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The Chekavars of Malabar

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Chekavars and their Tiyya origins 

I had written an article exploring the origins of the Tiyyas of Malabar some years ago and many comments came in, some asking new questions, some adding new insights, but I missed covering something which could have provided a more definite angle. Recently I got back to studying the Vadakkan Pattukal or Northern ballads and some books on that subject, notably the volume 1 on the Ballads by C Achyutha Menon, some fine articles by the eminent MD Raghavan and an explanatory volume by the great historian KS Mathew. All of them spent a few pages on the first set of Ballads dealing with Aromal Chekavar, also Tacholi Othenan and dwelled a bit on the time period of these dueling heroes. In particular they explored the origin of these Chevakars or Chekavers, living among the other traditional communities of Malabar such as Nairs and Chetties and also pointed out the lack of importance or presence of the Namboodiris who were mentioned only in passing in the ballads as temple priests (perhaps they were mostly settled between Tirunavaya and North of Trissur and minding their business).

It could be good to peruse this subject now, for it provides good pointers to the origins of Tiyyas, a well-accepted legend for many centuries, forming part of these popular ballads and covered in detail by all three of these historians, succinctly. The discussion will cover mainly the Chekavars of the Puthuram house located in Kadathanadu near Nadapuram and close to Korapuzha (Geographically, Kadathanadu is north of Koyilandy near Calicut, an area near Vadakara), and the information in the ballads provides ample pointers.

Before we get to the point, let us start with the fact that these Chekavars and Nairs in general were warring communities in the early medieval ages, and both stayed away from any kind of farming (or in the case of the former – toddy tapping) activity. The Chekavars were likewise involved in warring matters, especially in the settlement of disputes. We did talk about the ankahms (duels) of Malabar in an earlier article, we will get to more details in this one.

The ballads in particular takes us to a point of the origin of the Chekavar lot. The time period is connected to the Cherama Perumal. Historians have analyzed certain sentences from the ballads to determine not only the origins and the caste of Chekavars, but also the time frame of their arrival in Malabar. The paragraph attesting to the origin is a narrative by Araomar, before he set out to fight an angam related to the Kurungattidom succession. The paragraphs in discussion are appended below. While they clarify a lot, it also raises many a question.

A rough translation states that ‘our ancestors lived their life fighting duels for the last 368 years and that they originated from the land of the Ezhavas after a formal request by the Cherama Perumal to the king of the Ezhavas. So that begs the question, now which Cheraman perumal was he talking about? A second question is, where is the Ezhava nadu? Many a historian including Achyuta Menon, SK Nair, Balakrishna Warrier, and Percy Macqueen chose to calculate the life period of Aromal Chekavar by basing the calculation from the ascendancy of the Zamorin as the Puntura ruler (which was just after the departure or demise of the Cheraman Perumal). It is recorded by Manaveda Raja in Kerala Charitram that this was in the 9th century and that puts Aromal’s period as the 12th century. This also concurs with the identity of Cheraman Perumal Nayanar (one of the 66) of the 9th century which we discussed earlierbased on KV Krishna Ayyar’s analysis and established a date of 826AD. 

In contrast one must also note that the Tacholi Othenan ballads date to the 17th century based on the fact that Othenan was born in 1584. Other historians (Ulloor P Iyer, T Karunakaran, SK Pillai, PKP Nair, N Panikkar), believe that the two ballads were from the same period and that Othenan and Aromal originated around the same time (based on words such as guns which were introduced in Kerala after the Portuguese ascendancy, or the possibility that the perumal was the Ramavarma Kulashekara of 1103AD) and that the events happening in the 15th century took some more decades before becoming ballads.

Achyuta Menons analysis however mentions another possibility, for the Aromal ballads do not indicate any Kolattiri Raja or Zamorin and talk only about local chieftains, so it must have predated the formation of the nadus, the Kolathiri, the Zamorin etc and fits into the 12th century. Historians in general agree that the rulers of Cheranaad were trying to fight off the Cholas and so it is likely that they sanctioned the requisition for fighters or mercenaries from Ceylon, something which was often done. After arrival they were formally provided land to set up home, by the local ruler.

