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Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

On Kalaripayattu, Samurai, Origins of tea and Kung-fu……

For a long time, I had heard of rumors that the martial arts of Japan and China have some relation to the Kalaripayattu and the Kalari’s of Malabar. I have been skeptical and when I mentioned this possibility to my sons they sniggered. They have of recent started to equating me with the dad in the ‘My big fat Greek wedding’ who had this tendency of connecting everything’s origin to ancient Greece. But well, it is worth a look anyway and so let’s us take a trip…

Of course we all know for fact that ancient Malabar was home to the Nair’s who were a warrior class. When and where they migrated from to ancient Kerala is subject of much discussion (one of them being of Tamil Pallava extract), but the fact was that their trade was combat, mainly with bows and arrows, swords & daggers and hand to hand. These masters of the trade were initiated into it at an early age and well trained in martial art schools called Kalari’s. Using the elements of nature like soil, flora and fauna was their forte and they could quickly vanish into the dense forests that were all over old Malabar. Stealth was key and honor was paramount in those combats. The major duels were face to face and were the ankhams (more about all that in another post), The Nairs of Malabar maintained their supremacy in matters of war until the advent of the Western armies in the 1500’s, but after they arrived, the modern forms of combat with weapons like muskets, revolvers, poison and cannons took over (honesty in dueling was lost as well). The Nairs retired to other passions like looking after their lands and getting educated in the western fashion. The Kalari’s declined and their death spiral was quick. Today they are mainly objects of tourist study and some lone travelers interested in the origins of martial arts. The Nair’s who once excelled in combat are now content with watching Bruce lee Kung fu and other action movies on the cinema screens of Malabar and of course in conducting vocal calisthenics on all worldly subjects rather than in any matter that involves body exertion of any kind.

But let us now go back to a time when it was not so, when trade was flourishing in Muziris and Quilon. A period actually even before the Nair’s, the 6th century when Pallavas and Chera kings ruled the south of India .A period when Calicut was still to become a free port, to a time well before the Zamorins. It was a time when the Kalingas ports were busy. It was the time when trade was conducted regularly with today’s Malaysia, Thailand & Indonesia. It was also the time when the Buddhists and Jains were well spread over south India, especially todays Kerala regions. It was a time when Budhist teachers also traveling far and wide to spread their beliefs and culture. It was the time when Bodhidharma lived.

Legend portrays him as a south Indian prince who left the household life and, upon attaining enlightenment (bodhi), became the 28th in a series of patriarchs through which the Buddha's original enlightenment experience had been transmitted directly without the mediation of ‘words and scriptures’. Upon bringing Ch'an to China, he became the first Chinese patriarch, and all subsequent Chinese Ch'an and Japanese Zen masters trace their master-disciple lineages back to him. According to the legend, Bodhidharma arrived in Canton via the sea route in 526, and was invited to the court of Emperor Wu, founder of the Liang dynasty in the south. Bodhidharma then left for the north, reportedly crossing the Yangtze River on a reed (boat), and arrived at the Shao-lin Temple. Finding the resident clergy weak and prone to the depredations of local bandits, he taught them exercises and self-defense, from which evolved the famous Shao-lin style of martial arts. He then sequestered himself in a cave for nine years and sat gazing at the wall.{Source: Buddhism Dictionary. A Dictionary of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2003, 2004}.

Another source puts it as follows - Bodhidharma, a member of the Indian Kshatriya warrior class and a master of staff fighting, developed a system of 18 dynamic tension exercises. These movements found their way into print in 550 A.D. as the Yi Gin Ching, or Changing Muscle/Tendon Classic. We know this system today as the Lohan (Priest-Scholar) 18 Hand Movements, the basis of Chinese Temple Boxing and the Shaolin Arts. Later, towards the 12th century, Zen Buddhism was adopted by the Samurai of Japan.

There has been much debate on how Kung Fu began at Shaolin, but the some consensus exits that it evolved from a series of exercises that Bodhidharma introduced at Shaolin. That brought me to the crux of the matter- A South Indian prince excelling in martial arts? Now who belonged to the Kshatriya class existing at that time in South India? Were they Nair’s? Were they Chera’s or Pallava’s? But it is still early to conclude so as we have not determined where Bodhidharma lived and if he was indeed from South India.

One clue is that he sailed to China via the Malay Peninsula. This establishes that he went out of a South Indian port, either from the Coromandel Kalinga ports or the trade ports of Malabar. Being destined to China, one must assume that the ship originated in Quilon or Muziris, the two most popular at that time. The other clue is that he was a trainer or one who was trained in the martial arts. Did Kalari’s exist in Malabar at that time? Or did they exist in Kanchipuram or other Pallavan centers? We have heard of some Perumals who embraced Buddhism and Islam in a previous article. It could be so that he was a Pallavan (there is a story that Nairs could have been Pallavans) or a Perumal. One must remember here that in those times, the biggest center for Budhism in South India at that time was at Quilon.

Krishnamurthy’s book states that he was indeed a South Indian royal who was ordained into Mahayanism by Pragnattara a Buddhist teacher. The book ‘Trust in Mind’ provides an interesting insight into the arrival of Bodhidharma to China and the events that transpired. It confirms that he meditated in the temple of Shaolin for 9 years and the evolution of Chan or Zen (Dhyan or Dhyanam).Then appears a reference (The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy -Junjiro Takakusu Pg 159) that he was from Kanchipuram, and is the third son of the king. He is known as Pu Tai Ta Mo in Chinese or Daruma Daishi in Japanese.

Let us now look at a divergent view from Johnny Raj and a forum discussion on this matter - He is emphatic that the martial arts of Shaolin are more in tune with the Tamil Silambam that predates Kalaripayattu. According to him Kalaripayattu originated in the 13th century. He also believes that what Bodhidharma did was teach breathing & meditating techniques. He then points out that many other Indian visitors traveled the Buddhist routes from Tamil regions to China & other places, much before Bodhidharma.

