The Christian Panikkars of Mavelikkara

The Catholic harquebousiers of Travancore

It was while studying the character of De Lannoy that I came across the mention of the Mavelikkara Malittas, a group of well-trained Christian mercenaries, serving the local kings. At that time, I read that the Malittas who trained at their Kalari’s like the Nairs of Malabar, was later instructed by the Flemish Captain Eustace Benedict De Lannoy on the arts of steel forging, swordsmanship, and gunnery until his death in 1777. After their transformation to European style mercenaries, departing from the age-old hand to hand combat practices, these Malittas were known as the Catholic harquebousiers of Travancore. The harquebusier was the most common form of cavalry in the Europe during the mid-17th century. In those days, harquebusiers carried a form of carbine, termed the "harquebus". Let’s now see how all this originated and what that was all about, actually they date all the way back to the Portuguese times.

Drawing from Susan Bayly’s outstanding work - Saints, Goddesses and Kings and Maritime studies by Pius M, as well as remarks from Mark Lannoy in his brilliant work on Travancore, we can reconstruct the history of Christian Militia in Travancore, in some fashion. In general, looking back to those centuries, we can see that those were periods when Swaroopams were being strengthened and were vying with each other over regional power, fighting numerous wars and battles. Down in Travancore and Cochin, powerful kings were redrawing borders.  Military might was therefore quite important and naturally, all communities contributed to the field with fighting men, be it Hindu, Christian or Muslim. Of course, we can see Jewish interlocutors flitting about in their midst, working as negotiators and traders, too.

In the past, we spoke about the Nair and Moplah militia during the medieval times, serving various chieftains and trading communities in Malabar, individually as guards or armed escorts during travel (Nairs) and as part of the infantry as foot soldiers, armed with lances, swords etc during the times of war, reporting to, with allegiance to, and associated with their local suzerain. So much so, they were known as the thousands – be it one, two, or tens of thousand’s of Nairs. Moplahs likewise joined the Zamorin’s army during times of war, but that was in Malabar.

It was a little different in Travancore. The militia there were not just Nairs, but the king also collected mercenaries as and when required such as the Tamil Marvarars from around Tirunelveli, Christians from the North of Venad as well as Muslims from the local coastal and inland Muslim communities. For now, we will focus on the Syrian and St Thomas Christians, but not get into the details of their past, such as tales related to their past. Suffice to say that they had been around for a long time, perhaps the first foreign arrivals, converts, and settlers in the early history of Malayala, as the region was generally known. Over time, warriors from among them were indeed mentioned, employed, honored, and rewarded by Hindu rulers.

In fact, one of the first mentions goes way back to the Tarisapalli plates of 825, were among the 72 privileges, the Marwan Saphir Isho was granted permission to raise an army of 600.  As the Christian community grew, two main factions developed, the Southists originating from Knayil Thomma the immigrant and the Northists from St Thomas’s exertions. The Southists lifestyle closely followed the Nair traditions and culture. The Northists connected primarily to the ancient St Thomas tradition and originally comprised converts from the Namboothiri community. Both partook in the growing and trade of spices around Quilon, Cranganore, and created a wealthy substructure, with an ability to influence trade and foreign relations of local Hindu kingdoms, serving as powerful trade brokers and spice suppliers.

What is not so very well known or understood is the fact that St Thomas and Syrian Christians were also in the thick of things, as far as a martial culture is concerned. While the Jews were not allowed to form a militia, the Christians were and were granted ‘the right of the curved sword’. Sometimes it is difficult to identify exactly or separate the two factions in historic records, for certain writers term them Syrians, while others group them as St Thomas Christians.

It was further recorded by a Portuguese scribe Gouvea (Gouvea, Histoire) as follows - They [the Syrians] are very robust, stout, and the best fighters in all Malabar, also skilled with weaponry; whence it comes that if the Kings go to war with these Christians [in their service], in them resides the strength of the army.’ In fact, just like the Nair suicide squads who fight until death, we even come across a similar instance in 1551 when a body of St Thomas Christian caver fighters bound by an oath of suicide to the raja of Vadakkumkur defeated the army of the raja of Cochin and killed the Cochin ruler himself (Kunjan Pillai).

Bayly explains - Syrians also shared in the other main institutions of this warrior culture. Hindu Panikkars took Christian youths as their pupils, and there were also many Syrian Panikkar lineages. Among the best-known warrior preceptors in the pre-colonial period were the Malittas of Mavelikkara, a family of Christian Panikkars who created their own networks of both Hindu and Christian trainee disciples. Every youth presented ceremonial tokens of fealty to his ruling lord when he completed his kalari training; he in turn was presented with a sword. Such exchanges resembled the presentations of cloth and ceremonial khelat at a Muslim darbar. They secured the bonds of blood and affiliation which linked the warrior to his chief or raja, and this too was a rite which Syrians performed alongside Nairs and other Hindu warriors

