The Royalty of Palghat

Posted by Maddy Labels:

We talked a bit about the Cochin Kings, we talked much about the Zamorin, we mentioned the Kolathiri and Arakkal Beevi in passing and we even sidestepped the Velathiri thus far, but did not forget the king of them all, the Cheraman Perumal. We met them all in many historical alleys over the past few months. As I stumbled past these dark alleys with little fear but much excitement, you all kept me company. Thank you for that

The various Naduvazhi swaroopams, like the Perumbadapuu, Nediyirippu, Kurumbra, Kola etc were mentioned and we talked of external factors like the Dutch, the Portuguese the English and so on. We also mentioned the Achans of Palghat, but I did not venture to detail that part at all. I even entered the Nila valley and talked about the lesser though richer Kavalappara feudal family and the Palghat gap, though not getting involved in the history of Palghat itself or its kings. Now that was not quite nice on my part as my origins are actually from Palakkad and so this is overdue.

So we go to Palghat for a while, we will talk about the past of the present granary of Kerala, the un-spoilt green lands, where we still have tribal dwellers, silent valleys, majestic elephants wandering in forests, lush paddy fields, gramams, tharas,  and traditional tharavads with a tank or two, temple festivals and so on…and I belong to such a village and a tharavad in that small village called Pallavur.To get to Palghat from the East in the past, one must cross the Western Ghats and trace out the Palakkad gap which I talked about some time back. As you cross over, you are struck by the change of soil type and green ambience. Gone is the dry and black cotton growing soil and you now see lush green with wetter soil and a spread of paddy fields. From here the Bharatapuzha flows serenely westwards, to meet the sea.

Palghat was unfortunately or fortunately in the paths of hungry people, greedy traders, marauders preying on them, fugitives and of course travelers. On the Tamil side were weavers, grain and gem traders, and on the other side the kingdoms of Cochin and Calicut, vying to maximize the spice trade with the Arabs and the Chinese. The flow of goods and wealth was always through the Palghat country and the strategic location as a wedge in the middle of them all made Palghat a veritable battlefield on many occasions as I detailed out some months ago. Different kinds of people came, went or settled in these plains and later, paddy cultivation ensured low level work. While the Kongu kings never settled, the over-lordship of Palghat careened between the Cochin and Calicut kings acting as Suzerains. Many a type of people remained, like the Tamil Iyers, the Mannadiars, Chettiars, Moplah’s, the Rowthers and of course the Namboothiris and Nairs. They were coexistent with the aborigine indigenous hill tribes, many of whom are still present. And so it was an amalgam of cultures and dialects, each peacefully living in harmony, except when one or the other among the mighty neighboring kings decided to create havoc in those placid lands, and later even the greedy and ruthless Sultans of Mysore.

But to put it in a nutshell why did Palakkad present such a strategic importance to Calicut and Cochin? Because both were dependent on imported rice and other grains from other states, especially Tamil Nadu and Orissa which reached them through the ships of the Marakkar sea merchants. In good times, all was well, but with the arrival of Western powers who threatened these staid shipping lines for their own greedy purposes, the Zamorin believed correctly that he would be in deep trouble if there was a rice shortage. As you may recall, almost all sundry payment to soldiers and services was in rice. So he looked southwards into Palghat which had abundant rice cultivation. For some years the relationship was fine, during some years it bristled, some years it erupted in violence.

The two ruling clans of Palghat were established when the lands were once upon a time  split along the Bharatapuzha with the more productive south ruled by the Nambiati’s from Kollengode and the lands North by the Palghat Achans. As you could imagine, whenever faced with a problem, these two less than mighty rulers, curried favor with the opposite suzerain (Cochin & Calicut) to maintain a proper balance. This continued till eventually the Mysore Sultans destroyed it all, like the veritable monkey and cake story. After the British took over, the North portion belonged to the British, whereas the South continued under the Cochin administration as Chittur – Cochin.

It is said that the very first ruler of Porainad the old term for the area was a Pandian Tamil king called Subhangi who turned out to be a woman in mans clothing. The ruler was called Poraian and the region was part of the Chera empire as time went by this became Nedumporiyar. In 980 Ad we have the Kongu pada story when the Kongu kings army was defeated by the armies of the Nedumporiyar, Ernanad,Perumpadappu (Cochin) & Valluvavad. In compensation, the Poriyar had to give the Chittur area to the Cochin king, Koduvayur to the Ernanad people etc. In all the region had over 15,000-20,000 Nairs of fighting force which naturally was a very important statistic in times of war.

