The Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, one of the world’s greatest generals, was the man who broke the power of the Marathas in the second Anglo-Maratha war and then went on to triumph over Napoleon Bonaparte in the famous Battle of Waterloo. However, one of the most stubborn adversaries that he ever encountered, and whom he never managed to defeat, was the great hero of Malabar, Kerala Varma (1753-1805), popularly known as Pazhassi Raja.
Sadly, the heroic struggle of Kerala Varma against the British is not known or celebrated, beyond the state of Kerala.
The rise of Pazhassi Raja begins in 1773, during Hyder Ali’s second invasion of Malabar. Fearing the wrath of the Mysore armies, the Nair chieftains of Malabar fled and sought asylum in the Kingdom of Travancore. Among them was the Raja of Kottayam, whose kingdom encompassed what is today the Thalassery taluka of the Kannur, as well as the Wayanad district of Kerala.
What made the Kottayam kingdom so highly coveted by Hyder Ali and later the British, was its rich supply of ‘Black Gold’ or pepper. For Hyder Ali and Tipu, it meant a valuable spice trade route from Mysore, down the Wayanad passes, to the busy ports of North Malabar. For the British, the harbour-fort of Thalassery was important, as it was from there that they shipped their valuable supplies of pepper to Europe. Both Hyder and the British were keen to incorporate North Malabar within their sphere of influence.
On the ground, as Hyder Ali’s threat loomed large, a new hero was born. The leader of the resistance movement against the Mysore army was the Raja of Kottayam’s 21-year-old nephew, Kerala Varma who retreated into the thick forests of Wayanad to carry out guerrilla warfare. Since his family’s seat was at the Pazhassi village in Kannur district, Kerala Varma became famous in history as the ‘Pazhassi Raja’.
The Pazhassi Raja’s earliest victory was in 1781 CE when he liberated the Thalassery Fort after a long siege. This was an important harbour-fort and a hub of British power. Keen to curb Hyder Ali’s power, the British were secretly supplying weapons to the rebels in Wayanad. This enraged Hyder Ali who, with his ally the Raja of Chirakkal, a ruler of a small kingdom in Kannur district of Kerala, laid siege to the Thalassery Fort. The fall of Thalassery would have seriously hampered the Malabar resistance to Hyder Ali and hence, Pazhassi Raja launched a cunning plan, wherein the British attacked from the coast and Raja’s army from the east in a pincer-like movement. The Mysorean army was completely decimated and Malabar was free.
Kottayam was liberated, but not for long. As per the Treaty of Mangalore in 1784 CE after the second Anglo-Mysore war, Malabar was recognized as part of Tipu Sultan’s ‘sphere of influence’. Tipu, who had succeeded Hyder Ali, forced the Raja of Kottayam to cede Wayanad to the Kingdom of Mysore. This incensed the Pazhassi Raja and he kept the fight going in the jungles of Wayanad. In 1790 CE, he signed an agreement with the British, promising to help them against Tipu Sultan in exchange for the independence of Kottayam.
Despite the fact that Pazhassi Raja was the only royal in North Malabar who had helped the British against Tipu Sultan, the British did not keep up their share of the bargain. Following the defeat of Tipu Sultan in the third Anglo-Mysore war, Malabar was ceded to the British as per the Treaty of Srirangapatna in 1792. The British installed Vira Varma, another uncle of the Pazhassi Raja as the King of Kottayam, in place of the old king and forced him to sign a treaty making him a British vassal.
With political influence, the British started taking greater control of the lucrative pepper trade. They not only took a large part of the total pepper production, they also mandated that the pepper produced in North Malabar could be sold only to British approved merchants. This meant that the Raja of Kottayam had virtually no power or control over the trade.
At this juncture, Vira Varma, now the ruler of Kottayam, played a double game. On one hand, he ruthlessly extracted money from the peasantry to pay tribute to the British, while encouraging Pazhassi Raja to revolt. He felt he could kill two birds with one stone, and get rid of the British as well as his rival, at the same time.
The Pazhassi Raja meanwhile, was against this exploitation and warned the British that he would not allow them to collect taxes against the pepper vines. He prevented Vira Varma’s men from oppressing the peasantry and extracting money from them. For almost two years, no tax could be collected from Kottayam. The British had had enough and in 1796 CE, orders were issued from Bombay to take strict action against the Raja. A British force comprising of 300 men attacked the Raja’s palace at Pazhassi. While the Raja managed to escape, the British plundered the palace and its treasures.
