Does Marumakkathayam make Genetic sense?

For the uninitiated, Marumakkathayam is the practice of passing on ones wealth to their nephews rather than their own offspring.  This practice was noted in ancient Kerala and similar practices are noted in other parts of the worlds as well.

I don’t remember how we got into this discussion that night. A few of us mallu friends got together for dinner that night and was trying to solve the world’s problem over a beer when we stumbled up on this discussion. One question that came up that we couldn’t find a satisfactory answer was how does Marumakkathayam make sense genetically?   Your immediate offspring is 50% related to you where as a nephew is only 25% related to you. Wouldn’t the selfish gene in you prefer your direct offspring over your nephew? Has our ancestors been making a genetic mistake by passing on all the riches to their nephews instead of their sons?

I had to sleep over it before I came up with an answer that I think is right. You know for sure that your nephew share 25% (this could be 12.5%, if the sister is only a half sister) of the DNA with you. However, in the case of your son, he may be 50% related to you. Notice the “may be” I used in the previous sentence. This is one of the basic differences between a man and a woman. For the woman, if the offspring comes from her womb, she knows that it is her baby and that the baby share 50% of her genes. For the man, he just has to believe in the woman that the baby share 50 % of DNA with him!   Would he believe enough to bet his farm on that belief? Apparently not in those days!  So those ancestors were smart to say, sorry son, I love you but the farm goes to your cousin!

Now why didn’t they do it on a case by case basis? That is, if one is sure his son is really his son, wouldn’t they want to just pass on the farm/kingdom to the son instead of giving to the nephew?  Well, my thinking is,  if this is how it was done, some of them will have to have an argument with their wife to explain why her son is not getting the major part of the farm/kingdom. Now that wouldn’t be a pleasant conversation, would it?  How would one explain this to everyone else in the village/kingdom? It was just easier to make a social contract to have everyone have their nephew inherit their wealth.

Do you agree? What are your thoughts?

8 Responses to “Does Marumakkathayam make Genetic sense?”

  1. Bejoy Pillai says:

    Genetics is a scientific approach to life based on reason and logic. Society is not really based on such exact reason and logic. So applying genetic rules to social setup like Marumakkathayam wont really work, religion being another prime eg.

    • manoj says:

      Bejoy, Thanks for the comment. You are right, they are not based on genetic theory. But my point was that the this practice still makes sense when looking at it from the perspective of a geneticist. Btw, genetisists have some arguments about relegion as well. Take a look at the meme theory

  2. Sam Kurian says:

    Manoj, you made your point nicely in the blog. There might be different flavors of Marumakkathayam existed. In an earlier “classical” form of marumakkattayam, the institution of marriage was absent and your reasoning makes sense in this situation. Later on, this might have continued as a tool for liberty of women.

  3. Liam says:

    Perhaps, the practice may make more sense from the standpoint of the parent surviving. If you are wealthy and powerful, let’s say a king. If your son inherits it all, then he is motivated to kill you so he can enjoy the fruit of inheritance earlier.

    A son who is already disinherited to a nephew has no such motivation. Killing his father forces the distribution to the nephews. Killing the nephews gains him nothing and enriches the remaining nephews. Either way it does not gain the son anything.

    Even if there were only one remaining nephew, it still does the son no good. The father will simply distribute the wealth suspecting the son is the culprit.

  4. Vasudevan says:

    I suggest you read “Malabar Manual” by William Logan to know why this practice was followed. And also the book “Kerala in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries” by “Mr.Velayudhan Panikkassery”.

    “Marumakkathayam” was practised mostly by “Nairs” and “Khsatriyas” in olden times. Nairs were the warrior class in those days and were constantly engaged in Wars. In this process they were forced to travel long distances, on foot, and were many times confined to a distant place. there was no security for their life and many perished in the war. Hence they started to have affairs with ladies wherever they go. Each lady would have multiple husbands, who coordinated very well.
    In this situation it was prudent for the ladies to inherit all the wealth so that she can manage it very well. No property was owned individually in those days, but owned by the family. Individualism was a product of British Rule and they brought their Roman inherited laws into Kerala without checking the adaptability. Thus according to Logan the British killed the age old customs, which beautifully guided the Kerala society. This custom of “Marumakkathayam” was followed for centuries.

    As all of us know it is very difficult to change a custom. Even though the social situation changed from around A.D.1800s when British rule became strong in Kerala and the Nairs were not required to fight for the local chieftans, they started to lead a settled life. But were unable to change the age old custom.
    William Logan has beautifully explained the predicament of wealthy Nairs in around A.D. 1880, the time when he wrote the Malabar Manual. They wanted to pass on the property after their death to their sons, but the custom prohibited that. After their death all the property would go to their nephews. The alternative was to transfer the entire property to their son while they are still alive. This at times resulted in their sons ignoring their parents after getting the property.

  5. john says:

    In a patriarchal society it makes sense to give the inheritance to the sister’s children. There is an injustice that the woman is born to or may face , in such a case as protection it makes sense . Specially when it comes to christian women, hindu laws like Marumakkathayam are better. And that is the good thing about living in hindu lands and in a tarawad. Men may just take everything a father has given and women are without means . Kerala christian men are very good in such things.

  6. john says:

    If a tarawad has worthy men they will protect their daughters first to receive the benefits of it later. I am sure they do not mind receiving the rewards of it in the next life but they will receive it.

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