Why the century-old Ezhava rebellion in Kalpathy remains a forgotten footnote in Kerala history

The campaign for the right to use public roads to all residents who pay taxes, regardless of caste, culminated in January 1925.

ByK A Shaji

Published Nov 29, 2023 | 11:00 AMUpdated Nov 29, 2023 | 11:00 AM

Why the century-old Ezhava rebellion in Kalpathy remains a forgotten footnote in Kerala history

Several centuries have passed since Tamil Brahmins from Thanjavur and its neighbouring areas relocated to Kalpathy and 63 other localities ruled by the Nair Rajah of the Tharoor Swaroopam in Kerala’s present-day Palakkad district.

The local ruler, already at loggerheads with the native Namboodiri Brahmins who controlled the temples, welcomed them with open arms.

According to legend, the irate Namboodiri Brahmins were then forced to migrate to the adjacent princely states of Travancore and Kochi, where they received favourable treatment from the respective local kings and were allowed control of larger temples.

Among the Tamil Brahmin settlements of Palakkad, Kalpathy remains the largest in terms of both size and population. Kalpathy has retained its particular culture and heritage, independent from its neighbours outside the community, over the years.

Lone houses in the village retain their old-world elegance, with kitchens that continue to dish out traditional Tamil Brahmin delicacies without sacrificing their distinctiveness.

The rich aroma of filter coffee and the chanting of Vedic hymns greet visitors to the village. Women wearing kanakambaram — or Crossandra — flowers in their hair can be seen sketching the traditional kolams — rangolis — in the courtyards.

Tourists from all over the world visit the area every year, and the annual Rathotsavam — or car festival —  at the local temple remains a great draw for residents and visitors alike.

Every November, tourists from all over the world travel to the settlement to experience the perfect blend of music, unique ceremonies, and the movement of the historic chariots down the streets.

Also read: Thanthai Periyar’s role and his many differences with Gandhi

A recent controversy

Kalpathy is a peaceful village on the banks of a rivulet that serves as a primary feeder for the Bharathapuzha, Kerala’s second-largest river.

Old row houses in Kalpathy Photo: Supplied

Line houses in Kalpathy Photo: (Supplied)

With young people preferring lucrative careers outside the hamlet, the village is mostly populated by elderly people.

Two years ago, the settlement grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons when V Chitambaresh, a then-Kerala High Court justice, spoke at a Tamil Brahmin global convention in Kochi and praised Brahmins as “twice-born” with “all desirable attributes”.

The sitting judge’s speech against caste-based quotas for socially backward groups invited criticism, as did his call for economic reservation, in addition to elevating Brahmins above all other castes and communities.

Chitambaresh, a Kalpathy native, had dragged the heritage hamlet back into the spotlight with his statement.

While the then-judge spoke poetically about the residents of Kalpathy and the other Brahmin agraharams in Palakkad and their sterling character and lofty thinking, many used the opportunity to recall a buried but horrible chapter in Kalpathy’s little-known past.

Beginnings of the revolt

Even around the beginning of the 1920s, untouchability was rampant in Kalpathy, despite the efforts of Tamil Brahmin community members like TR Krishna Swamy, a Gandhian who worked to teach notions of tolerance and coexistence.

Members of the Ezhava community were forbidden from using the main roads that ran through this Brahmin village and were denied the opportunity to worship at the village temple.

The Ezhava people in Palakkad launched a rebellion to protest against this custom after receiving inspiration from the legendary temple entry agitations at Vaikom in the present-day Kottayam district.

Speeches by Mahatma Gandhi, Thanthai Periyar, and others in Vaikom had instilled confidence in the Ezhavas of Palakkad to campaign for rights on par with those of Tamil Brahmins.

Even though the then-British Presidency of Madras, which comprised Palakkad and Kalpathy, issued a decree allowing Ezhavas to enter Kalpathy, the conservative Brahmins fiercely opposed it.

Any Ezhava attempting to enter the settlement was attacked with logs and iron rods.

Also read: All about a stir that fine-tuned the non-violence movement

Recording forgotten history

Even though the Kalpathy revolt was as much of a protest as the legendary Vaikkom temple entry satyagraha, it turned out to be a forgotten footnote in Kerala history.

The car festival at Kalpathy. Photo: K A Shaji

The car festival at Kalpathy. (K A Shaji)

According to historian MGS Narayanan, the Kalpathy rebellion failed to garner appropriate notice, partly because of the lack of participation by any national leader. The Congress had also failed to link it with the national movement, as it did in the case of Vaikom Satyagraha.

As a result, even though the Kalpathy rebellion will be 100 years old next year, it has not yet grabbed attention. The centenary year festivities for Vaikom are underway, with several events attended by national leaders.