A study of the complete ballad reveals the following. The quarrel that brings this to light is the succession arguments between Unnichandror and Unnikonar of Kurungattidem (somewhere in kurumbranad) in Prajapatinadu. As the argument could not be amicably settled, an angam is called for. Unnichandror selects Aringodar to fight his duel (Aringodar is already preparing the wooden angathara and planning deceit!). Unnikonar is still in search of a suitable person and lands up in Elavannur with his retinue of 22 nairs, where a wandering bard directs them to the Putturam house, home of three eminent Chekavars. Ayappa Panikkar the father, who is old and a winner of may duels, the son Aromar who is an expert in the ring and the nephew Unnikannan. The next morning the group meet the father (a little discourteously by not getting up) who says he can still fight a duel, even though he is past his prime. They are more interested in engaging Aromar. Aromar steps in now in all glory, the group jumps up in respect and Aromar admonishes them for not standing up for his father. Hearing that he has to fight Aringodar, he demurs initially stating that he is not yet ready for that, as he is young and only 22, but after more persuasion and after some prayers, agrees and accepts the big angakizhi panam. His parents are alarmed that Aromar is going to fight the mighty Aringaodar and is unhappy and grief stricken. Aromar calls his brother and gives him the money. Unni is aghast, as he is sure he will lose his only brother and that is when Aromar tells him about their origins and responsibilities and that they cannot afford to send their old father to another duel. It was now time for him to take up the responsibility.

He explains their forefathers arrived as professional combatants (angachamayam
chamannu ponnu) and have to earn their bread with their sword and that they should never refuse to fight. He mentions that the date of the duel is not auspicious, that their forefathers came from Izhuvattunaad (Ceylon) 368 years ago, led by Chekavar Kulavirutan and carrying seven copper vessels. They met the Cheraman perumal formally thus ending the Kammalan penalty.

Readers might wonder what that is – It is well explained by Thurston and simplifies to the legend when they (7764 families) left Malabar and went to Ceylon en-masse, after a lower caste washer man (veluthedan) married one of their girls with support from the Perumal. Eventually they (except the coppersmiths – hence the copper vessels) agree to return after getting many privileges and come back with a Izhuva boy (as they wanted their leader or Tandan to be of Ceylon origin due to the fact that the Ceylon king had given them refuge when they came as assylees), a Nazrani escort etc and have her married to a warrier girl on the way, as a compromise. Perhaps this Ezhava boy was this Kulaviruthan chekavar, the originator of the Tiyya caste of Malabar, and the warrier relationship sets them apart in a higher social standing compared to other ezhavas.

They, as the ballads states, the chekavaors were then accorded special privileges by the Perumal, such as a crown with flowers, a carpet to make an entrance on, a daylight lamp, special brass lamps, seven umbrellas, four triumphal archways, gold palanquin, processions, panchavadyam, fireworks, tandan status, right to build an angam platform, the rank and status of chekor, and finally the abode at Putturam and the building of a kalari there. They become incredibly rich and powerful and displace the Tulavanad Garadi masters who used to carry out the angams previously.

The ballad then goes on explaining the angam, the preparations, the deceit and the eventual demise of the great Aromar after Chandu’s treachery. What is most interesting is the wealth of information which will interest any history enthusiast!

It is concluded by CA Menon that the Puthruam family belonged not only to the Tiyya community, but also that they were patriarchal and not matrilineal like the Nairs, he also concludes that the community like many others including the Moplahs of Malabar, eventually took to matrilineal practices. He does analyze this in greater detail, and this is borrowed by KS Mathew writing about ‘the society in Medieval Malabar’ and their practices at length. Mathew establishes that the ballads are typically sung by coir workers or people working in the paddy fields. There was also a practice that these ballads are sung for the benefit of the Karanavar as entertainment, after dinner, before retiring to bed. The ballad underwent changes over time with new words substituting the old and added only for the rhyme and tune adopted.

Continuing on, we also note from the ballads that Cevakars were given a Tandan title or tandaima-stanam (usually by the senior Rani of the Ambadi Kovilakom in Calicut or the local cheiftain) and that Unniarcha was a tandatti. But interestingly the Tacholi Othenan ballads mention Tiyyas separately, as toddy tappers, for Tacholi Chandu goes to Badagara to collect kattipanam from Tiyyas.

The Aromal ballads further prove that the Cevakas were ilavas (from Elam – Ceylon) as the Jonakas complained through the Nadapuram chetti to Kunhiraman, Unniarcha’s husband that an ilavan and an ilavatti were standing beneath a banyan tree.

From these ballads, it is seen that the Chekavars (and Ezhavas in general) and Nairs shared an amicable relationship and were only separated by limited pollution cleared by a bath. However Chekavars held an elevated position on par with nobility and many special privileges such as special dress, the tandan title, movement in a palanquin, panchvadyam, use of an umbrella, copper vessels and other ceremonial articles as we saw previously and people in general respected chekavors. Not everybody in the same family can have the title, for example Kunhiraman was only an ezhava, not a chekavar.

