Othenan – The Supreme Warrior of Kadathanad

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Tatcholi Othenan – As narrated in the Ballads of the North

The Northern ballads (Vadakkan pattukal) are a series of folk songs sung by working women in the paddy fields, to fend away boredom and drudgery, composed mainly in colloquial North Malabar Malayalam dialects, without complex Sanskrit infusions. Typically, these are songs about the heroes of the Kadathanad region, especially their armed exploits, and the skill shown using the 18 plus combat techniques learned from their Kalaris. In general, it is believed that the Tatcholi ballads were composed during the 16th and 17th centuries (the Puthuram Aromal ballads are believed to date to an earlier, period, perhaps closer to the 12th century). Over time, many of the ballads were lost, with changes in social structure, lifestyles, and cultivational methods. Tatcholi ballads as they were called, remained in the popular sphere, and close to a hundred of them are still extant, so also a few on the Aromal Chekavar.

Logan states in the Malabar Manual - While, however, Malayalis have no literature to be compared to the Rural of Tiruvallur or the polished 3 verses of Sivavakkiyar, they have many folk songs, few of which have been reduced to writing, but which are extremely popular, being composed in the ordinary dialect of the people and treating of subjects in which they have an interest.  Of these, perhaps the most popular are the ballads relating the deeds of Tachcholi Meppayil Kunhi Othenan. The original Tachcholi pattu, describing one of Othenan’s exploits — whether the final exploit of his life or not is uncertain — is a great favourite, and several Tachcholi patts, as they are called, have since been composed in the same metre regarding the doings of other men.

Othenan was a skilled and shrewd warrior, a master in the art of payattu, both armed as well as hand-to-hand combat. Starting at the age of eight when he won for the first time, his fame grew as he seemingly fought off hundreds of armed opponents single-handedly, and over time, he grew into a proud young man, a symbol of virility, often found philandering, dabbling in witchcraft and magic, nevertheless remaining very popular in the region. Othenan hailed from a Nair family near Badagara, and was usually considered to be chivalrous, courteous, and of course, brave, bordering on reckless. Thacholi Othenan, an ardent worshipper of the Lokanarkavil Bhagavathy was generally considered to be the Robin Hood of North Malabar.

The times were different, wealthy traders and regional chieftains required armed guards - provided typically by the Nairs, who had the license to kill if so needed. Always walking around with a sword (or a short stick) and a shield, they were the mercenaries and keepers of peace for the feudal society when not at war, but when at war, formed the bulk of the fighting troops. In the peaceful interludes, much shorter periods in the medieval, they were involved with the implementation of law and order, and in this connection, we saw their involvement in the ankhams or duels to settle disputes, or to settle scores and serious arguments. We had previously discussed these subjects, so also the chekavars and the suicide warriors, the chavers. Let’s take a look at the legend of Othenan, our protagonist from a Nair family situated not far from Calicut and ruled by the Kadathanad Raja (ex-Porlathiri).

Thacholi Othenan’s full name was Mepayil Thacholi Manikoth Kovilakathu Kunji Othena Kurup. A little interior to Badagara, we come across the place Thacholi Manikothkavu, where Othenan or Thenan as he was called by locals, once lived. It is believed that his life spanned the cusp of the 17th century. He was born in 759 Mithunam, i.e., 1584, and died around 1616, aged 32. His father was the Puthupanathu Vazhunnor, the chieftain of that locality (from the Chellattan Vamsham), also known as the Cheenamveetil Thangal and under the suzerainty of the Kolathiri Raja (it is believed that he hailed from a family of China traders at Puthupattanam), and his mother, a lady named Uppatty from Manikoth. He had a brother named Koman and a little sister named Unnichara. Also, living in the abode, was the woman who brought him up, named Theyi, and her daughter Maakkam. The family was bereft of male successors (all of whom had died fighting wars and duels), save for the young Othenan. The famed Mathiloor Gurukkal took care of the family, as its protector.

