The Chinese, Tea and the Nilgiris

I was getting deeper and involved in a topic that I was researching on, getting really engrossed tracking the movements of medieval Chinese sailors crossing the China seas to go to places like Quilon and Calicut. The answer I was seeking was elusive and some of the books and material I had at hand were not getting me the answer, and Google results were also not too cooperative. In one of those quirky moments, it directed me to a nice blog by Nina Varghese writing tales about the blue mountains of Nilgiris. The article was about a group of Chinese convicts in Nilgiris. I recalled vaguely about the mention of these people by Edgar Thruston in one of his anthropology books and also Muthaia’s book on the planters. While the latter had been returned to the library months ago, the former was very much at hand and so with a huge load of thanks to Nina for directing me to the story she started, let me get started.

Tea – That was what it was, and just the other day, I had come across two women animatedly discussing the very subject of which Indian tea bag to buy - Tetley? Or should it be Lipton Red label or Green? Or should it be Wagh bakri? I did not quite get to the end of their heated discussion, and at home we stick to red label. Wagh bakri is nice, but then all these things are related to what you are used to. If your home brew was always based on red label, you will stick to it and not venture into some mild stuff like Earl grey (btw that is a Chinese tea which has orange oil added to it!!!) that the haute bourgeoisie imbibe. As they say, not my cup of tea, meaning each has his preference. It is a pity, some of these blue blooded (or so they think) characters believe tea drunk in the western world comes from England, while it is mostly from Ceylon or various parts of India. In America I guess some may even think chai is a Starbucks invention. Interestingly, China has only the light pale green tea whereas dark teas of the 19th century mostly originated from India. Know what, I was at the library the other day and picked up the hefty copy of the book “The history of the Indian tea industry” by Sir Percival Griffiths. The librarian took a good look at me, and at the book, then started turning over the pages with immense interest. I asked “is that the most obscure loaner you have come across?” and he said, ‘not exactly, I was a bit surprised seeing a book like this, as my research subject was Chinese tea’. I had gone through Muthaia’s planters book while researching the coffee story, but anyway this article is not exactly about tea, as you will soon find out, but sort of touches the topic, like a gentle sip off a cuppa..

The topic that Nina wrote about intrigued me, and though I had written on coffee earlier, tea was enticing me today. I set out on a tangent, forgot about the Chinese sailors and went after the Chinese convicts, to get to the bottom of the story, and I tell you, it was not easy. The search turned up umpteen results and all of them were from vested interests, plantation histories and reports which reeled out the same information. They stated authoritatively that the tea at Thiashola was cultivated by Chinese prisoners of war, captured by the British during the Opium Wars. Well, was that right? What were the Chinese doing in faraway Nilgiris?

Let’s get to the opium wars, starting with the first, though I will not dwell too much on it. There were two of them, the first 1839-1842 and the second 1856-1860, all a result of the trade disputes and quarrels between the Chinese Qing dynasty and the British. Around 1729 or so, large scale opium consumption started when the British started selling Indian cultivated opium in large quantities in Canton. As you can imagine, it was a massively lucrative trade for the English and when the Qing banned it in 1729, later in 1796 and 1800, the traders got upset, though consumption ended up increasing. In 1838, Lin Zexu decided to act and took authoritative action by destroying the opium hoards and confining the foreign traders to their homes. The stronger British retaliated heavily with their armed forces, imposed the treaty of Nanking and got Hong Kong in return. Still the situation did not turn out favorable to the British and this resulted in the second Opium war. China called it their ‘century of humiliation’. Peter Perdue in his essay explains that during the wars, a large percentage of the forces the British relied on to impose themselves in China were Indian sepoys identified in reports of the time by such phrases as “Bengal volunteers” and “Madras native infantry,” in addition to substantial contingents of Irish and Scottish troops. Both sides took captives and the impression held at the time was that Chinese often treated Indian prisoners more harshly than their white captives, but there is no proof about that. In any case, both sides engaged in abuse of prisoners, wanton plunder, and other barbarous behavior.

