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The Iyers of Palghat

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Legends of the PI (Palghat Iyer)

The arrival of Tamil Brahmins to Kerala is shrouded in some amount of mystery. No specific details are available and only general conjectures can be made. While the migrations to Palakkad or Palghat can be summarized to be from Kumbakonam or Trichy, the arrival of Brahmins to the Tali area of Calicut was for other reasons and happened much later. This article will then go on to spend some time on the stone inscription at Kalpatti.

The commonly accepted reasons for the westerly migration follows the events at Madurai and its environs as explained in my article about Malikkafur

Let me once again borrow words from Tamil Tribune. King Maravarman Kulasekhara Pandyan (1268 - 1310) had two sons Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan and Jatavarman Veera Pandyan. The elder son, Sundara Pandyan, was by the king's wife and the younger, Veera Pandyan, was by a mistress. Contrary to tradition, the king proclaimed that the younger son would succeed him. This enraged Sundara Pandyan. He killed the father and became king in 1310. Some local chieftains in the kingdom swore allegiance to the younger brother Veera Pandian and a civil war broke out. Sundara Pandyan was defeated and he fled the country. He sought help from the far off northern ruler Sultan Ala-ud-din Khilji who was ruling much of northern India from Delhi. At that time, his army under General Malik Kafur was in the south at Dvarasamudra (far to the north of Tamil Nadu). Khilji agreed to help Sundara Pandyan and ordered Malik Kafur's army to march to Tamil Nadu. With Sundara Pandyan's assistance, this Muslim army from the north entered Tamil Nadu in 1311. Kafur and his troops created mayhem in the area for a full year, looting and pillaging, finally carrying an immense treasure on 312 elephants, 20,000 horses and 10 crore gold coins.

It was apparently during this period that the Brahmins of Madurai and the surrounding area started to feel insecure about their existence and livelihood. Fearing persecution, these people started to migrate to the Chera country through the well-traveled Palakkad Pass and the routes through Dindigul and Pollachi. The southern route from Karur passes through Dharapuram and Udumalpet to Pollachi and Palghat. This route is remarkable as the line of migration of the Tanjore Brahmin to Palghat through Pollachi. Normally they would have congregated around temples. Nevertheless, the systems of Cheranaad were different since only Nambuthiris were allowed to perform religious rites in temples. Being learned and lettered, these Brahmins settled to perform other duties in the temples sometimes competing with Ambalavasis and also moved on to support the bureaucracies of smaller regional kings as astrologers, accountants, scribes, advisers etc. It is also stated that continuous drought over many years in the Kaveri Delta area also triggered migration of Tanjore Brahmins to Kerala. In some cases, as you will see, they went on to build and conduct their vedic rites in their own temples. However there are also other accounts which point to earlier migrations around the 8th century. Most of these migrants settled close to the Nila river banks around Palghat.

Narayan Murthi on his website states the following - Our own Josier family came from Kandramanickam Village, in Trichy District, and we are identified as Kandramanickam Brahacharanam. Yes, people also came in groups from Madurai, Erode areas, Tiruvannamalai (the whole of Nurani is from there and all are Brahacharanam). Pallipuram and Tirunallayi people came from around Conjeevaram and Sreerangam and brought with them the Vaishnavaite influence on their rituals and practices. They wear the Namam, have mostly Vaishnavaite names and pay obeisance to the Jeer at Srirangam and not to the Sankaracharyas.

 As is commonly understood, Kerala Iyers, like the Iyers of Tamil Nadu and the Namboothiris of Kerala, belonged to the Pancha Dravida classification of India's Brahmin community and mostly belonged to the Vadama and Brahacharanam sub-sects. Iyers were usually employed as cooks, musicians and temple assistants, since they were not allowed to conduct pooja as the priest (shanthi) in Kerala temples which followed Tantric rituals. So Kerala Iyers built their own temples in their Agraharams to conduct their poojas and rites. In Kerala, these migrant Brahmins are commonly referred to as Bhattars. This was one of the earlier surnames used by the Tamil Brahmins and later on got corrupted to Pattar by the Englishman who coined the usage in English.