Boys in the locality studied to an age of 18 whereas girls stopped at 12, their Kalari or school being the Mathiloor Gurukulam. Once past this age, boys (and rarely some girls) went for advanced weapons and martial art training to the Mahe (Mayyazhi) school run by the Keliketta Panikkar until the age of 25, after which they settled down to family life. It was a prosperous locality, village meetings took place under the Kutoth banyan tree in front of the Lokanar temple and in case a duel (poythu) had to be fought to bring about a result for a quarrel, this was conducted at the Ponniyath Anga Kalari. As honor was paramount, no fighter accepted defeat and the duel ended with one dying, leaving the living winner. Such were those days.

Othenan and Koman, grew up in tough times, mainly due to his mother’s estrangement from their father, the Puthupanathu Vazhunnor, the children being the butt of many jokes, as their mother was considered to be no more than one of his mistresses. Adding insult to injury, the Vazhunnor fathered a child named Chappan through Makkam, their maids’ daughter! Both the boys studied at Mathiloor, and while Koman was considered studious, and calm in attitude, Othenan was haughty, short-tempered and always picking up fights with his peers. Interestingly, Chappan, his stepbrother remained his lifelong friend. While Othenan grew up to become a master of martial arts, Chappan, also possessing similar skills, was a tactician. One of the earliest exploits of Othenan was the challenge he threw at the son of a neighbor who injured his mother and getting the arrogant boy to apologize to her in public. Many more exploits followed in the years that passed by, as his mother, father and teacher passed away, while the fame of the young fighter wielding his flex sword Urumi, spread around the region, so also increasing his female fan following.

But another ballad states that after the juvenile fight, the locals complained to the Kadathanad Raja and Othenan’s father had to pay a penalty of 1000 panams. At this juncture, Othenan, Tiruvalacholayil Kurup and Chappan went to Ponnani to study the payattu at the Cherayi Panikkar’s kalari for 2 ½ years. He then came back to Kadathanad and joined the Mathiloor gurukkal’s Kalari. The raja asked the gurukkal to finish off Othenan in his sleep. Chappan came to know of it and so, Othenan together with Payampalli Chandu and Chappan slinked away to Tulunad to train under a Ramappan Gurukkal. The Gurukkal teaches him many additional tricks and also gives him a special waist amulet which was reputed to protect its wearer even from gunshots.

One of his earliest challenges occurred when he was summoned by the Zamorin to a gathering presumably at the Mananchira grounds. Othenan arriving there saw some hundred-odd henchmen, the Zamorins bodyguard. Contemptuously, he told the Zamorin that those bodyguards were overfed and underprepared for any serious fighting and that he should be more discerning in such matters. When asked by the Zamorin if he thought a bit too much of himself, Othenen drew his Urumi sword, applied some lime (Chunnam) to its tip, and flashed it before anybody could figure out what was going on. As it appears, in that one swing, he applied a chunam mark on each of the bodyguard’s necks, but not wounding any one of them. Though quite farfetched, the story tells us that he possessed extraordinary skills and stood his ground regardless of the authority in front of him.

Time went by and after a little bit of setback, Othenan marries the dark-complexioned (there is a charming story about it) and pretty Kunji Kungi (another reference says Chattottu Chiru), while his sister Unnichara marries Edacheri Pookottu Kanaran Nambiar. The ballads also tell us how he then marries yet another lass Kunjimathu - Kungamma, the daughter of the physician who saved his life, not to mention details of his numerous sexual trysts and sambandhams with Odathil Chiru, Rairu of Puraparambu, Kunhiparu of Madai kovilakom, Ponmalakotta Kunjikanni, and so on.

In the end, he is killed by deceit when he was on his way home after defeating the Kathiroor Gurukkal at the Ponniyam poythu which lasted 3 days. Seeing that he forgot his dagger at the arena, Othenan not heeding the warning of Chappan, retraces his steps through the jungle when he gets fatally shot (he was not wearing his sacred amulet that day) by a disciple of the fallen Gurukkal, named Chundangapoyil Ulumban Bappan (Or Mayan pakki), accompanied by a friend of the Parunthungal Emman Panikkar.