Of course there was a time before these kings when Palghat was the seat of Jainism and Buddhist learning, the birthplace of many famous astrologers and astronomers. But that is something I will cover later in a separate article, some other day.

The Nedumpurayur or Tharoor swaroopam

As thus I get into the story of Shekari Varma.  Ancient Tamil literature terms the raja of Palghat as the Vellappanatta (Vellapanad) raja and the Tharur family traces their lineage back to Sekharai varma. Their original palace and tharavad were once located close to the present Victoria College grounds, but moved to Kallekulangara after Haider came to Palghat. The Southern tip of their rule was Tharavur which later became the seat of the junior branch. They had a peculiar relationship with the Zamorins of Calicut (and a stronger relationship with the Cochin raja as you will see) for on one side there were a number of sambandham’s between the two families, but they also stood in the way of the Zamorin’s expansionist policies. The Nedumpurayur royal family was later known as Tarur, Taravur or Taruvayur Swaroopam and finally as Palakkad Raja Swaroopam. The Tarur Swaroopam covered Palghat, Alathur and Chittoor Taluks.

Sreedhara Menon mentions that the original seat of the Palghat Rajas was at the Athavanad Amsam (Ponnani Taluk) and they are believed to have exchanged their lands there for their later dominions in the Palghat-Chittur area with the Azhuvancheri Tamprakkal. The Nairs of Kongad, Edathara and Mannur were originally feudatories of the Palghat raja, but were later courted by both the Zamorin and Cochin Rajas during the medieval periods. Some time in the 13th century, a couple of princes from the family married into the Cochin family to maintain the line of male succession.

But for the origin story, and the first connection to the Cochin royal family, we go a long way back, to the fun part, for this sounds like it is straight from a movie story.

The story ( I quote Sibi) is that once in the unmemorable past, the land around Palakkad consisted of thick forests covered by hilly granite heaps, where human habitation was virtually impossible. It is said that four big elephants of Raja of Cochin once ran amuck into the forests of the 'Kuthiran' hills The Raja sent his soldiers with mahouts in search of these elephants, but in vain At last one of the princes of the Cochin Royal family entered into the thick forest with four Nair soldiers He obtained the assistance of some hill tribes and with their help regained the lost elephants The prince and the Nairs returned to the Raja of Perumpadapu and were received with great jubilation But the prince himself felt bad as his heart was weighed down with grief. The members of the Kshatriya Royal house found to their dismay that this prince was deeply in love with a tribal girl with whose help he had obtained the assistance of the hill tribes.

The rigors of the caste system were immediately evident from the reactions. This resulted in the immediate excommunication of the prince. He returned to the Palghat hills, where he got married to the tribal girl. With the help of the tribal’s who rallied around him with all sincerity and enthusiasm, the Raja established a royal dynasty and extended his sway over these uninhibited regions. The wisdom and statesmanship in him, combined with the courage and dedication of the jungle heroes, released a new lease of life, among them. It is believed that this prince was the founder of the dynasty of Palghatcherry.

Shekary Raja, then lorded over eight edoms (houses or major tharavads), divided between its Northern and southern branches. The Southern or Thekke thavazhi comprised Elayachan, Peruvakal, Naduvil and Ponnil edoms. The vadakke (Northern) thavazhi comprised Cherukotta, Pulickal, Mele and Poojakkal edoms. The members were called Achanmars (fathers) and the eldest five were the rajas 1-5 (shekhari, eleya, cavasseri, talantampuram & tariputamuran raja). So you can imagine that the raja, being the oldest was usually a grand old man who really could not govern, in return employed an able Achan as his deputy, to do the real ruling. As time went by the eight edoms became 27 (20 in the north sect and 7 in the south). The female members were called Nethiars.

Anyway the family continued to have troubled or cozy relationships with the Cochin king and Zamorin and got into serious trouble with the latter at times. In between we even had the case of the Portuguese and the Vijayanagar rayars coming to Palght to fight the Zamorin (actually Krishnadeva raya did not come himself as alluded – see my earlier article, but his generals Ramapayya and Devapayya came, and were aided by the Tharur Nairs in a battle against the Zamorin which the Mysoreans lost miserably). But these skirmishes continued on during the continuing times.

