Ettuveetil Pillamar

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The eight barons or the Ettuveetar

In the previous article, we talked about Abhirami and her children. We read very briefly about the succession struggles between her sons and Marthanda Varma. This one will hover above the succession struggle and cover the role of the Madampies and the baronial Pillas and the usage Ettuveetil Pillamar. Reading through various sources and accounts, one could assume that there were two opinions about the matter regarding the Pillamar - that they became a legend starting with the fictional story about Marthanda Varma by CV Raman Pillai and the second being that they were real and existed even before CV Raman Pillai alluded to them in his novel.

It was particularly interesting for me because I lived in Kazhakootam, an area supposedly controlled by one of these 8 barons, for over a decade but at that time I had little interest in such matters. And since I get involved with Travancore history only rarely, I had quite a bit of reading to do before I could make some conclusions. Thus, armed with the two versions of Travancore history, by Aiyya and Shungoony Menon (I could not access Velu Pillai’s version), KVK Iyer’s history of Kerala, Shreedhara Menon’s Survey, KM Panikkar’s and Alexander’s accounts of the Dutch and so on, I got down to the task. I then read Marthanda Varma, the novel by Pillai, Leena More’s studies around Attingal & Travancore and Ibrahim Kunju’s detailed study on Varma. All this could be dizzying for the uninitiated, but it was incredible fun for me.

At the outset I have a suggestion to make, if you have not read Raman Pillai’s book, read it, and if you cannot get the Malayalam version or do not read Malayalam, then check for the translation by BK Menon. BKM’s translation is fantastic and I could only marvel at his choice of words (his daughter Prema is a well know translator these days and the great grandniece of K Karaunakara Menon, whom we talked about during our Pazhassi Raja accounts). So with that bit of acknowledgment and with the background explained, let us now head down south to Travancore, not the Trivandrum we know today, but Kalkulam (Padmanabhapuram) and the Nagercoil areas, to begin the story.

As we saw in the previous article, King Rama Varma died and according to the matrilineal succession in vogue, Marthanda Varma, his nephew rose to the throne. We also saw that the Ilaya Thampi’s Pappu and Raman Thampi were not amused by the turn of events since their father had promised Abhirami, their mother that one of them would get the title. Marthanda Varma would not budge and the dispute started to ratchet up to higher levels. 

However, an anarchical situation in the region had started even before Rama Varma allied with the Madura ruler but was not able to find resources to pay the annual tribute. But as Nagam Aiyya put it,

At the time of his accession the state of the country was far from happy. There were no organized departments for the transaction of State business. The finances were in an extremely unsatisfactory condition. The country was honeycombed with petty chieftains, who collecting around themselves bands of brigands, subsisted on pillage and plunder and harassed the Rajah and his people by frustrating all attempts to establish order or any settled form of government. The Rajah's following was small and his authority so nominal that the Ettuvittil Pillamars and the Madampimars were more or less independent rulers of their own estates. Anarchy prevailed in South Travancore to a sad extent which was further intensified by the regicidal proclivities of these petty chieftains and the Yogakkars — a body of managers of the temple of Sri Padmanabhaswamy owning enormous landed wealth and commanding the influence and power which go with it.

We also see from the Travancore manuals that Varma even while serving as a deputy to his uncle had a number of issues with the barons on varying occasions resulting in his being on the run and even sleeping on tree tops (I see a bit of CV Raman Pillai’s novel here). Nagam Aiyya continues

Even as First Prince and Elaya Rajah of tender years, he set himself to put down with a strong hand the lawlessness of these disloyal chiefs. In consequence, he had earned their undying hatred and his life was more than once attempted. He sought the aid of the English and the Dutch and would have completely quelled the rebels but for the timidity and weakness of his uncle the King who compelled him to desist. He had fled from place to place and on several occasions slept on the tops of trees in far off jungles.

