Chronicling the life of a martyr

Staff Reporter

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The year 2009 marks the bicentenary of the martyrdom of the valiant Velu Thampi Dalawa and many other fighters who were part of his troops during the revolt against the British in 1809.

One of the most daring fighters among them was Vaikom Padmanabha Pillai who was arrested and executed by the British at Pallathuruthy in June 1809.

“Vaikom Padmanabha Pillai was a general in Vadakkumkoor Maharaja’s army even before he associated with Velu Thampi Dalawa. He was publicly hanged by the British for leading the revolt against the British army during the 1809 revolt,” said Nandyat R. Soman, a sixth generation descendant of Padmanabha Pillai.

Mr. Soman, a retired chemical process consultant, is now chronicling the legacy of Vaikom Padmanabha Pillai as part of his efforts to preserve and record the history of his family and lineage. Mr. Soman, 71, has been collecting data on the life of Vaikom Padmanabha Pillai for the past 50 years. But it is only three years back that he started compiling his findings. According to Mr. Soman, Vaikom Padmanabha Pillai was appointed the commander of the most elite army unit of Vadakkumkoor Maharaja for his courageous role in the attack on Tipu Sultan’s army at Nedumkotta in December 1789. “As per local legend, Padmanabha Pillai was a key figure in the 20-member group from the Nandyat Kalari that attacked Tipu Sultan’s army at Nedumkotta in 1789. It was one of the most daring attacks in the history of Travancore kingdom, in which a handful of fighters infiltrated a well-equipped enemy army and successfully made them retract,” he said.

Although the Mysore infantry comprised more than 14,000 trained men, the army was left overwhelmed after the commanding officer was killed. Tipu Sultan himself was said to have got injured in the attack. “The Vadakkumkoor State did not have a standing army at that time. So fighters from local kalaris were summoned in case of an attack. Padmanabha Pillai was at that time Kochasan of the Nandyat Kalari,” Mr. Soman said. Padmanabha Pillai was also said to be instrumental in foiling Tipu’s second attack in March 1790, when he and fellow-soldier Kunji Kutty Pillai deluged Tipu’s army by breaking down the stone walls on the embankment of the Periyar lake to cause a flash flood.

“He was showered with accolades and top honours by Diwan Kesava Pillai for his role in both these attacks. After Velu Thampi Dalawa became Diwan, he was designated the army chief. Both of them together revolted violently against attempts by the British to bring Travancore under its authority,” Mr. Soman said. Padmanabha Pillai’s aborted attempt at eliminating the British Resident Col. Macaulay and the massacre of 13 British soldiers at Pallathuruthy by his forces resulted in his arrest and public hanging in 1809.


In an attempt to keep the legacy of Padmanabha Pillai alive, the Vaikom Padmanabha Pillai Religious Memorial Trust is planning to commemorate the bicentenary of his martyrdom. As part of this, the Trust plans to install a bust of the martyr at his native town in Vaikom.

“We want people to know that there were many other gallant fighters like Vaikom Padmanabha Pillai and Kunji Kutty Pillai who laid down their lives in the fight against the British.