The Kalpathi furor

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Untouchability, caste rigors, and a turbulent period at Palghat, Knapp & Sir CP

Villages in Palghat followed caste-based rules as well as the prescribed segregation strictly during the pre-independence period, and the caste rigors felt across the whole region exasperated reformists within and outside the state, especially after Vivekananda termed the state akin to a lunatic asylum. It is a vast and complex subject and there are many books and papers which go into it in great detail, but we are going now to the Kalpathi Agraharams which were inhabited by Tamil Brahmins (Pattar), where during the period 1924-27, several disturbances upset routine life and peace in the area. The conflict between Ezhavas and the Paradesi Brahmins became a media furor and was hotly debated in the Madras legislative council. This then is a summary of events as they happened.

While Nampoothiri pollution rules prevalent in Malabar are based on the Shankara Smriti, Pardesi Brahmins clustered in Agraharams (Tamil-style row houses) around the major temples of Malabar, also followed them broadly and stayed well away from the polluting castes or the avarnas. The depressed classes were termed avarnas and were all untouchable, some like Nayadis even unseeable. As a feudal and predominantly agricultural region, Palghat had many temples, and a vast number of untouchable castes were not allowed to enter these temples of worship, or the bathing ponds. The numbers of downtrodden people were significant and comprised hill tribes, as well as agricultural and general-purpose laborers. Classified broadly, among the ‘non-brahmin’, they were mostly illiterate, and had zero representation at the higher echelons of governance.

Mass movements gained pace in the 20th century. The Draviada movement was focused on the Pariahs of Tamil Nadu, headed by Rettamalai Srinivasan, who placed them as the Adi Dravidas of the land, which the Madras executive Council accepted in 1914. The justice party supported this and in an earlier article on TM Nair, I had briefly covered the party’s work. Lord Willingdon at Madras, decided to accord a 50% representation for backward classes, which as you can imagine was hotly contested. The Justice Party was on the rise, but by 1918, rifts surfaced between the Adi Dravida and the Justice Party, and with TM Nair’s demise in 1919, it stagnated.

A number of meetings and discussions took place around Palghat as well. Towards the end of the first decade of the 20th century, and with the opening of a temple at Yakkara to serve them, Palghat was at the forefront of lower-caste activism. In June 1921, Palakkad saw the first wave of anti-non-cooperation protest rallies. In April 1923, around a thousand delegates attended the Ezhava Mahayogam Conference in Kannadi. Without getting into too many details about the caste movements and struggles, this article will focus narrowly on a specific issue related to the events which took place at the Brahmin Agraharam in Kalpathi. As per ancient custom, only Nairs and Brahmins could use the main streets of Kalpathi.

As Gandhiji’s noncooperation movements gained traction, the Ezhavas of Malabar decided to side with the British government, assuming that these were just upper caste ploys, while the rest of the populace followed nationalist noncooperation activities and the Khilafat calls. Educated members from the depressed classes were uncommon, but there were a few in Palghat, and to name a couple of them, we come across the famous Thiyya Dr. Krishnan and P Sankunni, who was the Victoria College Principal 1917-1921.

When Dr. Krishnan was appointed to Palghat, the Brahmins influenced the Municipal council to send a memorandum to the Malabar collector AF Pinhey stating – “It has come to our notice that a Thiyya Apothecary has been appointed to work in the Palghat Municipal Hospital (now District Hospital Palakkad). In this town, an apothecary is expected to visit Brahmin agraharams when infectious epidemics break out. According to age-old traditions, it is not permissible for a thiyya apothecary to step into an agraharam... Under the circumstances the Municipal Council appeals to the Government to pass orders appointing a high caste Hindu, a Christian, or a Muslim who would have access to the agraharams...” An inquiry was set up following this, and the district medical and sanitary officer submitted a report that commended Krishnan as a “capable and responsible doctor”. The request for his transfer was turned down. Dr. Krishnan went on to become an immensely respected and loved person in Palghat, who visited and tended to the Agraharam Brahmins without any issues until he passed away in 1932.

