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Story Research by Jose

            Historicity of    
     The Ballads of Malabar



Vadakkan-paattukal are songs from ancient Malabar about the heroic exploits of Chekavar (Kalarippyattu warriors) and their Ankam (duel to death) on the arena. This article is about how these ballads, through centuries, have come down to us.

Period. 13th to 18th Century A.D.

Chekavars were warriors trained in the kalaris of Malabar where kalarippayattu - the ancient Kerala martial arts, was taught. It is believed that they descend from a dozen clans from the island of Lanka, which were invited by local chieftains to settle in Malabar. >>>>


Disputes, in those times, were settled by duels. A Chekavar’s profession was to duel to death on the arena against another Chevakar - for a price. It was a Chekavar’s dharma to accept a sponsor’s commission and step onto the arena to use his prowess against another chekava clansman for winning his sponsor’s cause. By defeating the one opposing him, a victorious Chevakar affirmed the dispute in favour of his sponsor … and thrashed the one who endorsed his opponent.


What were the disputes?


Family feuds, sibling rivalry, inheritance brawls, … a slandered damsel asserting her chastity to her detractors, etc.


Ankam & Ankathattu (the Duel & the Stage)


Since the dawn of times, feuds leading to skirmishes leading to war, was the norm in all tribal settlements. As elsewhere in the world, this was true in Malabar also … till wise men wanted to do something about it. When two mighty egos clash and sword slashes spill-over onto the streets, it envelops not just the two prestige at stake … but also lives in the community as men rally towards the feuding camps … and, cycles of bloody wars of vendetta ensue. In hindsight, the wise saw a never ending trail of blood … some stretching over so many generations, that the combatants of a latter day even forgot the reason why the dispute had started in the first place!      


So sometime during the turn of the first millennium, the wise village chieftains of Malabar found a practical way out.  It was called the Ankam (duel to death).  If at all two individuals or clans had an issue to be settled, they could sponsor two swordsmen - as proxy. These swordsmen would fight a duel on an arena in front of the spectators (and the clan’s terraphims) till one was bloodied and fell down dead. Such clash of swords always happened on a stage erected in the temple courtyard - right under the eyes of the village deity to ensure that the outcome is divinely ordained and the righteous side emerges victorious. >>


That verdict would seal the dispute!

The pool of blood spilled on the stage, a few limbs strewn around the arena, a family orphaned … all these seemed to appease the gods!

Well, if not gods, at least an audience cheering the bloodsport … also the gratified Paanan (bard) who compose a new ballad on one more heroic exploit of his Chekava champion … and then the peasants in the paddy fields, whom the new ballad forsook the heat, dust and wariness. All it took was two trained swordsmen who had nothing against each other, fighting somebody’s cause for a fee, while a horde out on festivity cheered and jeered. Crowds thronged to the event where the pedlars of goods, soothsayers and harlots opened shops around the arena. The ruler benefitted by taxing such services and sales.  

This bloody sport of Ankam was fought on a specially made elevated stage called Ankathattu, which of prescribed size, was made out of Tamarind planks and propped up on teak logs. It was with the Ankams that a professional clan of swordsmen of Chevakars evolved.  

sketches by Alice Mahamudra
for research paper by Jose Punnoose

As in the Indian caste system, Chevakar clan remained a family custom where the tradition was handed from the patriarch to his descendants.  In the ancient lores there are stories of father vs son, uncle vs nephew pitted against each other on the Ankathattu. For, it was against the dharma of the Chevakar to refuse a sponsor once he met the Chekavar’s market price.


By the 17th century, members of upper caste Nair clan - who constituted the king’s  army (nayar-pada), became prominent in waging Ankam.  


Chevakar Mahasabha (Guild)


There evolved a Guild or Sabha which set codes of conduct, standards, rules and practices.

This chevaka apex body was called Chekavar Mahasabha.

They awarded the ‘Ankathali’ license (a talisman) to the sword fighters who graduated from the Kalari schools and qualified in annual competitions.

The Mahasabha had a mediation committee and even a panel of umpires to supervise the Ankams.  




Kalaris were not just martial schools, it way a way of life in ancient Kerala. The Kalari Guru or Aashaan was not just a teacher of self defence. The master was a go for person for anything, a spiritual counsellor, one who treated injuries or mended broken limbs, also prescribed herbs or potions for physical ailments. The Kalari curriculum, evolved over centuries, had prescribed school calendar, specified size for the practice yards, well-defined rules of initiation and graduation, etc.  Kids of 7 years of age - both boys and girls, got enrolled in Kalari schools. The young aspirants might be impatient to grab the weapons and swing! But Kalari wisdom precluded that. The initial years were spend in training and toning the body with physical exercises. These movements and exercises were accompanied by a recitation of litanies.


The Malabar coast is awash with songs and stories of several such bloody battles which has soaked and suffused the soil. Even the lashing monsoon rain over centuries was not able to remove the blood stain from the laterite Malabar soil. >>>>


In the 20th century, it was Irishman Percy MacQueen of Indian Civil Service.  He was conversant in Malayalam and served as the collector of Malabar in the Madras Presidency.


