The Malabar (Wynad) gold rush 1877-1892

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Some years ago, you may have come across those huge hoardings in Calicut advertising a company’s wares, the company named as Malabar Gold and the model being Sania Mirza, the teen tennis sensation. That was the period when we had a Sania Mania in India. What most people may not be aware of is that once upon a time Malabar’s Gold (the mineral itself and not the company) started a mania of sorts which found its way into history books as the Malabar gold rush of 1879-82.

The temple of Solomon at Jerusalem and the land of the Ophir – Once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes & peacocks. They sailed to Ophir and brought back 420 talents of gold, which they delivered to King Solomon. (1 Kings 9:26-28). Since historic times, this sentence has made many a treasure seeker set out for the land of the Ophir. While historians point out a few candidates in Africa, one strong contender for this locale was Malabar and the main reason was the presumption that no other location in the world but Malabar can provide all 5 articles above (Francis Ford – The planting industry in S India).

So where were the gold mines of ancient Malabar as alluded to later by Pliny & Megasthenes located? They were actually hidden in the jungles and hill regions of Wynad, where gold was laboriously dug from the bowels of the earth, some 70 ft below, by the Korumbers (a hill tribe) or panned from rivers downstream by the Paniyas (another tribe) of Waynad. (Well, it may seem that the wood at Solomon’s temple i.e. Rosewood or teak for the temple also came from the forests of nearby Nilambur – see my earlier blog on Connolly’s teak).

So this article takes you to the Wynad area, a region lush with vegetation, left largely to natures own methods save for the tribal population and the estates with planters and support staff. You will not hear much more than noises of birds and insects; you will hardly see any traffic but you may even chance on wild life amidst the tea and coffee estates. This incidentally was also the area I spent my vacations months as a child. My father used to work in the estates at Mango Range, Annamalai’s, Ripon, Talapuzha, Murugali and so on…

A few decades before the turn to the 20th century these densely wooded areas were also home to all kinds of nefarious people on the run such as those who went against the EIC, the Moplah rebels, Opium cultivators, tobacco planters etc. Later it became a center for tea and coffee plantations (Coffee plantations started in 1840, tea planting in Wynad started in 1854 after some tea plants were brought in from China!! These were supplanted next with tea seedlings from Assam & Manipur)

That is until the whole area, the scattered populace and people from many other parts of the world came in to be involved in a mania of sorts. That was the gold mania of Malabar or the Malabar gold rush during 1879-1882. Like the tulip mania that I wrote about some days ago, this came to be known as the Malabar mania and like the Tulip mania, immense sums were spent by foolish people till the scam imploded as suddenly as it started.

Today, you will see accounts that conclude with the fact that it was nothing, but for a brief distraction for the planters, who were until this time toiling first for black gold or pepper, then the cash crops of spices and later tea &coffee during the EIC (East India Company) times. The distraction was unfortunately also the reason for a good amount of destruction of vast tracts of coffee plantations.

Let us now move to the hilly Nilgiris - Wynad region and find out what happened.

It was the 1849 time frame that all kinds of problems started in Malabar. The period 1849-1885 witnessed the bloody Moplah revolts. The garrisons of the British EIC and the officers were tied up in bringing the revolt under control. SE Wynad was being administered by the Malabar district. Between Sutan’s Battery and Nilambur – Gudalur area lies a place called Devala. Nearby are the towns of Pandalur (about 70 miles from Calicut) & Nelliyalam. The plateau where Nellialam is located lies roughly 3000’ above sea level. The previous rulers Ummatur Araus of Badaga extract had disappeared from the scene and the hilly tract was being leased and administered by the Nilambur Thamburan.

Since the turn of the 18th century, it was common knowledge that gold reefs were present in the hills and that the tribals had their own laborious methods of extracting small amounts of gold. However the finds were never analyzed in greater detail till the EIC got involved.

