Unniarcha: The woman who took on Muslim hooligans

Northern Malabar abounds in stories of chivalry and valour. The Ballads of Northern Malabar narrate the heroic deeds of men and women who shed their lives to protect the honour of their kingdoms, families and kalaries. Unadulterated loyalty to their ruler was their hallmark. One of the most shining characters in these ballads is Unniarcha, the woman who taught Muslim goons a lesson when they tried to molest her after making her husband captive. The story also shows how empowered and liberated the womenfolk of Kerala were at that time.​Archa, who hailed from the Puthooram Tharavad, was proficient in Kalarippayat, the traditional martial art of Kerala. The Puthooram family had produced many Chekons, experts in martial arts who fought the battles of local rulers.

​The tradition was that whenever a dispute arose between two chieftains, they engaged two combatants who would settle the issue through an ankam, a duel. Ankam is declared over only after one of the combatants is defeated or killed. Like in the Samurai tradition of Japan, a chekon would prefer death over the ignominy of defeat. This system of justice, in a way, reduced the possibility of large-scale loss of lives in the event of battles.

Archa, a young lady of dazzling beauty and courage, was the daughter of Kannappa Chekavar who took part in 41 ankams. Her elder brother Aaromal Chekavar was the greatest hero of the ballads. Archa was married to Kunhiraman of Attum Manamel, a teacher of Putusseri Kalari.

As the annual festivities at Allimalar Kavu (Lokanar Kavu) were going on, one night she expressed her desire to take part in it. Her father-in-law, mother-in-law and even her husband tried to dissuade her from the decision, as the route to the temple passed through Nadapuram which was infested with Muslim hooligans. They feared the Muslim bullies would attack or abduct her. As an independent lady, she said she was capable of taking care of herself.

“…Born in the famous Puthooram family,

As the daring child of Kannappa,

Born with valour and courage,

I can’t stay back like a coward’….

After finishing her household chores and taking her bath, she wore beautiful dress and ornaments. She also tied around her waist an urumi (a flexible double-edged sword) for self defence. Without waiting for her husband she ventured out. But her husband reluctantly followed her.

Unniarcha had already decided to put an end to the Muslim hooliganism in the area. She said women have rights to move around anytime, anywhere without fear. After reaching the Nadapuram market, she decided to take some rest in the platform constructed around a banyan tree in the middle of the market. In fact, she wanted to invite the attention of the anti-social elements. Seeing a young beautiful lady with golden ornaments, they surrounded her with sticks and wooden weapons. They also made her husband captive. Upset by the turn of events, Kunhiraman blamed her arrogance for all the troubles. Hearing this, she retorted:

“….I being a woman don’t shiver,

While, you a man doth shudder

To see these hooligans

I don’t care even if they’re thousands

As I belong to Puthooram family.”

Adept at Kalari techniques, Archa knocked down all the assailants who had jumped to capture her. She didn’t want to use urumi because she only wanted to teach them a lesson. When Archa revealed her identity that she was the sister of Aromal, the goons became frightened and ran to their moopan (chief). The moopan ran to Aromal and pleaded him to come and pacify his sister. Moopan fell at the feet of Archa and sought her forgiveness. Aromal asked his sister accept the presents and gold coins offered by them and pardon them. She told moopan that if the hooligans ever tried to harass a woman she would destroy them completely. Then she went to the temple and enjoyed the festivities. The legend has it that on her return she gave away all the gold to her mother-in-law and told her that she had brought her son back, alive.