But the encyclopedia of Thelma lays the argument to rest - According to a later text, the Xu Gao Sen Zhuan (Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks), written in 645 by Dao Xuan, Bodhidharma was born in what is now Kerala in southern India around 440 during the Pallava dynasty's rule. He is said to have been born as a clan prince in the poor hunter class and was well versed in martial arts (a form still surviving as Kalaripayattu).

But well – now we have boiled it all down to Pallava, Brahmin and Kshatriya. The hunter prince aspect took me back to the study of Vavar and Ayyan, and the Ayyan cult which had strong Buddhist traditions. So was he from Pandalam perhaps? How do they all connect? Though Dào Xuān wrote that Bodhidharma was "of South Indian Brahman stock," Broughton notes that Bodhidharma's royal pedigree implies that he was of the Kshatriya warrior caste. Mahajan argued that the Pallava dynasty was Brahmin by origin but Kshatriya by profession, and Zvelebil (1987) proposed that Bodhidharma was born a prince of the Pallava dynasty in their capital of Kanchipuram. Rajiv Srinivasan writing for rediff alludes to the fact that he could have been from Kodungallur.

Finally what has he got to do with tea and Daruma dolls? It seems that he was enraged at his difficulty in keeping awake while silently meditating, and legend has it that he ripped off his eyelids (so that they would not close ever again) and threw them down to the ground, where they sprouted as tea plants (WOW!!). In addition, his legs seemingly withered away because of his constant sitting pose. (This is the stated origin of the Daruma doll, a Japanese egg shaped doll that tilts back upright when knocked over. Its wide-open eyes and lack of legs come from the legends of Bodhidharma). These are all the myths that came into effect later.

It is a fact that all kinds of martial arts existed in South India at that time. It became a developed art of kalaripayattu in the 9th century or so with the advent of Nairs, however it was existent as a method much earlier, dating back to Vedic times (See Wikipedia article)

The Bodhidharma anthology by Broughton starts with the para that he was the 3rd son of a prominent South Indian King from the Western region. With that one could assume that he originated from Kodungallur (Muziris) and probably not Kanchipuram. Could he have been a Perumal who became a Buddhist and went on a pilgrimage? Much of the problem may have been due to Bodhidharma being confused with Boshisena since it appears that Bodhisena was a Brahmin from Kanchipuarm. The confusion over Tamil was due to the Pallava fact and of course the reason for Bodhidharma sailing out of Muziris or Quilon is because Buddhism was widespread in Kerala at that time (except for the Kanchipuram pocket). The final issue is what the monk knew, if it was Vajramushti, Kalaripayattu, Varmakalai or Silambam or indeed if all he did was teach breathing exercises. Let us choose to believe the Chinese if they have attributed Kungfu to Indian sources.

Bodhidharma died around AD 535. Some legends say Bodhidharma returned to India before his death. Others say he lived to be 150 and was buried in the mountains of Honan, China. Some say that soon after his death, a messenger named Sung Yun from Eastern Wei supposedly met Bodhidharma walking back towards India barefoot and with a single shoe in hand. His grave was later exhumed, and according to legend, the only thing found in it was the shoe he left behind.

In conclusion one must conclude that he did exist, in those nine or so years, in documented Chinese records. However much of what he said or did is either a myth or legendary.

Prof Tsutomu Kambe - Univ of Tokyo provided an answer - Documents published just after Tang dynasty (ending in 907) describe that the name of the Kingdom of Bodhidharma’s origin as expressed with two Chinese characters ’香至. A likely pronunciation is Kang-zhi (Kanchi).

But then Kanchi is not Westerly in India. Is it perhaps Kochi? Calicut was ‘Kuli’ to the Chinese. Cochin was Ko-Chih. Nevertheless, almost all indicators point towards Kanchipuram rather than Kodungaloor or Muziris. From many accounts Bodhidharma was a studious child who studied under his Guru Pragnattara. Hence it is very unlikely that Bodhidharma had serious martial arts training in Kanchipuram to have transferred it to the pupils in Shaolin, since they already had a fair exposure to martial arts for many decades. It could of course be that he taught them valuable breathing exercises, silambam stick fighting and forms of Yoga.

Research notes
The earliest historical record of Bodhidharma was compiled in 547 by Yang Xuanzhi, the Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang, in which Yang identifies Bodhidharma as a Persian Central Asian (Wade-Giles: po-szu kuo hu-jen) (Broughton, 1999, p. 54, p.138). However, Broughton notes that Yáng may have actually been referring to another monk named Boddhidharma, not related to the historical founder of Chan Buddhism. This book is considered to be unreliable, full of exaggeration and mirabilia. John Jorgensen (Inventing Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch) believes that Yang just confused Pahalva with Pallava. Pahalva means Persian. Bodhidharma's disciple Tanlin identifies his master as South Indian Brahmin(Broughton, 1999, p. 8). The Biography is part of the Long Scroll of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices, which Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki found in 1935 by going through the Dunhuang collection of the Chinese National Library. Bodhidharma's birth name Bodhitara. Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as a rather ill-tempered, profusely bearded and wide-eyed barbarian. He is described as "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian" in Chinese texts. His landing place was later called Xi Lai Chu Di ('first landfall on journeying from the west'), and is the site of Hualin temple. About his Kanchipuram origin - Bodhidharma, the founder of the Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism in China, is a prince of the Pallava dynasty, a contemporary of Skandavarman IV and Nandivarman I and the son of Simhavarman II. Other accounts say that he was black in color (this comes from the paintings on shaolin cave walls of a black Dravidian teacher). And why did he go to China in the first place? In 526, the 28th Buddhist patriarch Ta Mo (Bodhidharma) came to China by sea; the downfall of Buddhism in the country of its origin had forced him and many of his coreligionists to seek a new home in China, ‘cliicllyin Layong’, where 5000 Indians are said to have lived in the 6th century A.D. (India as known to the ancient world - Dr. G Banerjee). Sadly Bodhidharma was killed by poisoning, though the reports are not conclusive. According to Dàoxuān's chronology, Bodhidharma's death must have occurred prior to 534, the date of the Northern Wei Dynasty's fall, because Huike subsequently leaves Luoyang for Ye.

