May, 1792 AD, Tripunithara, Kerala:
The ancient Perunninakulam Shivan temple, at the base of the Hill Palace in Tripunithara turned out to be the army’s temporary base and bustled with activity that eventful night as entire battalions of Nair soldiers and their feudal lords, made their way in from the south. The Kochi Maharaja had personally thrown his kingdom open to the forces of Dharma Raja, the Travancore king as they faced an invasion from the north! The namboothiri priests, said to be the most orthodox and conservative among all the Brahmin communities within Bharatham and followers of the very ancient Srauta theology were busy organizing the yajna, chanting slokas from the divine Vedas, invoking the blessings of Lord Indra and Rudra for the skirmishes ahead. Those were tumultuous times for the Travancore kingdom. Wedged between the sea and the Western Ghats, the specter of invasion loomed upon the kingdom from various forces, all involved in a power struggle. The advances of the Mysore kingdom from the north and the growing power of the paranji forces from Madras were developments hardly encouraging.
The seventeen year old Krishnan Kutty Nair, cold to his bones, slowly walked into the camp to the sounds of the Vedic chants with his platoon after a brutal march that had lasted the entire day and slowly, a smile spread across his visage. The thought of a hot bowl of kanji was the utmost thing on his mind at that moment. He had spent the entire day manning the cannons and he was in charge of buffaloes used to move the heavy equipment. Amidst the long punishing march, the deluge from the rainclouds coming in from the Indian Ocean was the only thing that Krishnan Kutty Nair remembered! The rains had been the only steady thing in the last week as he and his battalion raced up north to Kochi from their capital, Padmanabhapuram. Their march had been slow that week, as the rains had made travelling difficult and the path slushy and they also had to setup cannon batteries, dig ditches along the way for defense at key locations. The water had seeped into everything; their clothes, their food, their cannons and their gunpowder but more dangerously, the cold water had sapped their energy as well. Many of the warriors had lost all their appetite for war and longed for a dry bed, where they could rest their tired souls. But it was in their karma to keep marching north! Many young warriors like him from various kalaris, had been pressed into service from all corners of the Travancore Kingdom as an even bigger storm brewed near their northern territory.
“Moving cannons was something that I did not sign up for. I just want to fight,” he sighed to his friend Ramanathan Nair, as they both sat down under a banyan tree just outside the walls of the temple. Even though he was caked with many layers of dried mud, Krishnan had ensured that his sword and his tobacco remained clean and dry for most of the day. His sword, a gift from his guru when he turned sixteen was his most prized possession and he was itching to use it. As he rolled his beedi, he saw that a group had collected inside the temple walls and a man, strode onto the stage like a tiger. Krishnan recognized him immediately as it was one of the heroes of the Travancore kingdom: Dewan Raja Kesavadas.
Dressed splendidly, the man said out loudly, “The Nedumkotta has fallen to those philistines from the north and if we are to protect our kingdom, our faith and our way of life, we have to win the battle tomorrow!”
As Krishnan Kutty watched on, the man droned on about how they had to win the war; about how they had no other option. It was his first experience of war of any kind and he loved every minute of it. It was something that he had trained for, his entire life. The atmosphere was electric with rising emotions and the air was thick from the smell of sweat and smoke from various bonfires as it spread through the entire area aided by a zephyr.
Their own unique way of life was under threat from a power crazy, marauding religious fanatic and Krishnan Kutty, the son of a low ranking Nair military man, had been the first in his kalari to join the Nair pattalam when the messengers riding south, came down to the capital bearing the news that the famed Nedumkotta had been breached by the forces of the infamous Tipu Sultan.
The Nedumkotta was a defense fortification built by their king, Dharma Raja, to protect the kingdom against invasions from the North. It started from the Krishan Kotta on the west coast, above Kodungallur, and stretched up to the Western Ghats and it had protected their kingdom up until then, against the onslaught of two rather poor specimens of humanity: Hyder Ali and later his son, Tipu Sultan. The Hindu, Christian and Jewish refugees who had flooded into the Travancore kingdom had many terrible stories to tell and the king, Dharma Raja had vowed to protect his kingdom and every asylum seeker from the ravages of war! Only a few months back, the Travancore army had repealed the Sultan’s first attempt to break down the wall but this time around, he had taken control of the wall and was determined to march south. Where the Sultan went, destruction followed!
