The Ezhavas or Izhavas are the largest ethnic groups in Kerala, a south Indian state. They are also found amongst the Malayalee diaspora around the world. The group shares a common history from the pre-social reform era, when caste was an integral part of the political, economic, legal, and social order across Kerala.
Etymologically, the word “Ezhava” or “Thiyya” can be traced to the word “Ezham” (or “Eelam”), or “Dweep” (a Pali word for Sri Lanka).[citation needed] Most theories of origin for the Ezhavas suggest a Sri Lankan and Buddhist connection. There is a hypothesis that Ezhavas are descendants of Buddhists (from Sri Lanka, or emissaries from the Magadhan empire) who refused to convert to Hinduism. This hypothesis has been supported by genetic studies which show that the allelic distribution of Ezhavas in a bi-dimensional plot (correspondence analysis based on HLA-A, -B, and -C frequencies) shows a rather strong East Eurasian element due to its proximity to the Mongol population in the same plot.
According to Ezhava folk songs, the Ezhavas were the progeny of four bachelors, that the king of Sri Lanka sent to Kerala at the request of the Chera King Bhaskara Ravi Varma, in the 1st Century AD. These men were sent, ostensibly, to set up Coconut farming in Kerala. Another version of the story says that the Sri Lankan King sent eight martial families to Kerala at the request of a Chera King to quell a civil war that erupted in Kerala against him.
Buddhist roots
According to historian C. V. Kunjuraman, the two gods of the Ezhavas, Cittan and Arattan, are in fact Buddhist-Sidhan and Arhatan from Buddhism.[citation needed] Buddhism in Kerala connects back through Sri Lanka to as far back as the 3rd century BCE, when the Buddhist monk Rakshithadheeran came to Kerala with his followers to spread the faith.[citation needed] Also, the Asoka edicts mention Kerala, which would imply that Asoka’s efforts to spread Buddhism would have impacted Kerala as well.[citation needed]
The Pandarams who perform priestly duties in Ezhava temples are considered to be successors of Buddhist monks.[citation needed] T. K. Veluppillai, the author of The Travancore State Manual, believes that during Buddhist ascendancy in Kerala, before the arrival of the Tulu Brahmins, “the Ezhavas enjoyed great prosperity and power” (II, 845). However, he also says that it is very unlikely that the Ezhavas came from Sri Lanka and spread all over Kerala; instead they were the mainstream of Munda-Dravidian immigrants who left Tamil Nadu in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries to avoid persecution at the hands of their political enemies.
The poet Mahakavi Kumaranasan, whose poems or Khandakavya such as Nalini, Leela, Karuna and Chandala Bhikshuki extol Buddhist ideals lamented at times in his verses about the past glory of the Sinhalese, or the natives of Sri Lanka, whom he considered to be the forefathers of present day Ezhavas.
This Buddhist tradition, and refusal to give it up, pushed the Ezhavas to an outcast role within the greater Brahminic society. Nevertheless, this Buddhism tradition can still be seen in that the Ezhavas seem to have a uniquely greater interest in the moral, non-ritualistic, non-dogmatic aspects of the religion rather than the theological.
Past occupations
While Ezhavas were once employed as ayurvedic physicians, warriors, Kalari trainers and traders, after the arrival of Namboothiri Brahmins and with the establishment of Vedic system, a number were discriminated against and subjugated to taking up lowly placed jobs like toddy tapping, selling and making arrack, palm wine, etc., while a number of families continued their earlier family traditions.[citation needed] A section of the community were farmers.
Some Ezhavas remained wealthy and some others became masters in various fields such ayurveda (medicine), martial arts (Kalaripayattu, Varma Kalari, etc.), astrology, Siddha, Manthravaadam, spirituality, merchant trading, Visha chikitsa, etc.[citation needed] Also, there were many distillers and weavers from this community.
