In the midst of a modern world that places men at the epicentre, histories tell stories of a time when we once followed the footsteps of women. Prior to the 20th century, matrilineality had a strong foothold in Kerala: a state on the southwestern coast of India.
In matrilineal cultures, women have value. It is the mother’s name that is passed on to her children. Women owned the family land and continued to be a part of the family that they were born in – even after they married.
Marriage in a Matrilineal Society
The marriage ceremony was a simple gifting of clothing from a man to a woman. The presence of the female elder of the woman’s family officialized the wedding. The woman would accept the offering if she was willing to marry the man who presented it to her.
This did not restrict her from accepting more husbands. She was not bound to her husband for her entire life.
In fact, she, along with the approval of her family members could divorce her husband if she was not happy. This concept existed long before the term ‘divorce’ actually existed. But the downside was that the decision was not hers alone.
My family tells me that there is no legal proof of the marriage between my grandparents. The story was simple. My grandfather offered my grandmother garments that she willingly took to show her acceptance of this union. But theirs was the last generation to do so. With the coming of independence, traditions changed. However, even till today, our wedding ceremonies carry out a custom where we continue this exchange.
The practise of matrilineality was purely logical. While the men of the family went out in battle, it made sense that the women take care of the Tharavadu, the ancestral home. And with a united female front, the home would be well taken care of, in their absence. The family’s property and valuables were in safe hands as long as it remained in the careful hands of their women.
The eldest of the women in the family looked after the entire household and ensured their happiness. But when the men were home, the greatest authority still went into the hands of the ‘karnavar’, the eldest male in the family.
In the Modern World
So does this matrilineal system still exist? Or did Kerala fall in line with the majority of the world, giving in to the patriarchal holds that threaten to strangle us?
Well…yes and no.
The essence and influence of a matrilineal world still exist within the Indian state. But it is not as strong as it used to be. The almost perfect literacy rate that Kerala is a proud owner of is in some ways credited to the matrilineal history of the state. Ancestors understood that with the responsibilities given to women, came a right for them to learn as much as they can about what exactly they were handling.
The transfer of assets from mother to daughter still holds a lot of prominence in society. Of course, now it has become more gender neutral in terms of property. Both fathers and mothers transfer their assets to their children regardless of gender.
But some valuables still remain close to the line of women. My family still holds on to the relics that the women in our family have passed on from one generation to another – a reminder of the female power in our history and the motivation to keep that history alive.
Most families, including mine, still embrace the concept of a matrilineal heritage in a religious context. As a child, my parents took me and my siblings to our kudumba kshetram (family temple) every chance they got.
The first time I actually heard the phrase ‘family temple’, I was curious. Did my mom and dad own a temple? I remember my mother explaining to me how it was her family temple, a deity that looked after the mothers and children in our family.
I was so concerned about my father! Did he not have a deity to look after him? I was told that he did. His mother’s family looked after him. But that is where it ended. It was my mother’s deity that looked after me. And up to this day, we still visit our family temple in search of hopes and a feeling of belonging.
Kerala still holds close its female oriented traditions, even if they have begun to fade away. There is a certain sense of empowerment that comes along with knowing that yours is a culture that embraces womanhood – at least a bit more than the rest of the world.
That does not stop the patriarchy from creeping in. But with the hopes that one day women will be as valued as they were in times long ago, we hold close our empowered self and fight to be seen and heard.
About the Author
Uma Anilkumar is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s Degree in English Studies. She is often captivated by new, interesting ideas, especially that of pop culture and is always in search of learning something new. A lover of all kinds of art, she is a writer and poet during her free time and dreams of publishing her own work in the future.