Kavalappara, Bharatapuzha and Vaniamkulam

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Part 2 – Bharatapuzha, Vaniamkulam and their roles

In the first part I tried to introduce one of the large families that lorded over this very important area at the base of the Palakkad gap. But one of the factual aspects that the reader must keep in mind is that the Palakkad Achans were the family in control of the Palghat area itself and the pass. The place we are focusing on is actually lower down, in the plains where the rushing waters from the Anamalai hills meet, creating the great Bharatapuzha or what is historically known as the Nila River system. The Nila continues its serene course over these fertile plains and finally pours its all and soul out into the Arabian Sea, the very sea that in history enriched Malabar.

Strange isn’t it? Quite a bit of the history of Malabar actually revolves around the river and the sea, the story of the common main, the tiller, the weaver, the immigrant from Tamil Nadu and the artisans. While much history was written around Calicut and Cochin and Kottayam where the figureheads, the raja’s and Thamburan’s lived, the cultivated grain and the forest produce to feed the populace and the export markets came mainly from these plains and from the forests up in the hills. From there they first travelled to the markets in the plains. It is for this reason that there were so many tussles between the two warring factions of Cochin and Calicut over the Valluvanad and Palakkad area and the race thence was to lord over the great water or river festival, the month long trade fair at the very banks of the Nila, at Tirunavaya – the Mamakham. The purpose of many of earlier wars between the chieftains in Malabar was to become the master of trade and maintain control over these food supply lines, eventually to be the greatest of them all – the Thamburan at the Mamankham. As a reader Kerala Varma reminded us in a comment some days ago, the race for lordship over the festival traversed thus

It appears that the Perumpadappu Mooppil originally got the right to preside over Mamaankham after Cheraman Perumal and Valluvakonathiri was in fact his staunch ally. After the Zamorin defeated the Vanneri, he became the head of Mammankham.

A little thought over all this would give you some plausible answers. Why would the Cochin Raja or Perumabadappu Moopil inherit the power after Perumal? It would be a natural assumption that it followed the success of trade at Muziris, where the Cheraman Perumal had his capital. As he left, he passed it on to the neighboring chief of the Perumbadappu Swaroopam. Calicut as you will remember was just a thicket of brushes or ‘chullikad’ that was converted to a large trading town much later. But to lord the trade over the Malabar region was the ultimate aim as explained earlier and the Mamakhom Thamburan was the title to strive for. The Zamorin’s eventually attained this after unraveling all the historical unwritten laws and rules regarding Melkoyma, caste rules governing regional rulers - the Rajya Bharanam such as Khsatriya-hood. The Samanthan Zamorin threw those rules away and wrested power after systematically establishing his suzerainty over the smaller principalities neighboring him, Polanad, Valluvanad, Palakaad and the Kavalappara areas. With that slash through that fabric of tradition, he took over the reins and was the overlord of them all. Retiring to Calicut, he then made sure that the very important food bowl of his empire was personally controlled by the Eralpad or 2nd in hierarchy (and the 2nd in command).

With this basis established let us once again go to the plains, but to reach the plains, we have to follow the majestic river, for the river that was paramount, the river that every Malayali knows, from the stories that arose from the banks, the people who lived there, the lords, the Nampoothiris, the Nayars, the Pulaya aborigines, the Thiyas, the Chettis. They all mentioned the river in their stories, books and thoughts. This is the Nila River or the Bharatapuzha, the very banks of which was where the Panchapandavas of the Mahabharata once rested.

Like a student at large, I am now entering this hallowed ground holding the fingers of a stalwart who studied and wrote the history of this land by studying the people and the land, asking questions as why they were there in the first place. He is the well known historian and Sanskrit pundit Dr N M Nampoothiri, whose works I frequently consult, understanding it little by little, and continuing to trudge on, step by step, each door groaning open to a new world.

And so we go back to the majestic Anamalai hills, or the elephant hills that firmly split the west and the east land mass of south India, home to teeming wildlife, dense forests and untold riches, places where only the aborigines ventured, dark and dangerous corners of those old times. But as fate would so decide, the mountains provided a small crack for history to be created, at the Palakkad gap or pass. As stories of the Yavana traders visiting the rich Cheran ports of Muziris in Malabar possibly on their way back filtered back the rich towns of Kaveripatanam & Poompuhar, they themselves were undergoing religious upheavals of their own, aligning right and left and bringing in caste systems for heavier control of the masses. As a result some artisans and traders took flight, together with the many hundred carts and carriers of trade, through the Palakkad gap to settle around the plains of the Nila. There they lived, among the aborigines, the Malayalans, in the plains bordering the serenely flowing Nila River. The river valley spreads through today’s Taluks like Mannarkkad, Palakkad, Chittur, Ottappalam, Chavakkaad, Perinthalmanna, Tirur and Ponnani. The river unmindful of all this new activity quietly hums its way in a northerly flow through Palakkad, Thrissur and Malappuram districts and finally merges after a 150 mile run in the Arabian Sea near the Ponnani port. It has more than twenty tributaries spread over many parts of three districts of Palakkad, Malappuram and Thrissur.