Martial traditions
Folklore and written records indicate that the Ezhavas also identified themselves as a martial class. Ezhava folk songs, the Vadakkan Pattukal, composed about 400 hundred years ago, described military exploits of Ezhava heroes. Ezhavas served in the armed forces of all important kings of the region, such as Zamorins of Calicut, and the Kings of Travancore and Cochin. A lot many were trainers of Martial art Kalaripayattu. As per Hortus Malabaricus by J. Heniger, Ezhavas(otherwise called silgos), tree climbers , also bound to wars and arms. These people were also serve to teach Nairs in fencing school. Its believed that South Indian Hindu God, Lord Ayyappan, was trained in an ezhava Kalari of Cheerappanchira family. Kalari Panickers from an Ezhava tharavaad based at Kulathoor were trainers of famous Ettuveetil Pillamars, and their descendants have looked after the Chamundi Devi (Kalari devatha) temple at Thozhuvancode, Thiruvananthapuram. Syrian Christians, allowed by the Hindu leaders to have their own private armies, recruited Ezhavas members due in part to this tradition.
Ayurvedic vaidyars
There were in fact several acclaimed Ezhava Ayurvedic scholars. The first Malayalam book published by the Dutch in 1675, titled Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, speaks in its preface about a Vaidyar (doctor) Karappuram Kadakkarappally Kollattu Veettil Itty Achuthan (of present-day Alappuzha district), a reputed vaidyar of the community as the main force behind the book and he is the one who edited the book to reach its present form.[citation needed] Famous Ezhava Vaidyar Sri C.R.Kesavan Vaidyar founded of Chandrika.[citation needed] He was awarded the title of Vaidyaratnam by K.C. Manavikraman Zamorin of Kozhikode in 1953.[citation needed] Famous Thirumanakkal Vvaidyasala in idukki and Kannur Ayurvedic Multi Speciality Hospital in Wayanad are owned by Ezhava vaidyars. Famous Ayurvedic scholar from Kochi New Udaya Pharmacy and Ayurvedic Laboratories (Nupal) were established in 1960 by Sri N. K. Padmanabhan Vaidyar, who hails from a well-known traditional Ayurvedic family. Their product kamilari is now famous among patients having liver diseases.[citation needed] Vallabhassery Ayurvedic Pharmaceutical Firm established in the Ayurvedic field since 1833 by Vallabhasseril family of Thiruvalla.
One of the early translations of Ashtanga Hridaya (a celebrated Sanskrit treatise on Ayurveda) to Malayalam was by an Ezhava physician, Kayikkara Govindan Vaidyar. Kuzhuppully and Pokkanchery families in Thrissur and Calicut respectively are traditional families of Ayurvedacharyans. Cholayil family is one of the most famous and respected Ezhava Ayurvedic families in Kerala. Their beauty products like Cuticura and Medimix (soap) are very popular across India. Ezhava physicians were the chief Ayurvedic physicians of the Travancore Royal family. Venmanakkal family (related to the Chavercode family) was the first family to learn Ayurveda from the Pali language in addition to the Ayurvedic knowledge from Sanskrit. Uracheril Gurukkal instructed Herman Gundert in the field of Sanskrit and Ayurveda, and Uppot kannan, who wrote interpretation of Yogamrutham (Ayurvedic text in Sanskrit by Ashtavaidyans), were also acclaimed Ezhava Ayurvedic scholars. Kelikkodan Ayyappan Vaidyar (Kottakkal) is one of the pioneer in the traditional Ayurvedic physician who is an eminent personality in Marma Chikithsa. Many from the community were Kottaram Vaidyan (palace physicians) of important kings in the region
Traditional toxicology
Many Ezhava families were practitioners of Visha chikitsa (toxicology) for decades, treating poison from bites of snakes, scorpions, etc.[citation needed] This has been discontinued by many of these families now.[citation needed]
Other traditional occupations
Other traditional occupations of the community included coconut trading[citation needed], and making toddy, which was both widely consumed alcoholic drink, and used in Ayurvedic medicine.[citation needed] A few sections of the community were also involved in brewing arrack.[citation needed]
Sree Narayana Guru preached against both of these professions and as a result, a number discontinued the practices.
