Warrior Woman "Unniyarcha": The Kalarippayattu legend of Kerala

International Women’s Day, since its inception in 1917 has come to mean a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, it is a day to celebrate all that we have achieved. For others, it is a call to action reminding them of all that remains to be done. Today, after a century of Western feminist revolution, we might be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't heard of feminist icons such as Susan B. Anthony or Maya Angelou.

Yet, we are still a long way from reclaiming our histories, our narratives, one where native heroines are given their due share. Thus, for us, at Shaktitva, International Women's day is a day to remember the giants of our civilization, the mothers who have time and again shown us, what it means to be Shakti. 

Women training in Kalaripayattu.   [Image Credits: http://empowering-women.wp.cdnds.net/tmp/wpro1471359299697449/2016/08/16155500/Kalari-500x500.gif]

Women training in Kalaripayattu.

[Image Credits: http://empowering-women.wp.cdnds.net/tmp/wpro1471359299697449/2016/08/16155500/Kalari-500x500.gif]

On this women's day, we bring to you the story of Unniyarcha, of the house of Puthooram, renowned for the ancient Hindu martial art of Kalaripayattu.

The ballads of North Malabar, ‘Vadakkan pattukal’ often extol the valour of the local heroes of yore. This oral tradition of storytelling, has been pivotal in keeping the ancient martial art of Kalaripayattu alive by developing an appreciation of the bravery of its heroes and heroines. Yes, heroines too, because for Hindus, bravery, valour and martial arts have never been a male-only enterprise. As is evident from the terrific imagery of Devi Mahatmya, Goddesses were not only skilled warriors, they were called upon to fight demons when the rest of Gods, had already given up. As such, in keeping with the tradition, Kalaripayattu was taught to fearless men and women, both. The ballads, sung and propagated by the Pana Community, often narrate the inspiring stories of Kalaripayattu fighters in the regions of KolathuNadu, Kadathanadu, Wayanad in North Malabar.

Unniyarcha of Puthooram house, is perhaps the most exceptional of all the heroines of North Malabar. Also known as Archa, she became the icon of the empowered independent women in Kerala. Her name became a symbol of beauty, bravery and fierce independence among Kerala women.

Most of the "Vadakkan pattukal" ballads originated in and around Kadathanad region, the land of lion-hearted fighters known as Chekavar. This erstwhile principality extends in the current Badagara taluk between Korapuzha in Kozhikkode district and Mayyazhi river near Kannur. Unniyarcha is believed to have lived in the 16th century. This was the time when out of the total 42 Kalaris, 18 were controlled by the house of Puthooram, 7 by Aringodar and the rest divided among the other Chekava families. Born as the daughter of Puthooram veetil Kannappa Chekavar, the distinguished Kalari Master from Kadathanadu, Unniyarcha grew up practising the Kalaripayattu techniques with her brothers Aromal and Unnikannan and cousin Chanthu. When she came of age, Archa married Kalari Asan Attumanamel Kunhiraman. 

Unniyaracha: The warrior woman  Artist: Jithinaryan https://www.artstation.com/jithinaryan

Unniyaracha: The warrior woman
Artist: Jithinaryan https://www.artstation.com/jithinaryan

Unniyarcha’s bravery became stuff of legends after she her encounter with the Jonaka Mappila ruffians. Mappila (meaning Bridegroom) was a respectful title given to foreign merchants and immigrants to Malabar Coast by the native Hindus of the region. This term reflects the culture of the region, where natives were not only tolerant of outsiders but also courteously treated them as family. Muslim merchants were called Jonaka (Yavanaka) Mappila; Christians - Nasrani Mappila; and Jews - Juda Mappila. The Jonakas of Nadapuram, though, were notorious in the region for their disrespectful conduct towards women, an aberration in native society. They were known to abduct and molest women from the nearby areas. Such gangs were also part of the Arabian slave trade according to various historical records. While living in Attum Manamel, Unniyarcha wished to visit the temples of Kuthu in Allimalarkavu, Villakku in Ayyappankavu, and Velapuram in Anjanakavu. Her family tried to dissuade her, owing to the danger in the surrounding areas. Archa’s mother-in-law, narrated the stories of various instances of Nadapuram Jonakas misbehaving with women. This, however, only strengthened Archa's resolve and replied to her mother-in-law:

