Pazhassy Raja and early native socio-political response to alien regimes
by C I Issac on 20 Sep 2009 7 Comments

Story of an Indian mode of dissent and protest
It is a general notion that the spirit of nationalism that blossomed in the closing years of the nineteenth century was the impact of colonial education. A careful examination of our national history through the ages reveals that this hypothetical conclusion has no base at all. Bharat as a rashtra [nation] is not merely a geographical expression or handiwork of any political leadership or an emperor like Ashoka, Alexander or the British. It was the natural outcome of various forces such as spiritualism, with an infinite amount of liberty of thought, catholicity of its religious system [1], Sanskrit language, advaita [monism], plurality of gods and goddess, as well as upasana systems.

A vast geographical unit falls under the Indian archipelago, maintaining the spirit of its rashtra-hood through its dharmic system. Any threat or challenge to its dharmic system was treated as an infringement/challenge to its national freedom from time immemorial. Whenever its national freedom was in danger, the spirit of nationalism rose from its torpor in any one of the modes of bhakti, jnana, and karma. 

In the closing decades of the eighteenth century, Bharat witnessed a flood of revolts and agitations, both by people and rajas against the East India Company’s regime and its attendant evils. The newly emerged socio-political situation generated by the alien rule infuriated the national sense in different spaces at different points of time, which caused popular outbursts; most of them were parochial in nature.

Mounting anti-British feeling

The struggle for the attainment of national freedom started with the Turkish conquest. It was a continuous process and one in which, in the beginning, native kings, peasants, vanvasis (tribals), spiritual leaders, and even soldiers took part. Muhammad Ghori after his Indian victory was, on his way back to Ghazni, assassinated on the banks of the Indus on 15 March 1206 by Hindu Khokhar tribes. This was the best known example of Hindu response; it blemished the dreams of the Ghaznavids. None of the medieval Muslim rulers of India were spared by the nationalist forces. Rajputs, Sikhs, Vijayanagar, Marathas, Bundelas, Satnamis, various Vanvasi sects, etc., challenged the authority of these aliens.

Long before the outbreak of 1857 War, anti-British sentiments were fermented in all walks of national life. Most struggles were not accounted for properly by colonial and post-colonial historiographers [2]. Patriotic mass agitations were organized against Company Raj in different parts of the country under the leadership of various rajas and tribes. Noteworthy revolts include Kerala Varma Pazhassy Raja of Kerala [1793-1805], Vijaya Raja of Vizianagaram [1794], Veluthampy of Kerala [1808-09], Paliath Achan, Prime Minister of Cochin State [1808-09], Rani Yennemma of Kittoor, Karnataka [1824], Gadahar Singh and Kumar Roop Chand of Assam [1828-30], Madhukarshap Bundela of Bundelkahnd [1842], Narasingh Reddy in Andhra [1846-47], [3], etc.

The peasant revolts of Gorakhpur [1778-81], Rangapur in East Bengal [1783], Sumbadia in East Bengal [1792], Mysore [1830-31], Fraji of Faridpur in East Bengal [1834-47], etc are not properly incorporated in academic texts. The vanvasi brethren proved their integrity and commitment to the national cause through armed struggles against the Company Raj. The noteworthy include the Kurumba and Kurichya revolts of Kerala [1812], Bhils of Western Ghats [1818-31], Kols of Chhota Nagpur [1831-32], Gwad in Orissa [1846], Nagas [1848-00], Santhals of Rajmahal hills [1855-56], etc. [4]

The sepoy section of the Company army revolted several times before the great outbreak of 1857, out of discontent engendered by alien domination rather than for better service conditions [5]. V.D. Savarkar said the Revolt of 1857 was “a planned war for our national independence.” B.R. Grover said “the sepoys shared all the discontent and grievances – social, religious and economic – that afflicted the civilian population” [6].

