Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja

Kottayam Royal Family

Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja is one of the most heroic figures in the history of Kerala. He belonged to the Western branch of the Kottayam ruling family of North Kerala with its headquarters at Pazhassi. As he resided at Pazhassi, he came to be called as Pazhassi Raja. Usually in Malabar, the tradition was that a single family (ruler) governed the territory of their respective family. But in Kottayam royal family the territory was divided into three kovilakams or branches viz, Kizhakke kovilakam (Eastern palace), Patinjare kovilakam (Western palace) and Thekke kovilakam (Southern palace) according to the position where their chief dwelling places were located in and around a big water tank at Kottayam. Originally called the puralisas, the rulers of Kottayam had all along played a dominant role in the political and cultural history of North Kerala. The principality of Kottayam was comprised of portions of Tellicherry Taluk, the Kurumbranad area of Kozhikode district, the whole of the present Wayanad district and the Guddalore area of modern Tamilnadu. In 17th century the Kottayam family produced two outstanding figures, viz Keralavarma Tampuran, the author of the Valmiki Ramayanam Kilipattu and the composer of the Attakathas known as the Kottayam plays. It may thus be seen that Keralavarma Pazhassi Raja was the proud inheritor of a rich tradition.

Mysore Raids and English Ascendency in Malabar

The Mappila principality of Cannanore, which owed nominal allegiance to the Chirackal Raja (Kolathunad) made an alliance with Hyder Ali and invited him to Malabar. Hyder Ali invaded Malabar in 1766 and succeeded in subduing the Malabar chiefs. Many rulers and people had fled to Travancore in fear of the atrocities committed by the Mysore rulers. Those who remained often stayed back in the jungles for they were afraid of the persecution or forcible religions conversion to the religion of Islam. This naturally resulted in the abandonment of the countryside by the conquest and possession of Malabar by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan.

It was in this circumstance that the Pazhassi Raja alias Kerala Varma came forefront. When the three eldest Rajas of Kottayam family fled, like the other Rajas of Malabar, in order to escape from the attacks of the Sultan, to Travancore, the fourth prince of the family, Pazhassi Raja, remained behind in defiance of the Mysore ruler. The senior Raja before his flight to Travancore summoned Kerala Varma and instructed him to protect the country and the people. Mysore ruler’s overlordship in Malabar was not hospitable to the chieftains of Malabar, and to the local population. They were levying huge amount as revenue from Malabar. The heavy burden of revenue drove, even, the Mappilas of Ernad and Valluvanad to rise in revolt against the Mysorean authorities in Malabar. The persecution of the Brahmins and others compelled the Rajas of Kadathanad and Kottayam to collaborate with the British in fighting Tipu’s forces.

The advance of Tipu Sultan to Malabar and the weak position of the British India company in the ensuing Third Anglo-Mysore War, forced the British authorities to seek the help and support of men and material from the native chieftains. The company assured them the rights and privileges of the local rulers through a proclamation from Tellicherry in 1790. The Tellicherry Factory granted a cowl to the Rajas of Malabar on 4 May 1790, stipulating that the Company would enter heartily into the war against Tipu Sultan.

The conditions in Malabar were not so peaceful when the war broke out in 1790. In the North

Malabar, the people were subjected to the ruthless intolerance of the Sultan’s conquerors. Similarly in the South Malabar, the principal land holders had abandoned at once due to the insurrection and the cruelties committed to the remaining Hindus by the Mappilas, to secure their property and estates. In this attempt they were successful. It was in this situation Lord Cornwallis, the Governor General in council, gave instructions to the Government of Bombay to encourage the Nairs and others in Malabar to throw off their dependence on Tipu and to engage on the part of the Company.

To corroborate this, Robert Taylor, the chief of the Tellicherry Factory, guaranteed the Company’s protection against Tipu, for those who supported the Company and a warning to those who held back would be treated as enemies of the Company. Taking these promises at face value, the Rajas of Chirrackal, Kottayam, Kodattunad and other chieftains of Malabar readly accepted the terms. Thus, the princes were carried away by offers and promises from the British, assisted the English army against the Mysore Sultan.