But let us also look at the story of the Palghat Raja’s which I recounted some years earlier. and the account of Stuart Blackburn quoting an old man whom he met - Sometime in the 1500s when Palghat was a small principality under the Cochin Raja, only Nambudiris lived here. Then a young prince of the Palghat ruling family, I think he was named Sekhari Varma, fell in love with a tribal girl. The Cochin Raja opposed this marriage, but the prince refused to budge and married the girl. Suddenly all the Nambudiris left and the prince sent to Tamil Nadu for Brahmins to conduct temple rites. These Pattars [Tamil Brahmins] had been coming to an annual Vedic scholar’s convention at Tirunavaya [near Pattambi] and so they knew the area. So they decided to settle in Palghat. Then the tribal queen turned all the Bhagavatis into tribal goddesses—Emur Bhagavati, Min Bhagavati, Manapully Bhagavati. The Pattars came from Tanjore, Madurai, and Kancipuram, and even now you can see this history in the names of their agraharams [settlements], for instance Chokanathapuram, after Siva's name at Madurai. He also explains that Tamil Brahmins in Palghat, for example, celebrate Rama's birthday in association with Valmiki's Sanskrit epic or Ezhuttachan's Malayalam text but not Kampan's.

Madhava Menon in his Handbook of Kerala cites the instance of the boycott of the Palghat Raja by the Nambutiris of Palghat in support of the Zamorin when the Palghat Raja asked Hyder Ali help in getting the Zamorin off his back. The Palghat Raja in retaliation brought in Tamil Brahmins and settled them in 64 settlements around Palghat, granting them lands and privileges and allowing them to perform rights in Palghat temples. But Logan goes on to explain further the connection established even earlier between the Palghat Raja and the Pattars - One account states that they (Palghat Rajas or Achans) are descendants of one of the Pandyan Kings of Madura, However this may be, the family has for some reason or other lost caste. There are various stories current as to how this happened, and a mis-alliance with a woman of the Malabar caste on the part of the reigning chief is the generally credited origin of the fact. It appears to have taken place previously to the first influx of East Coast Brahmins (Pattar) into Palghat, for water, which, from the hands of the polluted Raja, would have conveyed pollution to the recipient, was not used in conferring grants of land to the Pattar and flour, a non-polluting substance, it is said, was used instead. Land grants were thus made; it is said, to 96 Pattar villages or agraharams in Palghat.  

 According to the Shashibhooshan's, the word agraharam has various etymological meanings. It indicates the conglomeration (haram) of the first among the four varnas (castes). Agraharam also indicates a cluster of houses with a temple of Shiva on the agram (extreme tip) of the street. Agraharams are inherently inhabited by the Brahmins.

 Logan in his Malabar Manual, lists the 19 gramam’s of Palghat being Kalpathi, Pazhaya Kalpati, Chatapuram, Govindarajapuram, Vaidyanathapuram, Kumarapurama, Lakshminarayanapuram, Mukka, Chokkanathapuram, Puttamkurichi, Sekharipuram, Ramanathapuram, Tarekad, Vadakkanthara, Noorni, Nellisheri, Thondikulam, Pallipuram, Tirunellayi. Mukkai is where the rivers of Palayar, Walayar and Malayar unite to form the Kalpathy River. Out of the 18-19 gramams in Palakkad, Thirunellai and Pallipuram are settled by Vaishnavites, whereas the rest by Saivaites. It is also said that migrants from Madurai established themselves first near Chokkanathapuram, and those from Pollachi and Dindigul established the villages of Kollengode, Koduvayur, Chittoor, and Thattamangalam which were nearer to their travel route. Sekharipuram, was perhaps founded by migrants originating from the village of the same name near Tanjore (It is also possible for Sekharipuram to have been named after Rajashekara Varma of Palghat). Those from Vaitheeswaran Koil called their village as Vaidyanatha puram, those from Madurai called their village as Chokkanathapuram , those from Champa called their village as Chempai and so on. But then, Pallipuram as the name itself indicated, the existence of either a Moslem mosque or a Jain temple in the past, perhaps the latter, and Noorni as a word is also considered to be non-Hindu.

