History & Culture

The warriors of Vadakara

Vadakara is home to Kalaripayattu

Vadakara is home to Kalaripayattu   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


A glimpse of the 16th century history of the legendary heroes of Vadakara through its tangible heritage structures

With two movies on Malabar’s 16th century seafaring superheroes, the Kunjali Marakkars, and another on the Mamaankam, the annual championship of warriors of yore, in the works right now, the celluloid spotlight is bound to shine on Vadakara in Kozhikode district.

This unlikely little coastal town finds its name in the annals of history as ancient Kadathanadu, the home of Kalaripayattu, the home of battle-scarred clans and legendary Kalaripayattu warrior such as Thacholi Othenan, the hero of the Vadakkan Pattukal (Northern ballads). The region was also the base of the four Marakkars, the renowned naval admirals of the Zamorin of Calicut. Considered to be India’s first naval heroes, they led the native resistance on the seas against Portuguese invaders.

Look beyond the rumbustious humdrum of Vadakara and you can quickly sense the undying spirit of the town’s warrior forbearers in the air…in the war cries that emanate from the many Kalaripayattu centres in the area; in the Vadakkan Pattukal that many old-timers hum while going about their day; in place names such as Puduppanam, Angadithazha and Kottakadappuram that hark back to its history as a trading port, and so on.

Glorious past

There are a couple of tangible vestiges of Vadakara’s glorious days still standing and they seem to be very much central to the psyche of its people even today.

Kunjali Marakkar Museum at Iringal near Vadakara

Kunjali Marakkar Museum at Iringal near Vadakara   | Photo Credit: Nita Sathyendran

Our first destination is the Kunjali Marakkar Museum, a state protected monument, in the nearby village of Iringal. Once a massive, fortified settlement, spanning some three sq km, all that remains of Marakkars’ fort is a small building and a mosque. The fort was built by the third Kunjali – Pattu Marakkar – at the northern border of the Zamorin kingdom, as a strategic base from where to fight the Portuguese. “The museum was established in 2004 after Pathumma, a 10th generation descendant of the Marakkars, gifted it to the state in 1976. The fort was made of mud, limestone mortar and stone. So many of the structures could not stand the test of time. According to a travel account by a Portuguese explorer, beautiful murals of ships adorned the walls of the buildings in the fort. This house – with just a verandah, anteroom and two small rooms – is likely the last remnants of a huge mansion; perhaps even the very homestead of the Marakkars – Baludiyil tharavadu,” says Sadhu KP, the officer-in-charge of the museum.

A memorial erected by the Indian Navy to honour the four Marakkars at Kunjali Marakkar Museum

A memorial erected by the Indian Navy to honour the four Marakkars at Kunjali Marakkar Museum   | Photo Credit: Nita Sathyendran

The museum has a small artefact collection comprising iron swords, granite cannon shells, Veerarayan silver coins of the Zamorins, Portuguese-India coins and stone cannon troughs, to name a few, all of which were excavated either from the compound or from the surrounding areas. It also has a model of the settlement as it was in those times and an imprint of a Portuguese-drawn map titled ‘Fortaleza de Cunhale’ (Kunjali fort).

Within the compound, the Indian Navy has erected a memorial to honour the four Marakkars. “Every year, the navy used to hold a ceremony in their honour here until it was moved to the Marakkar Watermanship Training Centre at the nearby Ezhimala Naval Academy,” says Sadhu.

A view of Kottakal Juma’ath Masjid in Vadakara

A view of Kottakal Juma’ath Masjid in Vadakara   | Photo Credit: Nita Sathyendran

A mile or so away from the museum is the Kottakal Juma’ath Masjid, which is built like a beautiful traditional Kerala mansion. The mosque has a sword, a hanging lamp and a throne that the Marakkars captured from the Portuguese. The throne is a permanent fixture of the mosque’s prayer hall and members of the mosque are always willing to show the other two to curious visitors like ourselves.