The cowl issued by the Company for Kottayam was received by Kerala Varma, as the elder Rajas fled to Travancore at the time of Mysore invasion. When the Company offered its help, he readily accepted it. He soon sent 1500 Nair soldiers to the aid and support of Company’s forces under Major Alexander Dow. Another troop under Pazhassi himself captured the Kuttiadi fort of Tipu Sultan in Malabar and seized the armory of the Mysore forces at Kuttiyadi. Later, this fort at Kuttiyadi became an important arena of Pazhassi’s revolt against the East India Company. The independence of  Kottayam would be recognized at the end of the war. Believing upon the promises of the English, Pazhassi and his Nair militia fought whole-heartedly in favour of the Company against the Mysore ruler. However, the British failed to honour their commitment. Under the Treaty of Sreerangapattanam (1792) the Mysore Sultan ceded Malabar to the English. In their moment of victory, the British ignored the Pazhassi Raja and proceeded to make their own arrangements for the administration of Kottayam without regard to his views. This made a confrontation between the Raja and the English almost inevitable.

Pazhassi Revolt I (1793-1797)

Kerala Varma came into conflict with the company for national reasons. The British failed to honour the prior agreement that the territories will be restored back to the former Rajas soon after the expulsion of Tippu. In 1794 Kurumbranad Raja’s lease was renewed for another five years in complete disregard of the Pazhassi Raja’s claims. This hardened the attitude of the Raja towards the English and he remained in a state of open rebellion against authority till 1797. The British had adopted a revenue policy that went detrimental to the interests of the tenants. The British reversed the policy and authorized the local Rajas to collect the same. Their harsh assessment and forcible collection were resisted by tenants. Pazhassi championed the cause of the tenants.

Pazhassi unfurled the banner of revolt against the mistaken revenue policy of the British. He stopped all collection of revenue in Kottayam. The company found it difficult to meet the situation. They looked upon the Raja as the “moist intractable and unreasonable of all the Rajas” and tried to subjugate him. In April 1796 the British made a determined effort to seize the Raja in his own palace at Pazhassi. In the early morning of April 19, a force of 300 English troops marched from Tellicherry to Pazhassi and surrounded the Raja’s palace at daybreak. To their dismay, they found that the Raja had already made good his escape. They plundered the futility of fighting pitched battles against British troops in the plains, Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja retired to the mountains and set up residence in the jungles of Wayanad which were eminently suited for guerilla warfare.

His supporters assembled in small groups, erected barriers, and cut of British communications. The Rajas of Kurumbranad, Parappanad, eastern branches of the Zamorin’s family, the Mappilas led by Chempan Pokker and Unnimootha Mooza, the Gounders of Coimbatore, all allied with Pazhassi. The hilly nature of the country and the strong support he received from the hill tribes like the Kurichyas forced the company to have a truce with the Raja as a matter of political expediency.

The British in Malabar were now finalizing their strategy for the final subjugation of the Pazhassi Raja, but the outbreak of the Fourth Mysore War upset their plans for the time being. A reconciliation with the Pazhassi Raja became a matter of enlightened self-interest from the British point of view. The Governor of Bombay, Jonathan Duncan, himself came down to Malabar on a peace-making mission. The Raja was granted a pension of Rs.8000 per annum and he agreed to live in peace with the Company. There were no large-scale military engagements between Pazhassi Raja and the Company after the settlement of 1797. It had brought in peace in Malabar for some time. Even though there were provocations from both sides, the two parties remained controlled. In 1799, the Malabar Commissioners found that the situation in Malabar was still unstable and stressed the need for keeping Malabar under the strict surveillance of them. It was during this impasse, both parties were suspicious of each other and doubted the artificial silence prevailed between them. All these contributed for further provocations and insurrection in Malabar.

Pazhassi Revolt II (1800-1805)

The peace agreed between the English and the Pazhassi Raja was only a truce, which did not last long. Pazhassi was provoked by the British move to take Possession of Wayanad which had been ceded to him by the treaty of Srirangapattanam. In 1800 Colonel Arthur Wellesley, (the later Duke of Wellington of Waterloo fame) was appointed as the Commander of the British forces in Malabar, South Canara and Mysore with specific instruction to map out a proper military strategy against the Pazhassi Raja. The Wellesley devised minute plans of operations. Networks of roads were constructed; military outposts were set up at strategic places to counter the guerrilla tactics. These plans devised to bring an early end to the rebellion yielded results in the long run.