Nevertheless, the lands where they settled in became their Karma bhumi as against the east coast which they consider their Punya bhumi or Gnana bhumi. Interestingly, in a Karma bhumi you attain salvation only by good deeds whereas in a Gnanabhumi you attain it by the mere fact that you were born in it, irrespective of their actions. Nagam Aiyya in his TSM explains that this is the reason why they prefer to die in the Punya bhumi and not in Kerala lest they be born an ass in their next birth!! (That finally explained to me why second and third generation PI’s or Pattars still try to maintain that they are Tamilians and not Malayalis – I always used to think the insistence was due to linguistic ties).

So much for the migration theories, but the Palghat Brahmin community produced many a great bereaucrat, many a great cook, many a great film personality and many famous administrators and secretaries, not to mention musical stalwarts, be it film music or Carnatic music!! So they did take their karma very seriously, as you can see. I admire them a lot.

Now let us get to the Kalpathi stone inscription and Prof SV Venkateshwara’s conclusions. I have not been to this temple myself for a long tinme and I understand most of the inscription is gone, but for those interested, it will be reproduced here again from Prof Venkateshwara’s essay.

 Kalpathi or Kalpathy also known as Dakshin Kasi or the 'Varanasi of the South is an early Tamil Brahmin settlement (agraharam) is close to the Olavakkot ( Now called Palghat) railway station. Like before we will start with a legend. Until the turn of the last century, an Iyer widow was never allowed to remarry. Once her husband dies, an Iyer woman had to tonsure her head. She had to remove the kunkumam or the vermilion mark on her forehead, and was required to smear her forehead with the sacred ashes. Well one such widow tracing the route of Kannagi, ventured out to Cheranad around the early decades of the 15th century. She was obviously wealthy, for she carried with her some 1,400 panams – presumably in gold and naturally did not want to have anything to do with her punya bhumi. Legend has it that this Lakshmi Ammal, a widow of Sekharipuram (Ammal, brought the Shiva Lingam from Kasi (Varanasi) during her visit to that holy place.) and gave the prince Ittikombi Achan, 1320 of those gold coins in 1424-25 AD and requested him to consecrate the Siva Lingam and construct a temple on the banks of Nila River. Legends also say that Lakshmi Ammal handed over the responsibility of managing the temple affairs. While the involvement of the king is confirmed, the donor is still a legend.

The temple, regarded as one of the oldest in Malabar is also known as Kundukovil and of course as mentioned previously, Dakshina Kashi. The temple houses the deities of Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati, who is worshipped as Visalakshi. The temple as such is built on the banks of the Kalpathy River a tributary of the NIla or Bharathapuzha, and surrounded by New Kalpathy, Old Kalpathy, Chathapuram and Govindarajapuram. The Kalpathy temple is linked to the Kasi Viswanatha Swami Temple, because the main deity here is Lord Siva and the temple is on the banks of river Kalpathy, like Kasi on the banks of river Ganges. This is the reason for the saying, Kasiyil Pathi Kalpathy, that is, half of Kasi is Kalpathy. Towards the end of the year, the PI’s come back on vacation with trainloads of relatives to partake in the Ratholsavam or the chariot festival. The Kalpathy car festival is one of the biggest festivals of Malabar and a week-long Carnatic music festival, in which leading musicians perform, precedes the car festival.

Kalpathy and the other 18 Agraharams in the town are usually spruced up for the festivities. The temples and the houses in the Agraharams are all decked up and it is usually an occasion for family reunion. People who have continued their modern day migrations, in search of jobs and livelihood return for the Kalpathy Ratholsavam, which marks the beginning of the six-month-long car festivals in the temples of the 98 Agraharams in the district.

Kalpathy also got into the news for wrong reasons during the self-respect movement period 1924-26 when caste rivalries took place in South India. An Ezhava police office was supposedly deputed in 1924 to oversee the chariot festival, and the Brahmins of the agraharam took offence. They contended that the Kalpathi streets are not the King's highway but private property. The Arya Samajists got riled up and tried to march through the streets. Arthur Knapp the home member was asked to enquire into the matter. The arya samajists complained that if Christians and Moslems could enter such villages, they as Hindus could.Soon Swami Shraddanand arrived. When a breach of peace was anticipated, the Madras government served prohibitory orders on the Samajists during the event. In 1925, some violence occurred when another attempt was made, but eventually the Samaj movement seems to have fizzled out. But then again, look at the history - The community itself came to Palghat thanks in part to the event when the king married a lower caste person! Interesting turn of events right?