The joint commission of Bombay and Bengal in 1792 brought attention of British administrative eyes to this fact. By 1807, the fact was confirmed by Dr Buchanan. Mr Young in 1827 attested to fine specimens of gold particles in the Nilgiris streams. In 1813, Dr Aimslie confirms the SE Wynad regions as auriferous quartz reef locations. Later in 1830, Mr TH Baber attested to the fact that gold is obtained not only in the Coimbatore region but also around the Nilgiris and Kunda mountains during a deposition at the House of Lords. He estimated that about 2000 square miles of area was impregnated with gold deposits. Sheffield the Malabar district collector and British gold buyer also formed a strong impression about the availability of gold. Further credence was provided by the claim by the Rajah of Nilambur of 10% royalty for all gold found in his region.

Accordingly Lt Woodly Nicolson was deputed in 1831 to carry out prospecting. As his progress was not satisfactory, by 1833 it was decided by a commission that the whole thing was ‘inexpedient’.

Early pioneers
By 1857, attention was again drawn to the deposits by the Malabar Collector, and two Australian miners Stern & Withers (1865-1868) working in Wynad applied for leave to prospect for gold forming a company Alpha Gold Company . Stern had 8 years experience in gold mining. While Stern was not very successful, Withers working with Minchin hit some success and their company Wynad prospecting company was established. Work commenced in the Skull reef (an old Korumbar mining location – called so since a skull was found in the diggings) in 1874. By 1878, two more companies came into being, the Wynad prospecting company and later, the Prince of Wales Co. However all three companies suffered from digging at wrong locations, using wrong methods, mismanagement and plying defective or wrongly specified machinery. They all shut their doors within a year of starting.

In 1875 Dr W King of the Geological Survey department was deputed to the area to form a report. He did so in great detail and added to it a detailed map. King followed it up with a second edition giving a factual update in 1878, by which time the area was annexed to the Nilgiris district.

The next to report on the area’s gold was by the Australian expert and reputed Brough Smyth in Oct 1879 (he reached Malabar after being fired for despotic behavior in Australia). It was correct in parts and wrong in others. Without getting into too much boring detail, this was the report that was picked up by various speculators in England and used cleverly to create the necessary ‘hype’. The returns on UK government stocks were low, trade was flourishing and gold was in shortage. Coffee sales were down and the estate owners were looking for a way out (Nilgiris Gazeteer – Francis). In Dec 1879, the mania started. By 1880 Wynad was the hub of the wildest, maddest and grossest speculation. (Wynad - Gopalan nair)

The mania
41 companies were started in England with a capital of over 5 million pounds (another 6 were formed in India). Land was sold to these companies and their promoters at exorbitant amounts in Wynad and more local companies formed (B Smyth was a manager of two of these companies and he retired in 1882 when the tide turned). The shares of the said companies were sold at high premiums and a boom was awaited from all the gold that was to be mined. A number of mining experts landed up in Wynad (some were even bakers & clowns masquerading as miners).

The shares started to climb. Pandalur soon had its own race course and other amenities to boot. Machinery started to arrive from Australia & other places. The big mania money meanwhile, circulated amongst the UK share holders and never found its way to India.

Much of the coffee estates around the area were dug up. No mining had yet started by then though the hype went on and the bubble got bigger and bigger. By 1881 crushing started and slowly the situation started to become clear, that there was not much gold on the surface. At first based on erroneous information that one mine made 4 oz of gold per tonne, prices had jumped sky high. A telegram a few months later stating that the 4 oz came from only the first tone threw cold water on all the speculations. The prices bombed and the bubble burst. Many of the fraudulent promoters had by then sailed off to claim their ill gotten gains and were protected by clever contracts that could not be refuted. The only other gainers were the land sellers and the machinery vendors. The wealthy Bombay traders and Madras Chettys cleverly stayed away from this ‘unknown’ speculation on something invisible.

The mine workersInterestingly the mine workers were mainly Moplahs and Canarese. But the boom brought in a lot of other castes and workers from Tamil Nadu as well into the fray. Kunjalikutty Haji of Pandalur was one of the leading manpower suppliers for the British. He brought a large number of people from Malabar to work on the estates, and became very close to the British administration, being recognized as Khan Bahadur Kunajalikutty.

