Matrilineal Societies of India
An aristocratic lady from the Malabar gesturing to her son the arrival of his father. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/
In the world, where nothing other than patrilineal society is visible and appeared to be viable, the existence, survival, and thrival of the contrary, i.e., matrilineal society attracts the attention of eyes and mind. Though their existence is modern amazement, matrilineal societies have existed on the planet from generation to generation. These societies had not only survived but also thrived. In the past, these societies had thronged the planet from east to west. However, with the time, most of the societies were converted or pushed closure towards patrilineal society. Currently, there are fewer than 500 such communities exist.
These communities are the Mosuo of China, the Picti of Scotland, the Basques of Spain and France; the Ainu of Japan, Akwamu and Fante of Ghana. In India, there are numerous matrilineal societies still exist. They are Khasi, Pnar/Jaintia, Garo in Meghalaya state and by the traditional Nayar in the Kerala state of India.
India is known as the cradle of colourful cultures, languages, and mysteries. Among all mysteries, in the north-eastern part of India, Meghalaya is home of India’s largest surviving matrilineal society. It is home of Khasi, Pnar/Jaintia, and Garo community. Their homeland is hilly tracks in districts of Khasi and Jaintia Hills. The term “Khasi” means born of the mother. “Kha” means “born” and “si” refers to “ancient mother”.
It is conventionally believed that Khasi people of the Meghalaya had migrated from somewhere in the Cambodia region and the great plains of the Mekong river. As per Hamlet Bareh, the Khasi people belong to one of the earliest groups of races migrating to North East India. They came through the traditional route of migration from South East Asia to the fertile valley of the Brahmaputra that is through the Patkai Hills in the east near today’s Nagaland.
The primary element of the matrilineal system is the inheritance of property is made through female lineage. In the Kashi community, generally, the youngest daughter, whom the Khasis refer to as ka-khadduh, inherits all the properties, including Ka-Iing Seng (foundation house). (Khad means to collect, and duh means the losses, i.e., the person who collects the responsibility for the losses of the family). The youngest daughter- ka-khadduh– is a moral force in stimulating the family affection and preserving the balance of kinship in the house. The youngest daughter is the only custodian of the ancestral property and, so, if she wants to dispose it off, she must obtain consent and approval of the uncles and brothers.
If the youngest daughter dies, the ancestral property goes to her own youngest daughter. howsoever low and if she be without any daughter, her next elder sister inherits and, after her, the youngest daughter of that sister, howsoever low. Failing all daughters and their stock, the property reverts to the mother’s family, i.e., to the mother’s sister, and so on.
The Garo tribe, second-largest tribe in the hills of Meghalaya, is one of the few surviving matrilineal societies. Much like its sister tribe, Khasi, the daughter of the family carries the clan name throughout her life, whereas the son takes up his wife’s clan name after marriage. If the marriage does not work out, the couple can get separated without any social stigma. Like the Khasi tradition, the youngest daughter in a Garo family inherit the property and if there is no female inheritor within the immediate family, the property passes to the daughter of the mother’s sister. Garo and Khasi, both societies have similar core: matrilineal society.
Kerala: Nairs and Ezhavas
In Kerala, the Nairs are one of the matrilineal societies in India from before Kerala became a state. This group of castes and sub-castes lived under an older female member in a matrilineal household called tharavad. Tharavad consists of many descendants who share the same ancestor. The husbands usually stay in separate rooms or altogether different houses and holds almost little to no responsibility towards their children. This responsibility, along with taking care of the common property as well as other decisions, falls upon the eldest male member known as the karnavan. The karnavan is the superior authority even though ancestral lineage follows from the eldest female member. It is believed that the karnavan favours his nieces and nephews over his children because of this lineage pattern.
The Ezhavas, another one of the matrilineal societies, is also a community from Kerala. In northern Malabar, matrilineal communities have patrilocal arrangements while in northern Travancore, Ezhavas follow a matrilocal method of their property. Even in these communities, the importance given to the karnavan who triumphs all the apparent power held by the matriarch. Since the Kerala started functioning as state, these communities have been suppressed and left with no other option but to align with the rest of the state and nation.
Officially, the state has banned the matrilineal/matrilocal family structure through the Joint Family System (Abolition) Act, 1975. The act was passed by the Kerala State Legislature. Compared to the previous two social formations, Kerala is surrounded by states that have a strong culture of patriarchy, resulting in the fading of matrilineal families.
Karnataka: Bunt and Billava
The Billava and Bunt people are an ethnic group of India. They are found traditionally in coastal Karnataka and engaged in toddy tapping, cultivation and other activities. The community follow matrilineal descent known as Aliyasantana. It is based on the legend of how a king refuses to sacrifice his sons when a demon demands their sacrifice to lift the drought that plagued the kingdom. Instead, the king’s sister offers her son as a sacrifice. The demon then pardons them all, and the nephew then inherits everything from the king. This is how it is believed the initiation of matrilineal society in the community. The inheritance travels through the sister, i.e., the eldest female member. Apart from this, the sister’s brother is the primary decision-maker of the family which is again resemblance of other similar matrilineal society.