Theyyam or kaliyattam or theyyatom
In northern Kerala, Theyyam is a popular ritual dance. The headgear and other ornamental decorations are spectacular in sheer size and appearance. This particular dance form is also known as Kaaliyattam. The main deities of Ezhavas include Vayanattu Kulavan, Kathivannur Veeran, Poomaruthan, Muthappan.
Arjuna nritham or mayilpeeli thookkam
“Arjuna nritham” (the dance of Arjuna) is a ritual art performed by men of Ezhava community and is prevalent in the Bhagavathy temples of south Kerala, mainly in Kollam, Alappuzha and Kottayam districts. In the epic Mahabharatha, Arjuna was the most valiant of the five heroic brothers, the Pandavas, and was also a renowned singer and dancer and is said to have propitiated goddess Bhadrakali by a devotional presentation.
Arjuna nritham is also called “Mayilpeeli Thookkam” as the costume includes a characteristic garment made of mayilppeeli (peacock feathers). This garment is worn around the waist in a similar fashion as the “uduthukettu” of Kathakali. The various dance movements are closely similar to Kalarippayattu techniques. The performers have their faces painted green and wear distinctive headgears. The all night performance of the dance form is usually presented solo or in pairs.
The strictly rhythm based songs are called “Mayil Pattukal” or “Kavithangal” and deal with various themes of the Puranas (ancient Hindu scriptures). Each “Kavitham” is composed to suit a specific rhythm. Before each song, the dancers explain the intricacies of the particular rhythm about to be employed and how this rhythm is translated into dance movements. Percussion instruments like the chenda, maddalam, talachenda and ilathalam (cymbal) form the musical accompaniment.
Poorakkali is a folk dance prevalent among the Ezhavas of Malabar, usually performed in Bhagavathy temples as a ritual offering during the month of Meenam (March – April). Poorakkali requires specially trained and highly experienced dancers, trained in Kalaripayattu, a system of physical exercise formerly in vogue in Kerala. Standing round a traditional lamp, the performers dance in eighteen different stages and rhythms, each phase called a niram.
Parichamuttu kali
Parichamuttu kali is a martial folk-dance prevalent among the Ezhavas around the Alappuzha, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Palghat and Malappuram districts. It is also performed by Christians and some other Hindu communities. Its origins date back to when Kalaripayattu, the physical exercise of swordplay and defence, was in vogue in Kerala. The performers dance with swords and shields in their hands, following the movements of sword fight, leaping forward, stepping back and moving round, all the time striking with the swords and defending with shields.
Makachuttu art is popular among Ezhavas in Thiruvananthapuram and Chirayinkizhu taluks and in Kilimanoor, Pazhayakunnummal and Thattathumala regions. In this, a group of eight performers, two each, twin around each other like serpents and rise up, battling with sticks. The techniques are repeated several times. Sandalwood paste on the forehead, a red towel round the head, red silk around the waist and bells round the ankles form the costume. This is a combination of snake worship and Kalarippayattu.
Aivar kali
Literally, Aivarkali means the play of the five sets. This was a ritualistic art form performed in almost all important temples of Kerala. Today it is found in central Kerala. This is also known as Pandavarkali, which means the play of the Pandavas, (the five heroes of the Mahabharatha), and is also performed Asari, Moosari, Karuvan, Thattan and Kallasari communities.
This ritualistic dance is performed beneath a decorated pandal with a nilavilakku at its centre. The five or more performers with their leader called Kaliachan enter the performance area after a ritualistic bath, with sandalwood paste over their foreheads, dressed in white dhoti, and with a towel wrapped around their heads.
Family system
Ezhavas followed Tharavadu, a system of joint family setup practised by some Malayalee communities. The family live together as a mother, her brothers and younger sisters, and her children. The oldest male member, known as the Karanavar or Mooppar, is the head of the household and managed the family estate. Each Tharavadu has a unique name. As joint families grew and established independent settlements, the branches modified the names in a such way that the main Tharavadu names remained identifiable, while each Sakha (or Thavazhi or Thay Vazhi meaning Through Mother) had a distinct name.