In 1764 a battalion of sepoys at the battlefield of Baxur deserted to Mir Qasim; in 1806 the sepoys of Vellore mutinied, in 1824 the 47th Native Infantry [NI] mutinied; in 1825 Grenadier Coy [Company] in Assam revolted; in 1838 native regiment of Sholapur mutinied; in 1844 the 34th NI revolted; these were some important outbreaks amongst the sepoy section of the Company army. The Company intelligence report of the time says “twenty-four regiments were waiting only for their opportunity to rise” [7]. The above accounts throw light on the anti-colonial and nationalistic feelings in society long before 1857.

New political developments in Malabar

In the light of the above perception, let us reread the history of Malabar during the closing decades of the 18th and opening decades the 19th century. The history of Malabar in this period glitters with Kerala Varma Pazhassy Raja alias Pazhassy Raja.

Pazhassy Raja’s freedom movement is one of the earliest organized resistances against the British in India. It generated patriotism; it inspired succeeding revolutionaries in different parts of the country and broke the myth of the unchallengeable might of the British [8]. The guerilla type warfare experimented by Pazhassy Raja in the hills of Wynadu found success in the Panamaram operation of October 1802 [9]. This victory boosted the morale of the civilian population of Wynadu [10].

After the Panamaram victory, Pazhassy Raja gained virtual control of Wynadu. Following this, Edachanna Kungan Nair’s call for mass agitation, from the premises of the Pulpalli temple, got a positive response from the public, which boosted the freedom movement of Pazhassy Raja [11]. Consequently, about 3000 local people assembled with weapons in the temple premises at Valliyoorkavu near Manantody, which transformed the nature of this agitation in to ‘a peoples/peasants movement’. Thus the “Pazhassy revolt was, in true sense, a popular struggle, a people’s war for national liberation and of all classes of people” [12].

Pazhassy Raja, ‘an extraordinary and singular character,’ became the popular leader of the people and they viewed him with reverence. Even after his death, not only the people of Wynadu but all patriotic Indians, through generations, remember him with respect. He was able to kindle the spirit of nationalism in the minds of thousands. Thomas Harvey Babar, sub-Collector of Thalassery, entrusted with the responsibility of crushing Pazhassy’s movement, noted the approach of the people towards Pazhassy Raja in his correspondence with the higher authorities of the East India Company [13]. The Raja’s movement was not confined to his principality only. He was able to muster support from the Chetties, Gowdas, the two major communities of the neighboring state, Mysore [14] and Gounders of Coimbatore in his effort to eliminate the British from the land.

Spread of Muslim Fanaticism

The expeditions of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan of Mysore proved a nightmare to the Hindu social fabric of Malabar. In Hyder Ali and Tipu, the ambitious agenda of imperial expansion and narrow religious designs were reflected, rather than anti-alien feelings. In their expeditions to the south, these two gave higher priority to ravaging Hindu rajas and their territories rather than attacking British/French garrisons. Instead of attacking the British / French garrisons in Malabar, they attacked the native Hindu rajas, conquered their territories, and converted the Hindu population to Islam at the point of sword [15].

They spared Mahe, a French settlement in Kerala, during their expeditions to Kerala. The French and the British were equally dangerous to our national security, but Mysorean rulers did not take this into account when they invaded Kerala. Thousands of Hindus – Brahmins, Menons, Nairs, Tiyas, Ezhavas, etc – deserted Malabar and sought asylum in the princely state of Travancore in order to ‘keep their faith’. Hyder Ali, immediately after occupation of Malabar, through a royal decree denied all privileges enjoyed by Nairs through the ages and put Nairs at the bottom of the jati hierarchy of the land [16].

The Mysorean rulers offered restoration of their privileges on condition of conversion to Islam [17]. Hyder Ali and Tipu were very particular in razing temples to the ground in conquered regions. “They resorted to forcible conversion and destruction of temples in order to achieve their political aim. Further, local Muslim [Moplas] population had sided with the invaders in their campaigns and thus roused the bitter hostility of their Hindu brethren” [18]. Even today one can see the ruins of such razed-to-the ground-temples left by the Mysorean expedition in different parts of the Malabar region of Kerala.

