Nair also known as Nayar or Malayala Kshatriya, is a name of one of the Hindu forward castes from the Indian state of Kerala. Before the British conquest in 1792, the Kerala region contained small feudal kingdoms in each of which the royal and noble lineages, the militia, and most land managers were drawn from the Nairs and related castes. Nairs were prominent in politics, government service, medicine, education, and law. Nairs constituted the rulers, warriors and landed gentry of Kerala (pre Indian-independence).

Nairs were traditionally matrilineal, which meant that the family traced its roots through the women in the family. The children inherited the property of their maternal family. Their family unit owned property jointly, and included brothers and sisters, the latter’s children, and their daughters’ children. The oldest man was legal head of the group and he was respected as the Karnavar of the family or tharavad (homestead). Rules of marriage and residence varied somewhat between kingdoms.

The Nairs are known for their martial history, including their involvement in Kalarippayattu and the role of Nair warriors in the Mamankam festival. The Nairs were classed as a “Martial Race” by the British, but were de-listed after rebelling against them under Velu Thampi Dalawa. Thereafter, they were recruited in low numbers into the British Indian Army. Only Nairs were recruited into the Travancore Nair Brigade until 1935. This State Force (known also as the Nair Brigade) was merged into the Indian Army after independence and became the 9th Battalion Madras Regiment, the oldest battalion in the Indian Army.

The Samantha Kshatriya Kolathiri and Travancore kingdoms have Nair heritage. Herbert Wigram states that the Chirakkal Raja and the Travancore Raja belongs to branches of the same family and are representatives of the ancient Nāyar kings, perhaps the oldest aristocracy in the world. The Samoothiri Raja was a Samanthan Nair and the kingdom of the Ali Rajas of Kannur, which was the only Muslim kingdom in the Kerala region, also had Nair origins. Nair feudal families such as the Ettuveetil Pillamar of Travancore and Paliath Achan of the Kingdom of Cochin were extremely influential in the past and exerted great influence on the ruling clan.

The earliest known description about Nairs states that Nairs (Nagars are the descendants of the serpent caste soldiers sent by the Nāga Kingdom for taking part in the battle at Kurukshetra during Mahabharata (Sources list a total of eight serpents – Vasuki, Shesha, Takshaka, Sangapala, Gulika, Mahapadma, Sarkota and Karkotaka. Padmanabhaswamy Temple is of special significance to the Nairs as it is believed to be the abode of Shesha and Nairs claim special powers due to the temple. After the war, they encountered Paraśurāma, who vowed to exterminate the Nāgas since they were Kshatriya. The Nāgas transformed themselves to humans, ripped off their sacred cords, and fled the battlefield.

After the Saka or Indo-Scythians invaded India in the 2nd century BC, some Nagas mixed with the Scythians in North India. They adopted matriarchy, polyandry and other Scythian customs. Nāga-Scythian tribe of Ahichatra, in Uttar Pradesh near Nainital was invited by King Mayurasharma of the Kadamba Dynasty in 345 AD along with their Brahmin priests to settle down at Shimoga in the North Karnataka.


They migrated southwards and reached Malabar, where they fought with the Villavars and defeated them. Later they established their own kingdoms in Malabar and Tulu Nadu. The Nāgas finally reached Travancore, the southernmost part of India. There is still a sacred Sarpa Kavu “serpent grove” in Mannarsala (Travancore), which is owned by a Nayar family whose ancestors are said to be Nāga serpents spared when the Khandava Forest (in present day Punjab) was burnt down by Krishna and Arjuna.

Mythology apart, Nairs are thought to be the descendants of Nagavanshi Kshatriyas, who migrated to Kerala from further North. According to Dr K. K. Pillai, the first reference about the Nairs is in an inscription dated to the 9th century A.D.

“A race caste who do not owe their origin to function, although, by force of example, their organization is almost equally rigid, and they are generally identified with particular trades or occupations. These race caste communities were originally tribes, but on entering the fold of Hinduism, they imitated the Hindu social organization, and have thus gradually hardened to castes.”