For Ezhavas in Travancore and Malabar, their Tharavad name were identified through their mother’s house (Thavazhi) but some other families the in Cochin area (excluding Kanayannur Taluk) were identified through by their father’s Tharavadu. The system of inheritance were matrilinear and were know as Marumakkathayam, which has now given way to Makkathayam or patrilinear inheritance.
Ezhavas do not normally use any distinct surnames. However, occupational surnames like Panicker, Asaan, Channar, Vaidyar, Mudalali, Chekavar, Chekavan, Chekon, Valiyachan, Achan, Chanatty, Panikkathy, Chekothy, Thanpatty, Amma, Karanavar, Kutty, Thandan (mostly in Malabar), Thandar were fairly common till the early 20th century. Panicker,Thandar is still being used by Ezhavas in south Kerala. Some of these surnames like Asaan, Vaidyar, Mudalali, Valiyachan, Achan, Amma were also used by some of the Hindu and Christian communities of Kerala.
Snake worship
The snake worship (Nagaradhana) was prevalent among many Ezhava families all over Kerala, but was most common among Malayalee and Tulu Billavas of North Malabar and Tulu Nadu. “Sarpa Kavu” (meaning “Abode of the Snake God”), a small traditional forest (mostly man made) of green pockets, would have idols of snake gods worshipped. For Ezhavas, Billavas and other similar communities, these sacred forest could be found in any corner of the Tharavadu except the eastern side while other communities like the Nairs found them in the southwest corner of the Tharavadu.
Kuruthi was a ritual performed in temples, especially Devi, Bhagavathy, Durga temples. Although this is found among many communities, it was very common with Ezhavas. Animals are sacrificed as part of the ritual. In southern central Kerala, Kuruthy was performed before padayani and Mudiyet. In North Kerala, it was performed with Theyyam and Pana. Sree Narayana Guru opposed the animal sacrifice, leading to the decline of this ritual.
Thali kettu kalyanam (mock marriage ceremony)
A thali kettu kalyanam or a mock marriage ceremony was prevalent among some rich Ezhavas (or Pramanis ). A thaali (a gold necklace tied around the bride’s neck) tying rite took place before the onset of puberty. During this ceremony, the girl was forced to marry a man (strictly from the same community unlike other castes which followed this custom) whose horoscopes matched. Because that man was simply her “mock” husband, he could leave her after the completion of the ritual. Sree Narayana Guru opposed this strongly and took the initiative to simplify marriage customs and celebrations.
Position in society
When the Namboothiris arrived to Kerala, bringing Hinduism to the state and introducing a caste system, they formerly placed Ezhavas as Avarna. The economic condition of the Ezhavas worsened and social taboos reduced them to a state of abject poverty.[citation needed]. The Ezhava males were referred to as Chekka, and the females Pennu by upper castes in Kerala to indicate a position of inferiority.
Ezhavas, including women, were no longer allowed to cover their upper bodies and were also forbidden to wear certain types of jewelery and footwear. Until the 18th century, females of non-Brahmin class were allowed to wear only a single loin cloth girdled round the waist.[citation needed]
In the Indian government’s caste system, Ezhavas are classified under Other backward castes, which gives them access to reserved government service jobs, and admission to educational institutions for financially backward students.
Spiritual and social movements
In 1859 a revolt called the Chela kalapam or cloth revolt took place in Travancore and continued for several days, when the ladies of the Channar caste started to cover their breasts.
Sree Narayana Guru, an early 20th century social reformer, paved the way for improvement in the spiritual freedom and other social conditions of the Ezhava and related communities in Kerala and other parts of the country.[citation needed] The Ezhava community’s largely undisputed acceptance of Sree Narayana Guru as their spiritual, social and intellectual mentor and guiding spirit adds a major and unifying facet to community integrity and identity today. Narayanan and his associates worked by first convincing the Ezhavas to give up the practice of untouchability with respect to castes below their caste and by second building a number of templates open to all castes.
