HISTORIANS AND ACADEMICS have written books and papers about him; there have been biographies and novels lauding his heroism. Films have eulogised his bravery and exploits in his nearly-13-year war against the British forces, from 1793 to 1805. But certain qualities of Pazhassi Raja, the erstwhile king of a region in North Malabar called Kottayam—not to be confused with the southern Kerala district by the same name—are to date discussed only within a small circle of scholars. Historian A Sreedhara Menon points out that the ‘Lion of Kerala’, as Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja came to be known later, put up a twin resistance–“to Mysorean tyranny as well as British domination”. His list of feats includes outwitting Arthur Wellesley, one of Britain’s most astute military officers who later went on to defeat Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo. Raja, who was finally encircled and killed by the forces of the British East India Company in 1805 aged 51 in the remote region of Mavilamthodu, near Pulpally in Wayanad, had many peculiarities for a military commander and ruler of his time. He was a popular leader who fought an all-encompassing people’s war to protect his kingdom from invaders. He experimented with hit-and-run attacks–what became known as guerilla warfare–with Company forces. He forged alliances with warrior groups irrespective of their caste and religion. He befriended tribal groups and rallied Nair soldiers to fight colonisers as well as the forces of the Mysore kingdom of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan.
In Mavilamthodu, a few kilometres from Pulpally, which is home to the only Sita Devi temple in Kerala, there is a memorial to the great warrior-king. It is a beautiful park not far from the Karnataka border. It is said that after Raja died in what would have been a highly forested area in his time, his body was carried in North Malabar Sub-Collector Thomas Harvey Baber’s official palanquin to nearby Mananthavady, where he was cremated with customary honours. Baber reported about Pazhassi Raja to the Principal Collector of Malabar in his letter dated December 31, 1805, “Although a rebel, he was one of the national chieftains of the country and might be considered on that account rather a fallen enemy.” In Mananthavady, there is a bigger memorial erected in memory of Raja, housing his tomb and a museum displaying his sword and other belongings.
Raja’s significance to the Company cannot be understood without digging deep into its bloodiest war ever in the Indian subcontinent. That war—the collection of clashes between Raja and the Company’s forces—is known as the Cotiote War, or the war in Kottayam. The Kottayam kingdom of Pazhassi Raja comprised parts of Tellicherry (now Thalasseri), Kozhikode and Wayanad districts of what is now Kerala and even parts of neighbouring states. Crucial aspects about the war aren’t known even inside of Kerala: it was the East India Company’s longest military campaign on the subcontinent, and as historians such as KKN Kurup note, it lasted much longer than the Anglo- Mysore Wars, the Anglo-Maratha Wars, the Anglo-Sikh Wars and other crucial wars the Company had to fight in India.
Raja was a shrewd diplomat. While he had tied up with British forces to fend off attacks from Mysore initially, he later sought a partnership with Tipu Sultan to scare off Company forces. In return for helping the British stop the onslaught of the Mysore kings, Raja asked for independence for his kingdom, which the Company promised, and, as always with the colonialists, reneged on.
The king called out the Company for its betrayal following the Treaty of Seringapatam (also called Srirangapatna, the then capital of Mysore) of 1792. The treaty was the culmination of the Third Anglo-Mysore War that broke out in 1789 after Tipu Sultan attacked Travancore, a British ally. The treaty came into effect after Lord Earl Cornwallis entered into parleys with the Sultan, forcing Mysore to part with annexed territories. The Company got the Malabar region and decided that it no longer needed the services of Raja. Raja was assisted in the clashes that followed by Kaitheri Ambu and Kannavath Sankaran. Historians contend that the campaign was one of the toughest and the bloodiest wars fought by the Company in which it suffered huge losses on the Western Ghats and other parts of Malabar where Raja’s soldiers continuously targeted the Company’s bases and assets. Although Raja’s initial intentions were personal, the war acquired a popular dimension when his subjects became invested in keeping foreign forces, and their perfidious ways, at bay. It was thanks to Pazhassi Raja that Hyder Ali’s army had to flee Thalassery Fort following the long siege from 1774 to 1792. But when it was time for the British to honour their promises, they entered into a treacherous deal with his uncle Vira Varma and appointed him the king of Kottayam. A puppet, Vira Varma glibly handed over trade control to the British and imposed high taxes on his people, especially peasants. Raja saw opportunity and gathered popular support for his crusade against the Company.
Historians have characterised Raja as a visionary ruler who set up schools and colleges that were open to people from all social categories. He was a patron of the arts, a quality that ran in the family. He also encouraged traders and helped them establish new trade routes to circumvent British surveillance. Raja brought in experts to modernise agriculture in his kingdom. His popularity among his subjects was so high that British officials acknowledged it after they hunted him down. They also described him as a unique phenomenon among the adversaries they had faced in India, thanks to his military skills and his ferocity. Scholars such as KM Panikkar aver that Wellesley used the guerilla warfare tactics he had picked up from Raja to rein in Napoleon’s forces and to finally trounce him in Waterloo (now in Belgium).
At a time when the nobility as well as the kings of Malabar fled to Travancore in the south when invaders came from across the border in the north, Raja decided to stay back and fight Ali in 1773. He was barely 20. Pazhassi Raja’s stature as a no-nonsense fighter and a darling of his people grew over time, much to the anguish of the Company. He also provoked them with strikes on strategically important posts. One such daring clash was against an army of 1,100 men led by a British major. Writes Sumit S in his book The Warrior King: The Life and Times of Pazhassi Raja: “One of the earliest battles occurred in 1797, when Pazhassi Raja’s forces successfully defended the hill fort of Nedumkotta against a British attack. This victory established Pazhassi Raja’s reputation as a skilled military leader and inspired others to join the resistance movement.” He also cultivated friendships with warriors from different social categories. For instance, one of his close associates was Edachena Kunkan, a Nair chieftain; another, Thalakkal Chandu, an archer and Kurichiya leader. He also had Muslims aligned with him.
