Chavers of Kerala: An Untold Martial Tradition

Kerala is the home of Kalaripayattu, a divine martial arts system which is the precursor of most of the martial traditions that spread across south-east Asia. The history of Kerala is often intertwined with the bravadoes of the trained warriors and the ritualistic traditions associated with them. In this article, we are trying to delve into the martial tradition of Chavers, who during the Mamankam festival at Thirunavaya sacrified themselves to glory.

The Chera dynasties united Kerala (then included the Kongu region of modern Tamil Nadu as well) for around 1500 years. After the fall of Cheras due to the invasion of Cholas, Kerala was divided into many small kingdoms. Out of these kingdoms, Kolathu Nadu (north Malabar), Calicut, Cochin and Venad (later Travancore) became the most prominent ones. These kingdoms were headed by local chieftains, who were under Chera power. But after 12th century CE, the central Chera power was gone, and these kingdoms became independent. Although the kings were rulers, there were powerful landlords and nobles under them. The king couldn’t act on his own because of these nobles under him. These nobles also provided the kings with military help.

Most of the chiefs of these small kingdoms had their own military under them. Most of these warriors who served the kings of these small kingdoms belonged to the Nair community, and they fought each other frequently There were a special class of fighters among Nairs named Chavers. These Chavers were suicide fighters and were bound to their masters. If their masters or close kins dies in a battle, these Chaver suicide fighters did everything to avenge their death. The European records of the era which mentions Nairs also mention the Chavers as ‘amoks’. Here are few accounts of Nairs and Chavers by European authors:

” …. he has a great number of gentlemen which he calls Amoks, and some are called Nairs, these two sorts of men esteem not their lives anything, so that it may be for the honour of their king, they will thrust themselves forward in every danger, although they know they shall die. ”

~ Caesar Frederick (16th century)

There are one kind of Nairs called Amoks which curse themselves, their kindred and posterity with most bitter execrations if they leave injuries done to their society unrevenged. If their King happens to be slain, so much the more furious run, they through fire, water, and assured destruction to revenge his death. “

~ Giovanni Botero (17th century)

” Among the Nairs those who call themselves Amoks are the worst, being a company of desperadoes, who engage themselves and their families by oaths to revenge such injuries as are done them. ”

~ Philippus Baldaeus (17th century)

”Though the Nairs, in general, are very good soldiers, yet is there a certain kind among them called Amoks, who are esteemed above all the rest, being a company of stout, bold and desperate bravadoes. They oblige themselves by most direful imprecations against themselves and their families,
calling heaven to witness, that they will revenge certain injuries done to their friends or patrons, which they certainly pursue with so much intrepidity , that they stop neither at fire nor sword, to take vengeance of the death of their master, but like madmen run upon the point of their enemies swords, which makes them be generally dreaded by all, and makes there to be in great esteem with their kings, who are accounted the more potent, the greater number they entertain of those Amoks…. ”

~ Johan Nieuhof (17th century)

The term amok has its origins in Southeast Asia, although it was used by Europeans used to describe the Chaver suicide fighters of Kerala. The English term ‘running amok’ originates from this word. These Chavers did their best to kill the killers of their master or kin and were feared fighters who were well trained in martial arts like Kalaripayattu.

Chavers was deployed in the great festival named Mamankam. This festival was a grand festival during the time of Cheras, but after the Cheras, it became an event which showed the valour and Kalari skills of Nairs. The right to conduct Mamankam was given to the Cochin kings after the fall of Cheras, later this right transferred to the rulers of Valluvanadu named Valluvakonathiris. But after Zamorins forcefully annexed parts of Valluvanadu, they became the custodians of Mamankam. While all other kingdoms of Kerala sent flags every 12 years as a token of submission to Zamorins during Mamankam, the Valluvakonathiri sent Chavers to assassinate Zamorin and get back their lands. These Chavers were selected from 4 Nair families of Valluvanadu. The Chavers were associated with Thirumandhamkunnu Bhagavati temple which was the family temple of Valluvakonathiris. The Chavers, before the battle, sought blessings of Bhagavati and ate their last meal before going to Mamankam. From childhood itself these Chavers were trained to fight at Mamankam, they attended Mamankam even though they knew it was impossible to assassinate Zamorin who was well guarded by his soldiers. The Chavers fought and died for the honour of their master Valluvakonathiri.

There also exists a folk song about a Chaver named Kandar Menon and his son who fought and died at Mamankam. Another song about a Chaver named Chengazhi Nambiar also hints that the Cochin rulers also originally sent Chavers during Mamankam.

Several years after the Mamankam festival saw an end with the invasion of Malabar by Hyder Ali and his son Tipu, modern Kerala is trying to reinvigorate the ritualistic aspect of the Magha maka festival on the banks of river Nila at Thirunavaya as it is gearing up to witness a Mamankam after 243 years from 21st – 23rd January 2019.

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About the Author

Dauhshanti & Paanchajanyaa
@Dauhshanti - A proud Polytheist & Idolater, blessed to be born into the civilization of Bharata. @paanchajanyaa - Soldier of dharma... Yato dharmas tato jayah...