So many prisoners were taken by the British and well had to be incarcerated. Transportation, which we talked about earlier in connection with the Andamans, was a profitable solution for the British. In China for example, it cost them about $36 to maintain a prisoner inland, for a year, and if they were transported to another colony, which took over their care, a one-time payment of $30-$60 was all that needed to be paid. So, many of these poor souls were thus transported to Sind, and to other British colonies and India. The Chinese hated it and equated it to death fearing that they will never again return to their land, and the other punishments were considered in comparison, trivial and bearable. Many committed suicide to avoid transportation. This went on for some time, till shipping costs increased. The government covered the increase with a grant, and so a trickle of various kinds of Chinese and other prisoners from Singapore, Canton and Malaysia hit Indian shores. We see mentions of them housed in Coimbatore & Madras jails and if you choose to look deeper, you will see them mentioned here and there. What their crimes were is not known, but they landed up in environs they were not used to, against their will. With a despondent life ahead of them, what could they do? The Chinese of that time either gave in, or were lost in solitude, thinking about their bad joss. Usually they would have sat like a stone and stared at the distance and infinity, with a cup of green tea in their hand, but what if they had no tea and were in Coimbatore?

One of the things you notice while traveling in China is their absolute dependence on green tea. Wherever they are, they are sipping little amounts of green tea from their thermos flasks. They have their favorite tea pouches or leaves in their handbags for any eventuality. Even in airports, where liquids are not permitted through security, they carry the flasks without tea, but with the leaves. Just after the security and before boarding, there is a counter where they handover their empty flasks, which are then topped up by a lady behind the counter, with boiling water so that they can sip their tea while boarding or on the flight. You see them sipping the liquid in the metro, in taxis and in buses. One thing they would thus have lacked in the 1850’s when they landed up in India was the tea they were used to. Coffee was perhaps available, though not for prisoners. Tea was of course being planted in the Assam regions since the 1820’s and was a popular plantation crop already, but had not found its way south.

As the hoary legend puts it, some of these prisoners were sent for hard labor to the Nilgiris where the British were trying various forms of cultivation, primarily Coffee, Tea and Cinchona. They had some seeds with them and they planted it to provide the Nilgiris tea we know of. Well, it is an interesting story really, but I did not quite believe it. The introduction of tea was of course based on seeds from China, but was first done even before the Opium wars, in the North East. How about in the Nilgiris?

Well, Let us start at the very beginning – it’s a a very good place to start – as the song went from the Sound of Music.. How did tea drinking start? Did it start with the Bodhidharma’s eyelids dropping off to the ground as a Chinese legend goes? As you can see from my earlier article, he lived in the 6th century. But then tea drinking in China may dates even further back, to the Tsin dynasty of 3AD or can more authoritatively be traced to the 4th century. The Chinese were very specific, every tea had to be matched with the water of a particular locality so as to taste correct (not like ours where kannan devan tea is perhaps mixed with the most effluent tainted water from the local river, at the roadside tea shop). By the 7th century it was very popular in China.

The English were involved in the transfer of tea growing to India after problems with Chinese sourcing, though tea could be found in the courts of Mughal kings even before that. Serious efforts started around 1793. It is explained that in 1780, Robert Kyd experimented with tea cultivation in India with seeds, the consignment of which was stated to have arrived from China. A few decades later Robert Bruce discovered tea plants growing wild in Upper Brahmaputra valley around 1823. In 1833 the East India Company's monopoly of the Chinese trade came to an end. Around this time, it also appears that a number of Chinese labor was introduced in Assam to do planting and making tea the right way. Many came on their own to these areas, due to abject poverty in China. In May 1838 the first Indian tea from Assam was sent to England for public sale. It was received with much pleasure even though it was somewhat damaged during transit. But steady supply was not easy, due to the problems in Assam with the opium smoking local labor. Their descendants were to pay a price (1962 war) though, after a century, which can be termed the most unfortunate. When I read about it, I was astounded, and so I will perhaps get to it another day and for sure invoke the ire of many a reader, for my opinion on the matter may be scathing to say the least. Anyway between this time and 1870, it became a cash crop and a tea mania of sorts happened in Assam, kind of like the Teak mania and Manjium mania in Kerala, some years ago. Speculation ran high and many lost their fortunes. But then we will leave Assam and the Chinese of Assam for now. Now let us venture south, and go higher, up the hills, unlike the plains of the Brahmaputra.