After sometime, Krishnan Kutty, along with Ramanathan walked to the stall serving the hot kanji. As he walked through the camp, he could see the toll that war had taken on his people. Soldiers; the healthy, the wounded and the sick all crowded around the camp waiting for instructions and the dawn of another day.
After waiting in line for about 20 minutes, they finally got their rations and went outside the camp to their spot under the banyan tree and began eating when from the road ahead, a man walked painfully up to them from the darkness into light, slowly dragging his left foot. The blood that had oozed out of his wound had long dried and the wound had festered with infection. The old man looked like he was fighting death with every determined breath that he took and there was enormous pathos written across his face. He had the look of a man who had lost everything dear to him and every step that he took was becoming harder.
At once, Krishnan Kutty ran up to the man and carried him over the last 20 yards; finally resting him under the banyan tree.
With a plea, the man cried out, “Please Sir; food and water?”
And at once, Krishnan Kutty gave the man his rations; or what was left of it.
“Where are you from?” asked Krishnan as soon as the man had finished drinking his kanji.
“I am from Chalakudy. Tipu Sultan raided and ransacked my village and I was one of the lucky few to escape even though I was injured and ever since then I have been travelling south, hiding during the day and travelling during the night. And I have not eaten for the last two days.”
Krishnan Kutty at once felt anger grow within him. War was supposed to be honorable; meant to be fought by equals! This raid of Tipu was not a war, but genocide! Suddenly, sensing something wrong, Krishnan Kutty turned back and spotted his friend standing about 10 paces away from him. Ramanathan looked like an angry cobra as he kept pacing back and forth.
“Now what is wrong with you?” asked Krishnan Kutty.
Ramanathan pointed furiously at the man and said, “How dare this old man walk up to the temple and desecrate this sacred spot? He is a…. the man is a pariah!”
And Ramanathan raised his sword and ran towards the man with the sole intent of attacking him. The poor man had no energy left in him and merely looked on with defeat in his tired eyes; tired because while the enemy had killed his family, his own people had killed his soul force. It was the story of his miserable life and he sat there waiting for sweet release.
Just as Ramanathan was about to strike, Krishnan Kutty tackled him, using the man’s momentum to his advantage. And they both immediately stood up, swords in arms.
“I cannot let you do that,” Krishnan Kutty told him calmly, looking into his eyes.
“He is a vermin, not allowed here.” Ramanathan’s voice on the other hand was edgy and furious.
“What is the difference between you and Tipu Sultan? You claim to have joined this army to protect our sacred way of life but this is a way of life which needs to be changed; has to be changed. So don’t even think about hurting his old man here.”
Just then, a voice full of authority and power, from the entrance of the temple boomed, “Stop fighting at once!”
Krishnan Kutty and Ramanathan both looked for the source of the voice and it was none other than the Dewan; Dewan Raja Kesavadas! The man walked over to them, surrounded by his entourage and pointed out to Krishnan Kutty. “What this boy says is correct. We need to stick together if we are to repeal this invasion.” He then ordered his men to take the old man to the infirmary.
“What is your name and whose retainer are you?” the man asked Krishnan Kutty.
“Sir, I am Krishnan Kutty Nair, son of Sivadasan Nair. I serve in Aaromal Pillai’s regiment in charge of the cannons!”
The Dewan put his arms on the kid’s shoulders and led him into the temple. “You have a heart kid and I like that. From today, you will serve under me directly.”
As they both walked into the temple, the Dewan asked him, “So what are your thoughts about this fight?”
“Sir, I am itching to fight the invaders. But warfare in this modern age seems so strange with the cannons and the matchlocks. All I know is my kalaripayattui and the powerful thrust of my sword!”
The Dewan laughed out aloud and replied, “War is just not people fighting one another as it is taught in the Kalari. War is about propaganda, emotions, tactics, disease, confusion, cannons and more importantly hunger. You will learn that tomorrow but you now need rest!”
And Krishnan Kutty spent the night at camp, waiting restlessly for the Sun to rise like many others. He badly wanted to unleash his sword, his khadgam from its scabbard.