A number of sociologists are of the view that the Nairs are not indigenous to Kerala, as many customs and traditions distinguish them from other Keralites. There is a hypothesis on the basis of mythology that the Nairs are Nagas, who were Kshatriyas belonging to the Serpent dynasty (Nagavansha) who removed their sacred thread and migrated south to escape the wrath of a vengeful Paraśurāma. A Naga origin from Rohilkhand has been suggested. The affinity of the Nair community towards serpent worship, their martial past, and the absence of the sacred thread lends support to this theory. In addition, the Travancore State Manual states that there were indeed serpent-worshiping Nagas in Kerala who fought with the Namboothiris till they reached a consensus. The Nairs have also been classified as of Indo-Scythian or Saka origin as well as being linked to the Nagas.

According to Chattampi Swamikal, who interpreted old Tamil texts, the Nairs were Naka (Naga or Snake) Lords who ruled as feudal lords in the Chera kingdom. This theory proposes Nairs to be descendants of the rulers and martial nobility of pre-Brahmin Kerala. But the most widely accepted theory is that the ethnic group is not native to Kerala and the Nairs of Kerala and the similarly matrilineal Bunts of Tulu Naduare thought to be descendants of the Kshatriyas who accompanied the Brahmins to Kerala and Tulu Nadu respectively from Ahichatra/Ahikshetra in southern Panchala. One finds mention of the Nairs during the reign of the King Rama Varma Kulashekhara Alwar (1020–1102) of the second Chera dynasty, when the Chera Kingdom was attacked by the Cholas. The Nairs fought by forming suicide squads (Chavers) against the invading force. It is not clear whether the Cheras themselves were Nairs, or if the Cheras employed the Nairs as a warrior class.


The 17th century Brahmin -inspired Keralolpathi of the Malayali brahmins and the Grama Padhati of Tulu brahmins describes the Nairs of Kerala and the similarly matrilineal Bunts of Tulu Nadu as descendants of Kshatriyas who accompanied the Brahmins to Kerala and Tulu Nadu respectively from Ahichatra/Ahikshetra in northern Panchala the remains of this city have been found in Ramnagar village in Aonlatehsil of Bareilly district in current Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

The Manual of Madras Administration Vol II (printed in 1885) notes that the Kundagannada (kannada dialect) speaking Nadava or Nada Bunts are the same people as the Malayalam speaking Nairs of Malabar and the Tulu speaking Bunts of southern Tulu Nadu.

They appear to have entered Malabar from the North rather than the South and to have peopled first the Tulu, and then the Malayalam country. They were probably the off-shoot of some colony in the Konkan or the Deccan. In Malabar and south of Kanara as far as Kasargod, they are called Nayars and their language is Malayalam. From Kasargod to Brahmavar, they are termed as Bunts and speak Tulu. To the north of Brahmavar, they are called Nadavars, and they speak Kanarese.

The Nairs have disappeared as an entity from Tulu Nadu but the inscriptions found in Barkur from the medieval period as well as the Grama Padathi, which gives the history of Brahmin families in Tulu Nadu, have made several references to the Nairs. They seemed to have intimate connections with the Brahmins and acted as their protectors, perhaps brought to Tulu Nadu by the Kadamba kings in the 8th century. Kadamba king Mayuravarma, who is credited with bringing Brahmins from Ahichatra (from the north), also settled Nairs in Tulu Nadu and a mention of the Nair presence in tulu nadu in inscriptions comes after the Alupa period (early part of 14th century). Like the kings of Kerala some Bunt kings of Tulu Nadu also have Nair ancestry. For example, the last Bunt ruler of Kanajar in Udupi district was called Nayara Heggade.His palace Kanajar Doddamane though dilapidated in parts is undergoing restoration. The royal house of the Bunts in Kowdoor (adjacent to Kanajar) is known as Nayara Bettu. Also “Nayara” is a surname among bunts. It is postulated that the Nairs in Tulu Nadu were later absorbed into the social stratum of the Bunt community. It is also postulated that the Nairs of Malabar originally migrated from Tulu nadu.

