History of Nairs Part 1 – Kuttappan Nair’s Legacy

Here is the first of a 2 piece series recounting the history of Nairs and how it is intimately linked with Singapore. This week, we trace our origins and investigate the circumstances that led to an exodus of Nairs to the Malaya islands in the early 18th century.

As I stated in my last week’s post, the history of Nairs is rather difficult to recount with any degree of certainty. Most of our origins are shrouded in mystery. Depending on your source, Nairs are either descended from a branch of the Newars of Nepal who migrated to Kerala in search of better tea stalls (failing to find any in Kerala, we decided to start these on our own) or from a class of warriors belonging to the Naga caste who migrated to South India to escape Parashuram’s wrath and find better TV reception.

A typical Nair tea stall 

Regardless of the different theories about our origin, the fact remains that the first reference to Nairs recorded in modern history is inextricably linked to tea and arms. Greek Ambassador Megasthenes, in his accounts of ancient India, refers to the ‘Nairs of Malabar’ in general and about one Kuttappan Nair in particular. The story goes something like this. Megasthenes, who was an infamous miser, once stopped to drink tea and have a bite of vada at a roadside stall in Madurai, sometime during 290 BC. Upon turning to leave without paying the bill, he was stopped by the proprietor, Kuttappan Nair.  The obstinate Nair refused to let Megasthenes leave without paying his bill. Upon being informed that Megasthenes was in fact the famed Greek Ambassador, he countered that it made him a flight risk. When further negotiations broke down, Kuttappan Nair forcibly removed a gold ring from Megasthenes’ finger, declaring his intention of keeping it as payment in lieu of cash. He also easily fought off 3 of Megasthenes’ armed bodyguards. “Beware the Nairs”, warned Megasthenes in his seminal work Indica, “for they are dangerous.”

Kuttappan Nair, emboldened by his martial success, lost no time in starting a “Kalaripayattu” center next to his tea stall. In time, its attendance grew and he was able to rent out bodyguards to the Chola kings, who ruled large tracts of South India.  A combination of fearsome martial prowess and an uncanny sense of exactly when the milk was going to boil over earned the Nairs lasting respect and favor from the Kings.  Thus began a glorious period in Nairs’ history, one underlined by valor and vada.

But these happy circumstances were not to last. By late 1700s, the British East India Company completed its stranglehold on South India. The British, who had vested interests in tea, soon entered into a dispute with the Nairs over control of the Kannan Devan tea estates. They used their superior military and administrative powers to systematically strip the Nairs of their weapons and rank. Unable to stand this persecution, many Nairs took to the seas, bravely facing strong winds and choppy seas in a journey to the East. This journey led them to the Malaya peninsula; specifically, the small island of Singapura, where they proceeded to disembark and start afresh. But more on that later.

Interesting Note:  The biggest ship carrying Nairs on their flight from the British left Cochin harbor on December 16, 1753. Due to some confusion with the Cochin Port Authority, the Nairs were not allowed to load their cargo of tea on board. Frustrated with what they perceived as colonial persecution, the Nairs protested by throwing the entire tea overboard.  This revolutionary act of rebellion was promptly dubbed the “Nair Tea Party”.  2 decades later, Americans protesting against the British at Boston did something similar. 

4 thoughts on “History of Nairs Part 1 – Kuttappan Nair’s Legacy

  1. I'm flattered that someone thought I was trying to fill the gap left by the legendary VKN. Sorry to disappoint you my friend, but I wasn't. But now that you mention it….. hmm. Food for thought.

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