ConclusionThat there was and that there is gold in the area is proven. How much and how economical it is to mine it out has always been the issue. If the mining work was done systematically without an eye on quick gain, the outcome may have been different. However, the mania passed. The only advantage gained was the slight drop in malaria due to the clearing of all the wild bushes and the reduction of mosquitoes. Many of the gold prospectors, realizing that there was no gold boom, retired to the normal estate life of growing coffee & tea. The hustle and bustle died away to be replaced again by the hum of birds and insects and the occasional growl of a wild animal.

Nobody really remembers the Malabar mania anymore…

But then avarice has no limits. People never learn do they? Close behind the heels of the 1882 end to the Malabar Mania came the Bengal gold mania of 1890.

Journal of the Statistical Society of London By Statistical Society (Great Britain)page 541,
Minutes of evidence taken before the Select Committee of the House of Lords, Pg 399-429,
Records of the Geological Survey of India By Geological Survey of India – king 1875, 1878)
The planting industry of S India – F Ford
The Rise of Business Corporations in India, 1851-1900 - Shyam Rungta
website (thanks for the pictures)
Gold Image courtesy of the
California Geological Survey.
Glenrock mines brochure - Google books

For those interested
How is a gold deposit formed? Simply explained, water from rains seep into the earths crust and once heated by the magma, shoots up through the various fractures in the crust. As it goes up it takes with it dissolved minerals such as gold. As the steam reaches cooler rocks above, the minerals separate to form veins near the earth’s surface. These are the gold deposits in gold reefs. See an example of a quartz vein in the picture beside.

The Scorned Dewan

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

As you delve deep into history, you go past the myriad dates, the armies, the fights, the philosophers, the adventurers, the lucky ones, the unlucky ones, the destined ones and all other kinds of human forms. Among these many distinguished & not so distinguished persons who created a past for us, are some who are more known for the wrongs they committed, the wrongs that sometimes changed the destiny of a nation or as in this case, that of Malabar.

The rulers of Malabar in medieval times were the Zamorins of Calicut. They ruled the upper districts of Malabar between 700 and 1800 AD and administered the ocean trade, for some thousand years. Having been ably supported by the Moppila’s of Malabar, they finally succumbed to continuous onslaught by overseas invaders, starting with the Portuguese whom they eventually drove out; the Dutch whom they kept away, the Mysore Sultans who routed Malabar and finally to the very clever ruses by the very forces they thought would help them regain lost glory. The final bastion was the English, who took away the reins of Malabar and from then on laid claim to the whole Indian subcontinent.

If you refer to the many Malabar history books, the reasons were many. The Zamorin’s had been battered by the two hundred years of fighting the Portuguese and the Mysore Sultans. Many internal fights with the Kolathiri’s in the North and the Cochin kings in the south had reduced the wealth and might of the great Zamorin. The coffers of the Calicut treasury were empty, the mint produced little coinage. The morale was low and the Nair’s were not expert in the modern fighting techniques, though they were on the other hand good at guerilla warfare. Smaller chiefdoms were continuing with petty rebellions. The Moppilas were directing their own operations, after the Maraikar fiasco & tax revenues had crashed.

If you ask the Zamorins, they would say that the final (legal) nail in the coffin was driven in by a noble Brahmin, the Dewan (finance minister) of Calicut. The story proved an interesting read though devoid of detail. In history books, including in the glorious Malabar manual by Logan, this man is referred to as Shamnath.

Let us first look at the broad scenario - The Zamorin and family had fled Calicut to escape Tippu’s armies and taken refuge in Travancore. Ravivarma the Eralpad, 2nd in line led the fight against Tippu, after collaborating with the British. The agreement between the Zamorin and the EIC was that after defeating Tippu, the Zamorin’s powers would be restored. However after Fullerton’s attack on the Palakkad fort, the fort was returned to Tippu and Fullerton transferred. The powers of the Zamorin were never restored. The Muslims under Manjeri Hassan had in the meantime captured Arshad Beg Khan, Tippu’s army chief. Tippu offered Zamorin’s their powers back if they would release Arshad Khan and also help Tippu defeat the Travancore kings. The Zamorin refused.

Shamnath appears in history pages during January 1789 when as the Zamorin’s chief minister, he is deputed to Mysore to negotiate a return of the Zamorin’s powers from the Mysore Sultans, namely Tippu.