We have to go back to 1833 when Asst Surgeon Christie noticed that tea is similar to its cousin the Camelia that grew abundantly in the Nilgiris. So he ordered some tea plants from China, but as luck would have it, he died before they reached him. The plants were promptly distributed and planted. But nobody cared too much and it was later in 1838 that Pondicherry governor Perrotett rediscovered them and brought them to life. The hand cured tea leaves were considered excellent by enthusiasts. Next was Mr Mann who brought a large crop of seedlings from China to the Conoor tea estate. This tea was also considered excellent in London, but Mr Mann had by now got fed up trying to acquire land and so on. Efforts continued until 1869 and the arrival of Commissioner Breeks before it gained popularity. Now I guess all this must have been boring for the lay reader. What has it to do with Chinese? Were there any of them in the plantations?

Now is when the story takes its hoary turn. As the legend goes, around this time, presumably 1839 or so, there was a batch of Chinese prisoners in Nilgiris. As Sir Griffths puts it, it is an improbable legend which stated that these Chinese prisoners were responsible for instructing these planters in the manufacture of tea. Anyway from 1867, there was a steady growth in the manufacture of tea and around a few hundred thousand pounds of tea left these estates regularly. Later on, there were many issues related to workers unrest, bonus issues and so on. However South Indian tea could not quite rate up to Western and Arabian tastes, then. Later the industry was hit by the world wars, communist unrest and so on. But let us leave such discussions to those interested in the tea business and the planters themselves; let us find out what the Chinese were doing in Nilgiris.

For that we have to get to know yet another plant, the Chinchona plant. This came to India from Peru, and involved transplantation by a British subject, like the tea. It was used to produce Quinine important in the treatment of Malaria and was thus a cash plant. Again, it was well known to the Chinese. One Mr Money introduced it in the Nilgiris, around 1860.

From now on, I will thank Nina Verghese and quote from her resourceful blog. I was surprised to see the mention of Vanya Orr, whom I had come across and communicated with during my study of Collector Connolly. For now, let’s go to a place called Naduvattam, in the Nilgiris.

The cinchona bark was the source for quinine and was required in large quantities to deal with the malaria fever which was rampant all over India and many other parts of the world. The cinchona bark was brought to Europe by the Jesuits and was called the Jesuit bark. The demand for the bark soon outgrew the supply. European powers vied with each other to get hold of the seedlings so that it could be planted in their colonies in Africa and Asia. But it was only by the middle of the 19th century that the cinchona seedlings were successfully smuggled out of South America. By 1867, the commercial cultivation of cinchona in the Nilgiris gained popularity. Cinchona was planted in a woody ravine on the slopes of the Doddabetta. Labor was scarce and many of the government and private plantations used convict labor to clear the jungle and to plant cinchona. The convicts were mainly Chinese from the Straits Settlements and some from mainland China. After they served their time, these Chinese men married Tamil women and settled down to live in Naduvattam; making a living out growing vegetables and from dairy farming.

Specifically these Chinese prisoners were originally brought to Madras and were used in the construction and in laying the railway lines. The need for labor both on the plantations and in building construction was great. Chinese prisoners were brought from Madras for this purpose. Some of the prisoners were assigned to the building of Lawrence School, in Lovedale, where they were lodged in temporary sheds.

