The socio-religious reforms of Ayya Vaikuntar had enkindled rethinking on many social issues. The downtrodden people were awakened on such issues as society and religion. Ayya Vaikuntar’s preachings enhanced the mental status of the people and they stood to gain a lot in communal life. Ayya’s Movement was responsible for a few important movements in later years. They were the thozh seelai agitation, the temple entry agitation and the movements started by Narayana Guru as well as Ayyankaazhi, to name a few.
Ayya Vaikuntar’s preachings created awareness among the people. Those people who listened to Ayya’s preachings wanted to claim their fundamental rights. The low caste women had no right to cover their breasts in public places. They were allowed to wear dress covering only the lower part of the body. Only the Nambudiri and Nair women had the right to cover their breasts. In those days, covering of one’s breasts before the caste Hindus was a crime. It was a manifestation of casteism at its extreme cruelty.
There were incidents of the rulers punishing the women by cutting off their breasts for covering them. Carrying water pots on the waist was prohibited for the lower castes. The women were permitted to carry water pot only on their heads.
Due to the preaching of Ayya Vaikuntar and the influence of Christianity, the lower castes, particularly the Nadars stated to revolt against these practices. They asked their women to cover the breasts. Men started wearing towel and dhoti in any fashion they liked. The women started to wear blouses called as kuppayam. They started wearing sarees freely just as the people of adjacent Pandiya Nadu. Wearing sarees annoyed the high castepeople. So, they objected to this practice and tried to put an end to it by violence. The caste Hindus started harassing the Nadar women. Fine was imposed on the women by the rulers.
In Kalkulam taluk of Kanyakumari District, the harassment was so severe that the local Christian priest reported the matter to the Government. In Agasteeswaram taluk, Suthras and Muslims harassed the Nadar women. They tore their kuppayam. There were riots everywhere. The houses of Nadars were set on fire and reduced to ashes, The Nadars reported it to the Government. The Diwans who came to Suchindrum to put an end to the riot advised the Nadar community not to change the age old practices.
Many people from the lower castes embraced Christianity just to escape from the grip of the caste Hindus. The missionaries guarded the converts from the harassment of the higher castes. The converts gained their rights with the help of missionaries. The Hindus who were in the majority influenced by Ayya Vaikuntar’s words, dressed like that of the caste Hindus. This was a silent movement and they gained this right quietly and peacefully.
The lower castes had no right to enter the temples throughout the Madras Presidency and also in the Travancore State. The lower castes were not only not allowed into the temples but also were prohibited to amble in the car streets*. The lower castes worked hard for the construction of temples but their entry into the temples was prohibited.
Even though Ayya Vaikuntar was against these temples, his social reforms for equality urged His people to gain equality in temply entry also. So, Nadars and other lower castes tried to enter the temples and conduct poojas. The caste Hindus objected to this and this created problems at various places.
Ayya Vaikuntar advised His followers not to go to the temples. They constructed their own nizhal thangals and conducted festivals defying the Government Order. Some of them constructed and established temples for Lord Krishna and Goddess Kali. The Kali temple was called as Amman temple.
*Car streets : Streets through which the temple car is takes around during festivals.
Vegatarianism and Discipline
Ayya Vaikuntar was a vegetarian and He advised the people to be vegetarians. In those days, most of the people of this region were non-vegetarians. Ayya recorded in His holy book that people would not eat without fish even a single day. Further, consuming today and tobacco was a daily occurance among the lower castes. Ayya Vaikuntar’s preaching brought about a change in the society. He practiced what he preached. People followed Ayya Vaikuntar’s example.
Ayya knew fully well that these people would not become strict vegetarians, all of a sudden. So, he advised them to be vegetarians at least twice a week, Friday and Sunday. People scrupulously followed this. Further, they do not eat fish and other non-vegetarian food during the festivals of Swamithoppu temple. Ayya Vaikuntar’s preachings made the society to desist from using tobacco and toddy. Toddy tapping from coconut trees was discontinued in this area.
Ayya Vaikuntar’s words bonded his followers into a cohesive unit. Originally, people lived in hut at different parts of a village. The huts were usually in the coconut groves. Ayya Vaikuntar’s Movement made them come together and there was unity among them. They started building housese around nizhal thangals and led a community life. Their aim was to construct a tile-roofed house but they were not allowed. Yet, most of the people constructed tile-roofed houses defying the Government order.
When a cluster of houses were constructed at athe center of a villge, there was community life. People collected funds for the development of their temples as well as the villages. In many parts, the family temples were converted into village temples. Village leaders were elected for the management of these temples and nizhal thangals.
By living in this societal mode they had everything to gain. The mental status of the people improved. As per Ayya Vaikuntar’s words, ‘Porumai perithu periyathiru magane” they remained patient. They led a very simple life. Respecting the society and the village leaders was also one of the influences of Ayya Vaikuntar. The village administraction was conducted on democratic lines.