However, the tenure of P Sankunni, a Thiyya from N Malabar, as the strict and tough principal of Victoria College was beset with several issues and may be considered a major cause for alienation between the lower classes and the Brahmins of Palghat. In 1917, he expelled three students and fined three others for having participated in a procession. The students refused to apologize to the principal who demanded it together with a small fine, to close the matter. Several students protested and stopped attending classes for over a month. The three students namely D Parameswaran, N Ramaswamy, and KS Ramasheshan, were permanently debarred from the Madras University and over 100 students who protested were suspended, pending their obtaining a recommendation from the principal. But naturally, the parents of these upper caste students would have been furious at the lower caste Principal doling out such draconian punishments.

The next case involving P Sankunni, a cause cé·lè·bre during 1918-22, riled up the Brahmins, even more. In 1918, students in a class were being a bit rowdy, and the principal who was called in, smacked (slapped would have been a better term) a particularly unruly boy CS Venkatramani on both cheeks. A case was filed in the lower court by the boy’s father against the principal, which he won, with Rs 150/- as damages. Sankunni filed an appeal against Venkatramani (now supported by his father’s friend, Swaminatha Pattar, and represented in court by Sir CP Ramaswamy Ayyar). The British judge noted that even though the case was about capital punishment, the issue at hand was actually the insult as explained by the 9th witness, that "it was a case of a Brahmin being beaten by a Thiyya and that it would have been different if the man who beat the boy was a Brahmin.” Anyway, the appeal was allowed.

Untouchability and caste issues continued at the forefront in Palghat and in 1925, Adi Dravida and Arya Samaj leaders joined the cause. These groups later (1925) orchestrated the political act of lower castes symbolically entering the hallowed precincts of the Kalpathi Agraharam, a place they had hitherto been prohibited from entering. It is not clear why Kalpathi was chosen, perhaps it was because it was a large if not the largest, of the Palghat agraharams, and because the Nov festival was quite popular.

The Ezhavas and Pulayas of Malabar were generally represented at the Madras Executive Council by R Srinivasan and R Veeraian (hailing from neighboring Coimbatore), among others. During this period, the British bureaucrat handling these issues was none other than Arthur R Knapp. Sir CP was a member of the council. Much of the data on the events which transpired at Kalpathi is culled from council discussions, based on reports from the Palghat sub-collector and news reports from a Pioneer mail correspondent.

The Kalpathi Agraharam like all others was an exclusively Brahman residential street or quarter, adjoining the major Siva temple in the locality (for further details read my article on Palghat Iyers) and comprises today Chathapuram, Govindarajapuram, Old Kalpathi, and New Kalpathi. The annual Kalpathi Ratholsavam festival is a major event, and this article zooms into the disturbances which occurred during these festivals, in 1924-25.

These incidents were well planned and meticulously enacted, following the passage of a formal government order # 2660 of Sept 1924, allowing the depressed classes entry into any public street in the Madras Presidency. The protest plan was to make a symbolic entry on the Nov festival days, based on the contention that the roads in Kalpathi were public and maintained by the government. An Ezhava lawyer named MP Raghavan spearheaded the march on Nov 13th, 1924, after ensuring that they had obtained formal permission from the municipal authorities in Palghat.

What transpired was briefly reported thus - As per government order and the collector’s guidance, eighty Ezhavas arrived at the festival venue around 3 p.m. on November 13, 1924. They gathered in three groups to watch the festival. As the Ezhavas returned, they were blocked by the Brahmins and assaulted with sticks and stones. Some fled to save their life, and injured persons were taken to the hospital. Surprisingly, the entire event occurred in front of police and other government officials. The Ezhavas had sought prior permission from officials and had given written notice; however, the government failed to protect them from the ferocity of Brahmins. Brahmins (then) made correspondence with municipal authorities to prevent Ezhavas from entering Kalpathi. The government banned the Ezhavas under section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, and Brahmins were allowed to hold the festival.

But looking at it from the official records – On Nov 18th, Knapp passed a remark that he was not sure if the street was a public street, in the first place. On Nov 18th Sir CP informed the council that Ezhavas entered the street and insisted on pulling the ceremonial cart ropes (the pulling aspect is not corroborated in the official or any other report), to exercise their right of public worship. In the resulting disturbances, some persons were seriously wounded. Later, the magistrate passed an ex-parte order based on Section 144(2) CPC. He added that this was a judicial matter under investigation. On 4th Dec, M Krishnan Nayar asked the council to make formal a statement on what happened at Kalpathi.

