Position of Women: The Nayars have two distinctive characteristics - a strong sense of pride in the clan and a healthy respect for women. To the Nayar, the tarawad (the undivided matrilineal family) is the most significant. It connotes for him upbringing, pedigree and pride in lineage and a sense of belonging. He learns to respect the women in the house and carries the same respect over to all women.
The Nayar woman has for centuries been used to long periods of managing the home by herself, the man being away and has consequently acquired the strength, dignity and poise that comes naturally to women used to asserting their authority. The man too accepts the idea that the very structure of the social fabric rests on the women.
Marriage: Among Nayars there are more than a hundred endogamous subdivisions, separated according to region and occupation, among whom marriage till recently was taboo.
Marriage among the Nayars has a somewhat different meaning from marriage in other communities and is not so much a religious as a social ceremony. The term bandham used originally for marriage meant a connection or alliance or union. Temple marriages, especially at the Guruvayur Temple, are popular and economical. There is an exchange of garlands and sometimes of rings and the bridegroom ties a 'mangalasutra' around the bride's neck and the traditional presentation of saris takes place. There is no chanting of mantras and the ceremony is over in 5 minutes. It is both touching and impressive in its simplicity.
After marriage a daughter does not go to her husband's home but remains in her own ancestral place called the tarawad. On the contrary the husband comes to visit her and he remains a member of his own tarawad. According to the familial rules of the Nayars the first duty of a husband is not to his sons but to his nephews. This custom and the marumakkathayam system are both dying out but a child still takes its mother's family name and is entitled to a share of the matrilineal property if it is divided.
Motherhood and the birth of a girl naturally have a special sanctity among the matrilineal Nayars. The line of a woman with no daughter ends with her. Though sons are also recognised now as having a place in the family, there is still nothing like having a daughter to whom the family wealth and property can be passed on.
Art and Culture: The contribution of the Nayars to the arts- dance, drama, music, Malayalam and Sanskrit literature-- has been tremendous. Dancing was part of the training received by young Nayar warriors in the feudal age. Elements of this 'shastrakali' can be seen in Velakali which re-enacts the battle scenes of the Mahabharata and is performed in Trivandrum by Nayar youths. Kathakali, a unique style of the dance drama, performed in temples in night long sessions by the light of flickering brass lamps. This dance form is part of every Nayar's life even today. Kathakali is also his introduction to and his association with all the glorious epics and legends of the past.
Krishnattam, performed regularly by trained dancers at the Guruvayur Temple and Ramanattam, Kudiyattam and Ottam Thullal, are some of the surviving dance forms which can be seen in Kerala today.
Malayalam literature has been greatly enriched by the contributions of Nayar writers, who include nationally known poets like the revolutionary Vallathol and novelists like Thakazhi S. Pillai. Kathakali is another art in which the names of the Nayars are foremost.
The Nayar still puts a priority on learning. The women of this community are educated and can discuss anything from the division of ancestral property to serious matters in politics.
Nayars were once divided into castes according to occupation. They lived together as a self-sufficient community. A majority of them were landowners though they played a vital role as fighters too.
Attached to the house of each village headman there was a 'kalari' in which youths were given martial training. This training consisted of rubbing the body with a mixture of different oils, physical exercises and practice with stick and sword. Even today there are some kalaris, especially in North Kerala.
As warriors Nayars were unequalled and their sense of loyalty was legendary. There was an old custom testifying to this by which Nayar volunteers signified their vow to burn themselves on the day their king died and this vow they faithfully fulfilled.