We go back to the days when the Zamorins ruled the North Malabar areas and were the suzerain of the Nayars, a proud race of Kerala. Among the gentry were also the well trained foot soldiers and warriors. Many tales of their valor can be found in books and poems etc. However, the ‘kalari’ trained warriors who were experts in martial arts, honorable close quarter fighting and the use of bows and arrows, swords, daggers and lances were typically geared to fight for and defend the Zamorin, the Cochin Raja and other nobles in their fights. Of course it was also so that one Nadu Vazhi or Sthanai went against his neighbor and used these soldiers to fight duels to settle his claims. This was their profession and these men frequently went away on long campaigns.
Among the Malabar Nairs were one special class of fighters. They were the suicide squads of Chavers. They were the cause of much curiosity to the western travelers who recorded their bravery, sometimes terming it stupidity, and curiously this kind of valor never seen outside of the Japan’s Samurai class and the Kerala Chavers(the Chavers incidentally predated the Samurai).
Let us start with the English phrase that is often used these days – RUNNING AMOK. Ever wondered what it meant? You read and glean easily – the riot started and everybody ran amok. The word Amok is stated to have originated from a Malay word Amuk which meant ‘mad of uncontrollable rage bordering on homicidal and suicidal intent’. But what connection does Malay have to all these?
Rajen Panikkar in his blog The Other Malaysia explains - Amok as a culture-bound syndrome of the Indian of the Malabar Coast; Gaspar Correa wrote an account in the 16th century, of a ‘caste’ of personal guards of the ruling families of Cochin (Rajen - it could have been Valluvanad) along the Malabar coast, who in pledging their lives to the royal households of the day were called ‘amoucos’. In avenging the death of two princes of Cochin these guards ‘dispersed, seeking wherever they might find men of Calicut, and amongst these they rushed fearless, killing and slaying till they were slain. . .. But as it became known that they were amoucos, the city gave the alarm, . . .. But they like desperate men played the devil before they were slain, and killed many people, with women and children.’
Towards the late seventeenth century Reverend Phillip Baldeus, the Dutch chaplain of Ceylon, describes the following practice among an elite of the Nair clan: ‘among the Nairos (Nairs) those who call themselves amok are the worst, being a company of desperadoes, who engage themselves and their families by oaths to revenge such injuries as are done them’.
The Chisholm Britannica encyclopedia & Hobson Jobson encyclopedia states - In Malabar there were certain professional assassins known to old travelers as Amouchi Amuki or Amuco. The nearest modern equivalent to these words would seem to be the Malayalam Amar-khan, "a warrior" (from amar, "fight"). The Malayalam term chaver applied to these ruffians meant literally those "who devote themselves to death." In Malabar was a custom by which the Zamorin or king of Calicut had to cut his throat in public (this incidentally was all rubbish) when he had reigned twelve years. In the 17th century a variation in his fate was made. He had to take his seat, after a great feast lasting twelve days, at a national assembly, surrounded by his armed suite, and it was lawful for anyone to attack him, and if he succeeded in killing him the murderer himself became Zamorin (see Alex. Hamilton, "A new Account of the East Indies," in Pinkerton's Voyages and Travels, viii. 374). In 1600, thirty would-be assassins were killed in such attempts. These men were called Amar-khan, and it has been suggested that their action was "running amok" in the true Malay sense. Another proposed derivation for amouchi is Sanskrit amokshya, "that cannot be loosed," suggesting that the murderer was bound by a vow, an explanation more than once advanced for the Malay amok; but amokshya in such a sense is unknown in Malayalam.
Hobson Jobson even goes on to add a snippet that amoukis also defended the Syrian Catholics in Quilon. In any case very many travelers have stated that Amouki was a class in Malabar.
But all this confused me – Well these are Amoucos. If you think like a Malayali, trying to roll the word around in your mind, you are reminded of only one close cousin. That is the word ‘hamukka’ used by Mappilas to signify cunning fellow…or was it to signify Amouki?? In reality all this boils down to a group called the Chaver and they are what we will talk about. Towards the end, we will try to figure out the reasoning behind equating Chavers to amarkhan and hamukaa.