While East India Company, under Wellesley, was preparing for subduing the insurgents, the rebels were not keeping idle. Pazhassi Raja raised a large body of militia consisting of Nairs, Mappilas. His troops came down the ghats at Kuttiyadi and took possession of the plain country.

By May 1801, the British troops captured all places of strategic importance in Wayanad and forced the Pazhassi Raja to become a wanderer in the jungles accompanied by his wife and immediate attendants. He took refuge in the wilds of Chirakkal, Kottayam, Kadathanad and Kurumbranad by turns. The Company began to capture the rebels from their hideouts and decided to execute them. The Raja’s supporters like the Chuzhali Nambiar and Peruvayyal Nambiar were captured by the British. The latter was sent to Kannavam along with two others hanged there. At Irikkur, Chattappan Nambiar and Choyan Chandoo – two active rebels of that region were put to death by the Company. In the open bazaar of Wayanad four active rebels, Poottilathu Roshmyn, Kallu Chama, Puthiyam Kunjappan and Kannamcherry Nambiar were captured and hanged to death by the Company publically, particularly to create apprehension among the supporters of the rebellion. In November 1801, the British troops captured the gallant leader Kannavath Sankaran Nambiar, the most trusted lieutenant of the Raja. The capture and execution of Kannavath Nambiar was a blow to the Pazhassi cause and there was a temporally lull in rebel activity.

Meanwhile, Major Macleod was appointed as the Principal Collector of Malabar, sought to disarm the District in January 1802. All those who failed to surrender their arms were to face the death penalty. But his action failed in putting down the embers of revolt. The Panamaram fort in Wayanad was captured by the rebels in October 1802 and its garrison of 70 men put to death. The operation was led by the indomitable rebel leader, Edachenna Kungan Nair and two of his brothers with the help of the Kurichyas under Talakkal Chandu. Edachenna Kungan now issued a call from the Pulpalli temple exhorting the inhabitants of Wayanad to rise in revolt. The response to this call was spontaneous. About three thousand men assembled at the Velliyurkavu temple near Manantoddy and before long all the main Wayanad passes including the Periya came under the control of the Pazhassi troops. Edachenna Kungan commanded the entire route from Mysore to Manantoddy and blocked the passage of British troops from Mysore. In the wake of these reverses the British troops to Wayanad from all directions with Manantoddy as the target.

At this juncture, Major Macleod announced a steep enhancement of land revenue and revision of the table of exchange. This adversely affected the interests of the peasantry and provoked a virtual rebellion in all parts of the countryside including the Chirakkal and Kurumbranad areas. Found himself a failure in suppressing the rebellion, Major Macleod resigned from the office of Collectorship. Robert Rickards who succeeded him rescinded the innovations; made by his predecessor, but coupled it with the gesture of conciliation, along with a policy of coercion. The Pazhassi troops now came out of their retreat in the Wayanad jungles and made common cause with the people in the countryside. In April 1803 Edachenna Kungan came out of his abode in Wayanad and helped the Kottayam troops in the assault on the Pazhassi fort.

The Madras troops under Col. Macleod pursued the Pazhassi troops vigorously into the hills and jungles of Wayanad. By April 1805 all open opposition to the British had been stamped out. On May 24, Colonel Macleod issued a proclamation warning the people that all those who failed to co-operate with British authorities or helped the Pazhassi troops with arms and provisions would be dealt with as rebels. He also offered rewards for the apprehension of the Pazhassi Raja, two other members of his family and his principal lieutenants and declared their estates and properties confiscated from that date. The reward offered for apprehending the Pazhassi Raja was Rs. 3000 while those for eleven others ranged from Rs. 300 to Rs.1000.

