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Vaikunta Swami

The history of the struggle for freedom in Kerala has its remote beginnings. To trace the exact time of it is impracticable. Chandala in Sree Sankaracharya (788-820) story and 64 anacharas in Sankara smrithy reveal the rigidity of the social anarchy and the resistance for freedom and social justice during the 8th and 9th centuries. If one traces the origin of the struggle for freedom and social justice, one would goes back to the primitive times. The Vedic literature and Puranas tells about the four Yugas namely Kritha Yuga, Thretha Yuga, Dewpara Yuga and Kali Yuga, clearly exposes that the time was not free from discrimination and anarchy. The incarnation stories clearly narrate the back going of truth and also the existence of social anarchy and the resistance for social justice.

The chief characteristic feature of the ancient Indian society was caste system. It has continuity even today. But no research proves that with this social evil any social progress could be achieved the society. At the same time much stories and researches tells about the hardships suffered by humanity due to caste system. Like the whole parts of India, this social evil too rigid in Kerala society and Travancore society.

Travancore society was also linked with caste system. The society was generally divided into higher and lower castes. The former enjoyed all privileges in society, while the latter was denied social, political and religious rights. The government itself had clearly defined who were the high castes and the low castes. The Tamil Brahmins, Malayala Brahmins, better known as Namboodiries, Kshathriyas, Nairs and a few others constituted the high castes. The Adi Dravida, Alavan, Arayan, Bharatar, Chackravar, Chakkiliyan, Chavalakkaran, Ezhavan, Ezhaavaatti, Kaakkaalan, Kaniyan, Kaavati, Kuravan, Marakkan, Maravan, Mukkuvan, Nadar, Nulayan, Palan, Panan, Panikkan, Paravan, Parayan, Pulayan, Pulluvan, Tantan, Tantaa-pulayan, Vaalan, Velan, Vetan who were treated as having theendal or distance pollution, constituted the lower castes.

From time in memorial the struggle against cast rigidity and social evils was started. Due to the lack of evidences, about the stories of the early fighters of social justice and freedom are unknown. The early known fighters of social justice and freedom are Vaikunda Swami, Arrattupuzha Velayudhapanicker, Sree Narayana Guru, Chattampi swamikal, Ayyankali, Brahmanandha Sivayogi, Sahodharan Ayyappan, Pandit Karuppan, Velukutty Arayan, M.R.V, V.T Bhattathiripadu, C. Kesavan, C.V Kunjiraman, T.K Madhavan, Vakkom Abdul Khader Moulavi, etc,. If one accesses the contributions of each personality, it is the conclusion that the contribution made by them deserves unique and equal importance in Indian society in general and Kerala society in particular.

According to longstanding mores and religious authority, the low castes had no right to enter the temples, use public roads, wear decent dress, possess knowledge, wear ornaments, etc. This social abuse came to an end when the latter group of the downtrodden people started civic rights movement against the caste discrimination system of Hindu society. The victory of the movement brought liberation to the depressed class from their downtrodden social status. The struggle for obtaining the right of women to cover their bosoms, ending the system of slavery, to bring an end to Uzhiam system, to garner the right to use public roads, the right to education, getting due share in government services, to end devadasi system, sambandam, smarthavicharam, unjust penal code and systems of punishments, right for temple worship, to remove the restrictions in wearing of ornaments, etc., changed the face of Travancore forever and it gave the state an envious place on the global map.

This paper is an attempt to brought light the contributions made by Vaikunda Swami in making Travancore society in particular and Kerala and Indian society in general.

Vaikunda Swami, the pioneer of Indian Renaissance was born in an ordinary Channar family at Samithopu, a village five miles north – west of Kanniyakumari in south Travancore on 12 March 1809. He was the second son of Ponnumadam and Veyilalamma, a traditional Shannar (Nadar) palm climbing family. With great expectations, they named the child ‘Mudichudum Perummal.’ But in those days the lower caste people were not permitted to use the names of ruling class or the suffix ‘Perumal.’ So the caste Hindus objected to change the name and reported the matter to the government officials. The officials issued an immediate order accordingly. Thus, his parents relented to presume of the caste Hindus by changing the name of Mudichudum Perumal to Muthukutty. Later he himself changed his name as Vaikunda Swamigal. The arrogant and dictatorial policy of the government and the caste Hindus wounded the feelings of young Muthukutty leaving a deep scar in him.

