Environs of the Palakkad Gap

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Part 1 – The Kavalappara family in history

While Malabar history books never fail to mention the usual suspects like the Zamorin’s and the Nediyirippu swaroopam, the Moplahs, the Marakars, the Perumbadappu Swaroopam Cochin royal family, the Kolathunadu rulers, the Palakkad Achans, the Ali raja’s, the Valluva Konathiris and so on, smaller but very influential families such as the Kavalppara are usually sidelined or barely mentioned in passing. If one were to cast a critical eye on the role of the Kavalappara Nair’s he or she would see that they had an important role in the final tabulations. Like for example the role of the Kavalapaara nairs in establishing the ascendancy of the Travancore raja’s such as the Marthanda Varma over Malabar during a critical phase, or various aspects of trade. Now to understand that to some extent, one must go back and study the details of the family and their role.

Many readers of Malabar history would have gleaned by now that much of the prosperity of the area was decided by the need of the people of the West who wanted to better their lifestyle and thence aided by the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the monsoon winds came to the source. The money came from across the seas…the goods and satisfaction came from the east. It may also be noted that whether it was rice from Bengal or Orissa, cotton from the Coromandel farmers, the pearls and gemstones from Tamil lands, or the spice from the Ghats and the hills, the Malabar nobility did little to further local production. They were the aristocracy ruling the trade and the traders and realizing the full advantage they had in controlling the ‘location’.

To understand this even better, one must look at a very popular word used in trade, communication and economy. The word is ‘hub’. Today importers have a hub, airlines have a hub, and multinationals have a manufacturing hub. Well, then again history students always knew about hubs. A hub is in simple terms a transfer point or the central part of a hub and spoke model. Thus Calicut was a hub for trade. Material, be it raw or finished goods reached here. Buyers and sellers congregated in the peaceful environment and conducted honest trade. Both made money and the aristocracy by mediating and providing the infrastructure, collected the cream which was roughly 20% of the proceeds of the final sale plus the ad hoc protection money (the nair pada’s kaval panam) levied on the easterly suppliers and some landowners. The go betweens were of a number of castes and nationalities, providing insurance and comfort for the far flung big wigs and lynch pins. For example the Chetty’s helped maintain a relationship with the major Tamil suppliers, the Chaliyas helped maintain a relationship with the cotton suppliers of the Coromandel and the Jews and Arabs stationed locally with the master traders of the Red Sea. As we see today, the hubs moved along from time to time for various political and weather related reasons (e.g. the Periyar floods ruining the Muziris port or the Moplah traders moving from Quilon to Cochin to Pantalayani due to harrasment). Quilon was a pre medieval hub, and then it was the Calicut region which in the 19th century shifted again to Cochin. For recent international hubs, one only needs to look at Dubai, Singapore as examples….

During all this activity between the early times and today, there is one location which was the main conduit for the passage of goods and people from the lands around South India to Malabar, Cochin and Travancore. It was the Palakkad region. It proved to be very important due to the topography of Kerala, protected from the East by the uninterrupted & heavily forested Western Ghats opening up just one ‘major’ pass around Palakkad. And for this very reason the rulers of the area profited. They controlled and protected the people and trade material that went back & forth through the inhospitable terrain over many centuries. As time and tide went by, these local rulers and chieftains held their own, using treaties and relationships with the rulers on either side, the Cochin Rajas to the South and the Zamorins to the North. The Valluvakonathiri’s, the Palakkad raja’s and the Kavalappara Nairs are these regional rulers. While the other two claimed royal lineage, how did the Kavalappara’s stand neck to neck? How powerful where they? So to find that out, we will cover the Kavalappara family in this essay.

The Kavalappara family

The Kavalappara Moopil Nayar or Karekkat Moothar lays claim to the area as a grant from the inimitable Cheraman perumal. The legend goes very much like the Zamorin’s, the departing Permual gives a sword and told the Nayar that the land he clears is his. The strong lad finally cleared the space between Ongallur hill and Kaniapuram canal and became the ‘adhipan’ of 18 desams, with the title karekkad moopil nayar. Thus the Kavalappara Swaroopam’s geographical limit stretched from Kaniyamburam canal in the east to Ongalloor in the west, Bharatappuzha in the south and Mundakkottukurussi in the north.

