The forgotten king of Pulayanarkotta

The view from Pulayanarkotta. Photo: Achuthsankar S. Nair   | Photo Credit: Achuthsankar S. Nair

A hoarding in the city announcing the 152nd anniversary celebration of Ayyankali, the messiah of the Pulaya community of Kerala, describes him as a ‘Raja’. Mahatma Gandhi had also called the social reformer as Pulaya Raja. This status is also related to the connection of Pulayas with Chera dynasty (hence the name Cheramar).

The history of the Pulaya community is scantly recorded. The story of the downtrodden was never a topic of interest for historians until the 20th century. Therefore, it is not surprising that the life of a king of the Pulaya community, who lived some 200 years ago in the city, never got recorded, authentically. But the memory of Kalipulayan, the last Pulaya Raja of Pulayanarkotta, nevertheless remains through fables. A shrine dedicated to him has also surprisingly survived the ravages of time and remains tucked away, right in the middle of the city, in Attakkulangara.

There are several indications that the Pulaya community had a glorious past. T. K. Velu Pillai, in the Travancore State Manual, opines that such a past remained till 700 CE. Bishop Caldwell remarks: “ Perhaps the best representatives at present of the earliest race of inhabitants are those long oppressed tribes, now considered the lowest in the social scale”.

Anantha Krishna Iyer in Cochin Tribe & Castes (1909) refers to a Pulaya chieftain called Aikkara Yajamanan. Krishna Iyer C.A. in Travancore Tribes and Castes (1939) mentions that a Pulaya princess named Kotha is said to have ruled over Kokkothamangalam in Nedumangad.

Pulayanarkotta on the banks of the Akkulam lake was also, arguably, home to a Pulaya chieftain. ‘Pulayanarkotta’ literally means ‘the fort of the Pulayas chief or king’; the “nar” at the end of Pulayanar indicates some kind of superior social status.

Samuel Mateer in his Native Life of Travancore (1883) is one of the scholars who refer to Pulayanarkotta. He first sketches the social condition of Pulayas. “ They belong to the very lowest grades in caste, having been formerly slaves and still deeply degraded as education and civilization have not yet largely affected them, and their former masters do not wish them to rise to independence or full liberty. Their customs and usages are of the deepest interest to the ethnologist, while their social condition calls for the profoundest sympathy of the philanthropist”.

He then goes on to make his remarks about, Pulayanarkotta. “ In the neighbourhood of Trivandrum, Pulayars are accustomed to boast of having once had a chieftain or rajah of their own, who resided in a fort not far off. There certainly are some remains on the summit of a hill near Vely of a mud wall and ditch, some 60 or 70 feet square, enclosing a small level plot of ground now overgrown with shrub and having a deep well inside. This is commonly called Pulayanar Kotta, and a Sudra family in the neighbourhood are called by their fellows “the Pulayan’s Accountants,” and freely admit that their ancestors did hold that office. As Head Pulayars were appointed by the Travancore Government to be responsible for the others in all matters of business, there may have been one chief of all near the capital, to whom, as a politic means of ruling the others, some special privileges, and a small mud walled fort might have been allowed. But it seems impossible to believe that any of this unfortunate race could have been within the last few centuries in possession of independent authority.”

Historian Pattom G. Ramachandran Nair has also recorded oral history about Pulaya Raja of Pulayanarkotta. He also points to the oral tradition that Anayara was once the elephant stables of the Pulaya king.

There is no clear indication about the period of reign of the last Pulaya Raja, we can only infer that he lived during the late 18th century or earlier. The fable that remains today about Kalipulayan comes to us through the members of the Viswakarma community, the community which traditionally worked as carpenters, blacksmith, goldsmith, sculptors and so on. Parameswaran Achari, a member of the community, who has been running a goldsmith shop for almost half a century in Puthen Road junction in Vanchiyoor holds the story of Kalipulayan close to his heart. Parameswaran’s fable has obvious elements of fantasy in it, but hidden somewhere is an indication that, much like Ayyankali who forced entry into a ‘Vidyalaya” (school), Kalipulayan sacrificed himself by entering a ‘Devalaya’ (temple), in an attempt to declare his equality with the Maharaja of erstwhile Travancore.

Kalipulayan and his wife are believed to have reigned over Pulayanarkotta and they were well known for their magical powers. In a fit to reassure the pride of his community, the Pulaya Raja is said to have declared that he being a king, he was entitled to enter the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. The Pulaya connection of the temple is well known.

