Ankhams of Malabar & The Curious Duel

Posted by Maddy Labels:

While the history of North Malabar, especially as related to Calicut proves to be relatively serious, the area around Cochin has added a number of curious and zestful stories to the historic texts, even if it were connected to a period of strife or occupation by foreign powers like the Portuguese or the Dutch. I cannot quite fathom why this is so, but the joviality was indeed lacking around Calicut.

The caste system was rearing its ugly and mighty head with great strength in Kerala during the medieval times. While the system was reasonably clear amongst the Hindu castes, it was a bit awry amongst the ruling elite with mighty quarrels erupting between the Cochin king, the Kolattiri and the Zamorin with the former two always claiming that the Zamorin had a lower caste status compared to theirs.

However the position of Christians and Moplah’s are curious indeed, for they were placed somewhere around the middle levels, thus sometimes providing a reason for conversion of the lowest class Hindus, the said reason being utilized cleverly by the Moplah leaders of those times to increase their ranks. The Christian and Moplah were thus somewhat on par with the Nair though even those religions set up their own caste systems.

Well, the Nairs were also adamant about maintaining their levels in the furor though their own higher classification was arguably suspect, with the questions resting around being Kshatriya or Sudra. Nevertheless, they were the armed warriors of Malabar and had the might of sword, I assume, to decide their standing in firm tones. If one were to ask about the various privileges and honors a Nair chieftain (Naduvazhi) enjoyed, they include among many others Ankham, Chungam, Ezha and Kozha (KKN Kurup – Kerala Studies). While each of them is an interesting term, we will in the course of this note dwell upon Ankham or the right to duel, for that is what we will talk about together, with the right of way and exemplify it with a small record of a duel.

But the position of the foreigner was always interesting, for they were allowed to intermingle even (possibly owing to their apparent military might) with the Brahman and ruling classes or remain on top. But it was not necessarily easy as we shall see. In fact there is one documented instance where the Portuguse used their power to elevate certain Sudras to Nayar level (we also know that Marthanda Varma used this as a tool to get more people into his fighting ranks in Travancore) after a war around Chetwa. Over time, many became Nairs, like Andhra Nairs or Ottu Nairs who were originally Kusavans or potters and the categorization of Nairs went from 7 to 64. But this is not an anthropological study; I was just providing some background to establish perspective.

So we saw that the Nair placed himself at his spot and ensured a clear separation from classes lower down. A Nair as we read was expected to instantly punish a person who would apparently defile him by touching his body or even breathe near him; and a similar fate awaited another, who did not clear the road when a Nair passed (Buchanan) According to the tradition at that time, these classes were forced to maintain a distance of 64 feet from the upper classes to avoid pollution. Other castes like Nayadis, Kanisans and Mukkuvans were forbidden within 72 feet, 32 feet and 24 feet respectively from the higher levels.

As a writer recorded - Take the sad example of the Pulayas. If a Nair felt the breath of a Pulaya, he fancied himself polluted, and was obliged to kill the man, and make certain ablutions in public with great ceremony. If he spared the Pulaya, and the matter reached the ears of the Raja, the Nair would be either put to death or sold for a slave. The Pulayas in the fields were obliged to cry out ‘Po! Po’ incessantly, in order to give notice to any Nairs who might chance to be in the neighbourhood. If a Nair responded, the Pulayas retired to a distance. No Pulaya was allowed to enter a town. If a Pulaya wanted anything he cried for it with a loud voice outside the town, and left the money at a certain place appointed for the traffic. Some merchant then brought the commodity that was called for, and took away the price of it.

So in order to avoid defilement or pollution, the Nair also walked along noisily, drawn sword in hand, and if somebody of lower caste crossed his path, it is said that they got killed, otherwise serious purification rites at exorbitant costs had to be completed before the said person was clean. Thus came about the concept of ‘right of way’. Now as the story goes, the Nair being a proud individual refused to give way to the new entrant – the Portuguese soldiers who had been granted staying rights in Cochin, by the King. The Portuguese would have none of it. A huge hue and cry ensued and the king of Cochin finally decided to bring the matter to a closure with a formal Ankham that got reported in a number of history books. Let us see what happened, but before that a few words about the concept of the Ankham.

Ankham – The right to duel

Duel fighting was a traditional way of formally settling private claims. A payment was made to the naduvazhi, important personnel were invited and a sword and hand to hand fight took place. There were of course petty duels and major duels. In the latter category lie the various famous duels fought by Aromal Chekavar & Tatcholi Othenan. Such major duels were complicated affairs which I will cover another day for it involved much drama as it was more of a fight until death, involving drama, prayer, celibacy and many vows. It is said that the combatants had to have at least 12 years training to fight an Ankham. Some of these aspects seem folklore, especially the time of training and the fight until death which were definitely not the norm, but valid for ceremonial major duels (To cover this I have to get to the story of the Chekavars as well as the Mamankham)..

So to summarize, a Malabar duel, or single combat was quite common among the Nairs with each duelist required to pay a sum for permission to fight. Sometimes they were fought by hired champions (reminds you of the Wild West - right??). A duel is thus fought between two fighters, each side being represented by a Ankachekavar. The ruler represented by the surviving Ankachekavar was considered the winner.

