The Mappila are a Muslim group that lives in northern Kerala. There are around 7 million of them. Almost all the Muslims in Kerala are Mappila. Unlike other Muslims they are matrilocal and matrilineal like local Hindu castes. Property and family leadership has traditionally been passed down to the oldest sisters. There are caste-like distinctions between groups. At the top are the Sayyids. There are also divisions for descendants of foreigners and of Arabs and for the equivalent of Untouchables. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Nayars were traditionally a matrilineal militaristic and landowning caste on the Malabar Coast in India. After the gave up their warrior traditions they lost much of the political power but were reborn thanks to Western education and now fill many professional and white collar jobs. They are famous for the matrilineal kin organizations and unusual marriage customs. There are about 6 million Nayers (also known as Nairs). They make up about 15 percent of the population of Kerala. Their society is complex and has a lot of caste distinctions. Property has traditionally been handed down to sisters and men looked after the offspring of their sisters not their own.

The Nayars used to practice an unusual form of polyandry (women taking multiple husbands) in which a pre-adolescent girl was "married" to man she never saw and thus was allowed to take several lovers, often presented to her by her mother or uncle. Each man hung around for several days, hung his weapons on her door and gave her some money for support. This form of marriage was sanctified with a “tali” (necklet) tying ceremony and was often performed for several girls at the same time.

Most Nayars today practice monogamy. In the old day, the Nayar wedding ceremony took place shortly before a girl reached puberty. The marriage lasted only three days and was purely ceremonial. Husbands were insignificant. Lovers had to be within the same social class. Their bond was expressed through a pattern of gift giving. Fathers were expected to acknowledge paternity but otherwise had no obligations to their offspring. Men were obligated to help take of their sister’s children. Scholars still debate whether this ritual was a real form of ritual marriage or simply a coming-of-age ritual.

Hill Pandaram

Hill Pandaram are a scheduled tribe that lives in rain forests of the Western Ghats in the state of Kerala. Also known as the Malai Pandaram and Malapantaran, they are a nomadic foragers who speak dialects of Tamil and Malaualam, the language of the people that live around them, and practice Hinduism infused with beliefs of hill spirts, ancestral ghosts and other supernatural beings. They are only about 1,500 of them and they occupy an area of forest at a density of 1 or 2 per square kilometer. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

The Hill Pandaram have inhabited the forest of the Western Ghats at least since the 2nd century B.C. and probably long before that. They have never been completely isolated. They have always traded items such as ivory, honey, wax, cardamom, turmeric, dammar (resin), bark material used in tanning, ginger, bamboo and herbs used in medicines for rice, palm floors, cassava, cooking pots, utensils, adzes, bill hooks, salt and other items with the local people around them.

About a quarter of the Hill Pandaram are completely nomadic. The others live in small settlements with around ten widely scattered bamboo-walled, thatch -roofed huts They grow a few crops such cassava and have mango and tamarind trees nearby. These settlement are only rarely habited. When foraging the Hill Pandaram live in shelters with bamboo frames and palm leave coverings. Marriages tend to be fairly flexible. There is generally no formal marriage ceremony and many have several spouses at different during their lifetimes. They sometimes engages in spirit possession ceremonies to the rhythm of drumming,

The Hill Pandaram possess no land and have few material possessions Social relations are defined mostly by family and gathering groups. The roles of men and women are relatively equal. Their main sources of food are various kinds of yams that the dig up in the forest and nuts and fruit they obtain from trees. They hunt small animals, monkeys, squirrels and monitor lizards. Much of the hunting is done with dogs and muzzle-loading guns.


The Paniyan are a group of “bonded laborers” (people who required to work their whole lives to pay off a debt). They live mainly in Kerala around the Western Ghats and have curly hair, dark skin and broad noses, which has led some to conclude they are of African origin. Paniyan means “laborer.” There are believed to be around 100,000 of them.

In the old days most Paniyan worked for large landowners who bought them for a few rupees and made sure they couldn’t find work anywhere else if they fled. Bonded labor is now illegal and some Paniyan own land, However some degree of bonded servitude remains in some places. The Paniyan continue to live like slaves in some places. In the old days some were employed as coffee thieves. At night they would sneak into plantations and strip coffee plants of berries and deliver them to their landlords.

Kani and Their Magic Berry

The Kani people of the rain forest of Kerala are poor and live in thatch huts. Men go shirtless and wear sarongs. The roam the forest with wooden bows and poison arrows, shooting birds and fish. Scientist who studied the Kani noticed that they never seemed to get tired or fatigued and were energized by pale-green berries they plucked from the "divine" Arogyapacha plant that grows only on Agastyavanam Mountain in Kerala.

One Kani tribesman said, "We eat its fruit when we go hunting. It gives a sudden burst of energy. We don't feel hungry for several hours; we don’t feel thirsty or tired. And I seems we can walk and run in the mountain for hours again. Plaupa Pusjpangadan, the director of the a botanical institute, has the helped the Kani market the energy-giving berry in such a way that the Kali get some of the profits. A tonic made from the berries performed well in trials and sold out immediately when it was sold on the open market. Efforts have been made to cultivate the Arogyaepacha plant on 800 hectares near the Kani's forest and grow the plant in other places.

Cochin Jews

The Cochin Jews are a small but very ancient Jewish community in Kerala. Also know as the Cochinis, they have traditionally lived in several towns along the Malabar Coast: Attencammanal, Chenotta, Ernakulam, Mallah, Parur, Chenemangalam and Cochin. Like their neighbors they speak Malayalan,a Dravidian language similar to Tamil. Few of them speak Hebrew.

The Cochin Jews are one of the smallest Jewish communities in the world. In 1948 there were 2,500 of them and three synagogues. . In 1953, 2,400 of them emigrated to Israel. Only around 30 remained in Cochin as of the early 1990s. While the Cochin Jews kept mainly to themselves they were well liked by other religious groups.

In Kerala there were 65 Jews as of 2000. Isolated from the mainstream Jewish community, Cochin’s Jews developed some unique customs as a result of their small size. The main synagogue has no rabbi. During marriage ceremonies the rites are read by the groom. They make their own Sabbath wine from local grapes. Their daily prayers are chanted in “shingli”, a unique version of standard Jewish Prayers.

Syrian Christians

Syrian Christians are the largest group of Christians in India. There are about 6 million of them. They make up 94 percent of the Christians in Kerala, which in turn is about 20 percent Christian. The remainder of the Christians were descendants of Christians converted by European missionaries. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia”, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Syrian Christians live mostly in the Kerala and are centered around the Kerala town of Kottayam where followers have lived since the 4th century. They get the name from Syriac (classical form of Aramai), the language used of their liturgies. They are also know as Nazaranis (followers of Jesus of nazarene).

Syrian Christians speak Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala. They generally only marry other Syrian Christians. Some marriages are arranged. Cross-cousin marriage is generally not practiced. The nuclear family is the basic social unit and men have traditionally worked outside the house while women stayed at home.

Syrian Christians are often quickly recognizable by their Biblical names like Paul, Thomas, Andrew, Peter. Syrian Christian women have a little fan hanging out of the back of their blouse. In Kerala they are regarded as energetic, ambitious, entrepreneurial and devoted to higher education.

Book: “God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy offers some interesting insights into life of Syrian Christians. On the early Syrian Christian settlers from Baghdad and Nineveh that came to India, Roy wrote: “They arrived in a boat and speed into Kerala like tea from a teabag.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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