Thathri Kutty, also referred to as Dhathri/Savitri, was a young Namboodiri woman. Her courage and boldness shook the entire community. In an era, when Namboodiri women weren’t allowed to be seen by another man, Thathri used her sexuality to question the misogynist system. She single-handedly managed to excommunicate 64 influential, powerful brahmin patriarchs. She is considered an icon, and her act was a turning point in Malayalam history for the liberation of women.
Who Are Namboodiris? And What Position Did Women Hold?
Namboodiri Brahmins are a Malayali Brahmin caste, native to Kerala. In the hierarchy of caste, they were at the highest strata. They had immense social and economic capital. They were traditional feudal landlords and they oppressed not only lower caste, but also the brahmins lower in hierarchy. They even held power over the king of Kochi. While men enjoyed their social position and were provided with financial security from land and endless Vedic knowledge, Namboodiri women had little to no privilege. They were called antharjanam which translates to “indoor person” because that is what was expected out of them. They were trained from childhood to marry and serve their husbands. When the 19th century, colonialism was successfully washing away the toxic religious practices, these women were still in purdah, with no land ownership, education or even a voice of their own.
To keep the property within the family and avoid disputes, only the eldest son was to marry an antharjanam. The eldest son could have as many wives as he pleased, or even a much younger wife. Families often traded their daughters like cattle. As for the women, they were only allowed to practice endogamy and remain monogamous. The women who had the “fortune” to get married were either neglected, and spent their entire lives confined to the four walls, or ended up being a young widow to an old husband.
These women despite being rich, were not allowed to dress up; they weren’t allowed gold, they only could wear brass. They couldn’t leave the house without a maid or their husband, and even then they were to cover themselves in a blanket and an umbrella. On one hand, while the upper-caste women were expected to be “pure and tamed”, the lower caste women weren’t considered virtuous or pure enough to even lay restriction on. They were oppressed and exploited to fulfil the desire of brahmin men and often forced into jobs like prostitution.
Thathri Kutty was a young Namboodiri, who was married off at the age of 18 to a much older man in his 60’s. Everyone said she was lucky for being the first wife. The story of how she split with her husband is still unclear, the popular sources state that he abandoned her because she dissented against him bringing over prostitutes. It is not known whether it was her helplessness or her choice that brought her to the profession of being a prostitute.
Thathri was beautiful, attractive and young. She soon gained fame and became popular. By the time she was 23, she had many men who were charmed by her beauty. Until one day, she came across a man who recognised that she is not a prostitute but an antharjanam. Since the honour of women was related to her sexuality, adultery was a social crime rather than a private crime. The accused was handed over for social enquiry. She was therefore brought before Smarthavicharam. Smarthavicharam was the trial that a Namboodiri woman had to go through when her chastity or sexual fidelity was doubted, and if found guilty, they were all excommunicated. This practice itself is so misogynist that it refers to women as saadhnam which translates to “thing/ object” the woman is no longer entitled to even a name.
What unfolded in the trial left everyone aghast, when Thathri Kutty accepted all the accusations and immediately confessed to her acts. However, she claimed that this is a crime she hasn’t committed alone, and insisted that the men who participated with her also bear the consequences. During such instances usually, the woman would take some hush money and let go of the men involved. But Thathri was determined to make them suffer. And when she started naming men, there was a long list of 65 men, belonging to diverse backgrounds; men across class caste and professions, graceful kathakali, poor barbers, men from lower caste and the most powerful men who belonged to influential families.
Everyone undermined her capabilities. But she fought like a barrister, she had evidence, about birthmarks and moles around genitals. She knew the exact date, place and festival when the union took place. This was the one opportunity she received where she could speak and optimised it to the best. She excommunicated the very men that exploit women sexually using her sexuality. The legend has it that when she arrived at the 65th name, she showed a ring to the king indicating that he too is on the list, and he immediately had the trial shut.
What Makes Thathri A Feminist Icon and Why Is She Still Relevant?
Nobody truly understands why she did what she did; whether it was for money, power, her sexual pleasure, or to overthrow the entire system. If it was only for the money, the list would just be limited to rich and powerful men, but it included men from all backgrounds. Regardless of her reasons, the more important thing is that she was the one making the decisions, it was her choice, she fought her way through for her autonomy which is a rebellious act. Even today, women have very little or no autonomy over our bodies and choices we make. Society always attempts to curb autonomy, especially with regards to sexuality.
Growing up, indian families condition the daughters with the virtue of purity and honour. Women are constantly judged and slut-shamed for the number of partners we choose to engage with. Thathri was bold and proud of who she was, in a community wherein she was being declared dead for acts, she had no guilt or remorse, she refused to be shamed by society for her sexual choices, she refused to attach herself with the shame society imposes on her. She overcame being a Brahmin. She did not look down on sex work or believe the societal perception that only low born women were fit for it. She chose her freedom over the respected but restrictive life. Even today, sex work is not given the respect of a profession and seen with a lens of judgment and stigma.
Thathri Kutty pointed out the hypocrisy of brahmin men. She used her oppression as an instrument to bring change. She was taught to repress her sexuality by society, but she used it as a weapon to break the structure. Her act didn’t just impact the 64 men who were excommunicated, it shook the economic condition since so many of them had left. Society suffered a loss as a whole.
Thathri Kutty is referred to as the goddess of revenge because she avenged her subjugation and oppression of all the women. It is said this was one of the last trails to take place and the last recorded trial was conducted in 1918. Her trial opened doors to a new discussion and raised questions, it was surely a turning point in Malayalam history.