It was in the 18th century that the Zamorin finally took over some territory of the swaroopam as a result of the rice blockades and various other issues.  It is said that in the 1756-7 period, the Zamorin summoned the Achans to Kalpathi (Palghat Granthavari) where some of them were murdered. It is also mentioned that Kombi Achan who escaped the tragedy turned to Hyder Ali and thus brought in the miserable reign of the Mysore Sultans to Malabar. Today the family is sparse and separated, and we have of course some illustrious sons in the forefront these days. 

The Kallekulangara Bhagavathy temple in Akathethata (also called the Kaipathi temple or Hemambika temple which has a pair of hands as the main idol) is the family deity of Palakkad kings.

Kollengode Nambiatis

It would not be appropriate to leave this topic without mentioning the other power brokers of PALGHAT, namely the Kollengode nambiatis, though it is a long and somewhat interesting story by itself. As we all know, the panas and yakshis of Palghat are famous and I had written about them some time ago. But there cannot be the two without Gandharvas. So we get to the land of the Gandharvas or the south of Palghat, ruled by the Kollengode family.

Kollengode is the seat of the Venganad Nambidi whose family claims descent from an ancient Kshatriya Raja named Vira Ravi. The name Ravi Varma is accordingly still affixed to the names of all the male members of that family. Note here that the region named Venkunrunad or Venkatanad was corrupted to Venganad above in writings as time went by. The Venganad Nampitis are regarded as "Three-fourths Brahmin"; for they have the Upanayana ceremony, but are not entitled to study the Vedas, can sit and dine in company with Brahmins (though not sitting in the same row as the Brahmins). They were later termed the Valiya Rajahs of Kollengode after Tipu left the area. The location and strategic importance were high for it was another entrance to the Kerala side from the pass through the Anamalai hills. The Zamorin’s Naduvattom Nair was given the key responsibility, which as I understood, he sublet to the Kollengode Nambitis. Thus the nambitis ruled roughly the small region below the river comprising some 8 amsoms with the Zamorin as suzerain.

The traditions recorded by the family traces their beginnings to a royal person named Dharmavarma, who belonged to the Chera dynasty. The earliest story starts with the arrival of Dharma Varama to the Tiru Kachamkurissi temple near Payylur. As the article in The Hindu explains Dharma Varman, a prince, from what is now central Kerala, came, in search of a cure for a debilitating ailment. It is said that the dying Dharma Varman bathed in the healing spring waters that then existed in the forests around the temple, and after undergoing many days of ritual penance at this temple, at the feet of Perumal, returned to his kingdom, completely cured. Dharma Varman's grandson, Vira Ravi, became the first `utaiyvar' of this region, and it is a popular thought that he named his miniature principality, `Venkatanad' (later `Vengunad') in honour of Mahavishnu Perumal of Thirukachamkurissi.

But as legends go, Dharmavarma's son Hamangoda, is brought up to become a professional hunter, archer and warrior, by a black smith living near the Palghat gap, is supposed to have given the name Kollengode which literally means the land of the black-smiths, to the region which came into his possession. At this stage of the legend, a sister of the King, named Dronavadi appears and it is from her son Vira Ravi that the descent of the dynasty is traced, reflecting the matrilineal origins of this family as it was the case with most other families of chieftains of Kerala. As time went by another legend came up about Indra, the various Yaga rites and so on, but it would take too much space to cover that story. The family then split into 3 and migrated, one lot to Vendavanad-Pollachi, another to Thriprayar – Irinjalakkuda and finally the third to Thalipparamba in North Malabar. The palace they constructed can still be seen in Kollengode in full splendor though it is a popular Ayurvedic spa these days.

