'Pathonpatham Noottandu': A walk back into history of Velayudha Panicker

Actor Siju Wilson (L) plays the role of Velayudha Panicker in Pathonpatham Noottandu. Velayudha Panicker (sketch by Vishnu Vijayan)

'Pathonpatham Noottandu' (The nineteenth-century) - when a film is made under that name, the protagonist is Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker, who has made history himself. Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker, who enshrined Ezhava Shiva two years before the birth of Sree Narayana Guru, lived in the Vaikom temple in the guise of a Brahmin and studied the rituals at a time when untouchability was rampant. He was also the undisputed hero of the untouchables who fought for their struggle by making the lower caste women wear nose rings. January 3 marks the 148th death anniversary of Panikkar who was killed through deception. January 7 is his 197th birthday. The life story of the Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker is so eventful and dramatic that it cannot be contained in a movie.

Who was Velayudha Panicker?

Velayudha Paniker was born on January 7, 1825, 31 years before the birth of Sree Narayana Guru. Born as a Sagittarian on the 27th day of the 1000th year. Valiya Kadavu was a family with a great heritage in Arattupuzha. Kadavil Perumalachan was one of the relatives of this family. He was rich and married from Kunnathu Naduvil's house and had three children. One boy and two girls. The eldest daughter was married to Kuttithara Govindapanicker in Eruvai near Kayamkulam. Velayudhapanikkar was the only son of the couple. Barely two weeks after the birth of Velayudhapanikkar, his mother died of post-delivery-related illness. Panicker later grew up under the care of his grandmother and grandfather. History books say that his grandfather was quite rich and used to use his own cargo ship for foreign trade. He owned 150 acres of coconut groves, 300 acres of farmland, and several buildings. Velayudhapanikkar was the sole owner of these properties.

He was home tutored. Teachers were appointed to teach him Sanskrit, Malayalam, and Tamil. Velayudhan's uncle died when he was 16 years old. After the death of his grandfather, Velayudhan took over the family rule. Velayudhan brought in experienced athletes from other lands to learn weapons, martial arts, and wrestling. He also trained in horse riding. Panikkar also owned a few horses, two elephants, a boat, a raft, and a cane.

Panikkar’s small family

At the age of 20, Panicker married from the famous Varanapally family in Puthuppally, Kayamkulam. The bride's name was Velumpi. It is said that Sree Narayana Guru came to this family to finish his higher studies. Seven children were born to Velayudhan and Velumbi. The upper castes at that time were called 'Kunju' by other communities. Panicker named his children Kunjayyan, Kunjupanikkar, Kunjan, Kunjupillai, Kunjukunju, Veluthakunju, and Kunjukrishnan to give their children this address which was inaccessible to lower castes.

Siju Wilson
Siju Wilson on the sets

Shiva temple for Ezhavas

At that time, the lower castes had no right to worship the gods venerated by the upper castes. As a solution to this, Panicker decided to build a Shiva temple for all to enter and worship. To put his plan into action, he visited important Shiva temples in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and learned about temple construction, rituals, and rituals. Panicker disguised himself as a Brahmin at the Vaikom Mahadeva Temple and studied the rituals there. Before returning home, Panicker asked the temple Thanthri - ‘What is the solution if the untouchable stays in the temple and learns the rituals?’ "Purification should be done," said Tantri. ‘What does it cost?’ asked Panicker. "One hundred and one Rupees." Panicker left the place with 101 rupees and a few gold coins in lieu of 100 rupees. This event took place in 1853. Imagine that the value of 101 rupees then is equal to several lakhs today!

When Panicker returned home, he summoned those who were experienced in temple construction and completed the work quickly. The foundation stone was laid on a Sivarathri day. The temple was opened in 1854 by Viswanathan Guru at Mavelikkara Kandiyoor Math. As with other important Shiva temples, flags, lanterns, and elephant rides were performed. Thus Velayudha Panicker established the first Shiva temple of the lower castes at Arattupuzha Mangalam. It is also known as the Jnaneswaram Temple in Mangalam.

Fights and struggles

Backward communities like Ezhavas did not have the right to wear clothes to cover their breasts. At that time, various taxes were levied on lower castes such as breast, head, ladder, knife, and right hand. The Ezhava women had to pay taxes for their heads and nipples. In Cherthala, an Ezhava woman named Nangeli cut off her own breasts with a knife in protest of the tax system and gave it to the officers.

Panicker had declared to his community that hiding one’s breasts were a sign of culture. In 1859, an Ezhava woman went to the Kayamkulam market with a piece of cloth on her chest to cover her breasts. But the upper caste men tore her clothes and placed a vegetable over her nipples and shooed her away.

The incident reached the ears of Panicker. He collected as many upper garments as he could and went to the Kayamkulam market with his own people. After distributing the clothes to all the women present, he beat up all the offenders who humiliated the woman. Soon after he ordered the women present there to not step out of their homes without wearing the upper garment. After this incident, women in those areas were allowed to walk with their breasts covered.

Nose ring revolt

At that time, only certain communities were allowed to wear certain jewelry. If anyone other than the said communities wore them, they will be punished. The ornament was also used to identify the caste. Ezhava women did not have the right to wear a nose ring then.

At Pandalam, upper-caste men took offense to an Ezhava woman spotting a gold nose ring. They could not bear the violation. But when young woman disobeyed their order to remove it, they tore the ring from her nose, including some portion of the flesh.

