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The Kunisseri Mamamkam

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The Kummatti at Kunisseri

Nestling between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea is the rice bowl of Malabar, todays Palakkad. Its strategic location and rich agricultural tradition was a cause for many a battle. Primary was its produce being important for expanding populations and secondly because it was the entry point of the Tamilakam trade route, i.e. the Palakkad gap. Carts and animals of trade carried produce back and forth through a domestic highway of sorts. As time went by and the kingdoms in North Malabar became more and more affluent and populated, and as import of rice from the Konkan and Coromandel rice traders came under threat, the southern rice producing areas became even more important.The Palghat rajas, whom we talked about in the past, were not always the overlords of the entire district as we know it today, since some parts of it were either under the suzerainty of either the Zamorin or the Kochi raja.

At its southern extremity, and bordering the Nelliyampathy jungles and the Tamil border were a bunch of small principalities of Chittur, Kollengode, Pallasena, Pallavur, Nemmara, Kunissery, Trippalur and finally Alathur. Today a bustling national highway connects Alathur to Palghat via Koyalmannam, but in the past, the important road from Palghat passed through Koduvayur and Kunissery to reach Alathur and through the Kuthiran hills to Trichur and beyond. Cart traffic and an occasional bus passing through Pallavur and coming from Pallasensa also touched Kunisseri, thus defining its importance as a junction.

Before the advent of bus traffic, Kunissery was a sleepy village, then became a little junction of importance till the NH47 came into being, after which it went back to its previous lethargic being. As you stop on the road and look, only paddy fields and palm trees dot the landscape, with the skyline interrupted only by the dark rock hills of the Sahyadri. Sometimes hidden behind trees you could see old stately Nair tharavads, with associated ponds with coconut trees ringing them. People in these lands went about their ways, mostly untouched by the outside world busy with change and destroying itself.

As little children, we would cycle to Kunissery from Pallavur either to buy something from the five or six duty shops or to pick up medicine from a lone medical shop in the vicinity. The only movie theatre, Kunissery Prabha was visited during vacations with large numbers of us stuffed into my uncle’s Premier Padmini, bursting at its seams and trundling through the empty road at a majestic 20-30 kmph! I still remember the first movie we saw there, Nagarame Nandi way back in 1967, when it opened its doors to public.

That the area was home to a bustling prehistoric civilization was always clear to historians who documented such matters during the 19th century. Pallavur and Kunissery had large numbers of granite dolmens and menhirs all around which we would gleefully clamber upon, though you see none today, perhaps they were simply picked up and used by people constructing something. One survey mentioned a group of 82 dolmens and 306 menhirs (as well as Megalithic cists) have been noticed in Pallavur, while Kunissery had 120 dolmens, 25 menhirs and 250 stone circles. Sad isint it? Just one stone circle in Stonehenge UK brings in millions of visitors, while even older stone circles and dolmens in Pallavur and Kunisseri simply vanished in less than 50 years!! Tells you how little we care for our history. Anyway, as time went by, all these areas became rice paddy fields owned by a few Nair families. Where they came from is an interesting story, and perhaps a part of my own search for our roots. They were perhaps connected to a famous battle we will talk about today.

On the Punartham star of Meena masam (roughly March-April), the small village awakens itself and the Pookulangara Bhagawathy Temple gets ready for its annual festival, the Kunissery Kummati, on the birthday of the goddess. Elephants arrive, the temple is festooned with colors and glitter, percussionists drum up the public’s enthusiasm and small traders arrive in hordes to profit as the public made merry. The three tharas of Kunissery, namely Kizhakkethara, Thekkethara and Vadakkethara unites to administer and execute this festival which as you can imagine, has an interesting bit of history behind it. The serene pond, the tired looking banyan tree and lush paddy fields surrounding the temple get ready for the hordes trooping to the locale. While the Kummati is annual, once every 12 years, the Valiya Aarattu is grandly conducted when the Pookkulangara Bhagavathy sets out to bow to Trippallavur Mahadevan from my own village, Pallavur, just a mile away. The Kummati is intimately connected to the Zamorin of Calicut and the legend is an interesting one. How and what on earth made the Zamorin come there is the story we will retell.

