“Two friends who have but one life”: Hope from the 19th century

I came across this delightful piece of information in the historian K P Padmanabha Menon’s History of Kerala (vol.3, AES reprint,2001, pp.498-500) which was written in the early 20th century. He quotes from “a paper published in the Madras Review (vol.2, p.250)”; we do not know which year this was published, but there is good reason to think that it was in the early 20th century. The paper is about a truly exciting institution – ‘marriage’ which produced not a heterosexual conjugal couple, but a same-sex  (male) couple bound by ‘friendship’!

It is by now well-known that the conjoining of Brahmanical and Victorian morality outlawed a range of marriage practices that existed in Kerala in the 19th and 20th centuries, ranging from looser marital ties to polyandry; this ‘marriage’ for friendship is one of those. The author of the piece from which Menon quotes does not call it marriage, but the ceremonies described clearly resemble forms of marriage common among the matrilineal and non-brahminic communities of Kerala in the 19th century.The differences are however more interesting, since reciprocity seems all-important in this marriage! The community which practised this was the dalit Kannan Pulayas of south Kerala (then known as Travancore), who were among the ‘slave castes’.

Equally interesting, perhaps, is the narrator’s ‘unholy glee’ despite the supercilliousness evident in the confession about having discovered this practice among “these degraded people” — I won’t say more… here is it!

“The most important ceremony after a child is born is the ceremonial entrance into friendship, the binding of the tie which unites man with man until death. It gives me pleasure to find that the ceremonial friendship, instances of which are to be met with among many races, exists among these degraded people even now. The Christian master never dreams that among his serfs is a custom that sheds a world of light on the verse in his Bible which says that there is a friend which sticketh closer than a brother. Here is some small shred of evidence for the primitive identity of the human race, and here is morality, yet entirely distinct from the family. There is real affection and the tie is dissolvable only with death.

” A Pulaya can have only a single friend and he should be a member of a different Illam [clan], as all illamites are held to be relatives. A man loses his title, if he marries into the family of his friend.

“A Pulaya boy, when he is between ten and fifteen years of age, contracts a voluntary friendship with some other boy of the same age and locality, and when the friendship has ripened, the parents are informed of it. If the boy is not socially inclined, his father selects a friend for him from a family of his own standing, or, if practicable, of a higher standing. The father may of course overrule the will of the boy. The two parents agree among themselves to meet in the house of either of them for the purpose of solemnizing the friendship. on the fixed day, the Vallon [local notable] and some other officials and thirty two men of the Kara [a local territorial unit], go with the parent guest to the house of the parent host. The latter takes them first to the toddy shop and then back to his house. The parents walk with their arms over each other’s shoulder. The guests are then feasted in the regular Pulaya fashion. Both for dinner and the preliminary refreshments, the parents have to eat from the same dish. After the feast is over, the host asks ‘I ask of your lords (i.e., the Vallon, etc.) and others assembled whether I may be permitted to buy friendship by paying money.’ When he says ‘yes’, he gives 120 chs. [chakrams — a small silver coin] to the other parent and declares that he has got a friend for his son. The two boys then clasp hands, and they are henceforth never to quarrel. The parent guest has some other day to become host and go through identically the same forms.

” The friend is now regarded as a member of the family. in theory all that the two friends possess are to be enjoyed in common. The friend comes in and goes out as he pleases. There is no important thing done without consulting him. He is an important factor in all ceremonies, especially in marriage.I suspect also, that the friend has some claim over a man’s wife. In theory the two friends have but one life…”

We find an analogue of this custom of entering into friendship existing in Nepal, and it is curious that practices bearing such close resemblance should exist in countries lying so far apart as Nepal and Travancore…

[later, in his description of Pulaya marriage, Menon describes how the friend of bridegroom takes part in the marriage ceremony  as almost a ‘shadow bridegroom’. Perhaps this was a version of polyandry which was very common in rural Kerala, a practice and which lasted very long, right into the 1970s. I don’t think this information is merely of antiquarian interest.Even its obvious relevance to contemporary political struggles does not exhaust its significance. There is a history of the intense male homosociality so visible in everyday life in Kerala, that we need to investigate; maybe this is a start– Devika]

2 thoughts on ““Two friends who have but one life”: Hope from the 19th century”

  1. Fascinating stuff. For a rich comparative perspective, you may want to check out — if you haven’t already — Alan Bray’s extensive study of homosociality and the institution of “wedded friendship” in pre-Victorian England (The Friend, University of Chicago Press, 2003).

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