Anyway let’s get back to the historic front and the stone inscription. The stone inscription in front of the Kalpathy Shiva Temple tells the connection between the temple, its upkeep by the local king lttikombi Achan. Now we will spend some time on the inscription itself and its importance in history. Fortunately the Archeological society took an impression of the inscription in 1895 and later around 1914, so we have it here, as posted. The writing itself is made on one side and extends to the other. The stone was placed between the Nandi and the flag staff. The inscriptions are made in vattezhuttu, in Malayalam. It is dated to 1424 or 1464.

As Prof Venkateshwara explains –

The subject-matter of the inscription is the grant to the temple (of Visvanitha-Svamin) of land, income, and precious metal and utensils, and the constitution of ‘marumakan" Ittikombi and (his) younger brother (anantiravan) as trustees thereof. The inscription seems to have been cut at the bidding of Rayiran Kandatt Pangi under orders from his master, who was apparently the then Raja of Palghat (Rayiran perhaps denotes the position or title of a scribe). The name of the donor is not given in the inscription. He may have been an elderly member of the Palghat Raja's family, judging from the references to Ittikombi as marumaka and to mele karanavar. The latter epithet may refer to the Raja himself.

The inscription represents the manas receiving 1320 panams (coins) and bound to give 132 panams every year as interest to the temple. The context here shows that a rate of 10 per cent was charged at interest payable every year on the 10 panams given to each of the Brahman house. We have here a very interesting instance of the way in which endowments to temples were made and worked, a lumpsum was invested with every householder, who was bound by the terms of the contract to pay the interest on that sum every year to the authorities of the temple on whose behalf the investment was made. The contract held good in perpetuity; but the obligation implied in was not personal, but territorial.

Thus, the subject matter of the inscription is the grant to the deity Viswanatha Swamin of the Kalpatti temple of so much property real and moveable and the constitution of members of the Ittikombi section of the Palghat Raja’s family as trustees thereof.

When you study the essay in more detail or try to understand the exemplary study done by Prof Venkateshwara of Kumbhakonam, you wonder at the way these experts get to the bottom of the story by the study of words and script. I have deliberately not gone into those details for fear that such aspects would scare away the interested readers I still have in the study of Malabar’s history. But if somebody is seriously interested, you know whom to contact.

A few words on the Pattars of Calicut and Travancore are also added for completeness. According to Narayana Murthy, some migrants did climb up the Cumbum Hills crossing over Munnar, Peermede etc. and settled in Kottayam, Haripad, Vaikom, Ambalapuzha etc. The Agraharams south of Trivandrum such as Nagerkoil, Vadiveswaram, Sucheendram etc, already existed in the past, as Chola territory.

But how can I forget the Pattars of Tali and the fantastic Lakshmi store which I always visit while in Calicut? The mixture, the sweets and pickles, not to mention, the vadakams and so on are delicious. Well, perhaps they migrated during the periods when the Zamorins had issues with the Nambuthiris over the Tali Siva temple which I wrote earlier (refer the Revathi Pattathanam article) and the Kolathiri prince. Banning Nambuthiri’s from his court, he had invited Brahmin scholars from Tamil Nadu to take their place. These Tamil Brahmins settled around the Tali Siva temple. According to eminent historians, they arrived in Kozhikode as dependents of the chieftains, working as cooks, cloth merchants and moneylenders. Some other day, when I have collected more information on them, I will narrate their story too, perhaps while introducing the stalwart Manjeri Rama Iyer.


Epigraphica Indica. v.15 1919-1920, The Kalpatti Stone Inscription – Prof SV Venkateshwara MA, Kumbhakonam
Malabar Manual Volume 2 - Logan
Historic alleys – Malik Kafur in Malabar
Historic alleys – Revathi Pattathanam
Historic alleys – Royalty of Palghat
A video on kalpathy
Inside the drama house- Stuart Blackburn