Shamnath, later during the1790 period gets involved with handing over Velu Tampi Dalawa’s (Dewan of Travancore) appeals to the British. The Zamorin had returned from Travancore learning that it could be wise to channel all trade through himself, like the Varma’s of Travancore did successfully against the Dutch. There is also a record of Shamnath’s arguments with trader Choucara Moosa at Tellichery where he gets snubbed (and threatened) and lodges a complaint with the EIC. Moosa had apparently agreed to supply twenty Candys of Cardamom to the EIC (in addition to the usual timber), but failed to do so though maintaining amicable terms with the company.

Then he appears on 18th August 1792 during the agreement discussions between WG Farmer & Manavikrama Raja, the Zamorin. In the legal agreement his name is stated as Shamnath (The Zamorin yielded only after 2-3 months of negotiations and after Shamnath convinced him finally to do it). In books, he is referred to as Sarvad Karridar (Karyakkaran or Karyasthan) or principal minister. In this agreement Shamnath on behalf of the Zamorin cedes the administration of part of Malabar (the Kolathiris’ the Bibi of Cannanore etc had done likewise but much earlier in 1790, for their part of the territories) to the British (Note that Tippu’s hold on Malabar were broadly ceded to the British after his defeat & death, but this agreement was the legal transfer of administration).

Shamnath is then authorized as an agent by the EIC to collect pepper on behalf of the company. The Zamorin fires Shamnath who withheld pepper revenue for himself (page 488 MM – Page & Boddam sent to enquire into this matter, also confirmed by John Agnew in his report), and he is now jobless. By 1793, Shamnath had become an administrator of the East India Company, formally changing sides. Shamnath also at this stage managed to negotiate away from the Zamorin the very lucrative revenue from export & customs duties for the port of Calicut. For his esteemed services he was paid one percent of the Zamorin’s land revenue collections!! However all this manipulation meant that the Zamorin eventually lost all control of the trade revenues, the minister profited and the EIC continued business with individual suppliers as before.

This last step infuriated the upstarts in the Padinjare Kovilakom who had by then seen through the ruse. Shamnath had promised the family that he would get the land in Nedunganad (Palghat) restored to the Kovilakom and the trade ties tightened. Instead he had given away the only remaining revenue of the Zamorins, that too while working as a legal attorney of the Zamorin.

According to PCM Raja, as enumerated in his book ‘Samuthirimaar’, all the agreements were made to the benefit of the English due to the cunning manipulations of Shamnath. Between 1795 and 1797, the feeble and old Zamorin had hardly any powers left. Shamnath assisted the English in taking over all the family property and lands. The grand Maharajah had thus been systematically reduced to the role of a common citizen.

The young upstarts in the Zamorin family had in the meantime been collaborating with Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma in the first organized revolt against the English. Shamnath started to get nervous. He requested his new masters for support and protection. Accordingly Ravivarma was formally warned by Stevenson and this enraged both the uncle and nephew of the Zamorin family.

Roughly a year later, the nephews of the Zamorin decide to cork the hole in the leaky boat by planning an assassination of Shamnath for his treachery after luring him to the ancestral Zamorin house or the Mankavu Padinjare kovilakom. One can imagine the extreme state of agitation in their minds, for a Nair to harm a Brahmin in those days was unthinkable. The Kovilakom itself is a huge courtyard with the Bhagavathy temple in the middle and the men’s quarters on the left and the Women’s lodge on the right. Between the temple and the women’s quarters is the Thampuran’s dwelling. Behind the temple is located the Ayappan Kavu and the Kalari where martial arts are practiced.

Swaminatha Pattar was lured to the temple and stabbed by the young Ravivarma Unni Nambi and his uncle Ravivarma. Shamnath does not die though and the Ravi Varma’s flee to the Wayanad hills. The Rani or Amma Thamburatti is deeply troubled by the terrible act committed on a Brahmin and orders that a special puja be conducted. Accordingly a Brahmarakshassu is installed between the Ayyappan temple and the Kalari at the Kovialkom.

The young upstarts take to the hills. They are joined there by Unni Moota Mooppan, some Coimbatore Gownders, Kunhi Achan from Palakkd etc. Capt Burchall pursues them through the Anamalai’s in Waynad, but they escape to Travancore. The East India Company offers a reward of Rs 5000/- for their capture.

