HISTORY OF LARGEST COMMUNITY OF KERALA-EZHAVA
The Ezhavas (Malayalam: ഈഴവര്)form the largest group among Hindu communities in Kerala. They are also one of the major progressive communities of the state. They are considered to be descendants of Villavar the founders of ancient Dravidian Chera Dynasty who once ruled parts of southern India. In Malabar they are called Thiyya, while in Tulu Nadu they are known as Billavas. They were formerly known as 'Ilavar'. There were Ayurveda Vaidyars, Warriors, Kalari Trainers, Soldiers, Farmers, Cultivators, Siddha Phyisicans, and Traders. Some were also involved in texile manufacturing, liquor business and toddy tapping. Ezhava(Thiyya) dynasties such as the Izhathu Mannanars also existed in Kerala. The Chekavar, a warrior section within the community, were part of the militias of local chieftains and kings. There were also renowned Kalari Payattu experts among them. The circus holds a special attraction among community members in north Kerala and many of the famous acrobats of India come from this community
Theories of origin
Historians believe that Ezhavas of Kerala are soldiers of Villavar tribe who founded Chera Kingdom. Villavars of Travancore were known as 'Ilavar'(now known as Ezhava). The word Ilavar is derived from Villavar which means archers who were a warrior caste among the Dravidians who ruled most of India.
According to historian C. V. Kunjuraman, the two gods of the Buddhist Ezhavas, namely Cittan and Arattan, are in fact Buddhist Sidhan and Arhatan from Buddhism. Some others argue that ezhava god Arattan is Lord Buddha himself. 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.
Mahakavi Kumaranasan, whose works 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 Srilanka, whom he considered to be the forefathers of present day Ezhavas.
This Buddhist tradition, and the refusal to give it up, pushed the Ezhavas to an outcaste role within the greater Brahminic society. Nevertheless, this tradition is still evident as Ezhavas show greater interest in the moral, non-ritualistic, and non-dogmatic aspects of the religion rather than the theological.
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) has a rather strong East Eurasian element due to its proximity to the Mongol population in the same plot.
The most widely accepted theory is that the customs and beliefs of Ezhavas and Thiyas are very primitive and their origin go back to the dim past to those ancient pre-Tamil Sangam days. Their Tamil background gave them the God Muruga (Subramanya) and the Goddess Kali, and host of other village gods like Chathan, Chithan and Arathan. Though there are not enough evidence to justify that Ezhavas are from the northern Srilanka, the theory about their existence in Srilanka (Ezham/Elam) during the first centuries of BC cannot be ignored.
Etymology and Early References
Historians argue that the word Ilavar is derived from Villavar which means archers who were a warrior caste among the Dravidians who ruled most of India. They were also known as Ezhinar in Kerala which sounds quite similar to 'Ezhava'(also called Ezhavar).
The word ezhava is also believed to have derived from Ezham/Ilam by some. These words believed to have related linguistically or socio- linguistically to group of words Elu/Hela/Seehala/ Simhala/ Sinhala/Salai/ Seiladiba/ Serendib, pointing all to the island of Sri Lanka.They all primarily stood for the geographical identity of an island or Sri Lanka.But the original word, its etymology, its meaning and how that original word became the name of the island under discussion are still elusive.
Descendants of Villavar
Ezhavas are the descendants of Villavars founders of Chera Dynasty. The word 'Ilavar'(Ezhava/ Ezhavar) is derived from Villavar. Villavars of Travancore were known as 'Ilavar'(now known as Ezhava). Villavar were also known as Ezhinar or Eyinars in Chera(Present day Kerala) and Tamil countries respectively. The term 'Ezhinar' sounds quite similar to 'Ezhava' who are also addressed as 'Ezhavar'. Villavar means archers and they were a warrior caste among the Dravidians who ruled most of India, along with their allies Meenavars (fishermen) during ancient times.(Villu, Proto-Dravidian word, means bow) Villavars founded the Chera kingdom and the Chera king was addressed as Villavar Kon. The Villavar Clans of Kerala who founded the Chera Kingdom all are Villavars.
