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Ayyankali Statue.jpg
Born(1863-08-28)28 August 1863
Died18 June 1941(1941-06-18) (aged 77)
(m. 1888)

Ayyankali (28 August 1863 – 18 June 1941) was a prominent social reformer, educator, economist, lawmaker and revolutionary. He worked for the progress and advancement of the oppressed people in the princely state of Travancore. His efforts influenced many changes that improved the socio-political structure of Kerala. Ayyankali's determined and relentless efforts changed the life of people who are today often referred to as Dalits.[2]


Ayyankali was born on 28 August 1863 in Venganoor, Thiruvananthapuram, Travancore. He was the first of eight children born to Ayyan and Mala, who were members of the Pulayar community. The family led a marginally better life compared to other Pulayars as they were given 5 acres (2.0 ha) of land by the landlord with whom Ayyan was an Adiyalan spending all his time to serve the Janmi (landlord).[3] Members of the Pulayar community generally worked as bonded slaves to the Janmis during this time.[4]

The region in which Ayyankali lived, which now forms a part of the state of Kerala, was particularly affected by social divisions during his lifetime and was described as a "mad house" of castes.[5] The Pulayars were regarded as the bonded agriculture slaves in the kingdom[6] and they suffered greatly from oppressive discrimination, particularly from members of the Nair caste.[7] Robin Jeffrey, a professor specializing in the modern history and politics of India, quotes the wife of a Christian missionary, who wrote in 1860 of the complex social code that:

... a Nair can approach but not touch a Namboodiri Brahmin: Ezhava must remain thirty-six paces off, and a Pulayan ninety-six steps distant. A Ezhava must remain twelve steps away from a Nair, and a Pulayan sixty-six steps off, and a Parayan some distance farther still. A Syrian Christian may touch a Nair (though this is not allowed in some parts of the country) but the latter may not eat with each other. Parayars, who are at the apartheid position of a savage caste discriminated society, can approach but not touch, much less may they eat with each other.[8]

Suffering from this social injustice caused Ayyankali to join with his Pulayar friends who gathered at the end of their workday to sing and dance to folk music that protested the situation. Some joined him in forming a group that challenged the members of the oppressor castes sometimes leading to physical fights. His popularity earned him the names of Urpillai and Moothapullai.[7]

Ayyankali married Chellamma in 1888. The couple had seven children.[1]


Freedom of movement

In 1893, Ayyankali, dressed in clothing traditionally associated with oppressor caste people,[9] and defied the social conventions that applied to oppressed people by riding on a road in a bullock cart he had bought. Both the act of purchase and that of traveling on a road that was traditionally the domain of the upper caste Hindus were a daring act. In a similar act of defiance, he entered the marketplace at Nedumangad. These protests, which have been described by Nisar and Kanadasamy as "laying claim to the public space", strengthened resolve among others from the oppressed communities of Travancore, leading to further protest acts elsewhere, such as in Kazhakkoottam.[10] The outcome of continued protest marches, which sometimes turned violent became known as Chaliyar riots.[9] By 1900 the Pulayars had gained the right to use most roads in the state, although they were still barred from roads that led to Hindu temples.[11]

Later, in 1904, Ayyankali was inspired by the speech of the reformist Ayyavu Swamikal. He had been preaching the need to break caste divisions because he thought that doing so would limit the number of people who were converting from Hinduism to Christianity.[a] A branch of Swamikal's Brahma Nishta Matam organisation was established in that year by Ayyankali and some friends in Venganoor. Ayyankali also drew inspiration from the activities of Narayana Guru, a contemporary social reformer from the Ezhava caste, although the two men differed in their philosophy and the means of turning it into reality.[13] The Ezhava and Pulayar communities did ally occasionally on later occasions, one of which was the campaign to gain access to the temple at Vaikom.[14]


Statue of Ayyankali in Kollam
Statue of Ayyankali in Kollam

Ayyankali also sought to improve access to education. Few Pulayars had access from around the mid-nineteenth century, mostly through the activities of the Colonial Missionary Society and London Missionary Society.[b] Conversion to Christianity was a prerequisite for attendance at such schools, and there were cases where Pulayars offered to contribute to the cost of supplying teachers for them.[15] However, Ayyankali, who was illiterate,[16] believed that education should be available to all children and this meant that government schools should allow access to untouchables.[15]