The Pazhassi Raja and his men retreated to the thick forests and mountainous terrain of Wayanad. The Raja built a series of strong forts at places such as Muzhakunnu, Mananthavady, and Kannavam in Wayanad which acted as bases and were part of the supply chain networks for the rebels.
It was on 18th March 1797, that the Pazhassi Raja secured his most spectacular victory against the British. A large British contingent of 1100 men under Major Cameron who had been fighting the rebels in Wayanad, was marching towards Kottayam through the Periya Ghat. Unknown to them, the Raja’s men lay hidden, waiting to launch an ambush. As the troops entered the narrow pass, the Pazhassi Raja’s men launched a surprise attack decimating the British force. Major Cameron and most of the soldiers were killed. Just a few survived.
After the disaster at Periya Ghat, the British clamoured for peace. The insurgency in Wayanad had been long and brutal and the British were worried that the Pazhassi Raja would eventually join hands with Tipu and the French. Also, the British had their hands full. They had lost the American War of Independence and were fighting Napoleon in Europe. In India, there were tensions with the Marathas as well as Tipu.
Hence, after four years of conflict, a peace treaty was signed with the Pazhassi Raja according to which Vira Varma was removed as the Raja of Kottayam and Ravi Varma, the Pazhassi Raja’s elder brother was made the head of the Kottayam family. Also, all their confiscated property was returned to them.
However, this peace too did not last for long. In 1799 CE, Tipu Sultan was killed and the Kingdom of Mysore became a British vassal. With a major rival gone, the British now wanted to annex Wayanad, which had traditionally been part of the Kottayam kingdom.
In 1800, hostilities again broke out between the British and the Pazhassi Raja. However, this time, his adversary was none other than Major General Arthur Wellesley, the British army commandant of Mysore, Canara & Malabar, who would later become famous as the Duke of Wellington. In 1801, Wellesley planned a pincer attack against the Raja, one from the Malabar Coast and the other from Mysore. Much to his surprise, the Pazhassi Raja escaped again.
In his dispatches, Arthur Wellesley wrote that the British were not fighting an army but one single man and that the war could not be won as long as he remained alive. The Pazhassi Raja’s war with the British became famous as the ‘Cotiote War’ (Kottayathu war).
While Arthur Wellesley’s attention was diverted by the wars with the Marathas in the North, the local British administration in Malabar launched a brutal campaign of repression, hanging those who had helped the Raja’s resistance and confiscating their property. As a result, by 1803, almost the entire Malabar region was in a state of revolt. In March 1803, the rebels marched as far as Kozhikode, attacked a local jail and freed its prisoners.
By 1804, Arthur Wellesley returned to England. It is remarkable that the man who be remembered as one of the world’s greatest Generals, one who had smashed the Maratha armies in 1803 and would later defeat Napoleon at Waterloo in 1812, did not manage to defeat a local Malabar ruler.
The British had learned their lessons and realized that the only way to bring down this elusive Pazhassi Raja was an attack from within. They now formed an army of local Indian collaborators called ‘Kolkars’. The 'Kolkars' literally meant a police force recruited from the people of the locality. Since they were natives of the region, the Kolkars were of great help to the Company in waging war against the rebels, as they knew the geography in detail and hence could easily move through the thick jungles of Wayanad.
Ironically, these treacherous locals achieved what a General like Wellesley could not. The Kolkars organized a systematic hunt of local rebel leaders and a number of them were arrested or killed. The Pazhassi Raja himself narrowly avoided capture but not for long. One local spy had betrayed the Raja’s location to the British and around 100 sepoys and 50 officers were sent to capture him.
On 30th November 1805, while the Raja and his retainers were camping by a stream named Mavila, they were ambushed by the British force. After heavy fighting, the Pazhassi Raja was killed. Out of respect for their opponent, the British cremated his body with full military honours. There ended the story of a great hero!
The legend of the Pazhassi Raja remains popular in Kerala to this day. The folk songs of North Malabar speak of his exploits and noted historian KM Panikkar even wrote a historical novel named Keralasimham in 1941 based on his remarkable story. In 2009, a biographical Malayalam film named Keralavarma Pazhassiraja was released, with noted actor Mammootty playing the role of the Raja.
Today, while King Martand Varma of Travancore is famous across India for his exploits and for the Padmanabhaswamy temple, this brave king of Malabar also deserves due credit. He truly stood up for his people.
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