But a keen reader would get back and ask a question, why were the Kollengode kings half Brahmins or ¾ Brahmins? It appears that a girl was the cause, as most stories in history are, when heart ruled over the brain. The Raja of Kollengode was also ostracized by the Namboodiri Brahmins for his alleged illicit liaison with a low caste girl; however no real story could be traced out. Well, the raja was a clever man, he did not give in to the Naboothiris, he invited the Tamil Brahmins (who were at that point fleeing Madurai) over to his territories and bestowed his patronage in the form of lands, jobs and other amenities to them. But then again, it just might be a jumbling of the Skekharai varama story, with the story of the Nambiti. The Venganad Nambitis were mostly aligned to the Zamorin and figure in the list of feudatories usually invited for the Ariyittuvazhcha (coronation ceremony).

For a very detailed study of the Kollengode nambitis, please refer the NM Nampoothiri’s book, SammothiriNadu chapter 27.


A Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara, and Malabar - Francis Buchanan
Malabar Studies – Samoothirnadu – N M Nampoothiri
Hyder & Tipu Sultan in Kerala - CK Kareem
Political development among the Tribals – Sibi Zacharias
Hindu Article

See new article on the Kollengode rajas - The Venganad Nambitis of Kollengode

Luís Vaz de Camões (Camoens) - The Shakespeare of Portugal

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Sometimes you wonder at the miseries that befall certain remarkably adventurous people. Look at this man Camoens, he accompanied some of the earliest Portuguese mariners to uncharted waters, lived in alien lands like Goa and Macau and wrote the greatest of Portuguese poems – The Lusiad. Today he is known as a national hero and the poetic genius of Portugal, but how was he treated during his lifetime? Not many will remember him or his times, or his love for a slave girl from India, or deep affection for his man Friday, the Javanese Antonio, for they were the only people who stood by him. Suffice to say that Camoens was an enigma, and little was he to know what the stars were to tell about his future, or how star crossed his affair with a gorgeous blond would turn out to be and how sad and forlorn  his last days wood be, instead of basking his fame and spending a substantial pension.

Luiz De Cameos (Cameos in Portuguese) somewhat related to Vasco Da Gama and hailing (according to historian Manuel Correia) from Lisbon was born around 1524, first endured misery when Lisbon was struck by an earthquake in 1526 (and later plague) and the family moved to Coimbra. He later studied in the Santa Cruz monastery until 1537 as an honorable poor student (now note here that his uncle was the university chancellor – so all it meant was that Camoens was on a scholarship). It is read that due to some problems with the university, he left and went back to Lisbon, to join the royal courts.

Soon he was involved in a romance with lovely blonde Catarina Ataide with golden tresses, a 13 year old lady in waiting to the Queen Catarina of Austria. Unfortunately another court hand by name Caminha had his own eyes on Catharina and as matters would have it, Caminha had a higher degree of influence on Catharina’s father (As you may observe, it is sounding like an Indian movie now). It appears that Camoens made lovely poetry for his beloved and passed it on (‘burning lines of passion’ as records put it)  it to her directly in contradiction to the strict rule that it had to be passed  through an intermediary, namely the court chamberlain, who by the way was De Lima – Catharina’s father. Well, as matters would have it, he was soon banished from the court for that and other reasons. He was next heard of in Ceuta were in a naval engagement alongside his father, against the moors, he loses his right eye to a flying splinter and returns to Lisbon in 1542 where he soon reignites his romance with Catarina.

The next three years were spent as a vagabond with disreputable company and known as a ‘face with no eyes’ , he composed satirical poems that alluded to the love the king had for his step mother. This was to raise eyebrows and more and in 1552 he was arrested and imprisoned (actually as it turns out, he was helping his low-class friends and injured an assailant who belonged to the king’s cavalry). But he agreed to be sent off to India for 5 mandatory years in return for a pardon and after first serving 8 months in jail in Tronco Goa. Another reason for his going to Goa was in search of his father who had departed in command of a ship destined to Goa (it appears the father was shipwrecked and died later in Goa). The bitter and not so young man sails out to the East in the mail boat San Bento, stating “Ungrateful country though shalt not possess my bones”.  At a parting meeting, Catarina tearfully promises to wait for him.

His is the lone ship that reached Goa the following year (the others catch up much later after surviving the storm), the place where his father is buried. Cameons now 29, soon gets disgusted and upset with the immorality in Goa and writes about all this while spending the next few months fighting in the West coast and the waters against the armies and navies of Malabar and Bijapur. He writes about Portuguese Goa “Of this land I can tell you that it is the mother of despicable villains, and stepmother of honest men. Because those who are here to get rich, always float on water as bladders”.