During those days, there were no public schools. Christian Missionaries ran a few schools in Travancore. Muthukutty had no opportunity to have any systematic school education but, with the help of the learned of the village he studied the Puranas and Itihasas of the Hindu religion, and some of the classical Tamil works like Nalvali, Mudurai, Thirukural and Thiruvalagam. He also learnt the basis of Bible, from the spiritual preaching of Rev. Charles Meed, Vedamanickyam etc, and Khuran. But an earning member of the family he followed the traditional job of Palm climbing and toddy taping also.

The contribution of Vaikunda Swami, in making a modern Indian society is much great worthy. It would remember that his contribution given to the awakening of south Indian renaissance and social awakening until the world end. He deserves the titles, a socio-Religious and political reformer, father of civic right movement in south India; The first and the only one personality among the great leaders of Indian renaissance who was jailed for advocating the rights of downtrodden people. The leader of Upper Cloth Revolt, the event which opened the era of Kerala renaissance; The pioneer of Temple Entry Agitation; An emancipator of women; The first exponent of agriculture mutiny in Kerala; The prime exponent of inner dinning; The first known person who raised his voice against animal sacrifice after Budha and Jaina; Founder of Samatha Samajam; etc are of rightly been called the golden star of Indian social awakening.

The chief sources of information regarding Vaikunda Swamigal and his reforms are form his own works Akhilathiruthu Ammanai and its Supplementary work Arulnul , both of them are composed by one of his disciple named Harigopalan, according to his direction; personal accounts of his disciple and companion Thaikattu Aiyya Guru, account his contemporary British historians like Samuel Mateer, Rev.Meed etc, London Mission Society papers and letters etc. It should be noted that the newspaper was not even a presences in south Travancore till the beginning of 20th century. The first Tamil News paper which started from Tamil Travancore is ‘Grammadhutham’ of Sivathanupillai. It was published on 18 January, 1940. In short, his struggle to bring reform activities in the society was before the introduction of newspaper of his region, at about before 90 years.

He fought with vigorous courage to abolish social injustice like, untouchablity, inapproachability, caste system, idol worship, unimportant taxes imposed by the avarnas and the government upon the commons, and to get right to wear upper cloth to the women, etc. He appealed his people to give up all religious rituals and all meaningless and expensive ceremonies. He taught his disciples to do away with the meaningless rituals like the chanting of Mantras, going round the temple, the ceremonial washing of the idol with edible items like milk, honey, etc., and worship with lights etc. He declared that the rituals prevailing in temples were based on superstitions and his disciples should not follow any of the above rituals. He upheld the theory of ‘Adi Dravida’ and blamed that caste system was nothing but the artificial creation of interested parties. He never believed in any particular religion, as religions are the creation of man. He dreamed the unity of humankind and condemned the tendency of fragmenting the society.

Swamikal stood for the welfare of downtrodden people. He strongly challenged the unjustified rule of Swathi Tirunal, the king of Travancore. The King ruled as the protector of the interest of higher caste Hindus and the British Paramountency. The lower caste people were treated with severe cruelties by both the Raja and the higher caste Hindus. “The Swamikal condemned that the rule of Raja in Travancore as the rule of black devil, and the rule of British in Travancore as the rule of white devils.”

The caste Hindus hatched a plot to kill Swamigal. They arranged a dinner at Maruthuvanmalai, and served delicious but poisoned food to him. Although Swanigal consumed the food, he escaped from death. Thus the conspiracy failed. They petitioned to Swathi Thirunal when he toured to south Travancore for performing some religious ceremonies in the temple at Suchindram, thus:
“Hailing from the shannan caste one men,
Proclaims himself as Vaikunda Swami,
Tries to unite lower caste people;
Speaks to abolish all the castes and
To rule country by subverting others.”