A little background on the Panikkars, the Kalari masters of Malabar – Barbosa says. "And there are very skillful men who teach this art (fencing), and they are called Panicars." — Barros adds "And when the Naire comes to the age of 7 years, he is obliged to go to the fencing-school, the master of which (whom they call Panical) they regard as a father, on account of the instruction he gives them." Castenheda explains "The maisters which teach them be graduates in the weapons which they teach, and they be called in their language Panycaes." Thurston states, noting some differences in Travancore - The two well-known titles of the caste (Marans of Travancore) are Kuruppu and Panikkar, both conveying the idea of a person who has some allotted work to perform. He adds - When a Maharaja of Travancore enters into a matrimonial alliance, it is a Kuruppu who has to call out the full title of the royal consort, Panappillai Amma, after the presentation of silk and cloth has been performed. The title Panikkar is derived from pani, work. It was the Panikkars who kept kalaris, or gymnastic and military schools, but in modern times many Panikkars have taken to the teaching of letters.

The warriors trained by the Panikkars, seem to have performed well and were rewarded for their exertions. The Purakat Church building for example was sponsored by the local Raja after his victory was secured by his Christian warriors. The Kanjirapalli church timber and funds were apparently provided by the Tekkumkur Raja, in 1449.  In a way, one could thus emphasize the integrated culture and society, even following similar rituals and traditions. We come across oddities, such as the tale where Coconut oil sold by a Christian producer was considered an antidote for (caste) pollution and so they were requested to settle in certain villages (Slow flows the Pampa- KE Vargheese)!

And thus, we get to the Travancore of Marthanada Varma. As I wrote earlier, the middle years of the 18th century were testing times for Marthanda Varma. Various intrigues and skirmishes involving the Quilon, Kottarakkara, Kayamkulam, and the Karunagapally chieftains kept him busy, but there was only so much he could do. With the treasury nearly empty, Marthanda Varma’s desire of increasing the size and power of his kingdom was in relative check. In addition to all that, the annual forays of the Madura kings had to be contended with and his defenses were well stretched even after the employment of many a Maravar mercenary in his ranks. The Dutch VOC on the other hand was not able to get enough pepper to export at a time when the prices were at an all-time high, with MV insisting on better prices. The English were snooping around, offering sweeter deals to MV, trying to lure him away from the Dutch who were the regular clients. MV was a clever negotiator and Governor Van Imhoff would record the following in his diary ‘when threatened, his highness uses every trick, every pretension to avoid making concessions. He bestows on us a rain of politeness and compliments which are all but a disguise of his own plans’.

The battles with the VOC took the main stage and the beleaguered VOC was on the retreat. Some of those European soldiers deserted and joined up with the Travancore forces led by Ramayyan Dalawa. They managed to blow up the gunpowder storage at Colachel which resulted in a huge explosion and killed many of the remaining Dutchmen in the fort. Shortly thereafter, on Aug 12th the Dutch fort was surrendered.

Days later, we find Lannoy serving in the Travancore brigade. His rise up the ranks was quick, and he became a trusted lieutenant of the Raja, with a responsibility to restructure and train the army. He had also been entrusted with making a cannon foundry and a gunpowder-making factory. By 1744, Lannoy had trained and created an able army for the raja and had built many forts for its defense and his trained army enabled Marthanda Varma to dismiss expensive Madura mercenaries and save a lot of money. By 1747 Travancore had wrested control over large areas until the Cochin borders. The expanding army was looking for new recruits.

But naturally, in the martial environment of Travancore and Cochin in those times, the Christian soldiers found employment in both the Travancore and Cochin Raja’s military. Unlike Europe where militaries were constituted among Christians for religious purposes, Kerala had the Christian militia fighting traditional wars between kings and chiefs. Many Catholic families were as we saw earlier, prominent in Marthanda Varma’s armies, fighting together with Tamil Marawas, Pathans etc. He recruited several thousand of these men for and during his conquests in north Travancore. By the latter part of the 18th century his massive European style and trained army was said to contain at least one corps consisting mostly or wholly of Christians trained by the Mavelikkara Malitta Panikkar. It is understood that for many generations, the Malittas of Mavelikkara treasured an elaborate gold circlet which Marthanda Varma is said to have bestowed on their famous ancestor the Mathai Malitta Panikkar, as a token of honor and affiliation.

Bayly explains that the reason for the successes of the Travancore and Cochin regimes were their ability to link the ancient tradition of the Panikkars (warrior preceptor lineages) and the kalari martial training foundations to the new military system with its European mercenary officers and its use of modern weaponry. As she explains, Many of the old kalari gymnasia became centers of training in European-style drill and artillery techniques, thus allowing the rulers to merge the prestige of the old martial cult tradition with the institutions of their new dynastic war-state.

Major Christian kalari centers played a key role in this process. Bayly reconfirms that the most important of the European military men who were recruited to train the Travancore armies was Eustace de Lannoy. Lannoy, the mercenary officer taught steel forging, swordsmanship and gunnery at the kalari of the Mavelikkara Malittas; a collection of weapons that were constructed under his supervision was handed down within the family for many generations after the death of Marthanda Varma’s protege Mathai Malitta.

