Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker: Morning Star of the Kerala Renaissance

in Article
Published on: 30 October 2018

Dr Ajay S. Sekher

Dr Ajay S. Sekher is currently Assistant Professor of English at Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kalady. He has a Master's degree and PhD (2007) in English from Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala. His doctoral research deals with the representation of caste and gender margins in postcolonial Indian fiction. He has published articles and translations on literature and culture in English and Malayalam in leading journals including The Economic and Political Weekly (2003 & 2006). He has also taught at S S University, Kalady (2004-08) and School of Letters, M G University (2008-09). He has also served as Assistant Professor of English at Government College, Thrissur (2011-12) and Govt College Kasaragod (2010-11). His recent published titles include:
Representing the Margin: Caste and Gender in Indian Fiction. Delhi: Kalpaz/Gyan, 2008.
Writing in the Dark: A Collection of Malayalam Dalit Poetry. Mumbay: Vikas Adhyayan Kendra, 2008. (Translation)
Unknown Subjects: Songs of Poykayil Appachan. Kottayam: PRDS, 2007. (Translation)
Samskaram, Prathinidhanam, Prathirodham: Samskara Rashtreeyathilekkulla Kuripukal. Mavelikara: Fabian, 2009.
Irutile Kali. Pathanamthitta: Prasakti, 2007. (Trans. of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark)
Neelimayeriya Kannukal. Kottayam: D C Books, 2009. (Tans. of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye)
Sahodaran Ayyappan: Towards a Democratic Future. Calicut: Other Books, 2012.
Ajay Sekher is also interested in Photography and Painting. He has done groups shows of painting in Kochi and Kottayam (2008 and 2009).


Memory is often short-lived—we forget more than we remember. The moment we forget, we are seized by a collective amnesia that paves way for homogenous and selective interpretations of history. In Kerala, we have all but forgotten the struggles and rebellions that our people fought only a century ago. We have heard of Narayana Guru, but know little about how he came to be or about the turbulent times in the 19th century, when the caste system and Brahmanism ruled supreme. We forget that there are predecessors and models for Kerala’s modernity and its Renaissance. Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker is a part of that history. The story of the life and struggles of the legendary Velayudha Panicker, or Chekavar, of Arattupuzha (1825–1874) has been kept out of school curricula and the official history by the traditional ruling classes and by the caste hegemonic consensus in Kerala. Recently, however, there has been a renewed interest in the struggle he waged. He fought the violent empire of caste and Hindu Brahmanism in Kerala that still lingers and is assuming fierce proportions with the rise of cultural nationalism in India.


There is a new English novel based on his life, The Leftover, by Dr Rajan Guruvanshy, as well as a recently published historical study in Malayalam by Dalitbandhu N.K. Jose (2017). A foundation was recently formed for the study of Velayudha Panicker’s legacy of ethical and anti-caste resistance. The Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker Foundation (henceforth, AVP) chapter in Kottayam, for example, which is run by Mr S.P.L. Suresh of Manipuzha, conducts annual art competitions every January for school students, to commemorate his birthday. Some of the monuments that keep his memory alive are a community hall, the temple he found in the early 1850s, and the 250-year old Kallissery traditional household. These are all found in his birthplace, Arattupuzha, in the old Karthikappally Taluk of Alappuzha, near Kayamkulam (Pillai 2010).


As early as the beginning of the 1800s, Panicker was building temples, schools, and libraries for Avarna people, including marginalised community members. He was the first Avarna to do this for his people, particularly in Kerala. He was also one of the first persons to fight for equality against caste Hindu violence that dehumanises the lower castes including rampant instances of public humiliation and violation of the modesty of Avarna women. Later by mid-nineteenth century, he carried these struggles forward in the Kayamkulam, Patisery, and Pandalam rebellions. He was the first social revolutionary in Kerala to question the hegemonic restrictions imposed by caste Hindus regarding the Avarna women’s use of breast cloths and gold ornaments. He is the first rebel in the known local minor histories or heterologous narratives to be immortalised for defying and resisting the caste Hindu feudal lords who perpetuated physical and symbolic violence against the Avarnas in south Kerala (Sathyaprakasam 1998:12).


