Kayamkulam Kochunni – The Robin Hood of Kayamkulam

Every place with some history has somebody like Robin Hood in their lore and legends. Kerala had one as well, and the minds of people warm up when they hear and talk about them. As we know, this person has been talked about for the last 80 or so years and one or two movies have been made about his life, not to forget the Amar Chitra Katha comic book that children devour. I myself was lucky, for I heard it first from my paternal aunt with whom I grew up as a child, for she would read me stories from the Aithihyamala. Though she was somewhat stern, and not given to blowing up the account, she would still put flesh and blood to the story, as she read and I would listen carefully and my mind would wander thinking about those locales, the people, the ambience. To this day that wandering mind has not come to rest, I suppose.

The man behind it all spent some 40 years in this world, and was certainly a troubled person to be living a life of crime or a life spent balancing wealth and inequality forcefully, if one were to term it so. A couple of accounts about him in English can be found if one searched, and there is the detailed account in malayalam provided by the great Kottarathil Sankunni, that we talked about previously. In fact it is one of the longest stories in the ‘Garland of legends’ book ‘Aithihyamala’ that Malayalees treasure. I will try to provide a little backdrop and a gist of the interesting life that Kochunni led in the succeeding paragraphs. Perhaps there might be one or two who cannot read Sankunni’s story in Malayalam, perhaps there are thousands who have not seen the movie, perhaps there are many who know more of the person, who can contribute tidbits. So here goes, for some stories have simply got to be retold.

Why you may ask. Well this simple tale was to affect so many people in so many ways. To mention a few, the story became a famous drama or play enacted in many locales pre-independence, a popular movie with, as some explain, a socialist backdrop, a story which fetched actor Aravindaksha Menon a national award, but more than all that a story that many others like me enjoyed, to remember it and retell it decades later.

Many of you have gone to Trivandrum. The heart of the political capital is a junction called Statue junction across the secretariat. In the middle of that junction can be found a statue, of a man who hailed from Maharashtra, a great and interesting man actually, who for sure has his own story waiting to be told, but then again, it is not about him. He was none other than T Madhava Rao. When Madhava Rao came to Travancore in 1848, to take up tutoring the princes and later hold the Dewan’s post in the kingdom, he was filling in the shoes his forefathers had filled, only that this man did it with much aplomb and in the most fearless fashion. I used to wonder, how come Malayali kings always asked somebody from faraway kingdoms to administer his wealth? It was the same in the Calicut and Cochin kingdoms. Must be a matter of trust I believe..

Kochunni was born to a poor family around the time Iryamman Thampi wrote Omana Thingal kidavo and heralded the arrival of the young Swati Tirunal to the throne of Travancore and so interestingly the life of Kochunni runs parallel with that of Maharaja Swati Tirunal. The difference was that while one administered the land with some difficulty and excelled in music, the other excelled in fighting against authority. And of course, Karthikapally - Keerikat where Kochunni was born was a part of Travancore at that time. Kochunni’s father was a robber of sorts, and the life the family led was one of insecurity and abject poverty on most days.

The situation in Travancore deteriorated after Swati Tirunal’s time and the situation was not too nice. As the article in Calcutta Review details, The courts of justice were so many seats of corruption and perversion of justice. Dacoits and marauders of the worst stamp scoured the country by hundreds; but these were less feared by the people than the so-called Police. In short, Travancore was the veriest den of misrule, lawlessness, and callous tyranny of the worst description. We advisedly say so, because the very heart of the administration was tainted. The State vessel was drifting at random amidst rocks and reefs, without a chart, without a compass, with shattered sails and broken cables, and above all, without a pilot. It was at the helm of this vessel that Madhava Rao was placed. He grasped it firmly; full of confidence in, the sympathy of the enlightened public, full of eagerness to earn a noble distinction.

