Around 1881, a prince of Cochin called Rama Varma got into a relationship with a 16-year-old girl. He had lost his wife and the new connection was with the stepdaughter of one of his uncles (who, like him, would one day sit on the throne). The girl, Rama Varma wrote, “had a regular husband and I proposed to become paramour to her". And as “the husband raised no objection…it was done so. This kind of things (sic)," he added, “was not considered improper at the time."

In fact, on the contrary, his mother was thrilled, though rivals did complain he only entered the alliance to butter up the girl’s father. After all, as Rama Varma admitted unkindly, she “could not boast of anything which may be called beauty and…had nothing which might be considered accomplishment". It was not surprising, then, that some in the family viewed his interest with suspicion.

As it happened, the relationship did not last, and soon Rama Varma was involved with a third lady, with whom he shared a lasting union, the previous lady presumably continuing with her first husband. But what made entering and exiting relationships a matter of ease was the nature of the marital tie itself in 19th century Kerala. For non-Brahmin matrilineal groups, it was the bond between brother and sister that was sacred, not that of husband and wife. The sexual tie was called sambandham—relationship—and designed with much flexibility. Rama Varma’s mother, for instance, was a princess of Cochin, and, in keeping with the traditions of her own dynasty, had formed a sambandham with a Brahmin. Such Brahmins were junior sons of big houses. But they had no inheritance, which made the prospect of alliances with aristocratic ladies and royal women most attractive—and often remunerative.

At its core, sambandhams allowed the elites to join in mutually beneficial unions. For Brahmin families, it gave younger sons wives of lower caste who made no claim on their patrimony—if these wives were well-born, it was better still, for they could pay the Brahmins a maintenance. For matrilineal castes, meanwhile, power and wealth vested in the female line—the husband was, in essence, an instrument of procreation. If he came from a higher caste, he “infused" their veins with the prestige of twice-born blood. The dynamics within this broader framework were, however, determined by economics.

As Matampu Kunhukuttan’s classic novel Outcaste portrays, Brahmins with royal sambandhams often lived in fear that their wives might discard them and opt for new sambandhams; elsewhere, if it was the man who held power, he could access even married women, as we saw with Rama Varma, leaving the female at a disadvantage.

It was not unknown for men and women to have multiple sambandhams—a fact that recently got politician and writer Shashi Tharoor in trouble when a line from his novel was cast as an “insult" to Nair women.

The examples are numerous. The Nair wife of the maharaja of Travancore who ruled between 1860-80, was first married to a Kathakali actor—arriving in Thiruvananthapuram, she met the ruler, and soon the actor was jettisoned. Their daughter was in a sambandham with the maharaja’s nephew—when she died in 1882, the latter lamented his “irreparable" loss. It was 17 years before he entered into his next sambandham, this time with the wife of a palace employee. As in the case of his uncle’s partner, this lady too relinquished her previous alliance to become the ruler’s consort. The author C.V. Raman Pillai, meanwhile, married his late wife’s sister, whose past featured three sambandhams—two terminated by death (including with the painter Ravi Varma’s brother) and one by separation.

By the late 19th century, however, sambandhams were increasingly frowned upon, and the question of whether this was even marriage came under scrutiny. Missionaries saw the system as “very revolting" and the absorption of Victorian morality upset old ways of life. From Madras, newspapers piled criticism on this “obnoxious system of promiscuous marriage", and, as the scholar K. Saradamoni writes, “Sambandham was equated to concubinage and the women to mistresses and the children called bastards." It was an awkward moment, for this way even maharajas were illegitimate, while the autonomy women enjoyed was translated as licentiousness. As early as 1875, in fact, the non-Malayali writer of a census report was most apologetic about the “looseness of the prevailing morals and the unbinding nature of the marriage tie, which possesses such fascination for the majority of our population".

Scholars like J. Devika have shown how the onus fell on women: They had to be “virtuous", which meant divorcing and keeping multiple husbands was no longer “respectable". Inter-caste unions between Brahmins, royalty and Nairs ceased to be acceptable, and “reform" movements sprang up in each community to restrict women’s choice of spouses. Widowhood, a non-existent concept for matrilineal groups, became a mark of wifely honour. And with this came the policing of women’s bodies and the injection, through education, of a patriarchal mindset, where daughters were raised to be “good wives" and husbands vested with power over them and their children. Sambandhams became the vestige of an ugly past, remembered with embarrassment—and, sometimes, denial.

Sambandhams certainly could be abused. But, in their day, they served a purpose and defined marriage for the people involved. They could also feature great love stories—this columnist’s great-great-grandmother had a sambandham with a Brahmin in the 1880s. When she had a stillbirth, however, the alliance was terminated: The baby was a girl, and the death of a female child was inauspicious in her matrilineage. The Brahmin wept and protested but was never allowed near his ex-wife again. Decades later, the story goes, his steward showed up at the door: The man was dying, and he wished to see his former wife one last time. But the lady did not go. Not because she did not wish to, but because the year was 1915. The world had changed and she had no power—she had married again, and it was her husband who now called the shots.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @UnamPillai

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