The life and times of Pulayas of Travancore 1850

A Statue of Ayyankali was influential in the upliftment of this downtrodden group. The followers of Ayyankali have an organization called Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha (KPMS).
In his journal on Dec 5, 1850, George Matthan wrote:

The condition of these unhappy beings, is, I think, without a parallel in the whole range of history. They are regarded as so unclean, that they are thought to convey pollution to their fellow creatures, not only by contact, but even by approach. They are so wretchedly provided with the necessities of life that the most loathsome things are a treat to them. Their persons are entirely at the disposal of their masters, by whom they are bought and sold like cattle, and are often worse treated. The owners had formerly power to flog and enchain them, and in some cases to maim them, or even deprive them of their lives. . . . They were everywhere paid for their labour at the lowest possible rate.
Pulayas had to stand at a distance of ninety feet from Brahmins and sixty-four feet from Nairs.

There were several internal divisions within the Pulaya group, with some of them claiming ritualistic as well as social superiority over others The two major groups in central Travancore were the Kizhakke Pulayan and the Padinjare Pulayan. Within all these divisions of Pulayas were cleavages into Illams (families) or Koottams (groups) which regulated conjugal relationships. Consequently marriages took place only between two persons belonging to two separate Warns and not within Illams.

Correspondent to the Pulayas’ low caste status was the imposition of a highly restricted manner of speech. They were compelled to use self-degrading language, for example, instead of "I" they use 'adiyan' (your slave); for "rice," 'karikadi' (dirty gruel), and for their homes they use maadum (hut).
Most Pulayas were agricultural labourers and were held in bondage (adirna) or in a client relationship with their high caste landlords Part of the ‘privilege’ of being such a client relationship was a right to claim bare maintenance from the landlord, and to a small share in the produce of the land It was a highly exploitative and oppressive system
In the 1836 census there were 164 864 "soil slaves in Travan core, of whom Pulayas constituted the majority

Cast the Spell
Pulaya medicine men and witch doctors claimed secret and close communion with the spirits of the dead and performed mantra vaadam or sorcery. Mantravadis were believed to possess the powers of bringing malaise and misfortune on wrongdoers, especially the cruel landlords and wicked bossmen. Pulayas believed in the all pervasive dominion of the spirits on human affairs and held the sorcerers in awe and esteem The upper castes dreaded these agents of the demons and ghosts According to Mencher some social control over the excesses of the high caste landlords was exercised through the threat of Pulaya black magic in Travancore.

Angry Song and Dance
The traditional mask dance form of dalits in Kerala, was used as a means to rebuke, ridicule and to some extent question the atrocities and injustices done to them. Theyyam dances and the group songs sung during the agricultural operations were a sort of inversions and defiance to the dominance of the high castes. Some of the Pulaya folk songs were loud expressions of indignation and retribution.

iii) Steal and Escape
Pilfering and migration were traditional methods of defiance. James C. Scott describes them as "weapons of the weak" and "everyday forms of subordinate class’s resistance. Pilfering of paddy was very common in Travancore during the harvest season.
Frighten Women" Days
This custom was called Pulapedi that is, terror from the Pulayas. On a few days of the year, Pulayas were granted the "right" to "frighten" and to pollute high caste women who were moving around alone without a male escort.
Dr Chelanattu Achutha Menon records thus: “Once a year the ‘low’ are given permission of the paths and a kind of freedom in small temples during Pooram festival and ‘Velakali’ season. They can bathe in the upper caste ponds, enter the temples and offer ‘archana’. They can touch any woman they see. The women had to go with the ‘low’ man who touched her. She was not to return back. The rules applied only for those outside their homes. Those in the homes were not bothered. These days of freedom for the low were announced by drummers in advance to the populace. “Those who donot want to face the consequenses of this display of freedom may stay home,” was also announced in advance. Depending on the majority ‘low’ community of the area, the appellation ‘Pulaya Scare’ and ‘Paraya Scare’ were applied.
“An upper caste woman who wanted to avoid being victimised could safely go any where and any time of the day or night with a male child of more than 3 years; or she could touch a male Palm tree when in temple. Only those who wanted to be touched that went out on their own on ’scare’ days. If the touched woman is pregnant, she will stay away from her kin. If the child born is a boy, she will be taken back. If it is a girl, the woman goes with the Pulaya. Initially the Pulayas may have been encouraged to take women who had no males to support them.
And the story of how it was put to an end.
“The ’scares’ were ended in Malabar during British rule. But it was banned in Travancore in 1695 AD by Unny Kerala Varma. The proclamation was carved on a rock on the roadside of Thiruvithamkode of Padmanabhapuram taluk. Padmanabhapuram was the second capital of the state.The record of the order is kept in the archeological museum of Padmanabhapuram. The gist of that order written in Tamil and mix of Tamil and Malayalam comprising of 106 lines is as follows: “…If ‘Pulaya Scare’ is practised in my kingdom, the Pulayas, their women and children, including pregnant women will be destroyed. Those women who have been affected may be relieved of their blemish if they have a ritual cleansing bath. And, any one who defaces the rock edict will get the same punishment as the one who kills a black cow on the shores of River Ganga.”

By 1850, at the height of the anti slavery campaign, the landlords perceived missionary moves as a potential threat to the Pulayas’ subservient role in the social system. George Matthan observed, "strong fears exist among all classes of people that the enlightenment of slaves will be followed by their liberation, and the consequent ruin of the interests of agriculture. We are therefore being regarded as enemies to the best interest of the country." Indeed many landlords felt that the missionaries had usurped the landlord’s position of authority over the Pulayas.
The missionaries’ anti-slavery campaign and their continued pressure on the Travancore government finally ended in the emancipation of the slaves. On 24 June 1855 it was declared that owning slaves was illegal.
In a prominent case in Kottayam, a Syrian Christian landlord was fined and punished for kidnapping a Pulaya convert as a result of the united action of a group of Pulayas. Hawksworth gave support to the Pulayas in their opposition to the landlord’s action.
When local authorities failed to act, Hawksworth took a statement from the people concerned and sent it to the Dewan, "recommending that the defendant should be fined ten shillings." The Dewan raised the fine to two pounds and ten shillings. The local officer "set sail accordingly" and fined the Syrian Christian landlord three pounds. Hawksworth concluded: "A statutory dread has been infused into the minds of those who might otherwise have continued to persecute
Following the emancipation of the slaves in Travancore in 1855, a significant number of Pulayas from different parts of Central Travancore approached CMS missionaries or their representatives with requests for "Christian instruction" and "slave schools," clearly indicating their readiness to move to a new religion and further their alliance with the missionaries The annual number of adult baptisms recorded by CMS missionaries did not exceed 100 during 1850s and early 1860s From late 1860s onwards, the number of adults baptised shows on increase to 500 a year
Due to affirmative actions including Land Reforms and better educational avenues in Kerala, Pulayas are making some progress
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