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Spice Odyssey

Caste System

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Its great variety of religious expressions sets Kerala apart: for at least 1000 years, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Jews have lived harmoniously in this sun-filled land. The earliest religion of Kerala was that of the Dravidian peoples. With many gods and heroes, and probably a kind of caste system, it had features in common with the Hinduism of north India. By the first centuries several forms of Hindu or Vedic faith beliefs had entered Kerala, including Brahmanism with its rigid caste system and beliefs in great deities such as Vishnu, Shiva, and perhaps the most beloved of all, the elephant headed Ganesha. Many of the teachings of the Hindu faith are told in two great epic poetic cycles, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

Caste (Varna, meaning "color" in the ancient Indian language) is a system where people are divided by family and birth into certain social and economic positions. Normally, Brahmins stood at the top of the heap. They were priests and scholars, who still carry out all the significant rituals by which people live. Beneath them were Ksatriyas, warriors and merchants, and lower down the social pyramid were the workers, or Sudras. At the very base of the social order were Untouchables who did all the "dirty" work that society required. Eventually hundreds of sub-castes developed to handle each economic and social task. Elaborate rules governed the system, so that Untouchables were never permitted to even be near a Brahmin, much less touch one. Ever since India became a nation in 1947, laws have been passed to break down these terrible rules.

Kerala also had the caste system, but it differed from those in other places. A native caste called the Namboodiris were above Brahmins and all others. They owned the land and only married among themselves. The warriors, Nairs, were much lower down the scale and the Ezhavas who tended coconut trees were the laborers. At the bottom stood Pulayas, poor agricultural laborers and slaves. Nairs retained their matrilineal and matrilocal (the family house belongs to the women) systems. Nair is a fairly common name in Kerala and Nair women are still thought of as independent, educated, and powerful.

Being open to the sea and new peoples, Kerala accepted other religions and ideas. The old rulers encouraged this as a way to develop their economies. Today, about 40 percent of the population are Hindu, 30 percent Muslim, and another 30 percent Christian. Once there was even a sizable Jewish population. The first Christian community is said to have been established by one of the Twelve Apostles, St. Thomas, in the year 52CE. Whether St.Thomas himself actually sailed to Kerala , the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church is quite old. Early congregations were established in Muziris and were followed by others from the Persian Christian Church. Persian decor and objects can still be seen in such churches as St. Mary's Valliappali in the northern part of Kerala. Christians became important in overseas trade and had the status of Brahmans. As word of peaceful and prosperous conditions spread, more Christians migrated to Kerala. Today there are about 20 different Christian groups, some following Orthodox (similar to Greek and Russian Orthodox) rites, others Roman Catholic, and some Protestant. Christians can always be identified by family names, such as Thomas and Matthew.

Each of these religious groups and the peoples who brought them lived together in harmony for centuries and they still do. Walk down the main road in Trivandrum, Kerala's capital city, and you will see Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, and Christian churches very near one another. Each has its congregations, but looking at the people attending you would find it difficult to tell most of them apart by religious preference. That is how integrated they all are into Keralite life and culture.

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