Professionally, the chekavar was obligated to participate in a duel when requested and continued this even to an advanced age. They also ran kalaris or gymnasiums where their art was taught to younger students and this was a source of substantial revenue after their training. In spite of their lower standing compared to Nairs, the custom was that Nairs (even the local chieftain) stood up in respect when a well-known Chekavar like Aromal arrived, showing their relative importance compared to Ezhavas. However Chekavars employed Embranthiris in their temples, not nambuthiris and worshipped at the Omallurkavu and Allimalarkavu. We also note that women trained in these kalaris, exemplified by the heroic Unniarcha.

We talked about Angams earlier, to summarize, the angam was conducted to sort out a dispute, as a last step after other traditional diplomatic attempts. Once an angam is announced, the two parties go out to select a fighter for their side. Once chosen, the chekavar has to be paid in three lots, the angakizhi (duel fees), the veetukizhi (as insurance for his family) and the nattukizhi (for the local chief– as a tax and arrangements to conduct the fight). The Angam compensation was huge then and in today’s terms, many hundreds of thousands for a major duel. The fight does not have to end in death, but one can accept defeat and the other is proclaimed the winner. The first ankham fought by one of these winners who then obtained the chekavar title is called the puttari ankham. The notables of the city witnessed an angam.

Another interesting type of duel can be observed in connection with these mercenaries, namely Poithu. The poithu is quite different in purpose. It is more private and always resulted from a chekavars ego, it is a challenge without good grounds or reason, and usually based on a quarrel or just arrogance. The poithu can be fought between two people or two groups of people (sangha poithu) or desams. The main difference was that while the Angam was a fight between two hired professional fighters, the poithu was the fight between two fighters fighting for themselves, with some observers, not nobility.

The chekavar prepared for the ankham in a specific manner, observing celibacy, then took pains to wear the ankapattu or kacha, bid a formal goodbye to his family and then joined his entourage in procession to the angam location. During the fight no deceit was traditionally (it has happened though) resorted to, any new techniques were announced before it was tried. The weapons used in an ankham are typically the churika and the shield and a spare is usually carried by the support members.

On the appointed day a special wooden dais or ring is constructed at the city center, the reasons and rules announced, invited public, local chieftains and observers assemble and following a cockfight (not always) or kozhiangam which was adopted to provide a prophecy of what was to come (following which one of the parties can in theory accept defeat and withdraw), the alangam or man to man fight starts. Each chekavar has a Man-Friday or understudy available to take on the fight when he rests, to hand over the right weapons during the duel or to observe that no cheating is employed.

It is also seen that the chekavar community dwindled over time, we hardly come across them in later ballads. Perhaps the Nairs gained exclusivity for professional fighting after the leadership changed. It is believed that with the Zamorin and other kings coming into power during the latter medieval, new legal systems came into place for sorting out disputes and quarrels and angams became unpopular. But we can see that Travancore in later days employed Chekavars, especially Marthanda Varma, who invited Raghava Chekavar from Malabar for support.

Perhaps it is now time for us step over to Ceylon and check if they indeed had such martial arts there, in order for Malabar lords to requisition their exponents. The relations and intermingling between the lower geographical sections of India and Lanka dates back to time immemorial, so it is not fair to separate Lanka today in these discussions, it is just like somebody came from Tulunad or Maharashtra to Kerala. The immigrant population move inwards and emigrations outward always took place, and depended on where the opportunity was. Mercenaries simply moved to where wars were popular.

As it turns out the, Lankans did have the Haramba Salawa or an equivalent of the kalari in the Kandy region. These were the training centers where various forms of martial arts were taught, both the Angam pora or body combat and Mallawa pora or wrestling, dating back to many centuries (Kataragama Mahasen of the Yaksha tribe started it some 30,000 years they say). There were two clans Maruwalliye and Sudhaliye who had separate training centers and it is seen from records that exchanges of teachers in wrestling did occur between Sri Lanka and Malabar. Specific instances can be found in Sri Lankan history of similar angams, and connects back to Ravana who was considered an expert in such arts.

Angam in Lanka, is hand to hand combat, ilangam is combat with weapons. A third variety maya-angam uses mind power for combat. Maru nilaya shastraya is a Lankan method of attacking nerve centers to paralyze or kill, again seen in Malabar combat as marmath adi or marma prayogam. Just like in Malabar kalari, angam employs 18 techniques Aromal had developed a 19th!).