Billava is a sub-caste of Villavar. Billava who reside in Karnataka who were also the followers of Sree Narayana Guru like Ezhavas. Billavas are racially same as of Ezhava community of Kerala.Billavas were also previously engaged in Martial Arts, Toddy tapping, Ayurvedic and liquor business like Ezhavas. Martial act centres of Billavas are known as Garadi. Reading, writing and teaching of bows, arrows and martial arts were the main activities of this Garadi, similar to Kalari practiced by some of the Ilava(now known as Ezhava) community in Kerala. There are also group within Billavas also called Thiyyabillas or Malaylali Billavas in South Canara district who considered part of the Malayalee community.
The Word Eezham as referring to Sri Lanka
Ilava of Sri Lanka after whom Eeelam or Heladipa is named are the relatives of Villavars and Ezhavas(Ilavar) . The word Eezham presented today in Malayalam/Tamil books/articles stands for the geographical identification of the entire island of what is called Sri Lanka today. The earliest use of the word, is found in a Tamil Brahmi inscription as well as in the Sangam literature, both dateable to the dawn of the Christian era. The Thirupparang- kun'ram inscription in Tamil, found near Mathurai in Tamil Nadu and dated on paleographical grounds to the first century BC, refers to a person as a householder from Eezham (Eezha-kudumpikan) .
The Word Eazha as related to Gold
The Tamil and Malayalam lexicons (Nikhandu), Thivaakaram, Pingkalam and Choodaamani, dating from 8th century AD, equate the word Eezham with gold. Eezha kaasu and Eezhakkarung kaasu are references to coinages found in the medieval inscriptions of Travancore, Mathurai, Malabar etc.
Ilavan As referring to guard or watchman or soldier
As per one of the Tamil dictionary, ilavan is a guard or watchman or soldier armed with a Sword or Stick or Pole weapon, stationed at the porch of a king's palace. Its interesting to not that Ezhavas served in the armed forces of all important kings of the Malayalam region, such as Zamorins of Calicut, and the Kings of Travancore and Cochin.
The Word Ila as toddy
This word, as an adjective (probably a cognate of Eezha), found in the Tamil inscriptional usages from the Pallava times onwards also link the word ila with toddy, for example, toddy tapper's quarters (ilacheri), tax on toddy tapping (ilapoodchi) , a class of toddy tapers (ilavan-chaanraan or channaan), etc.
The Similar Words in Inscriptions
The 1st reference to the word Ezhava found in Arittapatti inscriptions of 3rd century BC near Madurai, talks about 'Eelava perumal, chief of Nelveli, has caused the carving of this auspicious cave'. Famous Kilavalavu Jain cave inscriptions of 3rd century BC talks about an ezhavan who built Buddhist monastery there. Another inscriptions of BC 2nd century found near Alakarmalai talks about an ezhava textile trader 'ezhathu theevan athan'.
According to a legend, a Pandyan princess named Alii married Narasimha, a Rajah of the Carnatic. The royal couple migrated to Ceylon, and there settled themselves as rulers. On the line becoming extinct, however, thieir relatives and adherents returned to main land. It is said that they were the ancestors of the Ezhavas. In support of this theory, it is urged that, in South Travancore, the Ezhavas were known by the title of Mudaliyar, which is also the surname of a division of the Vellalas at Jaffna; that the Vattis and Mannans call them Mudaliyars; and that the Pulayas had ever been known to address them only as Mutha Tampurans. But it may be well supposed that the title may have been conferred upon ezhava families of the caste in consideration of meritorious services on behalf of the State.
According to another legend and some malayalam 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 had erupted in Kerala against him.
Meanings and origin of word Chekavan
The Alummootil Meda. A grand manor and outhouses belonging to Ezhava aristocracy from history. Location: Mavelikara.
Ezhavas were well known Warriors, Kalari trainers and traders.Some Ezhavas remained wealthy and some others became masters in various fields such martial arts (Kalaripayattu, Marma Kalari, etc.) even after the upper caste took over Kerala. Others also undertook jobs like toddy tapping, brewing, etc. Also, there were into fields like Trading arrack, Traditional Toxology, Distillery,toddy tapping,fishing Weaving etc.