Kochunni, as you will see was a ‘wicked’ man. Now that one word means different things these days. If you have lived in England, you will understand that it is used in different ways today. It is supposed to mean that you are a very interesting, slightly non-conforming and exciting person. That is the meaning most will want the reader to take from the usage, not the old Webster definition which could even mean ‘disgustingly unpleasant and evil’. You see, Kochunni was very much a robber who robbed the rich, was promiscuous and drank at times, living life well, but on the wrong side of the law. Today perhaps that is the norm in most places, practiced under the garb of decency, but Kochunni was openly and unabashedly unrepentant about his non-conformist attitude. But was he a bad man? Why did he do what he did? Why did many love him and an equally good number hate him? What kind of a life did he live? Why is he not accounted for in written history and why is he known only through legends? Let’s try to figure out.

His independent ways started at the age of 10 or 11. Pangs of hunger and misery drove him, a Moplah boy, to seek help from a Tamil Brahman at Evoor (near Cheppad in Kayamkulam). This simple man recommended Kochunni to the owner of the provision shop nearby, the shop belonging to a house called valiyaveedu(Big house). Being a clever boy, he did his work diligently and this as you can imagine, kept his colleagues and boss happy. On top of that, during one of the procurement visits he proved his mettle by helping his boss out of trouble when his boat was caught in swirling waters. The strong lad used the oar effectively and steered the boat to safety, thus earning the trust of his shop owner and from then on, regular wages.

Life was different in those days, and there were no schools and so on for poor people. In fact Kalaris where people of higher social standing learned martial arts were not open to poor Moplah boys like Kochunni. But soon Evoor was to host a wandering mendicant who was well versed in all that. This Thangal collected a set of Moplah boys and started to train them on various methods of self-defense and the use of small weapons like sticks, swords and knives. Kochunni hearing this approached the Thangal to join up, but was refused admission on the grounds that his lineage was not good, his father was a robber and that anything learnt would be used not for good, but for evil. Kochunni was disappointed, but then again, he was not a defeatist like you would believe, for he soon figured a way out of the problem.

He learnt that the Thangal was teaching his students after dusk and that proved quite convenient, for he could secretly watch the classes after his shop work was over. He hid behind a bush and watched, learning the moves and committing them to memory. A perky kid might ask ‘so can you watch a movie and learn tricks’? Well, my friend, perhaps not, but this is a legend, a tale, so I may not have all the answers…..

Now why would a Thangal be teaching arts of self-defense to Moplah boys? To understand that you have to place Kayamkulam correctly in history and understand its checkered past. It was a small kingdom, which was always threatened by the bigger kingdom of Travancore in those periods even though aligned to the kingdom of Quilon for some time. It was also a period when the British had already established themselves strongly in Malabar, but not in certain provinces like Travancore where there was much lawlessness as we read in the beginning. Everybody who was able bodied was doing right in learning to protect themselves.

Onnatukara , nearby Porkha and Kayamkulam or Coilcoiloan was the Kaukammali of Arab-travellers (11th century); the Cacolon of Varthema; the Calecoulang of Baldaeus ; the Coilcoiloan of Hamilton, and the Kayankulam of modern maps. The Kayamkulam port area had been an ancient maritime trading center but of late was more connected with pirates. As is well known, it was a location where pirates of medieval times sold booty. The purchasers in the early medieval times were Bania traders from Gujarat or the Portuguese or English factors on the Malabar Coast. The goods were of course goods of trade or booty from other raided ships. We talked about some of these stories such as those of Captain Kidd, Capt Green and so many people in previous articles. Why it was a popular location for pirates is a question that requires much study before answering, but it is also known that in most cases, the intermediaries in the sale of booty were intermediaries such as Kwaja Kamudi or other ‘Moors of Kayamkulam’. As we read - The suzerainty of the Kayamkulam prince was sought originally by the rulers of Quilon and later by their usurpers the rajas of Travancore. It was finally during the reign of Martanda varma (1729-58) that the Kayamkulam palace was set afire, brought under the kingdom of Travancore and the Krishnapuram palace built. So during the times Kochunni lived, this area was under Travancore rule.

Now let us get back to the young lad and his story, for as you can see, he is soon going to take a leap, literally and factually. As we saw, Kochunni was behind the bush, learning the tricks, and this continued till another espied him doing so. Kochunni was unceremoniously hauled out and brought before the Thangal for interrogation. Kochunni was asked what he had learnt and when he showed what, the Thangal was overjoyed. Soon he took him in as a regular student and as you can imagine became his star pupil. Kochunni thus became an expert in these arts in no time and if these every same legends can be believed, learnt reading and writing Malayalam, Arabic and Tamil, something that was rare for a Moplah boy of that time.

