The Panniyur Sukapuram conflict– The Kurmatsaram

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 A backdrop to the Zamorin’s Tirunavaya conquest 

The Zamorin annexed Tirunavaya, followed by the Valluvanad and Vettam territories, and with this the chasm between the two feuding dynasties of Perumbadappu and Nediyirippu, widened, fracturing the peaceful life in medieval Central and South Malabar, as well as the territories between Cochin and S Malabar. The catalyst to the move by the Zamorin was the precipitation of the age-old conflict between the two Namboothiri village communities near Tirunavaya, namely Panniyur and Chokiram (Chovur, Chowaram, etc symbolizing Sivapuram i.e., today’s Sukapuram) located to the south of the Nila River or the Bharatapuzha.

But before we get to the specifics, a little background on the timelines and the Brahmin migration from the North would be useful. Splinter groups of brahmins are said to have moved south during the Sangam period (Post 3rd century) to various South West coastal locales, carrying the Parasurama tradition with them. Large-scale migrations to the Tulu – Kannada regions likewise, occurred in the 4th-5th centuries and the migration into the Malayalam regions, supposedly started during the Chalukya regime, in the 7th- 8th centuries. That is the period when the 64 brahmin settlements came into being, 32 of them in today’s Kerala (the other 32 in Tulunad). The Chera kingdom meanwhile flourished with its capital at Tiruvanchikulam near Kodungallur. The Brahmin oligarchy supported the Chera monarch and created its own hierarchical caste system, with the Namboothiri’s at the apex and the Nair followers closely behind. The temple system or sanketams which we had discussed earlier, came into vogue and became quite powerful over time. Sanskrit mixed with the Chera Tamil and developed to create early versions of spoken Malayalam. The Namboothiri uralers (temple trustees) who were by now wealthy landlords, maintained a large Nair retinue through sambandham unions and together with the local chieftains, formed local village settlements.

We can see that the powerful Bhakti movement was also at play, around the times when Cheraman Perumal and Kulashekara Alvar ruled, during the 9th century, though there were no major impacts on Kerala Brahmins, who worshipped both Shiva and Vishnu. During the 12th century, as the Perumal epoch was drawing to a close, the temple communities took control, resulting in regional fragmentation. As Swarupams came into being, powerful chiefs like the Nediyirippu (Zamorin), Valluva konathiri- Velatiri, the Perumbadappu (later Cochin) raja, etc came to the fore as major regional heads, often warring with each other. It was in this post - Chera period that the friction between two prominent Brahmin villages (villages extant as early as 775 AD) started. This was termed a Kurmatsaram (feud among the ruling houses - Panniyurkur and Chowaramkur). It is believed to have become emphatic around 1225 AD and continued for some 500 years, with varying degrees of intensity, sometimes descending to outright animosity and warring.

The Panniyur village boasted a large Vishnu Varahamoorthi temple and the Sukapuram villagers a Shiva – Dakshinamoorthy temple, leading one to conclude that the former was swayed by Vaishnavism and the latter by Shaivism. KVK Ayyar (Zamorin’s of Calicut) mentions - The Kur-malsara was in origin a war between the two Namputiri villages of Panniyur and Chovaram in the Ponnani Taluk of the present Malabar District, which, like the war between Athena and Sparta in ancient Greece, divided the country into two hostile camps and prevented it from attaining political unity. Panniyur was from the very beginning an important settlement of the Namputiris. Four thousand, out of the, sixty-four thousand who received the gift of arms from Parasurama, mention that the armed tradition belonged to Panniyur. It was one of the original Kalakams, and it continued to retain its high position and influence even after the other three Kalakams of Perinchellur, Chenganiyur and Parappur had sunk in importance. Chovaram or Sukapuram, the other village, is situated about six miles to the southwest of Pannniyur, also one of the traditional sixty-four Brahmin settlements. 