Now that we have established some background, let us try to get to the specifics. Shungoonny Menon mentions them as being a problem as early as 1594 when Eravi Varma himself had issues collecting dues from the Pillamar. He describes them thus

A society was formed consisting of eight and a "half members" of whom eight were Potty Brahmans, each of whom pretended to have the privilege of a casting vote, and the sovereign who was considered half member, had no vote in the transactions of the Devaswam affairs. By such an arrangement, the affairs of the Devaswam , became virtually vested in the hands of the eight Potty Brahmans, and they began to work the institution through their attaché’s the Ettu Veetil Pillamar, who were the representatives of eight noble families. The sovereign had little or no influence over the Devaswam, and was simply required to be present at the usual periodical ceremonies. The power of this Yogakkar and the association become so great, that records show that they even imposed heavy fines upon the sovereign for wrongs done to the Devaswam institution.

This Devaswam possessed extensive landed property, which was then called Sree Pundara Vaka (belonging to the holy treasury). Its sole managers were the Yogakkar, who had all the powers of despotic rulers over the Devaswam property, and over every one of the tenants and holders of the Devaswam lands. The Ettu Veetil Pillamar were entrusted with the collection of the Devaswam revenue, and the villages, where the Devaswam lands lay, were divided into eight Adhikarems. Each of the Ettu Veetil Pillamar was appointed a collector over the Adhikarem, with the powers of a petty chief.

The king having little or no authority over these men, they rose in power and importance, and gradually became supreme lords in their villages, and in time the Madampimar (nobles and petty chiefs,) who were not loyally attached to the crown, were also influenced by the Ettu Veetil Pillamar and the combination became a powerful one.

Shungoony Menon continues to explain the atrocities carried out by the confederates against the king, especially the burning of the royal palace and the poisoning of the mild mannered Aditya Varma, the killing (kalippaan kulam drowning) of the brothers of Ummayamma Rani, and how during her reign, the eight Pillamar dissented and how each of them became a sole master of his possessions, thus signaling a situation of anarchy. Around this time, a Moghul soldier attacks and subdues Travancore following which the Rani brings in the Kerala Varma raja from Malabar (Kottayam)to help, which he does and soon the Rani is in absolute power. But the Pillamar and the Yogakkar conspire and kill the rescuer from Malabar. Eventually the previously mentioned Rama Varma becomes king and Marthanda Varma (son of a Kolathunad princess & Rama Varma’s nephew) enters the scene to continue the royal tussle against the confederates.

According to Alexander the Pillamar belonged to the eight Nair houses of Marthandam, Ramanamatam, Kulathoor, Kazhakootam, Venganoor, Chempazhanthil, Kodamana and Pallichal (CVRPillai introduces one other named Thirumadhom). He concludes that their ambition was to extirpate the royal family and establish a republic of their own. According to him, maintaining the Pandyan forces which his father had brought in in order to control the confederates was too expensive and so he sent them back. But this encouraged the Pillamar who rose in rebellion against the new king Marthanda Varma. This is the situation that prompted the Ilaya thampi’s, who were also upset with the king over succession aspects, to join the confederates, and then to go to the Trichy Nayak for support.

KM Panikkar opines that it was a settlement in 1050 that accorded the land around Padmanabha temple to the Yogakkar. He goes along with the accounts of Shungoony Menon and Alexander. He narrates the story of the fugitive Yuvaraja and how he realizes that the common man always supported his feudal lord and not a monarch. So if a monarchy had to prevail, he had to get the barons out of power. With that in mind, he seeks the Trichy Nayaks’ support in return for an annual tribute of Rs 3000/-. In return he gets an army of 2000 under the Tripathay Naiker and a cavalry of 1000 under Vankatapathy Naiker. But when he tried to use them against the nobles, these forces refused to take his orders and thus he starts to create his own imported army comprising Maravas, Pathans and so on. That is when Pappu Thampi goes to the Nawab of Arcot with his complaints.

