Inside a 20th century nude commune
In Kerala, a 96-year-old building is occupied by Siddha Samaj, a society that is powered by ideas of free sex and spirituality and has 300-odd practising members
S. Dhananjayan likes hanging out naked, except in front of strangers.
He has no family, holds no property, does no work, makes no money, serves no government, obeys no supervisors, has no subordinates, worships no god and practises no religion. He has consensual sex with whoever he likes, with no expectation of love. Dhananjayan, who is in his 20s, is, in his own estimation, a happy man in a free world.
He is one among 300-odd people who are continuing a social experiment that began nearly a century ago in north Kerala’s Calicut (also known as Kozhikode) district. They are inmates of Siddha Samaj, an alternative society with four branches in Kerala and one in Tamil Nadu.
This little-known commune was formed as a critique of private property and interests. Former Kerala chief minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad is said to have described it as a community of primitive Communists.
Two years ago, I found myself staring out of the window of a train to Vadakara, a small coastal town in Kozhikode, on my way to learn more about this society, shortly after learning that my grandfather had apparently helped build it. It all began when my father and uncles found a yellowing notebook, tattered and falling to pieces, in an old trunk in our ancestral home. It was deemed useless because it had none of the things they were looking for, such as details of any real estate my grandfather might have had, unknown to them.
To my mind, though, it seemed interesting as a historical document. The notebook was small. In neat handwriting, it was full of his thoughts about his life and his surroundings, seemingly written at a very old age. He wrote about the financial hurdles he faced when trying to get into a school; the odd assortment of jobs he did, including playing native guide to a foreign scholar and serving as tax collector to the local king, the zamorin of Calicut; his readings on theology, philosophy and science; the journeys he made to places like Kashi (Varanasi) and Rishikesh and so on.
There was a cryptic reference to having conducted “the first inter-caste marriage in Kerala". The year on the left, 1922, was enough to pique my curiosity.
Caste hierarchies were rigid in Kerala in the early 20th century. To accidentally catch sight of a member of the lower castes entailed ritual pollution; an upper-caste person would typically bathe after doing so. How then to make sense of an organized inter-caste marriage in such a time?
My grandfather, C.S. Menon, credits the society in Vadakara with leading this initiative. It turns out, he was also its first general secretary. The diary ended with a note indicating he had written another book, a summation of his spiritual journey, but also an autobiography, that could be found in the society’s Vadakara office.
The next morning, I was on a train on my way to Vadakara, to try and bridge the gaps in my understanding of my grandfather. Until then the old man had been little more than a black and white photograph hanging on a wall in the ancestral house, still watching over, it seemed, his books on Indian philosophy and Marxist politics. I needed colour in the portrait.
A republic of dreamers
Wide, open gates beckon visitors towards an impressive 96-year-old building that houses Siddha Samaj. The building is a couple of hundred yards from the gates, past a guard shack with no guard. It closely resembles the traditional Kerala homestead, nālukettu, a large multistoreyed dwelling with dozens of rooms and an open central courtyard.
The building is in the middle of about 60 acres of farmland owned by the Samaj, the land ringed by a high, moss-covered compound wall. Members of the Samaj grow everything they eat on this land. To one side of the building stands an Ayurvedic medicine manufacturing unit—their medicines are fairly popular among locals—and the profits go towards sustaining the society and its members. Funds for the Samaj also pour in through donations.
There is a second gate that opens in the morning and closes in the evening every day, from where a neatly laid-out path flanked by lush green lawns splits into three: the path on the left leading to the nālukettu, the one on the right leading to a small hostel for outsiders, and another going straight to a temple-like structure erected on bulky pillar shafts with a dome at its top.
All ritual is banned inside this structure. It exists in remembrance of, and in respect to, the idealist who founded the society, Swami Sivananda Paramahamsa.
Little is known about Sivananda. The notebook described him as “a unique yogi—no blind beliefs, out and out socialist, no religion, no caste, was not learned in the (traditional) sense of learning, belonged to Badagara (Vadakara)—thousands of disciples..."
Legend has it that Sivananda was a colonial-era policeman who began searching for the meaning of life after a family tragedy, and ended up founding a commune which in his view would be a haven for joy and freedom. He found the practice of caste demeaning and banned it in his utopia. He also thought clothes were a hindrance to a natural way of living, apart from causing skin diseases, and asked members to be unencumbered by clothing.
He wrote a book titled Siddha Vedam, which he described as the fifth of the Vedas, ancient Indian philosophical books commonly divided into four. It is hard to know whether Indian philosophy or Karl Marx—the German revolutionary was a hero in Kerala then, as he is now—inspired him, but he was keenly interested in socialism.