The competition heated up after the respective chiefs took sides as the Zamorin - Cochin conflicts gathered strength around the 15th century. While the Panniyur chief - Thirumalasseri was aligned to the Zamorin, the Sukapuram chief took the side of the Valluvavad chief, who in turn was aligned with the Cochin Raja. Everything went topsy turvy in the two villages, they were opposites in all matters, be it cutting vegetables, wearing the dhoti, type of caste marks on the forehead, the gods they prayed to, sacrificial rituals and whatnot. They would not intermarry or visit each other. The Sukapuram villagers, more trained and knowledgeable in the Vedas and rituals scoffed at the Panniyur ‘illiterates’. The Chowaram priests believed they had a better-established history, as the Melattol Agnohotri had performed 99 major sacrifices. The reader may take note here that the Azhvanchery Thamprakkal and Kalpakanchery Thamprakkal were the spiritual leaders of Sukapuram and Panniyur respectively.

Logan states - Kerala was probably stripped of its northern province by the power and influence of the Western Chalukyas, whose emblem was this same boar incarnation of Vishnu, and the Rashtrakuta or Ratt'a dynasty in turn with strong Brahmanical and Saivite proclivities superseded the Western Chalukyas and claimed to have conquered Keralam. Until better evidence is forthcoming, therefore, it may be concluded from the above facts and traditions that the “God-compelling” Vedic Brahmans, with their mantrams, and spells, and doctrine of salvation for deceased persons through the efficacy of their sacrifices, came in the wake of the conquering Western Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas and their allies. The former were Vaishnavites and their emblem was a boar, and the Panniyur (pig village) faction of the Nambutiris no doubt was at first in a position of equality with the Saivite faction, but the Rashtrakutas were chiefly Saivites, and the Chovur faction of the Nambutiris managed in the end to get the ascendency. In order to defeat the scholastically superior Sukapuram, some of the Namboothiri’s of Panniyur went outside Kerala and brought their Guru to the Land of Varaha. It is also believed that they started worshipping Goddess Varthali and practicing some of the secret rites of Tantric Buddhism violating the directions of Lord Varaha. Furthermore, they burned and destroyed the idol of Lord Varaha. So, the status of these Namboothiris was lowered by the Zamorin.

KVK adds - We do not know also when the Kur-matsaram ended. It must have been hastened by the Panniyur sacrilege. The inhabitants of three villages were divided by a schism. The reformers wanted to import strangers and introduce new forms of worship. The conservatives refused to allow this, whereupon they defiled the temple of Varahamurti and placed a red-hot vessel on the head of his image. Stricken with horror and fear, the orthodox fled from the place, most of them taking refuge at Irinjalakkuda. The Zamorin as the protector of the Brahmins punished the daring innovators by degrading them to the rank of Nampisans (However, after the payment of a fine of 23,000 panams, and a gift of four kalams, they were reinstated by the Zamorin, in 1760 AD).

Panniyur was thus in ruins. Though the orthodox disowned their connection with their original village they would not change their living habits. So,  the difference between the two factions still continues -  in the mode of tying the cloth, application of the chandan-mark on the forehead, and dressing of vegetables. 

Many a foreigner who came by took note - The Portuguese scribe DeCouto attributed the division at the beginning of the 16th century to the hatred between the Zamorin and the Cochin Raja. He termed them the Padaricuros and Logiricuros (or Jogreculos).

Visscher writing a century later stated - Not only is the whole of Malabar," says he, occupied by a multiplicity of kings and potentates, a circumstance causing in itself endless discussion, but these again are broadly ranged into two parties, whose hatred is the more effectual and probably the more interminable, seeing that it arose from the unfair distinctions introduced by the original laws of the kingdom. The adherents of the two parties are called Pandelakoers (Panniyurkur) and the Chodderakoers (Chovarakkur), and just as Italy was formerly torn by the rival factions of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and England, distracted by the wars of the white and red roses, and the Netherlands had to shed tears owing to the ravages of the Kaabeljancos and the Flocks, so has the trumpet of war blown by the Pandelakoers and Chodderakoers often summoned the princes of Malabar to mutual hostilities. We do not know how the war which had such disastrous results was caused, it is said that Parasuraman himself divided Kerala into boar worshippers, and bird-worshippers, the former headed by Panuiyur, and the latter by Chovaram. Another tradition is that the dissension was the work of Cheraman Perumal himself, who created it to maintain his partition and prevent the Nayars from becoming effeminate. A third view is that the war arose out of the quarrels of two families, each of which owned a pagoda. The war is also traced to foreign intervention; the Rashtrakutas- being Saivite, assisted Chovaram against Panniyur, which was supported by the Chalukyas.