Later on the RaviVarma’s join Pazhassi raja in the second organized revolt against the British. However Ravivarma who had been injured earlier succumbed to the infection. The nephew Ravi Varma was later captured and he commits suicide in the temporary jail.

The Ravi Varma’s started the revolt against the British, joined and spearheaded later by the Pazhassi raja. This was the first but unheralded revolt against the British, not the well known Rani Jhansi revolt as stated in history books. However, one must admit that it was a revolt against the EIC, not the British.

If you read the other contemporary books written on Malabar history, you will find that Brahmins had unfettered access across individual domains & territories of Malabar and had access to nobility. For that reason they were the spies, the go betweens and negotiators in many cases. Secondly they were well lettered, not only in Sanskrit, but also in other languages over time. Loren Howard Michael (Land Control in Indian History: A Case Study of Malabar, 1766-1835) sums it as follows – Men like Shamnath Pattar and a variety of other Brahmins were actually double agents working for the Zamorin at first and then for the British.

However on this general implication I must disagree, for there were many wonderful bureaucrats and administrators amongst the Brahmin’s from historic times and also after the advent of government in India. They were by and far hard working and honest, guided very much by their stringent religious principles. TN Sheshan, the famous Palakkad Iyer who was the home secretary and the election commissioner, once stated rightly, though in jest, ‘Palakkad has always produced the best bureaucrats and cooks’.

Shamnath the Brahmin from Chatapuram (Kalpathy) Palakkad had a proper Indian name, which by the way was Swaminatha Iyer. More details of his life are unfortunately not available.

A survey of Kerala History – A Sreedhara Menon Page 259
Samoothirimaar PCM Raja – Pages 150-160
Malabar Manual – Logan – Pages 495-500
A collection of treaties – Logan Page 201
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Ayyar Pages 234-250
India and the Indian Ocean world – Ashin Das Gupta - Pages 128-131

Chavers of Malabar

Posted by Maddy Labels:

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

Malbar manual - W Logan
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 – website, thanks

The Zamorin’s Italian mercenaries

Posted by Maddy Labels:

We go back today to the balmy days of autumn 1503. The palace intrigues at the Zamorins palace in Kottaparamba (today’s mananchira area) were running wild. The relationship between the Kolathiri’s in the north were improving but the relationship with the ageing Cochin king Unni Goda Varma was as bad as it could be. The Zamorin Manavikaram (1500-1513) was fighting the Portuguese who had increased their attempts at gaining monopoly of pepper & spice trade. The Mopilahs were troubled, the Arabs and other Pardesi merchant groups livid at the possibility of their trade being taken over by the Parangi. An astute reader will note here that we are talking about two groups of Muslims in Malabar, the Moplah & the Paradesi (even though other foreigners were also called pardesi’s, I am referring here to the Muslim pardesi). In the course of the study of history of Malabar, you will see that the second group was the one with more to lose and did their bit to manipulate the former in the name of brotherhood, religion & ancestry.

But we will look at the story of two unlikely candidates who had strayed into the maelstrom of the bitter politics that was underway, they were two Milanese gem cutters, who had run away from the Portuguese at Cochin and found sanctuary of the Zamorin’s employ at Calicut. They were in the course of history to get termed as siege engineers, gunsmiths, lapidaries, bombardeiros, armorers, renegados and so on… The two persons bore the names Joao Maria (John or Giovanni Mario) and Piero Antonio (Peter Anthony) respectively. While many people had alluded to their presence in Cochin and Calicut, Varthema the Milanese spy in Moorish disguise visiting Calicut who eventually left his famous travelogue, came across them and documented their sad state of affairs.

They had originally come with Vasco Da Gama on his second voyage of 1502 and were based in Cochin. Their relations with the Portuguese soured in 1503 and they absconded to Calicut. One thing surprising is that they took this chance to break away from the Portuguese knowing fully that it becomes far more difficult to get back to Italy without the Portuguese ships offering transit. Did they leave for monetary reasons? Yes, it could be as the Portuguese solados were paid only on return to Lisbon, usually. Or was it something else? Yes, they did make money from the Zamorin. But history is mum in those areas.

