A century ago, a young school teacher from Cherai, an island across Ernakulam, met Sree Narayana Guru when he was visiting a neighbouring town. Guru asked Ayyappan whether it was sufficient to merely talk against caste. “Should we not do something to remove caste from people’s minds? The only way is to act against caste discrimination,” he told the young man.
Kerala in 1917 was deeply divided by caste. The oppressed castes had started to revolt against the discrimination institutionalised by the Hindu religious order from the start of the 19th century. In the first half of the 19th century, Vaikunta Swami, a saint-reformer from an oppressed caste in Travancore kingdom, had unveiled a vision of an egalitarian spiritual order and social life. In 1888, Narayana Guru had challenged the Hindu orthodoxy by consecrating an “Ezhava Siva” at Aruvippuram near Thiruvananthapuram. Missionary activity and English education built a groundswell of opinion against the caste system. But the old order retained its stranglehold.
Caste was scrupulously observed in public spaces; it decided even the right of way, and people of different castes could not dine together. Every act of transgression was severely punished. This was the social environment which Guru had referred to.
The remarks deeply affected Ayyappan. According to his biographer, MK Sanoo, a few days later, Ayyappan called a gathering of his close friends, most of them from non-Dalit castes, and told them that he intended to invite members of the Dalit Pulaya community for a communal meal. Guru had Dalit cooks at his ashram, but he was a saint and beyond censure. That wasn’t the case with ordinary Ezhavas like Ayyappan. They feared such a feast would attract retribution. But Ayyappan was unfazed. When he insisted, they agreed to stand with him. Two Pulaya students, Vallon and Chathan, were invited to dine with Ayyappan and friends.
On March 29, 1917, the meeting started in Cherai. Ayyappan spoke about the atrocities of the caste system and announced that Guru expected his followers to do their bid to destroy it. In line with Guru’s command, he said, a communal meal (panthi bhojanam) with two Dalit boys was organised. He read an oath to the stunned audience: “Since I am convinced that the caste system is irrational, unnecessary and destructive, I wholeheartedly commit myself to work towards its destruction without violating the lawful norms.” He made those present sign the oath and the communal feast — a dish made of jackfruit seed and channa — was held.
All hell broke loose the next day. The Ezhava organisation in Cherai, Vignanavardhini Sabha, expelled those who took part in the event from the community. Families were told to ostracise those who had partaken the forbidden meal. Ayyappan was derisively labelled Pulayan Ayyappan, who considered it an honorific. Those in support of Ayyappan came together to form Sahodara Samajam (Union of Brothers). In the midst of the vicious campaigns and physical threats, Ayyappan, now Sahodaran Ayyappan, met Guru. He asked Ayyappan to “forgive his detractors like Christ”. Ayyappan asked for a message from Guru, who promptly dictated the following lines: “People may differ in their religion, dress and language, but they belong to one species and hence there is no harm in they inter-dining or inter-marrying.”
Sure enough, Ayyappan’s act caught the imagination of the youth. Pulpalli Raghavan in his Viplava Samaranakal, a memoir that gives a panoramic view of life and society in 20th century Kerala, writes that sahodara samajams (collectives of brothers) sprouted in hundreds not just in Kochi but also in Travancore. Numerous panthi bhojanams were held across Kerala.
Sahodaran’s radical act triggered a wave of similar anti-caste actions in every community. The numerous civil rights campaigns, including for the right to way, temple entry, representation in legislature, bureaucracy and government, paved the way for a collective and inclusive Malayali identity in place of restrictive caste categories. Sahadaran later became a legislator and a minister in Kochi and Travancore-Kochi governments. He wrote extensively, poems to pamphlets, against all unjust social traditions. He was critical of Hinduism and adopted Buddhism in the 1920s.
This May, celebrations were held at Cherai and Ernakulam to commemorate 100 years of Sahodaran’s panthi bhojanam, with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in attendance. However, the enlightenment values furthered by Sahodaran and others now face new challenges. The continuing impoverishment of Dalits and adivasis in the state are cited by social critics like B Rajeevan as evidence of Kerala’s failure to take forward that legacy. Rajeevan says external aspects of the caste system, like the restrictions on inter-dining, have disappeared but the divisive nature of the caste idea continues to influence Kerala’s social life. Caste in Kerala, he argues, has become a political phenomenon, which manifests itself in a new hierarchy based on the numerical strength of communities. Dalits and adivasis, who constitute less than 10 per cent of the state’s population, have lost out. “This is the political issue we need to retrieve from the current discussions on panthi bhojanam,” he argues.
Ajay Sekhar, a Dalit scholar who has published a study on Sahodaran, talks about the need to foreground the life and works of Ayyappan at a time when the state is pushing restrictions on food habits, dress and in cultural matters. Civic Chandran, poet and activist, cites the disturbing incident of non-Dalits shunning a government school in Perambra in north Kerala, where all students are from a Dalit community. A march from Cherai to Perambra has been planned to highlight the issue. “Kerala has been retreating from Cherai to Perambra,” he says.
The legacy of panthi bhojanam, of course, is alive in the protests against the ban on beef. But the destination of an egalitarian society is far away. Justice Usha Sukumaran recalls a conversation with Sahodaran, her uncle. As a child, she had asked him why she could not take her Christian friends to temples the way she could accompany them to church. “That’s what people like your uncle worked hard for, but we could not make it happen. Maybe it will happen in your lifetime,” he told her. His words resonate as the state’s orthodoxy holds firm on many matters.