Kottekad Tandan and his Kalari that Sustained Saktan

Kottekad Tandan's Kalari and Ayyappa shrine.  Current Tandar Mohanan and son Sudhi Kottekad. 18 Nov 2013.
Kottekad Tandan’s Kalari and Ayyappa shrine near Kutur in Thrissur. Current Tandar Mohanan and son Sudhi Kottekad. 18 Nov 2013.

Kottekad is a small village near Kolazhi and Kotur, a few miles north west of Thrissur city. In the late 18th and early 19th century it was the Kalari or martial arts school of the Tandan of Kottekad. The Kottekad Tandan was a close associate of Sakatan Tampuran (1751 – 1805) and was the supreme commander of his army. The title Tandan or Tandar reverently, was awarded to the chief of the Avarna clans of Ezhavas by the royal state in the old princely states of Cochin and Travancore. Kottekad was an ancient Avarna household and the head quarters of the Tandan and his Kalari.

The rare standing Ayyappa idol in granite in Kottekad Tandan Kalari shrine, Kutur, Thrissur.
The rare standing Ayyappa idol in granite in Kottekad Tandan Kalari shrine, Kutur, Thrissur.

Kottekad Tandan has become a local hero and a legend on his own over the ages, fighting till his very end for the excluded and Avarnas in Thrissur. He has become a source of inspiration for political and democratic champions in the modern era, who are continuing their life struggles for the emancipation of the marginalized people in Kerala. He has also found his name in the folklores and legends of Kerala though in minor and insufficient ways. The first Avarna chief minister of Tiru-Kochi state Mr C Kesavan mentions him as a brave warrior and leader of the Avarnas in Thrissur during the reign of Saktan in his historic autobiography Jivitasamaram and Kottaratil Sankunny an early 20th century writer who fictionalized the Kerala legends also invokes his name in his Aitihyamala.

Idols of Saktan and Mamunny Muthapan Tandar installed side by side in a sub shrine at Kottekad Tandan Ayyappa temple in Thrissur
Idols of Saktan Tampuran and Mamunny Muthapan Tandar installed side by side in a sub shrine at Kottekad Tandan Ayyappa temple in Thrissur

The Kottekad school and temple (Kudi Pallykutam and Pally Ara) were open to all the Avarna people in the 18th century itself. Dalits were the chief guards of the Kudipally and cultivators of the wetlands that supported the Kalari. Along with the Kalari and temple complex there were settlements and workshops of the Black Smiths and other Viswakarma artisans who specialized in making metal weaponry and armoury for the royal army. The Tandan’s army was also constituted by these Avarnas including dalits. Hundreds of acres of land was given sans tax to the Kottekad Tandar by Saktan in the adjacent Kol wetlands skirting Kottekad, Kutur, Puzhakal and Adat for the development and daily expenses of this cultural centre and Kalari. Some of the Kol lands are still named after the Tandan.

C Kesavan's autobiography Jivitasamaram (Life-struggle) page showing the reference to Kottekad Tandan and his association with Saktan. Chapter 38 beginning.
C Kesavan’s autobiography Jivitasamaram (Life-struggle) page showing the reference to Kottekad Tandan and his association with Saktan. Chapter 38 beginning.

I accidentally visited the place and the Ayyappa temple of the Tandan on 18th November 2013; after seeing an Aquila Eagle above Kolazhy paddy fields and visiting the Neytala Kavu in Kutur marked for its rounded sanctorum or Vatta Kovil an architectural relic of Buddhist Stupas in Kerala and Sri Lanka. The current head of the family of Tandans, Mr Mohanan and his son Mr Sudhi Kottekad explained the family lore and local history. The renowned Tandan of Kottekad who became a bosom mate of Saktan is called Mamunny Muthapan or the great ancestor Mamunny and he is installed and worshiped as a deity along with Saktan in the family temple dedicated to Ayyappa. This is the only temple in which Saktan Tampuran is worshiped as a deity in the form of an auspicious granite idol.
Mamunny Tandan of Kottekad was a dynamic leader of the Avarna people in the region. Acknowledging his local influence and his unparalleled martial arts skills Saktan made him his army chief. They were like intimate playmates and siblings, says Mr Sudhi who is also doing the ritualistic Tantric worship in the temple. Tandan was given the royal titles after a series of tests and trials in the Saktan palace. The monopolizing Savarna hegemonic groups always tried to get rid of him and to make splits in the fraternity between Saktan and an Avarna leader like Tandan.

