On the Origin of Nayars

There is absolutely no evidence to show that there was any hostility between the Tamils and the Nayars who succeeded them as the rulers of the laud. This latter community had originally no name. In the grants of the kings and chiefs they are referred to simply as the Three Hundred, the Six Hundred, the Ten Thousand, which must have been administrative divisions, deriving their names from the number of soldiers furnished by them. In the granthavaris of the Zamorin they are called Lokar, literally people of the land. However wide the connotation of this word might have been at the beginning, in historic times it did not denote even all those who were governed by the Marumakkattayam law of inheritance. It was applied only to those who were required by custom to follow the profession of arms, who had undergone the customary military training and received their arms from the chief or the elders of the community. The Lokar were in ancient Kerala what the Spartiate were in ancient Greece.

The word Nayar is of a much later origin than Lokar. There is no connexion between Nayati and Nayar, the former one of the lowest, the latter one of the highest castes of the land. The former is derived from the Tamil Nayattu or hunting with dogs, the latter from the Sanskrit Nayaka or leader. At first Nayar had the same meaning as its Sanskrit parent. It was a personal or hereditary title conferred by a chief on the commandant of a fortress or the commander of an army. The Portuguese writers widened its meaning to include the military followers of the chiefs of Kerala. With the annexation of Malabar by the British in A. D. 1792 and the consequent disbandment of the Nayar militia not only in Malabar but also in the native states of Cochin and Travancore, the Nayars lost their distinctive occupation. They began to take to those peaceful pursuits which they had disdained in the past. Hence, now, all those between the caste of the Ampalavasis or temple servants on the one band and the polluting castes on the other call themselves Nayars, irrespective of their original rank or occupation in society.

Kanakasabhai says that the Nayars are of the same race as the Tamils and both of them came from Mongolia. But the Nayars trace pollution and property through the female, the Tamils through the male; the Nayar family centres round the mother, the Tamil family round the father. Further, the prevalence of Sati in ancient days among the Tamil warriors implies the inferiority of woman, which is totally at variance with a matriarchal form of society. Other writers give the Nayars a Naga origin. But succession to the throne and property among the Nagas was from father to son. In all probability the Nayars were originally hill-tribes living on the slopes of the Western Ghats different from both the Tamils and the Nagas.

When and bow the Nayars established their principalities in the valleys and spread even beyond to the islands off the coast are at present unknown to us. Slow and silent encroachment must have had its share, as in the formation of the Gurkha kingdom in the eighteenth century. The Nayars might have taken advantage of the weakness of the central government to extend their authority, and the imperial rulers of Tiruvanchikkulam might have thought it expedient to recognize them as feudatory governors of the lands from which they were powerless to expel them. The Tamil rulers, again, might have sought the help of these highlanders in their wars and conferred upon their leaders provincial governorships and military commands in much the same way as the Pathan sultans and the Mughal emperors set up Abyssiniana and Persians all over their


Not only the process but the date of their occupation is also a matter of conjecture. There is not even a single reference to them in the vast mass of the Sangam literature. The Samanta or the Nayar chiefs are mentioned for the first time in Bhaakara Ravi Varman’s grant to the Jew, Joseph Rabban, and the Lokar in a grant of Stanu Ravi Gupta’s reign. The dates of these grants are highly controversial The former is assigned to A. D. 192, 377, 700 and 1014; the latter to A. D. 311, 824 and 880. As these kings were later than the Samgam age the Nayars could not have risen to prominence before the fourth century.

The evidences for regarding the Nayars as indigenous hill-tribes, having no racial connexion with tbe Nagas or the Tamila, are;

  • Tirunelli in Wynad is their most sacred place, more sacred than Perur and Benares,
  • The Zamorin’s title, Kunnalakkonatiri, is perhaps reminiscent of their mountain homes,
  • The plantain leaf, very abundant on the hills, still plays a very important part in the life of the Nayars. Offerings to deities and chiefs are presented on it; the moment life departs from the body the corpse is placed on it; food is served even to the most distinguished guests on it, silver and gold being considered less pure than the plantain leaf.
  • In the recesses of the hills are still to be found people resembling the Nayars in every respect calling themselves Lokar and lords, of the hills,
  • Lastly, the military system of the Nayars was more suited to the hills than to the plains. While the Tamil warrior protected himself with ponderous armour, the Nayar trusted himself to agility of limb and suppleness of body, to the sure eye and the deft hand. The Nayars had no cavalry and their knowledge of fortification was rudimentary, artificial defences of moat and rampart being more imperatively required and more easily constructed on wide open plains than on the tops of woody hills.

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