Nairs were feudal lords with an uninterrupted cultural heritage for almost two millennia. They lived in luxury, assisted the kings in ruling and were connoisseurs of performing arts, literature and fine cuisine.
The lordly status lasted till 1947 when India became independent and the princely states were abolished. They controlled a vast empire and watched the rise and fall of great Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations. They perfected the martial art or Kalaripayattu, the vestige of which is Karate or Kung Fu and developed Kathakali, which is one of the oldest theatre forms in the world.
During the war, with the Chola dynasty, in 9th century the Nairs developed guerilla warfare; also, the concept of Chavettavar or suicide squads like zealots or Kamakasis. Almost a millennium back, they stopped the wars and lived in peace and scholarly pursuit. They translated the Great Indian Epic Mahabaratha, into their language, Malayalam by 1200 A.D.!
Since time immemorial, Nairs safeguarded Kerala – the hub of the spice trade of the world. Like the Byzantine Emperors, the Emperors of Kerala controlled all trade and commerce and Nairs commanded a strong army and Navy and kept the outsiders at bay.
The forefathers of Nairs were of royal and noble lineage. They were warriors, landowners, and advisors to the emperors and kings. They were described as the people of “eye, hand, and order”– the Ksatriya class of Hindus with prowess, courage, and lordliness,” who prevented “the monarchy from degenerating into tyranny” and “the rights (of all classes) from being curtailed or suffered to fall into disuse.” The Malayalam Vattakkanpattu immortalizes their exploits in the lives of the legendary Thacholi Othenan and lady warrior Unniarcha.
Matriarchal system has matrifocal kinship family structure and matrilineal, inheritance pattern. The maternal brothers are the custodian of family wealth and, are primarily responsible for care of sisters and their children. The oldest brother is known as Karanavar. The children are known by mother’s family name. The females are entitled to the house and shared family wealth.
Nairs are orthodox Hindus and most of them still continue to be religious in their outlook. They are lacto-vegetarians and majority of them are teetotalers. They are 100% literate and are fluent in three languages, English and Hindi and in the state language, Malayalam. The highly orthodox Nairs know Sanskrit language also.
In 1947, came Independence. They modified their system to accommodate the changing political and social structure of society. This entailed professional education of women, movement of educated folks to urban locals in other parts of India or foreign lands. However Nairs continued to retain many features of matriarchy, to provide the familial and psychological milieu for family integrity and proper childcare: a state described as neomatriarchy .
During the last decades, even the neo-matriarchal system is fragmenting leading to the extinction of Nair community! The Nair families who are uprooted from Kerala strive to retain the traditions without any attempts to assimilate or acculturate to the host culture.