Bodhidharma Anthology – Broughton
Inventing Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch – John Jorgensesn
Encyclopedia of Monasticism By William M. Johnston – Article by John Jorgensen Ps 159-161
Origins of Bodhidharma
Discovery channel - Links to Kalaripayattu
Wiki article

Pictures of Bodhidharma – Thanks to buddhanet, oriental outpost & Wikipedia
Oriental outpost pictures from  Asian Art GalleryBuddhist Artwork

Cat, Ettappa & Dumby

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Looking at the title, many will wonder what I am upto this time. Well, not far from normal, really, I am still talking history, and on this occasion, it is a little further and southerly to Malabar, closer to Tuticorin and Tirunalveli in general. To be more accurate, Ettayapuram and Panjalamkurichi, the home towns of VeerPandya Kattabomman and his nemesis Ettappan. I will clarify the title to start with. Cat was the term used by the British Army while referring to Kattabomman and Dumby while referring to his deaf and dumb brother Omathurai. The time period of this account is 1799-1801.

The complete poligar history is not covered here, for this would then end up as a long and dreadfully boring treatise, but what I will cover here are just some specific issues related to the three of the mentioned persons. And let me also thank Praveen for leading me into this study.

First some background. While Kerala was busy fighting their wars in Malabar, Cochin and Travancore, the massive Vijayanagara Kingdom or what was broadly termed Carnatic in those days had their own issues, which were in many ways similar to those in Kerala. The usual culprits such as the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English, and the Mysore Nawabs were present, in addition they had to contend with the Nawabs of Arcot, Travancore’s Marthanda Varma and the Marathas at various times. The Vijayanagara Raya Kings who got involved between the Pandya Chola fight in support of the Pandyas (Parakrama Pandya 1516) had dispatched Nagama Naya to take charge in Madurai. His son Viswanatha Naikar later formed the Nayaka Dynasty (suffices to conclude now that the Naykas were still considered lieutenants of the Vijanagara king and paying tribute ‘at times’) and installed his feudatory chieftains in various principalities of Madurai & Tirunelveli. These were the Palaiakkara’s or Poligars (somewhat similar to the Naduvazhi’s or Sthani’s of Malabar). The real Poligar rule commenced from around 1559 and between Madurai and Tirunelveli there were about 48 Poligars. Most of the Poligars were Telugu Vaduga Nayaks (now more familiar as the Naidu’s). Some where Kambala nayaks and some as in the case of Ettayapuram,Thottian Nayaks. The Tondiaman Poligars (Pudukottai) were however Tamil Kallars.

The Poligars had their own armies (like the Nair’s of Malabar) and these footmen or lance men were the Kallar’s. Sometimes some of these Poligars were also termed Zamindars. Roughly speaking, each of them lorded over 33 villages.

The Nayaks made their income primarily from ‘Kaval Panam’ (guard fees) and taxes from the various villages under them. Many of them were feared by the farming villagers and the grip they had on the populace was tight and firm. The Tirunelveli area was the major farming area, Tuticorin had pearl fisheries and thus the locale was very important to the Nawabs the Nayaks and all the new entrants like the Dutch and the British.

Let us now shift focus to the Panchalam Kurichi and Ettayapuram areas. During the later part of the Vijayanagara empire, the entirety of the Nawab of Arcot’s rule and during the Dutch and the English periods, many of the Poligars had frequent rebellions, skirmishes and wars with the Nawab and the English forces. The reasons were almost always relating to collection of any or all of tributes owed. Poligars such as Kattabomman maintained in the later periods that they owed nothing to anybody, let alone a foreigner like the British.

The Panchalam Kurichi poligars between 1750 and 1801 were called Kattabomma (Gettibommu in Telugu to describe strength and fighting qualities) Nayaks (Kambala Naickars). There were four, the first who died in 1760, the second in 1761, the third in 1799 and the fourth in 1801. The third Nayak of PanjalamKurichi 1790-1799 was the Veerapandya Kattabomman (aka Veeraraja alias Jegaveera Pandya Subbramania Kattabomma Durai or in short Karuttaiyya or Cat) and the fourth Sivattaiyya (fair lord) or Sivappu (suppa) Nayaka. The fourth Nayak was later supported by his elder brother Kumaraswami Naika (aka Oomathurai or Dumby). The full life story of Veerpandya Kattabomman is well known, documented (not always correctly), so I will leave it at that. However Dumby came to the forefront after his brother’s death, his subsequent capture, imprisonment at Palayamkottai, escape in 1801 and by leading of the revolt later, even though deaf mute.

They are Thottian Telugu Naickars and were initially a subsidiary of the PanchalanKurichi Poligar. From the early 1780’s the Ettayapuram family were good friends with the British and obtained much preferential treatment thus alienating them from the other warring/rebellious poligars. They were later accused by these poligars, especially Kattabomman of frequently offering information and troop support to the British. The Ettapap nayak in this discussion was named Venkateshwara Ettappa Maharaja.

While the Kattabommars and Ettappans were civil with each other in the beginning it appears that the take over of Ettayapuram controlled Supplapuram village by the Kattabomman’s resulted in deep animosity through the years. This was confounded when the British officer Maxwell in his demarcation of 1792 gave some of the Palayankurichi villages to Ettayapuram.

The British failed to obtain monies owed from many Poligars and mainly Panchalamkurichi after their 1792 treaty with the Nawab or Arcot where the Nawab who was getting yearly tribute (albeit with lot of difficulty) allocated some or all of it to the British. The Kattabomman not only refused to pay tribute but also later led a rebellion with the other poligars. His anger at the British had various reasons, one of them being his tussle with a Collector Jackson. It soon became a British need to take him out of the scene. The responsibility to get Kattabomman #3 was given to Maj Bannerman in 1799. However even though the Veerapnadya Kattabomma Nayak escaped from his fort and took to the forests, he was soon recaptured and hanged in Oct 1799. The revolt and the following fight by the Marudu brothers plus the Oomathurai were considered an early example of organized mutiny against the British rule.