But the gift of approximate15 square miles of land around Shornur was not prime property. It was somewhat rocky, and the Nayar named it Kavalappara or false rock (I feel it could be Kavala ppara or rocky region at the cross roads). The kavalappara moopan had initially some 1000 nayar warriors (which later grew to 5000 at the height of his powers) aligned to him. This was I believe the main reason why the leaders of Travancore, Cochin and Calicut needed him, so also his control over the Palakkad gap and the main retail and wholesale open markets at Alathur and Vaniamkulam.

Interestingly, historian NM Nampoothiri points out - Circumstances clearly prove that the ruling family of Kavalappara belonged to a group of Migratory Saivites, their family deity is Siva, worshipped in Eruppa temple, west of Aryankaavu.

And so we go to Kavalppara (Historians have termed it Kavilppara, Caulparra or Cowlpara) a desam in the Karekkat Amsom of the Valluvanad taluk. The origins are said to be from the kulam (not pond but lineage) formed by Karalla atta or amma who was one of the 12 born to the Pulayai/parayi caste beauty and the Brahmin saint Varuchi (Refer Parayi petta pandirukulam – Aithihyamala). The family rose to fame in the area and held on to their reigns allied to either the Rajah of Palakkad or the Rajah of Cochin until the hostilities with the Zamorin starting around 1748. They have variously been mentioned as the naduvazhi’s under the suzerainty of the Palakkad Achan or the Cochin raja at different times and indirectly under the Zamorin at other times. Until they became enemies, the Kavalappara Nair stood to one side of the Zamorin in the ceremonial Mamankham festival. The complex relationship with the Zamorin’s rule is interesting, and to understand it a quick explanation is needed. The Kavalappara was earlier under the Valluva Konathiri whom he had defeated. Then the Zamorin used a policy of appeasing the feudatories of Vellaattiri and conferring upon them the areas they originally held under Vellaattiri. He was thus able to win over Dharmoth Panicker, Pulappatta Nair and Kavalappara Nair. That is how the Samoothiri became the master of Malappuram, Nilambur, Vallappanattukara and Manjeri as well as the Palakkad regions, which were under these feudal lords. The Eralpad (Samoothiri’s second in command) had the responsibility to rule over these lords as supreme commander over them, with Karimpuzha as his base.

At the peak of his glory, the Moopil Nair of Kavalappara lorded 96 villages from Muttangal to Thottungal and from Bharathappuzha River to Mandakkottukurasi near Shoranur (Chiramannur). The junior members in the Kavalappara family were known as Unni Elaya Nair and the female members were known as Nethiyar. The Palace of ‘Kavalapara Mooppil Nair’ is some 5 miles off Cheruthuruthy, in Kolapulli..

The Decline

Things changed after the Zamorin decided to wage war against the Palakkad achan and as we know, the Achan resorted to protection from the Hyder Ali of Mysore. As the Zamorins were besieged by the Mysore ruler, the Zamorin family as well as the Kavalappara family fled to Travancore. The wars and struggles went on and on till about 1760-61 when the Kavalppara family got back their independence with the support of the Travancore rulers who wanted access to the pepper & other resources in the region (for supply to the Dutch VOC). In 1762 they attacked the Zamorn’s army at Trichur allied with the Marthanda Varma. This was about the time, the Kavalppara family established a Kottaram in the lines of Travancore custom (and not as a kovilakom as the chief’s of Malabar did) in Kolapulli.

The Nayar then joined hands with the British in the war against the Mysore kings and following their victory was reinstated by the Dewan Kichu Pillai of Travancore as the lord of Kavalappara. Nevertheless, life was not to prove easy for them for the Cochin king claimed the Kavalappara territory. Finally in 1792, like many others he too signed an agreement with the English after getting his property assessed at around Rs 18000. The bickering continued with the Palakkad raja & Cochin kings till 1804 when finally a treaty was signed and a Malikhana was provided (Rs 1,000 per annum) if they all exhibited good & dutiful behavior to the British superiors.

For a long period of time the Moopil did not allow Muslims to settle in his area. It was only in the early 20th century that this changed and in 1950’s land was first allotted to one.