Martyrdom of Pazhassi Raja

The immediate result of the above proclamation was a systematic hunt for the rebel leaders organized by the Kolkars. Skirmishes between them and the rebels became a matter of daily occurrence. The Pazhassi Raja himself narrowly escaped capture by the Kolkars on September 6, when he was camping in a pass leading from South Wayanad into South Malabar, but two of the Raja’s attendants were captured. However, the inclement Wayanad weather adversely affected the health of the troops and out of about 1,300 Kolkars who had earlier been on duty in the area only 170 were on the rolls on October 18. The Pazhassi troops were in no mood to surrender and they continued their heroic resistance. the Raja and Edachenna Kungan now assembled the Kurichyas and the Kurumbars.

By the end of October 1805, the rebels had been defeated places. Baber took personal command of the operations in Wayanad on November 1 and made an all-out effort to ferret out the Pazhassi Raja himself and crush the rebellion. During the depredation at Kakkiketti, the Kurichya leader Thalakkal Chandoo, who had led the attack on Panamaram post of the East India Company, was taken as a prisoner. The capture of Chandoo was great shock to the rebels. It was a setback to the insurgents as he was the one who organized and mobilized the tribals of Wayanad against the English East India Company. Meanwhile the rebels, who were reduced to small numbers moved to Pulpally and from there to the borders of Mysore. A small detachment under Captain Baber and Captain Claphom went in search of Pazhassi Raja and his adherents to Pulpally. On November 30, after a tedious journey of fifteen hours, the forces had come up with Kerala Varma and few followers on the bank of river Kanguara, very close to the border of Mysore. After a small resistance, the rebels were routed and the principal rebel Chief Kerala Varma and a proscribed rebel leader Aralat Kutty Nambiar along with a few others were killed in the engagement that followed. In another attack at Pulinjal, rebel leaders like Edachana Yemoo, Palloor Rayarappan and Tondara Velappan lost their lives. Edachana Kungan, who was sick at this time, despairing of being able to evade capture by the people of the Company, committed suicide. Even Palloor Emmen Nair, who had at one time been a loyal friend of Wellesley, was captured and deported to the Prince of Wales Island in 1806 along with few other rebels. Zamoothiri, who gave shelter to the two junior princes of the Pazhassi Kovilakam was captured and sent as a prisoner to Dindigal, where they died later. The properties of the rebels were seized and confiscated by the Company.

Local tradition tells a different story about his end. The Raja is said to have died after the diamond of his ring, for he wanted to avoid the humiliation of being captured alive by the British. It has also been said that Pazhassi emptied his pistol to his own chest in order to escape capture by the British. The Raja’s dead body was put in Baber’s Palanquin and taken to nearby Manantoddy. Here it was cremated with “the customary honours”. Baber reported about Pazhassi Raja to the Principal Collector of Malabar in his letter dated December 31, 1805, “Although a rebel, he was one of the national chieftains of the country and might be considered on that account rather a fallen enemy”.

The death of Pazhassi Raja marked the collapse of the resistance movement in North Kerala. The news of the successful suppression of the Pazhassi revolt was received with feelings of relief by the British Government and as a token of appreciation of Baber’s services he was given an award of 25,000 pagodas. T. H. Baber has testified to Raja’s amazing popularity in a report he sent to the Principal Collector on the events leading to the capture of the Pazhassi Raja. He says, “In all classes, I observed a decided interest for the Pychy (Palassi) Raja towards whom the inhabitants entertained a regard and respect bordering on veneration, which not even his death can efface”.

The revolt of Pazhassi marks an important stage in the history of resistance movements against the foreigner’s domination in Kerala. Pazhassi fought in defence of freedom and his object was the liquidation of foreign rule. It was the experience gained by Col. Wellesley in guerilla warfare against the Pazhassi Raja in wilds of Wayanad that stood him in good stead during his campaigns against Napolean Bonaparte in Spain. He was a patriot with indomitable courage and heroism. The revolt of Pazhassi Raja was a people’s revolt in every sense. All classes of people were involved in it. The active involvement of the tribal communities of the Kurichyas and Kurumbar has lent it the dimensions of an agrarian upheaval. In fact, Pazhassi symbolized the resolve of the people to be free and sacrificed his life in defence.