Nevertheless, they found their way up to Calicut and quickly found employment with the Zamorin. He had learnt from previous skirmishes with the Gama and Cabral that without guns, their cause was lost. Soon the gem cutters were put to work at casting field guns (many books also mention small cannons) and shells for the same. Until then all that the Zamorin had were two cannons that nobody knew how to load, aim or fire (Whiteway citing Thomas Lopas an eye witness). During their stay at Calicut the Italian craftsmen cast 400-500 ‘brass’ field guns & cannons. Some of these guns were mounted in Moplah ships that sailed the waters.

KV Krishna Iyer in his book “Zamorins of Calicut’ (page 160) mentions that the two married Moplah women (this is indeed surprising, I somehow feel it could be outcaste Hindu Women) and eventually trained the Moplah’s under command of the Zamorin (I believe that the head of these could have been the chief armorer Mamally Marakkar) to load, aim and fire the guns in a disciplined and quick fashion.

C Achyutha Menon in his ‘Cochin state manual’ mentions that the guns made by these stone cutters only fired stones as fast as one could throw them and these were no match for the Portuguese artillery.

In the meantime the Portuguese keep on asking the Zamorin for the return of the two Italian deserters. The Zamorin did not budge.

Let us see the most exhaustive of the accounts by Varthema – Adventurer Varthema is now back at Calicut after traveling the Coromandel and the SE Asia, sometime around 27th August 1505 (aged 35 years or so). He is all this time disguised as an Arab Fakir named Yunus. Here he goes around clad only in a dhothi, bare-chested, around the streets of Calicut. And he eventually meets the two gunners and become friends. The gunners state that they meet the Zamorin every day & that they were his chief men. However they were stuck in Calicut since they had no way of going back across the seas. Varthema tells them that the only way is to go back with the Franks (Portuguese) after getting a pardon more so as they were now outlaws but also that he Varthema would discuss the pardon with the Voceroy. The Gunners confirm that they had trained 15 people of the Zamorin on how to fire the ‘Spingarde’. Varthema tells them that they are committing terrible acts against the Christians, hearing which the Antonio weeps and Mario states that it does not matter where he dies, Rome or Calicut.

Later, when Varthema hears that Portuguese are ships were on the way to Cochin, he forgets his one year traveling relationship with the moors and proceeds to Cannanore, meets Lourenco & travels thence to Cochin to explain to the Portuguese about the Zamorin’s armaments and massive preparations (with Turkish support) against them. He then requests that the viceroy Albuqurque pardon the two Italian gunners promising him to bring them over and thus weaken the Zamorin. He then proceeds to communicate the next plans with the Italians through a spy, after moving to Cannanore. The spy goes back & forth 5 times.

As we found earlier, both were married locally and Mario has a son and a slave at home whereas Antonio has no issues. Varthema cautions them not to speak about the escape to their wives or child and to come on an appointed day with only their money & jewels. The Italians planned to pack & take with them a 32 carat diamond, a 24 carat pearl, 2000 rubies of 1 to 1.5 carats weight, 64 rings, assorted jewelry, jewelers wheels & animals ( 7 birds, 3 apes & 2 cats) etc. Mario’s slave who saw these preparations knew immediately that they were trying to escape and went to the Zamorin with the news. The king did not believe him and instead sent 5 Nair’s to guard the Italians quarters. The slave is frustrated and then goes to the Calicut Kadi and tells him about the flight and that the Italians had betrayed the Zamorin by telling the Portuguese about the preparations for war. The Kadi and the merchants of Calicut Valiangadi decided to take preemptive action.

At that time, March 1506, in Calicut there were a band of traveling Gioghi’s (I guess Gypsies) and their king. The Muslims go to the head of the Gioghi and contract him to kill the Italians. The man sends 200 of his men to take care of the matter. A fight ensues, 40 of the Gioghis are injured, and six killed, finally they manage to murder the two Italians with their trademark weapon, the swinging iron bit cast from a sling.

Thus ended the life of the two Italian mercenaries who laid their lives for the battles of Malabar, albeit unwillingly.

