The Kongan Pada at Chittur – A study
You may not realize it today, but in the times of yore, the land on the west of the Sahyadri mountain range was a mysterious place for the people on the other side. The only way to get a view of the other side was if you carted or trudged through the Palghat gap and peered. For the Kongu people just on the eastern edge of the gap, it was the land of the Cheras or Cheranad (It is also an interesting aspect that while most Malayalis refer to Tamilians as Pandi’s, the Palghat usage is Kongan).The mountains were a good barrier and insulated the minor states on the west for a long time, allowing a different culture to evolve. As could be expected a few kings of Tamilakam ventured through the gap to attack and lay siege on border towns. But until Hyder Ali and his marauding army came during the 18th century, the area remained relatively calm, though rearranged now and then through occasional fights and squabbles engineered by local chieftains.
One can therefore easily understand the exclamation of the author of the 11th century Thiruvalangad plates viewing all of this from the other side - Who else but the supreme Siva would even think of subduing that (Chera) country!
Just on the other side of the gap is Palakkada as termed by the ancient Pallavas or today's Palakkad, an important trading outpost. Many a tussle has been recorded for supremacy or suzerainty over this important location and we have talked about them off and on. But there is one story which deserved special mention, that relating to the advent of a Kongan pada into the plains near Chittur. The word Kongan is the first aspect to be checked. Was it Kongu or was it Gangan? One could clarify that Kongu comprised todays Coimbatore and the southern portion of Salem while Chera (or Cheralam) denoted the Malabar Coast from Calicut southwards. The northern portion of the Salem district formed part of the Ganga country. Most historians believe that the force which crossed over into the area to wage a historical attack was Kongu, while some continue to stress it was Gangan.
Many would wonder when this happened. This is a hotly debated topic with most historians opining that it occurred sometime in the 9th Century while there are a few others who base their argument that it was more recent, perhaps towards the second half of the 17th Century. As usual the paucity of records make a determination very difficult, and the pointers we do have conflict each other, nevertheless we will spend some time on this subject later on in this discussion. The best description of the event itself is provided by the anthropologist LK Anantakrishna Iyer in his seminal work ‘Cochin castes and tribes’ circa 1912 and I will therefore borrow a bit now and then from his text.
The events which led to this attack by the chieftain on the plains is quite interesting. On the edge of the border, is the town of Chittur where the produce of the Kongu desam was sold. Chittur belonged to the nalu desams comprising Chittur, Nallepilli, Tattamangalam, and Pattancheri.
The wealth of the -Kongu Desom chiefly consisted of red chillies, turmeric, coriander, cumin seed, mustard, areca nut, etc. These commodities used to be brought for sale from Kongu Desom to Chittur, and other places in large quantities, laden on the backs of males, asses, bullocks and buffaloes. They took back paddy in return.
Some centuries ago, as it seems, a large caravan of Kongu laden with such commodities was passing through Chittur (headed to the Peruvambu market or thereabouts), the people of the 'four desams’ robbed the Kongans of all their animals and goods, or so said the Kongans. The people of these desams however disagreed with the explanation because what occurred in their version of events, was that a flash flood at the Sokanasini (Bharatapuzha) River had washed away this caravan while crossing a river. The Tamilians leading the caravan instead of stating the facts and blaming nature, chose to lay the blame on the poor villagers of Chittur.
Now there are some other sources mentioning that the Kongu king was actually waiting for such an opportunity to present itself (and so he twisted the story to suit his plans) so that he could attack and conquer these placid and fertile border areas.
The chief of Kongu, on receiving the information felt indignant, and despatched an ultimatum to the Pramanakkars of Chittur, demanding the surrender of the animals and the articles, failing which, it was said, he would overrun the four desams, destroy the houses, and kill all people including women and children. On receiving the ultimatum, the people went to the temple of the Goddess, and there read the ultimatum before the image of the Goddess. It was read by a member of the Chittedath house, in whose custody, it is said, the original document, written in a copper plate, is still preserved. When the document was read and the people prayed to their Goddess in one voice for protection, the Goddess commanded from within the temple that her ‘children’ need not fear and that when the Kongan took steps to enforce his ultimatum, she would protect them.
On receiving no reply to the ultimatum, the Kongan mobilized his men and crossed the Walayar River, the northern boundary of the Chittur Taluk. The information about the crossing of the boundary was first carried to the Chitturians by the Izhuvans of the vicinity, who were up the palmyra trees early in the morning for the purpose of tapping toddy, and they in a body climbed down the trees, and without removing their breast protecting leather straps, tapping knives, mallets and ladders, ran to the four desams all in excitement.
