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Changatham and its origins

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Most Malayalees today would naturally assume that the word Changatham is the base for the term Changathi or friend. One thing I am not too sure is if the word Changathi evolved from Changatham though it may very well have. While the natives of Travancore usually stick to words like Snehithan or loved one, the term loosely used for friend in Malabar is Changathi or its Moplah version Changayee. In reality, the word Changatham has meanings far beyond friendship. Let us take a look, and this will takes you many centuries back, to the martial days of Nairs, the fighting clan of Malabar (I must also mention here that there are some historians who believe that there were even Changathams comprising Thiyya caste warriors in North Malabar).

Experts opine that the word Changatham itself came from the Sanskrit word Sanghatta. The term in Malayalam means a moral binding or union between persons, to start with. So as you can see, there is sense in assuming that the word Changathi evolved from Changatham. However the term Changatham signified a special martial group of Nair’s (hopefully you recall my article on Chavers) well before the 13th century. I state this upon the basis that the terms Changatham and Chaver can be seen in the Payyannur pattu (that will follow in another blog) and hence existed in those ancient days. Now what did they do? Various writers and historians account for the fact that Changathams took the roles of body guards, guides and mercenaries.

Some historians account that Changathams actually provided protection for money; otherwise termed kaval panam (Logan calls it Kaval Phalam – associated with Convoy guarding). This ‘kaval panam’ was provided by wealthy individuals, traders & caravans, and curiously even single women (such as wealthy but excommunicated Namboothiri women – I was a bit mystified by this, but the Malappuarm gazetteer documents so). According to historians Raghava Warrier & Rajan Gurukkal, the systems of hundreds and thousands that supported each chieftain gave way to Changathams after the Cheraman Perumal’s time.

Now a general explanation on various militias around Calicut - Each Swarupam had its own fighting force and Kalari. The Venad force was known as Janam or a risippiti Janam. The Sammotiri 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.
The term Changatham apparently originated from Sanghatta in Sanskrit and this was used by the Portuguese in their chronicles – Jangada, Sanguada or Jancada as used by the Franks was a traditional arrangement in Kerala concerning the terms of service of certain persons. Readers would be surprised to note that the Portuguese also started employing the Jangada and they had similar Jangada mercenaries in their forts. Whiteway (The rise of Portuguese power in India, 1497-1550 - By Richard Stephen Whiteway Pg 12) confirms that the Portuguese had a Jangada for each of their Malabar forts and it was their duty to defend anything entrusted to their with their life and that it was a serious matter to kill them as it involved in a blood feud with all their relatives (Koodi paka). Once the Koodipaka situation erupted, the affected Nair males shaved their heads and entered into a revenge fight unto death. Whiteway also writes about De Souza’s attack on the Telicherry temple (Pg 284) where the two Jangada groups that were guarding the temple were drawn away by another fight and how one of these groups returns the next day, with the chief dressed ornamentally and accompanied buy 10-12 Jangada Nair’s.

Hobson Jobson & Yule’s dictionaries state –

JANCADA, s. This name was given to certain responsible guides in the Nair country who escorted travellers from one inhabited place to another, guaranteeing their security with their own lives, like the Bhats of Guzerat. The word is Malayal. channddam (i.e. changngddam, [the Madras Gloss, writes channdtam, and derives it from Skt. sanghdta, ' union ']), with the same spelling as that of the word given as the origin of jangar or jangada, ' a raft.' These jancadas or jangadas seem also to have been placed in other confidential and dangerous charges.

Thus :

1543. — " This man who so resolutely died was one of the jangadas of the Pagode. They are called jangades because the kings and lords of those lands, according to a custom of theirs, send as guardians of the houses of the Pagodes in their territories, two men as captains, who are men of honour and good cavaliers. Such guardians are called jangadas, and have soldiers of guard under them, and are as it were the Counsellors and Ministers of the affairs of the pagodes, and they receive their maintenance from the establishment and its revenues. And sometimes the king changes them and appoints others." — Correa, iv. 328.

c. 1610. — "I travelled with another Captain . . . who had with him these Jangai. who are the Nair guides, and who are found at the gates of towns to act as escort to those who require them. . . . Every one takes them, the weak for safety and protection, those who are stronger, and travel in great companies and well armed, take them only as witnesses that they are not aggressors in case of any dispute with the Nairs." — Pyrard de Laval, ch. xxv. ; [Hak. Soc. i. 339,and see Mr. Gray's note in loco].