Quoting From Logan’s translation of the ballad narrating the shooting

But, as ill fate would have it, when Ponniyam new river was arrived at, he found his dagger had been lost. At once sayeth he- "Hark! my brother! "I left my dagger in the arena "And I forgot to take it. "What shall I do now'?" "If that is lost," replies the brother, 'I shall give you another like it". It's all true, my brother, "But go and take my dagger I must", the brother's remonstrance had no effect. Odenan ran back to the arena; the Kurrikkal seeing this said to Chundanga poyilil Mayan Pakki - the Tachcholi who went away, is coming again, "Now he will not allow us to survive". Hearing words to this effect, Pakki took up his gun, and loaded it with two shots, and concealed himself behind a tree. On Odenan coming near, The Mappilla, taking good aim, shot at Odenan's forehead. He fell down on his knees, but would not let his mean enemy escape. He threw his sword at him, which cut not only the tree but Pakki himself into two. Tearing off his silk turban, Odenan dressed his wound on the forehead. The Kurup, his brother, seeing this burst into tears. But, Odenan remained bold and said- Brother! don't you show your weakness "In the midst of these thousands of men. "How simple you are! "Has anybody as yet died "From arrows on the neck?  "Or from bullets on the forehead?" They then began to retreat Through the Chambat field and reached home-Meppayil in Kadattanad, that day,"

They say that Othenan’s shrine contains his sandalwood cot on which he died, a red silk cover, a sword as well as his famed urumi sword. Today, what remains of the homestead is a temple, with shrines dedicated to Othenan, his elder brother, Koma Kurup, a stool in memory of Chappan, his nephew, Kelu Kurup, and another one nearby for the Pulluvan (a conflicting story), who avenged the murder of Othenan by killing Bappan and the Panikkar’s friend.

Some ballads - Related to Calicut & Kunjali Marakkar

Among the ballads of his life and times as well as his many exploits are two interesting stories, one dealing with his visit to Calicut and another his connections to the Kunjali Marakkar. Let’s take a look at those stories in some detail, to get a feel of the times. To be kept in mind is the fact that there was deep-seated animosity between the Kadathanad rulers, so also the Kolathunad rulers, with the Zamorin of Calicut. The Kadathanad Raja used to be the Porlathiri of Calicut, who was defeated and his realm usurped by the Zamorin. With the ascent of the Zamorin and his large military, nobody tried anything unwise. However, the proud Othenan seems to be scoffing always at the Zamorin, and in the ballad, which we are about to study, get the better of the Zamorin, at the Zamorin’s home turf - Calicut.

As the story goes, Othenan accompanied by his trusted stepbrother Kandachery Chappan, is sent (or goes – most probably sent by the ruler) to procure some goods (silk, silk threads, worth 700 panams from the store belonging to one Ambu Chetty at the Calicut (Koyikot in the ballad) Big Bazar. Remember also that the silk once came via the vessels plying to China. Direct trade had declined, but trade through the intermediate port of Malacca perhaps continued to the entrepot at Calicut.

The Purameri Kovilakam (Kadathanad Raja) Thamburan sees them marching along, Othenan with a drawn sword and Chappan with his spear, from his thatched terrace (so he had a two-storied house) and tells Vennapalan Korothu Kunjikungan (his aide) to call him. Othenan and Chappan go in and bow before the noble Lord, whereupon the latter quizzes them about their trip. Othenan replies that in the month of Kumbham, on the 10th and 11th, a duel has been arranged with the warrior Kannan of Tulunad from Mahe Anga Kalari. For that purpose, they needed new goods, the silk and silk threads, sword decorations etc., from Ambu Chetty’s shop at the Calicut market (It is my assumption here that Othenan was going to purchase the silk cloth for his attire – the famed Virali Pattu). The Thamburan warns Othenan that the Chetty is a nishtooran – i.e., arrogant and untrustworthy and that considering his demeanor, there is every likelihood of Othenan picking up a fight at Calicut and getting involved with wanton destruction.

So, he suggests that he could send Kungan in place of Othenan to procure the goods and tells Kungan that he must return by the third day. Kungan agrees to go but then he wants Othenan’s Urumi. Othenan responds immediately saying that if he draws his Urumi from his waist, it can only return after drawing blood. And so, Kungan gets dressed and proceeds to Calicut, with Othenan’s sword.