Kamalika Pires explains - There were two fighting clans, Maruvalliye or Sudaliye with their own flags in Kandy. The Maruvalliye base was in Hewaheta and Uda palatha, Sudaliye in Harispattu and Sinduruvana. The leaders of the schools were known as Maruwalliya Muhandiram Nilame and Sudhalaye Muhandiram Nilame, respectively. These positions were highly coveted.

If you make a quick study you will find similar weapons and dressing in Lankan Angam, and you can even see the 32 bladed urumi versions wielded with both hands (thunu kaduwa) in their retinue. In Lanka, it is believed that there was an unwritten law which demanded that any person wishing to attain kingship in Sri Lanka should have been well versed in Angam fighting. The scenes of complex Angam fighting illustrated on famous Embekke wood carvings prove that this form of martial arts existence. An ancient fabric paining found in Hanguranketha Devale illustrates two factions fighting each other with swords and shields. Angam was also taught in Burma and Thailand during the ancient times. Looking deeper, we observe a number of words such as 'Angam', 'Paniker', 'Churika', 'Sevakam', 'Palisha', etc. in Sinhalese dialects, suggesting a relationship with the system which prevailed in Kerala in the middle ages. Like it was done to Kalari in Malabar, the British outlawed the art of angam pora.

An ancient Sinhala verse runs thus — Sevakam, Angampora, Yudhaye, Du keli, Ankeli, me
hama yudhaye, Pancha kala, Pasdena, jaya ganniye, tunlovatama avulii moma vipaye…It is roughly translates as – In soldiering, ankham bouts and combat, gambling, horn pulling, and such contests, this island will be a beacon to all three worlds!!

These Sinhalese Angampora were probably the source from which the chekavar ancestors originated. Anyway one thing is clear, the Angampora was state supported in the medieval times in Lanka, and they would thus have had a number of warriors during the lull periods who could go on to fight ankhams or seek their fortunes in neighboring lands such as Malabar. Perhaps that is how they landed up in Malabar. Ankhampora continued on till the 18th century in Lanka while it slowly disappeared from Malabar in the early 17th century. Sankaranarayanan opines that the first Chekons or Chekavars came around 1000AD to Malabar. He believes that the Kurupus also originated from Lanka (How and why some Kurupus went back to Panadura in Lanka and merged into the populace, is a story I have kept for another day)

But it is also noted from Ceylon history records that they employed Malala mercenaries in their armies often so it could very well have come from Malabar ages ago. This Malabar region was known as Malala in Sri Lankan historic sources, and has had many interactions with Sri Lanka in both times of war and peace. At various medieval periods in Lankan history, the Kotte armies were composed of Demala (Tamil), Malala (Malabar) and Doluvara (Tulu) soldiers in addition to Sinhalese troops, and this shows movement of soldiers and mercenaries across borders.

Nevertheless, the two styles developed over time and exponents questioned over similarities and differences between Kalaripayattu and Angampora clearly identify how the two arts became distinct from each other and unique in their own right. The 'Garadi salais’ of the Tulu speaking South Canara is another direction to look, and existed well before the Kalaris of Malabar. They had expert trainers and are often mentioned in the Northern ballads.

It is difficult to be totally factual in these matters, that the Chekavars originated from Lanka is something I would find hard to disbelieve, but how it connects up with the agricultural Ezhava population in Malabar, their Lankan origins, and the resulting timeline, is still not clear, though very likely. That many Malabar mercenaries settled down in Lanka, and rebelled often due to non- payment of arrears, is recorded. It is also possible that a returnee clan formed the Chekavar lot in Malabar (people who at first originated from Malabar and returned) a contention which cannot be ruled out, but I find unlikely, for it would have been narrated so in the ballads.

Ballads of North Malabar – C Achyuta Menon
Society in medieval Malabar – KS Mathew
The Kalari and the Angam – Institutions of Ancient Kerala – MD Raghavan
The Angam, a common factor of the middle ages of Kerala and Lanka – MD Raghavan
A ballad of Kerala – MD Raghavan
Castes and Tribes Vol 7 (section Tiyan) - Thurston
The medieval society of Kerala as reflected in the ballads of N Malabar – E H Devi
The medieval society of Kerala as reflected to the customs and practices in the ballads of N Malabar – E H Devi
The Keralites and the Sinhalese – Dr KC Sankaranarayanan
Vadakkan Pattukaliloode- MK Panikootti
Angampora - SL magazine - 1st Quarter, 2012,
Buddha in the Crown: Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka - John Clifford Holt

Military Manpower, Armies and Warfare in South Asia - Kaushik Roy