Some time ago, we talked about the Nair caste and the various sub castes related to it, as well as their characteristics. Medieval Malabar, Cochin and Travancore had many castes, classifications, do and don’ts, and what not. It was not fun if you did not belong to the top and even if you did, you had to remain in your tramlines (as they say in the US) or dividers. In the Nair caste, there were many more profession related titled classifications as well. Most significant were the Menon and the Menoki titles within the Nair caste, which are not very well understood. Complications also arose due to regional differences between Cochin, Malabar, and Travancore. This little article will provide more details to those interested as well as some background explanation.
Principally all these titles were connected to either supervisory capacities or positions or that of a scribe and accountant in the local chieftain’s Kovilakom or temple, preparing Grantha palm leaf manuscripts! Compared to the foot soldier Nair, these personnel were better educated, were closer in proximity to the ruler or chieftain and were ordained or titled, with the title passing on through generations, in a matrilineal fashion.
In general, Menoki is an overseer — By definition, Menoki in the 1901 Travancore and Cochin Census Reports are classified as a sub-division of Nayars, who are employed as accountants in temples. The name is derived from mel, above, nokki, from nokkunnu which means ‘to look after’.
Menon (Wigram) is defined as "a title originally conferred by the Zamorin on his agents and writers. It is now used by all classes of Nayars. In Malabar, the village karnam (accountant) is called Menon. In the Travancore Census Report, 1901, Menon is said to be a contraction of Menavan (a superior person). The title was conferred upon several families by the Raja of Cochin, and corresponds to Pillai down south. As soon as a person was made a Menon, he was presented with an ola (palmyra leaf for writing on) and an iron style, as symbolical of the office he was expected to fill, i.e., of an accountant. Even now, in British Malabar, each amsham or revenue village has a writer or accountant, who is called Menon."
Mr. F. Fawcett briefly explained that - to those of the sub-clan attached to the Zamorin who were sufficiently capable to earn it, he gave the titular honour Menon, to be used as an affix to the name. The title Menon is in general hereditary, but be it remarked, many who now use it are not entitled to do so. Properly speaking, only those whose investiture by the Zamorin or some other recognized chief is undisputed, and their descendants (in the female line) may use it. A man known to me was invested with the title Menon in 1895 by the Karimpuzha chief, who, in the presence of a large assembly, said thrice - From this day forward I confer on Krishnan Nayar the title of Krishna Menon. Nowadays be it said, the title Menon is used by Nayars of clans other than the Akattu Charna. Indian undergraduates at the English Universities, with names such as Krishna Menon, Raman Menon, Ramunni Menon, are known as Mr. Menon. In the same way, Maratha students are called by their titular name Mr. Rao.
The Census of India circa 1901 provides specific detail on titles in Travancore and the rest of Kerala such as Pillai, Chempakaraman, Thampi, Karta, Kuruppu, Panikkar, Kaimal, Unnitan, Valiattan, and Eman. Relating to Menon and Menoki, it The title Menavan, or Menon, means a superior person, and is derived from mel, ‘above’, and avan ‘he’. The recipient of the title held it for his lifetime, or it was bestowed in perpetuity on his family, according to the amount of money paid down as atiyara. As soon as an individual was made a Menon, he was presented with an ola (palmyra leaf for writing on) and an iron style as symbols of the office of an accountant, which he was expected to fill. In British Malabar even now every amsam or revenue village has an accountant or writer called Menon. Thus the Menons were engaged in various administrative duties, such as being scribes and accountants, in service of the kings of Kerala.
|Zamorin's Menoki -|
Extract from Salgado,
Fawcett explains further - The affix (Panikkar, Menon) is a title, not necessarily but possibly hereditary, showing that the strict controls exercised by the once powerful Zamorin were eroding with time and their own weakening. He explains - It will be interesting to add here a note on Sambandham as it is amongst the Akattu Charna, or Akathitha- parisha Nayars (Akattu inside, parisha class), by one of themselves. The members of this clan being devoted to indoor services, chiefly writing and casting accounts. To those of the sub-clan attached to the Zamorin who were sufficiently capable to earn it, he gave the titular honour " Menon," to be used as an affix to the name. The title Menon is in general hereditary, but be it remarked, many who now use it are not entitled to do so. Properly speaking only those whose investiture by the Zamorin or some other recognized chief is undisputed, they or their descendants (in the female line of course), may use it. Those invested pay a small fee to the Zamorin. A man known to me was invested with the title Menon in 1895 by the Karimpuzha chief, who in presence of a large assembly said thrice " From this day forward I confer on Krishnan Nayar the title of Krishna Menon."
