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Aromal Chekavar – Kadathanadan Kalaripayattu Warrior (Part 1)

Aromal chekaver

Long, long ago, in a time when the great Kalaripayattu warriors still roamed Kerala with shields on their backs and urumis around their waists, there lived two brothers from Kadathanadan. Their names were Unnichandror Nair and Unnikonnar Nair and they were from a wealthy and important family. The two brothers looked very similar: they were the same height and build and even had similar hairstyles. It was impossible to tell which one was the older brother and this posed quite a problem for them because nobody, not even themselves, knew who had been born first. Their parents had both died when the two brothers were babies, before even they had been given names, and so no one could tell who the elder was. Growing up this had posed little problem to the two, who were very close to each other. However, as they grew nearer to adulthood and the glimmer of a healthy inheritance appeared on the horizon, the question began to be debated; casually, almost jokingly at first but over time the matter transformed into a bitter dispute that, by all accounts, drove a wedge between the once inseparable brothers. 

The problem was that there was no proof. There never would be any proof. The proof had died with their parents and their arguments had all the integrity of a soggy popadom. After months of fruitless fighting the wits of the brothers had been stretched to breaking point and both of them were desperate for a solution to be reached. One way or another they had to find an answer as to which one was older. In the end they agreed to settle it with an angam – a trial by combat. Each brother would select a warrior to represent him (for a handsome fee) and the two warriors would fight to the death. The brother who was represented by the winner of the fight would be declared the winner of the argument and would officially be recognised as the elder. 

The brothers set out, each one determined to find the fiercest warrior in Kerala to secure their legacy as the heir of the Nair family fortune. It wasn’t long before the first participant in the angam was selected. Without asking anyone else, Unnichandror had gone straight to a man called Aringodar of Kolastrie and claimed him as his representative. Aringoder was a very well known Kalaripayattu warrior in Kerala but the reasons for his fame were not all good. While he was undoubtedly a fierce and talented fighter he was also known to be a dreadful cheat with no concern for honour or sportsmanship. His ‘win at all cost’ mentality earned him the fear and disapproval of his fellow Kalari practitioners. 

With the news of his brother’s acquisition Unnikonnar’s heart sank. He knew that it would be difficult to find a warrior who would agree to fight the devious Aringoder, let alone one who could beat him. The talk of the people of Kadathanadan consisted of nothing but speculation as to who Unnikonnar could get to fight for him – and, of course, the size of the fortune he would have to spend on them. 

As predicted Unnikonnar struggled to conjure up an opponent for Aringoder; the warriors he approached were either too wary of Aringoder’s reputation as a cheat or the price they named was so high that, even if he won the inheritance, Unnikonnar would bankrupt himself trying to pay the debt. He began to despair and began to think that he would have to forfeit the angam and concede to his cunning brother.

As a last act of desperation Unnikonnar decided to form a taskforce of his twenty-one most loyal disciples and venture out into the furthest corners of Kerala in search of even a rumour of a worthy warrior. They visited every city, town and village for hundreds of miles around and everywhere they were turned away without finding what they wanted. All seemed lost for Unnikonnar until one day, just when he was about to turn around a head home in defeat, he crossed paths with a man who was walking on the road.

‘Hello there good man! What is your name?’ called down Unnikonnar from the back of his horse. ‘Panan, my lord.’ the man replied. ‘How may I help you?’

‘I am looking for a warrior,’ Unnikonnar declared, ‘though I do not yet know his name. He must be the bravest and best in all of the land, for he is to represent me in a fight to the death in order to preserve my honour! Tell me, Panan, do you know of such a man?’

Parnam thought for a moment and then spoke. ‘You could try the Puthuram family.’ he said. 

‘I’ve never heard of them, they can’t be that good.’ replied Unnikonnar. 

‘You won’t find better fighters in all Kerala.’ Panan shot back defensively. ‘Kannapa Chekavar is a Kalari master and has fought in and won no less that seven angams in his life!’

‘He sounds like the guy for me!’ said Unnikonnar, his eyes lighting up.

‘No, the man you want is his son, Aromal Chekavar.’ insisted Panan. ‘He is untested so far and has yet to fight an angam but everyone says he is a greater warrior than even his father. No man is quicker or smoother than Aromal. He has mastered Tulu Nadu style Kalari as well as the Kadathanadan style, he fears no man and he will definitely accept your challenge to fight in the angam. What’s more he’ll win it too.’

Panan spoke sense. Kannapa Chekavar was indeed a skilled fighter, one of the best that Kerala had ever seen, but the years had slipped by him. His speed and strength were not what they used to be and, while he could still beat most of Kerala in a fair fight, he would have struggled against as cunning and ferocious warrior as Aringoder. His noble son Aromal Chekavar was every bit as good as his father in his prime and by many accounts even better. He had trained in Kalaripayattu from a very young age, mastering the art alongside his legendary sister Unniyarcha and their skilled and loyal cousin Chandu. 

Unnikonnar was convinced that Aromal Chekavar was who he was looking for. He didn’t exactly have much choice at this point either. Now he was faced with the challenge of persuading Aromal to fight for him, he only hoped that he had enough money to afford his services. He bid Panan farewell and set off towards the Puthuram house.

Unnikonnar was greeted at the door by a slim, wiry man with greying hair and a kind but reserved smile. Though it was clear that he was well past the prime of his youth, his arms were roped with hard, knotted muscle and despite his welcoming smile his dark eyes flickered a stern warning to Unnikonnar.

‘You must be Unnikonnar.’ said the man, standing firmly in the doorway of the house, ‘I am Kannapa Chekavar, head of the Puthuram household. I have heard gossip of your quest to find a warrior for an angam and I knew, sooner or later, that it would lead you to my door. Tell me, who must I fight, and what is the cause?’

‘I’m afraid you misunderstand sir,’ replied Unnikonnar, looking at his feet in embarassment, ‘it is not for you that I have come, but for your son Aromal Chekavar, if he will accept my offer.’

At this Kannapa’s smile vanished completely and he became very stern. ‘I’m afraid that will not be possible,’ he said, ‘Aromal has never fought in an angam before and I will not allow him to make his debut before I think he is ready. I will be more than willing to fight for you if you can offer a fair price.’

Unnikonnar was disappointed to hear this and was just considering accepting Kannapa’s offer when the door swung open to reveal a tall, handsome young man standing there. He looked every inch the warrior with bulging muscles, a keen look of intelligence behind his eyes and long, thick, wavy black hair bouncing off his scalp. In an instant Unnikonnar knew that this must be the famous Aromal Chekavar, the supposed greatest warrior Kerala had to offer and, with any luck, Unnikonnar’s key to victory over his brother. 

‘I heard what you were talking about and I am old enough to make my own decisions.’ he glared at his father. ‘You were my age when you won your first angam father. If I am not ready now then I never will be. You must let me at least consider fighting for this man.’

Kannapa frowned deeply and after a long, thoughtful pause, nodded his head and stepped aside, allowing Unnikonnar past him and into his house. Once everyone had sat down Unnikonnar explained the circumstances of his angam to Aromal, with Kannapa listening next to him. Once he was finished Aromal spoke:

‘I have listened to your story and heard your argument. I truly believe that you, Unnikonnar, are the older brother and this should be recognised by Unnichandror and the whole of Kerala. If you can offer me a fair price then I will gladly fight for you.’

Unnikonnar was overcome with gratitude. He dropped to his knees at Aromal’s feet and offered him many, many bags of gold for his service, with the promise that he would double once the fight was won. Finally, he had his champion.

To be continued…

Milo Smith