Ettappa Nayak was eventually branded a traitor by the populace. The reason attributed was that he had been the one who showed the British where the Kattabomman was hiding. How did this idea spread and was it entirely right? A little investigation proved otherwise. To start with, yes, it is true that Ettayapuram like Pudukottai was fully behind and closely aligned to the British.

The History of Tinnevelly by Rev R Caldwell is a fine book covering all these events and the Poligar history if one needs the details. It quotes on page 183-193 Major Bannerman’s letter to the Secretary of the British Government. Specifically relating to the capture of Kattabomma Nayka, it clarifies on page 186 “I have received a letter from Mr Lushington (Collector Tinnevelly) that he has received a letter from the Tondaiman (Pudukottai Poligar who was also aligned with the British) informing him that he had succeeded in his exertions to seize the person of Kattabomma Nayka”, and desiring to be furnished with orders respecting the disposal of that rebellious Poligar. Thus it becomes clear that the Pudukottai people were the ones who located and captured Kattabomman, not the Ettayapan Nayak or his people, as rumored.

The Pudukottai website states the following - There is an unauthenticated tradition that, at the time of the ‘Poligar War’ of 1799, the famous Kattabomman of Panchalankurichi and his dumb brother had taken refuge in the jungles of Tondaiman territory near Thirukkalambur. They were captured by the Tondaiman and imprisoned for a time in the Thirumayam fort. He then handed them over to the English (Hemingway in the Gazetteer of the Trichinopoly District mentions only Oomayan as having been lodged at this fort). It is also mentioned in some accounts that Bannerman ordered the Tondiaman Poligar to capture the Kattabomman, however the above paragraph proves that was not necessarily so.

But how did the myth that Ettayappan was the traitor come to effect? It owes itself not only to the movie Veerapandya Kattabomman (based on the book written by Ma Po Sivagnanam), but also the many Nattu pattu’s amongst which are Pulittevan Sindhu, Kattabomman Kathaipadal, Kattabomman Kummi, Kattabomman Kuttu, Kattabomman Villupattu etc. So much so that today whenever the name Kattabomman comes up, one is reminded of Shivaji Ganesan. It goes without saying that he did great justice to the role he played and in this particular case, so fine was the portrayal that history was virtually rewritten in the modern Tamil mindset.

Wikipedia states - The popular Tamil slang for a traitor or committing treason is Ettapa or Ettapan, courtesy the Ettayapuram Polygar whom the British later conferred the title of Raja. But it is disputed that Ettapan committed treason Kattabomman was arrested by King of Pudukottai. Lately there is a cry that the unfair portrayal of Ettappan in the film Kattabomman in which actor Sivaji Ganesan gave a great performance is the main cause for this. It seems that Ma.Po.Si (Ma.Po.Sivanyanam) who wrote the dialogues for the film had some misunderstanding with the Ettappan family.

A few words on Oomadurai
Gen Welsh recounts – He was one of the most extraordinary mortals I ever knew. A tall slender lad very sickly in appearance, yet possessing that energy of mind which in troubled times always gains pre eminence….The Oomai was adored, his slightest sign an oracle and every man flew to execute his command. He led every daring expedition. His method of representing English was extremely simple, he collected a few little pieces of straw, arranged them on the palm of his left hand to represent the English force, then he drew the other hand across and swept them off, with a whirring sound from his mouth which was the signal for attack.

He was wounded severely in his final major fight in 1801 and was lying among the dead when a few women clearing the place found him. They tended to him, but once again it was the Ettayapuram people who raised the alarm. The women immediately covered him with a blanket and started a death lament. When the Ettayapuram people reached there, it was stated by the women that the boy under the blanket had died of small pox. The pursuers fled to escape the pox; the Oomathurai recovered to lead more skirmishes, but was eventually caught and hanged (Page 296-297 - History of Tinnevelly Robert Caldwell).

It is stated that when Kattabomman was earlier led to the gallows, he had only one remorse - that of the future and fate of his younger deaf mute brother. Little was he to know that this brave Oomathurai got far more respect in the eyes of their tormenters than Kattabomman himself.

Observing Kattabomma Nayak’s last moments, Major Bannerman wrote “it may not be amiss here to observe that the manner and behavior of the Poligar during the whole time of his being before those who were assembled yesterday at the examination which took place were undaunted and supercilious. He frequently eyed the Etiapore Poligar, who had been so active in attempting to secure his person, and the poligar of Shevighergy with an appearance of indignant contempt and when he went out to be executed, he walked with a firm and daring air and cast looks of sullen contempt on the poligars to his right and left as he passed” (Major John Bannerman, letter to the Madras Government dated October 17th 1799)

The character of Kattabomman is pretty different in the English eyes - From his fort of Panjalamkurichi the Poligar used to sally forth at the head of his armed followers, and making incursions into Circar villages, as well as into the villages of other Poligars, sack and plunder all that came into his way, often times carrying off some of the principal inhabitants. Kattaboma Nayaka often used to make raids into the neighboring territories, especially into the territories of the Poligar of Ettaiyapuram.

As one British Collector noted:
I again repeated that. . . unless this poligar were deprived of his power, and my recommendations went to the fullest extent of the measure, the Company's investment would be materially checked, the weavers residing in the Panchalamkurichi palayam would be stripped off their property, and the largest part of the advances made to them by the commercial resident exposed to considerable danger.

This begs a question – were they going to be stripped of their property by the said Poligar? At least looking at contemporary records, it is thus not clear that Kattabomman was a patriot in the large sense, but it becomes apparent that he and other poligars were actually fighting to retain their individual powers over their villages. Having no access to freedom fighter and politician Ma Po Si’s works and knowledge of his definitive sources (which as I understood are the time eroded ballads mentioned earlier), I cannot make any conclusion in this regard.