We go back to the late 13th century, a turbulent period in the history of Malabar. It is not clear if the Kunissery desam was under the control of the Palghat Raja or the Perumbadappu swaroopam (Cochin had not yet formed). Some years later we find it under the suzerainty of the Perumbadappu chieftains, so gifted to them by the Palghat Tharoor swaroopam for some reason, hitherto unknown. One legend states that the Tharoor swaroopam were childless and so two young ladies were married off to the nephews of the Perumbadappu chief at Trichur and Kunissery was gifted to the Perumbadappu as some kind of a dowry,

Anyway during a series of military conquests the Zamorin of Calicut intent on expanding his domain and power, as well as his Nair forces surged through the region in 1363, first capturing the home base of the Perumbadappu south of Valluvanad and conducting the Mamankam at Tirunavaya. That by itself is a long story and we will get to it eventually, but suffice to say that the victorious Zamorin then brought Trichur and the surrounding regions under his reign. Vadakkanchery, and all the desams we talked about earlier in the vicinity of Pallavur were quickly taken over by the Calicut raja. But one desam resisted him (through the year of 1364), and his mighty forces, namely the Kunissery desam.

Six months of fighting stalled into a stalemate and the Zamorin and his commanders were perplexed as to why they could not defeat this small principality (though supported by the Perumpadappu forces), only to conclude that the goddess was perhaps the power behind the opposing forces. Appeasing her was the only way out as the Zamorin had discovered during earlier battles with the Valluvakonathiri (when he appeased the Valayanad goddess and defeated the Velathiri) and the Zamorin set out doing just that. As the story goes, the Zamorin succeded eventually and after defeating the opposing forces, he built a Kovilakom there for himself, signifying the importance of the goddess and the location itself, as a perch for future plans of empire building towards the south and southwest. That these lands were in his name since then is clear from ancient land records and legal battles between future tenants and the Zamorin named as the landlord. Quite a bit of these lands were according to KV Krishna Ayyar, donated by him to the temple at Guruvayur.

Yet another legend states that the Zamorins forces decimated the Perumbadappu forces situated at neighboring Vadakkancheri and Kunissery. All the men, numbering some 500 were killed and the women of Kunissery were thus widowed. These helpless women sought the help of the goddess and she commanded them to get ready for a battle with their Ulakka’s and Muram’s. The Zamorin’s soldiers seeing this were amazed and seemingly saw the fierce countenance of Goddess Durga on each face, and quickly withdrew. The court astrologer informed the Zamorin of the wrath of the Pookulangara goddess and the Zamorin quickly prayed to her for forgiveness. The Pukulangara Bhagavathy is supposedly connected to the Kodungallur Bhagavathy and the famed Kanngi of the Shilappadikaram, so I guess you can imagine how powerful she could be.

She commanded him to do proper reparations and thus the Zamorin quickly brought in 500 Nairs from Calicut to partner the men-less village. It is said that at this time, some 80 Nairs were resettled in Pallavur as well, by the Zamorin. Life went on, but as you can see, this village was quite far from Tirunavaya where all the Nairs of Malabar congregated for the mamankham festival. They complained to the Zamorin that they could not attend the mamankham and so, it was in compensation that a parallel mamankam was held in Kunissery and called the annual Kummati festival. The original order by the Zamorin to conduct a mamankam at Kunissery was conveyed through a panan (bard) but as he arrived late after conveying the message, the Zamorin supposedly sent a Paraya to ensure the message was conveyed. All these are commemorated in today’s Kummati celebrations. During the celebrations, a formal question is also put to the 580 nair families of Pallavur and Kunissery if the celebrations could begin.

The responsibility to conduct the Kummati rested with the Vellattu panikkar, the Kandeth panikkar and the Kannath families of Kunissery. The legal title that the Zamorin had over the lands is indicated by for example by a well-documented court case in 1903 when one Theyyan nair of Kunissery fought the Zamorin (Punthurakon) for title over land leased to him. There are many related stories in the history of the Zamorin’s hold over Palghat’s Naduvattom, and I will get into those one by one.