Marthanda Varma according to Panikkar is found to be lacking scruples and virtues such as clemency, once he had entered the fray. He was the first to strike down the age old systems in Malabar politics where a Nair noble could never be punished, even in case of treason. With MV’s annihilation of the 42 nobles and their families, he destroyed the feudal system of Travancore. His use of Marava mercenaries, his wish to create an autocratic state in the lines of those at Trichy and Tanjore, was alien to the people of the region. PKS Raja also concurs in concluding that Varma was as ruthless and unscrupulous as the recalcitrant Ettuvetill Pillamar.

Let us now get back to the Ilaya thampimaar. They went to the Nayak and requested support complaining that they were following natural succession methods and that he should help them reach their just position. The Nayak deputed the powerful Alagappa Mudaliar to check. Mudaliar went to Travancore and was met by the able Dalawa Ramayya, who explained to him the principles of matrilineal practices in Malabar and Travancore and as is mentioned in a number of other accounts, Mudaliar was well taken care of (well bribed). The Mudaliar then calls the Ilaya Thampis and reprimands them, following which he returns home. Thus the Thampimaar ended up having no external support. The rebellion now became an open one and the skirmishes more regular. In the meantime, the Padmanabha temple renovation work was completed.
This unstable situation continued on till 1733, when on a fateful day the two Thampis were killed by or on the orders of Marthanda Varma, having decided that there was no other course open to him. Books mention that the younger Raman Thampi was first killed by the guards at the Nagercoil palace following an altercation and later the elder Pappu Thampi got hacked down by Varma himself. Manickavasagom Pillai concludes in his paper after due analysis, that all this was pre planned, so also the fate of the eight Pillais. Kochukumaran Pillai was also taken care of in the same manner, according to Velu Pillai’s TSM.

After this was done, the 42 chiefs (Pillais and Madampies) were rounded up, and hung at a place called Mukhamandapam near Kalkulam. They properties were seized and the women and children sold off to fishermen. The Brahmin potties (as they could not be killed according to the Manusmriti) were apparently excommunicated with a dog picture branded on their foreheads.

Now we come to the central question. Did these Pillais, Madapmies and Yogakkar exist? Yes, most definitely, and this is borne in other works such as Sreedhara Menon’s Survey of KH. But we can perhaps get corroboration from the accounts of neighboring kingdom of Attingal and English records, so let us check there.

In the case of Attingal, it is recorded that there were four great Pillas, namely Vanjamutta, Cuddamon, Barreba and Mandacca. This is well documented in Leena More’s book and even established as the Nattunadappu, so it is likely that such a system did exist in the case of neighboring Travancore. Continuing on, we also note that there were twelve madampis and two pottis. The Pillas were a level higher than the madampi and the Attingal queen would take one of her two husbands from among the Pillas.

We note that the first tussle between Ravi Varma (the king before Rama Varma) and the 8 Veetil pillar took
place close to 1695 when some of those lords were executed and others had to ransom their own lives. This was what started to bring matters to a head. In 1681, the British abandoned a project to settle in Attingal due to the problems they faced with the local pillas. As time went by they had lots of problems with the Vanjmoota pillai and the Kochu madan pillai who would not allow them to build a fort, but eventually they built it at Anjengo. The two pillas then had a tussle after which the Cuddamon sided with the rani against the Vanjamutta who got Travancore support. It is here that we find that Vanjamutta was also backed by the Madampis of Travancore. We also note in the Attingal deliberations that the pillaas were the ones who decided on the election of a queen. As we go along with Leena’s account we observe the rising power of the Pillas and the declining power of the Attingal Rani, a testament of the times.

Marthanda Varma seeing what was happening with his relatives in Attingal, ensured that whatever counsel he gave to his uncle Rama Varma (and previously to Ravi Varma) were against the pillamar of Travancore, the said ettuveettar. Perhaps he was goaded to do this by his new friends the English headed by Alexander Orme and that was how a treaty was concluded between the English and MV, then the prince of Neyyatinkara. The Travancoreans in return, promised support to punish those behind the Attingal revolt. By 1724, the English had even obtained permission to mint coins and a monopoly to establish settlements in Travancore. With that concluded, their intention to profit was made clear, and that they would support a certain amount of despotism by providing superior military equipment & technology, just what MV wanted. The sakuni Orme had arrived, and the English thus went about laying the foundation towards the rise of Travancore & VMV. Varma forced Cudammon Pillai to tender a written apology.