Velayudha Panicker paved the way for the foundation of social reformation and political protest in the early 19th century in southern Kerala. His struggles eventually culminated in the Kerala Renaissance, carried forward in its most ethical articulations by Narayana Guru, Muloor, Asan, and Sahodaran in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this respect, Panicker began the counter-hegemonic resistance movement of those, marginalised, enslaved, and subjugated by Brahmanism and caste for centuries. He set in motion the egalitarian and ethical democratic reformation of Kerala from below, working with people at the grassroots level. He was the first and most important interventionist to kindle the spark of Kerala modernity among its most downtrodden people. In him, we see action and sacrifice directed powerfully towards the achievement of liberty, equality, and fraternity, which was carried forward later by Narayana Guru, Sahodaran, and others. He also was the first to emphasise investment in cultural and educational capital as being key to achieving liberation and the all-round improvement of human qualities. He provided a model for social activism and liberation politics for all excluded and exploited people around the world.


Unique geographical location and local cultural differences


Arattupuzha literally means ‘the river where the annual ceremonial ritual bath of an ancient shrine is conducted’. Many places have the names Arattupuzha and Arattukadavu (Bathing ghats) in Kerala. Arattu refers to the pally neerattu, or the ‘ritual river-bath of the deity of a pally or vihara (monastery) that marks the end of the annual festival’. Alappuzha is a wetland area sandwiched between the Vembanad and Kayamkulam backwaters. Place names that have survived centuries of invasion, attempts at erasure, and cultural hegemony indicate that there were renowned Buddhist centres in this area for more than a millennium (Alexander 1949). Trikunnapuzha and Thottapally in the north are identified as sites of ancient Buddhist viharas and the possible location of Srimulavasam, the renowned southern seat of the Buddha (Ilamkulam 2001:2; Narayanan 2005:23). Ilamkulam argues that Srimulavasam was taken by the sea in the 12th or 13th century. He cites Atula’s Mushakavamsa (considered to have been written in the 10th century C.E.) which records the donations to this Buddhist shrine made by Malabar rulers like Kolathiris. Ilamkulam also argues that the Paliyam copperplate must be appropriately called the ‘Srimulavasam copperplate’, as historical records indicate that it was donated to the shrine by the Ay King, Vikramaditya Varaguna. It is evident that this region of Kerala, including the Karthikappally, Karunagapally, and Tottapally areas, had established Buddhist centres, which were part of a global civilisation of Buddhism that thrived in this area well into the Middle Ages. Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean trade routes provided the connection to Southeast Asia and the western world.


Amidst these ocean-oriented contexts and connections, Arattupuzha constitutes an island paradise, a lagoon-like formation between the sea and the lake. It is a long sandy strip of land between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters of southern Kerala near Kayamkulam. Arattupuzha, in the old Karthikappally Taluk of Alappuzha, lies between Trikkunnapuzha and Valiazheekal. Now, a new bridge connects it to Kayamkulam in the east as well. It is separated from the mainland by Kayamkulam Kayal (backwaters) on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. It is a land of unique natural and cultural features that dates back to ancient times. The egalitarian spirit of enlightenment still survives in the region.