The Nagarthar Chetties of Kaveripoompattanam had been walking a long way; it was finally time to rest. Their westerly trek followed the route taken by their Para Devatha or clan goddess, the great Kannagi who had fled the Madurai regions and settled down in Muziris – Muchiripattanam. See that, yet another important vignette, a Pattanam or market or emporium in the Malabar regions? This is only one port area in Malabar which carried such a name in history, while we had many a Pattanams in the Cholamandalam or Coromandel.

What the newcomers found was a place where herbs, medicinal plants and forest produce where in plenty. The local Pulayans were content with bringing some of them to the weekly market fairs at the big markets, places where we will soon head to. It was fertile beyond imagination. It was the Valluvanad the land of Valluvan (Pulayan) in the mid Malabar area. The aborigines or the Pulayar’s lived in the hills and the valleys, living their life, in small villages, living off the produce from the hills. The area was then known as Kudanadu (not Kuttanad) and they were under the Cheras. Subsequently the control of the regions of Palakkad, the Nila region etc passed on to the Perumbadappu Swaroopam. But it appears that before they took their seat and based the Swaroopam at Cochin, they were apparently Palakkad based, near the gap. That perhaps explains the Melkoyma (overlordship) of the Cochin king over the Palghat and Kavalappara rulers

Let us start around the turn of the millennium. The Chera’s of Mahodayapuram or Cranganore (today’s Nedumperiyar or Kodungallur area) ruled over Kudanadu, while the Nannan at Ezhimala ruled over Pulinad the northern area. Until the 11th century the scene is a bit clouded with the Kulaskehara Chera’s reigning over the region after which appeared the Manavikrama brothers on the scene and from then on the rule of the Zamorins. While they created Calicut and the infrastructure around them,

Now we have to bring together the two factions who controlled the trade, the Pulavars of Vaniamkulam and the Jain traders at Cranganore. The Pulavars were Nagaratar chetties who had come in from Kaveripoompattinam westwards like the Kannagi. They were the ones who later created the ‘onnukara ayiram’ or one less than 1000, i.e. 999 warriors used by the Cheras which army later turned into another reason for the interest by other rulers in the area. The main trade route extended through the Palghat gap to Ponnani port and there are a number of other ancient roads and routes to various banks on the river like Thrithala and Thiruvanavaya. The early settlers worshipped deities mainly goddesses (Vana Durga the ancestral mother of the karakkatu moothar – some even mention that this is Kannaki) in a Kavu and their own homes. The Nagarathar Chettys were chalias (see my previous blog on Chalia) and were formally known as Konnathara Nakarathar.

Vaniamkulam was also interestingly a formal nagaram or trade corporation in those times. The head was the Karakattu moothar. His cousin was in control at Alathur, the Melarkot muthar. The other members of the area were the large numbers of Jains that migrated from various Chola areas due to the Saivism pressures around the 11th Century.

The Kavalappara family also perhaps has some Saivite origin, possibly through a Chola Muttarayan, looking at their family deity which is Siva in the Eruppa temple in Aryankavu. How the kavu system evolved to a Kshetra system is another interesting development in the Nila area. It is well covered in Dr Nampoothiri’s study, which shows the presence of various forms of worship, intermingling and connecting up nicely, the festivals of the Parayas (pooram), the festivals of the Chettis and (chettivela) so on.

If one looks at the history of the arrival of the Nattukottai Chettis at that area, you will be taken to 1288 when there was turmoil at Ariyurpattinam and some 64 families came to Korattar. They were some of the original settlers who in its heydays, made Vaniamkulam, the nerve center for the trade in artifacts, herbs, cloth etc while the larger ports indulged in sea trade with spices, grains, metals etc. The weekly markets hosted cattle and other trade, possibly even horses. The river later was the means of transport of goods all the way to Ponnani. The trade increased from 1500 and that was possibly the period when a major Tamil temple was erected at Kalpathy in Palakkad and it is believed that this was the time that Kampa Ramayanam also reached the area with one such migrating family. This now takes us back and connects up to the puppet play at the Aryankavu Pooram in the Kavalappara area which I mentioned about in the earlier article.

But today Vaniamkulam and all the trade and other connections seem gone, barring the weekly cattle market. Since the last decade, Vaniamkulam is more popular as the famous shooting location of Malayalam and Tamil films, mainly around the two famous "manas" located in Vaniamkulam panchayat ("Varikkasseri" and "Kunnath").

This introduction is just a start. As you can imagine the medieval Malabar story is a fabric with a number of threads, the story of the Chettiars, the weaver classes, the Thiyas, the Nairs, the Pulayas, the immigrant Brahmins, the Christians, the Nampoothiris and so on.. each running sometimes in different directions with cross purposes. A lack of coherent text recording these times makes it a necessity to conduct more of an anthropological study to arrive at the historic conclusions and this by no means is an easy task, requiring sometimes a long and abstract thought process. Without a definite story line, it is sometimes a bit difficult to weave together a narrative...but I will try

To be continued..........

Vaniaymkulam Vijnaniyam – NM Nampoothiri
Inside the drama-house - Stuart H. Blackburn