When the information of the crossing of the Walayar by the chief of Kongu was received by the people of the four desams, they repaired to the temple in excitement and consternation, when Lo! the temple gates opened themselves and a beautiful female form dressed in full battle armor, brandishing a shining sword and shedding a resplendent divine light, suddenly emerged out of the image within and marched off to meet the advancing army of the Kongan, followed by all the brave men among the people. In the battle which ensued the Kongu king was but naturally defeated and killed by the all-powerful Chittur Bhagavati or Bhadrakali.
The place of engagement was some decades ago, marked by a small extent of rocky surface, on which is cut the figure of the Bhagavati’s sword with which the Kongan’s head was cut off. The rock also shows two holes nearly a foot in depth, and six inches in diameter. These holes are pointed out by old people as having been made by the hoofs of the forelegs of the Kongan’s mount, which is described as a magnificent buff-bull, when the animal jumped on to the rock in the excitement caused by the fall of its master from its back slain by the Goddess. The buff-bull was also slain on the spot. The whole of the Kongu army was completely routed, and they stampeded back to their country in utter confusion.
In the course of the battle a few men on the side of the Bhagavati were also killed or wounded, among whom were four, belonging to four ancient families in Chittur, who appear to have been the leaders of the local militia. The dead bodies of these four and the wounded were taken from the field of battle and carried to the town and handed over to the respective families, the procession being led by the Goddess who afterwards commanded the people to celebrate the victory every year, and after entering the temple disappeared into her image within.
The reenactment of the attack and its aftermath, is held on the Monday succeeding the Wednesday which follows new moon in the month of Kumbham (February-March) every year, the Sivarathri night. Let us now take a broad look at some of these rituals (some changes have occurred over time)
Chilambu - The first ritual is the Chilambu where the Nair chieftains receive the letter; gather at the kalari. They then perform a dance and try to appease the goddess. A couple of days after that, a kaniyar or an astrologer is called in to predict the outcome of the war and the festival.
Kummatti - After that comes the kummatti when young men and girls from across the village arrive to take blessings from the goddess and take a pledge to fight for their land. These warriors gather to proceed to the Poovathum Kavu, which is the battleground. At midnight, they come back to the temple in a procession. The fight begins when 101 firecrackers (kathinavedi) are burst. A procession starts from the temple with various groups of people decked out in a war like outfit. On the second day a flag is hoisted to indicate their preparedness for war. In the evening, they set out for war. This is called 'Arippathattu".
All the people assemble at the temple. After three popgun shots, the procession starts. Clad in silk, wearing gold ornaments and trinkets and with a shining sword in hand, the Velichappadu (oracle) goes in front while the people, full of exultation follow him with torches held aloft. At midnight the procession returns to the temple with elephants and chariots.
Kuttikolam - Small girls are dressed up as boys and small boys are dressed up as girls and taken around on the shoulder of their fathers or uncles.
Olavayana - Reading of the Ola - The reading of the ultimatum, transcribed in a piece of cadjan, before the Bhagavati, is one of the essential functions performed on the night of the Kongapada festival every year, and it is always done by a member of the Chittedath family, who dresses himself up in the fashion of a Kongan and acts the part of the Kongu chief.
Advance warning enactment- The advance portion of the day procession of the Kongapada festival is even to this day made up of a number of persons, mostly of the Chetti caste, belonging to the four desams, dressed up in the full toddy-tapping kit of the Izhuvans.
Battle enactment - This battle is enacted on the night of the Kongapada festival as one of its essential functions, accompanied by the beating of numerous Pariah drums, blowing of horns, racing of horses, torch-light processions, besides, of course, the usual mischief-making among the youngsters, but the elders generally control them and stop excesses. In the course of the sham fight, some act as the wounded, some even as the dead and fall down on the field of action. These dead and wounded are immediately taken up and carried by the youngsters to their supposed respective houses in the town accompanied with torch-lights, beating of drums, beating of breasts, and crying and weeping.
No outsider used to be allowed to take part in this sacred function. If an outsider, being possessed with any sudden fit of enthusiasm, attempts to take part in this function, it is said, ‘woe be to him.’
This mock battle function takes place at about 10 o’clock in the night and lasts for two or three hours. At the end of it, the night procession of the festival begins from the battle-field and moves through the Nayar quarters to the temple, where it reaches just before day-break, when there is a display of fireworks. After day-break, the chief of the place or Naduvazhi represented by the Chambath house, accompanied by the people, go to the Goddess’ temple to offer prayers of love and gratitude to the Bhagavati.
