Among the matriarchal families of Kerala Tarwad is well known. The system itself is called Tarwad. In Dravidian language family the patriarchal families are called el lam. Primarily, Tarwad is found among the Nairs and ellam among the Namboodaris.
In the Tarwad system of Nairs there were female ancestors. The descent among them starts with the mother.
In a Tarwad the entire dead and living are enumerated as members. If a Tarwad becomes a large one, it is divided in consultation with all the elders. The division is called Tavji, which means mother.
It includes the mother and her children. Children born of a single Tarwad, though belonging to different Tavji, cannot marry amongst themselves.
In several groups of a Tarwad a woman can marry several husbands. The Namboodari Brahmins can also marry Nair women. After marriage the woman resides with her mother and her husband pays her visit at night. The property of a Tarwad or a Tavji is indivisible and is owned by all the members.
Among the Nairs descent and kul (clan) have a single word called Tarwad. This term is also used for the ownership of collective property. Thus, in the matriarchal kin group, kul is the biggest unit and its members owe their origin to a single female ancestor. The origin of Tarwad is from the word Tar a, which means a raised place on which the house of a Nair is built.
The members of a Tarwad believe that they are the progeny of a single female ancestor. The name of a kul is in the name of the female ancestor.
For a Nair the descent has several characteristics such as clan, name of descent tradition, name of the house and above all, the name of the person. It is on this tradition that when a man writes his name, he includes his clan, descent tradition and the name of the family.
Kathleen Gough conducted a study of Tarwad during 1950-60. She informed that normally a Tarwad consisted of six members, the maximum number being 25-30. During the last few decades, the Tarwad matriarchal kin group is witnessing changes.
Now, there is a trend towards the patriarchal system. When we look at the two systems on a comparative plane, it should be said that in both, the management of property is in the hands of the males. And, second, all the matters of importance are decided by the males.
Despite this change, there is a basic difference in both the systems. In the patriarchal family the property is inherited from a father to son; and in a matriarchal family the property goes from mother to daughter.