Well, sometimes the most trivial things trigger major changes. It was the same in this story as well. The Evoor temple priest needed some Jaggery (molasses) for the sweet offerings and sent a temple boy to the shop with the money, but as luck would have it, the shop had run out of stocks on that very day. The main stock was in the owner’s house, the valiyaveedu and again as luck would have it, the home was locked and the women had gone for their ritual bath. The requirement was urgent, there was a stock of jiggery just beyond the wall and the locked doors. Kochunni wa sin charge of the shop. What could Kochunni do? Send the boy back and delay the temple offerings, which of course would be sacrilege. So what did he do? He scaled the wall of the valiyaveedu using the tricks he had learnt, clambered over, took the required amount of jiggery and got back, without any problems.

But somebody else had seen this whole exercise and he went and explained to the shop owner that the boy he was harboring had been learning special tricks from the Tangal and had scaled the walls with ease. This troubled our shop owner was in a quandary. After much thought he summoned Kochunni and told him that time had come for them to part, but in the most amicable fashion. He gave Kochunni a gratuity of Rs 1,000/- and terminated his services, but making sure that the boy was not offended in any way, for there was no reason to do so. The boy was 20 years old and had worked all of 10 years in the shop attached to the said Evoor valiyaveedu.

Kochunni’s life after the loss of his aged parents, next took an established turn, and he was quickly married to a very young girl, following which his mother in law also came to live with him. Somebody might wonder why a mother in law has any importance in this story. Well, my friends, you will soon see. She will become the most important part of the story to follow. Perhaps it was to be, anyway, the next 20 years were to prove anything but conforming for the young lad. Soon he was to be termed a brigand and end up on the run, living perpetually in hiding and feared by the rich and held in much affection by the poor.

The jobless lad had no work or regular earnings, had two more mouths to feed and lived among people who mistrusted him. Soon he joined or formed a gang that took to smuggling and robbery. If you recall, I mentioned earlier that the small port of Kayamkulam was always in league with pirates and smugglers. Well, soon, that progressed to breaking into homes of rich people or threatening and coercing them to pay upfront to avoid attacks. Kochunni thus earned a lot, but spent all of it, as soon as he got it or for that matter gave it away to his friends and other needy people.

When one has more than enough money, the next step is to find avenues to spend it. Kochunni spent it apparently on liquor and women. The latter was one of his weaknesses and his biggest problem was going to come from his favorite mistress, a comely woman named Karthiani. As the story goes, his mother in law came to know about it and confronted him, one fine day. The confrontation led to much insults thrown back and forth and eventually Kochunni ended up striking the old hag on the head with a stick, instantly killing her. Kochunni quietly packed her up, weighted the body with a stone and sunk the corpse in the dark waters of Kayamkulam.

Soon news trickled out and the local Thahsildar had no choice but to set the police on the hunt for Kochunii, who was by now in hiding, but on the prowl at nights in Karthikapalli, Karunagapalli and Mavelikkara regions, mainly living off petty thefts and blackmail. That was when the name Kayamkulam Kochunni stuck and became feared. The Tahsildar was vexed, he had to catch the criminal and straightforward methods did not work. This was when he heard about Kochunni’s regular nocturnal trysts with his mistress at Keerikat. He hatched a plan and summoned the woman, to whom he promised a relationship of sorts, if only she would leave Kochunii. The woman being an opportunist, s more interested in money and fame, quickly agreed to be involved in the entrapment of Kochuni with a sleeping potion, during his next visit.

Kochunni was given some tainted milk by Karthiani and he drank the milk unsuspectingly, promptly keeling over. The waiting policemen took him to the Karthikapalli police station lockup. 10 years had by now passed since his murder of his mother in law. The Tahsildar reported to the Huzoor at Trivandrum and Kochunni was to be transported with escort to Trivandrum as soon as possible, but then as you can imagine, Kochunni had other ideas. The shackles were to prove too flimsy for an expert like Kochunni, and he escaped from his prison the following night. As can be expected, he went to the house of the mistress who betrayed him, actually to pick up his dagger, but now found her with another man. The enraged Kochunni promptly hacked both of them to death, then went and confessed to his wife, promising that he would not indulge in such nefarious activities again.