Anyway today you see the Ettayapuram and Pudukottai towns on the map, but hardly a mention of the once powerful Panchalamkurichi. The former towns were obviously favored by the British and later rose to prominence. The people of Ettayapuram today are primarily engaged in weaving, making matches and agriculture. While Ettappa Naykar was considered a traitor, his namesake descendants are admired for their welfare activities and wide support for the arts. They were patrons of poets and musicians. Notable examples are poet and freedom fighter & poet Subrahmania Bharathy (birthplace) and carnatic guru Muthuswami Dikshitar (death place) who lived in Ettayapuram. Umaru Puluvar also lived there. Violin exponent (he pioneered the use of violin in Carnatic music around 1800) Baluswamy Dikshitar was an asthana vidwan at Ettayapuram palace, Muthaiah Bagawathar practiced there and Kumara Ettendra a later Ettayapuram Raja was a composer of many krithi’s.

But well, the Kattabomman legend as written by Ma Po Si lives on - So much so that it is said - Mahakavi Subrahmania Bharathi was Ettayapuram's Prayaschitham (Repentance or penance)

Peshkush – Though I had heard this word before I had no idea what it was. Now I understand it as an Anglo Indian (not Eurasian) term for tribute, land revenue due to the government or even provision of local forces when required. Poligars were sometimes termed Peshkush Zamindars. But in Urdu & Farsi PeshKush means ‘present’ or even ‘mixed’– Tandoori Pesh Kush is a mixed tandoor platter!

History of Tinnevelly – R Caldwell
History of Military transactions R Orme
History f the Madras Army – WJ Wilson

Pics – www, acknowledged with thanks

Abraham and Ashu

Posted by Maddy Labels:

What a strange name for a story, would be the first thought in a reader’s mind. A Malayali seeing this would balk, because he can imagine the complex undertaking straightway. I thought for a long time if I should make this a dry & factual article and decided against it, after all, others have done that already to this story, so I decided to focus more on the individuals in the story. Well, this story, my friends, will take you back to the Malabar between 1130 and 1150 and into the lives of an unlikely couple, Abraham Yiju and Ashu Nair.

Most people would not like to dwell too much on the environment and conditions around life in those days, but prosperous life and honest trade did exist at that time. It was a time before the Portuguese onslaught, a time of the powerful Zamorins, a time when many traders and expatriates from Europe lived on the shores of the Malabar. Syrian Jews lived in Cochin, Arabic Jews were all around, like our man Yiju, and the Bombay ports had Iraqi Jews and wealthy Parsees. The Malabar trade otherwise termed as the Karimi trade was in full swing.

This story deals with a Tunisian Jewish trader Abraham Ben Yiju, while he was based in Mangalore. The girl was a Nair called Ashu, though history books call her Ashu. I can, as a Malayali, be reasonably sure that Ashu was more an endearment and that Asha (means ‘wish’) was her real name. The story is set in Tulunad, near Mangalore.

It was an excellent book by Stewart Gordon called ‘When Asia Was the world’ that tipped me to this particular story. As you read about Yiju’s travails in the book you can see that this story had a deep impact on that author. However the strict historian Gordon did not in my mind do justice to a possible story within the story, which would have been about the relationship. He covered the historic trade angles and connections and so I decided to check out the background. It then turned out to be a story that had once fascinated the writer Amitav Ghosh to obsessively study Arabic & Hebrew and research the various characters at Oxford. Amitav Ghosh then penned his findings in an essay titled the ‘The Slave of MS.H.6’ (later featured in his book ‘The Imam and the Indian’) many years ago followed by a semi fictional historic work titled ‘In an Antique land” which I finished reading some months ago. This fascinating book deals with his own research and life in Egypt and touching on the story of Yiju, written in a style that is unique…Do read it if you can…

But first, a few words on how the story came out into the open after some 800 years. As we all know, Indians, especially South Indians, even with some knowledge of a better known (in those times, at least among the literary Brahmin classes) language Sanskrit, never bothered to properly document and record what happened around them, at least between the 8th to 18th centuries. Even the Granthavari’s written for local kings, related mainly to accounts and temple matters, not and observation of life around them. That work was left to the few mystified Western travelers, officials and traders who unfortunately exaggerated or twisted facts most of the time.

The main protagonist of this story, Abraham (Ibrahim) Peraya Ben Yiju wrote and received a number of (some 40-80 letters) letters to his trading partners in Egypt and Aden and these were stuffed by his daughter, after Yiju’s death, into what were known as Geniza’s located at a particular Synagogue (Ben Ezra synagogue in Fostat)at Cairo for eventual disposal (A Geniza or Genizah is an enclosed area within a synagogue where all papers containing the name of God are deposited for eventual burial). Fortunately they were not destroyed and the fascinating collection of 250,000 paper fragments have been collected and are still being sorted and studied by eminent historians since the turn of the 20th century. In the many thousands of documents it was relatively easy to track Yiju’s story by his fine & unique calligraphic handwriting.

So we go to the times (1130-1132) of the roaring spice trade, to the port (referred to by the Arabic word – Bandar, to Manjarur) of Mangalore where Jewish Abraham bin Perahya Ben Yiju started up the local office of master trader Madmun’s business after fleeing Cairo following (apparently) a blood feud. Yiju was a merchant from the Tunisian town of Al Mahdiyya, and was well known for his wealth & calligraphy skills. Working as a scribe with legal issues, he wrote and collected poetry, in addition to conducting trade of Iron, brass items, silk, pottery, betel nuts and various spices. Mangalore in Tulunad, at that time was prosperous and full or Arab traders, both Islamic and Jewish. The Tulu regions were populated with a number of Banias, Chetiars, Bunts and of course Nair’s, as the local people and suppliers of spices and other items for trade. Yiju himself was assisted by a Sesu chetty, a Nambiar and a Nair (Ashu’s brother, perhaps), in business dealings as was typical in Malabar. Walking around in fine clothes, he was a dapper businessman, charming the local populace, who by the way, and in Yiju’s own opinion, were mostly naked but for a ‘bandage’ round their loins (the Malabari dhothi), men & women alike.