Sramana cultural legacies and distinct genealogies indicated in toponymy


The ancient history of Kerala’s people survives in family and place names, despite violent conquests and erasures, or Sanskritisation. Even after centuries of elitist alterations and tampering, almost all place and family names have their origins and etymologies in Tamil and Pali (the ancient language of Theravada Buddhism). Studies in toponymy and onomastics indicate that name endings ‘pally’ and chery[i]—abundant even today—originated in ancient Pali and Tamil languages (Valath 1991). Non-Hindus in South India use the word ‘pally’ (denoting a vihara, or basati, a Jain vestige) in South India to mark their holy places of worship and communion. The word pallykkoodam, for school, has the same origin. ‘Chery’ was originally a Buddhist monastery, and later, the term came to denote ‘the dwelling place of Avarnas’[ii]. Place names like Karthikappally, Perumpally, and Dhanapally indicate that there were many ancient sramanapallys (Buddhist viharas or shrines) in the region. Buddhism survived well into the 13th or 14th centuries in this wetland area. Its marshes isolated it from the Brahmanical conquest of central Kerala that began in the 7th century, which had, by the early Middle Ages, extended to large parts of the rest of what is now Kerala. That Buddhism in the Mahayana form survived until as late as the 16th century in some smaller areas like Vaikom, Kilirur, and Nilamperur, can be attributed to the Chera prince, Pallyvanar II.   There are several popular legends about this and P. C. Alexander, S. N. Sadasivan and the present author have extensively written on it.


A collusion of priests and militia resulted in the capture of these ancient pallys in the Middle Ages, and their conversion into Hindu Brahmanical Kshetras (temples). Purity-pollution rules and the institutionalised practice of untouchability were imposed. The still-surviving architecture of these ancient shrines and old households in Kerala is identical to the Buddhist architecture in China, Japan, and Korea, indicating its close connections and past linkages through various schools of Buddhism such as Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The Kallissery Nalukettu (traditional Kerala household with four wings and a central yard) that still exists in Mangalam, Arattupuzha, is a prime example. It may be observed that an ettukettu (eightfold structure), has numerical analogies related to the ‘eightfold path and four noble truths’ of the teachings of Buddha. It was built 250 years ago by Perumal Chekor, the grandfather of Velayudhan. The place name ‘Mangalam’ also has Buddhist connections through the ‘Mahamangala Sutta’[iii]. The Ilamko epic Silapatikaram on Kannaki[iv] also refers to her as a patini or mangala devi,[v] as enshrined in the Mangala Devi Kottam[vi] (temple) which is in Kumily, in the Western Ghats. There are numerous places in South India and Sri Lanka that have ‘mangalam’ in their names.


Sramanapallys, and the communities they were a part of, survived in isolated wetland areas of Kerala even after the conquests of Brahmanic forces in the 8th and 9th centuries, specifically in the Vembanad, Kayamkulam, Ashtamudi, and Sasthamkotta backwaters. The significance of the number eight in Ashtamudi also suggests a reference to the ‘eightfold path’. There are other linguistic references in Kerala connected to the significance of the number eight (ettu in Malayalam), such as ettum-pottum or ettinte-pani,[vii] It is also remarkable to observe that Sramana traditions in the corrupted and disguised form of Chathan[viii] worship also survived in the western part of the Thrissur Kole wetlands. Peringottukara and its Kanady Madom are cases in point.[ix] The same Chathan Seva (worship of Chathan) is happening in Kattumadam Mana in a Brahmanical way in Vannerinadu, in the north, on the southern banks of the river Nila. It may also be remembered that the Sanskrit text, Tantra Samuchayam, was written by Chennas Nambutiripad in Vannerinadu in the 16th century, to assimilate the Tantric cults related to Vajrayana, which was still flourishing in the region in the late Middle Ages.


Hegemonic invasions and appropriations


It should also be noted that Tantric practices are integrated more deeply into the Nambutiri Brahmanism of Kerala than in any other region in India. The temple system is controlled by the Brahmanic priestocracy, including the Tantris, Mel, and Kizh Santis, which indicates that they were Vajrayanis and Mahayanis[x] in the past. The meaning of the caste name ‘Nambutiri’ refers to one whose faith (nambu) has shifted, in this case from Buddhism to Brahmanism. This is perhaps why they are considered to be ‘lower’ Brahmans by the Brahmans of North India, and why the Nambutiris are identical in appearance to Keralites with Avarna or Buddhist lineages. In their house names as well, Pali root words like ‘pally’ and ‘chery’ are abundant. These families were related to Avarna households through kinship or ritual-pollution linkages, and through the traditional sacred laundry system of vannatimatu. The Azhvanchery Brahman lord (tampran) was given the position of supreme leader of Brahmanism in Kerala, as he was the first Buddhist scholar to convert to Vedic Brahmanism in northern Kerala. Even so, ‘chery’ remains part of his household name, retaining the reference to ‘the abode of the Buddhist monks’ earlier, and ‘Avarna’ later.