Arthur Knapp read out the district magistrate’s (the Thukdi Sayip was DW Dodwell) report which mentioned that a large party of Thiyyans had entered the new Kalpathi street from the riverside and passed through it, after which these polluting castes were thrown out by the Brahmins. Two or three people were injured, but not seriously. A prohibition order was then passed, and this was obeyed, and the car festival continued without incidents. After the festival was concluded, the Brahmins approached the Divisional officer and asked that the prohibition order be made permanent, which was denied by the DO. The DO added that he did not anticipate any violence from the side of the depressed classes and added that as public money had been spent on the roads, they are public property. The DO continued that any arguments on such matters such be brought to the civil courts but agreed that if the Brahmins had been maintaining the road with their funds (which was not so), their case may have been stronger. The extensive back and forth in the council which I read as part of this discussion, is an interesting example of verbal calisthenics, something these bureaucrats were experts at, in their attempts at trying to outwit each other or deflect a question.

A few days later, on 3rd Dec, R Veerian took up the matter in right earnest and demanded a complete report, pointing out that the Subdivisional Magistrates’ 144 prohibitory order prevented the right of the depressed classes from entering a public road which contradicted the government order allowing them to do so. Knapp replied that the Section 144 decision by the local officer was taken to prevent a breach of peace. Veerian demanded to know if action had been taken on the upper castes for assaulting the depressed classes and Knapp answered that if any complaint had been lodged in a court of law, it would have been acted upon, adding that good sense has so far prevented such a silly action (i.e., going to the court).

According to KA Shaji ("The Ezhava Uprising in Kalpathi") - The community decided to embark on another attempt to enter Kalpathi on December 10, 1924, albeit peacefully. Before that could happen, a five-member commission was constituted by the British government to look into caste-based discrimination, and the rally was canceled at its request. The commission conducted hearings in Palakkad during the first week of January 1925. There were heated exchanges between the 18 Brahmins and the 11 Ezhavas who appeared before the commission. Finally, on January 9, 1925, the historic order allowing people of all castes to enter Kalpathi roads had been promulgated. There ended the discrimination that had lasted for several centuries. The success of the Kalpathi rebellion inspired many social reform movements in Kerala and it boosted the morale of all the untouchables of the Palakkad region.

But it was not over - In Feb 1925, Veerian brought up another important issue, that there was an elementary school in Kalpathi into which depressed classes were not admitted and that the teachers were all Brahmins, adding that the Depressed class member in the Palghat Municipal council was not allowed to inspect the Agraharam school. The council sidelined the issue, stating they had no information about it.

On 6th Feb 1925, it was clarified that the Kalpathi Agraharam streets were built on and registered as Poramboke (unassessed and therefore public/government land). Knapp curtly remarked that all streets in all municipalities are not necessarily public streets and that it is not for the public to decide on such classifications. He explained that the final decision rested on the local municipal office and that any aggrieved party should approach the court and get the matter decided. Responding in March 1925, R Srinivasan expressed his disgust stating that the government’s statements sounded ‘fishy’ and were discouraging – He exhorted the public to fight tooth and nail against discrimination.

Knapp as you may have observed, was caught right in the crosshairs of this landmark case - quoting Rupa Viswanath - AR. Knapp, who lamented that the government could not avoid admitting that the Ezhavars were justified in claiming access because Kalpathi had now become such a well-known event, gave the following explanation for his reluctance to support the active enforcement of their rights: I do not think that Government is called upon to actively support the lower castes in so far as their claim is merely to an abstract right. Our main concern should be the utilitarian and material side of the matter. I think that on the ground, that the streets are public, we ought to uphold the right of Ezhuvans to use them as a thoroughfare, though I would stop short of any encouragement to them to parade the streets merely for the purpose of asserting an abstract claim.

Knapp’s concern appears to be that nothing would be achieved by marching on this thoroughfare save for the very act of doing so: it would serve no “utilitarian or material” purpose. Thereby this was also a statement that the most legitimate kind of right was only one whose exercise led to material betterment. Indeed, Knapp reproved Ezhavars for not “concentrating on removing restrictions which actually cause material detriment.