Now-a-days be it said, the title Menon is used by Nayars of clans other than the Akattu Charna. Those who belong to the sub-clan who owe Lordship to the Zamorin look to him even now to settle their caste disputes, and for permission to perform the talikettu and other important ceremonies. The ceremony to be described is that of this sub-clan. As the old order changeth giving place to new in the distribution of the honourable affix " Menon," so top doth it change even in such an important piece of life as marriage, or what under another name means the same thing amongst the Nayars.
Gopala Panikkar adds, explaining that the title could be purchased - In Malabar, there exist countless divisions and sub-divisions of castes amongst the people who go by the broad and distinctive name of Nairs. Of these various titles that of Menon are considered to be of a much higher social order. Hence it is coveted. For a member of some other castes viz., that of Panikkers or Nairs proper to be promoted to a Menon’s estate the process of elevation is exceeding simple and cheap. The man has only to take some presents of money and certain other articles to his chieftain who in the presence of his assembled dependents and others honors the covetous one with the title of Menon. Sometimes a social writ is issued in declaration of this authoritative alteration of a birth-title. Other titles have been, within comparatively recent years, conferred by the chieftains and even by the heads of the old feudal organisations.
Francis Day is specific about Cochin - Nairs may receive the title of Menon, from the Raja, an honour which may also be purchased, and of which there are two kinds one hereditary, and the other only for a life-time: the last of these costs at the lowest rate about sixteen fanams, (13 annas, 4 cash.) When the Rajah intends to confer this honour, he salutes the person to whom he means to give it, by the title of Menon prefixed to his name, and should two other persons present, immediately address him in the same terms, the title is confirmed, if not he does not receive it. After becoming a Menon, he is called a Tumbaran, previous to this a Prakkulloo. They have also an hereditary title, of Kooroopoo.
The Keralolpatti records that the Menoki actually existed before the times of the Zamorin and was perhaps instituted by the Porlathiri in Calicut - After several years of unsuccessful war, says Keralolpathi, the Eradis were able to bribe the Porlathiri’s wife, Nalakattoottu Amma and his secretary, Menoki and get the doors of the fort secretly opened from inside to let in the Ernadu warriors.
Then we see that Kizhineer Menoki was allowed to live in the Porlathiri palace and titled an Earand Menon by the Zamorin who took over the Porlathiri’s powers. We also note that the Porlathiri’s chief Menoki was won over with bribes (over lordship over large tracts of lands) showing that he was a minister of some sort, not just a supervisor or scribe. Then (they) met menoki the officer and confidant of poralathiri and requested him that if poralathiri is removed from power and exiled and Polanad brought under the power of samuthiri, menoki will be given llama, randu kooru, half the koyma,
Padmanabha Menon in his History of Kerala (Visscher’s letters) introduces the Pattola Menon the scribe - The invitations have to be written on Olas, palmyra leaves, in the handwriting of the Pattola Menon, hereditary Secretary of the temple. Raja should call on the Pattola Menon to read the Ola. At that time the Pattola Menon (public accountant), attired in his special costumes, comes forward with a bundle of palm-leaf records and stands by the right-hand side of the Maharaja. Then a sort of roll call is made The Pattola Menon would announce to those present as well as to the ladies of the house that the candidate is being taken to be installed in the office of Yogathih for offering flowers to the God (Pushpanjali Avarodhani) and blows his conch shell once. Pattola actually means document or adharam, so they are the Adharam writers, in other words. Pattola Menons were also the Secretaries, and we come across one Kelu Menon the Pattola Menon of the of the Nilambur Tirumulpad in the Malabar Forester records, the one who was an expert at curing snake bites.