Folklore and written records indicate that the Ezhavas were also 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. Many were employed as guards or sentinels in the palaces of Cochin and Travancore. Many were trainers of the martial art Kalaripayattu. As per Hortus Malabaricus by J. Heniger, Ezhavas (otherwise called silgos), tree climbers, also bound to wars and arms. Many Ezhavas were experts of Kalaripayattu and also served to teach Nairs in Kalari (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 Ezhava members due in part to this tradition. Famous warriors such as Unniyarcha and Aromal Chekavar were Ezhavas.
A warrior section among the community were called Chekavar/Chekavan/ Chevakan/ Chekon . Vadakkan Pattukal describes talents of chekors who formed militia of local cheftians and kings. It was also the title bestowed upon experts of Kalari Payattu. As per Elamkulam P. N. Kunjan Pillai's Studies in Kerala history, they were decedents of or Villors or Villavar or Billavars who were warriors and bravos. They were trained under Maravars , a Dravidian martial tribe, accepted Buddhism in later stage. Villu(in Tamil and malayalm) or Billu(in Tulu), means bow and it was the Symbol of Chera kingdom. Thus as per his opinion, Chera kings were actually villavars. However, they were degraded after arrival of Brahmins and after establishing Chatur Varna system. Thereafter, they were accredited as chekavars or chevakars.Vadakkan Pattukal, collection of Malayalam Ballads of medieval origin present saga of chekava heroes.
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 Achudan (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. One of the early translations of Ashtanga Hridaya, a celebrated Sanskrit treatise on Ayurveda, in Malayalam was done by an Ezhava physician, Kayikkara Govindan Vaidyar. Kuzhuppully and Pokkanchery families in Thrissur and Calicut respectively are traditional families of Ayurveda acharyans. Cholayil family is one of the most famous and respected Ezhava Ayurvedic families in Kerala. Ezhava physicians from chavarcode family of kollam, were the chief Ayurvedic physicians of the Travancore Royal family during 18th and 19th century. Venmanakkal family physicans were the first 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) was one of the pioneer in the traditional Ayurvedic physician who is an eminent personality in Marma Chikithsa. Famous Ezhava Vaidyar Sri C.R.Kesavan Vaidyar founder of Chandrika was awarded the title of Vaidyaratnam by K.C. Manavikraman Zamorin of Kozhikode in 1953. There are many Ayurvedic Hospitals established by ezhava physicians in 19th and 20th century.  Many from the community were Kottaram Vaidyan (palace physicians) of important kings in the region.
Many Ezhava families were practitioners of Visha chikitsa (toxicology) for decades, treating poison from bites of snakes, scorpions, etc. This has been discontinued by many of these families now.
Farming, Coconut Trading, Toddy Tapping and Arrack Brewing
Other traditional occupations of the community included trading coconut, farming, ship making, weaving etc. A section of the community called Nadi ezhuvans or vaduvans(Vadukans) were involved in making toddy, which was both widely consumed alcoholic drink, and sometimes used in Ayurveda medicine also. These families were rehabilitated under Kizhkudi(lower or inferior) clan. A few sections of the community were also involved in brewing arrack.
Sree Narayana Guru preached against Toddy Tapping and Arrack Brewing and as a result many discontinued the practices. However a section of Ezhavas still continue to dominate this trade as toddy tappers and Abkaris.
Muthappan Theyyam as Lord Vishnu & Lord Shiva
Arjuna Nrutham performers in Guru Jayanthi procession at Allappuzha
Ezhava/Channar Musicians from the 19th century: Performing the traditional "Villadichaampattu"
Theyyam or kaliyattam or theyyatom
In northern Kerala, Theyyam is a popular ritual dance. 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) or Mayilpeeli Thookkam 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. 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.
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 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.
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.
Varanappally Family-A traditional Ezhava House with Sarpa Kavu
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 and the oldest female member is called 'Karnothi' or 'Moopathi', they are 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 in the Cochin area (excluding Kanayannur Taluk) were identified through by their father's Tharavadu. The system of inheritance were matrilinear and were known as Marumakkathayam, which has now given way to Makkathayam or patrilinear inheritance.
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 forests are found in any corner of the compound except the eastern side while other communities like the nairs have this in the southwest corner of the Tharavadu.
