Pazhassi Raja – Warrior King of the Kalaripayattu Freedom Fighters (Part 1)
The story of Pazhassi Raja is one so extraordinary, so filled with courage and action, that it would be worthy of the great songs of old that told tales of the likes of Unniyarcha and Aromal Chekavar. Born into a royal family of Kerala, Pazhassi grew up to rule the kingdom of Kottayam during the period of Indian occupation by the dastardly British East India Company. Pazhassi took the role of king more literally than most of his predecessors and neighbouring monarchs, who ruled merely as puppets on the ends of the long and far reaching strings of the Company. He bowed to no-one, least of all foreign invaders in his own land. His bravery in the face of overwhelming opposition and his abundant concern for the welfare of his subjects won him the hearts of his people and allowed him to establish a fiercely loyal guerrilla army of resistance fighters. While many Indian kings had previously stood up to the British, few had ever inspired an uprising in the manner that Pazhassi Raja did. His volunteer fighters risked, and in many cases lost, everything out of love for him and what he stood for.
The story of Pazhassi Raja and his rebel forces is greatly enhanced by the Kalaripayattu aspect to it. Pazhassi, like all members of his caste in his region at the time, was trained in the noble martial art from a young age. During the years he spent fighting the Brits he had all of his troops trained thoroughly in the traditional ways of fighting with a variety of manual weapons. Accounts of the well equipped British armies being ambushed and routed by fierce warriors armed only with swords and bows and arrows create an even greater air of chivalry about the great king and his band of rebels. So effective was the use of Kalaripayattu against the Brits that they banned the practice of it in India. It was of course continued in secret by Pazhassi and his loyal followers, much to the detriment of all who opposed them.
While his ferocious courage in rebellion against the British ultimately cost him his life it wrote Pazhassi Raja into the history books as a legend of Kalaripayattu and a hero of Kerala.
Little is known about Pazhassi’s childhood. He was born on the 3rd of January 1753 to the Kottayam Raja family and given the name Kerala Varma. While he was only born fourth in line to the Kottayam throne, after his royal contenders fled under the Mysore invasion the Kingdom was his to be seised and, at the tender age of twenty-one, seise it he did. Upon his coronation as King of Kottayam Kerala Varma was given the now immortal name Pazhassi Raja. A long line of kings had come before him but, since the first days of the East India Company’s arrival in Kerala, none had offered up any resistance to the British invaders.
His first test as king came against the neighbouring kingdom of Mysore who had driven out much of the local royal family in 1773. Led by the fearsome warrior king Hyder Ali, the Mysorean expansion threatened to usurp the Royal house of Kottayam. With one hand Hyder Ali had handed the throne to Pazhassi while with the other he threatened to snatch it away.
Immediately after becoming king, Pazhassi began to organise the resistance to the Mysorean invaders. The people of Kottayam were inspired by the resilience of their young king and he was able to muster a strong fighting force of loyal subjects. The army of Mysore, however, was far greater and more advanced. Knowing that his army could never be victorious in open battle, Pazhassi split his forces into several small sections and distributed them throughout the jungled mountains of Kottayam and Wayanad. There they waged a ferocious guerrilla war against the Mysorean army, orchestrating ambushes and surprise raids, inflicting few casualties at a time but gradually wearing down the strength and spirit of the mighty invaders.
Frequently they would disrupt the enemy’s supply trains and raid their warehouses of provisions. They even daringly ventured into enemy territory in Karnataka to harass Hyder Ali’s troops on their own soil.
Alliances were made and reinforcements flooded in and, before long, the warriors of Kottayam found themselves fighting not only the army of Mysore but also the forces of Kodagu and Chirakkal, who had both sworn allegiance to Hyder Ali. Despite being consistently outnumbered, against a wealthier, better equipped enemy, the bandit forces of Pazhassi Raja remained unbroken for eight years. Matters were, in part, helped by the British East India Company who, with nothing but their own interests in mind, supplied the freedom fighters with weapons and equipment.
Late in 1782 Hyder Ali died. His death marked the beginning of a brief pause in hostilities between the forces of Mysore and Kottayam. The war had taken its toll on Kottayam and Pazhassi Raji. Due to the guerrilla style nature of his tactics, he had had to relinquish some territories of Kottayam, unable to install permanent garrisons there. One of the territories that he lost included the royal palaces of Kottayam that he had been forced to abandon so that he could set up a military headquarters in the impenetrable mountainous jungle. Despite all of this, morale in the kingdom was very high as the people were safe in the knowledge that their king was fighting for them and had their best interests at heart.
Hyder Ali was succeeded by his son Tipu Sultan who, at first, seemed content to allow Kottayam its liberty for the price of a small yearly tribute to the Mysore treasury. Upon his succession his authority in the area had been recognised by the East India Company, dealing a crushing blow to Kottayam who, until then, had been able to count on the support of the Company in their struggles with Mysore.
Due to this confidence gained from the backing of the Company, Tipu Sultan raised the levy demanded of the kingdom of Kottayam. Pazhassi Raja, already reluctant to pay the initial tribute, saw the damage that the new price would do to his subjects and refused to pay. Once again the armies of Mysore descended into Northern Kerala and the Kottayam kingdom, this time with the support of the British. In 1984 the second resistance to Mysore began and the tactics of Pazhassi had not changed. His guerrilla fighters continued to harass the forces of Tipu Sultan throughout Kottayam. A large focus of the fighting was focused on Wayanad, which had been signed over to Tipu Sultan by Pazhassi’s brother in desperation. For six years the warriors of Kottayam frustrated the efforts of the invading Mysoreans, crushing the morale of their soldiers and weakening the resolve of their king. The East India Company began to notice the shift of momentum and saw the struggle start to shift against Mysore. Taking the opportunity to deal a blow to an old enemy, the Brits decided to join forces with Pazhassi and his men. Together they were too much for the forces of Mysore to deal with and they were slowly ousted from Kottayam.
After the eviction of Tipu Sultan and his armies the Brits officially recognised Pazhassi Raja as the rightful king of Kottayam. While it was once again an autonomous state it would still have to pay a yearly tribute to the Company. For the next few years Pazhassi was content with this as he was still focusing on beating the forces of Mysore in neighbouring Wayanad.
In 1792 Pazhassi’s abiding relationship with the British deteriorated in a single move. He was presented with a list of terms from the Company that essentially required him, and all other Rajas in the area, to relinquish their power to the British and become little more than ornamental rulers in their own kingdoms. Having just fought two wars to avoid exactly this, Pazhassi Raja was not best pleased with this suggestion.
So begun the wars of resistance to British rule that would occupy Pazhassi Raja until his death.
To be continued…