The army men arrested Swamikal and brought before the king. The king told him that to be free if his activities confined only for his own community. Swamigal was ordered to make the following declaration:
“Since now I won’t invite the people
Except my own caste, and I will not
Take interest in other castes.

But Swamigal totally refused to make such a declarations and he tore the royal order into pieces, because of his primary object was, the unity and betterment of all caste people. The king ordered to jail him. While he was in prison at Singarathopu in Trivandrum, Thaikadu Ayya Guru, the Thaikadu residency superintendent learned about Vaikunda Swami and visited him. His social reform activities very much impressed Ayya Guru, the one of the influential men of Swathithirunnal, requested to free him. Thus after 110 days of imprisonment, Swamigal was set free on March 26, 1839. (In 1994, the Tamilnadu government ordered every March 26 as Public holiday in KanyaKumari district.)

Sri Vaikunda Swamigal tried to establish Social Equality and Civic rights among the people of various castes and to protect the rights of the under-privileged. He founded an organisation for the propagation of equality known as Samathuva Samajam. In order to abolish the feeling of untouchability, Swamigal introduced inter dining among the various castes. As a general custom, the lower castes were prohibited from drawing water from public wells and ponds. He challenged this social abuse by digging a number of well at various places. The followers of Vaikunda Swamigal irrespective of caste brought food materials, cooked them with the water of the wells, and ate together with Swamigal. He sent his disciples to the house of other caste people in order to encourage inter dining.

Thaikadu Ayya Swami, the residency superintendent of the government, was a regular visitor of Vaikunda Swami at Swamithopu between 1839 and 1851. During the time of his visits, he attended and managed the inter dining at Swamithoppau also.

Ayya Guru had a close relation with Sri Narayana Guru, chattempi Swamigal and Ayyankali. They fought against caste system and social evils to bring renaissance in the society. Their fight for freedom and social upliftment of the untouchable community spread like a wild fire since later quarter of the 19th century. Raja Ravi Varma who contributed a reputed a dress code to the Hindu Goddesses was also the disciple of Thaikattu Ayya Guru.

While the upper cloth revolt was going on, the dominant caste made a fearing atmosphere among the outcaste people. Vaikunda Swamigal demanded the lower caste people to lead an independent life without fear. His propagation to wear head turban for men and upper cloth for women, made a great impact on the backward classes and they were ready to join to fight for their just rights. He was the first social reformer who raised the slogan one caste, one religion, one god, one language, one world, for humanity. His words were in Tamil language, “Jathi onrai, Matham onrai, Deivam onrai, Bhasha onrai, Lokam onrai for men”. Extending support to the needy and the destitute, small buildings, named Nizhal-Thangals were formed in various parts of South India. They discharged four functions:

1. Giving shelter to the poor.
2. Supplying food.
3. Expending spiritual confidence and
4. Curing diseases.

Swamigal was considered as a savior by the low caste people and they followed him with courage and confidence. In 1851, on the eve of the last days he installed a mirror as deity at one of the Nizel thangals at Swamithoppu. He ordered the people, “removing shirt and wearing turban look at the mirror with folding hands and salute themselves”. It encouraged self-respect and self-confidence in the people. His followers referred to him as Aiyya, the father. After his death, there emerged a cult known as Aiyya Vazhi, the path of Aiyya. This cult has no any similarity with other religions. The chief deity of the Pathi is ‘Mirror’. Offerings of the Pathies are edible items. These edible items are distributed to the people who present there. Money is not allowed as offering. Even today, it remains as a separate religious sect. The Mirror installation was repeated at Kalavankodu by Narayanaguru in 1927. In short, the reforms activities started by Vaikunda Swamigal spread like a wild fire within a short span in every knock and corner of the world.

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