The jottings by BS ward who passed by these regions during his survey in 1820 is interesting

To the North and South East of Pullacherry are several ridges of black rocks, the largest, and highest being Wanmulla, flat at the summit; and to the North and East of Pullavoor are many running in ridges to Taloor, a square high-peaked rock. Pullavoor, S. S. E. nine and three-quarter miles of Paulghaut, consists of two gramums with a celebrated pagoda within a walled enclosure, lies S, of the above and to the N. an extensive Nair population. Gooduloor S. S. E. one and a half miles, Pullacherry E. three miles, and Koonucherry N. W. one and a quarter miles from Pullavoor, are large straggling villages, inhabited by Vellalers: at the two former are gramums, and a few small pagodas.

6th November 1820—At 8 A.M. left Allatoor, and proceeded by a good road leading to the north and east; crossed the Nemary river from whence the road towards Paulghaut goes off north; from thence proceeded over extensive fields through Koonichairy, an extensive and populous village in Malabar, then through fields again; passed the above river, which here forms the boundary of Cochin and Malabar; then over a waving country intersected by narrow vallies of wet cultivation to Nemary, a populous village with a palace and pagoda and the capital of a sub-division insulated by Malabar, only a few miles north of the great range of mountains; arrived at it at 1 P.M.; weather close and sultry; morning fair.

19th January 1820. Left Wembaloor; made a circuit of its cultivated lands, which are narrow and partly in deep vallies occasioned by ridges of black rocks at intervals; then along the limit to the river, which again divides Paulghaut from Nemary, to Kudaloor, an extensive village; then proceeded north-west, making a circuit on extensive lands of flat cultivation dependent on it, with some insulated houses amidst it, to Pullavoor, the capital of a sub-division, an extensive village with a large pagoda and an appropriate Bramin Agrarum, besides a large population of Nayres and other casts, and a broad flat valley of cultivation to the north of it; from thence proceeded to Kakoor and arrived at it at 7 P.M.; weather warm.

Why is this called a Kummatti? Kummatti is prevalent in parts of Palakkad districts and is usually associated in propitiating a goddess.  They are typically associated with Devi temples where they are performed as part of rituals; and as mock preparations for war following which the participants enact the war. The limericks and nonsensical verses of Kummatti reflect the rustic sense of humor of village folk. Wearing colorful masks representing the faces of mythological characters and covering the entire body with Kummatti grass and leaves, the performers go around, dancing and collect money. The name of the ritual is derived from the Kummatti grass they wear and its long sticks they hold with them.

The events enacted during the Kummati are numerous, with Kanyar kali holding center stage, followed by the Ponnani Kali and many other events. Ten elephants lord over the festival, caparisoned and majestic while the villagers make merry. Kanyar Kali as they say, is connected in this context to the practicing martial arts, for the region, was under the constant threat of attack from neighboring Kongu Nadu. At the high point of the celebration, the villagers who have assembled near the temple are asked if they will defend the village. Only upon getting a positive answer can the celebrations proceed.

The tourist brochure states- During the commencement of Kummatti mamamgam , villagers sing “kummoo…Kumu kumukummooo…..” along the premises and harvested paddy fields to inform everyone about the start of mamangam. The devotes from the take bath in the temple pond reciting devotional hymns praising the goddess by using a large bamboo poles which is brought from the sacred forest in Nelliampathy, which marks to the start of the festival celebrations. They circumambulate around the temple with these huge bamboo poles in hand. Theses bamboo poles are placed at their respective positions in Vadakkethara, Thekkekara and Kizhakkethara. Another attraction of Kummatti is a folk art called Ponnani Kali. Darikavadam kalampaatu lasting for 18 days is a main event in the Kummati Mamagam. During the festival, the villagers don the dress of such common folk as 'Panan' the pot maker, 'Chakiliyan' the leather worker, 'Vannan' the washer man, 'Cheruman' the farm-hand connecting up to the previously mentioned legend of the Zamorin’s messengers from Calicut.

So many interesting aspects can be gleaned from the aforesaid study, as to how an overlord moved his armies and people around to border towns in order secure it over long periods of time, how important a titular festival can be and the grip temples and goddesses had over the warring kings of Malabar. Who said the history of Kerala is boring?

Mamankhavum Samoothiriyum – PCS Raja
Kerala Sthala Charithrangal – VVK Valath
Memoir of the Survey of Travancore and Cochin 1816-1820 – BS Ward

Pookulangara temple and Kummati image courtesy Abhay Santhosh
Kunissery paddy fields- @kv_wandererlife