The Thahsildar and the police were back to square one, running after Kochunni and his gang, who were busy with their usual petty thefts and other activities, never sticking to a routine. The pressure from Trivandrum increased, especially after the appointment of the said Dewan Madhava Rao.

Kochiunnis’ gang comprised mainly of Kopparambil Mammad, Kaduvacheri Bava, Kottapuram Bavakunju, Pakolathu Nurahmed, Valiakulangara Kunju Marakkar, Varaveetu Vadekkedath Kochu Pilla etc. All of them were well versed in martial arts and were skilled thieves. But Kopparambil Mammad was a problem person, who stooped at nothing, for he also robbed or attacked anybody at a possible opportunity, even poor people. This Kochunni would not allow and soon Kochunni decided that enough was enough and threw Mammad out of his gang.

Life at Kochunni’s home had meanwhile stabilized, he had stopped womanizaing and was getting along well with his wife. As all this was going on for many years, Kochunni fathered three sons and a daughter with his wife. But Madhava Rao at Trivandrum was getting impatient.

Madhava Rao was insistent on law and order and one of the first things he did was strengthen police powers. Rao appointed the able VP Kunju Panickkar as the new Tahsildar who was also charged with capturing Kochunni at the earliest. Panikkar tried hard, but was not able to catch Kochunni. Finally he too decided on entrapment by deceit, and decided to approach the estranged Mammad. Mammad in turn, bribed some of the others in the gang and incited them against Kochunni.

The scene next shifts to the Ambayil home of Kochupilla, the associate of Kochunni where a party was arranged. Being his friend’s house, Kochunni was relaxed and soon drank himself to a stupor. In that state, the rest of the gang bound Kochunni in stout ropes and waited for him to wake up. Kochunni tried hard to escape using his small dagger, but that was of no avail. Soon the police arrived and shackled him. The next day he was sent to the Trivandrum central jail without much ado. It also appears from Sankunni’s account that Madhava Rao himself takes a good look at Kochunni. Shortly thereafter; Kochunni was sentenced to solitary confinement in the jail. Those who helped capture Kochunni, i.e. Kochupilla, Mammad etc got rewards and the others were entrapped in some cases and sentenced to 14 years imprisonment. In the meantime, the broken Kochunni fell ill and precisely after 91 days of imprisonment, Kochunni passed away in the jail. It was 1859.

Like all tales, Kochunni is also characterized as a tall and handsome, well-mannered gentleman, but one who was doing the wrong things in wrong places at the wrong time. History has been lenient on him, though historic accounts have no records of such a person. Perhaps if one were to check the old records at the Trivandrum central jail, they might find an entry of a Kochunni, but I am not so sure, for he lived more in the minds of people I suppose. For the authorities, he was a nuisance, for the rich, he was a pain and for the poor, some kind of hope. That was Kayamkulam Kochunni.

As Sankunni explains, Kochunni’s elder son also died in jail for some crime or the other. The second also entered a life of crime and was imprisoned, but escaped and vanished. The third became a trader at Ochira and the girl was married off and lived her days in a place called Eruva. The Sankunni account also has many details of his various deeds and misdeeds very similar to those of Robin Hood, but it is perhaps a better idea to get to them some other day.

Madhava rao did well; he brought much order to the Travancore administration, cleaned up the bureaucracy, paid off old debts and put the state on a good footing. The state was thence called a Model state. It is perhaps a good idea to take a look at the situation in Travancore then.