Naga deities in the sacred groves of households to the south west of Kallissery are another indication of the antiquity of those families. According to local people, there were four such groves that no longer exist. Animism and nature worship were encouraged by Buddhist nuns and monks who created these sangha aramas (sacred groves), for eco-cultural conservation among the common people. There is an old folk saying dating from Asokan conservationist culture, that if you disturb the kavu (grove), then the kulam (pond) will dry up. After embracing Buddhism, Asoka the Great, who ruled in the 3rd century BC, instituted an ethical administration, which encouraged a culture of environmental conservation supported by official policy.


Exclusion and survival in the margins


During the Middle Ages, followers of Buddhism and Jainism were pushed to the eastern frontiers of Kerala, and into the highest elevations of the Western Ghats. They were forced into these areas by Brahmanism and its subservient Sudra henchmen, which together were called the Savarna (caste Hindus). This was the elitist and hegemonic culture of Kerala that is a product of the infamous ‘sexual colonies’, and of the nocturnal alliance called sambandham that gave birth to the manipravalam wedlock-culture and writing (Ilamkulam 2001). Achankovil, Sabarimala, and Anamalai Sramana settlements are relics of these ravaged cultures that are now being Hinduised.


The very place name Arattupuzha is associated with Perumpally, which lies to its south. ‘Arattupuzha’ refers to the annual celebration in the pally called arattu, which is still retained by Savarna Hinduised temples, as is the annual ritual of pally vetta.[xi] The huge river or puzha here was used for the ritual bathing ceremony of the deity of Perumpally, which literally means ‘large Buddhist shrine’.


Because of their historic struggles with Brahmanism, caste, and its subservient henchmen, the Kallissery Ezhava household in Arattupuzha produced generations of warriors who were well-trained in martial arts, such as kalaripayattu, medical practices like Ayurveda, and astrology. They were also well-versed in Sanskrit, and some members of that household, including the grandfather of Velayudha (Kalliseril Perumal Chekor) were experts in even the ‘tulunadan’ style of kalari (Vasavapanicker 1980:12)[xii]. It is evident that they were associated with the protection of the Perumpally here, and even after the Savarna conquests, they preserved some of their self-defence practices and were able to effectively resist Savarna aggression and violence in the 18th and 19th centuries.


The retention of kallu or kall (stone) in the name of the household is also evidence of a connection with Sramana, as kallu is associated with those place names with affixes like ‘Kottam’ or ‘Vattam’ or ‘Kuti’—all referring to the ancient stone-based architecture introduced by the Sramana sages in Kerala. Examples of this are Kallil, Pappinivattom, and Kuttippuram (Valath 1991).


Fighting back and fighting caste in 19th century Kerala


Recently, there has been a renewed interest in his struggle against the violent empire of caste and Hindu Brahmanism that still linger and have assumed fierce proportions. A foundation was formed recently to study his ethical and anti-caste resistance legacy. A community hall, the temple founded by him, and the Kallissery household are some of the monuments that still preserve his memory in his birthplace, Arattupuzha.[xiii]


The Sramana people of South Kerala—later known as Avarnas, or untouchables under Hindu Brahmanism because of their Sramana ancestry—were severely oppressed in the early Middle Ages by the invading Brahmanical conquests that were carried out by the Sudra militias. The Bahujans, or Buddhist people, were caught—literally—between the devil and the deep sea. In this context, we may also remember Boddhi Dharma (‘Damo’ or ‘Tamo’ in many parts of the world), who fled to China in the 6th century (when Brahmanism came south into the Pallava and Chera kingdoms), and there performed ‘kalari’ as kung fu in the Shaolin Temple. The Tamils celebrate him as a Pallava prince from Kanchi. Some Dalit artists and activists in Kerala also claim that he is a Chera prince from Vanchi or Muziris or Kodungallur. Thus, it is clear that the self-defence practices of kalari, Kung Fu, taekwondo, and karate have a common Buddhist origin that dates to Asokan times.


