of Ezhavas and Tiyas
form the most numerous ethnic group (40%) of Kerala. For
long they were treated as outcastes by the Brahmins and the Nairs;
nevertheless, these earliest sons of the soil--the first Munda-Dravidian
immigrants--retained their pride and ethnic identity and rose
above adversity by means of Hindu religion which was first used
to reduce them to the status of outcastes. They gradually
accepted the Hindu religion and followed the teachings of their
leaders like Sri Narayana Guru; they sought education and established
their own schools; in all this they were encouraged by the British
who admitted them into civil service in Malabar. Many of
them sought advancement through political parties; for decades
now Ezhavas have remained the hardcore supporters of the Marxist
parties in Kerala. Today they are no longer an "untouchable"
scheduled caste, but a proud and powerful ethnic group to
be reckoned with in Kerala.
origin of Ezhavas is shrouded in mystery. One of their folk
ballads (Vadakkan Pattukal), which celebrates the twelfth-century
Aromal Chevakar, says: "Our ancestors of old/Had their home
in the land of Lanka." The poem in question dates only from
the eighteenth century, and as such it is not a reliable guide
to the prehistoric origins of the Ezhavas; their profession of
tapping the palm for toddy has created the legend that they brought
the coconut palm from Sri Lanka to Kerala.
North Malabar they are called Tiyans, but in the south they are
known as Ezhavans and Chovans. The etymology of the words
Ezhavan and Tiyan is traced to Izham, an
old name for Sri Lanka
and Dweepan (Sanskrit), "islander." The word Chovan
is supposedly derived from sevakan (servant). One
thing about them is certain: they are as old or even older
than any other ethnic group in Kerala; they are referred to in
the ninth century Tharissa Pally Charter, and in the Thanjavur
Charter of Raja Raja Chola. Their profession was not restricted
to tapping coconut palms for toddy. They were primarily
farmers, as indicated by the Tharisa Pally Charter. They
were also soldiers by profession all over Kerala.
historians point out the connection between the Buddhists
and the Ezhavas. For instance, the two gods of the
Ezhavas, Cittan and Arattan are respectively
Buddhist-Sidhan and Arhatan, according to C. V.
Kunjuraman. Further, the Pandarams who perform priestly duties
in Ezhava temples are considered to be successors of Buddhist
monks. T. K. Veluppillai, the author of The Travancore
State Manual, believes that during Buddhist ascendancy in
Kerala, before the arrival of Tulu Brahmins, "the Ezhavas enjoyed
great prosperity and power" (II, 845). It is very unlikely
that the Ezhavas came from Sri Lanka and spread all over Kerala
in large numbers from the south to the northern boundary.
They were rather the mainstream of Munda-Drsvidian immigrants
who left Tamil Nadu in the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries
to avoid persecution at the hands of their political enemies.