Under the supervision of Boban Mattumantha, a group of social scholars in Palakkad recently produced a Malayalam compilation that disclosed previously unknown details concerning the Ezhava rebellion against Brahmins in Kalpathy.

The core principle of the Ezhava insurrection was simple: There should be no limits on people travelling on public roads built with government funds.

Ezhavas from Chenganniyur, Thenkurissi, Panayur, Kottekkad, and Vilayanchathanur congregated at the Yakkara temple grounds on 24 October, 1917, and sought to enter Kalpathy. They were organised by Nadesa Pillai, a well-known Tamil academic.

The meeting passed a resolution declaring the right to stroll down any street a fundamental right. The Ezhavas were wary of the Home Rule Movement at the time since it comprised upper castes and promoted cohabitation.

They believed that the Home Rule Movement’s upper-caste members would eventually deceive them and that caste-based inequity would persist until their demands were realised.

Even though the Brahmins and Ezhavas negotiated admission into Kalpathy for five years, the conversations ended in early 1923.

On 31 March, 1923, an agitated group of Ezhava teenagers staged a big meeting to expose the Brahminical aims. Numerous religious groups, including Brahmins who opposed caste-based discrimination, were present at the rally.

Social reformer C Krishnan, editor of the publication Mithavaadi, presided over the gathering, and notable speakers included Sahodaran Ayyappan, Sathyvratha Swami, and Sadhu Sivaprasad.

Among the dignitaries, Sahodaran Ayyappan delivered a speech in which he urged progressive youth from caste Hindu families to change their names to remove the caste identity.

He urged writer Kesava Pillai to drop his caste tag and use the name Kesava Dasan, which loosely translates as Kesava’s slave. Pillai stated that he would not be a slave to anyone, but he had no objections to being renamed Kesava Dev.

P Kesavadev went on to become one of Malayalam’s best novelists who wrote classics like Odayil Ninnu (From the Gutter) and Ayalkkar (Neighbours).

Also read: Here’s the untold story of the ‘anti-Satyagraha’ movement at Vaikom

Freedom of movement

Delegates from the then-princely states of Travancore and Kochi attended the conference, which surprised the British.

A food shop in Kalpathy. Photo: Supplied

A food shop in Kalpathy. (Supplied)

On 25 September, 1924, an order was issued from Fort St George, Madras, the capital of the Madras Presidency, allowing anyone of any religion, caste, or community to use public highways, government buildings, or locations of public interest.

It also permitted anyone to get water from any public well.

In Ezhavas’ hands, the order became a powerful weapon, and they requested access to Kalpathy from 13 to 15 November, 1924, to participate in the annual car festival there. This was when the Vaikom Satyagraha, which commenced in March that year, was already several months old.

On 13 November, 1924, hundreds of Palakkad Ezhavas came to the Kalpathy entry gate after British officials guaranteed their safety.

The Kalpathy Brahmins resisted their entry; stones were thrown at Ezhava leaders, and several were brutally attacked.

Leaders like Thachamoochikkal Chami, Damodaran, and Padmanabhan were seriously injured, but undeterred, more Ezhavas assembled in the area.

Fearing further unrest, British authorities placed prohibitory orders on Kalpathy and its surroundings, forcing the Ezhavas to flee.

However, legislator R Veerayyan raised the subject in the Madras Assembly, urging that the discrimination be ended.

Reformers Sree Narayana Guru and TK Madhavan visited Palakkad and voiced solidarity with the Ezhavas.

The group decided to make another peaceful attempt to enter Kalpathy on 19 December, 1924.

Before it could take place, the British government established a five-member commission to study caste bias, and the march was cancelled at its request.

The panel held hearings in Palakkad during the first week of January 1925. The 18 Brahmins and 11 Ezhavas who attended the hearing found themselves locked in an intense argument.

Finally, on 9 January 1925, a historic edict was passed, allowing all castes to enter the Kalpathy pathways.

The bigotry that had existed for a millennia and more thus came to an end.

The victory of the Kalpathy revolt encouraged various social reform groups in Kerala and enhanced the spirit of the Palakkad region’s untouchables.

“Historians and social scientists should do more research on the Kalpathy uprising of Ezhavas against Brahmin hegemony. It has implications for now when higher caste ideas continue to harm the concept of equality and justice,” opined Dalit Scholar Sunny Kapikkad to South First.

Several leaders of the agitation later converted to Christianity in protest. Strangely, the Brahmins allowed the newly converted Christians to use the Kalpathy routes. One of those who converted, John Kitta, subsequently became a communist legislator.