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Unniyarcha: The Woman Warrior of Kadathanadan Kalaripayattu


Unniyarcha’s Childhood and Marriage

Once upon a time, near a place called Kadathanadu, lived a woman called Unniyarcha. Unniyarcha was born into the great Puthuram family, a household famous at the time for producing great warriors, all highly trained in the noble art of Kalaripayattu. Her brother Aromal Chekavar was a notoriously ferocious warrior whose name struck fear into the heart of any man who heard it and their father, Kannappa Chekavar, was a very well respected Kalari master. From a very young age Unniyarcha was trained in the ways of Kalaripayattu, alongside her brother and cousin Chandu. Even as a child she displayed all of the characteristics of a great warrior and by the time she turned seven she had learnt how to wield every weapon available to her. From the tiny dagger all the way through to the mighty sword, when held in her small hands all became deadly extensions of her body. She feared nothing and no-one and was never afraid to confront those she disagreed with, challenging corruption and wrongdoing wherever she came across them.
She grew up to become an extremely independent women, so much so that she even had the strength of will to choose her own husband, spurning the advances of her cousin Chandu. The man she married was called Attum Manammelle Kunjiraman – a Kalari master like her father but based in Puducherry. He had all of the makings of a legendary warrior but he had one fatal flaw: Kunjiraman was a downright coward and, in this respect, could not have been more different to Unniyarcha.

 Attum Manammelle Unniyarcha

Unniyarcha Goes to the Koothu

Unniyarcha loved her husband dearly and enjoyed being his wife but married life could not fully satisfy her and her warrior heart ached for something more: some exitement, some action, some adventure! When Unniyarcha overheard some ladies talking about a Koothu (dance show) being performed at a desert temple several miles down the road she thought it might be just the thing to distract her from the monotony her life had become.
On the day of the dance Unniyarcha rose early, bathed and dressed in her finest clothes, topping her outfit off with the most expensive jewels in her collection – earrings, necklaces, bangles, all in glittering silver and gold. She then sought out her father-in-law, the head of the household, to seek his permission to go to the Koothu.
Her father-in-law seemed reluctant at first but years of arguing with his son’s strong headed wife had ground his resolve down to a fine dust. He agreed to allow her to go,
“But only if someone else goes with you,” he added as she turned to go, “the road to the temple is crawling with criminals and creeps, it isn’t safe for a woman to travel it alone.”.
Unniyarcha quickly informed him that Kunjiraman would accompany her (although he did not yet know this himself). At this point Kunjiraman’s fragile mother burst into tears:
“You can’t take my baby with you! He won’t stand a chance against the savages that patrol that road, he simply can’t go!”.
Unniyarcha had long suspected that her husband had inherited his cowardice from his mother. “That’s fine by me,” retorted Unniyarcha,
“I am a Puthuram, daughter of the great Kannappa Chekvar, I fear nothing and no-one and I will travel the road by myself if I have to!”.
The thought of this was too much for Kunjiraman’s parents and so, with reluctance, they called him in to tell him that he was to escort Unniyarcha to the Koothu. With even more reluctance Kunjiraman accepted and moments later the two had set off on the road to the temple.
“I just hope that we don’t bump into the Jonoker gang on the way, those guys are crazy.”, Kunjiraman muttered, a slight wobble in his voice.