Vanjamutta according to English records was apparently the brain behind the pillas getting together and throwing off their allegiance to the king of Travancore. In fact he was the one who wanted to take the Yuvaraja’s life resulting in his being on the run for quite some time (CVR Pillai mentions the kazhakootam Pillai being the ring leader in his novel, but it was actually the Vanjamuttil). It was Orme who brought MV to Attingal to fight the pillas, by personally lending him large sums of money without authorization from his superiors. The queen of Attingal joined MV in his efforts resulting in a retaliatory attack on herself, which she survived. After this a formal war was declared on the pillas by the queen of Attingal and the king of Travancore. The Cudamonpilla chose to side with the queen. MV apparently burnt Vanjamutta’s palace and burned his fort at Pallichal, together with 500 houses. MV who was still on the run now sought refuge in Attaingal, close to his English friends. Vanjamutta retaliated by burning the queens palace in Capi. The English stayed away from the fracas as they were afraid that the powerful Vanjamutta might attack and destroy Anjengo next.

Meanwhile Vanjamutta had defeated MV in a skirmish and his enemy Cuddamon now chose to take the side of the pillamar. MV retreated to Travancore, fleeing from Attingal. This was the period when Ravi Varma died and Rama Varma took over with MV now guiding him to seek support from the nayak of Madurai. With the help of the two naickers, their infantry and cavalry, MV attacked the Pilla bastions and made them flee Travancore. He wrote to Orme that he himself had killed 15 of the pillas. But Vanjamutta did not die. Many of the remaining madampis paid money to MV and sued for peace. Soon after this, MV visited the Anjengo fort and was welcomed by the English with a 7 gun salute. The French and the Dutch rushed to meet Rama Varma and establish forts in Travancore, whose fortunes were now on the rise. MV refused all these overtures and ensured that the British alone prevailed.

The English now pushed MV for a reparation for the Attingal revolt. MV’s dalawa Ramayya and the queen refused stating that the war with the pillas was fought only on this count i.e. to help the English after the Attingal revolt and that they themselves had incurred huge expenses. Perhaps that is when Orme learned that his personal investment had gone sour. Soon he was replaced by John Wallis. However, the queen and MV conferred and eventually decided to gift the Cotadalli and Palatady gardens to the English as compensation for the Attingal revolt.

Soon Rama Varma died and MV took over. He set up a new system of administration and bypassed the old feudal system consisting of the madampies and the pillas. Now he had to take care of the remaining pillas who had in the meantime found support from the ilaya thampies, who in turn felt they had been shortchanged after the death of their father. They then went to Trichy to seek assistance and Alagappa Mudaliar was dispatched. Ramayya and Narayanayya convinced Alagappa (or bribed him) to go back. After this MV reorganized his forces to include Maravars, Pathans and Channars and created a network of spies around the country to report on the pillas. This paid off and a report is received that the pillas are ganging together (secret meeting at Vennanur temple) to kill MV.

In one swoop they are rounded up during the arattu procession of 1736 by MV and MV going against all tradition that a Nair noble is never held accountable for such matters, tries and hangs them all, over 42 pillas and madampies, after which their families are sold to fisher folk and the others excommunicated. Golleness the Dutch commander also records these actions stating emphatically that MV did all this with English support, who had provided arms and ammunition and other kinds of indirect support.

