important part of marriage. Sambandham marriages were more contractual and dissoluble at will by both parties though by the late 18th century changes started appearing in the system and Sambandhams started becoming more regularised. The reason for this system was that under the matriarchal system women had property rights and children inherited from their mothers and not their fathers. As a result fathers were excluded from almost any responsibilities on the upbringing or care of their children. The same were fulfilled by the maternal uncles of the children. Hence Sambandham was basically the right to cohabit and a sort of partnership between a man and a woman. It was generally fixed by families and did not depend on individual choice though divorce could be contracted. A woman could have Sambandhams with a male of her same caste or of superior caste. However Sambandham cannot be considered synonymous to concubinage because it could only be contracted after certain rituals which were mandatory on the pain of excommunication. William Logan in his Malabar Manual says on page 136:

Although the theory of the law sanctions freedom in these relations, conjugal fidelity is very general. Nowhere is the marriage tie - albeit informal - more rigidly observed or respected, nowhere is it more jealously guarded or its neglect more savagely avenged. The very looseness of the law makes the individual observance closer; for people have more watchful care over things they are liable to lose.

Namboodiri veli
The veli system was beneficial to the matriarchal upper castes as also to the patriarchal Namboodiri and other Brahmin castes of Kerala. Among the Namboodiris only the eldest son was permitted to marry with a view to maintain the integrity of ancestral property. The remaining males contracted Sambandhams with Kshatriya Princesses, aristocratic Nair ladies or from the other matriarchal castes, allowing the priestly Brahmins to cement ties with the ruling aristocracy. Since the offspring of these alliances were, as per Marumakkathayam, members of their mothers castes and families, the Namboodiri father would not be obliged to provide for them. For the matriarchal castes in turn Sambandhams with Brahmins were a matter of prestige and social status. Thus Sambandham was in both ways a gain to the castes involved. Namboodiri-Kshatriya and Namboodiri-Nair Sambandhams may also be considered morganatic marriages for while the husband was of higher social status and the mother of relatively lower status, the children were still considered legitimate although they did not inherit the titles or wealth of their fathers.

It may also be stated that due to the majority of Namboodiri men having marital alliances with women of other castes, the number of Nambudiris rapidly dwindled, and many Namboodiri ladies were forced to marry either men much older than themselves, resulting often in young widows, or else die as spinsters. At the same time the numerical strength of the Nair Tharavadus and other matriarchal castes increased at the cost of the Namboodiri ladies.

Changes in Sambandham in Kerala

The Malabar Marriage Act, 1896 was a failed attempt to legitimise sambandham. Similar legislations in the southern parts followed much later as is evidenced by Travancore Nair Act of 1912, 1925 and the Cochin Nair Act of 1920.

Namboodiri Yogakshema Mahasabha, a revolutionary group of Namboodiris and founded in 1908, took a decision in 1919 and agitated for marriage of all Namboodiris within the community. The Sabha declared the marriages of younger brothers from within the community as official, irrespective of whether the elder brothers were married or not and decided to boycott Sambandhams. This revolutionary meeting was held in "Bharatheebhooshanam" at Thrissur on 25th Medam 1094 (1919 A.D.). The aim was embodied in the Madras Namboothiri Act of 1933. In the same year, the MadrasMarumakkathayam Act was passed, by which Sambandham was considered as a regular marriage, conferring on the children rights of inheritance and property as held by children whose parents were both Namboodiris. The declaration and these Acts led to a sudden decline in the number of Sambandham marriages, and this practice ended shortly (in about ten years).

