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Payyannur Paattola – Nilakesi’s revenge

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Vadakan pattukal came to light in the 16th century, but there were vernacular poets even before that and the first such documented poetry is the story of Nilakesi in ‘The Payyanur paattu’. Dr Herman Gundert unearthed it during his days in Telicherry in the 19th century and transported some of what he obtained to Germany. Since then, it has been much talked about. This is not an in-depth study and I am happy to say that there is plenty of material out there and many experts have conducted solid studies on the subject. So consider this just an introduction to the uninitiated with a request to read the other available material, if history interests you.

When you unearth a bit of colloquial poetry like the Payyanur Paattu which tells a story, you would first concentrate on the story. The story in this case is only the medium, expressing human relationships and emotion, striking the chord with the public. But as a text from even earlier times, it hides in between the jumbled words, a good amount of history, especially relating to trade and cultural activities of a period. So when this appeared, the rich treasure trove was dissected by the learned and the wisdom gleaned from it is rather illuminating, so to speak. And that is why it is much heralded in recent times.

Payyannur (actually termed as Pazhayannur in the poetry) incidentally is the Northern most district of the Chirakkal taluk and finds mention from Parusurama’s times as the seat of the Payyannur Grammakkar. These people were the Brahmins specially favored by ‘Parasurama’ and had even practiced ‘matrilineal maraumakkattayam’ and not the Vedic prescribed Makkattayam inheritance system which Namboothiri’s later followed.

The Payyanur Paattu is a ballad dedicated to a local goddess and written around the 13th or 14th century in Malayalam by an unknown writer belonging to the trading Chettiar community. While almost all textual work in India is attributed to the scholarly Bhrahmin class (for only they were allowed study of scriptures & Sanskrit), this was done by the merchant sect or Chettys. Interestingly, while many relied on the word of mouth, Chettys had to write out their accounts & contracts, so were used to writing things. The document when first discovered by Gundert was incomplete, only some 104 verses or 448 lines in all were found, and is still largely incomplete. However the story line has been augmented by other contemporary poetry to come to an acceptable conclusion.

The original text runs as follows and then stops abruptly, for that was all Dr Gundert could get out of the manuscript he received and exemplified as “certainly the oldest specimen on Malayalam composition which I have seen”. He adds “the language is rich and bold, evidently of a time when the infusions from Sanskrit had not reduced the energy of the tongue, by cramping it with hosts of unmeaningful particles”. Gundert and many others studied this one and only fragment without corroboration of text or matter from other sources. Due to this reason, understanding of some of the words were difficult not only to Dr Gundert, but even today’s Malayalam experts. But naturally, for this was heavy colloquial poetry with a large dose of trade related usages & words, that are still being deciphered.

For now, I will condense the story a bit…

Nilakesi, a woman born in a very good family in Trissivaperur (Trichur), did not have any sons even though she had tried marriage with several men for the sake of progeny. Finally she decided to perform penance, left her place alone on a pilgrimage and reached Kachilpatanam a famous trading centre near Ezhimala. There lived a merchant named Nambu chetty alias Combu chetty who was the chief trader. Nilakesi meets this Chetty who after performing some vows takes her to his mansion as his lawful wedded wife. The matrimony is eventful. Nilakesi begets a son off him named Nambusari Aran. Pleased at the birth of a son the parents gave a 41st day feast at the big Payyannur plains. At that time the brothers of Nilakesi were coasting by the area in a ship. Hearing the music and seeing the festivities, they disembark to see the play. To get inside the temple, they climb the walls and get caught by spectators who consider them as unwanted and suspicious characters. An argument ensues; the brothers vainly try to explain that they are Kulavaniyars (traders of grain) not knowing local customs and request an audience with the chief Chetty (unknown to them, their own BIL). He comes and without further questions, straightaway strikes one of them on the head but this thus continues into a bigger scuffle and the two brothers are killed.

On hearing about this, Nilakesi is distraught and leaves home (leaving everything behind including her son) with a vow (kudi paka) to take revenge by killing her own son, and continues wandering around as a mendicant, once again.

The son grew up and the father taught his son everything about trade and ship building. The father gave him a new ship for trading and the son plans to man it with Vapuravas, Pandyas, Jonakas, Chuliyas,Pappavas and a Yavana. The ship is loaded, launched and it sets out to Poompattana near Ezhimala, and then goes to the Maladives, to Puvenkapatana, then up the Kaveri River to another sea and finally the shores of the Gold Mountains. Here the trader and his team barter their goods for a heap of gold and return to Kachilpatanam and dismisses his mariners with their share of gold and profits.

One fine day the son is playing chess with his father when a female ascetic requests their audience, not satisfied with the alms usually given at the gate. . She comes in and requests to be allowed to talk to the young merchant, but the boy refuses to be the giver of alms to the woman. The lady threatens dire circumstances should he not accede to her wishes, so they agree to debate and if she won, he would personally give her alms.. The Sanyasini of course was none other than Nilakesi the mother of Nambusari Aran, the young merchant. A long discussion and a regular debate takes place between them, Nilakesi wins and she then invites the boy to a cultural festival and feast.

