The birth place of the warriors of ‘chavers’ (suicide squads), who scripted a chapter of delirium to the pulsating history of ‘Mamankam’, a duo-decennial festival and trade fair held on the banks of the Nila River in Thirunavaya in north Kerala, is teeming with visitors even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ‘chavers’ challenged the supremacy of the Samothiris or Zamorins during ‘Mamankam’ knowing very well that they will attain martyrdom. The reason behind more people visiting the birthplace of these fighters is the 2019 Mammootty-starrer Malayalam flick ‘Mamangam’, which chronicled the essence of this marketplace dating back to centuries. The film buffs are getting an opportunity to see the ‘land of chavers’ only now as earlier travelling was restricted due to the epidemic.
The Puthumana, Vayankara, Verkot and Chandrath ancestral families near Perinthalmanna in Malappuram district were known as the ‘chaver’ families or the ‘Naluveetil’ Panickers. A person belonging to these four illustrious would be leading the ‘chaverpada’, though there would be many warriors in the suicide squads.
Interestingly, there was a practice to place the baby boy born in these families in front of the ancestral family’s ‘kalari’, the hallowed space where ‘Kalaripayattu’, the traditional martial arts, is taught and practised, and proclaim that the baby boy is destined to be a ‘chaver’ fighter.
The most proficient martial artist in the family is bestowed the responsibility to run the ‘kalari’ and the training is long haul and arduous to say the least. When one has mastered the skills of ‘choondu marmam’ and ‘noku marmam’, he is ready to don the cloak of a ‘chaver’ warrior. After a person becomes part of the ‘chaverpada’, the long wait for the next ‘Mamankam’ begins.
Though the suicide squads come from these four main families, the eldest lady of the Puthumana family is given the position of ‘pengal’ (sister) by the king of Valluvanad and is addressed as ‘Puthumana amma’. The Puthumana family gets this unique position because of its close association with the royal family. The Puthumana amma has many privileges during festivals and she is also supposed to cry her heart out when a member of the royal family dies and this ritual continued till Kuruva ‘kovilakam’ (palace) was dismantled.
Moreover, the Puthumana amma has the right to give the last morsel of food to the ‘chaver’ warriors who are leaving for ‘Mamankam’. The food is served in the front yard of the palatial house of the Puthumana family at Kuruva Vattaloor in Makkaraparambu, and Vattaloor literally means the place where the last morsel of food is served.
The ‘chaver’ families start gearing up after the dates of the ‘Mamankam’ festival are announced and people who are willing to be ‘chaver’ fighters would present themselves before the king. The fearless warriors are picked near the age-old Thirumandhamkunnu temple at Angadipuram in Malappuram district, and the selected fighters have to observe 41 days of prayers and abstinence. Later, the chosen ones have to offer ‘pindom’ (small portion of cooked rice), which is usually offered to propitiate the dead, to themselves at the Thirunelli temple in Wayanad.
After visiting the Thirumandhamkunnu temple again, the warriors will return to the Puthumana house where Puthumana amma will serve food, which includes rice, coconut oil and salt, to the fighters before they leave for Thirunavaya for the ‘Mamankam’. Though Puthumana amma knows that the fighters won’t return, she would wish them good luck without any remorse in her face.
Curtains came down on the ‘Mamankam’ festival with the invasion of Malabar by Tipu Sultan, and the historians have endorsed that the last of the iconic trade fairs was held in 1755. Though ‘Mamankam’ has become a thing of the past, the ‘kalari’, which is close to 800 years old, at the Puthumana house can be found in Nechikattu. The ‘kalari’, which was renovated a few years ago, had imparted lessons on the Valluvanad style of martial art, says Krishnadas, a member of the Puthumana family. Ramachunni Panicker, who was heading the ‘kalari’ then decided to wind up the classes in 1850.