So as you can see, during various periods of history this family was either aligned to the Zamorin or the Cochin king, but finally figured that the Travancore kings were better allies, till of course the British established an agreement with him in exchange for Malikhana. Soon enough they, like the other lords landed in further arrears and by the end of the 19th century had gone under a court of wards. After the death of the head of the royal family, Karakkat Kumaran Raman Kochunni Mooppil Nair in 1964, the family estates were caught in dispute among the family members. The temple and the palace properties were thence managed by the receiver.

The Kavalppara Mooppil Nair has many feudal rights and also rights in conducting certain customs like “Smarthavicharam” and ‘Yagaraksha” of Brahmin communities. But they also produced well known artistes such as Kavalappara Narayanan Nair Asan who became a Kathakali exponent. Under the special powers accorded to him by the Zamorin of Calicut the, Kavalappara Nayar was entitled to sit and eat with the Brahmins.

The Kavalappara Elaya Nair was involved in trying to mediate between Mahatma Gandhi and the Zamorin over the entry of harijans into Hindu temples. He wrote a letter to the Zamorin in 1933, beseeching him to take notice of the changed times, people's mentality, and fast instances, and to find out some way to solve the problem of allowing temple entry to Harijans, at least for the sake of saving life of the greatest man of the world.

Some fanciful legends

As with all these big families, legends abound.

One goes thus - The origin of Kavalappara Swaroopam was at the Pallickal or Pallithodi near Shoranur. A courageous Nair youth who was an expert in martial arts established his rule within the earlier mentioned geographical limits using his intelligence and capabilities and with the help of 999 (Aayirathilonnukuravu) Nair army became the feudal ruler. In the beginning Mooppil Nair was loyal to Valluvakkonathiri but afterwards he shifted his loyalty to the Samoothiri. Due to some misunderstanding Samoothiri turned against Mooppil Nair. He defeated Kavalappara Nair and took away the badges of sword and buckles, the symbol of feudal rulers. It is said that a cunning young Nair went to Samoothiri’s Kovilakam in Calicut and cleverly took back the symbol of authority and took asylum of Venadu Raja. Afterwards he took the post of Ayyazhippada Nair and with the backing of Nair army maintained his power.

The forest area in the name of Anthimahakalan kotta was used for the stay and practice of Nair army of Kavalappara Mooppil Nair. It was for their use Anthimahakalan temple and a 3 ½ acre wide Anthimahakalan kulam (pond) was constructed. For the use of low castes the Moopil constructed Kollanchery pond. Aryan kavu, Anthimahakalan kavu, Kayiliad kavu are also temples related to Kavalappara.

It is said that at one time the Karekkad house was possessed by a ghost. This was the reason why the family established a Kottaram in Kolapulli and moved to the new location.

Another legend goes thus - It appears that the Cheraman perumal has a minister who was from the Tamil lands. His supporters were the Vellala chetties. All of them settled in Kavalappara. They conducted and coordinated the trade in the Alathur & Vaniyamkulam markets and were held in high esteem, the only people who wore their turbans, and retained them even when sitting in front of the Moopil nayar.

Some Rituals

The Aryankavu pooram is an annual event in the area. The vela at the Arayankavu lasts for 21 days, starting on Meenam 1.The first days are the trade fair, followed by the puppet play called Tholppavakkoothu (leather puppet play), which is a ritual art performed during the annual festivals in the Kaali temples of Palakkad district.

The theme of the play is based on the Kamba Ramayana, narrated in a diction that is a mixture of Malayalam and Tamil dialectical variations. The play covers the whole gamut of events from Lord Sree Rama's birth to his coronation as the King of Ayodhya. The shadow play is presented in the 'Koothumadam', a specially constructed oblong play house on the temple premises.

On the 21st day, they have the Nayaru pooram, when the Kavalappara Moopil nayar (in old times) arrives, wearing his ceremonial outfit, holding a sword and wearing the diamond bracelets. Thus he arrives for the nilapadu nilakkal on the specially made Thara or platform. Here he meets the small chiefs of the 18 desams and provides instructions and orders

The Kavalappara family conducted the ritual cornation of a sucessor, much like the Zamorin, titled the Aritittuvazhcha.
The family today

Some members of the family moved to Trichur. The Kavalappara lands are no longer lorded by them, and as the case files gather dust, their history continues to be a collection of vocal legends and stories, much like the rest of Malabar.