Winding down - The festival is wound up by a performance on the following night called ‘ Devendra pallu' in which all the “one hundred Nayars ” of Chittur are supposed to take part under the of the Srikandath Panikkar, whose family were the military instructors and militia leaders of the people of Chittur. The Panikkar’s duty is to train the youths of the 100 houses in the military arts. The performance referred to is, more or less, an exhibition of the bodily prowess of the youths trained by the Panikkar, and at the end of it he receives presents from the Naduvdzhi and one hundred fanams -one fanom for each house- from his pupils. The amount of one hundred fanoms is still paid to him every year, and is defrayed out of the collection made for the Kongapada festival for which the Panikkar’s family is exempted from the payment of all subscriptions. The training of the youths of the place is begun a few weeks before the Kongapada festival in the Kalari (military gymnasium) of the Srikandath Panikkar, and the Panikkar takes a prominent part in all the functions connected with the festival from beginning to end.
The Chittur Nooru Nair appellation points to the existence of the 100 nair families in Chittur naludesam during the event. Chambath taravad as descendant of the utayvar or local ruler, Thachath, Ambath, Porayath and Yezhuvath taravad as four alliances of taravads addressed as Nalu Veetil Menon (or the four menon’s house) who act as managers. Achurath and Vaddachery taravad are believed to be ministers. Varavoor family who used to be the descendant of vellichapad or local Nayar priest.
And well, the story has an interesting end. The tired Bhagavathi finally settled down for some well-deserved rest on a rock. A few chalukiars lounging around, fortified her with some cooked meat and alcohol which she gladly imbibed, even though they were untouchables and low caste. This is called the Pallu enactment, reenacted by Nairs these days!
As one can imagine, there are a few other details, differences and versions if you go on to study other sources. They are quite relevant and so let us take a look. The name Chittur itself is somewhat recent. It was originally the Naludesam comprising Chittur, Nalleplli, Tattamangalam and Pattancheri. It is said that Tiruttil Achan, the ancestors of the Chandroth Mannadiar were the naduvazi of Naludesam. The western portion of naludesam was known in ancient days as Kodakaranad. The Kodakara Nair was ruling this nadu in those days. In addition, there are titular family names as Pattancheri Achen with pinpoints to the old desavazhis of Naludesam. The name Chittur might have been derived from the fact that the portion of the Anamalai River, which flows through this part, is known by the name Chittar.
A differing explanation is provided by some historians as follows - The Taluk once belonged to the territory of the Palghat Rajas. During this period or sometime in the past, the Kongu army (supported by the Mysore Wodeyars) entered Chittur through Velanthavalam. But the army was defeated by the Nedumperayur with the help of Eranad, Valluvanad and Perumpadappu armies. Chittur was later ceded to the Raja of Cochin for the assistance rendered by him. This supposition many not be quite true though.
A better analysis is provided by Valath. In his recounting of the story, during 71 ME, Rajadhiraja Cholan had sent out some of his surplus goods for sale across the gap. But the traders were unsuccessful since another gang had come just a little earlier and sold similar produce to the locals. After wandering around with no sales, they decided to move towards Pattancheri, crossing the Chittur river. A flash flood washed away a number of the bulls, their loads and people. The few who escaped hastened home and told their leader that they had been robbed by the Naludesam nairs. The Kongu chief came down with his army and camped at the Manali ground. A Paraya woman carried the message of ultimatum and laid it at the Bhagavati temple sanctum door. The priest informed the Chambath mannadiyar and everybody started to get ready for the battle. Many prayed to the goddess whose reply came as an ‘asariri’ confirming that she will take care of them. After the battle which ensued, the Devi washed her bloody sword or ‘val’ in the river (hence the name Walayar river) and relaxed at the ‘ootupara’ where she met the chalukiyars and imbibed their gift of meat and alcohol.
The present day celebration start with the Chilambu or proclamation act, followed by the oracle dance, variola reading, arangu prasnma, ammichari vedi, kummati, Nochi vadi, arippathattu, panan vela, namburi vela, asari vela, kolam,pada marichil, tozhi, etc. The Palghat raja does come to make a survey the day after and that is the shekhari vela. More events have been added over time such as the father son vela, Malayan kothan vela etc…
Many believe that the Chola kings Aditya Varman generally overran a large part of South India about A.D. 894. Both Pandyans and Cholas then struggled for the mastery, and the latter appear to have driven back the Kongus or Gangas and so freed Kerala, for a time at least, from attack via the Palghat gap, In the Kollam year 93 A.D. (917-918) an expedition (probably of Kongus or Gangas) from Mysore was driven back when attempting an invasion of Kerala via the Palghat gap. Another important input is the existence of the Rajakesari Peruvazhi through the Palghat pass, to Cheranaad. The inscription on the Thukkachi memorial stone, shows that a Tamil king Rajendra Chola I was involved in the upkeep and repairs of this highway leading to Chera Nadu.