Above all, they were particular about handing over administrative charge of conquered Hindu territories to Muslims, showing the religious priorities in their military expeditions. Lewis Rice remarks (History of Mysore), “In the vast empire of Tipu Sultan, on the eve of his death, there were only two Hindu temples having daily poojas [worship] within the Sreerangapatanam fortress. It is only for the satisfaction of Brahmin astrologers who used to study his horoscope that Tipu Sultan had spared those two temples. The entire wealth of every Hindu temple was confiscated before 1790 itself mainly to makeup for the revenue loss due to total prohibition in the country” [19]

Under this barbaric and fanatic approach of the Mysore rulers, communal harmony in Malabar was disturbed; this had far-reaching consequences. When Muslim rulers invaded Malabar, the Muslim soldiers of Hindu rajas and Muslim society of Malabar shifted loyalty without scruple. This aggravated the intensity of the social crisis in the Malabar in later years.

In 1680, a Mughal cavalry invaded and conquered Travancore. After the conquest, the leader of the cavalry issued a decree demanding total conversion of the subjects of Travancore to Mohammedan religion. But the trustworthy and loyal Muslim soldiers of the then ruling Rani persuaded the Mughal authorities to abstain from this apostatic act [20]. At the time of the Mysorean invasion, the Muslim counterparts of Malabar took a different stand, bringing about a gulf between Hindus and Muslims which continues as a blow to its age-old communal harmony.

Tipu Sultan himself claimed he was the only Muslim who could convert 50000 Hindus to Islam within twenty-four hours! He said it was an all time record in the long history of all Muslim rulers until then [21]. Though Tipu was an ally of the French in India, he did not spare Christians [22].  His religious convictions were dominant, rather than the political. 

Nevertheless, there were several stories about Tipu’s patronage to Hindu temples; this was partially true. During his last days, Tipu was under a psychosis that all his defeats in battle were due to a curse caused by Hindu-temple-destruction-programme; hence to gave financial assistance to certain prominent temples, including Guruvayoor, which he had once himself razed to the ground [23]. But the seed of communal hatred, once sown by fanatic Mysore rulers during their conquest of Kerala, still emits the venom of communal hatred. In later years, religious differences generated by the Mysorean attack were utilized by the British administration for their imperial ends.

The fanatic approach of the Mysorean rulers and the loyalty of Moplahs towards the invaders merely out of religious solidarity, infringed the age-old socio-political tranquility of Malabar since the 18th century. During the expedition of Hyder Ali, the Moplah soldiers of Pazhassy Raja deserted him en bloc [15 March 1766] and joined his enemy [24]. The Moplah fanatics joined Hyder Ali in communal orgy; their swords never spared innocent Hindu women and children and they looted and polluted innumerable temples [25].

The erosion of the patriotic spirit of native Muslims [Moplahs] in the Mysorean expedition is noteworthy. It proved they were not against any alien power, but were against native Hindus. This particular situation that emerged in the Malabar region forced Pazhassy Raja to take an anti-Mysore stand during the Malabar expeditions. At the same time he was not in favour of the British paramountcy. A careful examination of later events is sufficient testimony to this conclusion.

Native political response to Colonial Challenges

Pazhassy Raja was able to cultivate a sense of patriotism amongst the farmers and Vanvasi brethren of the region. As a true patriot, he rose to the occasion and beyond communal or regional considerations, organized different sections of natives of Malabar into one force against the common danger and mustered the support of other rebel powers, alarming the British. The ever-increasing popularity of Pazhassy Raja alarmed the Company and on 18 December 1795, the Company Commissioner issued a proclamation stating that those who supported Pazhassy would be treated as criminal offenders, punishable under law.

