A century ago this week, social reformer Sahodaran Ayyappan made a powerful statement against the caste system in Kerala by bringing together members of various castes, including his own Ezhava community, for an inter-caste Panthibhojanam (community feast).
100 years later, on Tuesday, Kerala’s political leaders recreated a second panthibhojanam to commemorate the landmark event.
As Dr T Bhaskaran describes the landmark event in of May 29, 1917 Thundidaparambu in Chirayi in his book Maharshi Sree Narayana Guru:
“In the Panthibhojanam, rice along with a side dish made of jackfruit seeds and chickpeas was served. A Pulayar (a Dalit caste) named Ayyar who is from Pallipuram served the food. He was already scheduled to do so. Ayyar had come along with his son. But since the number of people participating had grown much beyond what they expected, everyone got a small amount of food. In the middle of the crowd Ayyar’s son was made to sit. When the child had mixed the rice and the curry, everyone tasted a mouthful from his plate, and that was the famous ‘Misrabhojanam’ (also called Panthibhojanam).”
After the inaugural Panthibhojanam at Cherayi, Ayyappan followed it up with similar feasts at Shringapuram, Moothukunnam and Chendamangalam. Everywhere he went, Ayyappan faced vicious opposition from the orthodoxy, and even led to a social boycott of Ayyappan. The 28-year-old social reformer was able to overcome this opposition thanks to the backing he received from Sree Narayana Guru.
At the time when the Panthibhojanam was held in a thatched house on two-and-a-half acres of land in Thundidaparambu, caste restrictions in Kerala did not allow lower caste communities to even use the same wells or ponds as upper caste communities. Members of “untouchable” communities were not even allowed to walk on the same walkways as upper caste individuals, lest they be seen by the latter.
On Tuesday, celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the Panthibhojanam, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, MLAs Hibi Eden, VD Satheesan, S Sarma and many other dignitaries gathered at Thundidaparambu to have another community lunch together. Sahodaran Ayyappan’s daughter Aisha Gopalakrishnan was also a guest at the event.
“We should think about where our state has come in the 100 years after the Misrabhhojanam. Still our girls have to take extreme steps to be safe from certain swamis, still women are killed and attacked, still people adopt certain superstitious practices to get rich, still girls’ marriage don’t take place due to Chovvadosham (astrological issues), people rush to jewelleries on Akshaya Tritiya, sexual abuses happen in religious centres. In this 21st century is our state going back to a barbaric society? These malpractices are still present In many communities,” CM Pinarayi wrote on Facebook on the occasion.
“In this era where Dalits, women and children are attacked and assaulted, it is very relevant to think about Misrabhojanam. The event was an announcement of equality on behalf of a group that was enslaved for centuries. Through the event the suppressed were given dignity. It was Sahodaran Ayyappan who sowed the seeds of forward and logical thinking in Kerala,” the CM wrote.
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said that the caste system still prevails in the state invisibly. “Sahodaran Ayyappan tried to break the walls of caste and religion. Did they really break? No. Our youngsters flow towards the organisations based on religion and caste. If this trend cannot be stopped we will be a generation that was not able to do justice to our history. Let us pledge, on this 100th anniversary of Misrabhojanam, to move away from all communal elements,” he said.