It was thanks to Pazhassi Raja that Hyder Ali ’s army had to flee Thalassery Fort following the long siege from 1774 to 1792. But when it was time for the British to honour their promises, they entered into a treacherous deal with his uncle Vira Varma and appointed him the king of Kottayam
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His kingdom flourished under his able leadership, producing high-quality textiles, including fine cotton and silk fabrics, as Sumit explains in his book. “These textiles were produced by local weavers who had been trained and supported by the government. The textiles were in high demand both within the kingdom and beyond, and they became an important source of revenue for the government,” he adds. According to Sumit, Raja abolished many of the unpopular taxes that had been imposed by his predecessors and introduced new ones that were more equitable. KKN Kurup has noted that Raja had set in motion work on infrastructure, which included roads, bridges and canals. He also did away with heavy taxes imposed by the Company, which infuriated the latter’s officials no end. Some historians suggest that Raja’s war against the British in Malabar was a resistance movement that has to be seen alongside the revolts by Paliath Achan in Kochi, the Kurichiyas in Wayanad and the Moplahs in Eranad and Valluvanad.
FOR A KING who had helped the British in the second Anglo-Mysore War when Mysoreans attacked Tellicherry, and later in Badgara (now called Vadakara), Eranad and Kadathanad, Pazhassi Raja fought the British in a battle that even his well-wishers thought was a losing one. It is not difficult to sense in Raja a quality of turning supposed disadvantage into advantage, somewhat like TE Lawrence, the British military leader popularly known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, did. Both Raja and the man who led the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I had men around him who didn’t have conventional military skills. But both used their men’s remarkable abilities in traversing difficult terrains and making the most of their traditional capabilities. In Raja’s case, it was the hunting and martial arts skills of his people that he used to the hilt. Both Lawrence and Raja avoided direct attacks that would have put them immediately at a disadvantage. This is perhaps how Raja he survived for 13 years until British forces, aided by traitors from his kingdom, ransacked his hideout. Some historians say Raja killed himself before he was caught; others think he was shot down by Company soldiers. Their attempts to either capture him or kill him began as early as 1795. In April of that year, they had surrounded his palace at Pazhassi (in Kannur district) but he wasn’t there and so they plundered the palace. The very next year, the Company issued a proclamation forbidding people from cooperating with him. It was around this time that Raja sought the help of Tipu Sultan, sending some of his men to Mysore to meet with him, and the support of other princes and kingdoms. British forces employed their usual tactics, capturing pro-Raja men and torturing them to get information about their leader. Kannavath Sankaran Nambiar and his son were hanged and their property was confiscated shortly. But Raja remained elusive and his troops continued to hit back.
In 1802, Edachena Kunkan and Thalakkal Chandu captured the Panamaram Fort and killed scores of Company men. All this while, it had been Wellesley who was entrusted with capturing Raja; after his three-year-long effort ended in failure, he left for Europe in 1803. Shortly thereafter, Baber was brought in to crush Pazhassi Raja and his rebellion. The newly appointed British official focused on re-training Kolkars, Indians who were considered policemen of the Company at that time. They knew the lay of the land and Raja’s friends and associates. Against a small band of Raja’s troops, Kurup explains, the Company had readied a 1,200-strong force of Kolkars besides their own officers and soldiers. It was meant to be an asymmetric war and it was natural that Raja and his men hit back using unconventional methods. In Pazhassi Samarangal, a definitive account of the Raja’s life, KKN Kurup notes that the British forces realised in the early years of the 19th century that their designs would not bear fruit without eliminating him. This they finally accomplished on November 30, 1805.
Arthur Wellesley, who later trounced Napoleon in Waterloo in 1815, had tried unsuccessfully to defeat and capture Pazhassi Raja for three years before he left for Europe in 1803
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In his book titled Kerala and its Makers, Sreedhara Menon argues that the resistance movement Pazhassi Raja organised against the Company was unique. “The guerilla warfare waged by his men from the jungles and hills of Wayanad against the military might of the British have few parallels in Indian history and is part of the larger saga of India’s struggle for freedom. That Raja was a brilliant strategist is made abundantly clear by the details of his campaigns against the British,” he writes.
He adds that the active involvement of an aggrieved peasantry and of the hill tribes of Wayanad, like the Kurichiyas and the Kurumbars, added a dimension of agrarian upheaval to the Pazhassi struggle. “By all accounts, it was a real people’s war in which all classes of people, irrespective of caste or religion, took part for the vindication of a noble cause,” he notes.
Menon, one of Kerala’s foremost historians, believes that Raja shot himself dead before he was caught. “The Pazhassi Raja’s inspiring martyrdom under tragic circumstances in defence of the cause of liberty has invested his life with a unique halo and won for him a niche in the hearts of his fellow countrymen,” he writes.
In hindsight, it can easily be said that his influence on the Company and British rule was so intense that they took desperate measures to curb any kind of potential guerrilla attacks in the future. One such step was to ban Kalaripayattu following the Cotiote War. The ban was necessitated after the British observed local men and women warriors fight valiantly, displaying gravity-defying acts and expertise with swords and other weapons. But the martial art form did not die out completely, with a few people continuing to teach it in secret.