After some other minor matters along the way Kungan reaches the Chetty’s shop at Calicut and the Chetty informs him that he has to wait for a ship to arrive with the goods. Soon enough, a hungry Kungan picks up an argument over a rack of bananas and ends up chopping Ambu Chetty into two with the sword. The market is in an uproar, the other traders converge at Ambu Chetty’s shop, where the dead body could be seen and the Zamorin is notified.  The irate Zamorin send out 22 armed Nairs to intervene and take care of Kungan. Kungan cares not and slays all 22 of them in a short battle, singlehandedly.

A furious Zamorin now sends 330 of his nair’s to fight Kungan, but Kungan slays them too, and then the Zamorin finally sends 18 of his senior commanders to fight Kungan, but they are also killed by the Kungan. The perplexed Zamorin send his son and nephew to summon the Kungan, to his palace. Kungan arrives at the palace and bows in front of the Zamorin, upon which the Zamorin sentences him to death by hanging, for all the murders, and packs him off to a dungeon.

By this time seven days have passed, Kungan has not returned to Kadathanad and the alarmed Purameri Thampuran summons Othenan and informs him that he fears Kungan is dead and asks Othenan to go to Calicut and check on the matter. Now one must note that the entire ballad is meant to convey the message that Othenan is larger than any suzerain and that he cared not a hoot about such things, also the message that the people of Kadathanad don’t have much respect for the Zamorin, who had once upon a time usurped their abode.

Othenan and Chappan march off to Calicut and it is late evening when they reach there, after which they decide to retire at the Koyikaledathil Kunji Makkam’s (Illikkal Matu in another ballad?) house. She, who served the Zamorin’s nobles, refuses to serve them dinner initially, stating that the Zamorin’s Panikkars (or was it the Zamorin himself?) would arrive soon for dinner with freshly caught fish, followed by post-dinner activities. The irritated Othenan deciding to teach her a lesson, rubs his ring, and magically Makkam’s clothes ride up to her neck, creating an immodest scene. The alarmed lady quickly agrees to serve them dinner and lo! her dress slips back down. While the men go for a dip in the pond, Makkam cooks a lavish dinner. After the dinner, while Chappan stays guard at the gate, Othenan retires to bed with Makkam. The Zamorin’s Panikkars (or the Zamorin himself) seeing Chappan at guard and knowing that Othenan was with Makkam, returns dejected. The ever-chivalrous Othenan later gifts Makkam some land (how he, a native of Kadathanad, gifts the Anjarakandi plot at Calicut to her, for a night’s tryst, is a mystery, but then again, no questions).

Eventually, Othenan reaches the Zamorins palace and requests a meeting with the imprisoned Kungan and he is brought in. Othenan now explains he is the second half of the Kadathanad Raja, an important person and that he should not be trifled with and requests that he be allowed to take a bath and be fed some food. When the Zamorin suggests that Othenan leave Kungan behind, Othenan politely refuses, stating that he is in a hurry as he has to prepare for the Poythu and that he had come only to fetch Kungan. Anyway, the matter is settled quickly, for the Zamorin has no plans to fight Othenan. The three of them get back to the Purameri Kovilakom and all is well. There is no mention in the ballad of whether they procured the silk and ornaments in the ballad, but again, you don’t question such stories…

Another tale relates to Kunhikumba, Chandu’s wife who wanted to see the Zamorin’s Calicut, but then again, girls do not cross the Korapuzha. She goes anyway with Chappan as an escort. A Kytheri Nambiar on the way, seeing the beautiful lass, desires her and has her abducted. Chappan reasons with the powerful Nambiar and suggests that he comes to Kadathanad and properly marry her. The marriage is arranged at the Tatcholi house and the Nambiar comes there and the marriage is conducted. After the ceremonies get over at the altar, the bride sheds her clothes and turns out to be none other than Othenan in disguise (in Malabar, weddings were usually conducted at dusk, so such tricks can be played) who then picks up his sword and lopes off Nambiar’s head.

