Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, popularly known as the Lion of Kerala, hailed from Padinjare Kovilakam and was the king of the Kottayam Royal family (near modern day Thalassery, Kannur district) of the Malabar region in the present day area of Kerala, India, during the last decades of the 18th century.
He achieved the title Veera (brave) when he fought a guerilla war against British occupation with the able help of his loyal Kurichiyar tribe.
Kingdom of Pazhassi Raja
Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja was born in Padinjare Kovilakam, which was the western branch of Kottayam Royal family. Kottayam kingdom covered the present day Wayanad area and was divided in to Nadukal(divisions) and placed under Nair cheiftains for administration. Mananthavady was the capital of this kingdom.
Revolt against British
The late 18th century was a time of wars for the British. The Americans had declared Independence from the British in 1776 and the French Revolution happened between 1789 and 1799. King George III ruled Britain while George Washington was the President of United States in the 1790s. In South Asia, at that time, the Marathas and Tipu Sultan of Mysore were fighting the British. It was at this time that Pazhassi Raja revolted against the British in present day Kerala.
When Kerala was ruled from Mysore by Tipu and Haider, their officers used to collect taxes directly from the farmers bypassing the land lords, but the British changed this and decided to collect taxes directly from the Kings and Nair Lords. The amount fixed as tax by the British was unreasonable and people did not have the capacity to pay that much. Faced with revolts from people, the kings were unable to collect the taxes.
After Tipu left, the British ignored Pazhassi Raja and gave the land to his uncle on lease. This insult also helped in triggering the revolt. Pazhassi Raja stopped collecting taxes and this upset the British. Since the king was popular, they could not do anything but stop collecting tax for a year, but to add more insult, they extended the lease given to his uncle for another five years. On June 28, 1795, Pazhassi Raja challenged the British by stopping all tax collection and giving refuge to people who were considered revolutionaries by the British.
The Army was deployed under Lt. Gordon tried to arrest the king in his palace, but he had already escaped. The British negotiated with him and allowed him to return, but another misunderstanding caused him to flee again to the mountains of Wynad. Showing that there are no permanent enemies or friends, he sought the help from Mysore, from the same people he helped the British fight. The year 1797 saw a series of revolts resulting in the loss of lives for many British soldiers and they were forced to withdraw. With an army of thousands of Nairs and Kurichiyas, Pazhassi inflicted such defeat on the British that they were forced to retreat and negotiate. The lease with his uncle was canceled and Pazhassi agreed to live peacefully with the British.
In 1799, after the fall of Srirangapatnam, the British decide to take over Wynad which Pazhassi claimed as his own. The peace treaty was broken and with an army of Nairs and Kurichiyas, Pazhassi decided to wage a guerilla war from the mountains of Wynad. The fighting started in June 1800, and the British strategy was to isolate Pazhassi from his Southern Malabar supporters. They succeeded and Pazhassi was left roaming in the forests with his wife and few supporters.
His supporters like Chuzhali Nambiar, Peruvayal Nambiar and Kannavathu Shankaran Nambiar were caught and hanged, but this did not halt Pazhassi. In 1802 Edachena Kungan Nair and Thalakkal Chanthu captured Panamaram Fort and killed the 25 British soldiers there and this victory brought a new vigor to the resistance movement.
An increase in tax at this stage upset the local population which rose in revolt. The Pazhassi soldiers made use of this and inflicted more damage on the British. Besides this the British troops caught diseases and it looked like they were in deep trouble.
Confrontation with the British
The potent cause of the revolt was the unpopular and unjust revenue policy followed by the occupying foreign British East India Company in Malabar. He stopped all collections of revenue. The Raja further threatened to cut down all the black pepper vines if the Company’s officers persisted in revenue collection.
In April 1796, an unsuccessful effort was made by the British to capture the Raja in his own palace at Pazhassi.
On December 18, the British Commissioner issued a proclamation forbidding the people to assemble or to assist the Pazhassi Raja and warning them that if they did so, they would be considered as irreconcilable enemies of the Company and that their property would be confiscated.On December 30, a futile attempt was made to reconcile the differences between the Raja and the Company. On 8 January 1797, Pazhassi Raja’s Nairs launched daring attack on the havildar’s guard stationed at Pazhassi and the whole party except one man was killed. In the battles fought on three successive days, 9th, 10th and 11 March 1797, the detachment made by the Company forces was overpowered by the swords, spears, bows and arrows of Pazhassi Raja’s Nairs. As the situation was full of perils, a reconciliation with the Pazhassi Raja became a matter of political expediency.
After South Canara and other parts of South India were occupied after battle of Seringapatnam in 1799, Pazhassi Raja raised the standard of opposition a second time and ; shook for a while the very foundations of occupying British power .
Colonel Stevenson’s efforts early in 1801 cut off the pazhassi Raja from his adherents by May the British troops had made much headway and with every port both above and below the ghats in British hands and the whole Nairs disarmed, the Pazhassi Raja became a wanderer in the jungles accompanied by his wife and immediate attendants.
On May 24, 1804, Colonel Macleod issued a proclamation warning the people that they would be treated as rebels if they failed to furnish information about rebel movements and if they helped the Pazhassi troops with arms, ammunition or provisions. Finally the proclamation of June 16 offered rewards for the apprehension of Pazhassi – Raja, two other members of his family and his principal lieutenants and declared their estates and properties confiscated from that date.
Thomas Harvey Babar, a young British officer came as the sub collector of Thalassery in 1804 and was assigned the responsibility of suppressing the Pazhassi revolution. In April, he issued a directive making it illegal for the local population to help the revolutionaries and he also mandated that the British should be informed about the movements of the revolutionaries. On June 16, a reward was announced for the capture of Pazhassi and his commanders and soon Thalakkal Chanthu was captured.
On November 1st 1805, Baber took direct charge of the operations and on November 30th Pazhassi Raja was surrounded and by the British army was shot dead. The Raja’s body was cremated with “customary honours”. With the death of Pazhassi Raja, the resistance movement in north Kerala came to an end.
His body was taken back with respect by the British and cremated, but his death bought an end to the resistance movement. The other leaders either committed suicide or left the country.