Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Nairs As Warriors - Part III

The Dutch Records in the archives of the Tamil Nadu government gives details of the many battles in which Nair soldiers participated - on the side of the Zamorin and on the side of the Cochin Maharaja. Dutch general Van Goens tells about the war with the Portuguese and how the Nairs acquitted themselves well in the trenches ‘with fairly good grace in the heat of the tropical day.’

Several British writers, however described the  Nair style of fighting as one that lacked discipline.  Sir Hector Munro, a Scotsman who was ninth Commander-in-Chief of India,  who fought against the Nayars with the Madras Army in 1761 said: "They lurk behind sand banks and bushes, then they appear like bees..they point their guns and fire them well.” The losses were said to have been heavy on the British side and it was recorded that a single Nair soldier killed 5 British Highlanders in a lightning blitz.
The Nair Pattalam - Nair Force - mural in Kayamkulam Palace
Pyrard de Laval, a French navigator, who spent 10 years in southernn India in the early 1600s called the Nairs "the best soldiers in the world and exceptionally agile." William Logan, the famous Scottish chronicler, who was collector of Malabar and lived there for 20 years, also mentions that the 'Nayars were excellent in skirmishing" and that they would have had more success had they fought as guerillas.

The iamge of the raging Nairs was captured well by Christopher Fuller in his book “The Nayars Today”. In the chapter "The Nobles of Malabar", he evocatively wrote about the military role "Honour and Gallantry! Love and battle! My sword and my mistress!  These were their devices, and they were ticklish sticklers for the point of honour (as quoted in the Census of 1901, Cochin). "...The great majority of the Nayars probably spent time under arms. The armies were raised by the kings and the chiefs (naduvazhis) and were mostly engaged in fighting each other."
The memorail tof Pazhassi Raja at Mananthawadi, Wynad.

Which brings us to the legendary battles of Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja in the hills and forests of Wynad. Jungle warfare was fine-tuned here and a small, lightly-armed force of Nairs along with the hill tribes of  Kurichias and Mullukurumbas fought the army of Hyder Ali during the second Mysorean invasion (1773) and later  kept the might of the British at bay from 1793 to 1805. In 1797, Nair militias mushroomed all over Kottayam and killed British reinforcements and destroyed supply convoys. In Wynad,  British troops who  moved out of safety of their barracks were hunted and killed. (Lord Wellesly, who is considered a great military hero in Western writings, was defeated in many strategic battles for over three years by Pazasshi Raja . He returned to England and later became famous as the Duke of Wellington, the vanquisher of Emperor Napoleon at Waterloo.)
The Kurichis,  as picturized in the film Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja.
A very fascinating bit of information is given about the noble Kurichiya tribesmen of Wynad by Rao Bahadur G. Gopalan Nair, who was Deputy Collector of Malabar in the 1900s. In a book on the Wynad hill tribes, he wrote that  the name Kurichiyan was given by the Kottayam Rajas because of their great archery skills. The term used is 'kuri-vechavan - one who aims'). It is suggested that the Kurichiyans belonged to a class of  Nairs called Theke Kari Nair from Venad or Travancore and they were brought by the Kottayam Raja  to fight the Vedar tribes. After the battles, their kinsfolk did not accept them back and they settled in the hills of Wynad.  They apparently still follow Nair traditions in their life, death and other ritual cycles.
The former headquarters of Travancore's famed Nair Brigade

History has also recorded how Hyder Ali issued an edict during his Malabar invasion, depriving the Nairs of social and political privileges and disarming them unless they converted to Islam. The Nairs retreated to Travancore. When his son Tipu Sultan became ruler in 1782, he gave orders to his commanders “to "surround and exterminate the whole race of Nairs from Kottayam to Palghat, ."
Internet blogger Valerie Legrand (who claims to have been studying the Nairs for more than a decade) asserts that recent blood and bone tests indicate the presence of the warrior gene dopamine in the Nairs, similar to that of the Scythians or the Sakas - who ranged across Central and South Asia around 400 BC. (This is not corroborated).
  “Warfare was the chief occupation of the Nairs. For over two thousand years they were able to maintain the integrity and security of their land and culture unlike the rest of India. The only race to have decisively defeated the Nairs are the British. The British colluded with the neo-converts to suppress these inherently rebellious traditional warlords and succeeded... The British Army (not native infantry) performed poorly against the Nair warlords....the Nairs considered it below their dignity to serve under the British and hence most Nair history has been blacked out from Indian records. The toll the Nairs took on the British is much higher than any recorded in Hindoostan of those times.”