Multilateral and cultural resistance


Velayudha Chekavar established a brotherhood of sociocultural activists made up of young men from the untouchable community of Arattupuzha (Jose 2017; Sathyaprakasam1998:12). He established a troupe and school called ‘kaliyogam’ or ‘kalari’, which trained young Avarnas to perform Kathakali—something that they were officially prohibited from doing. This lasted till his death and produced many artists from the untouchable community. Sudras furiously protested Kathakali performances by untouchable youths and tried unsuccessfully to ban them, but Panicker went on to help Avarnas in Changanassery and Kottayam to establish their own kaliyogams, or clubs, in their localities (Gopan 2006; Sathyaprakasam 1998:13). In his doctoral dissertation, C. Gopan elaborates on the involvement of Panicker with the Chakasery Ezhava household, and the successful staging of Kathakali performances in places near Kottayam in the mid-19th century. Panicker and his sons, along with friends from various Dalit Bahujan communities, performed on stage, refuting caste taboos and customs, and thereby, infuriating the caste henchmen who unleashed a series of physical and legal battles against them. According to the caste Hindu men, Panicker and his followers were Sudras, and the Ezhavas were Chandals or Avarnas—untouchables. According to them, it was against the Varnasramadharma tradition to allow Avarnas to perform the roles of the gods of Hindu Sanatana Dharma on stage before the ceremonial lamp, wearing ornaments and the divine crown.


Velayudha Panicker also supported the most marginalised communities—now known as Dalits—by running night schools and kalaris for them (Jose 2017). His institutions were open to all sections of society. He also supported them by assisting them with building new huts and renewing old thatches. This interest in members of the lowest social strata later influenced Avarna poets like Muloor to compose his well-known Pulavrithangal, which portrayed the life and struggles of Dalits (Sathyaprakasam 1998:13). Narayana Guru’s model for the housing and education of Dalit children in his ashrams (refuge) was deeply influenced by the earlier fraternal groups established by Arattupuzha. Social change and conversion was in the air in Nanjinad in the mid-19th century, soon after the missionary intervention in south Travancore, in relation to the breast cloth controversy and the Channar revolt; Panicker spread the word of sociocultural change among the people and prompted Avarna women to cover their breasts with cloths in public. In the Kayamkulam Market, when an Avarna woman was stripped and humiliated by Nair men, Panicker and his followers retaliated immediately with counter attacks (Sekher 2017; Sathyaprakasam 1998:13).[xiv]


The Sudra lords who carried out the heinous crime of violating women’s modesty in public were sentenced to death and executed immediately. This shocked the Savarna hegemony around Kayamkulam and ended it forever. Panicker distributed breast cloths to Avarna women to wear in public, and from then on, no agent of Brahmanism dared to touch any Avarna women in and around Kayamkulam (Jose 2017; Sathyaprakasam 1998:13).


Freedom, fraternity, and equality


To add to this terror treatment, Panicker told the Avarnas (Dalit Bahujans) not to work for the Savarna upper castes. The Nair feudal lords were brought to their knees by this labour refusal. They publicly apologised before the humiliated Avarna woman, and only then did Panicker withdraw his labour strike. During this time, he gave food and minimum wages to thousands of agricultural labourers in the region (Sathyaprakasam 1998:14). Clearly, such early labour strikes must have influenced later Dalit leaders like Ayyankali to organise protest strikes for educational rights. According to several reports in Satyaprakasm and Dalitbandhu in Pandalam Market, too, this was repeated. Panicker made and distributed at least 1,000 gold nose rings among Avarna women in Pandalam and asked them to wear them in public. No Nair lord dared touch them. This historic episode is known as the Mukuti Struggle.