In the final phase of his political career, his main supporters were the various Hindu jatis of Malabar. Loyal lieutenants like Kannavath Sankaran Nambiar, Kaiteri Ambu Nair, Edachannaa Kungan Nair, Kurichya leader Talakal Chandu, etc, belonged to various jatis and ably served the Raja in his dharmic battle against the colonial power. That is why his resistance to the British turned popular. Besides anti-British feelings, agrarian grievances enhanced the base of protest [26] as new colonial relations impoverished traditional agrarian communities. All these pushed Pazhassy Raja to a final assault and he moved with a well-planned programme. 

The last phase of his resistance began in June-July 1800 and lasted till his martyrdom on 30 November 1805 at Mavilathode [27]. He was well aware of the power of the British [28], but went ahead with his war against the alien regime. The Raja courted martyrdom, not at the hands of the mlechas [British], but by swallowing his diamond ring [29].
The Company Army that besieged Pazhassy’s camp at Mavilathode under Capt. T.H. Baber found the corpse of the Raja, his lieutenants’, and the tired queen and her maidens, out of prolonged starvation, asleep in the camp. She was sent to her uncle, Payyoormala Nair’s house, and the valiant patriot taken in a palanquin to Manantody where he was cremated with the customary, regional, and jati honours [30].

After his martyrdom, the Raja’s mission was continued by the vanvasis, particularly the Kurichiyas of Wynadu. K.M. Panicker opined that Kerala Varma Pazhassy Raja, the ‘lion of Kerala’, was a man who sacrificed everything at the altar of National Freedom and continued his fight until the last breath; memories of Raja will remain in the minds of generations to come [31].

Vanvasi Response

The Kurichya and Kurumba revolt of 1812 was truly a national movement because it lit the spirit of nationalism and patriotism in the minds of natives through generations. The spark of freedom, ignited by Raja, burned in the souls of the vanvasis of Wynadu for more than a decade. The commitments, loyalty and the sense of nationalism inherent in the vanvasis have not been properly recorded.

Most post-colonial and Marxist historiographers accounted it as part of mere agrarian resistance, showing bias and prejudice. The same historiographers are not reluctant to incorporate the notorious Moplah Riot of 1921 as agrarian revolt and include it in the freedom struggle! Pazhassy Raja is still deified by vanvasis of Wynadu [32], a sufficient testimony to the extent the vanvasis and Pazhassy Raja fought for a common cause. In the long history of our national movement such heroes, events and social groups were deliberately omitted to serve the ‘elite’ colonial/post-colonial/Marxist interests [33]. 

The vanvasi of Wynadu continued their resistance until the final outbreak of 1812. They rose in revolt against the oppressive revenue policy of the Company. “Colonial relations are predominantly economic, colonial practice is conditioned by economic laws” [34]. This was the last organized revolt staged against alien supremacy exclusively in the Malabar region. It was the general practice that popular movements were directed usually against the immediate Indian oppressor, rather than the distant White superior, and so were often not consciously or subjectively anti-imperialist [35].

But the vanvasi revolt of 1812 was an exception and was really against the distant oppressor, the colonial master, and this enhances its intrinsic importance in the history of our national movement. Our tribes remained inimical to all alien occupants of our nation. All other races and classes [other than Indian tribes] in one way or other cooperated with alien occupants in due course of time. After 400 years of armed struggle against alien occupants, the Bhil tribes only after our independence laid down their weapons voluntarily and turned responsible citizens of India.  


The movement ushered by Pazhassy in the political scenario of the then Malabar is part of the national movement. Pazhassy’s integrity, courage, firm determination and national spirit were recognized even by his enemies. William Logan remarks that his nine years of continuous and unexhausted anti-British fight and his exceptional character of single-mindedness made him a remarkable character. Records of his career available in India and in Britain will provide a clear picture about him for generations to come [36]. His resistance movement finally failed, but it demonstrated the high degree of patriotic fervour amongst the masses and helped forge a united front for liberation in which the vertical and horizontal strata of society shared space and time. Above all, it was the first blow to the white man’s ‘divine right’ to rule non-whites all over the world.