She requests him to come to Payyannur for a feast conducted by women there. She actually taunts him saying, come there if you are a man, seeing him hesitate. The boy takes on the challenge and agrees, but finds his father distraught about the idea. The father states that the boy will be killed, and also explains the reasons of his fears to the boy and the story of his mother’s ‘koodi paka’( here there is a twist – Some experts state that the father never mentions that the lady is his mother but does say that she would kill him) .. Father says I’ll die if you go, son says, I will die if you do not allow me to go…. They have a major argument about it at the end of which the son falls and prostrates on his father’s feet begging for approval to go. Finally the father accedes with great reluctance, but sure of grave & mortal danger to his son, insists that he take along with him strong guards from the family of the Gopala Chetty of Anjuvannam, the Manigramma families (he explains to his son that there are four classes of trading colonists in the four towns),.. So he plans to go with 14 companions to avoid being outwitted by anybody of the country (presumably Kolathunad). The son states that he will not sleep until he returns home, and that he would return in the morning even if he has to be dragged home by his feet. The father then suggests that they take some trading goods along as for a fair. The final 10 stanzas are all about the goods to be taken for the trade at the fair.

The poem ends there thus with 104 verses. In suspense..

Whatever happens to the boy? Wait a bit I will tell you what the believed answer is. You see, it took us another 100 years after Gundert’s discovery to find out a plausible answer

This poem is very important for historians and anthropologist for a few reasons. One, it was the first documented poem and secondly it was passed on by tradition in the vernacular. The story was completed only from the Theyyattam songs of the area, as narrated by the washer man or ‘mannan’ caste. How did the story go from the Chetty guilds to the Mannan caste? Also it was the first document that identified the merchant guilds existing between the 9th and 13th century. Later studies established the details of the said guilds, more on that and the Ayyavole guild in a follow up blog.

Then again, this is the first documentary evidence of Changathams and Chavers in Malabar. They are alluded to in the poem as mercenaries and support for the trading caravans (it says – Chavalarepole Niyakkalepovum, Changatham venam Perikkayipol).

You can also see here that the mariners mentioned were from various parts. Pandiyas & Chuliays were of Tamil (refer my blog on marakkayars to learn about Chooliyas) origin. It is mentioned, I believe that the boats are sewn boats termed ‘marakalam’, which is typical of Malabar boats. Then there were the sail boats and rowing boats. So the Chooliyas in the marakkalam may haven been marakkayars. Note again that the ships went to the Maladives which later became a personal fiefdom of the Mamally Marakkar.

In the passages where the father teaches the son, there are mentions of book keeping methods, as well as understanding purity of metals. Good qualities that a trader should possess are meticulously explained and also the fact that trade comprised rice from other Eastern areas (as it was ferried by ship) is clear from some paragraphs (showing a scarcity in Malabar). As we know now, Valluvanad & Kuttanad were the areas where rice was eventually cultivated.

It was also one of the earliest mentions of chess or Chaturangam being played in Kerala. It is known that Namboothiris used to play it a lot, even demarcating temple grounds with huge pieces and squares to signify the board, but this is documented proof of others playing it and describing the pieces. All the chess pieces are named: King (Mannava), Horse (Kutira), Elephant (Varana), Chariot (Ther), Footmen (Natakkum Chevakan) and Minister (Mantri).

Anyway, the wise Gundert Sayyip took his collection including this fragmentary ballad and stored it in the Tuebingen Library where it rested peacefully and safely. I shudder to think of the consequences had it been left at its place of origin, we would never have got richer with all this information & history. And it explains the special attachment of the woman of Malabar to her matrilineal family, where for example the husband comes second. It also hovers around the kind of confusion that Abraham Ben Yiju felt about Ashu’s relationship with her brothers.

Now who is this ballad dedicated to? Presumably a Bhaghawati or goddess (some arguments on this subject with Shiva and Subramaniam also coming in) – Historian NM Nampoothiri explains - Many Female deities in the village groves are seen praised as Kannaki of Madura who is the Principal Goddess of Trade .Many Bhaghavathis come to the Groves in a ship or ‘kappal’(a signifier of maritime trade.) These Female deities are worshipped by Chetties of the eastern coast who are Trade Groups. Deity of ‘Maataayikkaavu (maatu+vaay=Port near hillocks, Varakkal is another case Vara means hillocks). The deity praised in Payyannur Paattu and the deity of Pishaari kaavu (Pantalayini port/ Kollam Port) are these types. Pitaari or pishaari signifies Kaali in Tirunelveli. There are shrines of deity Pitaari widely spread over Tirunelveli /Madura areas.

