The blood-soaked tales from medieval Kerala have reignited popular imagination with yet another Mamankam-inspired movie in the offing. The Mammootty-starrer 'Mamangam' is expected to be an action-packed historical thriller just like the 1979 movie of the same name which had Prem Nazir in the lead role.
What was this blood sport all about? Why did hordes of young warriors went to a sandy riverside every 12 years to kill or be killed? The story of the sworn warriors started with a power tussle between erstwhile princely states which constituted modern-day Kerala.
Mamankam was originally a temple festival-cum-fair held beside the Nava Mukunda Temple at Thirunavaya on the bank of the Bharathappuzha River. The fair was held every 12 years under the aegis of the local chieftains and later the Zamorins of Kozhikode who established suzerainty over the region. Had the fairs not discontinued after 1755, we could have attended the legendary event at Thirunavaya this year. The 264-year hiatus has done little to diminish the fascination of the people, as proved by the chatter related to the upcoming movie.
Sands of time
Hundreds of thousands of people head for the Nava Mukunda Temple on the black moon days of the Malayalam months of Tulam, Kumbham and Karkkadakam to pay respects to their departed ancestors. It was on this same sandy stretch that the Mamankam was held every 12 years. The fair lasted 28 days, according to historical sources.
Before the power games and blood feuds started, Mamankam was a mega village fair that attracted people from all over the Valluvanad region. Artisans and traders from faraway Tamil and Andhra regions pitched their wares at the fair, which often drew visitors from foreign countries. Even German merchants sold silken wares at the fair.
Mamankam also provided a venue for performing artistes and martial arts exponents to flaunt their talent. While small troupes of artistes entertained the shoppers along the vast sandy beach, young warriors and their masters took turns to demonstrate their skills.
The pride of place
The land that came to be Kerala was splintered into petty kingdoms after the prominent south Indian dynasty of the Cheras found their empire weakened after a Pyrrhic victory against their Chola rivals. Erstwhile fiefs rose to claim sovereignty over their strongholds, putting them in direct confrontation with each other. Might was the only right in those lawless times. Every ruler depended on sworn warriors to defend their territory and further their interests.
Kolathunad was one of the prominent dynasties to rise from the ashes of the Chera empire in feudal Kerala, along with Nediyirippu, Perumbadappu, Venad and South Malabar. A line of rulers titled Valluvakkonathiri commanded the South Malabar regions and the right to organise Mamankam. The right was bestowed on the Valluvakonathiris by the last of the Chera rulers.
The Zamorin of Kozhikode challenged the Valluvakkonathiri's right several times but had to beat the retreat in the face of a superior force. The equations, however, changed when the Zamorin allied with the Perumbadappu chieftain who was in war with the Valluvakkonathiri.
Challenging the challenger
The Zamorin assumed the role of the protector of the fair since 1350. The fair ground turned a bloody battle ground as the Zamorin's armies fought the challengers in the hostile territory. Folk theatre and handicraft stalls gave way to ferocious fighters.
Zamorin's role as the guardian of Mamankam was symbolic of his superiority among the other kings. All other chieftains were required to send him their standards as a symbol of their submission to the Zamorin, who presided over a vast kingdom with help from a group of cunning ministers and courageous commanders.
While every other chieftain accepted the suzerainty of the Zamorin, the Valluvakkonathiri refused to put down his resistance to the man who unsettled his claim. Despite being isolated by his former associates who switched over to the side of the victor, the Valluvakonathiri went about organising a band of the best warriors in his realm to challenge the Zamorin when he arrived at Thirunavaya to preside over Mamankam.
Age of heroes
Valluvakonathiri's fighters did no stand a chance against the superior force of Zamorin's army. The men on the suicide mission were called 'chaver.' Every 12 years, as the Zamorin headed to Thirunavaya, 'chavers' started their heroic yet doomed trip to the festival ground from the Thirumandhamkunnu Temple at Angadippuram near Perinthalmanna in Malappuram district.
As the Zamorin took position on a raised platform on the festival ground and asked aloud if anyone objected to his claim, the 'chavers' charged at him, only to be systematically mowed down by the king's bodyguards. The challenge went on until the last Mamankam in 1755.
The loss of fighters en masse did not diminish the Valluvakonathiri's muscle power. More and more people filled the ranks of the 'chavers' in an act of honour and heroism. They were led to believe that dying in the battlefield was a matter of pride and a passport to salvation. On a pragmatic level, the Valluvakkonathiri encouraged recruitment by showering gifts on the families of dead warriors. So every 12 years, hordes of youngsters, some gunning for glory and the others to avenge their loved ones, took the fatal journey from the 'Mamankathara' at Angadippuram to the 'Mamankathara' at Veeranchira near Thirunavaya, where they rested before charging headlong to the waiting swords and knives of Zamorin's guards.
Despite the seemingly impervious human shield, the Zamorin came dangerously close to the 'chavers' a few times. Yet the guards never failed to slash down the attackers before the king's neck came on the sword's trajectory.
The Zamorin stood on the platform, 'Nilapaduthara', with sword drawn and a ring of guards around him throughout the bloody battle. The position was not always foolproof. In 1505, a squad of 'chavers' led by Chengazhi Nambiar laid waste to the Zamorin's army which, according to some legendary lore, constituted as many as 16,000 soldiers.
In 1695, the rings of guards were broken by an extraordinary teen named Chandrathil Chanthunni. The 16-year-old assassin fought his way to the 'Nilapaduthara' and raised his sword at the Zamorin, who managed to evade the strike. According to another account, Zamorin's chief escort blocked the strike with a bronze lamp. The event might have happened in 1755, the last of the Mamankams, according to another text.
Chanthunni's heroics was chronicled by children's writer Mali (V Madhavan Nair) in a novel named 'Porattam,' which was part of the Malayalam school syllabus once.
Not a single Zamorin was assassinated by the 'chavers' in the 400-year-old history of violent Mamankams. Valluvakkonathiri would never fulfil his desire to preside over the fair.
After the last Mamankam, preparations were on for the next one when Hyder Ali's troops from the Mysore kingdom invaded Malabar and changed the balance of power in the region yet again.
Though 'chavers' were drawn from all over the Valluvanad area, their leadership was confined to four prominent Nair families – Chandrathil Panikkar, Puthumana Panikkar, Kovilkkatt Panikkar and Verkott Panikkar. All four clans had something in common – a desire to avenge their family members who perished fighting the Zamorin's army in previous battles.
A 'chaver' was considered an asset to the land. A document shows how a ruling dynasty paid penance for the violence committed by a sworn warrior in a commercial establishment.