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The Mutts of Trichur and Tirunavaya – Seats of Vedic learning in Kerala

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 Bhrahmaswom Madhoms

Sometimes you despair at how the Englishman corrupted the transliteration of a Malayalam or Sanskrit word, in this case, Mutt which actually stands for Madhom or Matha, a monastic institution for spiritual studies, certainly has nothing to do with stupid persons or mongrels. I had come across mentions of these Vedic universities while reading accounts of missionaries such as the Arnos Pathiri as well as some others and more recently when Vinod who led the conservation and renovation efforts, was in conversation with Arun at Intach Palakkad. As the discussion related to the work at the Bhramaswom madhom at Trichur, it piqued my interest, what with the connections to the Nediyirippu and the Preumpadappu, and I decided to delve deeper into it. The result of that short study follows, but I must admit that while the history of these schools interested me, I have virtually no knowledge of the Vedas themselves or their teaching methodology!

Guruvayur, Hydrose and the Dutch

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Clearing up some cobwebs

The temple is well known to most people in South India. It is very popular, quite crowded these days with thousands of devotees lining to get a peek of Unnikrishnan or Guruvarurappan. True, the pandemic has affected all these quite a bit, but I am sure things will improve soon. Which takes us back in time to two occasions when the temple was threatened by marauding armies, first by the Dutch and later by those laying Malabar to waste, namely the Mysore armies sent to plunder, by Haider and later Tipu. Let’s review the record and also take a look at that interesting person, who was involved in the continuation of finances of the temple at that latter occasion. In these days with so much of divisive attitudes, it is helpful to remember that there was a time when communities also came together for the common good.

The Strategic Wedge

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The Checkered Story of Naduvattam, Palghat

Most inhabitants of Palghat would know little about this principality, located right in the middle of the district. In fact, it is the very area I come from, once upon a time full of forests and hillocks, later all paddy fields, sparsely populated. During the history of Malabar, it was a bone of contention that forced three powerful chieftains to fight many a war, the chieftains being the Cochin Raja, the Palghat Raja, and the Zamorin. The story which I narrate is far from complete and I am sure others will someday add to it or correct some errors now and then. What I present comes from the bits and pieces of information cleaved out from various Granthavari’s, NM Nampoothiri’s Malabar studies and KV Krishna Ayyar’s papers.

Menon and Menoki – a little study

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Some time ago, we talked about the Nair caste and the various sub castes related to it, as well as their characteristics. Medieval Malabar, Cochin and Travancore had many castes, classifications, do and don’ts, and what not. It was not fun if you did not belong to the top and even if you did, you had to remain in your tramlines (as they say in the US) or dividers. In the Nair caste, there were many more profession related titled classifications as well. Most significant were the Menon and the Menoki titles within the Nair caste, which are not very well understood. Complications also arose due to regional differences between Cochin, Malabar, and Travancore. This little article will provide more details to those interested as well as some background explanation.

Principally all these titles were connected to either supervisory capacities or positions or that of a scribe and accountant in the local chieftain’s Kovilakom or temple, preparing Grantha palm leaf manuscripts! Compared to the foot soldier Nair, these personnel were better educated, were closer in proximity to the ruler or chieftain and were ordained or titled, with the title passing on through generations, in a matrilineal fashion.

In general, Menoki is an overseer — By definition, Menoki in the 1901 Travancore and Cochin Census Reports are classified as a sub-division of Nayars, who are employed as accountants in temples. The name is derived from mel, above, nokki, from nokkunnu which means ‘to look after’.

Rama Nilayam, Trichur - A look back

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An outhouse, a palace, the British residency and now a guest house

On the town hall road, in front of the Kerala Sangeet Natak academy and adjoining the Sakthan Thampuran palace in Trichur is the stately Rama Nilayam guesthouse, recently renovated. There has been a lot of conjecture about its origins and people have opined it was once a palace, a form of military barracks, a recruitment center etc. It is also said that it was once an outhouse of the Shaktan Thampuran palace which was refurbished to create the British residency in the 19th century. Trying to obtain details about this was somewhat difficult but stimulating and here below is the result of that search.

Variyan Kunnath Kunahmad Haji - An Eranad Warlord

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There is a furor these days about this 1921 Eranad rebel warlord and many expert opinions are being voiced. I was a bit intrigued as I had encountered VKH often in my Malabar Rebellion studies, but I had not really paused to study him, though spending a while on the Sinderby account caricaturing an antagonist based on VKH’s character. But it is time to do a little study and I will try to detail his actions as dispassionately as I can, referring to the numerous secondary sources I am in possession of. We will see that this is actually the story of a tired old man who had been perpetually on the run before 1921, nursing his grudges against the British, straying somewhat unwillingly into a larger revolt, with only a desire to help out his benefactor Ali Musaliyar, quickly changing his ideology when he became a fugitive and lording a gang who resorted to tactics he would not have approved otherwise.