Saktan Tampuran (1751 - 1805) the maker of modern Thrissur and he made Kottekad Tandar his commander-in-chief.
Saktan Tampuran (1751 – 1805) the maker of modern Thrissur and he made Kottekad Tandar his commander-in-chief.

Once as a test of his swordsmanship he was given an iron rode to be slashed down with his sword in the guise of a wooden rode by the Savarna lobby in the royal court. Tandan was expecting the cheat and he took his footsteps in advance sufficient enough to cut off a copper rode. To the astonishment of the plotters he was able to rip through the iron rode. On another occasion he was asked to wade through gun powder with a burning stick, which he did harmlessly with great poise. Tandan was able to overcome these stratagems with his concerted efforts, brilliance and a keen sense of reality. His prudence and farsightedness was greatly appreciated by Saktan by making him his supreme commander-in-chief. They remained close kin till the sudden death of Saktan in 1805. It was immediately and strangely declared officially that Saktan died all of a sudden out of a heart arrest. But there are still no medical records or previous information proving that he ever suffered from cardiac ailments or related health conditions.

A Marsh Harrier and a Steppe Eagle in Kolazhy Kol wetland near Kottekad, Thrissur, 18 Nov 2013.
A Marsh Harrier and a Steppe Eagle in Kolazhy Kol wetland near Kottekad, Thrissur, 18 Nov 2013.