The army of the Travancore kingdom had collected on the southern banks of the Periyar River the next day on one of its important distributaries. Most of the strategists had agreed that this would be the place where Tipu would attempt his crossing and the scouting cavalry had only reaffirmed their theory. The Sultan’s army had been marching that day up to Aluva from Chalakudy.
“So what makes you think that the Sultan will try crossing here?” Krishnan Kutty asked the Dewan.
“The mighty Periyar River is in spate now as I had our men break down the dam at Bhoothathankettu and I also had our men destroy all the boats dispersed across the river. This is the only option left for that devil as he badly has to press on.”
“But why is that Dewan? Will he not wait for reinforcement or supplies?” asked the ever curious Krishnan Kutty.
“Two words: Disease and rations! He has a lot of the former in his camp and precious little of the latter. The devil has to press on if he wants to conquer our land and his ego will not let up. Get ready to use our sword. I think the time has almost come.”
“Why don’t we attack first?”
“We are too few in number to mount an offensive attack. But if we play our cards right, the Sultan will not be able to cross this river. ”
And just as the Dewan had predicted, the Sultan’s army began pouring on to the northern banks of the river. While the Travancore army was well set in its defensive position, the Sultan’s army swelled on the northern banks. Both the sides maintained their position till it was dusk. The emotions before the fight were increasing as they stood in battle formation. From the southern banks, the Travancore soldiers could see the Sultan on his raised palki, ordering his troops around and organizing his cavalry. There were now thousands of soldiers on either side.
And then it began…….
The Sultan encouraged by his superior numbers ordered the first attack. Krishan Kutty stood on the front line under the able commander Kali Kutty Nair as the cavalry, followed by an initial wave of infantry bore down upon them. The fighting was fierce as the Travancore soldiers managed to hold their line against the horses. Krishan Kutty was in the midst of things as he used his sword and his superior training to pick the ragged soldiers out. He was in his own zone and he even kept count amidst all the blood, gore and death. The matchlockers in the Sultan’s army were rendered ineffective as the battle was going on beyond their range and the rains. And finally, after a deadly fight, the initial wave was repelled by the Travancore army and it gave them confidence. They quickly retired to their defense position and cheered on as the Sultan’s forces retreated. Krishnan Kutty ran up to the Dewan, who watched the proceedings from a safe distance to congratulate him on the victory.
“So will the Sultan attack again today?
The Dewan smiled at him and replied, “I don’t think the Sultan is going to attack us again.”
“And why is that?”
“Kid; there are many things that you need to learn about warfare. When you punch an enemy, you’ve got to follow that up with a finishing blow. While you were busy fighting delivering the initial blow, I was delivering the finishing blow. We have struck a deal with the British convincing them to declare war on the Mysore kingdom. I also had bribed messengers deliver the very same news to the Sultan and that the British army had starting marching east from the Madras cantonment! The Sultan has to turn back to Coimbatore now; he has no other option.”
Krishnan Kutty looked at the Dewan in complete awe. He had much to learn from the genius but with a twinge of pain, he looked at his sword. He would not get to use it again!
Seeing this, the Dewan said, “As long as we stick on to the old ways of war, we will lose. Hold on to your sword as it will remind you of who you are. The way of warfare might have changed but the way of the warrior never changes. The sultan might attack tomorrow, he might come back after a few months or he might never threaten us again in his life, but as long as we remain prepared, we will not be defeated. Hold on to your code!”
Krishnan Kutty slowly went to the banks of the river which was covered in bodies. He looked at the cold water flowing calmly and realized the truth in the Dewan’s words. Countless men had split their blood on this sacred soil but the code of the warrior never changed!
He sheathed his sword; his khadgam looking at the northern banks of the river. His fate had changed in the span of a single day and he wondered if the Sultan would mount another attack in the future….
- The Sultan eventually retreated to his kingdom and never returned to Travancore. After his second unsuccessful bid to conquer the Travancore kingdom, he never got a chance to look south ever again.
- This is a work of fiction based on historical records (at least based on my research) and the title in Malayalam means “The Sword”.
- The Travancore kingdom, even though it eventually became a tributary of the British Raj, paved the way for the creation of the modern state called Kerala. The land, which was back then steeped in age old beliefs would eventually throw away all the vestiges of feudalism in the 20th century and forge a new Malayalee identity thanks to the efforts of countless people.
- The remains of the Nedumkotta can still be found in many places in Kerala.