Revolt against Exploitation
In those days, the Nadars and other lower castes had to pay a large sum as tax. There were taxes for breasts and banyan trees. Taxes were levied for palmyrah trees too, Some fled the Travancore state because of their inability to pay these taxes; but the relatives were compelled to pay the texes for those who fled.
The taxation was done legally by the state. The tax collectors were the high caste Hindus. The lower castes had to satisfy them by doing all the errands dictated by them. They had to supply all the products of palmyrah tree free of cost. Further, they had to work for the high caste Hindus without any wage. This was called as pari. Ayya Vaikuntar’s words like, “avaravar thedum muthal avar vaar vaithandidungo” had an electrifying influence among the lower castes. They defied taxation. They turned totally against pari; and it came to an end. People revolted against exploitation by the high caste Hindus and the rulers. This resulted in the habit of saving. The people saved a part of their earnings for their future.
Occupation and Education
Ayya Vaikuntar advised His people to diversify their activities. They concentrated in agriculture as well as horticulture. Business was another field where these people excelled. Even today, we see his followers excel in business such as rice, salt, fish, oil, fire – wood and grocery. They also started many small scale industries.
People used the nizhal thangals as learning places. Night schools were conducted even at Swamithoppu. Ayya Vaikuntar advised the temple people to read His holy books. They created an urge even amont the old and they learned to read and write. The aim of every followers of ayya Vaikuntar was to study Akilathirattu and to profess by that book. Further, edu vasippu was conducted in many nizhal thangals, to make the people understand this book fully well. In many places, his followers have started pre-schools. At Theni K.P.P.E. Pandara Nadar family has started an English school in the name of Ayya Vaikuntar which is presently managed by Sri E.P.Eswaravadivoo Lingalingam. It is one of the best schools of that region.
The lower castes who were prohibited entry into the temples constructed their own temples and managed them. This was due to the influence of Ayya Vaikuntar. They did not enter temples even after the legislation allowing temple entry. They looked after the day-to-day affairs of the nizhal thangals and also their other family temples.
At Swamithoppu temple, they have made many vahanas and a temple chariot and conducted and eleven-day of other communities. They conducted the eleven-day festival to show their superiority and uniqueness.
Further, they conducted marriages with their own people as Gurus. The Ayyavazhi marriage introduced by ayya Vaikuntar gained popularity among the masses. In no stage of their life, did they allow Brahmins to conduct any ceremony.
They managed their temples and nizhal thangals in a democratic way. The village people conducted meetings every month. They discussed among themselves before taking any decision. Thus Ayya Vaikuntar’s mission influenced religious development among the downtrodden masses.
Casteism and Nizhal Thangals
Even today, there are people who confine Ayya Vaikuntar to the Nadar Community. But, Ayya Vaikuntar clearly states in Akilathirattu that His mission was to save the eighteen downtrodden castes from the clutches of the caste Hindus. In the court of the then Travancore King, Ayya Vaikuntar refused to sign the palm leaf document which would have restricted him from reaching out to the other castes.
Vaikuntar’s mission was to establish a casteless society. Then, the question arises, “Why did he talk much about saving the nadar Community?”. Among the lower castes, the Nadar community was the most harassed one and also they were the people who had gained eminence in the earlier days due to their hard labour and courage. Moreover, in Agasteeswaram taluk, where Ayya lived, these people were a majority.
Ayya Vaikuntar’s nizhal thangals are constructed and maintained by people from different castes. For example, at Chettikulam village of Nellai Katrabomman district there is a very old nizhal thangal maintained by the Thondaiman community. We could see that these nizhal thangals were established not only by Nadars but also by Vellalar, Nair, Chettiyar, Vannar, Navithat, Parayar, Palla, Ezhavar, Konar, Panicker and Maravar. The nizhal thangals located at Narikulam. Ambalavanapuram, Arasanpathi, Variyoor, Manalodai, Naduvoorkurichi, Chenganoor, Vencharamoodu etc., prove this fact.In Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu, there are five nizhal thangals established in recent years. There is one nizhal thangal at Bombay. One of the devotees told us that nizhal thangals exist in pinang, as well as in Sri Lanka.
Balaprajapathi Adikalar has a long list of these nizhal thangals. There are more than 3,500 nizhal thangals spread throughtout South India. These thangals were started only due to the influence of Ayya Vaikuntar’s preachings. Moreover, these thangals had no patronage of the rulers or the so called rich.
Narayana Guru and Ayyan Kazhi, thje most famous reformers of Kerala were so much influenced by Ayya Vaikuntar that they stayed at Marunthuvazhmalai near Swamithoppu. Then, they started heir movements. Even Vivekananda, the Great Indian monk, who took Hinduism outside India, heard about Ayya Vaikuntar when he was at Kanyakumari and visited Swamithoppu. It is said that his wearing of the turban was due to the influence of Ayya Vaikuntar.