The government was already attempting to modernise its approach to social welfare. Several public schools had been opened to untouchable communities after 1895 but the right to primary education was limited in scope.[15] State funding of education became effective in 1904[17] but even after the government ordered schools to admit untouchable people in 1907, local officials found ways to refuse it.[15] In that year, helped by the experience gained from organising the Brahma Nishta Mattam,[18] Ayyankali founded the Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (SJPS) (Association for the Protection of the Poor) which campaigned for access to schools and raised funds to set up Pulayar-operated schools in the interim.[14] This attracted support from both Hindus and Christians.[19][c]

An attempt by Ayyankali to enrol a Pulayar girl in a government school led to violent acts perpetrated by oppressor castes against the community and eventually to the burning-down of the school building in the village of Ooruttambalam. His response to organise may have been the first strike action by oppressed agricultural labourers in the region. They withdrew their labour from the fields owned by the oppressor castes until the government acceded to a complete removal of restrictions on education.[20][d]

Ayyankali was also central to the success of the Pulayan challenge against the traditional stricture that prohibited female members of the community from clothing their upper body when in public. Oppressor caste Hindus had insisted the custom was necessary to distinguish the low status of untouchable people. During the 19th century this belief came under increasing attack from various untouchable groups and Christian missionaries. The Channar revolt, helped the Nadar people to not follow the practice before Ayyankali's birth. However, this revolt did not do anything for Pulayars self-dignity to cover themselves until 1915–16.[21]


Ayyankali later became a member of the assembly of Travancore, known as the Sree Moolam Popular Assembly (SMPA) or Praja Sabha.[17]

Public acceptance, honours and veneration

In 2002, Ayyanakali was commemorated on an Indian postage stamp.

The historian P. Sanal Mohan has described Ayyankali as "the most important leader of modern Kerala".[2] He is also known as the Kerala Spartacus. The anniversary of Ayyankali's birth has been celebrated by his descendants and by special interest groups.[22]

See Also (Social reformers of Kerala)



  1. ^ The number of conversions to Christianity had burgeoned after 1860, when the influence of Christian missionaries as a route to achieve social change became apparent to the oppressed population.[12]
  2. ^ The London Missionary Society established the Pulaya Charity School in Thiruvananthapuram in 1861, and similar schools were developed across the region.[15]
  3. ^ Sources vary regarding whether Ayyankali or Krishnathi Asan later founded the All-Cochin Pulaya Maha Sabha (Pulaya Great Assembly) in 1913.[14][17]
  4. ^ The date of this strike is disputed. Some sources say it occurred in 1915 but others say 1907-08.[11]


  1. ^ a b Nisar & Kandasamy (2007), p. 65
  2. ^ a b Mohan (2013), p. 249
  3. ^ Nisar & Kandasamy (2007), pp. 64–65
  4. ^ Oommen (2001)
  5. ^ Nossiter (1982), pp. 25–27
  6. ^ Mendelsohn & Vicziany (1998), p. 86
  7. ^ a b Nisar & Kandasamy (2007), pp. 65–66
  8. ^ Jeffrey (1976), pp. 9–10
  9. ^ a b Nisar & Kandasamy (2007), p. 67
  10. ^ Nisar & Kandasamy (2007), pp. 66–68
  11. ^ a b Mendelsohn & Vicziany (1998), p. 97
  12. ^ Padmanabhan (2010), p. 104
  13. ^ Nisar & Kandasamy (2007), p. 69
  14. ^ a b c Thachil (2014), p. 190
  15. ^ a b c d e Padmanabhan (2010), pp. 104–106
  16. ^ Mendelsohn & Vicziany (1998), p. 263
  17. ^ a b c Houtart & Lemercinier (1978)
  18. ^ Nisar & Kandasamy (2007), p. 68
  19. ^ Mohan (2013), p. 231
  20. ^ Ramachandran (2000), pp. 103–106
  21. ^ Mendelsohn & Vicziany (1998), pp. 85–86
  22. ^ "Tributes paid to Ayyankali". The Hindu. 2 September 2001. Archived from the original on 25 January 2013. Retrieved 3 December 2014.((cite news)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)