But the aftermath of Saktan’s demise reveals some evil conspiracy. Paliath Achan the chief minister, Machat Ilayath the priestly advisor and Aranatukara Tarakan the royal medic conspired to eliminate the outcaste and Avarna Tandan from the royal palace. They once demanded the milk of a Tigress for the queen, that the Tandan was able to fetch because of his Tantric and magical practice. After the ritualistic offerings in the Ayyappa temple in Kottekad he went to the nearby Pumala hills and brought a lactating Tigress to the palace with her cubs; on seeing which the conspirators were said to have taken to their heels.
It is said that he was so close to Saktan that he had his meals with the king from the same plantain leaf. As the army chief he had access to the royal chambers without any caste restrictions. He saved the life of Saktan at many places from the cunning deceits of the priestly Brahmans and the crooked militia of the Nair feudal lords. People still believe in some of the miracles that he is said to have performed. Once he ferried Saktan across the Vazhani canal on a plantain raft that he ingeniously made on the spot. His challenge to the medic Tarakan to milk the Tigress after bringing her and cubs to the palace as he is considered a polluting untouchable Avarna in the Brahmanic Hindu world view and the subsequent frightened exit of the medic are also renowned.
As the seventh generation descendent of Mamunny Muthapan the Tandar of Kottekad, Mr Sudhi Kottekad argues that Saktan did not die of a heart arrest but he was poisoned by the hegemonic Savarna lobby that controlled the palace. The Savarna lobby especially the ministerial Paliath Achan, the medic Tarakan and the religious mentor Machat Ilayath Moose were all out against the growing influence of the Avarna Tandan in the palace and the welfare perspectives and developmental plans of the king that was transforming Thrissur. So they conspired to eliminate the king and his Avarna allies like the Tandan. That is why on the very day of the death of Saktan, Paliath Achan and his henchmen came to Kottekad and raised down the Kalari and Ayyappa temple of the Tandan. But the furious minister and his militia did not get the Tandar. It is believed that he escaped under the cover of the night to the eastern mountains in the Western Ghats and merged himself into the Sasta shrine at Sabarimala, a revered seat of the Avalokiteswara Boddhisatva.
The Kottekad Tandans are also said to have some relations with the Chirapanchira family of Chertala. The Chirapanchira family still holds traditional rights and rituals at Sabarimala and it is said that Ayyappan received his Kalari training from the chief of Chirapanchira and was in love with his guru’s charming daughter now termed as Malikapuram. After the devastation of Kottekad Kalari and Taravadu by Paliath Achan most of the family members also escaped and scattered themselves all around Thrissur. Most of them have changed their family names. Kottilikal, Kizhakeveetil, Kallatu Valapil, Naduvil Purakal, Vetathu Kuzhipally (related to Kovilan’s family in Kandanasery), Vattatil Parambu, Tirunelti Parambu etc. are families that were formed after the genocide by Paliath Achan and his henchmen in 1805. Some of the relatives also embraced Christianity to escape the wrath of the caste feudal lords in the aftermath. Kollanur Christian family is believed to be an offshoot of the Kottekad Tandan household.
The traditional Sasta worship, corrupted Tantric rituals reminiscent of Vajrayana, Ezhutu Pally/Kudi Pally and Kalari martial practice of self defence; and physical healthcare traditions of Uzhichil, Pizhichil and Marma healing prove the ancient Buddhist connection of this Avarna household. After the humiliating invasion by Mysore in the mid 18th century in which Tipu’s army camped in the Vadakumnathan temple, the rulers of Thrissur and Cochin tried to gather popular support to the royal regime by co-opting the Avarna masses who were degraded into beasts by Brahmanical Varnasrama. Saktan’s camaraderie with Kottekad Tandan can be contextualized in this renewed pragmatic politics of the ruling classes in late 18th century Thrissur. But the infiltration of the Avarnas once defeated and casted away as untouchables as they did not submitted to Brahmanism and its nocturnal alliance called Sambandham, infuriated the Savarna cadre of Nambutiri-Nair feudal lords. They had established the regime of caste and Varnasrama from the 8th century onwards by extensive pogroms and religious persecution on minor ethical and nonviolent sects of Buddhism and Jainism who disseminated letters and ethics among the lowly. The reawakening of the masses under Tandar was seen as a lethal threat to status quo and power/knowledge monopolies of the elites.
The second coming of the persecuted Chandals/Avarnas into the corridors of sanctified sacred power was seen with at most provocation by the priestocratic twice born and their servile militia in particular. They checked this slight democratization under Saktan by poisoning the king himself and annihilating the Avarna aides showing remarkable social mobility and resistance to caste and Brahmanism. C Kesavan mentions the role played by Kottekad Tandan in clearing the huge teak forest at the current Tekinkad (literally teak forest) ground in the aegis of Saktan. The Tandan was also instrumental in eliminating the threat of many Brahman high priests (to end the Yogatiri system of priestocracy in Cochin) and Nair feudal lords who torpedoed the king during his early establishing career. The enigmatic sudden death of Saktan in 1805 at the age of 55 and the rapid massacre at Kottekad Kalari by the ministerial premier Paliath Achan testify this historic religious and political conflict between Brahmanism and Bahujan cultures in Kerala.

An Ancient Kalari in South Kerala: Cheerappanchira

Cheerappanchira Kalari, Muhamma, Cherthala, May 2011

Kalari is a traditional school of learning, martial arts and indigenous medicine in Kerala.  Though its dominant,  Sanskritized and violent  applications by the Savarna or upper castes are linked to the militarization and feudalization of Kerala during the middle ages that established the Savarna high culture and hegemony in Kerala; its popular and Avarna or subaltern versions are part of people’s resistance, health care and self defense against oppression, invasion and domination.

