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Pazhassi Raja –‘ Kerala Simham’ and a true gem buried in the annals of History

Saturday,03 December 2022 11:26 PM IST


Anupama Nair

Our great Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the Amrit Mahotsav or celebration of  India’s 75th year of Independence. We will be celebrating this event till 2022. I am going to write a feature on all those great men and women who fought against foreign invasion not just against the British. Today I am going to write about the great but unknown Pazhassi Raja, who gave his life to save his kingdom from the British East India Company. He is one of the greatest individuals to rebel against the British East India Company's supremacy in India and the course of history would have been different had he succeeded! I became a great admirer of his, when I visited his tomb during my school trips.

To understand the story of, Pazhassi Raja I need to take you back many centuries before. India was ruled by the cruel Mughals. It is a credit to the British, how the merchants who came to do trade with India, within 300 years became the masters of the entire land from Khyber to Chittagong and from Kashmir to Comorin (now Kanya Kumari), i.e., entire Sub-Continent. The English East India Company was formed by merchants of England to trade with Asia and India the “golden bird” in particular and America. It was formed by Royal Charter on New Year’s Eve on 1600. They landed in the Indian subcontinent on August 24, 1608, in Surat (Gujarat).

The Battle of Plassey (1757) and Battle of Buxar (1764) , smoothened their path to conquer the sub-continent. Robert Clive became the first Governor General of British India. By spinning a web of deceit, and many laws like Subsidiary Alliance (Lord Wellesley) and Doctrine of Lapse (Lord Dalhousie), they succeeded in ruling the entire sub-continent by 19th century. Jawaharlal Nehru in his book Discovery of India quoted “British rule in India had an unsavory beginning and something of that bitter taste has clung to it ever since”.

Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma was a brave warrior and Hindu prince and the ‘de facto’ head of the kingdom of Kottayam (not to be confused with the present Kottayam district) in Malabar, between 1774 and 1805. His struggles with the East India Company earned him the name Kerala Simham or ‘Lion of Kerala’

Pazhassi Raja was a member of the western branch of the Kottayam Royal family and was born in the Padinjare Kovilakam (Western Branch) of Purannattu Swarupam, Peralam Village, the royal clan of the kingdom of Kottayam in North Malabar, not the present Kottayam District in south Kerala. This branch was located at Pazhassi in Matannur. Kerala Varma got the name Pazhassi Raja as he was a native of Pazhassi. Kottayam I am talking about is what is today Tellicherry, along with Gudalur in Nilgiris.

His war campaigns started in 1773, when Hyder Ali marched into Malabar for non-payment of tributes from the rulers of Malabar as per war treaty in 1768. They sought asylum in the kingdom of Travancore. In 1774, at the young age of 21, Pazhassi Raja became the ruler to replace his uncle who had fled to Travancore. He vowed to resist Hyder Ali's troops, and stayed in Kottayam (not to be confused with Kottayam district), where he gathered a force and started guerrilla battles against the troops of Mysore as he did not have enough forces to face them in an open battle. He set up a large number of bases in the nearly dense forests  of Puralimala and Wynad and repeatedly inflicted severe losses on the Mysore army in Kottayam as well as in Wynad.

During his long war with Mysore and then later the East India Company, Pazhassi Raja increased his sphere of influence significantly eastwards as far as the outskirts of Mysore. Pazhassi Raja resisted the East India Company from 1793 onwards till his death in 1805. He fought two wars to resist the Company intervention in the domestic affairs of his kingdom. The East India Company called their wars with Pazhassi Rajah as ‘Cotiote War’

In one of the biggest setbacks to the British East Company in India till then, a contingent of  1100 army men under Major Cameron came under a surprise trap by Pazhassi's men. The attack was so brutal, that the British force was annihilated, leaving only a few alive. It is said that between 1793 and 1797, many Britisher’s lost their lives. It was the ideal time for a rebellion and Pazhassi realized that as the British were fighting multiple wars in Mysore, Wayanad, the French East India Company in India and the American War of Independence. As they had their hands full they offered to have a ceasefire with Pazhassi. Pazhassi was given back the land which was taken away from him. But the peace lasted only till Tipu’s death in1799, and the British once again tried annexing Wayanad from Pazhassi. Though the British faced stiff resistance they had a new Army Commandant of Mysore, Canara and Malabar - Arthur Wellesley the Duke of Wellington who later went on to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of Waterloo. However even under the command of Wellesley, the British remained unsuccessful in capturing him.

In 1804, Wellesley who had defeated the Marathas a year ago went back to England, failing to capture Pazhassi. Wellesley had  said about the great king “We are not fighting 1000 men… but one man … Kerala Varma”. In 1805, Raja and his army were camped close to Mysore on the shore of a river Mavila, when the British troops attacked him. Raja and party were caught by surprise and an intense fight followed. The precise nature of Raja's death is controversial. It is believed that he committed suicide by swallowing a diamond ring to avoid capture after he was wounded, while some say he shot himself.

The Kerala Government decided to honor Veera Pazhassi Raja, the Lion of Kerala and a freedom fighter who revolted against the British for the independence of India, by building a memorial. We can rightly claim, after Tipu Sultan, Pazhassi Raja was the last king that rebelled against the British. The memorial is managed by the State Archaeology Department It is true that India's epic freedom struggle had many legendary figures whose contributions have largely remained unsung and buried somewhere in the annals of history.


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