In Oct 1925, the issue again reared its head and after an altercation between the communities at Kalpathi, injuries (Two Ezhavas and a Brahmin) were reported, preceding two events, one being the Car festival on Nov 13th and the other related to Swami Shradhanada’s visit to Palghat to assert the Ezhava rights. Sir CP answered for the government when faced with questions from R Veerian – If there are rights claimed by individuals, they will have to be proved. Otherwise, prima facie, a public pathway is open to every member of the public. A report in the Hindu stated however that special circumstances duly established could warrant entry prohibition in certain localities.

The Arya Samaj activity which preceded the event was precipitated due to their being in Malabar following the 1921 Moplah rebellion and their ongoing efforts at re-converting the forcibly converted Hindus. At Palghat, they opened an office early in 1925, encouraged the Ezhavas to join the Arya Samaj, and also received encouragement from the SNDP. Around a hundred Ezhavas converted to Christianity, sixty to Arya Samaj, and two to Islam (After the events, many of them seem to have reverted to their original castes) some also embracing Buddhism. In the meantime, these struggling groups, seeing that the British Crown was of no help to furthering their aim, whom they had sided with previously, started to lean more towards Congress.

6th Nov 1925 – Brahmins & Ezhuvas in conflict – The district magistrate and the police are enquiring into the event…Brahmins allege that Ezhuvas led by Arya Samajists entered a temple (31st Oct 1925) while a religious event was in progress, while the latter allege they were attacked while passing the temple. A Brahmin youth was stabbed in the abdomen. After a conference, peace was restored. The paper stated that in all, 376 Ezhuvas had converted to Arya Samaj in Alleppey to free themselves of caste pollution…

13th Nov – Swami Shraddhanand arrives at Palghat and enters into an initial agreement that the entry into Kalpathi will be peaceful, in small batches, and devoid of propaganda. The Brahmins were adamant that converted Arya Samajists would not be allowed into the Agraharam and the Sub Divisional magistrate agreed with them stating that converts will only be treated per their original caste classification until their claim as Arya Samajists was proven in court. Rishi Ram taking up the correspondence stated that the same converts had been entering Kalpathi in the preceding 3 months (it is not clear if this was done covertly or overtly) without issues, adding that Araya Samajists were not banned anywhere else in the country and that the Samaj was devoid of caste segregation. He argued that the Brahmins should be proving their accusation in court, not the converts. No agreement was reached, and when the Arya Samajists decided they would court arrest, a section 144 order was issued for the period 13th -16th, in the interest of peace. Indhu in her book mentions that the Agraharam even sought Moplah support to prevent Ezhava entry (other sources mention Chettiar and Nair support). But well, I guess good sense prevailed in the end.

27th Nov – Arya Samaj teams up with the Kerala Congress. Satyagrahis withdrawn from Vaikkom were asked to commence operations at Kalpathi, with coordinated action strategized by North Indian leaders.

By 1925-26, Knapp had departed from the scene and Sir CP has started to field Malabar questions.

Dec 19th – At the legislative council, Sir CP clarifies that the 144 order was only for the festival duration to ensure peace, that the road was otherwise a public highway, and that maintaining peace was paramount. Interestingly, Sir CP was involved in Kalpathi affairs from the Sankunni case and through 1926, so much so that the justice party accused him of colluding with the Kalpathi Brahmins.  

By Jan 1925, the exasperated Kalpathi Brahmins offered to build a separate thoroughfare for the depressed classes and insisted that they would continue to press for a non-entry ban into the older road within their Agraharam. It was not accepted.

The animosity took many more years to fade away. In 1927 we observe that when Ananda Shenoy took some depressed class boys from the Sabari Ashram to public places like the market, temple and bathing tanks, he faced physical attacks at times. On 27th March 1927, an Ezhuva convert PC Shankaran working at the Registrar’s office in Palghat went to visit Govindarajapuram for official reasons, and during his return via the Kalpathi road, was accosted by one Sundareswaran. A case and a countercase were filed in the courts, which the Sundareswaran lost. It also resulted in Sundareswaran being fined and forced to cough up a bond for the future. During the appeal, the question came up about untouchability and street entry by untouchables upon which the judge stated that it made no sense as the agraharam had no problems having Dr Krishnan, a Thiyya, tend to the sick in their houses, and corroborated by a Brahmin witness confessing that they did no purification ceremonies after he entered and left their homes.