He adds - Now, he (Perumal) assigned Calicut (kingdom of the Zamorin) to his children, who according to the law could not inherit, and it was natural to suppose that this would cause umbrage to his nephews (Kolathiri, Perumbadappu), who were the lawful (by matrilineal progression) heirs of the crown and to whom he had only given the kingdom of Cochin. They would probably use every endeavor to recover their rights when opportunity offered. For this reason, he originated these two parties, and he regulated the number of princes, noblemen, etc., who should belong to each, with the express command that if a king, prince, or landowner should be attacked by one of the opposite factions, he should be assisted by all the members of his own party, under pain or loss of privileges. The Zamorin King was appointed chief of the Pondelakoer (Panniyurkur) and received a sword in token of his authority, and the King of Cochin as chief of the Chodderakoera (Chovarakkur) received a shield. Cheraman Perumal’s second reason for establishing these factions was to create a martial spirit; lest living in perpetual peace, the Malabar people should sink into effeminacy, and thus become prey to the surrounding nations.

While this was the accepted version, some other acts and events fomented the conflict.  The temple at Panniyur was from the very beginning, associated with the government of the country and its defense, and over time, Chovaram, also came to prominence, along with Perinchallur, Purappur and Chenganiyur. Thinking that the success of their rivals was due to the grace of Siva, the Panniyur villagers resolved to worship Siva as well, but in his most powerful aspect, as Dakshinamurti. The Sukapuram faction got flustered, and while the ceremony of installation was in progress, they succeeded somehow in removing the idol from their village. Thereupon Panniyur attacked Chovarum and set fire to the village. The vanquished sought the help of Arangot and Perumpatappu, whereupon the victors appealed to Nediyiruppu, broadening the conflict beyond the village borders.

KVK Ayyar continues - Whatever the origin of the Kur-matsarom, the immediate cause of the war which resulted in the Zamorln’s occupation of Tirunavaya was the invasion of Tirumanasserinad by its neighbors on either side, Arangot and Perumpatappu. Lying like ‘an earthen pipkin between two iron pots' the Rajah of Tirumanasseri appealed to the Zamorin for help, and ceded Ponnani as the price of his protection.  That was just the opportunity the Zamorin was looking for and we went on to access the entire area. Ponnani was incredibly important as a trading port and of great strategic value for the Zamorin.

Tirumanasserinad consisted of 146 Desams, bounded by Uppattodu in the east, Pookaitapula in the south, the sea in the west and Bharatappuzha in the north. The Raja who was a Nambuthiri, was the titular head of the Panniyur clan and considered the protector of all the Brahmins living between Perinchellur and Chenganur. Furthermore, he had Koyma rights over thirteen temples including that of Talipparamba. He was also the leader of the Namputiri Sangham of Kolattur and Palghat, and he had 3,000 Nayars under him. Chief among his vassals were Kolikkolli Nayar (300), Kottolpata Nayar(300), Patinhare Nampati (600) Irikkalikkara Naysr (300), Maniyur Nampati (100), Muhkatakkat Nayar (600) and Mangat Nampati (100).

Anyway, the powerful Zamorin invaded the region at this invitation and continued on to take Valluvanad as well. More on all that later. The Kalpakancheri, of the Panniyur faction, was always invited for the Ariyittuvazcha or coronation ceremony of the Zamorin, but after the animosity had died out, the Alvancheri Tamprakkal, also figured in the ceremony. Interestingly, the Panniyur faction during one occasion is said to have earned the ire of the Zamorin when the Kalpakancheri did not allow the Zamorin to perform a Hiranya Garba to elevate his caste status. And that was how the Alvancheri started getting the invite for the coronation.

Ayyar explains - Panniyur refused to allow the Zamorin this privilege in order to raise himself in the social hierarchy. So, he turned to Chovaram. The decline of Panniyur was closely connected with the alienation of its best friend and protector, the Zamorin. Further, the Chovara Namputhiris started attending the coronation - It is not known when Varikkumancheri Namputiri, and Kinangat Namputiri, both belonging to the Chovarakur, came to be invited. In all probability, Varikkumancheri was one of those who assisted the Zamorin to perform Hiranyagarbham. Kinangat was a partisan of Perumpatappu, and he was given the privilege for changing sides.