The Namboodiris are the Brahmins of Kerala, who were accorded a very high position in the past. This position was mainly because of their status as high priests of the land. They were proficient in the Sanskrit Language and hence the authority over the Vedas was undisputed.
The women of the Namboodiri community were called ‘Antharjanam’. This community was governed by rigid rules of orthodoxy. They had a unique set of customs and practices, which set them apart from the other communities.
Among the Namboodiris of the past, only the eldest son of the family could marry from within the community. The younger brother called ‘apphan’ married Nair women or women of the royal family and similar other higher castes. This kind of marriage pact was called Sambandham. It was nothing but a contract which could be entered into and dissolved easily. The children who were born of such a contract did not have any right over the father’s property. Emotionally too, the child was betrayed of any rights that normally bound them to their father and his family. The eldest son, in addition could have a number of wives from within the community. The women in the community lived a secluded life. Rigid rules were there regarding their social behavior.
The social revolution which took place at the beginning of the 20th century brought about a sea change in the convention-bound group. Very soon monogamy became the routine practice and the Apphan also was allowed to marry within the community.
At present the Namboodiris are like any other community. They are progressive and broad minded.
The Nairs who were known for their military skills and prowess were considered to be the leaders of the land. The duty of the Nairs of the past was to protect the land from foreign invasion and internal strife.
It is believed that many groups like Aayar, Itayar, Velalar and Maravar blended into the group of Nairs, during the days when caste system had its beginnings in Kerala.
The Nairs are a matrilineal group. For them, the maternal uncle is the head of the family. The joint family or ‘Taravad’ was an important feature of the Nair culture and way of life. The eldest male in the family was called the ‘Karanavar’. Lineage in the family was traced through the Karanavar’s sister's children.
A system of cross-cousin marriage prevailed in this community. In this system, a man would marry his father's sister's daughter or his mother’s brother’s daughter and a woman would marry her father's sister's son or her mother's brother's son. This ensured that the wealth of the family would be in tact and would not be distributed outside the group.
The woman of the family inherited the property although her brother, uncle or granduncle was the head of the family. The Namboodiris had Sambandham with many of the aristocratic Nair women of the times. This was considered to be a prestige by the whole family and the community as such.
The Nairs very quickly progressed as a result of the English Education that established itself, following the British supremacy. Very soon they started adopting modern ideas and started rejecting the crude practice of ‘Sambandam’ This broader outlook gave them more stability and freedom.
Ezhavas or Tiyyas
The Ezhava community came into being as a result of transformations that took place within the indigenous Dravidian groups. There is a version that they are settlers from Ceylon. The term ‘Ezhava’ came into vogue during the 9th century A. D. Upto the sixth century A. D, a sizeable number of people among the population of Kerala, were Buddhists. When the Brahmins started asserting their authority over the administrative matters of the state, they started segregating the followers of Buddhism. Later the same group accepted Hinduism and they were accorded an inferior status. The Ezhavas as followers of Buddhism were quite powerful. But with Feudalism, and the resultant caste system, their powers declined to a very great extent.
The Uzhavar of the pre-feudal age were farmers. The Ezhavas too had farming as their main occupation. Another group which merged into the Ezhavas was the group known as Chaannaar. They were traditionally toddy tappers. Another group which joined the Ezhavas was the Villor who were warriors. The Ezhavas are also known as Tiyyas especially in north Kerala.
The inferior position of the Ezhavas was such that they were not allowed to participate in the social gatherings, since they were believed to pollute the whole atmosphere. This social segregation was an impediment to higher education and progress.
However. they emerged dramatically out from their backwardness and inferior position mainly due to the role played by Sri Narayana Guru, a great saint and social reformer who advocated the doctrine ‘One caste, One religion, One God’. An order of monks called the Sree Narayana Dharma was established. The Organization SNDP-Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam has gained immense popularity as one which nurtures the material and spiritual welfare of the community at large.
Other castes
It was mainly the followers of Hinduism and Buddhism who became the Nairs and Ezhavas, later many other castes sprang up on the basis of the early divisions relying on occupation. The origin of the Pulayas, Parayas, Vettuvas, Arayan, Vaalan, Aasari and Kollan can be traced to such a source. Those who laboured in the pulam (extensive land) became pulayas. Poraiyan (Those who lives on hills) became parayan. Vettuvan became vetan. The former carpenters later pursued the occupation of carpentry. These people were considered to be untouchables. They were accorded superiority and inferiority on the basis of their financial position. The poorest among the lot-the pulayan and the parayan –were the most inferior among untouchables.
These caste groups have now progressed a lot. By the beginning of the 20th century they woke up from their slumber by constituting their own groups, their schools and temples and began to stride fast to progress. In 1905, Ayyankali, a Pulaya revolutionary was instrumental in contributing a great deal for the welfare of the community.

The Caste system among Indian Christians often reflect stratification by sect, location, and the castes of their predecessors. Social practices among certain Indian Christians parallel much of the discrimination faced by lower castes in other religious communities, as well as having features unique to this community.

Caste distinctions among Indian Christians are breaking down at about the same rate as those among Indians belonging to other religions. There exists evidence to show that Christian individuals have mobility within their respective castes. But, in some cases, social inertia cause old traditions and biases against other castes to remain, causing caste segregation to persist among Indian Christians. About 70-80% of Indian Christians are Dalit Christian, members of the Dalit or backward classes.

Christian castes by region Kerala

Christians in Kerala are divided into several communities, including Syrian Christians and the so-called "Latin" or "New Rite" Christians. The Roman Catholic Church consists of three rites namely the Syro-Malabar rite, the Syro-Malankara rite and the Latin Rite.

The Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites, colloquially referred to as Syrian Christians, rites maintain their traditional Syrian rites and practices. Syrian Christians derive status within the caste system from the tradition that they are converted High caste Hindus such as Namboodiris, Nairs andJews (Israelites), who were evangelized by St. Thomas. Writers Arundhati Roy and Anand Kurianhave written personal accounts of the caste system at work in their community. Syrian Christians, especially Knanaya Christians tend to be endogamous, and tend not to intermarry with other Christian castes. This is because they wish to preserve their Jewish heritage.