1672. — "The safest of all journeyings in India are those through the Kingdom of the Nairs and the Samorin, if you travel with Giancadas, the most perilous if you go alone. These Giancadas are certain heathen men, who venture their own life and the lives of their kinsfolk for small remuneration, to guarantee the safety of travellers." — P. Vincenzo Maria, 127.

If you have read my blog on the Kuri systems of Kerala., you would have come across Changathi Kuris’ obviously this was meant for a group of Changathis from an erstwhile Changatham.

The Kerala government text book says - The Yogams (councils) of the Namboothiri trustees of temples and temple lands and their privileges were together called Sanketam. In the absence of sovereign authority of the government the Sanketams became real rulers. They administered law and justice in their jurisdiction. The Changatham was a group of warriors who ensured protection and safety to a Desam and to the Sanketam property. Like the Chavers, Changathams were also suicide squads. They were rewarded with a share from the offerings that were received at the temple. The share was called "Kaaval Panam" (remuneration for guarding) or Rakshabhogam. It was with the military backing of these Changathams that the Brahmins established social and political hegemony.
In the 13th century ballad “Payyannur pattu”, you see a mention of these groups, Chavalari pole Niyakaippuram, Changatham venam Perikayippol. More on this and the ballad later. So these local militia with some of their old features continued to exist in the subsequent medieval period of the principalities in the name of 'Changatham', 'Chaver', 'Lokar' and 'Akampati Janam'. It is believed that these bands of soldiers belonging to different communities in the middle ages must have risen out of such companions of honour, originally conceived as body guards of the rulers and local authorities and developed into a landed aristocracy supporting the established order with military power.

Herman Gundert in his Malayalam English dictionary from 1872, defines Sangatham as – Responsible Nayar guide through foreign territories. He lists Changathi as an unrelated entry to Changatham and explains it as companion with a feminine gender as well - Changayichi. Interestingly when used as Changathamakuvan (Gundert gives an example Kamsane konna Goplane kamsanu Changathamakkuvan) it means to ‘send one along, to kill likewise’.

So that is the Nair definition – Companion of honour, closely bonded with a dissoluble bond. Typically this companionship was between males. So when somebody says or sings ‘Changatham koodan vaa’ it means much more than passing friendship…As I explained earlier, ‘koodipaka’ goes past many generations..

Changadam – These famous Malabar rafts (paired longboats) called Changadam are different from Cangatham, but here again, looking at Barbosa’s account translated in English by ML Dames provides an interesting aside. It states that Changadam is two boats joined or lashed together and this bond is synonymous with the moral bond between two Changatham members (Pgs 48, 49). Dalgado’s Glossario ( pg 181) further gives examples of Vasco Da Gama’s sailing on Changatham’s to the Calicut shores, and states that Yule considers this one of the rare preserved Dravidian words, preserved from classical antiquity even though it is admitted that it may have evolved from the Sanskrit Sanghatta. The Portuguese introduced the Jangada boats later in Brazil, though they used the same term for the Malayali Kattamaram or roped up log rafts.


Herman Gundert – English Malayalam Dictionary
Hobson – Jobson Dictionary
Malabar – William Logan
The rise of Portuguese power in India, 1497-1550 - By Richard Stephen Whiteway
Glossario - Dalgado’s
Duarte Barbosa Chronicles – ML Dames translation
Kerala history – Raghava Warrier, Rajan Gurukkal

Pics - Thanks to

Mammotty & his warriors – Pazhassi Raja an upcoming film
Boats of the World - By Sean McGrail Pg 268


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Interesting post. The subject needs to be explored further. There is a theory that the martial art Kalarippayattu was essentially a Buddhist form of non-violent self defence which grew up in pre-Hindu Kerala. If so, could the word Sanghatha have anything to do with the Buddhist Sangham?

  1. Subash Chandran

    Changatham origin

    'Sum' is 'togehter'- may be 2+2 is 4 or Ganga-Jamuna 'Sam-gama' - together 'gamaya' (going).
    In Kannada Changathi is Samgathi. Malyalam word is a colloquial expression

  1. Subash Chandran

    The word Chamgatham origin can be traced:
    It is from Sum-gatham (together going)
    2+2 sum is 4
    Ganga+Yamuna Sam-gama 'together going'

    Chamgathi (friend) in Malayalam is colloquial word
    In Kannada it is not so corrupt
    They call the friend (accompany) as San-gaathi. The appellations co, com, sum, con, syn, sum all mean same

  1. Subash Chandran

    Chamgatham in Malayalum is corrupt of of Sanskrit: Saam-gathaum (together going)
    2+2 sum is 4
    Ganga+Yamuna Samgamam (together going
    Changathi in Kannada is San-gathi (also from Sanskrit)

    Please contact for more explanations