Tipu Sultan’s delegation to Istanbul

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The Embassy headed by Ghulam Ali

As the 8th decade of the 18th century was drawing to a close, Fateh Ali, a.k.a. Tipu Sultan was left in a quandary. The Maratha wars had been raging and things were not going too well. The years of conflict finally ended with Treaty of Gajendragad in March 1787, as per which Tipu returned territory captured by Hyder Ali, to the Maratha Empire. Tipu agreed to pay four-years of tribute arrears amounting to 48 Lacs while the Marathas agreed to address Tipu sultan as “Nabob Tipu Sultan Futteh Ally Khan” and recognized his kingdom. Why would this address be so important to Tipu?

Wootz Steel and Malabar

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The Outhaals of Nellumboor and the Wootz steel

'One blow of a Damascus sword would cleave a European helmet without turning the edge or cut through a silk handkerchief drawn across it' that was how the Damascus sword was described during the Crusades, a sword which had a blade patterned “as though a trail of small black ants had trekked all over the steel when it was still soft” in the words of a 6th century Arabic poet, Aus-b-Hajr. Before long, the sword had attained a legendary reputation and the Excalibur of King Arthur had fallen by the wayside. Don’t you think it a good diversion, to learn a bit about all that?

Pooku Moosa Marakkar

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And his involvement in Travancore affairs - Marthanda Varma’s reign

This is yet another interesting medieval trader who made his name and lost it after a lifetime of high-risk balancing acts between the various players at the trade scenes of Travancore during the 18th century. His rise to fame was meteoric, from a simple trader to providing military support to Marthanda Varma with his pathemari boat fleet, going on to become Marthanda Varma’s confidante, and eventually ending up as the Travancore sarvadi karyakkar in negotiations with the Dutch. His fortunes rose and ebbed like tides, till it was cruelly ended when he lost his patron. Let’s see what we can dig up about this bloke, from the deep cellars of history.

The Umbrella Riots

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Out at the islands, long ago - Lakshadweep

Many years ago, a peculiar series of revolts took place in the lovely islands off to the west of Malabar, called the Lakshadweep (100,000 islands), which were and still are sparsely inhabited by Muslim folk who originated from the mainland, moving to settle down there sometime around the 14th century and thereafter. The immigrants carried with them a form of stigmatic caste system separating the affluent upper castes from the working castes which as you can imagine, resulted in a good amount of friction. Caste separatism within this community was the reason for a rebellion, but the triggers are for an outsider, particularly interesting. We had previously discussed the breast cloth movement in Travancore, and this is another tale from a time period, when life was quite a bit different from what it is today!

The Malabar European Club – Calicut

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A long time ago….

Some 500 years or so into the past, Calicut was not quite mired in obscurity. It was as one intrepid traveler wrote, ‘on the way to everywhere’. Traders and travelers vied to make their way to the spice capital of the world and write about the strange ways of the people, the spices in the markets and the riches on display. Some even wrote about the honesty of the rulers and the cosmopolitanism they saw. The Portuguese, the French, the Dutch, the Danes and of course the British made their presence felt at this entrepot as time moved on, if only to profit. Years passed and soon it was stripped off all its glory as the British, who like many others, also entered India through its gates at Calicut, moved North and established the metropolises at Bombay, Calcutta and eventually Delhi. The new order had no place for lowly Calicut, but a few enlightened souls still came by, now and then. They all had mainly one place to stay and lodge at, the Malabar European Club, facing the Arabian Sea.

The tragic story of Pulicat Ratnavelu Chetty - ICS – Palghat 1879-1881

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The first covenanted ICS officer of the Madras Presidency

This story was lying in my drafts folder for a long time, as I was not able to establish the identity of the character involved. It was only after reading a relatively recent blog post by Murali Rama Varma who had been away for a while, that I got it resolved. First, thanks Murali for coming back, your posts have always been refreshing and secondly, for helping me identify the person involved.

The only place you can find a pen-portrait of this person is in the book penned by one Isaac Tyrrell. So first let us start with Tyrrell, he spent 56 years in India, in the police and jails and through the 1857 Sepoy rebellion. It is claimed to be an extremely readable and amusing account of a long and varied career "with never a furlough to Europe, nor a residence in a hill station”, a record which he believes has never been beaten in India. Having enlisted in the 46th Regiment of foot, Tyrrell embarked in 1847 as a guard on a convict ship bound for Hobart, Tasmania. In 1849 his regiment was posted to Calcutta and for the next 48 years he moved frequently around north and south India, working for the EIC.

The Kora Puzha custom

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A Cultural or political boundary?

I think most of us will recall that in the past, we had some strict rules when it came to marriages. People from Malabar would not marry from families down South or up North. Let us take a look at that rule or custom and see what it was all about during and after the days when the Calicut Zamorins feuded with the Kolathunad rulers.

One can always argue if it was a rule or a custom, perhaps the latter is a more appropriate usage, we shall soon see. The details come out in various clarifications sought during the long discussions held to formulate what is known and the Report of the Malabar Marriage Commission of 1891. It is not my intention to discuss the practice of a Sambandham marriage, for it is a complex and vast but totally misunderstood subject, so we can get to it some other day.