All discussions about Agraharam entry finally ceased. As time went by, many of these old-timers from Kalpathi emigrated to Madras and Bombay. Ironically, at Matunga and Chembur, they too became objects of discrimination and victimization, termed as black Madrasi’s. The wheel of fortune had taken a complete turn.

P Sankunni left Palghat in 1921 and retired as the principal of the TTC in Saidapet. Dr. Krishnan passed away in 1932 and is still much loved and remembered in Palghat. The furor finally seemed to have died down.

Life continues as usual in the Agraharam, and Kalpathy prospered, producing so many brilliant music and film artists, educators, bureaucrats, technocrats, and whatnot. They continue to fill the global intellectual and art milieu with fascinating intellectuals. Old-timers in the area may still mutter about reservations for SC/ST being wrongful etc. under their breath, but people speak less often about untouchability in Kerala these days, though more often about caste.

Sadly, caste segregation and discrimination continue (though not widespread) to this day and are even evident among the well-educated upper-caste Indian expatriates in the USA. At Silicon Valley in California, it reared its ugly head as recently as in Jan 2022 when Dalits in prominent companies were discriminated against, by their so-called privileged class supervisors, and caste was thence added to the California non-discrimination policy. Cities such as Seattle have banned caste discrimination.

But caste is still deep-rooted in the Indian Psyche and will last quite a few more generations if you ask me. In the end, people always resist change, especially changes to long-standing traditions and social order. Hopefully, it will be easier to manage, as time flies by…


Proceedings of the Madras legislative council – 1924, 1925

Pioneer Mail – 1924, 1925 reports concerning the event.

Kalpathiyile Ezhava Samaram – Boban Mattumantha

The social spectrum of Kerala - KR Achyuthan (JOKS 9, 1982)

Conceptions of Community, Nation, and Politics: The Ezhavas of South Malabar, India and their Quest for Equality - Anish KK

How Students Wrought for Freedom – V Sankaran Nair

Articles - The Untouchable Brahmin, The Ezhava uprising in Kalpathi – MA Shaji (Kochi Post)

The Pariah Problem: Caste, Religion, and the Social in Modern India - Rupa Viswanath

The Tyranny of caste – Indhu Rajagopal

Dr. T Madhavan Nair, a multifaceted personality – Maddy’s Ramblings

Arthur Knapp – An unpopular ICS bureaucrat – Historic alleys

Iyers of Palghat – Historic alleys

Images - wikimedia Acknowledged with thanks 

For a deeper study of the antecedents and the travails of the depressed classes, I would suggest that the interested reader reads Anish KK’s and Boban Mattumantha’s meticulously researched papers on the subject.


Note: It is not my intention to show even the slightest disrespect to any caste or community, and If I have inadvertently done so, please send me a mail about anything offensive or incorrect, so that I can rectify the same. As such the article is based on historic events as detailed in the listed sources and retold with an effort to make it readable and concise…  


  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Thanks for the detailed analysis of the Kalpathi incident which may have died down. But, sadly, as you point out, new forms/claims of discrimination are being seen in the US, the land of liberty, equality and justice. Are the forces which failed to keep the Chaturvarnya flag flying back home in India, trying to transplant it into the US? Apart from the Silicon Valley episode, one hears that the Swaminarayans who were building a temple located near Princeton, NJ were also accused of bringing in Dalit workers promising them lucrative jobs. These workers were made to do menial jobs and were paid far below the minimum wages. One wonders if the resurgence of the scourge of casteism is a corrollary to the rise of Hindutva among the expat community. Conversely, the propaganda highlighting questionable cases of Caste discrimination could be an oblique attack on Modi and what he stands for. Anyhow, one more erudte post from the pen of Maddy!

  1. Maddy

    Yes, thanks CHF...
    Very right, I am surprised that such thoughts continue to be on the rise world over. In the end it is the human ego at work, the desire for one to feel and remain superior to another and then subjugate him to submissiveness. Anything which aids it, religion, caste, color, sex or economical might finds favor, I presume . They all continue to be still in play. Hope the human race finds a way and balance it all eventually. Probably not in our lifetime!!