Velayudha Panicker also practised inter-caste dining. He enjoyed inter-caste meals with Dalits—mostly Pulayas and Parayas—of his region, which was a shocking thing to do in early 19th century Kerala (Sathyaprakasam 1998:15). Sahodaran Ayyappan, who organised the first documented inter-caste dining in the history of Kerala at Cherai in 1917, must have been inspired by the oral history on Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker and his practice of this same radically subversive act almost a century before and a few hundred miles south (Sekher 2012).


Selfless sacrifice and multiple ethical legacies


A henchman sent by the caste Hindu lords assassinated Panicker as he slept in his boat in the Kayamkulam Kayal near Perumpally. He was 49 years old. It is believed that Topiyitta Kittan, a new convert to Islam, was probably hired by the Brahmanical ruling class to carry out this heinous act. He had been an employee of Chekavar but had been fired on account of fraud at the Kallissery estate. The caste Hindu forces were able to make him channel his resentment into committing this murder. We may also remember the popular local narratives on the encounter between the ‘Robin Hood of Kerala’, Kayamkulam Kochunni, and Panicker. According to this story, when the former tried to kill Panicker in his sleep, he suddenly woke and caught Kochunni red-handed, but then spared his life. Chekavar showed that clemency and generosity because he was aware that Kochunni was also an Avarna and from a Buddhist lineage, even though he was a Muslim. He also knew that it was the caste Hindu forces behind this assassination attempt, and thus spared his brother’s life. Arattupuzha was assassinated in a criminal act by Brahmanical agents. However, the spirit of resistance and rebellion against hegemony was born and the cause of social justice and human rights lives on. The agenda of radical revolution, and democratic cultural politics and struggle unleashed by this immortal activist against the caste and Savarna Brahmanic hegemony of Kerala was unique, contemporary, and way ahead of its time.


His activism was based on concrete socio-political intervention and change. He also stressed the importance of art and culture in emancipation. His practice of kalari martial arts, Ayurveda, astrology, and Kathakali articulate the significance of representation, cultural politics, and cultural capital in his struggle for equity and justice. His mode of temple installations reinforces the spiritual quests, needs, and awakening of the masses on ethical and spiritual planes.


His local institution buildings, including schools and libraries, embody the primacy of welfare governance and constitutional frameworks. His counter-resistance and physical revolts reinforce the social and material mobility of the subaltern. He offers an inspiring example to social activists, radical reformers, and cultural policy planners, as well as to people in governance and social activists. He has inspired generations of social reformers, philosophers, spiritual leaders, cultural activists, and democratic fighters, and remains a source of inspiration for future democratic struggles in and around Kerala.


Martyrdom and iconic status in anti-caste early renaissance struggles


The moment you alight at Mangalam, in Arattupuzha, the small but beautiful temple, surrounded by white sand, and the community hall erected in the memory of Velayudha Panicker, will catch your eye. There is a huge banyan tree at the bus stop, situated between the road and the Arabian Sea, and plenty of peepal trees around the temple. The lotus pond, and another pond with green water plants, are cool and soothing. Unfortunately, however, the temple is now under renovation and the original simplicity, accessibility, and openness are giving way to closed caste Hindu models.


The temple in Mangalam was founded by Panicker in early 1851. In 1856, he built one more temple in Cheruvaranam, near Chertalai. Kandiyur Matatil Viswanadhan Gurukkal, a Virasaiva Tantri, performed the consecration for him. He allowed all people, irrespective of caste, creed, or gender, to enter and worship in these temples. It is important to note that this happened almost three decades before Narayana Guru’s Aruvippuram installation of 1888[xv]. Narayana Guru received his education at the Varanapally household on the eastern banks of Kayamkulam Kayal (where Panicker found his wife, Velumbi). He was clearly aware of the socio-spiritual and anti-caste legacy of Velayudha Panicker. N.K. Jose observes that Narayana Guru had even gone twice to meet Chekavar during his educational years at Varanapally and Kummanpally in Kayamkulam, but was unsuccessful. It is notable that Narayana Guru received his basic primary education from the Kudipallykoodam system in Kerala, which is a clear relic of Buddhist pallys and pallykoodams. Kudi and pura also refer to the earliest Buddhist settlements. Chattambi Swamikal, Narayana Guru’s elder contemporary, also received his primary education at Pettayil Raman Pilla Asan’s kudipallykoodam and kalari near Trivandrum. Despite being the son of a Brahman, he was denied the Sanskritic Gurukula entry along with Brahman Unnis (boys) because he was accused of having a Sudra mother.