There are a few mentions of Othenan’s contemporary Kottakkal Kunjali IV, in the ballads. One involves Ummamma the beautiful girl from Mamala Tharavad. A headstrong girl, she wanted to study payattu and so joined Mathiloor’s Kalari, soon excelling at it. Kunhali by the way was also an ex-student of the Mathiloor Gurukkal and one day chanced on Ummamma while she was passing by the Kottakkal fort gate, catching his fancy. Watching from his terrace, he continued to watch her passing by. Eventually, he gets his assistant to accost her and ask her to join him for a drink of coconut water. The irritated Ummama asked him to go back and tell Marakkar that she had no time for such matters. Now the powerful Marakkar comes down himself and requests her to come inside and see his great fort. Seeing that it was not wise to be rude any longer, Ummama politely said that it was too late and that she had to get home and clean up the school premises. Marakkar insisted that she come in and at least drink some coconut water with him, but Ummama replied that she had just eaten some gruel (Kanji). Marakkar relents and mentions that she should on her return, take the same route in front of the fort so that he could see her pretty face.

That evening, the waiting Marakkar saw Ummama accompanied by her teacher the Mathiloor Ittikoran Gurukkal (also his teacher). Not wanting to pick up a fight with his teacher, he had their path blocked by his elephant Sankaran Kutty. The gurukkal threatened the elephant with dire consequences if it did not clear the path, and the elephant understanding (don’t ask questions) the situation, backs off. After the event, the gurukkal asked the girl to stay at home and not come to the Kalari anymore.

After this scare, the girl flees the area and lands up at Othenan’s house. Marakkar too finds out her whereabouts and comes to Othenan’s homestead and requests him to allow him to marry Ummama. Just like in the case of the aforesaid Nambiar, the marriage is arranged at the Tatcholi house and Marakkar comes there, for the marriage ceremony. After the ceremonies get over at the altar, the bride sheds her clothes and is none other than Othenan in disguise. Othenan overpowers and castigates Marakkar for desiring a Nair bride. Ashamed and scared for his life, Marakkar tells Othenan to keep the whole thing a secret and slinks away into the night.

The message conveyed in these ballads is that even a person as powerful as the Zamorin is cowed by Othenan’s reputation and that Kadathanad sported many such warriors, Kungan included, who should not be trifled with. They wandered around took what they wanted, killed wantonly, even sleeping with the mistresses of the powerful. These charming ballads provide you a peep into the feudal society of that time, its workings, physical relations between men and women, the position of women in the matrilineal society, all a far cry from the prose tilting towards Christian morality, written by the Portuguese of that period. Many more such tales can be found in these ballads, and maybe someday I will retell a few more.

If you recall, we studied about this specific Zamorin, who was the one befriended by a couple of Portuguese friars, the same one whose nephew converted to Christianity. This was also the period when the Zamorin got upset with the same Kunjali Marakkar IV and eventually sided with the Portuguese to get him captured, just as the 17th century commenced. Othenan lived in those times, as the hero who had won 64 fights or payattu until the fateful day when he was shot by deceit, to remain forever a subject of ballads, songs, films and a few books.

References
Tatcholi Othenan – Kadathanad Madhavai Amma
Ballads of North Malabar – C Acyutha Menon
Society in medieval Malabar - a study based on Vadakkaṅ Pāṭṭukaḷ -KS Mathew
Ballads of Kerala – Chummar Choondal
Malabar Manual – William Logan

Notes – Othenan’s preference for the urumi (his first Urumi was gifted to him by his father) as a principal weapon is unique and a little uncommon, perhaps he used it only when traveling. It was quite difficult to wield an Urumi, a weapon quite useless at close quarters. However, it does create an effect and a fearful noise when used, so it scares a crowd. Whether he used a single-bladed urumi or multiple blades is not clear, but from the exhibition at Calicut, it appears to be a single-blade version. In other ballads, he prefers the sword, but I presume the Urumi was the most awe-inspiring weapon of them all, and so attributed to Othenan. Incidentally, Othenan also possessed a silver-handled gun.

Pic – courtesy Amar Chitra Katha