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The Nairs used to practice polyandry reminiscent of the Pandava-Panchali relationship, a custom that can be traced to Tibet. The following is a summary of the custom as recorded by L. K. A. Iyer in his Cochin Tribes and Castes. II, 39: "At ten or twelve years of age of a girl, her mother begged someone of their relations to marry her (the daughter) and they did so by tying a marriage badge (tali). Then the bridegroom would leave her and go away without any consideration of his new relationship (often back to the army and the battle field). She might also remain with him if he wished. If she was not inclined to do so, the mother would then go about seeking someone else to take her daughter to live with him. If the girl happened to be pretty, three of four Nairs would agree to live with her, and the more lovers she had, the more highly she was esteemed. Each man had his appointed time from midday to the next day at the same hour, during which some sign was placed at the door so that the others might not enter. She was at liberty to dismiss whomever she disliked ... The fathers [of the children] were named by the mothers. It is said that the kings made this law in order that the Nairs might not abandon their service. According to this system, the fathers were not succeeded by their sons but by their nephews (sons of sisters)."
Nair Matriarchal System
The Nairs had the matriarchal system of family called Tarawad or Marumakkathayam family. It consists in theory of all persons who can trace their descent in the female line from a single ancestress. In its simplest form the family consists of a mother and her children living together with their maternal uncle, that is the mother's brother as the Karanavan (senior male) of the family. In its complex form it consists of a mother and all her children, both male and female, all her grandchildren by her daughters, all her brothers and sisters..and the descendants on the sisters' side -- in short, all the relatives of the woman on the -female side living together in the same block of buildings, dining together in the same hall, and enjoying the property in common. There were instances of families containing a hundred or more members living in different buildings in a large compound. All the members, however many their generations, should be able to trace their common descent from one ancestress.
In such a family the woman senior to others in age was the head of the family, and she reigned as queen bee. Her eldest daughter was prime minister. The son recognized the supremacy of the mother; the brother obeyed the elder sister and respected the younger sisters. The sister of the man came first in affection and responsibility before his own wife.
Today the situation is different. The senior woman is no longer the head of the family, and she has yielded her authority to the oldest male member who is Karanavan. Thus patriarchy has superseded matriarchy in extended Nair families. In the joint family, family property is joint property and no member can claim or appropriate or expropriate any portion of it; the property is held in trust for the support of the females and their descendants in the female line. The property can be disposed of only with the consent of all the members. Sometimes when the Tarawad or family grows extremely large, the descendants of the family are divided according to various female lines [Tavazhi: ta = mother; vazhi = line]; they would live in separate buildings and own that portion of the joint property which is theirs in partition and which is managed by the woman's brother as Karanavan. Legally, it is to the woman the fortune of the family belongs; yet, practically, she is no longer the mistress of the house, but only one of the many dependants of the Karanavan.
Nairs and Marumakkathayam
The Nairs follow the system of inheritance called Marumakkathayam as opposed to the traditional Makkathayam system according to which property belongs to the father and which property is ceded to the oldest son or sons, and the son succeeds the father as head of the family. The Marumakkathayam law regulates succession through the female line. For instance, in Travancore the heir apparent is the reigning Monarch's sister's oldest son (nephew) and not the king's own son. Marumakkathayam (marumakan == sister's son; dayam= inheritance) could have arisen as an alternative norm to patrilineal inheritance in a system where a man's sister's son was supposed to marry his daughter anyway. The Karanavan who has lately taken over from the female, is entitled to the full possession and management of the property. The junior members legally have no claim to residence and maintenance. The Karanavan is not accountable to any one member; he is not under obligation to support any member of the Tarawad (family). The only restraint on him is that he cannot alienate the family lands without the consent of all. When the family divides, it divides along the female line (Tavaztu). But the female inheritor lets one male member, like her brother, manage the new Tarawad. Needless to mention that the Marumakkathayam system is no longer a viable system. It was outlawed in the early part of the twentieth century.