Eastern block of the old Nalukettu at Cheerappanchira

The ancient Kalari at Cheerappanchira of old Karappuram or current Cherthala in Alapuzha district lying on the western banks of lake Vembanad to the west of Kumarakom and Pathiramanal  island is renowned for its legendary warriors and inclusive martial arts masters who even got the prestigious privilege of teaching their life saving arts to the mythical Ayyappan of Pandalam dynasty now enshrined in Sabarimala according to folklore and popular belief. It is interesting to note that Ayyappan also known as Dharma Sastha (a synonym of the Buddha) is also associated with the Buddhist past of south India.

A new house at Cheerappanchira

It is evident that the family heads called the Panickers of Cheerappanchira household traditionally practiced Kalari and were chiefs in the army of Karappuram kings from the early middle ages onwards.  It could be well assumed that their inheritance of letters, health care and martial arts is a lasting legacy of the shared Buddhist and Sramana heritage of Avarnas in Kerala who were treated as untouchables and out castes under the hegemony of Brahmanic Hinduism later as rebellious and resisting marginal people who never submitted to Brahmanism and refused to offer martial and sexual slavery to the ”twice born lords of the land” who could easily lure and convert kings and queens and some of the power hungry opportunistic sections who instantly served them to establish the regime of caste and untouchability.

Temple complex and pond at Cheerappanchira

Those who submitted to Brahmanism and offered it life long service and the notorious sexual colonies were absorbed in the hierarchical Varna system as Sudras, the fourth and subservient Varna in Chathurvarnyam and those who never submitted to the ideological and physical pressure of Brahmanism to become sex slaves and menial servants, foot soldiers/militia or henchmen were condemned as Chandals or Avarnas or those without any Varna or caste (those who are outside the Varna system).

Shrine of Ayyappan or Dharma Sastha at Cheerappanchira

According to legend Ayyappan the crown prince of Pandalam (a Pandya diasopora from Madurai) developed an attachment  with a young daughter of his master at this Kalari and she became enshrined as the Malikapurathamma at Sabarimala later at some period in the early medieval era.  It is clear that this ancient Avarna family of Ezhava community enjoyed remarkable familial connections with not only the Karappuram kings but also with the Pandalam dynasty and their western ghat regions as well at least from the 14th century onwards.

Blue Tiger butterfly on a yellow blossom at Cheerappanchira, May 2011

During the early and mid 20th century pioneering Marxist leaders like A K Gopalan from Malabar were given confidential asylum in this ancient household during their anti state campaigns from underground and he married a young woman from Cheerappanchira called Suseela who later became an early revolutionary woman leader of the Marxist party in Kerala and India.

Current head of Cheerappanchira household: Somasekhara Panicker

The current head of the household Mr Somasekhara Panicker has been involved in reviving the ancient Kalari for the last few years and is preserving the greater legacies and cultural heritage of the region and the household that has an important place in the cultural history of Kerala as a vital center of learning and life defensive skills in the vulnerable margin of Kerala that disseminated everyday knowledge among the people or the subaltern successively and successfully for centuries.

Wood carvings on the verandah of the Kalari house

During late May 2011 I visited the place and talked to this martial arts guru about the history and cultural pasts of the family and their indigenous practices for generations across centuries defying various waves of invasion and hegemony.

Wooden carvings on roof structure: Kalari house, Cheerappanchira

The discussion revealed the key role played by the family and the community in preserving and popularizing the native practices of physical medicine and health care among the untouchable and Avarna people of Kerala especially in the marginal coastal land of Muhamma, Cherthala and Alapuzha in general.

Pathiramanal island in Vembanad lake to the east of Muhamma

This great resistance legacy of the people at the bottom under extremely challenged conditions of nature and culture must be studied and analyzed in depth to reveal the omissions, erasures and silences in the cultural history of Kerala and south India.

Metal work on wooden door at Cheerappanchira