In a polygamous society, the patrilineal family in which the husband, wife and their children lived together could not develop. The alternative was to dispense with the doubtful and heterogeneous factor (the father) and adopt the uniform and indubitable factor (the mother). Hence, there developed the institution of matriliny in which the father had no responsibility towards his own children. Instead, the maternal uncle became the head of the family and performed the functions of a father for his sister’s children. The burden of the children had naturally to fall on the shoulders of the maternal uncle, who was the eldest male member in the mother’s family. In turn, his own children were looked after by their maternal uncles.
The term ‘matriliny’ means the recognition of kinship and inheritance through the maternal line. In the matrilineal system, a family unit is based on the female members and continues through female children born to female members, that is, sisters and sister’s daughters. Thus, in a matrilineal family the women in India had pride of place from the point of view of inheritance as well as the continuance of the family unit. Under this system, the husband and wife do not live together but with their own respective families. Husband-wife relations are generally restricted to the husband’s visits to his wife’s house at night.
ORIGIN OF MATRILINY
In order to avoid confusion between ‘matriliny’ and ‘matriarchy’, it may be stated that the Nairs were not matriarchal but matrilineal, that is, they followed the maternal line only in regard to inheritance and kinship, which fact did not confer the rights and powers of the head of the family on the mother. For all practical purposes, the uncle was the supreme head of the family.
While tracing the origin of this system, it becomes clear that with the dawn of civilisation, the primitive matrilineal system had vanished and whatever matrilineal customs had survived among the Nairs or elsewhere are fast dying out.
There are different theories in regard to the origin of this system among the Nair community. One is that they adopted matriliny out of sheer respect for women in India, perhaps inspired by their devotion to the Hindu goddesses Kali, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, etc. However, this theory is hardly convincing on account of the matrilineal system being restricted to the Nair community forming a very small section of Hindu society which is fundamentally patrilineal as the whole body of Vedic literature, Smritis and Hindu codes of law trace kinship along the male line.
Another theory in this regard is that the Nairs, being a martial race, were generally away from their homes and the assumption of all domestic responsibilities by the women in the absence of their husbands paved the way for the development of matriliny. This is, however, hardly convincing as the influential position of women in India should not have necessitated the customs of polyandry and Sambandham. Further, this theory seems to be based on the assumption that there existed matriarchy among the Nairs, that is, the women in India were the rulers in the family, whereas the rights and responsibilities of the head of a Nair family were actually vested in the maternal uncle.
But these theories fail as one finds the strongest form of patriliny among the martial races. Once a German was asked why they called their country ‘fatherland’ instead of ‘motherland’. He replied that while the mother looked after the family, it was the father who fought for the country.