It is to be noted that the traditions and cultures of Nairs and Bunts are same to a large extent. Currently the Nairs who can trace their descent back to Tulunadu are concentrated in the Malabar region.

Until a few decades ago, the Nairs were divided into several sub-castes and inter-dining and inter-marriages were practically non-existent amongst them. The 1891 Census of India, undertaken by the British listed a total of 138 Nair subcastes in the Malabar region, 44 in theTravancore region and a total of 55 of them in the Cochin region.


Most Nairs have the name of his maternal Tharavadu affixed to his name. Along with that, surnames are added to the names for further identification of the lineage. Several surnames are found among Nairs. Some surnames were conferred by the Kings for deeds of valour and services. Rajas of Cochin conferred on the Nairs the titles of nobility such as Achan, Kartha, Kaimal and Mannadiar. The title,Menon is used by the Nairs of Malabar and Cochin areas. The southern kingdoms of Venad (later extended as Travancore), Kayamkulam, Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur conferred the titles such asPillai, Thampi, Unnithan, and Valiathan on distinguished Nair families. Panikkar and Kurup were the titles of Nairs who maintained martial schools known as Kalaries. Surnames like Nambiar, Nayanar,Kitavu, and Menokki are seen only in North Kerala, where as “Nair” is a surname which is ubiquitous through out Kerala.


Middle age South Indian history, historians, and foreign travelers referred to the Nairs as a dignified martial nobility. The earliest reference to Nairs comes from the Greekambassador Megasthenes. In his accounts of ancient India, he refers to the “Nayars of Malabar” and the “Kingdom of Chera”. Irrespective of the different theories that seek to explain the origin of Nairs, it is clear that till the early 20th century, Nairs exerted their influence in medieval Kerala society as feudal lords and owned large estates. The position in society of the Nairs as that of a martial nobility in medieval Kerala has been likened to the position in society of the Samurai in medieval Japan. Nairs dominated the civil, administrative and military elite of the pre-British era in Kerala.


The decline of Nair dominance came about in multiple stages. During colonial times, the British perceived that Nairs were an inherent threat to their hegemony in the region and therefore outlawed their right to bear weapons and by banning the Kerala martial art ofKalaripayattu. Weapons were integral to the Nair psyche and power, and combined with repressive legislation led to a loss of social standing for Nairs, though some of the social legislation was in part inspired by the Nairs themselves, such as changes in inheritance law permitting the Karanavan to pass on some (and later all) of the fruits of his stewardship of the taravad to his own children. During post-colonial years, the Land Reforms Ordinance of 1950’s led to massive loss of land-ownership by Nair feudal lords and some Nair landed gentry were relegated to poverty overnight.

The Nair Brigade was the army of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore in India. Nairs were a warrior community in the region which was responsible for the security of Travancore and other local kingdoms. King Marthanda Varma’s (1706–1758) personal bodyguard was called ‘Thiruvithamkoor Nair Pattalam’ (Travancore Nair Army). The Travancore army was officially referred as the Travancore Nair Brigade in 1818. Since independence, Malabar has been the most important recruitment ground for theMadras Regiment and Nairs constitute a huge proportion of the recruits from this area. Although not as famous as Malabar Nayars, Nayars from Travancore and Cochin also constitute a significant portion of the Madras Regiment. Two former Travancore state army divisions, the 1st Travancore Nayar Infantry and the 2nd Travancore Nayar Infantry were converted in to 9th and 16th Battalions of Madras Regiment respectively after the independence. The Nayar army from Cochin was refurbished in to the 17th Battalion.

According to the 1891 Census of India, the total population of Nairs stood at 980,860 (excluding subcastes like Maarans and Samanthan Nairs). Out of this, 483,725 (49.3%) lived in Travancore, 101,691 (10.4%) in Cochin and 377,828 (38.5%) in Malabar. The reminder were mostly found in Madras Presidency (15,939) and other parts of British India (1,677).

The 1968 Socio-Economic Survey by the Government of Kerala gave the population of the Nair community as 14.41% of the total population of the state, constituting for 89% of the forward caste population in the state.