In the second half of the eighteenth century, most of the provincial states in the South were facing threats from Hyder Ali and his son Tipu, the rulers of Mysore. English East India Company supplied arms and ammunitions to the provincial states in their fight against Tipu, in return for which the company was paid taxes by the former. These taxes were collected directly by the officials in kind from the people. Establishing a monopoly over the pepper trade in the Malabar region was their end goal, of which they succeeded to a great extent. Annexing these local provinces as their vassal, after creating civil unrest also served as a strategy of ECI.
In the down south of the country, the Palayakarars or the local chieftains of the present Tamilnadu never accepted the supremacy of the Company. Wars were fought for decades between the Palayakarars and the British. Veera Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja of the Kottayam kingdom in today’s Kerala provided support to the Palayakarars as well as led the fight in the Malabar region.
Thalakkal Chanthu was the general in the army of Pazhassi Raja. He was a member of the Kurichiya community, the brave warriors of the Wayanad forests famous for their skills in archery. Chanthu along with his tribal brethren joined the force led by Edachena Kunkan to fight against the Company which extorted a huge amount of grains as tax and resorted to land grabbing from his community.
The first resistance against the exploitation of the poor by the company was led by Edachena Kunkan in 1800. The continuous resistance was but ignored by the ECI. This resulted in the attack of the Panamaram fort on October 11, 1802. This fort served as the warehouse to store the granary collected from the people of the land as tax. The whole battalion of the 4th Bombay Infantry comprising of seventy soldiers, led by Captain Dickinson and Lieutenant Maxwell was killed by the army of 150 Kurichiya men led by Edachena Kunkan and Thalakkal Chanthu. The pistols and bayonets could not withstand the barrage of arrows. Five Kurichiyas also sacrificed their lives in the fight to protect the dignity of the motherland. Firearms and boxes of ammunition were seized from the fort.
The years that followed saw fierce confrontation by the Kurichya and Kuruma army whose unparalleled martial skills of guerrilla warfare left the English men helpless. They could not break the support system built up by Thalakkal Chanthu and his men and capture Pazhassi Raja who was reigning the kingdom in exile from the thick forests of Wayanad. Kurichiya men fought from the rough terrains of Wayanad, turning the Sita Devi Temple in Pulpalli as their centre of operation and bringing Wayanad passes under their control. The Martial law declared by the Company on January 13, 1803, was not heeded even by the common men and therefore was a failure and many came forward to fight against the company.
Pazhassi Raja and his army seized victory against Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Willington who saw successive victories in the Anglo-Maratha Wars and later in the Battle of Waterloo. This war recorded as the ‘Kottayam War’ is but one of the many less celebrated victories in our history texts.
The English resorted to treachery, their forte, to break these strong forts of resistance. With the help of local men who were lured with money and land, Thalakkal Chanthu was captured and hanged in the Coli tree in the Panamaram fort which once witnessed his unparalleled valour on November 15, 1805.
November 15 is observed as Jan Jathiya Gaurav Divas to celebrate the birth and life of Bhagwan Birsa Munda in our country. On this day let us also remember the brave episodes of resistance led by Thalakkal Chandu and Kurichiya and Kuruma tribal communities who with their time-tested indigenous knowledge of archery skills fought the British and sacrificed their lives at the altar of our motherland.