The Malittas however state a connection even earlier, they mention that they received this royal token in the 1740s as a reward for having sheltered the raja, after a military defeat. Bayly adds - Other Syrian families also claim to have acted as protectors of Keralan Hindu kings. The Malittas are supposed to have gained their title of Panikkar when one of their ancestors saved a medieval ‘Perumal’ ruler from an attacking wild buffalo; this is comparable to the heroic claims made by the Pudukkottai Tondaimans. Interestingly some rumored ancient links to Tulu and Tamil regions can also be seen, when perusing their histories.

An account dating to the Haider Ali period, penned by a French commander, MMLDT states - The deputies [of the Syrian Christians] who came to Coilmatour (Coimbatore) were stout men, with a ferocious air and manner. They had the figure of a small cross above their nose punctured in the skin, and a large scar on the right cheek caused by the recoil of their musquets. The archbishop, in his letter, offered to the commandant two young slaves, who, he said, he had himself educated, and were qualified to render services both of utility and pleasure, being instructed in writing and music.

But there is another purported origin of the Malitta, as stated in SN Sadasivan’s Administration and social development in Kerala – He says - It was due to the safeguards extended by Macaulay that foremost Ezhava martial families like the Mallitti Panikkars of Mavelikara embraced Christianity and assumed the leadership of the Christian community. I am not too sure of this, though.

Pius Malekandathil (p.p 46) explains the important role they played in the pepper sourcing, supply, and even the pepper wars. According to him, the Portuguese account – the Jornada of Gouvea mentions Christian Panikkars commanding kalaris with 8,000-9,000 disciples and he explains that a famous Christian Panikkar of this period was Vallikkada Panikkar who had his kalari at Peringuzha on the banks of river Muvattupuzha, one of whose descendants was Mar Ivanios, who later got reunited with the Catholic Church in 1930, laying the foundation for the Syro-Malankara Church in India.

Moving away from Travancore, we see that the rulers of Vadakkenkur and Cochin also banked upon Christian fighting forces for their wars of defense and expansion. In 1546 the king of Vadakkenkur offered the Portuguese about 2,000 soldiers for the purpose of helping them to lift the Ottoman siege on Diu." These were the so-called 2,000 Malabar auxiliaries.

Pius adds - Later in 1600 the king of Cochin also offered St. Thomas Christian soldiers to the Portuguese for the project of conquering Ceylon, though the project did not materialize for other reasons. The military tradition of the St. Thomas Christians was preserved by this community as something integral to it, and they even resorted to the usual practice of the fighting force to form chaver pada (suicidal squad) to protect their bishop Mar Joseph from being arrested by the Portuguese by the end of 1550s (About 2,000 Christian soldiers organized themselves into an amoucos or suicidal squad to prevent the Portuguese arresting their bishop).

Pius also adds that St. Thomas Christians used to attend church services those days, carrying their swords, shields and lances, as Antonio de Gouvea mentions in Jornada. Eventually weapon houses (Ayudha pura) were constructed in front of the churches for the purpose of storing these swords, guns and lances during church services, and the remnants of these weapon stores are still seen in front of the churches at Ramapuram, Chala and Cherupunkal.

Another mention we can see is of what is known as the Nazrane (Nasrani) army. Jacob Canter Visscher (Letters from Malabar, 1862) states protection offered to their head priest - Mar Thomas, the other Bishop, is a native of Malabar. He is a black man, dull, and slow of understanding. He lives in great state; and when he came into the city to visit the Commandant, he was attended by a number of soldiers bearing swords and shields, in imitation of the princes of Malabar. He wears on his head a silken cowl, embroidered with crosses, in form much resembling that of the Carmelites.

To sum up, one can see that there were many Christians employed in the armies of Southern Rajas and Suzerains, and during a time, they were trained the formal Kalari way by Panikkars. Eventually, they adopted modern European military practices. But once all the smaller principalities were integrated into Venad or Travancore by Marthanada Varma, the importance of these militias declined, and the region witnessed a period of relative peace. The Malittas (was it just a corruption of the term Militia – perhaps mentioned by De Lannoy?) vanished and were since then, hardly talked about or mentioned.

This short article only serves to provide some background and detail of the martial past and Kalari background of some of the Catholic Panikkar families. But those were all in the past, at a time when society was organized and reorganized, periodically vacillating between peace as well as frequent and wasteful wars, all of which was of course many centuries into the past.

The days of the Malayali martial past are long gone. In jest, we can still watch many of our Malayali brethren, in superb action, especially those warring vocally in the field of politics or other local matters, for the visual media. All you need to do is turn on the TV and watch and listen to their marvelous bouts and jousts, replete with verbal calisthenics, resoundingly performed in the vernacular.


Saints, Goddesses and Kings - Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900 – Susan Bayly
Maritime India: Trade, Religion and Polity in the Indian Ocean - Pius Malekandathil
Kulashekara Perumals of Travancore – Mark De Lannoy
Christianity in India – Robert Eric Frykenberg
Anthropology of the Syrian Christians – LK Anantakrishna Ayyar
Administration and Social Development in Kerala (A Study in Administrative Sociology) - S.N. Sadasivan

 Maddys Ramblings - Eustace Benedict De Lannoy