The Latin Rite Christians were among the scheduled castes in the coastal belt of Kerala, where fishing was the primary occupation. They were actively converted by missionaries in the 16th and 19th centuries. These missionary activities were carried out by Western Latin Rite missionaries who did not understand the significance of the caste system in India; none of the Syrian churches had participated in such activities among the scheduled castes of India because they were aware of the prejudices of the caste system. The government of India later granted this group OBC status. Very rarely are there intermarriages between Syrian Christians and Latin Rite Christians.

Anthropologists have noted that the caste hierarchy among Christians in Kerala is much more polarized than the Hindu practices in the surrounding areas, due to a lack of jatis. Also, the caste status is kept even if the sect allegiance is switched (i.e. from Syrian Catholic to Syrian Orthodox).


In the Indian state of Goa, mass conversions were carried out by Portuguese Latin missionaries from the 16th century onwards. The Hindu converts retained their caste practices. The continued maintenance of the caste system among the Christians in Goa is attributed to the nature of mass conversions of entire villages, as a result of which existing social stratification was not affected. The Portuguese colonists, even during the Goan Inquisition, did not do anything to change the caste system. Thus, the original Hindu Brahmins in Goa now became Christian Bamonns and the Kshatriyabecame Christian noblemen called Chardos . The Christian clergy became almost exclusively Bamonn. Vaishyas who converted to Christianity became Gauddos, and Shudras became Sudirs. Finally, the Dalits or "Untouchables" who converted to Christianity became Maharas and Chamars (an appellation of the anti-Dalit ethnic slur Chamaar). The upper caste Gaonkar Christians have demanded that only their community be given positions on the Pastoral Council of Goa's Catholic Church.

Tamil Nadu

The cohesion of jatis among caste Christians (eg. Paravas) and the strength of caste leadership are noted by scholars to be much stronger than comparable predominantly Hindu castes in Tamil Nadu. However, discrimination still persists. Lourdunathan Yesumariyan, Jesuit activist notes that "over 70% of Catholics are Dalit converts. But only four out of 18 bishops are from the Dalit-Christian community." In Tamil Nadu, Christian dalits also complain of discrimination by the Telugu speaking Reddiar minority

Andhra Pradesh

60-70 % Catholics are Kammas and Reddys in Andhra Pradesh; the remaining are Protestants from various castes.

Under the law

Indian law does not provide benefits for "Dalit Christians", however Christians have been agitating for the same rights given to Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh Scheduled castes. Despite the activists point of discrimination due to social tag or status, which doesn't go away, Justice K. G. Balakrishnan asked: "Could the Christians admit that they practise caste system and that Dalits (among them) face social discrimination requiring reservation to uplift their cause? This is not all that easy."

Some Christians also oppose the proposed labeling of "Christian Scheduled castes" because they feel their identity may be assimilated. Pastor Salim Sharif of the Church of North India notes "We are becoming another class and caste."

Caste discrimination among Indian Christians Incidence

Caste discrimination is strongest among Christians in South India and is weak or even nonexistent among urban Protestant congregations in North India. This is due to the fact that in South India, wholecastes converted en masse to the religion, leaving members of different castes to compete in ways parallel to Hindus of the Indian caste system.

There are separate seats, separate communion cups, burial grounds, and churches for members of the lower castes, especially in the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic churches in India are largely controlled by upper caste Priests and nuns. Presently in India, more than 70% of Catholicsare Dalits, but the higher caste Catholics (30% by estimates) control 90% of the Catholic churches administrative jobs. Out of the 156 catholic bishops, only 6 are from lower castes.


Many Dalit Catholics have spoken out against discrimination against them by members of the Catholic Church. A famous Dalit activist with a nom-de-plume of Bama Faustina has written books that are critical of the discrimination by the nuns and priests in Churches in South India. Pope John Paul II also criticized the caste discrimination in the Roman Catholic Church in India when addressing the bishops of Madras, Mylapore, Madurai, Cuddalore, and Pondicherry in late 2003. He went on to say: "It is the Church's obligation to work unceasingly to change hearts, helping all people to see every human being as a child of God, a brother or sister of Christ, and therefore a member of our own family"


  1. There are lots of errors in this article. I was brought up in Kerala and this is the first time I am hearing such opinions. 'Invading Aryans??? Jains in Kerala??? Buddhist conversions in Kerala??? Hindus breaking Buddhists temples??? These are imaginary statements. Buddhists and Jains became Nairs and Ezhavas??? I have no idea where this guy found such information. Nair was a title given by the King to his subjects who performed well in battles.

  2. Good Information about Kerala History.It explains the difficulty faced by bc,sc,St women in this state.