During his 17 plus years in Mangalore (It was as explained previously, known as Manjrur), he continued his prosperous relationship with the Aden based chief trader Madmun Ibn Bandar, the most powerful of them all. (Aden was the principal trading post for Malabar and it is in Aden that Cain and Abel are supposedly buried!). Trade then was based very much on trust as communication was slow and in the form of letters carried in ships, some lost. These were the letters that eventually landed up in the Geniza. As they were letters of business communications, the personal life was only obliquely evident. It also transpires that Yiju started a brass works in addition to trade offices, where they repaired old brass lamps, locks and fixtures.

It was around Oct 17th 1132, that Yiju met Ashu and his next actions were perplexing and annoying to the other Jewish traders, to say the least. He promptly freed her (Goitein’s impressions) for she was some kind of a ‘wasifa’ servant or slave (instead of making her his consort, he drew a deed of manumission with Ashu) and lived with her the entire two decades he was in Mangalore, begetting children, one named Surur and a daughter Sitt Al Dar (another son died early). His personal demands to his trading partners at Aden included Kohl, silk carpets, jewelry and other expensive items for Ashu. Yiju’s life moved on smoothly till 1149.

Ashu, was a Nair woman from Cannanore or some other part of North Kerala like Balipatanam, and considered to be a beauty (SD Goitein). Here again there is confusion. While some historian’s say that Ashu was renamed Berakhah, Stewart & Ghosh believed Barakah was the name of Yiju’s sister in Tunisia. There are hints in the letters that a monetary debt to Ashu’s brother may have forced the marriage, but the union nevertheless proved to be a happy one. Ghosh also believes that Yiju was at times irritated by the special Nair family ties and the strong relations Ashu had with her matrilineal family

Herein lay more confusion. Yiju had a choice of a number of Jewish women in Cochin and other trading ports, why did he choose Hindu Ashu and remain with her? Was it because Cochin Jewish women were of Syrian origin? More likely, he fell in love with Ashu. It is unlikely that a person lived with a woman for 11 years and had three children by her if they did not love each other. Ghosh himself concludes thus – If I hesitate to call it love, it is only because the documents offer no certain proof.

Abraham Yiju left Mangalore with his children in 1149 when the Norman Conquest resulted in chaos around Tunisia and his siblings in Tunisia were in mortal danger. He was also determined to find a proper suitor for his daughter, planning to marry her off to any eligible son of his brothers. Ashu, sadly, remained in Mangalore (Stewart however believes she went to Egypt).

Yiju’s son Surur died a few years later, aged 20, but his daughter Sitt al dar survived and Yiju himself moved to Yemen. Later Yiju went back to Egypt to marry her off in style. His attempts to find a proper Jewish suitor from his own family turned out to be an arduous task as her mother (as we know now) was not a pure Jew. Kenneth Seeskin in his book ‘The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides’ confirms that Yiju did have legal problems (probably because the children were termed ‘black’ Jews – Judeus Pretos)with his marriage to Ashu and that the learned Moses Mamonide’s helped solve many of them after they got back to Egypt. Finally, after a lot of turmoil and search, Yiju decided to get her married to his elder brother’s son Perahya though he was not too happy with the boy’s stature and tried to delay the marriage further. The marriage finally took place after his death (this somehow conflicts Ghosh’s view that the marriage took place when Yiju was alive), on Aug 11th, 1156.

Curiously the boy Parahya did make a good name for himself in the Egyptian Jewish community and became a judge. Here again the story takes an interesting turn. Perahya wanted to return to Sicily but Yiju’s daughter (you can divine Ashu’s strong Nair character here!!) refused to accompany him and so Perahya settled down in Alexandria. To settle this dispute a case was lodged and the wife won the suit (Shulamit Reif – Cambridge Genizah collections).

Thus finally, Ashu’s daughter’s final action of thrusting all her father’s letters into the Geniza, instead of destroying it, made us all the richer, providing us with a detailed view of life in Aden, Egypt and Malabar of the 12th century….

And what happened to Ben Yiju after Sitt Al Daar’s marriage? Nobody knows for sure. Ghosh (as well as Stewart) believes that he could have returned to Ashu in Mangalore for the one reason that there exists no death certificate in the Egyptian Jewish records of that period.

Well, the story does not end there. A group researching how the gene mtDNA-haplogroup D landed up in European Jews, opine that such a group could have come to Europe via Ashu or her daughter who came with Yiju!! But that is yet another topic.

Footnotes –You can (I believe) see the deed of manumission (Deed of freeing from authority or slavery) between Ben Yiju and Ashu at the Institute of the Peoples of Asia at Leningrad. No other ‘marriage’ certificate has remained intact for so long a time, in history.

My belief was that this deed was made by Yiju for the only purpose of making the Yiju offspring legal in their Jewish community back home and ensuring legal succession (Yiju was a wealthy man). I am not sure about Nair slaves (consider also that Ashu was not thrown out of home or lost caste- as she had a fruitful relationship with her family all the time) at that time or that Ashu would have wanted such a manumission document. Ghosh in his book the ‘Imam and the Indian’ Page 220 concurs with this since the event was celebrated with fanfare, the document (like today’s wedding card!)was more a public announcement of the betrothal and legality than an act of manumission.