Not too far away from Vadakara town, but a world away in style, form and legend, is Lokanarkavu temple. It’s considered the spiritual home of Kalaripayattu and made famous also because of the legendary exploits of the Thacholi warrior clan in popular culture.

Lokanarkavu at Vadakara

Lokanarkavu at Vadakara   | Photo Credit: Nita Sathyendran

“The Thacholi family had no rights over the temple but it is said that Othenan was an ardent devotee of the Mother Goddess, the main deity of Lokanarkavu and he used to seek Her blessings before he set off for each of the 64 duels he fought in his 32 years,” say local historians Vijayaraghavan KC and Jayasree KM, who have written a book on the temple.

There are no tangible references to Othenan per se at Lokanarkavu, a complex of three temples with one each devoted to the Mother Goddess, Vishnu and Shiva. But one can easily imagine the warrior paying obeisance at this beautiful specimen of temple architecture with its circular sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum) and nalambalam, or holding court underneath the huge banyan tree in front of the temple or even ruminating beside the emerald waters of the two temple ponds. The sreekovil of the main temple has mural paintings on its outer walls, faded with age but still rather wonderful to behold. In slightly better condition are the wooden sculpture in the adjacent temples, many of which depict erotic scenes, a rarity in temple architecture in Kerala.

  • The honorific title ‘Kunjali’ (meaning ‘dearest Ali’) was given to the family by the Zamorin in recognition of their prowess in maritime warfare. There were four Kunjali Marakkars: Kutty Ali Marakkar (1520-31), his son Kutty Pokker Ali Marakkar (1531-71), his grandson Pattu Marakkar (1571-95) and Mohammad Ali (1595-1600), said to be the son or nephew of the third Kunjali.
  • Both the upcoming Mohanlal-starrer, Marakkar - Arabikadalinte Simham, directed by Priyadarsan and the Mammooty-starrrer, to be directed by Santosh Sivan, is the story of the fourth Kunjali.
  • Legend goes that Lokanarkavu temple was constructed by the Lohana community of traders and merchants who migrated from Sindh in Gujarat. Some believe that the original name of the temple was Lohanarkavu and others believe that it is the short form of Lokamalayarkavu (Loka - people, mala- mountain, aru -river and kavu - sacred grove).
  • Renowned musician Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar was born in Perakkool Madom adjacent to Lokanarkavu
  • Thacholi Othenan’s actual name is Mepayil Thacholi Manikoth Kovilakathu Kunji Othena Kurup.
  • That the Marakkars and Othenan were contemporaries can be discerned from Vadakkan Pattukal, one of which goes ‘Kottayil Omana Kunjalikku Nairyum Theeyarum bhedamilla...’

Our curiosity about Othenan, the champion warrior of the Kadathanadu kingdom, also takes us off the beaten track, into the interiors of Vadakara, to Thacholi Manikothkavu, where Othenan lived and died. Today, what remains of the homestead is a temple, with shrines dedicated to Othenan, his elder brother, Koma Kurup, a nephew, Kelu Kurup, both renowned warriors, and another one nearby for the Pulluvan, who avenged the murder of Othenan; the warrior was on his way home after defeating the Mathiloor Gurukkal when he was fatally shot on the sly by a disciple of the latter. Othenan’s shrine is believed to hold a sandalwood cot, a sword and an urumi that belonged to him. It is opened only once a year during the temple festival.

Thacholi Manikothkavu in Vadakara

Thacholi Manikothkavu in Vadakara   | Photo Credit: Nita Sathyendran

We find Thacholi Manikothkavu temple to be overgrown and largely deserted. Once a year, in the Malayalam month of Kumbham, however, the premises come alive for the annual festival as the locals celebrate their hometown hero the way they best know how – with chenda melam, Kalaripayattu and the Thacholi Othenan Thira, a folk art form.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 9:27:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/history-of-legendary-warriors-of-vadakara/article26794028.ece

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