But back to strict protocols to establish the perspective, let us look at the top –When the Zamorin writes to the Rajah of Cochin, or any of the superior Princes write to each other, the letter must be addressed not to the Prince, but to the chief Rasidoor, who in Cochin is called the Naicoviti, and the chief Rasidoor of the Zamorin is called the Mangatachan. If a Nair brings a letter from his Rajah to another, or to the Commandant, he must prostrate himself thrice in token of reverence; a Brahman or Pattar is exempt from this ceremony. When the Rajah is employed in religious activities no one may speak to him, not even a Brahman; but if any very important circumstance occurs which demands his attention, he must be informed of it by certain signs on the fingers.

So in those days when things were so to say amicably settled with a fight enjoyed by the watchers, a small complication arose. What about the right of way for a foreigner? Well, the Portuguese of course imagined themselves to be at the top of any hierarchy, and the Nairs would not allow these warriors above them if they could help it. While sea fights were one thing, the Portuguese walking with a retinue of soldiers, local or foreign on local roads or pathways is another thing. They could be decimated by the guerilla warfare and hand to hand fighting expertise of the Nairs. The numbers were not on their side and this kind of combat was not on the lines of the organized war that was waged at that time, and thus it was imperative that the protocol was established for the foreigner. 

The dispute ran so high (according to the Portuguese) that at last it was agreed between the Rajah and the Portuguese General in Chief that it should be settled by a duel between a member of each party, and that the winner should win the right for his associates. As the Portuguese themselves record, they decided to use a little deceit in order to win this duel. But I smell a ‘fix’ in this story, so as to bring about a workable conclusion.

In Vissicher’s words - So on the appointed day, the Rajah selected his most able fencing master, who was well versed in the use of sword and shield. The Portuguese also made choice of the bravest of his army for his champion, but dressed him in common sailor's clothes, so that if he were to lose, the disgrace might not fall on the army, however he prostrated his adversary three times, and the Rajah, unconscious of the deception, was very much surprised that a common sailor should display such dexterity. Anyway the duel progressed and it is said hat the Nair lost to the Portuguese following which the king accorded the right of way as he had previously agreed, to the Portuguese.

As Vissicher states - Since this time, the Nairs have always conceded the right of way to the Europeans, except in one or two instances in my time, when they have disputed that right with our soldiers, who resisted their incivility so valiantly that they have not had courage to repeat it.

Thevenot describes the duel as well: " They yield precedence to none except to the Portuguese. To appease the quarrels which often arose on this point, the Portuguese General came to an agreement with the King of Cochin, that a duel between a Nair and a Portuguese should be fought, and the conquering party be entitled to precedence; and as the Nair succumbed, the Portuguese precede them."

Now to introduce briefly the fighter or the Chekavar - As the saying goes, "one became a Chekavar only after the fight of an ankam" and that "A Chekavar's food was on the tip of the sword. They were a special sub caste of Tiyyas termed chekavars who were highly trained Kalari masters, and were engaged to fight in an ankham, to the death in order to solve disputes between higher castes. As the ankham ended with the death of one of the warriors, the warriors charged high prices for fights. In addition, it was also customary to pay compensation to the families of those who died in the fight. Foul play in the ankam was disallowed and the parties were expected to observe the highest ethical standards while taking part in the combat. Ankham were fought on an ankathattu, a temporary platform, four to six feet high, built specifically for an ankham. The price paid per combatant was about a 1000 fanams at that time, a large amount which of course went to the naduvazhi who had the rights to supervise & conduct an ankham. So as we saw, these were the deadly gladiators of the medieval Kerala, fighting the deathly duels for the higher castes.

U Balakrishnan Nair states in an old article - In Old Malabar, blood-feuds and mortal combats were the rule rather than the exception: in truth, the common saying ran that " the slain rests in the yard of the slayer." For the Nair was by no means peaceful in private life even. He invariably carried arms, kept a sharp look-out for those who had offended him, and thirsted for revenge. Assassinations thus were frequent; there were often surprises and scuffles, and sometimes contests in the open field. In passing through a crowd, he bore his head high, struck his sword upon his target, and, in the grand style, called out, not simply to obtain a clear passage quickly, but also to make known his rank and establish his dignity. When a man was slain, the duty devolved on his kith and kin to be avenged on the slayer or a member of his family. And with that we come to another facet of life then, remnants of which we see even today in Kerala society. This is something termed Kudipaka. 

What is Kudipaka?

By definition, it is a hereditary family feud verging on Vendetta. Basically the concept of family feud and deadly hatred rested upon vendetta or revenge, which will continue until death of the opposing member. Upon death of a member of a family in a duel or fight, the family kept a blood soaked rag in the sanctum sanctorum of the house, and the family took a vow of revenge that should traverse generation to generation till all male members of the other family are killed and their dwelling (most usually just the outhouse) destroyed or burnt.

Above all was the fidelity of the Nair swordsman or foot soldier to his employer.  They were thus usually employed in Changathams or convoy escorts who defended any responsibility given to them, even at the cost of his life. It is well recorded that this was always discharged honorably by the Nairs of that time, for if they did not, they were degraded to the level of Kosavans (it is thus that the derogatory usage ‘eda kosava’- came about in Kerala) or potters. Upon the death of a Nair in the course of duty, the aspect of Kudipaka commences and a series of new duels take place. Of course if the level was the highest involving the death of a chieftain, then the Chavers or suicide squads enter into the foray as I wrote earlier in another article.

So as you saw, those times were not bereft of all kinds of strange but interesting customs which bewildered anthropologists and travelers enough to get them writing voluminous texts that we are lucky to read today

Kerala Studies – KKN Kurup
Cochin state manual – Achuytha Menon
Malabar Manual – William Logan
Letters from Malabar- Jacob Canter Visscher