The deed starts with the usual proclamations supporting the lord (Quoted from SD Goitein’s A Mediterranean Society – Vol 2, Community) (The translation is by Goitein though I believe that the words Mangalore and Tunisia did not exist in 1132)

In the city of Mangalore, the royal city which is situated on the great sea and which is under the jurisdiction of our Lord Daniel, the great prince, the head of the great Diaspora, of all Israel, the son of our Lord Hisday, the great prince……

Some of my notes are fertile speculation as Yiju did not quite explain his personal relationship with Ashu and novelist Amitav Ghosh was the first to really tie them up (after historian SD Goitein’s discovery), but nevertheless, it is based on a small amount of documented fact. Ghosh’s research was actually to identify a slave called Bomma, a Hindu associate of Yiju, otherwise known in history to scholars as the mystic slave MS H.6, referred to in the Geniza fragments.

Point to ponder

In Hebrew, Nair means candle. So how would Yiju have written Nair to signify Ashu’s caste? Yiju btw may have meant Yago which in North Africa & Spain signified Jacob.

Seeskin states on page 53 of ‘The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides’ that Ashu was renamed ‘Berakah’ daughter of Abraham. Now did he mean Sitt Al Daar the daughter or Ashu?

Most documents I referred to mention Yiju’s brass workshop located at Manjarur. History buff’s like CKR feel the factory could have been at Naduvarambu (near Muziris). It could very well have been so though the Genizah documents have still not shed much light on this aspect.

How Padma Sri Award winner Amitav Ghosh researched the story
SD Goitein – The man who started it all with the transcripts
A window into Jewish Medieval life
relevant books
The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection
The Jews in Sicily book 1, 383-1300, by Shlomo Simonsohn

Picture – Actual fragment of Ben Yiju’s writing from the Penn Arts and Sciences website, thanks

Edit - Asha has been replaced with Ashu - Asha is a relatively new term, so I will stick to what the records show

The Perumal and the pickle

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Kodungaloor was the capital of the kings of Kerala, and in 622-628 A.D. (Hijra 1 to 7) the ruler was a great savant, Cheraman Perumal. In those days, the senior most of the rulers of Kerala was called the Cheraman Perumal. So starts one story about his oft repeated conversion to Islam. Though there is no evidence that this Cheraman Perumal converted to Islam, it is a well worn myth which Varnam had taken up previously.

This proved to be a particularly difficult story to research. The Mohammedan sites were emphatic in concurrence, the Malayali researchers resolute in pointing out the conflicting facts. As before, I say that it is a tragedy that the people of Kerala never committed history (properly & factually) in writing. Even though printing originated on the Calico cloth that came from Calicut in Malabar, we continued to hack away on the leafy scrolls that were never the best when it comes to long term storage (Much of the Zamorin’s Granthavari has been lost, only a small portion remains at the Vallathol library and I read recently about the tragedy of the Chirakkal scrolls in Muarali’s nice book ‘Kovilakongalum Kottarangalum’). As usual, the various languages and scripts in so small an area meant that the text that survived is not uniformly understood or translated by people. The people evolved, the culture changed – molding the influences from the peoples of the western and eastern world, the languages a mix of Arabic, Tamil, Sanskrit and Malayalam, with the translations to English sometimes hurried and suspect. It has always been so and when you delve deep into history, you find that everything is based on a combination of myth, folklore, exaggeration and little fact. To find that little fact amongst all this is not easy and many a time you end up exactly where the writer intended, on the wrong path. I fear that I may do exactly the same. The various versions & myths behind this story come from disputed sources, like the Gundert translation of the Keralolpathi, the Malabar manual by Logan, the Travancore manual, various Arabic writers and today’s search engine Google.

It started at the time the last of the Cheras ruled Kerala – a time when a lot of trade transpired between the south Indian Kingdoms and the West. A time when small ships plied between the ports of Muziris and the ports in Arabia, a time when pepper-the black gold, other spices, precious stones, muslin cloth, teak wood for houses and boats and the fine dyes from the Malabar moved on these ships to Arab ports, Egypt and ancient Europe in return for gold, pearls.

Sometime between 620-850 AD - A Cheran King while wandering (ulathifying) on his balcony with his queen (Now I find it hard to believe that part – Older Nalu or Ettu kettu houses did not have a terrace or balcony) saw the moon being split into two and later being rejoined (Another version says he had a dream). He was mystified and consulted his astrologers who apparently confirmed the occurrence of such an event.

A few months later, a group of three Arabs led by Sheikh Seijuddin, trying to reach Adam’s peak in Ceylon, landed in Muziris and were talking about their new religion and the Prophet Mohammed. Later upon hearing that the moon splitting was a wonder wrought by Mohammed, the king gets curious and decides to go to Mecca himself.

Accordingly he abdicates his throne, divides his kingdom into 34 ‘amshas’ stretching between Kanyakumari and Gokarnam, amongst his nephews (It was a matrilineal society) and boards a ship to Mecca. The king upon reaching there meets the Prophet, and accepts the new religion and the new title Tauje Ul Herid. He continues to live there for five (or 12 according to other accounts) years, marries the sister of the King of Jeddah (named Rahabieth or Gomariah), but then decides to return upon instructions from the prophet to spread his new religion in Malabar. The return voyage was very distressing and the Perumal falls sick (or drowns in a tempest) and dies. How he died is also a matter of contention, with two contradicting accounts - illness or in a tempest at sea.

The body is buried in Zafer - Yemen (other accounts state Salalah Oman) and is a revered tomb today. Before he dies, he writes a letter to his family in Malabar that they should provide the holders of this letter, help in the construction of the first mosque on Indian shores. New accounts state that his tomb is at Salalah Oman and not Zafer Yemen. A third account states that he died in Dhufar Yemen. Now Zafer is inland, north of Aden, so it is quite plausible. Dhufar & Salalah are pretty much the same area, slightly north of Yemen and in Oman, so they are a possibility too. Apparently the ‘Makkatupoya Perumal’s tomb is close to Job’s (Nabi Ayoub) tomb, though nobody seems to have a clear idea..

Malik Bin Dinar, the Prophet Mohammed’s chosen follower (from a group of 13) and his extended family arrive later at Cranganore, to propagate the new religion armed with the Perumal’s letter, following which the Cheraman mosque is commissioned.