During this period, Camoens continued writing his style of poetry, which was saved for posterity by Correia. One of them which detailed the debauchery in Goa was soon to prove the reason for his expulsion from Goa to far away Macau by 1556. This part is certainly an unproven phase of his life though many historians continue to attest to the period in Macau. CR Boxer’s studies allude that the dates and events are quite wrong and grossly exaggerated. Anyway let us follow the popular tale for now.

There in Macau, he sat down to write the first 6 cantos of the famous Lusiads where worked as a chief warrant officer. He was apparently charged with managing the properties of missing and deceased soldiers in the Orient. He was later accused of misappropriations in Macau and was summoned to Goa to respond to the accusations of the tribunal. During his return journey, near the Mekong River along the Cambodian coast, he was shipwrecked, saving his manuscript but losing his Chinese lover. His shipwreck survival in the Mekong Delta was enhanced by the legendary detail that he succeeded in swimming ashore while holding aloft the manuscript of his still-unfinished epic.

Life was to prove even more difficult for the persecuted poet, for he not only heard that his old flame Catarina was dead (heartbroken as one is led to believe and unmarried) but also, upon landing in Goa, was cast into prison. He is released by the incoming governor, only to go in once again, for it was the turn of money lender Coutinho to get Camoens put in jail for a small but unpaid debt.

It was around this time that Camoens met Barbara, the Indian slave in Goa. Of her exact nationality, I have made a guess favoring India, but she is mentioned as Mulatto, African and so on, and one is led towards the Indian Hindu direction by a stray comment by biographer Richard Burton. 

Teófilo Braga , in his “History of Portuguese Literature: Camoens, his Life and Work” describes beautifully the magic spell of Barbara:

“The poet could not remain impassive before the voluptuous flexuosity of those curves which make alive the movements that wrapped him up; neither from the languid looks of a morbidity which magnetizes and breaks the will by desire. Barbara was the type of a native girl, dark skinned; arms and neck such as a bronze sculpture of a complete correction, lewd hips by the habit of hieratical dances. which bestow all movements a feline flexuosity, wholly wrapping, completing the seduction by the maddening brilliancy of black almond shaped eyes which provoke an infinite desire, which illuminate the smile of a small mouth, bordered by extremely white teeth with which she chewed aromatic plants; a light way of walking such as a free gazelle; a primitive grace such as of a submissive animal, which offers itself at the first caress”.

Camoens went bonkers over “this slave which has me enslaved” and wrote a famous poem (Endecha of Barbara) about her. Little was he to know that she would play an even greater part in his life. But life continued to be difficult in Goa and Camoens wanted his poems published. So he finally decided to go back to Lisbon, but he was unable to pay the full amount to his carrier and is abandoned at Sofala. In 1569 he was rescued from this beggarly and miserable plight and taken back to Portugal with nothing but the full Lusiad manuscript. He reaches Lisbon in 1570, after a full 17 years of exile and penniless.

But well, life is always unkind to some, for the plague was sweeping Lisbon as our man and his ship reach its shores. They are not permitted to land for many days. But they disembark finally, and Camoens gets engrossed in getting his manuscript approved for printing by the inquisition tribunal. The royal permission to print the Lusiads is finally obtained in 1572 where it was published, but resulting in no great monetary benefits for the author. Camoens is paid a silly pension and in return asked to remain in Lisbon. The next few years were spent in total misery, where the poet loses his benefactors one by one and finally his pension as well.

Strangely at this point of time, two other characters come back to life in his story. It appears that the slave girl Barbara as well as Antonio have reached Lisbon by now. Barbara is running a small grocery or fish shop and Antonio in the service of his master. Possibly Barbara was living with Camoens as well, for in the visitors book of the church of St. Anne one can read the inventory taken in 1572 of the house of the poet, and making a reference to the concubine, and there appears the following sentence: “Barbara who lives together with a person, who, for just causes, one does not mention”.

Faria e Sousa points out a tradition of an ambulant female seller, who was brokenhearted about the poverty of the poet: “a black woman called Barbara, knowing about his misery, gave him sometimes a dish of food, with the money that she earned from her sales and sometimes the money that she got from her sales”. António too became a beggar, and with the proceeds of his alms, he too took care of Camoens, until António died of the plague. Camoens left the world of the living  on the 10th of June 1580.