The Portuguese chronicler Barbosa provides much detail on the scribe, presumably the Menoki - This King of Calicut keeps many clerks constantly in his palace, they are all in one room, separate and far from the king, sitting on benches, and there they write all the affairs of the king's revenue, and his alms, and the pay which is given to all, and the complaints which are presented to the king, and, at the same time, the accounts of the collectors of taxes. All this is on broad stiff leaves of the palm tree, without ink, with pens of iron: they make lines with their letters, engraven like ours. Each of these clerks has great bundles of these leaves written on, and blank, and wherever they go they carry them under their arms and the iron pen in their hand: in this way they are known to all people as scribes of the palace. And among these there are seven or eight who are great confidants of the king, and the most honoured, and who always stand before him with their pens in their hand, and writings under their arm, ready for the king's orders to do anything, as he is in the habit of doing. These clerks always have several of these leaves subscribed by the king in blank, and when he commands them to despatch any business, they write it on those leaves. These accountants are persons of great credit, and most of them are old and respectable: and when they get up in the morning and want to write anything, the first time that they take the pen and the leaf in their hand, they cut a small piece off it with the knife which is at the end of the pen, and they write the names of their gods upon it and worship them towards the sun with uplifted hands; and having finished their prayer, they tear the writing and throw it away, and after that begin writing whatever they require.
Barbosa also goes on to detail in his accounts, their involvement in legal issues together with the governor, their work with respect to record-keeping and as representatives of the Zamorin while passing judgments.
NM Nampoothiri mentions this titular class often in his work, though not explaining if Menavam or law/legal aspects have anything to do with the Menavans or connecting them. So, we can assume that it may not have been the case. He does confirm that Pattolachan was the title for the principal scribe as well as a temple accountant and that they were also known as Ozhukil Menons.
J Minattur goes on to say that this concept went far into SE Asia, e.g. Malaya even, explaining - In spite of the various legends one hears about the origin of the name Minangkabau it is not unlikely that it originally meant the portion or division of land allotted to Menoki (Malayalam, a superintendent) (Menoki was also a baronial title in North Kerala). He states that Menokibhagam became Minangkabau in Malaya.
But naturally, Menoki’s are mentioned in fiction as well. Saraswati Vijayam an early novel by Potheri Kunhambu narrates a farcical story covering the life of an interesting character named Choothalakathu Kunhikrishna Menoki who used to work for the British government and dies of diabetes complications. It tells of his and his clansmen’s belief that he would only go to heaven if he held a perpetual feast for some brahmins, where a number of Brahmins ate daily for a while at the Menoki’s expense even after his death, just so the Menoki would someday end up in heaven. KJ Baby’s fictional novel Mavelimantram set in Wynaad, shows how cruel some of them could be, misusing their power and their caste superiority over the lower classes.
Anyway, as the 19th century, India was administered by the British, a number of these educated Nair’s and Menon’s landed up with the British administration at Delhi, Bombay and Simla, as well as other capitals, making fine secretaries and efficient stenographers or typists, until after Nehru’s time when the politician’s Malayali sidekick, the Menavans and Menoki’s of that period slowly drifted away to find other profitable and rewarding avenues in for example the Gelf!
But we cannot leave the account without talking about the Menen’s such as the late Aubrey Menen, the present-day Nitya Menen and many others who use that term with grandeur. It is nothing but a modern corruption, used perhaps to stand out, in a stylistic and fashionable way. Aubrey Menon pioneered it to distinguish himself from the other Menon in London, none other than our VK Krishna Menon. He explains –VKK Menon, a friend of his father's (Karipareyeth Narayana Menon), was heavily involved in Indian independence league activities in Britain and Aubrey worked with Krishna Menon for a while organizing meetings and speaking at these functions. As the British were getting confused with these two speakers from India with the same surname (and since first names were not freely used unlike in the US), he made the change so that he would be differentiated and therefore anglicized his name to Aubrey Menen.
And others followed….
Nayars Of Malabar by Fawcett,F. Malabar and Its Folk - By T. K. Gopal Panikkar
Census of India, 1901, Volume 1
The Land of the Permauls, Or, Cochin, Its Past and Its Present - Francis Day
History of Kerala: A History of Kerala Written in the Form of Notes on Visscher's Letters from Malabar – KPP Menon
Malabar Padanangal – NM Nampoothiri
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