Let us see what he did. One of the main focus areas of Madhava Rao was the Police of Travancore as stated in the Calcutta Review -

The Police has, from the, beginning of his administration, received the best attention of Madhava Rao. In 1861-62, he announced that it was in contemplation "to organise a Police Force somewhat on the plan which has been pursued in the Madras Presidency." The wants of the Police Department were: "1st, increased pay; 2ndly, increased strength; and 3rdly, more method and discipline." These were attended to in due course. We have already seen that the increase of salaries in this department was more than cent, per cent. The salaries of the Tahsildars, which had been shamefully low, were raised to a respectable standard. But no increase of pay could ensure that attention on the part of the Tahsildars to Police duties which was necessary; simply because with the innumerable calls on their time on account of revenue, religious, Civil, Commissariat, and a thousand and one other duties, it was physically impossible. To meet this want Police Amins were appointed in such places, which, for want of a better phrase, may be called the criminal head-quarters. The chief towns in the country were placed under the care of special Police Superintendents. The more heinous crimes have vastly decreased; so much so that in 1869-70, out of 19,736 cases disposed of, during the year only 310 cases had to be committed to the Criminal Courts. Petty offences, as petty litigation, must generally be on the increase as society becomes more and more complex.

Perhaps we need another Madhava Rao now in Kerala, but then again he was also involved in a few interesting scandals and we will get to one of them dealing with covering breasts, another day. After straightening out the princely state, Madhava Rao retired in 1882 and spent his retirement studying Marathi literature, composing Marathi poems and making his voice heard among the Congress moderates

Now to another story - Can you imagine how this story is connected to our great Yesudas with his wife Prabha? Well, let us take a look at the transcript of an interview with Manorama or an article actually by Prabha herself in the Herald as linked. She says

I still remember a line in the advertisement for the film 'Kayamkulam Kochunni' released in July 1966. "Kayamkulam Kochunni -- the film you have been waiting for! Famous singer Yesudas acts in a singing role with the king of acting -- Satyan!"I and my sister Sasi went to see the film 'Kayamkulam Kochunni' with brother Thomaskutty. When I saw a lean and thin young man with a silken cap and a thin moustache singing "Suruma, Nalla Suruma" and dancing shyly, I felt like laughing. I wished I could meet him. Around that time, Yesudas had a concert at Thiruvananthapuram.

I went to see the programme along with my family. Some from the audience would send slips to the stage requisitioning songs of their choice. The singer would sing some of those songs. It was very interesting. Our relative Babychayan also had accompanied us to the programme. He made the requisition slip in an interesting way. He wrote the song's title on the white portion of a five-rupee currency note and sent it to the stage. When he saw the costly slip, the singer smiled and sang: "pancha varna thatha pole konchi vanna penne". After the chorus, he himself altered the lyric and sang "the sight of the five-rupee note has broken my heart, girl", from the original line "your sweet words have broken my heart, girl". It revealed the singer's sense of humour. This intensified my love.

Interesting person, this fellow Kochunni and I guess he can have the last laugh. Just like our Vavar at Sabarimala, there is a shrine at Kozhancherry for Kochunni, where people can come and pray at Kochunni nada. Interestingly, the Valiyaveedu family of Evoor still exists, though not the original house. The Varanapallil house also exists and it was here that Kochunni once executed a challenge very cleverly. Today the locale of Evoor is famous for the large thermal power plant built there.

References

A Native Statesman – Calcutta Review
Kayamkulam Kochunni – Aithihyamala – Kottarathil Sankunni
Robin Hood Of kerala – Kochunni – Vilanilam

The entire movie is available on Youtube
Pics – From the net - thanks to the owners

Comments

Arun said…
Thanks for the great read... I grew up never reading or hearing these tales...

On a related note, after reading "Batavia's Graveyard", and researching the history of the dutch east india company, came across these interesting wikipedia entries

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Colachel


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eustachius_De_Lannoy
windwheel said…
Absolutely superb! I wish I could buy some copies of a book of this blog! I know so many people, just in my neighbourhood in West London, who would appreciate such a good Christmas present!
I am a complete addict of this blog.
Many other people put good posts initially and then just taper off or
repeat themselves.
I am a humble Tamil 'Iyer' of the simple 'empty drum' 'Kumbakonam'
type. Of course, for us, Kerala is literally 'God's own country' and are quite happy to remain "Untouchable' for Nambudris because By the Grace of God, MGR came from Kerala (or by way of Sri Lanka) and healed some ugly sores in our simple Tamil Society.

I don't feel envy, but delight and gratitude when I read the blog of 'Global Nomad' Maddy Sir.