The ring leader Vanjumutta pilla seems to have escaped and was waiting for his revenge from Quilon, after allying himself with the Dutch who brought in forces from Ceylon. But this attempt failed. After this, MV went on to annex Quilon and remaining areas to create an enlarged Travancore. As time went by, the cruelty that he had practiced took its toll. The priests told him that he must repent and that is how he celebrated the Trippadam, Murajapam and Hiranyagarbhadanam ceremonies (to go from samanthan to Kshatriya status) and finally dedicated his kingdom to Lord Padmanabha. Interestingly, MV who acceded to the throne claiming nattunadappu was the one who went against all of it eventually by destroying the feudal system for his own benefit…

According to English records this Vanjamutta (Vanchimuttam) pillai was the ring leader in the insurrection against MV. Who was he? We read that his Pallichal fort was destroyed by MV, so it was obviously the Pallichal pilla. Pallichal Pillai and Kodumon Pillai were the most powerful domains among the eight in Travancore. In the 17th century the Karanavar of the family of Pallichal Pillai moved from Pallichal to Vanchimuttam near Attingal, though his family members remained in Pallichal. A part of his holdings fell under Travancore and so this relocation to Vanchimuttam was actually to avoid allegations of sedition on him, by the Travancore royal family.

Krishna Iyer states that prominent among the Travancore nobles were the Pillamars of Marthandathu Madom, Ramana Madom, Kulathur, Kazhakuttam, Kudamon, Venganur, Chempazanthy and Pallichal, collectively known as the Ettuveettil Pillamars.

But was CV Raman Pilla who wrote the book MV in 1891, the first to coin the usage ettu veettar? Not really. You can find mentions in English dispatches and more formally, Samuel Mateer writing his land of charity in 1870 writes - Veera Rama Martanda Vurmah was the first of this line, and commenced his reign in 1335. He founded the Trevandrum fort and palace, which he made his principal residence. He was succeeded by twenty-two princes, of whom little besides the names and dates is recorded. Their rule occupied a period of 350 years. They were continually engaged in contending with the "Eight Chiefs," and had therefore little time to enter upon schemes of foreign conquest. In the early part of this reign a contention arose between the Rajah and his sons on the subject of the succession to the kingdom. According to the Malabar law, nephews were the heirs and successors to all property and honors; but the sons of the Rajah sought to alter the law of succession in their own favor. They were aided in their ambitious schemes by several of the "eight chieftains," and by other adherents. Becoming aware of the conspiracy, the Rajah watched his opportunity, and ordered the execution of his two sons, one of whom he put to death with his own hand. Several of the minor chiefs were slain at the same time, their families sold into slavery, and their estates confiscated.

Robert Caldwell writing his ‘A Political and General History of the District of Tinnevelly’ in 1890 and Shungoony Menon in 1878 provides all the details which others then used. So it is clear that the usage was commonplace even before Pillai wrote his novel.

There are other mentions as well, some say that the Kulathoor and Chempazhanthi families were not nairs but ezhavas. In some cases they are termed as ettu madampimaar, but suffices to note that it was a gang of eight. Some other mentions can be found that a few of these pillas fled to neighboring states, that some converted to Christianity and there are even rumors that a few landed up at Pantalayani Kollam near Calicut.

The Padmanabha vaults are now home to immense treasures, brought in during these MV ventures and perhaps later by the fleeing (from Hyder & Tipu) Malabar princes. Kulathoor is home to the engineering college and Kazhakootam home to both the Sainik School as well as the Technopark. The VSSC space center can be found in the vicinity. People carry on as they do in Anantapuram, with talk about the state government and the scheming politicians. As usual, the topsy turvy turn of local politics remain the main focus to people of the region. Thampi and Pillai are still common surnames in Travancore, however they are no longer major landlords.

In the concluding article, we will talk about Ramayya, the man who guided MV through all these years and was perhaps the one who formulated his actions and ideology.

The Dutch in Malabar – PC Alexander
Travancore state manual – Nagam Aiyya
A History of Travancore from the Earliest Times - P. Shungoonny Menon
Malabar and the Dutch – KM Panikkar
Medieval Kerala – PKS Raja
English east India Company and the rulers of Travancore – Leena More