There are stories of them trying to escape and as the record goes, some of them escaped after killing a police posse that was in hot pursuit. These men lived in the bushed, made a living herding cows, cultivating coffee and vegetables. Ajayan in his article in the Asian age however puts it this way -

History has it that after the Opium War between China and Britain, the Chinese prisoners brought to Kozhikode were forced to trek to Nilgiris with sacks full of tea seeds. They were jailed in the Thiashola forest reserve and made to plant tea. The oldest bush is still preserved in the estate that formally began operations in 1858.

The British House of Commons papers Vol#43 provides the copy of a letter from the Supdt Dehradun Botanical gardens to the Madras conservator of forests where he states that he has no Chinese tea makers to send to Nilgiris, but that he can send native trained people instead, on a 3 year contract. So it must have been common to move these Chinese supervisors who were in great demand. Manual labor was done by small batches of Chinese and Chinese-Malay convicts as we saw earlier to plant tea and Cinchoma.

Were these Chinese convicts used elsewhere in the tea estates? Perhaps they were used in the cultivation efforts in Nilgiris if one were to go by what happened in Maharashtra. We hear of another mention from the hill station of Mahabaleshwar. Mahabaleshwar was a jail with 120 prisoners for Chinese & Malay convicts from 1834 to 1864, and they were sent there due to health issues they had with the heat in the plains. The principal labor in which the prisoners were employed was the construction of station roads. They were also frequently employed in preparing arrow-root for the Commissariat Department. The Chinese greatly improved the station gardens; and it is owing, in great measure, to their industry, that potatoes and English vegetables have been so great a success. They also taught the inhabitants to make cane baskets and chairs. When the Jail was abolished in 1864, the majority of prisoners obtained tickets of leave, and some of these were permitted to remain on the hill, on condition of presenting themselves on the 1st of every month at the Superintendent's office.

According to planter KJ Tanna, who again restates a legend, Thiashola Estate in Nilgiris was opened out in 1859. Chinese prisoners were brought to India from China in 1859, and jailed in the Nilgiris in two camps, one at Naduvattam and one in the Thiashola Reserve Forest. A plaque still commemorates the "Jail Thottam" (prison garden) where the prisoners were housed. The Thiashola Tea Estate, where the Chinese prisoners planted tea is now mistakenly called Thaishola tea estate.

Now let us see what Thurston had to say when he encountered this peculiar Chinese Tamil descendants of the Nilgiris convicts near Naduvattam. Thurston says that while Hindu tribals asked money before they were measured or photographed, the Chinese in Nilgiris subjected themselves to his research willingly, and only wanted a copy of his photographs of them. The Chinese father was unhappy that during his conversion, he had to cut away his tail. The children were distinctly oriental in looks. According to him, the naduvattom Hoooker estate factory was built where they once had a jail which housed Chinese convicts from the Straits settlement. After the expiration of their sentence, they settled in Naduvattam and Gudalaur. According to another writer Mr Rust, they were quite muscular and energetic and were happy with the rice diet in South India and Ceylon plantations. Some were even willing emigrants from mainland China with the English.

Nina’s blog provides pictures of the remnants of these people, the locations where they lived, a temple with distinct Chinese lines of architecture and so on. Interesting isn’t it?

And I remembered my distant country cousin Appan, the tea taster and his stories, but well, I guess you have had too much of tea for today, so lest I drift away, let me make use of the sparingly used punctuation tool of rambling writers, the full-stop or as they call it in the USA, the period.


Nina’s article
Anglo-China: Chinese People and British Rule in Hong Kong, 1841-1880 - Christopher Munn
Nilgiris – W Francis
“The history of the indian tea industry” by Sir Percival Griffiths
Madras presidency - Thurston
Mahabaleshwar – DB Parasnis
Madras district gazetteers, Volume 1
Coffe, Anybody?

Note: I study all these estate stories with a lot of fondness, for that is where my parents lived when I was a child. I have been in all these places during my younger days – Talapoya, Mango range, Murugali, Valparai, Conoor, Ooty, Mango Range, Valparai....and many more. That was a different world, believe me. Sometimes I envy people who live there, like Vanya, Kalyani and Nina...


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.


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