Unniyarcha Fights the Jonokar Gang

Unniyarcha sister or Aromal Chekaver

It did not take them long to run into trouble. As if Kunjiraman’s words had jinxed them, a few miles into their journey the two spotted an ominous group of men by the road that could only have been the fearsome Jonoker gang – famed in the area for robbing anyone they came across. Little children, old women and everyone in between, the Jonoker gang stole from all and showed mercy to none. Kunjiraman began visibly shaking and he would have turned and ran right then if Unniyarcha hadn’t been with him. She strode forward unflinchingly, if anything her pace had quickened upon recognising the gangsters.
“For goodness sake Kunjiraman! How can you be so scared when I, a woman, am not in the least bit frightened? Have courage husband.”
She scorned as she stormed past him. Kunjiraman was too terrified to utter a reply. The menacing group watched the couple approach until, as the two drew level, they spread out across the road, blocking the way of the husband and wife. Every man was carrying a long stick or some other wooden weapon. At this point Kunjiraman began to shake even more; his teeth began to chatter loudly and his knees knocked together so violently it seemed as if he would shake himself out of his sandals.
“Well, well, what do we have here?”, snickered one of the gang members. “A couple of travellers on their way to the Koothu?”. The gang chuckled to themselves.
“Lets tie him up to that tree over there and we can take her back to the boss, she is exactly what he’s looking for” someone shouted.
Unniyarcha looked to her husband to see how he was going to respond to this recent suggestion. His plan of defence seemed to involve him turning as white as a sheet, gurgling a few incomprehensible words and swaying on the spot like a banana leaf in the breeze. She was not really surprised but still could not help feeling a little disappointed. With an exasperated sigh she began to remove her jewellery. The earrings, the necklaces, the bangles all came off and were placed at the feet of the attackers.
“Take my jewels and spare my husband and me!” She pleaded.
But the gang members simply laughed at her offer: “Our boss had no need for these riches you silly girl. He wants us to bring him a woman.”
Quite unexpectedly, Unniyarcha grinned. “I was hoping you would decline my offer.” She said as she reached into the folds of her cloak.
With a flourish she drew her urumi and waved it in the stunned faces of the gangsters.
“You think I was on my way to the Koothu?” She asked as their skin turned pale. “No. The only reason that I am here today, away from home, on this road, is to completely destroy your entire wretched gang you filthy Jonokers!”
And with a flash of steel she pounced on the gang who were still so shocked that they could barely move. Those that could react in time held up their wooden sticks in defence, only to see the urumi cut through them as if they were made of paneer. Within moments the majority of the Jonokers had fallen under Unniyarchas blade, she moved through the crowd like flowing water, slaying the vagrants with deft flicks of her wrist until only a handful remained. She stared at the quivering men as they backed away from her and she bellowed
“I am a Puthuram! My own brother is the great Aromal Chekavar! I am willing to fight all of you, which of you are brave enough to face me?”.

Kaaripayattu women Unniyarcha

Upon hearing this the remaining Jonokers were overcome with fear. They dropped their weapons, turned on the spot and ran all the way back to their leader, bringing with them nothing but tales of the ferocious warrior woman who had vowed to destroy them all. As the leader of the Jonokers listened to the stories his anger slowly transformed into terror and he feared that this mysterious she-devil would one day come for him. Something had to be done about her right away. Without hesitation he loaded up his horse and set off down the road.
He came across Unniyarcha just as she had brought her husband out of his petrifying state of fear. Any colour that had returned to his cheeks instantly vanished when he saw the leader of the Jonokers galloping towards him and his wife. He resumed his gurgling and swaying routine with more vigour and enthusiasm than ever before. Unniyarcha turned, hand on the hilt of her urumi, ready for trouble. As soon as he got near, however, the gangster leapt from his horse and instantly dropped to his knees at Unniyarcha’s feet.
“Please, my lady” he begged, “please spare me. Take these as payment for your trouble.” And with that he untied his horse’s saddle bags and laid the contents on the ground. Diamonds, rubies and sapphires glistened in the morning sun. Gold coins from far away lands glinted next to ivory handled daggers and rolls of the finest silk lay shimmering at the feet of Unniyarcha.
“A thousand apologies my lady. Please, take my treasure, show mercy and this is the last you will ever hear of the dreadful Jonoker gang!”.
Unniyarcha looked down at the wretched man at her feet. She considered for a moment taking his head from his shoulders right then and there. But she quickly reminded herself that she was a Puthuram, not a Jonoker. Puthurams did things differently.
“Get out of my sight you demon!” She whispered, and as the leader of the Jonokers jumped on his horse and fled, she turned to her motionless husband, who had not uttered a word since they first saw the gang. “You are finally going to be useful today dear!” She laughed.
After she had loaded Kunjiraman up with all of the treasures of the Jonoker gang she turned him around, slapped him on the back like he was a horse and together they walked back up the road, away from the Koothu, all the way back home.

Unniyarcha is historical figure who lived in Kadathanadu in the 16th Century. This story is translated and adapted from Vadakkan pattukal – A collection of kalaripayattu warrior songs.

K F Thomas Gurukkal