The mosque (Picture shows the old building)– The Cheraman Juma Masjid at Methala - Kodungallur, stands to this day and has recently been modernized (Apparently it was previously a Buddhist Vihar, then the Arathali temple – To me it looks like a traditional Nalukettu in Kerala – not a temple construction, it seemed more like a converted house). It has another unique specialty. Mosques all over the world face the direction of Makkah, but this particular one faces east, as it was built originally as a Hindu shrine, all of which face the east. More important is the fact that it is the world’s second oldest Juma mosque, where the Juma (Friday) prayers have been held for the last 1375 years, since the days of Prophet Mohammed (570-634 A.D.). The first Juma mosque in the world is the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, which is also his memorial tomb

Unlike any other mosques in India, the Cheraman mosque from 621 AD uses a traditional brass oil lamp, mostly found in Hindu temples. The pulpit from where the chief priest gives Friday sermons is made of rosewood with carvings similar to those in temples. The architecture also resembles Hindu temple style. There are two tombs, that of Bin Dinar and his sister inside the mosque, where Muslim priests light incense sticks, yet another Hindu practice.

For some reason the Perumal is called ‘Chakravarthi Farmas’ (if scholars could pronounce and commit to text a complicated title like Chakravarthi, and if the name was subsequently changed to Tajudeen, why was the name Farmas used?) in the Arabic writings relating to this story and they also state that during his stay in Mecca is renamed as Tajudeen. Abu Saeed Al Quidri a follower and companion of the prophet records that King Farmas presented a bottle (More correctly it would have been a ‘Bharani’ or a small brown colored glazed earthen pot) of pickle to Prophet Mohammed that contained amongst other vegetables, Ginger. This was tasted by all there including the said Abu Saeed who promptly recorded the act and story for posterity. Very curious indeed – we had, in my opinion, only mango pickles (whole tender mango pickles) in old times, vegetable pickles did not exist – so how did ginger come into the pickles?? After much thought, I have concluded that he took the long lasting ‘Injipuli’ (concoction of ginger & molasses) in the jar. Man! That would have tasted odd to the uninitiated.

Yet another twist is the mention of a document in the British Library which names the King of Cranganore (Muziris - Kodungallur) as Shakruti. (The shelf mark is IO ISLAMIC 2807 and the section mentioned is on pages 81 verso – 104 verso (inclusive). It is entitled “Qissat Shakruti Firmad” which, according to the catalogue (Loth 1044), is “A fabulous account of the first settlement of the Muhammadans in Malabar, under King Shakruti (Cranganore), a contemporary of Muhammad, who was converted to Islam bythe miracle of the division of the the moon.”

The topic rested in the annals of history and has been re-quoted wrongly now and then, sometimes with a hint of skepticism by some, till more recent historians like Sreedhara Menon challenged accounts. The names and timelines did not match and in the arguments that followed, some concluded that there were two Perumals involved -one who built the mosque and one who died in Arabia. Encyclopedia Britannica concurs that it was indeed the 9th century when the Perumal visited Mecca. Logan and others however doubt that it was a Perumal, they believe that it was a Zamorin and hence the name Abdullah Sameeri (Samuri). The Perumal tombstone at Zepher states that he arrived there in 212AH (829AD) signifying that he was not a Perumal of Muhammed’s time, but much later. By the way to complicate matters further, it appears that Bauddha meant Mohammedan and thus accounts of one of the Perumal’s becoming a Buddhist could have meant Bauddhist or Mohammedan. Some Islamic scholars say that the Cheraman Buddhist vihar was originally constructed by Pallibana Perumal, a convert either to Buddism or to Islam in the seventh century A.D. And finally a Kasargode mosque document (discovered by archeologist GS Khwaja) in ancient Arabic, records Perumal’s converted name as Abdullah Sameri and not Tajuddin with the time line as 22 Hijra (642-43AD).

Sreedhara Menon the historian feels that history got blurred in this case where a Chera King of the first dynasty converted to Bhuddism. He feels that a local chieftain of Malabar (a Zamorin perhaps) traveled to Mecca and was in no way a King. The Second Chera Dynasty began with the Perumal, Kulashekhara Alwar, in 800 AD and the dynasty lasted till 1102 AD. The question is: how could the last Perumal, who died in 1102 AD, have given up his kingdom and leave to meet the Prophet Mohammad (569 – 632) in Jeddah? Obviously there is a misunderstanding here. Dr Hussein Randathani is a scholar who researched the story - According to him the story goes as follows

In the seventeenth year of Hijrah (638 A.D.) Uthman (644-656 AD), the third khalifa is said to have sent a party under Mughira b. Shu’ba, a companion of Prophet Muhammad to India. When the party reached at Calicut, the Zamorin extended them a warm reception. The King himself was attracted to Islam and became a Musalman. It is said that the Zamorin accepted the name “Abdu Rahman and went to Makkah where he presented a robe of honor to Ka’ba . On his return to Malabar, he died at Zafar (Yemen) where his grave still exists with the name Abdu Rahman Samiri.

Then comes another complication – Some state that the Perumal lived at Perumathura near Trivandrum after conversion to Islam. Mahodayapura or Cranganore was by the way, the capital of the Cheras! Raja Valiyathampuram of Kodungallur also corroborates the well repeated myth, though, in an interview.

The story thus takes many twists and turns from the balcony to the splitting of the moon and to the trip to Makkah or Medina, to meeting the prophet. While the persons and the dates are shrouded in a veil of confusion, the one less disputed fact that remains was that a person of high standing reached Makkah after conversion and shared a jar of ginger pickle with some dignitaries.

An intriguing question – if this is a myth, why did the following generations of Zamorin’s support its spread? Was it for the sake of trade, solidarity with the Mappilas and Arabs and in the larger interest of profit and prosperity? I think so. A very interesting blog to read for further details is CKR’s blog ‘ A tale of two conversions’.

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Cheraman Perumal and the Myths