To protest against this Panicker reached Pandalam with a bagful of nose rings. He assembled all the lower caste women and made sure they pierced their noses and wore a nose ring. No one dared to remove the nose ring from these women as it was Panicker who orchestrated it. Panicker and his men camped at Pandalam for days equipped with weapons on horseback to make sure these women were safe from the attack of upper-caste men. Only the upper caste men had the privilege to tie their hair up on the right side, but Panicker flouted this rule too by making sure the men in his community did exactly that. Not just that Panicker made sure that all the upper caste privileges were also given to the lower castes. And no one had the courage to challenge Panicker during that time.

Kathakali of the backward community

Vinayan at location
Director Vinayan (C) at the location of 'Pathonmpatham Noottandu.'

Once upon a time, Kathakali was the fiefdom of upper-caste Hindus. It was decided that Kathakali would be played at all the temples established by Panicker for all the festivals and that Kathakali Yogam would be organised for it. Ambalapuzha Madhavakakurup, who was the court overseer of the King of Chembakassery, was summoned and told to teach Kathakali to all the Ezhava youths from Mangalam and the surrounding areas. Panicker also learned Kathakali and made his debut in 1862. This was the first Kathakali meeting of the Ezhavas. When Diwan Sir T. Madhava Roy received a complaint regarding this meeting he summoned both parties and held discussions. But fearing Panicker none of the upper caste leaders raised their objections at the meeting. And Panicker accurately put forward his side of the story. Thus, official permission was obtained to hold a Kathakali meeting and study Kathakali in Travancore.

First satyagraha

Ironically Ezhava women who stitched the garments (Onnarayum Mindum) of upper-caste women did not even have the right to wear them on special occasions. This garment was one-and-a-half feet long and reached their feet. Once some upper caste men saw a young woman wearing this outfit and shamed her by tearing her clothes.

It was under the strength of a government order that the Upper caste defiantly opposed the lower castes' right to wear what they wanted. Panicker gave out orders which said not a single person from the lower castes should work on the agricultural lands of the upper castes in and around Karthikapally taluk. He also refused to hire outsiders. When the upper castes realised that they would starve to death without farming, they agreed to meet Panicker for a truce. Panicker ordered them to apologize publicly to the woman who was shamed in Pathiyoor. He eventually agreed to end the strike only after making the upper caste swear that they won’t stand in the way of lower caste women’s liberty to wear their choice of clothing and jewellery. This was in 1866.

It was customary to tie the cow in the landlord's house until the milk dried up. This was also stopped by Panicker. Panicker married his sister to a man from another community to encourage intermarriage.

Jail life

The lower castes were prohibited from travelling on the same route as the upper castes. Raman Menon, the son of the king of Edapally, and his entourage came along the path once built by Panikkar and his group. As the upper castes move on, the entourage is required to call out 'Hoy,' a warning for lower castes to move away from the route. But when Raman Menon's team called ‘hoy’, Panicker's team also imitated the sound as per Panicker's instructions. There was a fight between the two groups. Panikkar and his gang beat the king's son and threw him into the ravine. This was in 1867.

A case was registered, and the court sentenced all the accused to one-year imprisonment and 12 lashes. Though Panicker was spared the lashings he had to spend a year in Kollam jail. When he was released, he was given a heroic welcome by the locals. Panicker was brought to Arattupuzha by boat accompanied by toy boats.

The King’s rule

Two years after his imprisonment, the King of Travancore presented him with a heroic award for his work in overcoming the inequalities and injustices faced by the lower castes.

The incident took place in 1869. Salagramam, which was being taken to the Padmanabhaswamy temple before the Tharananelloor Namboothiri Murajapath, was hijacked by some assailants at Kayamkulam lake. The king ordered the invaders to be captured, but the officials could not find them. Finally, the king approached the Arattupuzha Velayudhapanikkar. Panicker declared a deadline and vowed to return the Salagramam and bring the aggressors to the forefront.

Vinayan Siju Wilson
Actor Siju Wilson (R) with Vinayan (2R)

Panikkar and the group found the base of the mob and attacked them. They were captured and Salagramam was brought before the Maharaja before the said date. The king honored Panicker for this excellence by awarding him the title of hero. Not just that Velayudhan, Tharavadu, and his generations were given the status of 'Panicker.'

Panicker’s death and the story of deception

Panicker who only did good for others had a lot of enemies. The upper-caste Hindus and Janmis plotted to kill Panicker. Panicker and his team were going on his boat to Kollam to deal with a court case. By midnight, the boat reached Kayamkulam shores. All were fast asleep. Only the rowers were awake rowing the boat. Suddenly, a group of people got into a boat and demanded to see Panicker as they had something urgent to inform him. Believing them, the boat stopped. A few people boarded the boat. One of them went to Panicker's room without making a sound. They took a dagger and pierced Panicker’s chest. He woke up staring at the knife that had stabbed his chest. The frightened attackers jumped into the lake and swam away. The attacker was known as the 'hatted kittan'. On the 24th of Sagittarius 1049, 3 January 1874 at midnight, at the age of 49, the legend of Velayudhapanikkar came to an end. The invaders had left. Kollam Division Peshkar Raman Nair registered the case and conducted the trial, but no one was convicted as the accused were not found.

When his story is made into a film

Director Vinayan is directing this period film starring Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker and other 19th- century renaissance heroes and historical figures. It is said that the film was made by connecting many people of that period.

Pathonpatham noottandu poster
Pathonpatham noottandu poster
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