The Chaver find their first reference in the writings of Abu Zayd (915 A.D) who explains the mode of recruitment of the Chaver soldiers as follows:
'Among the kings of Hind and some who observe a special right upon their accession to the throne, rice is cooked for the new monarch and is served in a plantain leaf He invites from his companions, three or four hundred men and those who are willing, presents themselves to the king without any compulsion on his part. After the king hath eaten some of the cooked rice, he gives the remainder to those men who approach him one after another and receive from him a small quantity of rice which they eat. It is incumbent upon all those who partake this to burn themselves to the last man when the king dies or is slain."
Marco Polo also mentions of a protector or body guard class called Amuki’s for both Hindu nobles and Christians.
The Portuguese mention of Chavers comes up in the description of the Mamankom (Maha Maghom) at Tirunnavaya between the Valluvanad Konathiri and the Zamorin. They existed between the 11th and 12th centuries and served not only as troops, body guards and specialists in battle, but also as local police, volunteer troops, mercenaries and guards. The mamankam festival and the background is well explained in Wikipedia, so I will just provide an overview
In olden days, Mamankam was a grand assembly of the Malabar rulers held once in 12 years, in which one among them was selected as the emperor of Kerala. . It was an enormous trade fair also. The Mamankam festival was celebrated for 28 days with great pomp and pageantry where traders from outside came on ships and barges to Thirunavaya through Ponnani port. Thus the economical importance of Mamankam was high and hence the right to conduct and control it was important. At the end of the rule of Perumals, the right of Mamankam was with Vellattiri, the ruler of Valluvanad. Later the Zamorin of Kozhikode took this right by force and this resulted in dispute and bloodshed between these two Rajas. Valluvanad Raja used to send Chaver warriors to flight until death, to recapture the right from the Zamorin, who would stand poised at Nilapadu thara in Thriunavaya, surrounded by a large contingent of soldiers, in every 12th year. The last of such Mamankam, was believed to be held in 1755, when Zamorin had a hair-breath escape from a chaver aged 16.
The members of the Chaver army would have a ceremonial ritual meal the day before ‘mamankam’ to mark their impending death. They would be blessed by the priests and their fathers and mothers and all relatives; it was an honor to fight and die for your king. They would complete their last will and testament and prepare to fight until death. As explained previously, the people of Valluvanad wanted to take back the ‘mamankham’ rights. Thus the Chavers were not expected to return unless the Zamorin was killed and that was of course not expected.
It was with this purpose that the "Chaver Pada" (The Suicide Squad) was organized. The Valluvanad Raja never compelled anyone to join this "Pada". The people voluntarily came forward to save this right of Valluakonathiri. The Raja blessed them in their valiant endeavor and prayed for their victory. Another rreason was that many of the Valluvanad tharavad’s had kudippaka (blood feud) against the Zamorin and had lost their members in the wars against him. More deaths meant incitement to the blood feud and new recruits to the suicide squads.
To counter the local unrests and violent feuds, the Zamorin even followed a custom of 'implanting' Muslim families and the families of other commanders who had allegiance to him, in the captured areas of Malappuram.
So who are the Chavers (those related to the mamamkham festival)?
There were four Nair families under Vellaattiri ( Valluvanand raja) who used to send their heroes to fight and die in the Maamaankam festival. These were Chandratt Panicker, Puthumana Panicker, Kokat Panicker and Verkot Panicker. Along with them went a number of soldiers drawn from 'arms - bearing' Nair castes, sometimes including Muslims who opted to die. Most of these Chaver soldiers had lost their relatives or elders in previous wars with the Samoothiri, and were incited as explained above by the blood feud against him. They came from various parts of Malabar, assembled at Thirumaandhaamkunnu under Vellaattiri, and were led by commanders from one of the four houses. Valluvanad itself was headquartered and administered by Pallava descendants in today’s Angadipuram, neighboring Cherplassery, Ottapalam, Pattambi, Perinthalkmanna etc..The Maamaankam festival of 1683 is vividly described by William Logan in his Malabar Manual - "Amid much din and firing of guns the Morituri, the Chaver Nayars, the elect of four Nayar houses in Valluvanad, step forth from the crowd and receive the last blessings and farewells of their friends and relatives. They have just partaken of the last meal they are to eat on earth at the house of the temple representative of their chieftain; they are decked with garlands and smeared with ashes. On this particular occasion it is one of the houses of Puthumanna Panikkar who heads the fray. He is joined by seventeen of his friends - Nayar or Menon or other arms-bearing caste-men - for all who so wish may fall in with sword and target in support of the men who have elected to die."