Many years later the rest of the story was obtained as part of a washer mans’ exorcism ballad. These mannan’s performed ‘teyyattam’ for the merchant community. So the Paattu as we know today is a hybrid of the manuscript and the vernacular ballad, a hybrid poem. The second poem is called Nilakesi Paattu where Nilakesi meets up with Nambusari and they have a contest of chess in which he gets defeated. Nilakesi then takes the story to the end, which is, as she avowed, his death. So to complete the story, the mother Nilakesi kills her son in revenge.

People had access to Gundert’s simplified version of the Payyannnur Paattu in the Madras journal of Literature & Science (XIII-II) April 1884, but not the original parchment until recently. It rested in the Tuebingen University and nobody had any real clue about this Malayalam script, i.e. till Dr Scaria Sachariah came along. But in passing Gundert Sayip concluded thus ‘I believe that the people of Anjuvannam and Manigramam here mentioned as belonging to yonder country can only mean Jews and Christians (or Manicheans) who for commerce’s sake also settled beyond the Perumal’s territories. It would be interesting to know which the other two classes are. In the meantime the existence of four trading communities in Kerala seem proved, and the ‘nalucheri’ of the first Syrian document receives some elucidation from this incidental allusion.’

For now, I will conclude. This as I mentioned, is only an introduction. Reading the books referred below will provide a history enthusiast great perspective and much information about culture, trade and relationships of that time…

Introducing the experts

Dr. Scaria Zachariah, professor of Malayalam, at the Sree Sankara University of Sanskrit, Kalady, is an expert in 16th century Malayalam . P Antony was a student in the same university, and researching on Vadakkan Poattukal.

Others who have written various essays on this subject are Prof Guptan Nair, Dr Leelavati, Mahakavi Ulloor, MGS Narayanan, Venugopalan Nambiar, K Balakrishnan, Dinesan, Sajitha, T Pavithran to name a few, these can be read in the Tapasam issue.

Dr Gundert – See my previous blog on The Sahib & Collector. An additional footnote about Dr Gundert - "There is something that many people do not know about Mr. Gundert. He actually began his work in Tamil Nadu as a private tutor to the son of a British missionary. He had stayed in Madras, then in Tirunelveli, all of which is recorded in his diary. Mr. Gundert was not a missionary, he was never ordained. He was always a teacher. In Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, he had established 10 schools. Very few know that Mr. Gundert had written a Tamil-Greek, a Hebrew-Tamil dictionary and a Church History in Tamil. But this has been lost forever. He had given the manuscripts to possibly the mission press in Nagercoil in October 1838, but our efforts to dig this out has failed," informs Dr. Albrecht Frenz, his great great grand daughter

The guilds – Merchant groups such as Kolanchiyar, Valanchiyar, Anchuvannam and Manigramam operated during this period. Ayyavole seems to have worked in the North of Coorg areas.

More details on this subject and related areas will follow


Payyannur Paattu – Paadavum Padanavum - Dr Scaria Zacharia, P Antony
Tapasam – Vol II, issue 2, July 2006 with many articles on PP


  1. anupputhan

    THis is classic stuff Maddy.

  1. Nikhil Narayanan

    Something very close to me
    Thanks for the post Maddy.
    It was about 6-7 years back that I got Dr SZ's book and can't thrilled how I was.I had only read about the Patt and never realized someone actually did research on it, post the Gundert era.


  1. Anonymous

    Hello Maddy,

    "Vadakan pattukal came to light in the 16th century"

    Could you explain that statement?


  1. Maddy

    Thanks Anuputhan.

    Thanks Nikhil...the deep analysis f the paattu reveals a treasure of info on the times.

    Thanks Manjith..The usual definition of 'vadakan pattukal' relates to the Othenan songs. yes, of course the medium of nadan paatu or telling stories in a musical fashion would have existed since time immemorial, but the vadakan gatha's are from the times of the famous chekavars & othenans - this coincides with the time of the Kunjali marakkar which is roughly the 16th century.

    Now one could also say that the 'payyanuur paatu' is a vadakkan paatu looking at all this geographically, but well it is just a matter of definition..

  1. mangad

    Hi Maddy,

    "but the vadakan gatha's are from the times of the famous chekavars & othenans"

    Maybe I'm nitpicking, but shouldn't this read "chekavanmar and kuruppanmar"? Othenan was the most famous of the kuruppanmar, but there are others with their own ballads (eg. Payyamvelli Chanthu).

    What would be "the" book to refer on Vadakkan Paattukal? I'm aware of Kadathanaattu Madhaviyamma's works, but there must have been some serious work done on the subject, no?


  1. manjith

    interesting :) Thanks for clearing that up.


  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Thanks for enriching me.

  1. Maddy

    Hi VG - sorry about the late reply, I am on the move, you are I guess right, but I have not really studied the ballads yet. i wa shoping to receive Dr Scaria's collection, but will check this out later

    thanks PNS