Other Caste names and Surnames
Ezhavas do not normally use any distinct surnames. However, occupational surnames like Panicker, Asaan, Channar, Vaidyar, Mudalali, Chekavar, Chekavan, Chekon, Valiyachan, Manangath, Achan, Chanatty, Panikkathy, Chekothy, Thanpatty, Amma, Karanavar, Kutty, Thandan (mostly in Malabar), Thandar were fairly common till the early 20th century. Though rare some had even Pillai surname 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 many other Hindu and Christian communities of Kerala. Most of these surnames were used to identify the ezhava/thiyya communities in different parts of South India. Chego, Elavan, Villon, Billavan, Viruvan, Punampan, Muthaliyar, Nadar etc were also used refer the community members in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Most of these names had arisen on account of localization inherent in caste. Its believed that neither the word Thiyya or Ezhava is self assumed name, but were imposed on buddhist of kerala as they accustomed to caste system. Another name which stands relevant to caste history of Ezhavas is Varuna, which has no relation with vedic character of Varuna.
The sub-divisions among south kerala ezhavas were Kollakkar or Channar Ezhavar, Malayalam Ezhavar (those earliest to Kerala), Nadi Ezhavar, Pachili Ezhavar (those who married from fishermen community), and Puzhakkar Ezhavar (menial servants of Malayalam Izhava). The Channar Izhavar claims superiority over other subdivisions. There were mainly 3 sub-castes among North Malabar ezhavas namely thiyya chone(chovan, Chekavan), pandi chon(Izhuvan) and velan kandi chon.. The south malabar Thiyyas were subdivided into the Thiyya chon, Vaisya Thiyya(thekkan chon), and pandi chon(Izhuvan) . However nowadays these sub-divisions are no more exist and even unherad of .
Illam And kiriyams
Illam (house of ilavar) was name of ezhava house later exclusively used to refer Namboothiri houses in kerala. In South kerala, ezhavas had 4 illams, while in Malabar they had 8 Illams and 32 kiriyams. Illams in south kerala were Moottillam, Chozhi Illam, Mayyanattu Illam and Madambi Illam. Illams in Malabar where Pullanji Illam, Varaka Illam, Nellikka Illam, Thenankudi Illam, Kozhikkala Illam, Thalakkodan Illam etc. Marriage from same illam were considered to be taboo. Now-a-days illams became non-existent in kerala. However, Illathu Pillairs(ezhavar) of South Tamil Nadu and Malayali Billavas of Tulunadu still use these illams. Nellikka families in malabar were those who remained wealthy and some others who were masters in various fields such ayurveda, martial arts (Kalaripayattu, Marma Kalari, etc.), astrology, Siddha, Manthravaadam, spirituality, business etc. They are from high strata of the society and led a rulers life.
Position in society
Ezhavas were considered as avarnas by the clergy and the ruling elite even though their ancestors Villavars belonged to the Kshatriya Varna. They were considered avarnas because some of them had once adopted Buddhism and later converted back to Hinduism.]They were looked down upon by the savarna castes. The general Hindu population of Kerala other than the Brahmins did not consider covering the upper body as a necessity. Ezhava men and women, like any other non-Brahmin castes in Kerala, were not allowed to cover their upper part of their bodies and certain types of jewellery and footwear were forbidden. Though the respected or rich families like Chekavar, Channar, Panicker and Thandan women used to wear upper clothing.
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.
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 (CHERTHALA) area and as a result, thousands of Ezhava families converted in areas of Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta to Christianity.
Sree Narayana Guru described 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.
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.
Spiritual and social movements
A procession before Kumarakom Sree Narayana Jayanthi Boat race
Guru Jayanthi celebration at Gokaneswara Temple, Mangalore, Karnataka, India
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. Gurudevan and his associates convinced Ezhavas to give up the practice of untouchability with respect to castes below theirs and built a number of temples open to all.[
In 1896, a mammoth petition (with more than 13,000 persons signing it) 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. The outcome not looking to be promising, the Ezhava leadership threatened that they would convert en masse, rather than stay as helots of Hindu society. 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 the Hindu society. 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. The SNDP Yogam were in the forefront of this movement.
SNDP is organisation formed to propagate and promote the moral teaching and Dharma of Shree Narayana Guru. Dr. P. Palpu, a devotee of Sree Narayana, was one of the founder.