Sickened by mankind’s seemingly endless desire to accumulate, he enforced a ban on private interests of any sort. This meant every person had to look after everybody else in the community, but no one could claim ownership of anything.
Sivananda applied this thinking to relationships too. There could be no husbands or wives, among other things, because that would indicate ownership. In the Samaj, you may have consensual sex with whoever you want, but they won’t be only your partner.
A ban on private interests also means no family. Every child born in the Samaj is taken away from the mother at the age of 3. The children are raised together, in a common orphanage alongside a school, at Vadakara, and no one is told who their parents are. They are taught to accept prakriti (nature) as their common mother. Everyone’s father is considered the same, and is denoted with the surname “S", short for Sivananda.
Hence, S. Dhananjayan.
The silent heaven
Dhananjayan did not choose to join the society. He was born into this world and it is all he knows.
He is a short and stout man with a wispy beard and shoulder-length hair. He wears a white mundu. The first time we met, he was one of two people playing games on a smartphone in the courtyard of the nālukettu. We began a conversation about mobile phones.
Dhananjayan is generally chatty. Most of the other members of the order appear meditative and sombre. When Dhananjayan and I talked about phones, we were the only people talking in that big house—the only other sounds were of people running errands. There is a relaxed air about everything. But the truly free world, it turns out, was dead silent as a cemetery.
The almost oppressive silence of the house began playing on my mind. The next time I saw Dhananjayan, I asked him if he sometimes felt like an inmate in a jail.
“Don’t you want to get out of this?"
“Never," he replied in Malayalam, smiling. “It is a jail (only) when you look from the outside. For us, you guys are living in a jail."
Free or caged?
For a free society, Siddha Samaj has a number of rules governing aspects of life that would ordinarily be considered very private.
Such as vegetarianism and an 8 hours work-8 hours meditation-8 hours sleep routine every day. And the prayer room—outsiders are not allowed to enter—where the inmates of the Samajam go about unclothed. Dhananjayan describes it as an ill-lit dormitory of sorts, a place where people can do pranayam, retire to sleep and, if they so choose, have sex.
In Sivananda’s belief, the act of pranayam, or regulating one’s breathing, can help the body attain a state of happiness that would otherwise only be attained with orgasm.
The Samaj receives two kinds of visitors: the ones called Siddha Vidyarthi—practitioners of Siddha Veda—who are not inmates, and general onlookers or tourists. To the outsider, the Samaj would seem like a decidedly strange place, with strange rules on how to love, and even what love is.
How do you feel if the girl you love has a relationship with someone else, I asked Dhananjayan once.
“Why should I (feel anything)?" he replied.
“We don’t own anything in Samaj, people or objects. Besides, it’s her choice to decide with whom she wants to be."
“And you don’t feel shy, or a sense of shame, when having have sex amid your elders and younger ones?"
“Sex is a natural feeling. Why would one feel shy about doing something natural?"
The Samaj’s reputation for free sex and free living notwithstanding, there are several aspects that appear somewhat problematic. For one, the children of the society, ranging between the ages of 3 and 16, have a room similar to that of the adults, to which they retire completely naked for prayer.
The children raised in the Samaj are effectively mandated to lead a life within the compound’s walls. He or she will possess little understanding of life beyond, not to mention the lack of educational qualifications demanded by the rest of society.
There is also the fact that the women of the society, while free to do as they wish, largely stay indoors as a norm, doing much of the housekeeping and cooking. Even in utopia, it seems, a working woman has no escape from patriarchy.
Want for nothing
A wish-box was installed on the premises of the school some years ago, says Dhananjayan. The students were allowed to write down a wish they wanted fulfilled on a piece of paper and drop it in. It has been empty ever since. The box has become something of a joke in the Samaj.
Dhananjayan’s utopia is filled with such anecdotes. While they may not be what others consider modern civilization, they are not as distant as others imagine either.
Dhananjayan has never watched a movie in a theatre, or eaten an ice cream—the simpler pleasures of living in a modern society. But he has taught himself, like many others in the Samaj, to use computers and drive vehicles. He says he learnt these skills because they proved useful when it came to supplying Ayurvedic medicines to retail stores that were often quite distant from their compound. He makes it clear that he does not claim either computer or car as his own.
What, then, is the ultimate achievement of this 96-year experiment in social engineering?
Has it been a success? Has it been able to make equality a reality? While rejecting the established order to become their own masters, have they, on the way, become victims of a different kind of captivity?
I did not recover the autobiography I had set out in search of—outsiders are not permitted to examine the society’s archives. My grandfather’s role in the society remained locked in a past I could not reach. But on the train back, I sat opposite a young man who looked the same age as Dhananjayan. He was wearing a T-shirt that said, “No greater love than self-love." It made me wonder: what if there is?