As an early 19th century activist and interventionist against caste and Brahmanism, Panicker tried to acquire the cultural and symbolic capital monopolised by Savarnas—temple worship, education, learning, arts like Kathakali, and religious ritual practices including temple rituals. That is why during the 1840s and 1850s he travelled extensively along the western coast of India, to Vaikom, Guruvayoor, and even up to Goa. He disguised himself as a Brahman to enter Brahmanical temples there, and find out the subtle nuances and cultural distinctions of Brahmanical tantric worship. After a great deal of observation and study, he composed a simple and egalitarian ritual and performed his own idol installations in south Kerala in the 1850s. This observation and critical appropriation by Panicker could not be rejected as mere Sanskritisation and imitation. It is something beyond cultural mimicry, having greater historic reasons, political goals, and strategic essentialism. These current Hindu temples were all Buddhist shrines and pallys or viharas that had been modified into Brahmanical ones after the Middle Ages through hegemonic appropriations, Saiva-Vaishnava devotional frenzy, the alliance of priests and militia, and cheating of the people (Ilamkulam 2001; Alexander 1949; Gopalakrishnan 2008). After the takeover, the original owners were cast away as untouchables and even ‘un-seeables’. They were even violently killed for coming near the old shrines, as in the 1806 Dalavakulam massacre at Vaikom Shrine, which was one of the last Mahayana pallys to be converted in the mid-16th century.


Spiritual and cultural politics and strategies for the people


Legend has it that Brahmanical henchmen chased Panicker even up to Cherthala, from Guruvayoor, on finding out that he was an Avarna or untouchable Ezhava. He travelled by traditional boat (with paddles), by horse, and by elephant during his expeditions and explorations along the south coast. Because of this, local people still cherish his memory and talk about him as a saviour, martyr, and ethical fighter for human dignity and rights. He was indeed a martyr. Through various kinds of struggles against caste Hindu hegemony, he worked tirelessly for the liberation of his community and that of similar Avarna communities in his region who had Buddhist genealogies of writing, learning and resistance. His historic struggle in 1867, against the Edapally prince for the freedom of movement, is a true forerunner of Ayyankali’s Villuvandi struggles in the 1890s.


Mr Raveendran, who runs a hotel near the temple at Mangalam, has a portrait of Panicker on the wall, and is articulate about his legacy. People in the locality still remember the primary school and small library founded by Panicker in Arattupuzha in the early 1850s. Though these pioneering institutions vanished after Panicker’s assassination, the memories and emancipating spirit are still with the local people. A library, established in 1924, is named after Asan near the temple and the Kallissery household that still survives.


Greater cultural legacies and shared history


The Kallissery Nalukettu, made of teak by his grandfather Perumal Chekor in the 17th century, has survived the ravages of time, although some parts are demolished and in decay. The government should take immediate steps to protect this historic monument and preserve it for posterity as a museum of cultural history, social justice, and human rights in Kerala. It should be developed into a local museum of the Kerala Renaissance and modernity.


The surrounding government schools, temple, ponds, library, community hall, and Kallissery household should be transformed into a cultural complex and become part of the shared heritage of Arattupuzha, Alappuzha, and Kerala in general. The ancient household and the associated monuments of this legendary fighter of caste could form an appropriate memorial for the Kerala Renaissance as well. Archaeological studies and excavations on this narrow land bridge, which includes Thottapally, Trikunnapuzha, Arattupuzha, and Perumpally, may also reveal vital treasures related to Kerala’s Buddhist past and its world connections. Trikunnapuzha is the historical site of a world renowned vihara called Srimulavasam (Ilamkulam 2001; Narayanan 2005). The government should initiate a ‘Srimulavasam cultural project’—in the manner of the Muziris heritage project—to locate and conserve this ecologically and culturally sensitive landscape. This would attract the world’s attention and enhance support for Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia.