Joao Maria’s wife and child escape. Varthema buys the boy for 8 gold ducats and christens him as Lorenzo, but the boy dies soon after in 1506 of ‘French disease’ – VD, ulcer or cancer (something that Varthema concludes was introduced after the Portuguese arrival). Varthema then goes to Cochin and remains there until Dec 1507.

Richard Burton, not otherwise known for his accuracy states - For correctness of observation and readiness of with, Varthema stands in the foremost rank of the old Oriental travelers.

Many other historians have remarked about a lack of consistency in Varthema’s writings and missing parts as though he had something to hide or that he had lifted certain parts from other sources. Some contend it was due to his life as a Muslim spy. Now I wonder after all this, what a stone/gem finisher has to do with casting cannon, just like Varthema’s wild claims that he himself could cast cannon, maybe the tradesmen learnt different trades in those times.

If you look at Varthema’s notes, they do sound a bit silly today; especially the Malayalam lines & their translation about a trader who wanted this Italian and his friend to deflower his wife (a Chetty wanting that? Unbelievable!). One wonders how the text is taken for granted by so many over the many generations that have gone by. So to extract out the fact in these volumes compiled by mere travelers and not historians, takes much cross reading. On the other hand, it does lend great brevity to those troubled times.

Pearson the eminent historian confirms that these two Milanese did make 500 cannon out of which 200 were fitted on the Zamorin’s ships.

Castenheda confirms the Gunners skill and leadership qualities - There were at this time in Cochin two Milanese lapidaries belonging to the factory, named John Maria and Pedro Antonio, who had been brought to India by Vasco de Gama. These men deserted to the Zamorin, to whom they conveyed intelligence of the consternation which reigned among the inhabitants of Cochin, and of the small number of men that remained with the rajah. These men also made offer to the Zamorin to make ordnance for him resembling those of the Portuguese, which they afterwards did, as will appear in the sequel of this history, and for which service they were highly rewarded.

In the course of the night, by the advice of the Italian lapidaries who had deserted to the enemy, the Zamorin caused a sconce or battery to be erected directly over against the place where Pacheco was stationed, on which five pieces of ordnance were placed, from which great service was expected in the ensuing battle, owing to the narrowness of the pass. Before day, the van of this prodigious army arrived at the sconce of the Italians, and began immediately to play off their ordnance against the caravel, which was so near that it was an absolute miracle that not a single shot did any harm. But our cannon were better served, and every shot did execution among the enemy: and so well did they ply their guns, that before sunrise above thirty discharges were made from our caravel. Sixty-six of these were paraws, having their sides defended with bags of cotton by advice of the Italians, to ward off our shot; and each of these had twenty-five men and two pieces of ordnance, five of the men in each paraw being armed with calivers or matchlocks.

The two Italian deserters, while they acknowledged the valor of the Portuguese in the late action, represented that it would be impossible for them to continue to bear up long against such vast odds without reinforcements, and recommended the frequent reiteration of assaults, under which they must necessarily be at last overthrown. All those rajahs and chiefs who were for continuing the war, joined in opinion with the Italians.

Later on, the Zamorin’s desire to make even more guns for defense increased. Varthema also recounts of a Jew in Calicut who had built (for the Zamorin) a beautiful galley in which were four large iron cannon, who according to him, by an act of providence drowned while taking a bath in the pond. Around 1505 - 1507 four Venetians are seen to settle down in Calicut making cannons for the Zamorin and finally it is recorded by Gaspar Luis De Viega (1546) that a number of corrupt ‘casados’ had started to supply artillery & gun powder to the Zamorin’s armies. The Venetians in 1508 contributed carpenters, caulkers, artillery and two whole galleys to a fleet sent out in support of the Zamorin.

History of the Discovery and Conquest of India 1497 and 1505- Hernan Lopez de Castaneda.
The travels of…. Ludvico Di Varthema
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Iyer
Malabar & the Portuguese – K M Panikkar
The Cochin State Manual – C Achyutha Menon
Portuguese in India – F C Danvers
Malabar Manual – W Logan
Rise of Portuguese power in India – RS Whiteway
Portuguese in Malabar – K Ramunni Nair

Pics - Web sources, ack with thanks