Dating the event presents many a problem – Did it take place in 39ME or 864AD, 71 ME or 866 AD, or later as the Keralolpatti mentions, in the 93 ME or 917-918AD? Is it 896 AD as believed by NM Nampoothiri? Adding to the confusion is that there are so many more dates mentioned by various historians leading us to believe that many an incursion of skirmish took place and one of them was commemorated as the Kongan Pada event.
Strictly speaking the copper leaf ultimatum should have provided us details of the instigator and the time period. But the copper leaf is not available and instead two versions of the cadjun leaf – ola exist with differing dates. The dating is based on the kaliyuga and while one states a date of 1744795 roughly the equivalent of is the date between 1645 or 1648 A.D. equivalent Malayalam Era is Kollam 820 or 823 with the other 1459896 which is almost equivalent to 864 A.D. or ME 39. Interestingly both Olas mention Kochi. This is also quite different from the 71 ME mentioned in various sources.
There is a lot of argument about the usage of the term Kochi in the Ola held by the family, which signifies that Chittur was by then under the suzerainty of Kochi (not gifted after the kongan pada success). The Chittur kovilakom was apaprently the palace where the Amma thampurati of chitrakudam (Cochin Perumpadappu’s original seat was near Vanneri in ponnani) lived. This kovilakom land was later acquired by the Chambath Mannadiyar. Also to be noted that new seat of the Preumbadappu swaroopam at Kochi as such came into vogue in 15th century (the Cochin dynasty lived in Perumbadappu until 1405). The Goda Varma of the 16th century was perhaps the kota arachar mentioned in the ola and that brings up the fact that it was not so ancient. The aspect of gifting areas to Perumabadappu, valluva konathiri and the Zamorin due to the victories over the kongu or Chola rulers was perhaps never connected, and were victories over a declining Palghat dynasty, but that is a subject we will revisit another day.
In fact KVK Ayyar mentions in one of his later papers thus - Tradition ascribes an invasion to Krishna Deva Raya, but it was repulsed by the Zamorin, who had by that time established his authority as far as Kollengode and Kanam. The next invasion through the Gap way was by Hiranyamurthi Pillai in 1721. He advanced as far as Chittur (in the present U. T. C.): but he was induced to withdraw by a judicious mixture of dana and danda, gifts and blows. The coming and going of the Kongu host are still celebrated in the annual event called Konguppada.
I have my own doubts about this offhand mention by KVK. The only other document which mentions Hiranyamurthi Pillai is by the doyen of Kongu history who after explaining Chera conquests and influence on the Kongu country also provides a description of the Kongan Pada. He starts of explaining that cattle raids were usually a prelude to Tamil warfare tactics. As years went by, attacks on merchants and their goods became the preliminary step. After such an incident, the reigning Kongu king Rajadhiraja (Sundarar?) ordered his minister Hiranyamurthi Pillai who prepared and delivered the ultimatum, to Chittur thorugh a paraya woman Arathi on the 17th of Kumbham in 71 Kollam era (896AD). The story follows the previous course and the place where the buffalo’s head falls is called Pottuadi parai.
One thing is clear, that such an event occurred much later than the 9th century, perhaps closer to the 16th or 17th century (1695 AD is the conclusion of Dr Gopalan Kutty) or even the 18th.There is another question which remains – if the original event took place during the monsoons in July, why is it re-enacted in Feb-March??
To conclude, we can only assume that Kongan pada festival perhaps commemorates a more local and separate incident from the past, perhaps closer to the 17th or 18th century when it was under Cochin suzerainty. I will however continue my studies on this topic and provide updates on this page if any...
But well, it is a festive occasion when the men, women and children of all nearby villages congregate to make merry and celebrate. That is the important thing, I suppose.
The Cochin tribes and castes – LK Ananthakrishna Ayyar
Kerala Gazetteers Palghat - CK Kareem
Handbook of Kerala – T Madhava Menon
Cochin State manual – C Achyutha Menon
Malabar Manual – W Logan
Aithihyamala – K Sankunni
Malabar Padanangal – Samoothirinaad – NM Nampoothiri
Kongan Pada, Onam, Toppi – Dr K Gopalankutty
Keralathile Sthalacharitrangal – Palghat – VVK Valath
Oral discussions and clarifications – S Rajendu
Discussions – Arun Narayanan Intach Palakkad
Relations between Malabar and the Tamils – CM Ramachandra Chettiyar (JOMGA Vol 6, 1931-32)
Nature and man in Kerala – KV Krishna Iyer (KM Panikkar shashtyabdapoorthy souvenir)
Maps - courtesy Google maps
WISHING ALL READERS A HAPPY NEW YEAR