In summary, they were a very important family lording over a strategic location and lived by regulating and conduct of trade and transport of goods through the Palghat gap. As a smaller principality they aligned often with differing powers to maintain their status and position and held their sway until the 19th century after which, like the rest of feudal Malabar, disintegrated, leaving only temple rituals, memories, legends and a desolate and unused palace in their wake. Nevertheless, their historical remains are vast, critical, and paramount in understanding Malabar & its history.

Part two will deal with the related history of Vaniamkulam and effect of the higher castes on the traders and the indigenous people. It will for example show how a trading Jainist culture changed with time and invasion.


Kovilagankalum Kottarangalum – Murali
Modern Kerala: Studies in social and agrarian relations - K. K. N. Kurup
A comparative study of the tolpavakoothu and the wayang kulit shadow puppet theatre – Nyoman Sedana


Kavalappara Kottaram – CPUK Krishnan
To see clips of the Aryankavu pooram click here


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Very interesting post. Look forward to Part 2. Was Kavalappara also one of the sub-cultures which grew up/settled in the fertile Nila valley? What was the economic base for the swaroopam? Hope the coming part will address these issues.

  1. Anonymous


    Eagerly waiting for your blog about Vaniyamkulam.
    My ancestors are from Vaniyamkulam. My great great grandmother
    married a doctor( apparently he was the only doctor in the area) and moved to Cherpulassaery 5 generations ago.

    I found out about this only a year ago, when I accidentally stumbled upon an old aadhaaram document in my ammumma's wooden suitcase !

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CHF...

    The aboriginal culture in the Nila valley were later lorded by the Kavilappara family. They probably moved into the location as we will see in the next part. Like the other rulers, they as overlords collected revenue and adhoc taxes from the traders, settlers and the trade, or so I believe.

  1. Maddy

    anonymous - you are welcome to favour us with your name. and please do visit often and read about the fascinating culture that moulded us..

    The Vaniamkulam and Alathur markets were at a time of strategic importance..

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    I have heard about Kavalappara as I was born close to it. Today I relioshed an indepth study of controller of the trade route. Looking forward for the 2nd part. Thanks.

  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Moopil constructed Anthimahakalan Temple as also Anthimahakalan kavu. This gives an inference that all Kavus were meant for the downtrodden (Low in the social order) I had a notion that smaller shrines, including wayside ones, were the Kavus. Interestingly I have known several Tamil brahmin families (of Kerala) treating some kavus as their ancestral family deities.

  1. Bala Menon

    There is also a great story about a legendary elephant called Kavalappara (which belonged to the Kavalappara family)and which was shot dead by British troops after it ran amok...

    There is a Kerala folk song which I remember hearing many many years ago:

    "Kavalappapra enna veetil janichhatil,
    Kavalappara enna peru veenu...
    Then the song continues..
    And the last lines say:

    "British karendu kootarane..
    Cochikarey vazhti stuthichedenam
    Vachilla vediyavar ithra nerum...."
    Can't recollect more lines..
    All the best Maddy, I will be contacting you soon about other matters..

    Bala Menon - Toronto

  1. kolanu

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  1. Achu

    Interesting post.

    I would like to point out a factual mistake found in the post.

    'Zamorin was able to win over Dharmoth Panicker, Pulappatta Nayar and Kavalappara Nayar to his side by appeasing them' is factually incorrect. Dharmoth Panicker was always with Zamorin. According to Prof. Krishna Iyer Dharmoth Panicker was one among the trinity that supported Zamorin in ruling the kingdom. the other two were Mangattachan and Thinayencheri Elayathu. Moreover Dharmoth Panicker was the Guru to Royal family. The first mention of Dharmoth Panicker in the available history of Calicut (according to Krishna Iyer)was in 12th century AD.

    Wish you good luck and look forward for your next post.


  1. Maddy

    thanks Bala & Kolanu..
    Thanks Achu..
    I was talking about the time when the eradis were just on the rise and creating the zamorins, a time when the other chieftains who joined him for many hundred years afterwards, were under the tutelage of the Polathiris..

  1. Juju

    Very interesting details. My grandfather belonged to this family. He was the Elaya Nair and passed away in the 50s.