I wish this could be translated into Hindi and other languages. Kerala is so different yet has everything of rest of India. 'Dhangal' and 'thangal'- just look at that! In Bihar, U.P, wrestlers from the 'Dhangal' became top leaders.

Anyway, I'm a big fan of this blog and only want to say- Maddy Sir should publish a book- at least ebook- based on his blog.

This man who is so erudite also has such humility and sweetness- that just reading him you get full flavour of Kerala and feel happy and optimistic!

God bless this Blog!
Happy Kitten said…
Loved this tale!

You see, Sankunni was very much a robber who robbed the rich, was promiscuous and drank at times, living life well, but on the wrong side of the law. Today perhaps that is the norm in most places, practiced under the garb of decency,.... LOL! How true..

As for Kayamkulam, was there really a port? belonging to Mavelikara, Kayamkulam is not far away.
Maddy said…
Thanks Arun..
that was one of the reasons why I recounted it in English. there are so many out there who have no access to the great Sankunni's works

The Lannoy story is related, I had written about him earlier.
http://historicalleys.blogspot.com/2011/09/tipus-waterloo.html

Another article you can peruse is Abraham tharakan's.
http://parayilat.blogspot.com/2007/07/delannoy-dutch-sea-captain-maharajas.html
Maddy said…
Thanks a lot Windwheel..
will keep me going the rest of the week..life has not been so good on this side of the pond, teh last few days...

I have been thinking about getting some of the articles into a book form, still trying to find a publisher !!! Maybe I have to contact penguin India or something...No Ebook for now, perhaps later..

The thangal in Kerala is a religious teacher from Arabia, in this case he also teaches self defense!!
Maddy said…
Thanks HK..
Life these days is a stark contrast to much of what we heard as kids right??

anyway kayamkulam was a minor port in the old days. One of the many dotted on the 'malabar' coastline.
drsabu said…
Another superb post from you Maddy!It seems Travancore of Kochunni's times used to have lots of similar dreaded robbers like Ithikkara Pakki from near Kollam.I have heard of a similar robber who used to reside near the present day Kaduvapalli in Trivandrum district(can't recollect his name though).Perhaps all this shows the poverty in which the general public of those times had to live
Maddy said…
Thanks drsabu
those were days when the caste system was very strict and a time when religion change were also bandied about as a relief to the caste issues. poverty was rife and the able bodied ones who had no income sometimes took to robbery...
windwheel said…
I hope a paperback book based on this blog can be put out by Penguin India- which has very good distribution network- at a moderate price.

One other point- this is a plea for a more simple type of book- I feel there is a need for bi-lingual texts so child (maybe born in the Gulf or Canada or other such place) and Grand mother/father can enjoy reading together at bed-time during family visits. Tamil and Malyalee script are more difficult than Arabic or Roman or Devangri, so there is more chance of loss of contact unless one gets the good habit early and in a loving and affectionate type of atmosphere.

Best wishes to Maddy Sir and other great commentators on this blog.
Maddy said…
thanks windwheel.
there are many gems of stories in malayalam & tamil that can reach the mainstream only if translated. will giive it a good thought
Nerambokx said…
Nice One....
രണ്ടു സ്ഥലത്ത് അറിയണ്ടേ "കൊച്ചുണ്ണി" ക്യു പകരം "ശങ്കുണ്ണി" എന്ന് ആയിട്ടുണ്ട് ...ഇന്നി അവര്‍ക്ക് ഒരു വിഷമം വേണ്ട..! ;-)
Maddy said…
thanks nerambokx -
corrected it...
kochunniyum, sankunniyum koodi vannu thala karangi poyi..pattipoyatha..
sharp eyes.. thanks again
SANU said…
This article gave me a new perspective to the story I grew up with. Thank you and Love your writing.
Maddy said…
thanks sanu
Kevin said…
Thanks for the great info Maddy.....


I frequently visit your blog to quench my thirst for history of our Kerala


By the way Eruva is a place nearby Kayamkulam,its near to my house as well
sachin sunny said…
I am a big fan of kochunne. I love him and his attitude the poor people .I want kochunni to reborm .waiting for you kochunni

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