KS Mathew provides this additional info in the Kerala handbook, making it clear that the Zamorin though favoring Panniyur was balanced in his actions – He (the Zamorin) seems to have been also not overly intimidated by the Brahmins themselves, because he punished those of the Panniyur faction for having stolen some properties belonging to the other faction. He reduced all of them to the status of the lower sub-caste of Moosads with a corresponding reduction in royal patronage, presumably in ME 780 (corresponding to AD 1605). But he re-instated them as Nambudiris with a corresponding higher status in ME 935 (corresponding to AD 1760), after they had remitted a collective fine of 23,000 panams (panam). He also seems to have forced the Saiva Nambudiris of Sukapuram to worship the Narasimha of Panniyur, across the Bharatapuzha.  

Narayanan Nambuthiri (Aryans S India) however opines that the Panniyur Nambuthiri’s displeased (the Zamorin) the ruler who wanted to have larger control over powerful Sanketams, and the Panniyur temple was indeed very powerful at that time. He thinks the legends of the desecration of their own temple were created after the fact and are mostly unbelievable.  The Panniyur families who fled to Travancore, he feels, may have left before the event. 

More precise details of these times can be gleaned from the fascinating book Vellayude Charitram by NM Nampoothiri- Akitham Acyuthan Namboothiri writing the preface explains that the split occurred after 898ME (1723 AD) looking at the Vella and Appathateeri records. Vella Mana Nampoothiri who inscribed this important text was from Panniyur and about 50 years old and a trustee of the Panniyur temple at the time Hyder arrived in Malabar (1757) but wrote his memoirs 24 years later. The first part of his account talks about the Kur Malsaram and the renovation efforts in 1756. In fact, it was in the same year that the Zamorin conducted a Mamankham and Hyder attacked Malabar, following that festival. The text is quite laborious and verbose and requires a detailed study, which I will do at a later stage.

Thurston concludes - The Keralolpatti relates the story of the exclusion of the Panniyur Brahmans from the Vedas. There were in the beginning, two religious factions among the Nambutiris, the Vaishnavas or worshippers of Vishnu in his incarnation as a boar, and the Saivas; the former residing in Panniyur (boar village), and the latter in Chovur (Siva's village). The Saivas gained the upper hand, and, completely dominating the others, excluded them altogether from the Vedas. So now the Nambutiris of Panniyur are said to be prohibited from studying the Vedas. It is said, however, that this prohibition is not observed, and that, as a matter of fact, the Panniyur Nambutiris perform all the Vedic ceremonies.

Asko Parpola who studied Vedic traditions, also records - The four Vasista manas originally belonged to the Panniyur grama, where the Asvalayana tradition was followed for hautra, and even nowadays the Asvalayana tradition is followed in the Srauta rituals performed on their behalf, although the Vasishtas have come over to the Sukapuram grama represented by all the other Nambudiri manas belonging to the Samaveda. Before the coming of those four manas there was no Asvalayana practice in the Sukapuram grama, only Kausitaki. 

While Panniyur were Vaishnava leaning, they were the ones punished by the Zamorin, and Sukapuram the Saivites gradually moved towards propitiating the Varahamurthy, as time went by. But it is true that the Zamorins were Vaishnava leaning with Krishna and Guruvayur as their main temple. The Perumbapadppu, of Cochin, also leaned towards Vaishnavism by this time, as we saw in the article on Rev Jacob Rama Varma. So, the impact of the Siva-Vaishnava Schism may be disregarded to a certain extent. The events as retold above, seem more political and unrelated to Bhakti. However, the friction between the two factions must have started with their unequal origins and the gods they prayed to.

Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Ayyar
Letters from Malabar – Visscher
A short history of Kerala – KV Krishna Ayyar
Vellayude Charitram – NM Nampoothiri
Malabar Manual – William Logan
Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Vol. 5 of 7- Edgar Thurston
On the Jaiminiya and vadhula traditions of South India and the Pandu/Padava problem – Asko Parpola

Pics - courtesy Kerala Tourism