A helpless mother chased by villains runs away with her three children and hides them in various localities of Mumbai. Later the children were picked up by Abdul Chacha, Father Braganza and Police Inspector Bakshi. Indeed, an ideal opening sequence for an exciting blockbuster of 1970s Bollywood. Not so much exciting for a Keralite who has heard the story of Parayi Petta Panthirukulam, the legend describing the miraculous deeds of twelve legendary characters born out of the marriage between an upper caste scholar and a lower caste girl.
The legend narrates the story of Vararuchi, a Brahmin and a scholar of repute in the court of Raja Bhoja, getting married to a Paraya (pariah- outcast) girl because it was written in his fate. After their “profane” wedded relations, Vararuchi decides to leave the service of the king and goes on a pilgrimage with his wife. In this journey they happened to travel through Kerala, says the legend. Through these travels Vararuchi’s wife, the Parayi, gave birth to twelve children and hence the name of the legend, Parayi Petta Panthirukulam (twelve castes/clans born of Parayi).
Vararuchi, who is now an ardent follower of fatalism, instructs his wife to abandon the children saying since God gave them a mouth, destiny would provide them sustenance. The abandoned children were later picked up by people of various castes including Brahmins and Parayas. For instance, a Brahmin adopted the eldest son, Agnihotri. An Ilayatu adopted Naranathu Bhranthan and Perunthacchan by a carpenter. A Paraya looked after Pakkanar and a Muslim took care of Uppukoottan. Just like the 1970s blockbuster.
The legend is all about their divine actions, often challenging established social norms. The legend underscores that caste is not determined by birth but by upbringing. The mother born in a lower caste becomes a Brahmin through her upbringing and her children born to a Brahmin and Parayi by birth adopt different castes through the people who brought them up.
Most castes that existed in medieval Kerala are represented in the legend. The legend does not deal with the establishment and institutionalisation of the caste system but on the existence of caste and related hierarchy in Kerala. Retold by Kottaratthil Sankunni in his magnum opus, Eithihyamaala (1909), this legend cannot be considered as a story to propagate the caste hierarchy that existed in Kerala. On the contrary, lower caste representations like Pakkanar (Paraya) and Perumthacchan (carpenter) never miss an opportunity to take a dig at the social structure. In the legend, Pakkanar stakes his claim to the golden calf because it is an inanimate object and thus dead, so it belongs to the lower caste Parayas and not Brahmins. The story of Akavoor Chattan, one of Parayi’s sons, expounds that even a lower caste person could get to see the ‘parabrahma’, the eternal soul, through great devotion.
The characters of this legend are quite popular in Kerala and they are said to have lived in an area covering Malappuram district in north Kerala to Kollam district in the south. Melattur Agnihotri, the eldest son of the Parayi was a Brahmin from Malappuram district and the legends of Naranattu Bhranthan (The Madman of Naranattu) are popular in the South Malabar region. There are many temples in Central Kerala presumably built by Perumthacchan. Akavoor Chattan is said to have attained salvation at Ochira in Kollam district in South Kerala. Elamkulam Kunhan Pilla, one of the key scholars of Kerala history, observes that wood carvers of central Kerala worship Perumthacchan.
Kesari Balakrishna Pillai in his collection of articles on Kerala history, dedicated an entire chapter to analysing the legend. He argues that the legend is a rhetoric interpretation of the philosophical school of Kumarilabhatta and his disciples.
Vararuchi of Parayi Petta Pantirukulam, according to Kesari, is none other than Kumarilabhatta (c.610 – 682 CE) who was born in Tirumalpuram, Tamil Nadu. Kesari also identifies certain scholars among the 12 children of Vararuchi like Melattur Agnihotri as Mandana Mishra (author of Sphota Siddhi and Bhavana Vivekam) and Naranattu Bhranthan as Haridatta, the author of many astrological treatises.
Kesari also suggests that Thomas Knai who led the migration of Christians from Central Asia to Kerala was Perumthacchan and Vayilla Kunnilappan was a Hindu Sastri named Bhattanarayana who was brought to Kerala by Brahmins to debate with Buddhist philosophers.
To Kesari, the legend of Parayi Petta Pantirukulam is a rhetorical illustration of the nyaya and mimamsa scholars, who operated in Kerala prior to Shankaracharya. However, he maintains silence on why these philosophers had to be masqueraded as the abandoned children of a pariah woman. Even if the legend is all about the Kumarilabhatta school of thought as Kesari argues, it clearly critiques the caste hierarchy existed in Kerala, at times interrogating it. Those questions remain relevant even in present times. Thus, the popularity of the story.
Dr. Jayaram Poduval is Head, Department of Art History & Aesthetics, Faculty of Fine Arts, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.