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Cultural Research of Nayar of India

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1762 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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This research paper provides insights into the Political Organization, Gender Relations, and Beliefs and Values of the agrarian state and cultural practices of the Nayar people of southwestern India. By understanding the Nayar culture, people may better understand and appreciate cultural differences between the Nayar culture and that of their own.

In the essay, “Some Aspects of Nayar Life” Panikkar (1918) states, “The Nayars are at present an essentially agricultural population. The vast majority of them are peasant proprietors owning small farms. Rice and coco-nuts are the chief things cultivated, though in North Malabar pepper and card oman have also their share” (p.285).

It should also be noted that “states are much more complex and stratified than chiefdoms, so it is not feasible to rely solely on kinship as a recruitment method. In state systems, land ownership and occupation are at least as important as kinship as a system of organization; the state itself becomes a key institution of organization.” (Nowak, et al., 2010, ch.7.8, n. p.).

Of particular interest is the fact that the Nayar as with other caste societies, marry within their own caste. While this similarity with other endogamous societies helps to preserve the class of people, the Nayar marriage practices vary considerably from other agrarian states and caste for which I explain later.

Political Organization

The political system among the Nayar people has as with most cultures that have been the target of colonialism and capitalism, seen considerable change over last several hundred years. Much of the former kinship, matrilineal and political structures and systems of the Nayar culture have all but vanished. Kathleen Gough (1952), stated that “Later in the nineteenth century, more deep-rooted economic changes took place, and these have increased in momentum until all the traditional groupings of caste, village and lineage are dis-integrating” (p. 79).

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The political and economic influence during the later part of 19th century by the British probably had the most notable impact on the Nayar people. European military forces and government structures as well as the introduction of machines played a significant role in the changing political and economic structures and systems as well as building of permanent roads and railroads.

The introduction of new trading opportunities, realignment of jobs, tighter controls to ensure peace, increased use of monetary currency, and broader reaching governmental jurisdiction across caste and villages played a vital role in redesigning the Nayar culture and politics as well.

Evidence of this breaking down of prior systems has been described as “The expansion of trade, the introduction of new technological devices, and the opening up of new occupations, produce new economic classes between which there is mobility, and which to some extent cut across the affiliations and ranking of caste. ” (Gough, 1952, p. 81). Through the elimination of caste ranking, socioeconomic and sociopolitical class rankings no longer limit Nayar people from changing class levels and limits have become more aligned with performance and education.

With the introduction of formal government, monetary systems, increased import and export as well as technological advances, the former Nayar methods of controlling the distribution of wealth, food and other trade labor as well as class distinctions have resulted in a more capitalistic society. Along with these changes, the Nayar people are increasingly integrating practices common in more advanced capitalistic and socialistic society forms of government, business, and family relationships.

Gender Relations

Anthropologists studying the Nayar society of southwestern India continue to struggle with defining certain aspects of gender relations in a western context. One such area of significant interest and difficulty is in contrasting Nayar marriage with marriage in western society and terms. While marriage may be seen by many as a cultural universal even in consideration of variations such as polygamy, the Nayar marriage purpose and experience is quite different from marriages in most other societies. Perhaps, such significant differences would be more understandable if a different term other than marriage was used to represent Nayar marriage.

One example of the differences in Nayar marriages as stated by Miriam Koktvedgaard (2008) was that “The Nayar of India practiced a form of non-fraternal polyandry in which several men were simultaneously the ‘husbands’ of one wife. Usually only the first husband underwent a ritual marriage with the woman before she entered puberty” (p.11). This cultural practice appears to be an extraordinary characteristic of the Nayar unlike most other marriage constructs. Not so much perhaps as a woman having multiple simultaneous husbands although rare, but having ritual marriages with a woman that has not reached puberty.

In order to further elaborate on the marriage of girls that have not yet reach puberty, I should explain that “Before a girl reaches puberty, a Nayar girl is married to a man as a rite of passage. The man she marries has no rights to the girl, and she has no obligation to him. When she is older, the girl is allowed to enter into other marriages and have children with those husbands.” (Nowak, et al., 2010, ch 7.8, n.p.)

Anthropologist suspect that by maintain a loosely committed marriage relationship with both men and women being sexually active with other mates or spouses, it allows men to stay away for long periods of time with little affect on the family system.

Another characteristic of the Nayar gender relationship was with regard to the definition of the domestic unit or nuclear family in that “The central Nayar domestic unit consisted of a mother, her daughters and their children; husbands and wife did not set up house together” (Koktvedgaard, 2008, p. 11).

While for some it may be difficult to show proper respect for the differences in marriage practices and to fully comprehend how the standard definition of a domestic unit that does not include a husband or father could exist, these are important distinctions remain.

Interactions by an outsider with beliefs that differ from Nayar gender relations and beliefs could easily produce criticisms or a sense of condemnation which could quickly derail otherwise honest attempts at gaining progress or cooperation. It has been recognized however that the influence of British colonization and the exposing of criticisms and by force that the matrilineal change to patrilineal form of family organization has been made.

Beliefs and Values

Over thousands of years of considerable influence by mainstream religious faith denominations such as Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism, the Nayar have been substantially un-phased in adopting one of the recognized religions.

Evidence of the lack of adoption of a primary religion by the Nayar is stated as “Nothing shows so much the extreme persistence of primitive culture, even in the face of higher civilising agencies, than the wide and almost universal acceptance of spirit-worship, and the almost entire absence of religious life among the Nayars after at least twenty centuries of contact with Hinduism ” Panikkar, (1918), p.277.

While the Nayar do use Hindu temples for worship and ceremonies, the nature of these particular practices are not recognized under any Hindu creed or other religion for that matter. The Nayar belief in magic and spirit worship continues although they are recognized leaders in literature and music within their culture and subsequently would not be considered uncivilized.

Another characteristic of the Nayar people is where they fit within a caste society. “A caste is an endogamous social grouping into which a person is born and within which a person remains throughout his or her lifetime. It is an ascribed position.” (Nowak, et al., 2010, ch 7.8, n.p.). Within these groupings, marriages and other interactions which were tightly controlled even forbid physical touch across caste. With the capitalistic evolution and exposure to western culture, the adherence too many of the cross-caste practices continue to see change.

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The impact on discussions or considerations concerning life, business or religion with Nayar people considering both the likely absence of common religious beliefs and belief in magic and spirit worship could be significant. Consider a Christian believer entering into discussion with a Nayar community by condemning Nayar core religious beliefs in hopes of collecting contributions for acquiring land for a new church. In this example, it is unlikely this approach would succeed given criticism of beliefs as a basis for support.

If religious beliefs vary as significantly as I have described, what is valued is also in conflict. These differences would then become obstacles in coming together towards common goals if not taken into consideration prior to presenting a position introducing mutually beneficial outcomes in which both parties increase items or results of value.


The Nayar depended largely on rice for food and to a lesser extent vegetables, fish, and poultry. The formation and growth of families was largely relative to the amount of land they owned and the class of house. The ownership or family structure that developed as a result was more of a community or corporate type of ownership model which was significantly linked to the women and her side of the family in years past.

The Nayar are heavily involved in politics and other forms of industrialized production observable by the number of local printing businesses while continuing their tradition of agriculture. In many ways, the Nayar people and culture has adopted many aspects of American and European culture.

By gaining a better understanding of the Nayar political organizations, gender relations, and beliefs and values, people from other cultures will better understand and appreciate the cultural differences. This enhanced awareness will be beneficial in helping to offer solutions to problems in government, business growth, housing, and as other forms of industry are introduced or sought out.


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