To a certain extent, this type of resistance formed elsewhere in the country before 1857 posed a check to the ambitious missionary designs after 1813 Charter Act [37]. As  for the evil designs of missionary enterprises: “Our chief work is the propagation of Christianity in the land. Until Hinduism from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas, embraces the religion of Christ and until it condemns the Hindu and Muslim religions, our efforts must continue persistently” [38]. They condemned the native resistance of 1857 against colonialism as “a satanic, murderous uprising against the forces of justice” [39].

An important point to be noted is the Mysorean invasion and the native politico-social response: it shook the age-old communal harmony of the land and Hinduism underwent its bitterest ordeal ever in the history of Malabar. At this critical juncture, the role played by Pazhassy Raja boosted the morale of the nationalistic forces by enhancing their self-confidence through the encounter with the British. Above all, he was able to win the vanvasi brethren’s to the cause of national freedom, not an unimportant event in the nationalistic perspective.

End Notes

1] “We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true,” Swami Vivekananda, Selections from the Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, [from the speech of World Parliament of Religions], Calcutta, 1998, p 1.
2] “The general orientation of the other kind of elitist historiography is to represent Indian Nationalism as primarily an idealistic venture in which the indigenous elite led the people from subjugation to freedom”. Ranajit Guha, Subaltern Studies I, “On Some Aspects of the Historiography of Colonial India”, New Delhi, 1999, p 2.
3] R.C. Agarwal, History of Freedom Movement, New Delhi, 1986, p 39.
4] Ibid.
5] Talmiz Khaldum: “the Indian peasantry fighting desperately to free itself of foreign as well as feudal bondage” and “the war ended as a peasant war against indigenous landlordism and foreign imperialism,” P.C. Joshi [ed], Rebellion 1857, New Delhi, 1957, p 52, cited in B.R. Grover, A New Look at Modern Indian History, New Delhi, 1994, pp 251 & 645.
6] B.R. Grover, op cit, p 251.
7] R.C. Majumdar, British Paramountcy and Indian Renaissance, New Delhi, p 432.
8] The words of Rt. Rev. Richard Congreve, Bishop of Oxford, are sufficient proof of this taboo spread all over the British colonies. Ashis Nandy quoted from K. Bhaskar Rao, Rudyard Kipling’s, India, p 26 “God has entrusted India to us to hold it for Him, and we have no right to give it up”, Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism, New Delhi, 1998, p 34. & In 1883, a C.M.S Missionary Rev. Samuel Mateer expressed the colonial objectives over India that, “…to proclaim liberty to the captives of sin,” see Rev. Samuel Mateer, Native Life in Travancore (1883), rpt. Madras, 1991, p 425.                                       
9] A. Sreedharamenon, A Survey of Kerala History, Kottayam, 1970, p 320.
10] “This victory thrilled the Pazhassy patriots and before long they mustered strong and controlled all Wynadu passes”, Ibid.
11] P.K. Gopalakrishnan, Keralthintea Samskarika Charitram, [Mal] Trivandrum, 1991, pp 397,398.
12] A. Sreedharamenon, op cit, p 322.
13] Babar’s letter dated 31 December 1805; see William Logan, Malabar Manual, Vol. I, p 544.
14] P.K. Gopalakrishnan, op cit, p398.
15] “The worst of Tippu’s tyrannical proceedings was that he ordered the conversion of all Hindus indiscriminately, whether of high or low caste, and all who objected to acknowledge the Prophet were menaced with death”, P. Shungoonny Menon, A History of Travancore, (rpt) Cochin, 1983, p 158.                              
16] “The Nairs were the special target of the fury of the Mysore rulers. Several of their women and children were sold as slaves and they were even declared as the lowest of the castes”, A. Sreedharamenon, op. cit, p 305.