In 1896, a petition with more than 13,000 signature was submitted to the government asking for the recognition of the right of the Ezhavas to enter the government service; the upper caste Hindus of the state prevailed upon the Maharajah not to concede the request.[citation needed] When the fight did not look to be succeeding, the Ezhavas leadership threatened that they would convert en masse, rather than stay as helots of Hindu society.[citation needed] Diwan, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, realizing the imminent danger, prompted the Maharajah to issue Temple Entry Proclamation, which abolished the ban on lower-caste people from entering Hindu temples in the state of Travancore.
The Vaikom Satyagraha (1924 – 25) was a satyagraha (movement) in Travancore against untouchability in Hindu society.[citation needed] The movement was centered at the Shiva temple at Vaikom, near Kottayam. The Satyagraha aimed at securing freedom of movement for all sections of society through the public roads leading to the Sri Mahadevar Temple at Vaikom.[citation needed] The Ezhava community and SNDP Yogam were in the forefront of this movement.[citation needed]
Religious conversions
During different periods of history, sections of the Ezhava community converted to other religions.
Conversion to Christianity
A sizeable part of the Ezhava community, especially in central Travancore and in the High Ranges, embraced Christianity during the British rule, due to caste-based discrimination. In Kannur, Protestant missions started working in the first half of the 19th century, when the Basel German Evangelical Mission was founded by Dr. H. Gundert. Most of their converts were from the Thiyya community.
The Ezhava Memorial was a plea that contained 13,000 signatures and requested an extension of civic rights, government jobs, etc. to the lower castes. The Memorial was also an ultimatum given to the government, which said that the Ezhavas would convert en masse if it was not implemented [citation needed].
Sree Narayana Guru decried the conversion since he said that they were made for materialistic or temporary benefits, convenience, or as an escape from discrimination and religious persecution. These principles formed the criteria for his support of conversions and re-conversions.
In 1921 an extensive effort to reach a thousand Ezhava families living in the coastal areas of Alappuzha and hilly area of Pathanamthitta was initiated by an independent committee, in relation with the CSI church. With Isabel Baker’s (CMS Missionary) generous contribution, a school, hospital and a coir factory were established under the title Karappuram Mission in the Shertellai area and as a result, thousands of Ezhava families converted in areas of Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta to Christianity.
Conversion to Sikhism in central Kerala
During Mahatma Gandhi’s 1922 Vaikom Satyagraha movement against untouchability, a few Akalis, an order of armed Sikhs, came to Vaikom in support of the demonstrators. After successfully completing the Satyagraha and after the Temple Entry Proclamation, some of the Akalis remained. Some Ezhava youth were attracted to the concepts of the Sikhism and as a result, joined the religion. Many Ezhavas were also prompted to join Sikhism after remarks by Ambedkar. However, after the significant growth of the Ezhava movement, many families later re-converted to Hinduism and the number of Sikh Ezhavas dwindled.
Similar communities
Billava is a name of the caste found mainly in the coastal Karnataka and Kasargode districts of Kerala. They were engaged in martial arts (Garadi), toddy tapping, ayurvedic medicine and liquor business. [citation needed] This community is starting to follow Sree Narayana Guru’s teachings.
The Poojari are a sub-sect of the Billava community, located in the Dakshina Kannada district in Karnataka, a south Indian state. They had very important role in Nema or Bhuta Kola which is a kind of spirit-worship. [citation needed] This sub-sect of Billava community performs the Pooja activity during spirit-worship.[citation needed]
Notable Ezhava
• Kumaran Asan[34] (1873-1924) was a Malayalam poet, philosopher and social reformer of Kerala. One of the disciples of Narayana Guru, Asan was known as one of the famous triumvirate poets of Kerala in the first half of the 20th century.[citation needed]

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