Samuel Mateer, in his work titled ‘Land of Charity’ (1870) refers to it as follows: “ The place where Trivandrum now stands was formerly a jungle, called Ananta Kadu. In the centre of this desert dwelt a Pulayan and his wife, who obtained a livelihood by cultivating a large rice-field, near to their hut. One day, as the Pulayan’s wife was weeding her grounds, she heard the cry of a babe close to her, and on search, found it so beautiful that she supposed it was a divine infant, and was at first afraid to touch it.

However, after washing herself, she fed the babe with milk, and left it again under the shade of a large tree. As soon as she had retired a five headed cobra came, removed the infant to a hole in the tree, and sheltered it from the sun with its hood. It was an incarnation of the god Vishnu. While there, the Pulayan and his wife used to make offerings to the babe of milk and conjee in a coconut shell. Tidings of these things reaching the ears of the sovereign of Travancore, orders were issued for the erection of a temple At the place. The natives add that the cocoa-nut shell used by the Pulayan is still preserved in the royal pagoda at Trivandrum.”

Today, the small shrine for Kalipulayan inside the Attakkulangara Dharmasastha temple is kept in a corner. Here Kalipulayan and Kalipulayi are symbolically represented by two tiny pyramids.

Even now we can find settlements of Viswakarma community in Attakkulangara area. Only one shop remains in the area – Chembonippura in Aryasala that still makes brass pieces. All other brass making units have either vanished or morphed into shops which sell brass items brought from elsewhere.

S. N. Sadasivan in A Social History Of India gives a different account of the fate of the last Pulaya Raja. He mentions that Pulayas had a colony in Karamana, with their chief having a fortress and palace in Pulayanarkotta. He had a prominent Ezhava as his minister and a Nair as his accountant (the latter also confirmed by Samuel Mateer).

Chittira, the beautiful daughter of the king was sought by the king of Venad as his concubine, and the demand being spurned by her, the Venad king along with his Marava regiment attacked Pulayanarkotta and killed the king, his daughter and razed the fort to ground.

Today, scenic Pulayanarkotta, which overlooks the city and the lake, has no trace left of the Pulaya King, his mud fort or his kingdom.

The fable of Kalipulayan

Kalipulayan was aware of the practical difficulties of demonstrating his equality by entering the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, as in those days the evils of the caste system ensured that members of the Pulaya community could not even come near members of the so called upper caste, let alone a temple run by Brahmins. Kalipulayan had a way out. He invoked his magical powers and produced an oil called ‘Unni thailam’, which was said to have the powers to make people invisible. Kalipulayan applied oil on his forehead and boldly walked into the temple. Not only did he enter the temple and offer prayers, due to his sense of being equal to the Maharaja, he walked into the room in the temple complex where the Maharaja was having his supper. He sat beside the Maharaja and shared the rice porridge (kanji) that the Maharaja was having.

It did not escape the attention of the king that his kanji was diminishing at a faster rate than he was consuming it. Suspecting that something extraordinary was happening, he sought the advice of his astrologer. The astrologer foresaw that there was someone invisible partaking in the supper. The king asked the astrologer to devise a way of catching the culprit and the astrologer suggested a very simple way. The next day, steaming hot kanji was served. The steam from the kanji made the invisible Kalipulayan sweat, and he took his towel and wiped his face and removed the magical oil on his forehead, making him visible to the Maharaja. The cruelty of caste system in Travancore ensured that Kalipulayan was hanged for breaking the caste rules. It is possible that the settlement in Pulayanarkotta was also consequently demolished.

The fable does not end here. It is said that Kalipulayan’s fight with Maharaja continued from the other world. The spirit of Kalipulayan decided to get even with the Maharaja but he chose a rather meek way of doing it. Kalipulayan blew air into the moulds used for making brass vessels to be supplied to the temple and the palace. Air bubbles created defects in the brass vessels. Hit by the problem, Viswakarma brass smiths turned to astrologers for a solution. The astrologer hypothesised the handiwork of Kalipulayan. He advised the Viswakarma community to appease the spirit of Kalipulayan. They did it in the right earnest, inside the Dharmasastha Temple at Attakkulangara, run by their community. It is said that Kalipulayan gave up his vengeance and never again troubled the brassmiths and thereby the king and temple.

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Printable version | Nov 20, 2020 11:34:12 AM |

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