The insignia of the Nair Brigade
Legrand is correct in this regard. The official British policy was  to “Break the Nair community to break the backbone of Kerala.”  The destruction of the fighting spirit of the Nairs became a political necessity for the British. Kalaripayattu was outlawed in the Malabar kingdoms  in 1793. The British, who had earlier registered the Nairs as a martial race, delisted them for rebelling against them in Travancore in 1804 and 1809. The native Travanacore Nair army, comprising 1500 soldiers, was disbanded and the Nairs were forbidden from carrying arms in public. At the same time, other castes in Kerala were recruited in large numbers to become the native infantry for the British.
The titular suffixes of Nair warriors of that period were: Achan, Arimbrar, Chempakaraman, Kaimal, Kurup, Nair, Nambiar, Mannatiar, Manavalar, Menokki, ≈, Muttan, Panikkar, Patiar, Perimbrar, Pillai, Tampi,   Taravanar. Unnithan and Valiyathan.
By this time, however, the Nairs were already losing their fiefdoms and political power, after being overwhelmed by Marthanda Varma, who ruled Travancore  from 1729 to 1758. Marthanda Varma himself began recruiting a foreign force -  the Nayakas of Madurai for his army to overrun the smaller kingdoms of southern Kerala.
The Nair Brigade - 9th battalion of the Madras Regiment- after the famous battle of Ichhogil Bund on Sept. 22, 1965 under the command of Lt. Col. B.K. Satyan in which 120 Pakistani troopers were killed in hand-to-hand combat for the loss of 27 Indians.
International explorer and writer Richard Burton (who translated the Arabian Nights and the Kamasutra) wrote about the Nairs in the 1850s.  “The Nairs are rather a fair and comely race, with neat features, clean limbs, and decidedly a high caste look. They shave the head all over, excepting one long thin lock of hair, which is knotted at the end, and allowed to lie flat upon the crown....Their arms were sword and shield, spear and matchlock, with a long knife or dagger suspended behind the back by a hook attached to a leathern waistband. Being now deprived of their favourite pastimes —fighting and plundering — they have become cultivators of the soil, and disdain not to bend over the plough, an occupation formerly confined to their slaves. And yet to the present day they retain much of their old military character, and with it the licentiousness which in Eastern countries belongs to the profession of arms. In fact," war, wine, and women " appear to be the three ingredients of their summum honum, and forced abstinence from the first, only increases the ardour  of their afiection for the last two.” An interesting observation, indeed!

In the India of today, the Nairs still contribute a sizeable percentage of the Indian armed forces, even in the top rungs. One of the most famous troopers of native India was the Thiruvathamkoor Nair Pattalam (Travancore State Army), also known as the Nair Brigade and which served as the Maharaja’s personal guard. This was the brigade that trounced the Dutch forces at Colachel ending their Indian dream and later defeated Tipu’s army at Nedumkotta. The Nair Brigade merged into the Indian Army after Independence to become the 9th Battalion of the Madras Regiment. 

The nickname for the battalion is “Terrors” and the war cry : “Adi, kollu, adi, kollu”  (Hit and Kill, Hit and Kill). It showed its mettle during the Hyderabad Police Action against the Nizam’s troops in 1948, and in 1962 served with distinction in high altitude areas in the Indo-China war in 1962.  In 1965, the Nair battalion fought the famous Battle of Barki and captured Barka-Kalan and Ichogil Bund in Pakistan. In Operation Cactus Lily during the 1971 war, the  battalion captured Mahend Ro Par and Fateh ro Par in Gadra in Sindh proivnce. It also saw active service in the Siachen conflict. Over the years, members of the battalion have been showered with several Vir Chakras, Shaurya Chakras, Sena Medals, Commendation Awards and Theatre honours.
It remains a fact, however, that the Nairs - as a distinct soldiering  community -  began to lose most of their warlike characteristics by the middle of the 1800s. After the passage of many generations, they became increasingly attached to the land as agricultural landlords and the Malabar Manual of 1901 notes that “the Nayar is more and more becoming a family man. Comparatively few of them nowadays even engage in hunting” and Captain Heber Drury reported even earlier (in 1858): “ The mild and delicate looking Nayar now prefers a quite swing in the verandah or a lounge under a tree, chewing a betel.” The warrior Nair had at last returned home!

1. Rear-Admiral John Splinter Stavorinus, The Voyages to the East Indies (1774-1778), Vol. III, . G.G.  and J. Robinson, London, 1798
2. Rao Bahadur C. Gopalan Nair, Deputy Collector, Malabar, Wynad Hill Tribes, Higginbothams, Madras, 1911.
3. Tome Pires, The Suma Oriental: An Account of the East from the Red Sea to Japan. AES Reprint. New
Delhi, 1990,
3. Capt. Heber Drury ‘Notes on an Excursion along the Travancore Backwater’, The Madras journal of literature and science, 1858
4. F. Fawcett, Nayars of Malabar, Government Press, Madras, 1915.
5.Richard F. Burton, Goa and the Blue Mountains, Richard Bently, Lodon, 1851.
7. Edgar Thurston, & K. Rangachari, Castes and Tribes of  Southern India, Government Press, Madras, 1909
8. Panikkar, K. M., Aspects of Nair Life, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol.
48 (Jul. - Dec., 1918)
9.Fuller, John Christopher, The Nayars Today, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1976