17] William Logan, Malabar Manual, Mal. translation), Kozhikode, 1985 p 457.
18] A. Sreedharamenon, op cit, p 306. & The Zamorins of Calicut insisted the Hindu fishermen community that one or more sons of every family be raised as Muslim. This was sufficient evidence of the age-old Hindu approach towards the Muslim community of the communal harmony which existed there. See William Logan, op cit, pp 210-211.
19] Quoted from Kerala and Freedom Struggle, Seminar Papers, Cochin, 1999, P.G. Haridas, p 9.
20] P. Shungoonny Menon, Tiruvitamcore Charitram [Mal tran. of A History of Travancore From the Earliest Times], Trivandrum, 1998, pp 87, 88.
21] V.D. Savarkar, Quoted from Col. Mark Wilkes, see Bharata Charitrathile Aru Suvarna Ghatangal, [Mal tran], Ernakulam, 1990, pp 208 ff.
22] In 1784 Tipu seized 60,000 Christians from Mangalore region, brought them to Mysore and forcefully converted them to Islam.  Abbe J. A. Dubois [Missionary in Mysore], Letters on the State of Christianity in India, First published in 1823, Rpt. AES, New Delhi, 1995, pp 74,75.
23] V.D. Savarkar, quotes from Epigraphica Carnatica, op cit, 211.
24] William Logan, op cit, p 448.
25] Ibid. p 449.
26] K.K.N Kurup, William Logan: Malabarile Karshaka Bandhangalil Oru Patanam, [Mal], Trivandrum, 1991, pp 16, 17.
27] William Logan, op cit, p 609.
28] See references about a letter sent by Pazhassy to Kalyattu Kunjamman, K.K.N Kurup, Pazhassy Samarangal, [Mal] [Pazhassy Revolts], Trivandrum, 1998, p130.
29] P.K .Gopalakrishnan, op.cit, p 399 & S.K.Vasanthan, Kerala Charitra Nighandu, Kottayam, 1983, pp 127, 128, 241, 242.
30] William Logan, op cit, p 609.
31] K.KN Kurup, [quoted from Keralathile Swatantriasamaram [Mal] of K.M.Panicker], op cit, p181 & S. K. Vasanthan, op cit, p 127.
32] P.A. Warrier & Dr. K. Velayudhan Nair, Swatanthriathinte Katha, [Mal] Kottayam, 1998, p 92.
33] “It fails to acknowledge, far less interpret, the contributions made by the people in their own, that is independently of the elite to the making and development of this nationalism”, Ranajit Guha [ed], op cit, p 3.
34] J.S. Furnivall, Colonial Policy and Practice, New York, 1956, p8.
35] Sumit Sarkar, Popular Movement and Middle-class Leadership in Late Colonial India: Perspectives and problems of a ‘history from below’, Calcutta, 1985, p 33.
36] William Logan, op cit, p 610.
37] Long before 1813, the ambitious programme of establishing the Providence of Christ outside Britain was started. The religious neutrality of the East India Company was seen as essential first for trading purpose and later for British regime. Despite the official policy of religious neutrality, British interfered with every aspect of Indian religion and society. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see that the ‘Anglican Society for the Propagation of Gospel in Foreign Countries’ was established in 1701. See discussions in Peter Van Der Veer, Imperial Encounters, Delhi, 2001, pp 42, 43. & “…the spread of Protestant Christianity would make towards ensuring the stability of British rule on India,…” - from a letter addressed by Col. Munro, Resident of Travancore, to Chief Secretary to the Government of Fort St. George. See P. Cheriyan, The Malabar Syrians and The Church Missionary Society, Kottayam, 1935, pp 366 ff.
38] Rev. Kennedy, Indian Freedom Struggle – Centenary Souvenir, p 39 quoted from R.C. Agarwal, Constitutional Development of India and National Movement, New Delhi, 1986, p 37.  & “Since the Charter Act of 1813 there was an increasing realization of the significance of social management through educational, intellectual, ethical and religious means”, See discussions in C.I. Issac, Printing Press in Colonial Travancore: Aspects of Subjectification, Kottayam, 1993, p 4.
39] Peter Van Der Veer, op cit, p 86.

The author is a retired Professor of History, and lives in Trivandrum

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