The death is recorded thus

The sad sickness unto death came at last, on the 10th of June, 1580. In a small, cheerless room of a shabby house in the Rua de Santa Ana (No. 52 or 54) Luiz de Camoens died, and he was buried in the neighboring convent of Santa Ana. On the fly-leaf of a copy of the first edition of the Lusiad (said to be in the library of Holland House), and in the handwriting of Fray Just; Indio, a Carmelite monk of Guadalajara, is found the following statement "What thing more grievous than to see so great genius lacking success! I saw him die in a hospital in Lisbon, without a sheet to cover him, after having triumphed in the Indies, and having sailed five thousand five hundred leagues by sea. What warning so great for those, who, by night and day, weary themselves in study without profit, like the spider weaving a web to catch small flies."

Camoens was a sad and miserable man in his last days - When a Ruy Diaz de Camara a noble, came to his poor dwelling to complain of the non-fulfillment of a promise of a translation of the penitential psalms, Camoens replied—" When I wrote verses I was young, had ample food, was a lover, and beloved by many friends and by the ladies; therefore, I felt poetic ardor. Now I have no spirit, no peace of mind; behold there my Javanese who asks me for two coins to purchase fuel, and I have none to give him."
Of the person - He was of middle stature, his face full, and his countenance slightly lowering; his nose long, raised in the middle, and large at the end. He was much disfigured by the loss of his right eye. Whilst young his hair was so yellow as to resemble saffron. Although his appearance was not perhaps prepossessing, his manners and conversation were pleasing and cheerful. He was afterwards a prey to melancholy, was never married, and left no child."

Of the dark skinned raven haired, black eyed beautiful slave girl Barbara or Barbora (as Camoens put it) christened Luisa Barbara , Richard Burton describes as probably a shipwrecked Hindu girl, she is lost from history, but personified eternally by Camoens, just like Baudelaire did in his Malabar girl (in copycat fashion). Experts state that Barbora could not have been Camoes's slave because he couldn't afford one. She was the slave or cook of the governor, Francisco Barreto, which made her subject to ill-treatment, though she was an excellent housekeeper and cook.

Let us take a quick look at the man and his poem on Barbara

Camoens and Malabar
It appears he went to Malabar in late 1553 or early 1554. On his first expedition, he joined a battle along the Malabar Coast. The battle was followed by skirmishes along the trading routes between Egypt and India. The fleet eventually returned to Goa by November 1554

But a  final question remains – If Camoens a Portuguese fidalgo found it so difficult to raise money for his voyage back home, how did the slave girl barabara or Antonio from java manage it? Did she perhaps stowaway to Lisbon? An interesting story lies behind all this and is a fit subject for fertile imagination.


1. Escrava means female slave so Barbara or Barbora Escrava is the slave Barabara. Goa’s slave market of the 16th century provided an abundance of slaves. Slaves were auctioned, and bartered, even at door steps. Domestic help were frequently used or even prostituted by their masters and friends.

2. Endecha is a kind of poem which induces 'emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of the speech' Endecha is lyrical poem, melancholic and often, built from four lines, each verse with a six syllables.

3. There are experts who also say that Camoens died of malaria and neglect, not plague as reported. BMJ Sept 12th, 1908 reveals - It appears that the poet contracted malaria in the East, and in 1580, when the authorities of Lisbon were in fear of the plague; they appointed an official with large powers for the safeguarding of the public health. There is reason to believe that these powers were exercised for political purposes, being found highly useful for the removal of inconvenient persons, and it is hinted that Camoens, being obnoxious to the party in power, was thus put of the way. He was declared to be suffering from plague, and in March or April ordered to be segregated among the other victims of the disease. 

4.  To the uninitiated, the Lusiads, is a Portuguese epic poem written in Homeric fashion. The poem focuses mainly on a fantastical interpretation of the Portuguese voyages of discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries.

5. To see the Camoens memorial in Lisbon, click here


Memoirs of the life and writings of Luis de Camoens- John Adamson, Thomas Bewick

Camoens: his life and his Lusiads - Sir Richard Francis Burton

Camoes – Seen from Goa

To many, fame cometh too late- Camoens