[i] Chery is originally the monastic settlement of Buddhists and later from the middle ages after Hinduization, it denotes the settlements and slums of Avarnas or untouchables outside the Chaturvarnya who had Buddhist lineages.

[ii] Historians like Ilamkulam and Valath have suggested this notion on many occasions. It is also in the common parlance used in Kerala.  Lamasery or the abode of the Lamas is an example in English, originally from Tibetan. Lamas are Tibetan Vajrayana monks.

[iii] The Mangala Sutta is a discourse (Pali: sutta) of the Buddha on the subject of 'blessings' (mangala, also translated as 'good omen' or 'auspices' or 'good fortune'.

[iv] Kannaki is a legendary Tamil woman who forms the central character of the Tamil epic Silapathikaram (100-300 AD).

[v] Patini is a virtuous wife figure, Mangaladevi is a Buddhist and Jain auspicious deity having affiliations with Mahamaya or Tara or the Jain Yakshis.

[vi] Cheran Chenguttuvan, the king of ancient Tamilakam, had erected the temple for Kannaki around 2000 years back at Vannathiparai and called it 'Kannagi Kottam' or 'Mangaladevi Kannagi temple' and performed regular pujas.

[vii] These are commonly used phrases that gives various meanings to the number eight, all derived from the 8fold paths or Ashtangamarga of the Buddha.

[viii] Chathan a corrupt Hinduized form of Sasta or Boddhisatva of Buddhism.

[ix] Peringottukara is a village in the western coastal side of India, located in the western side of the Thrissur District which is one of the 14 districts of Kerala. The famous Chathan seva temples are located in Peringottukara, such as Peringottukara Devasthanam, Avanangattu Kalari, Kanadi Madom.

[x] Followers of Vajrayana and Mahayana Buddhist traditions respectively.

[xi] The ritual hunt in a Pally and now in a Hindu temple as part of annual festival.

[xii] Related to Tulunad the northern most tip of Kerala above Kasaragod bordering with south Karnataka up to Konkan.

[xiii] I have visited Arattupuzha on many occasions since May 19, 2011, and have seen mementos of this great 19th century anti-caste crusader. I have longed to visit since I began my doctoral dissertation on caste and marginality in Kerala and India. These places are rich with the history of resistance by culturally and economically marginalised people against caste, Brahmanism, and the Savarna hegemonic elitist culture of Kerala. Mr K.K. Kunnath, playwright and local historian from Perumpally, south of Arattapuzha, spoke to me in May, 2001, about the anti-caste legacy of Velayudha Panicker.

[xiv] In recent times, another narrative has been created by caste Hindu forces and elite pundits, claiming that Muslim men humiliated the Ezhava women in Kayamkulam Market. This version is strategically deployed by caste Hindu spokespersons to create a schism between Ezhavas and Muslims. If these large Other Backward Caste (OBC) groups form an alliance, it will be the end of the Brahman-Sudra caste Hindu alliance in Kerala. Through such cunning narratives, the caste Hindu hegemony achieves two things—to absolve itself of the historical heinous crime, and to thrust it upon the ‘demonised other’ of the Muslim ‘terrorist’ or ‘anti-social’. This is an easily available communal strategy to orchestrate this kind of divide and rule over the Avarnas and minorities. The same tactics were used by caste Hindu lords to assassinate Arattupuzha, using a newly converted Muslim called Topiyitta Kittan (the Kittan who wore a skullcap). Such an act can instigate a communal feud and the real perpetrators would go unrecognised.

[xv] The consecration done by Narayana Guru in 1888 that is currently accepted as the foundation of modern Kerala renaissance.




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