Tag Archives: Cheerappanchira family

Mamankam and Changampally Kalari: Ancient Practices of Healthcare and Martial Arts in Kerala

Mamankam memorial: Changampally Kalari near Thirunavaya

The healthcare and self defense practices  of Ayurveda and Kalari in Kerala are of Buddhist origin.  They are lasting legacies of Buddhism in Kerala as literacy and the general  intellectual culture. The Avarna communities like Ezhavas constitute the chunk of its practitioners traditionally and even in the present.  Vagbhata and Nagarjuna who developed this indigenous practice of medicine were Buddhist monks who did missionary work in south India.

Pazhuka Mandapam near Navamukunda temple, Thirunavaya on the banks of Nila

Even in 18th century, at the peak of Brahmanical untouchability and exclusion on caste lines, the Dutch appointed an Ezhava medic, Itty Achuthan of Kadakarapally near Cherthala to write the famous Hortus Malabaricus.  Even today one of the ancient Kalaris surviving in Kerala like Cheerapanchira in Alapuzha district, that trained the legendary Ayyappan of Sabarimala, belongs to an Avarna  Ezhava household.

Manikinar: well used to dump the Chaver, Thirunavaya

Changampally Kalari in Thirunavaya in Malapuram district is associated with Mamankam, the martial carnival that settled the succession disputes in ancient Kerala once in every 12 years.  Historians like Velayudhan Panikasery argue that the festival is of Buddhist origin.   Initially it was a great cultural and trade festival of human interaction on the banks of the great Perar or Bharathapuzha just above the ancient port city of Ponnani where trade and passenger ships from across the world anchored in the calm waters of the inland port.

Nilapadu Thara: vantage used by the Konathiries and Zamorins

Anyway the Changampally household was appointed in charge of the Kalari here by the Zamorin of Calicut in the middle ages according to local legends.  The family has converted to Islam in the 18thcentury during the Mysore occupation.  When I visited the Kalari in early February 2012, Mr Jaffar Gurukal who is running an Ayurvedic centre near the ancient Kalari told me that before conversion they were Tulu Brahmans.  This could be an elitist assimilation or fabrication done later under the hegemony of Brahmanical values; as Tulu Brahmans are never identified as traditionally having martial Kalari practice or institutions in Tulunadu or down south. Almost all Kalari households in Tulunadu and Malabar belonged to Sudra and Avarna communities.

Carving in Changampally Kalari

The Changam and Pally words in their house name are marked key words associated with Buddhism.  Changam or Chingam represent Chamana or Amana or Sramana culture as in Chinga Vanam or Changanassery (place names in Kottayam district).  As Sramana culture is inseparable from the month of Chingam and the great secular egalitarian festival of Onam in Kerala, the words Changam/Chingam and Pally/Pilly are also inextricably linked to the Buddhist past of Kerala  that is the foundation of egalitarian culture here, that was erased by Brahmanism after the 8th century.

It is great to see the ancient Kalari shrine and surroundings and the Mamankam sites being preserved by the Government and the people.  An apt museum and interpretation centre that could educate the people on their rich cultural traditions can be an added attraction here.  The road from Thirunavaya to Kuttipuram is also in good condition.  The Nila Park just below the Kuttipuram bridge about which poets like Idassery have written is also luring visitors.  I found a large group of Small Pratincoles on the sandy flats of the river near the park as the sun was setting beyond the river and into the trees.

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