“…Born in the famous Puthooram family,

As the fearless daughter of Kannappan,

Born with valour and courage,

I can’t stay back like a coward’…“

She tied her Urumi (long whip-like sword kept close to the torso like a belt) to her waist and set out for the temple. Husband Kunhiraman, married to the very embodiment of Shakti, had no other option, but to follow his wife. While passing through the Nadapuram Bazar, the Jonaka Mappila rowdies saw her and attempted to abduct her. Upon seeing this, Kunhiraman started getting nervous, to which Unniyarcha, beaming with valour, taunted her jittery husband:

“ I, a woman doesn’t shiver

then why do you a man, tremble?

It doesn’t matter if thousands come to attack

I belong to Puthooram family

have you ever heard of the women in Puthooram sending their men to be killed?”

This is one of the most popular verses in the ballads. In the ensuing fight, Kunhiraman was defeated and tied up but Unniyarcha wielding her Urumi injured many, through a grand performance of Kalari techniques. Announcing herself as the sister of Aromal Chekavar, she then warned the goons of serious consequences and threatened to destroy them. The leader of the gang panicked and tried to pacify her but she made them promise that they will never harass any women in that area anymore. The Jonaka fell on her feet and apologized and presented her with several gifts. This is how Unniyarcha became a symbol of female valour, an embodiment of Shakti herself. This incident later became an important event in the native uprising against the Arabic slave trade led by the Mappilas in the Malabar coast.

Archa, is also identified with another tale of valour in the ballads. In medieval Kerala, family disputes, as well as the conflicts over power, were historically resolved by Ankam (sword duels). Unniyarcha’s brother Aromal was once challenged to a similar duel with Aringodar. When Unniyarcha heard of this, she gave this piece of brilliant tactical advice to her brother's companion Chandu just before they left for the Ankam. The ballads note her as saying:

“While my brother is going for the duel,

you are the companion going with him

when he is on the pedestal for the fight

do keep vigil and be right beside him 

When the substitute’s Churika strikes

it will hit only through the middle

if forged churika is given,

hit through right first

substitute’s churika will be thrown off”

These words show how Archa was not just a concerned sister, but also an expert warrior. Her brother's companion, cousin Chandu, however, begrudged Aromal. As such he influenced the blacksmith to set the sword with a wooden nail instead of an iron one, weakening Aromal's position in the duel. Even though Aromal killed Aringodar in the battle, he himself, was severly injuries. Chandu took advantage of the opportunity and killed Aromal. The aggrieved Unniyarcha, could not bear the loss of her brother and declared that Chandu's death has, henceforth, become the avowed purpose of her life. She spent rest of her life training her only son Aromalunni, and nephew Kannappanunni to avenge her brother’s death. Her words to the Puthooram boys, just before sending them with the orders of beheading Chandu Chekavar also befitting a brave heroine. She said; “If you die fighting, I will receive your body in silken clothes and give you a proper funeral. But if you receive an arrow from a hidden foe, I will wrap you in green leaves and no ceremonies will be performed”. The boys fulfill their mission by bring back Chandu Chekavar’s severed head to settle the vendetta. Archa had aged by this time, thus she decided to retreat to the temple in Omalur to spend the rest of her days in peace, singing bhajanas of the Gods. When her son Aromalunni offered his support for his aged mother, she politely refused by saying "Your mother needed no support in her bloom". She then asked her son to come to the temple on the seventh day. When he reached the temple after seven days, she had already passed away and her dead body was lying near the river. 

This is the story of Unniyarcha, the indomitable heroine of Kerala.

Postscript:

Unniyarcha, who died of old age, lived in the 16th century.  There have been reports claiming that Unniyarcha of Puthooram family was captured by Tipu of Mysore who attacked Malabar in 1789. This is patently wrong, because Tipu reached Malabar nearly 200 years after the death of the valiant Unniyarcha. These attempts to rewrite history could arguably be seen as a way to undermine the  valour of a fierce woman, who single-handedly defeated her oppressors. Strong, fierce, native women, after all, have always had a deep psychological affect on entrenched elite, as they tend to threaten the very fiber of manufactured narratives.