A deep well called Manikkinar, is believed to be the location where dead bodies of the Chaver pada were dumped. Angadipuram Thirumanthamkunnu Temple, close to Perinthalmanna is very famous and historically important too. The 'chaver sangam' started from this temple after their prayer on their way to Thirunavaya, the location of the 'mamankam'. There is a Chaver Thara (suicide stage) at the entrance (below the hill). The suicide soldiers of the king used to pray from this stage before venturing out on their mission.
Elsewhere, much like the Wild West a duel had to be fought to settle scores. Let us see how that worked. The early decades of the 12th century witnessed the end of Perumals rule and the emergence of a number of Swarupams or principalities from the Nadus of the period. Venad, Perumpatappu, Aaramgode, Kurumbiyathiri, Porlathiri and Kolam are some of the leading Swarupams. They had a collateral system of administration which further allocated the territories among the four senior members of the family
Each Swarupam had its own fighting force and Kalari. The Venad force was known as Janam or Arisippiti Janam. The Samootiri or zamorin, the ruler of Kozhikode, had constituted the fighting forces under different categories- Grama Janam, Lokar, Chaver, Akampati and Changatham. The Grama Janam could have been the militia of Desavazhies and there are references to a number of 'Grama Janams' in the list of invitees to the investiture ceremony of the Samootiri. The Lokar seems to be the military or paramilitary force in and around the capital, available to the ruler at short notice. The regulars of the Samootiri were constituted into Chaver and Changatham. The 'Changatham' served as the 'Akampati Janam' or retinue of Samootiri. The special force of Chaver served as the suicide squad or 'companions of honour'. These soldiers were always ready to lay their lives for the sake of the king.
However it is not to be confused that Chavers were only from Valluvanad. While that was how it started (due to the Koodupaka (hereditary rivalry) at Valluvanad), after accepting suzerainty to the Zamorin, there were Chaver forces in North Malabar and there were Muslim Chavers as well aligned to the Zamorin (reconfirmed by Edgar Thurston – Page 287 Castes & tribes of South India). The Mappilas replicated this Chaver tirade during later riots against the British in the late 19th century by running fearlessly against British police bayonets.
The moral driver of course was ‘veeraswarga’ (See MGS article referred below). Changathams of the Zamorin were also a kind of suicide squad (I wonder – did the word Changathi – ‘friend’ get derived from Changatham? One who would die for another dear one?) .
Thus goes the story of the Amouki’s - the Chavers of Malabar. Let us once again focus on the word. Amarakkar or warriors became amouka to the Portuguese and Arabs. The Amouka became amouki, and then ‘amok’….Amarakkar and Chavers belonged to the warrior nair’s of Malabar. The Arab usage Amouki I feel (I am not at all sure, though) became the Hamukkas as termed by the Malabar Moppilas and even today used in Calicut and Malappuram dialects.
Sometime in the 6th or 7thth century the legendary Bodhisena (Bodhidharma) traveled from South Malabar to Japan. It is with him that they say the cult of Kalari reached Japan, and the Samurai class was constituted, but that is just an opinion of some historians (The time lines coincide somewhat, just like the terms Samurai and Samorin) …Some of those details can be found in an earlier blog on Bodhidharma, Zen and the temple of Shaolin.
Note – Chaver is not Chekavar. Chekavars (Aromal, Unniarcha etc) are Thiyas of Sri Lankan origin. They were also a much talked about fighting mercenary class of Malabar and will be covered in detail in another article.
Valluvanad Vansam - Website
A very interesting Chaver story is recounted by Dr MGS Narayanan at his website – It is the story of Vellan Kumarn, the warrior saint.
Castes & tribes of South India – Thurston
Pic – India-travel.com website, thanks