I have read the history of many a civilization,
I have rummaged through the history of the country and the state,
But nowhere could I find anything about my caste,
There is no wielder of pen on this earth,
Who would write the history of my caste,
My caste – which has been consigned to the netherworld,
My caste – which has been lost in the uncharted depths of history
– Poykayil Yohannan, Malayalam poet
Ayyankali (1863-1941), one of the foremost Dalit leaders from Kerala who challenged brutal caste codes. Ayyankali was 45 years younger to Jotirao Phule and 16 years elder to Periyar. What Phule did in Maharashtra and Periyar in Tamil Nadu, Ayyankali did the same in Kerala but very little is written and talked about Ayyankali outside Kerala. Here we present lesser-known basic facts about Ayyankali in an attempt to give readers an overview of Ayyankali’s life.
11 Things You Should Know About Ayyankali
1. Ayyankali was born on 28 August 1863 in Perumkattuvila, Thiruvananthapuram. He was one of the seven children of Ayyan of Pulaya caste (untouchable, agricultural labour).
2. Much like Mahatma Jotiba Phule, one incident in childhood made Ayyankali realize caste discrimination in society. While playing football with children of his age, when the ball kicked by Ayyankali fell on the roof of a Nair house (upper-caste), the Nair warned him not to play with diku young men. It hurt Ayyankali so bad that he took an oath that he would never play with them again.
3. Ayyankali was 30 years old (1893) when he challenged the caste practices and rode a ‘villuvandi’ (ox-cart) challenging the ‘ban’ on untouchables from accessing public roads by caste-Hindus. It created the new phenomenon of self-respect and major historical achievement in the social reformation and Dalit history in Kerala. Riding a bullock cart was a symbol of rebellion against the centuries of caste oppression.
He wore a dhoti, wrapped angavasthram around his shoulders and tied a turban and drove the cart up and down the small market. This created a great sensation both among dikus and Dalits. No Dalits ever thought of doing such thing in their wildest dreams. Dikus were also very shocked at the daring of Ayyankali.
4. Ayyankali also led a rally to assert the rights of ‘untouchables’ at Balaramapuram. An ‘upper caste’ mob attacked them and a fight broke out. The walk Ayyankali took came to be known as ‘walk for freedom’ and the consequent riots as ‘Chaliyar riots’. Hundreds of Dalits got injured but under Ayyankali they fought very bravely and for the first time they were able to terrorize the dikus through their resistance. Inspired by the Chaliyar Riot, youngsters got out on the streets to win their basic rights in Manakkadu, Kazhakkoottam, Kaniyapuram etc in the vicinity of the capital.
5. As untouchable students were not allowed to enter schools, Ayyankali encouraged Pulaya farmers to go on strike and declared, “If our kids are not allowed to enter your schools, your paddies will grow mere weeds.” It is also considered as the first strike of the working class in Kerala. After a long struggle, on March 1, 1910, the Travancore government ordered that Pulaya children be admitted to ‘all schools which Ezhava (a numerically dominant caste in Kerala which currently comes in the OBC list) children have access.
6. Inspired by Sree Narayana Guru, a social reformer from Ezhava caste, Ayyankali started Sadhu Jana Paripalana Sangham (association for the protection of the poor) which later raised funds to start their own schools. In 1916 he established Theeyankara Pulaya School, in 1919 Shankhumukham School for Christian converts, Night school at Manarkadu, Primary School at Venganoor, Weaving centre and many other such establishments. Hundreds of offices of Sadhu Jana Paripaalana Sangham (SJPS) were turned into schools.
7. Ayyankali forged the unity of different Dalit castes of Kerala against all odds and helped them grow politically, educationally and socially.
8. For centuries, in Kerala, Dalit men and women were banned from wearing normal clothes. Especially, Dalit women were not allowed to cover the upper half of the body and were forced to wear necklaces of carved granite, a sign of slavery. Ayyankali organized an agitation against this practice and urged Dalit women to discard wearing these ornaments of slavery and wear proper blouse covering bodies. Ayyankali’s call made so-called upper castes angry once again and riots broke out at various places in Kerala but Dalits didn’t give in or compromise and soon the inhuman dress code became a thing of past.
9. In 1912, Ayyankali was nominated as a member of the Sri Mulam Popular Assembly – a position he held till his death. Ayyankali was the first Dalit to be nominated to a legislature in colonial India. In the Assembly, Ayyankali consistently raised the problems being encountered by Pulayar children in acquiring education, poor representation of Dalits in jobs, unemployment and land for Dalits. That forced the government to sit up and take notice and in 1914, an order was issued, stipulating strict adherence to the educational policy.
10. Ayyankali passed away on 18 June 1941 and his contribution remains hidden from the mainstream discussions. Without his work on social justice and equality, the situation of Dalits in Kerala would have been much worse. Dalits will remain indebted to Ayyankali for giving them civil liberties and breaking the chains of slavery forever.
11. Department of Post, the government of India, issued commemorative postage stamp on Ayyankali, a social reformer, on 12 Aug. 2002, acknowledging the role Ayyankali played in the social movement in India.