The first publication of Ballads of North Malabar was done by Madras University in the year 1935 when Mr Percy MacQueen was the Collector of Madras & Chingleput District. It was Chelanat Achutha Menon who headed the Malayalam department in the Madras University.  

In the 18th century, it was Hermann Gundert - a pastor turned linguist from Germany, who also did codify the first Malayalam language Dictionary.    


In the 1900s, it was William Logan - a Scottish officer of Madras Civil service. As the Collector of Malabar, he was conversant in all South Indian languages.      

A literate upper class had dismissed these folk songs of the peasants as  ‘cacophony of the lower class’ and never took any effort to scribe it on palm leaf parchments. However, there came eminent foreigners who, understanding the collective native wisdom, had these ballads written down.  

Hermann Gundert
William Logan
Chelanat Achutha Menon 
3rd from right Percy McQueen.

Paanar - the balladeer  


Mentioned in ancient Tamil literature, the Paanar or balladeer is a caste of professional singers found in South India. In the Malabar part of Northern Kerala, apart from serving their customary role of a minstrel in the countryside, Paanan also played as personal publicist of a Chevakar. The songs he sang about the brave Chevakars, were about their skills and exploits off and on the arena - at times chivalrous and at times amorous.


Modern day -


The widespread practice and prevalence of Kalaripayattu in Kerala began to decline in the 17th century, when the usage of guns and cannons became widespread. This also coincided with the European invasions into Kerala, after which, firearms began to surpass the usage of traditional weaponry such as swords and spears.[29][1] 


In 1804, the British banned Kalaripayattu in Kerala in response to the Kottayathu War, a rebellion against British rule in Kerala lead by the Keralite king Pazhassi Raja. The ban came into effect shortly after Pazhassi Raja's death on November 30th, 1805, resulting in the closure of most of the major kalari training grounds in Kerala.  


Many Keralite gurukkals of Kalaripayattu resisted the ban and continued to teach Kalaripayattu to their students in secret and preserved the martial art for posterity. They were responsible for preserving Kalaripayattu into the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as sparking the revival of Kalaripayattu in Kerala in the 1920s.[30][6] 

Sketches by Alice Mahamudra

Research paper by Jose Punnoose 



Vadakkan Pattukal

- Ballads of Northern Kerala (Malabar)


The Chevakar were the celebrities of the era. Ballads of Northern Kerala are folk songs or Veera Gathas of the Chevakar.

These folk songs were handed down in oral tradition.

Peasants sang them to alleviate boredom and become rejuvenated while toiling in the hot, dusty fields under the relentless tropical sun. During late night festivities - such as a wedding feast preparation, the ballad lyric could get spiced up a bit, turn raunchy enough to draw chuckles and ward-off sleep while they pounded rice in the big granite pestle or grounded coconut scrapings. Family reunions at late night bonfires were another perfect setting for these songs as they slipped into sleep.


How awareness of Vadakkan-paattukal entered the modern Malayalee psyche

It would not be an exaggeration to state that, if it were not for Kunchacko and other filmmakers of Malayalam Cinema who portrayed the life and times of Aromal Chekavar, Thacholi Othena Kurup and other warriors in films on the malabar ballads, this episode in Kerala history would have been largely unknown to a Keralite. 


Vadakkanpaattu films by Kunchacko

More of valour-related sociological conflicts … than display of martial arts !


Kunchacko’s film Unniyarcha (1961), about a female Chekava warrior, was the first such. Written by Sarangapani (based on a stage play of the ballad of Unniyarcha), this landmark film portrayed 12th C Malabar’s fiery blood feuds and justice rendered by the sword … with a female (played by a 24 year old Ragini) as the lead character!


Amorous intrusion into a maid’s chamber. Satyan, Ragini in 
Othenante Makan (1969)


In a combat with the elephant, the hero wins the princess’s hand.  

Prem Nazir in film Aromalunni (1971)


On the arena, a mother chastises her son … for playing foul!    Ravichander,

K. Ponnamma, Prem Nazir in Aromalunni


The nuptial of the hero and heroine takes a dramatic turn into a duel between the the two ... and results in death!  The climax of this film dealt with family blood feud, chekava oath and the warrior code.  Vijayasree and Prem Nazir in film Ponnapuram Kotta (1973)


Slandered as a fallen woman, spurned by her betrothed, this maid of Kadathanadu challenges any male of the land to defeat her in duel and prove her unchaste!

Sheela and Ummer in film Thumbolarcha (1974). 

Coveted by every suitor noble and ignoble in the land, Ponni of Mamangalam was arrogant to ridicule them all as unworthy of her. Their opportunity to get even with her comes unexpectedly when she, to cover nudity, takes pudava (clothe) from a woodcutter who saves her from drowning. Since accepting pudava is also an act ritualising marriage, she is forced by the grudgers to take him as her husband. In revenge, she vows to train her moronic spouse into a champion and defeat all of them in duel!  Sheela and Nazir in film Kannappanunni (1977).

Kunchacko leading the re-construction of a storm-damaged film shooting floor.

Illustration by RK

All  photo-realistic sketches

by Narayana Murthy (Kishkinta)

From an article on Udaya Studios Alappuzha

by Josy Joseph.

Images Udaya Archives. 


More on Kunchacko & Udaya Studios Alappuzha >>>

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