Saga of Fight for Independence:
Chapter 8: Pazhassi Raja
Pazhassi Raja was born as Kerala Varma and was also known as Cotiote Rajah and Pychy Rajah. He was a warrior Hindu prince and de facto head of the kingdom of Kottayam, otherwise known as Cotiote, in Malabar, India, between 1774 and 1805. His struggles with the British East India Company is known as the Cotiote War. He is popularly known as Kerala Simham (Lion of Kerala) on account of his martial exploits.
Pazhassi Raja was a member of the western branch of the Kottayam royal clan. He was born on 3 January 1753. He was just 20 years old When Hyder Ali of the Kingdom of Mysore occupied Malabar in 1773, the Raja of Kottayam found political asylum in Travancore. Pazhassi Raja, the fourth prince in line for succession to the throne during this period, became one of the de facto heads of state, surpassing several older royal contenders. He fought a war of resistance against the Mysorean army from 1774 to 1793. On account of his refusal to flee and due to his effective resistance to Hyder Ali, he gained firm support of his subjects.
In 1792, after the Third Anglo-Mysore War, the East India Company imposed control in Kottayam in violation of an earlier agreement of 1790 which had recognised its independence. Vira Varma, to whom Raja was a nephew, was appointed by the East India Company authorities as the Raja of Kottayam. To meet revenue targets fixed by Company authorities, Vira Varma ordered an exorbitant tax to be collected from the peasantry and this move was met in 1793 by a mass resistance led by Pazhassi Raja, who had always been opposed to the Company’s rule. In 1796, the Company made an attempt to arrest Pazhassi Raja, but he evaded capture and instead fought back using guerilla warfare. After a string of serious setbacks, the Company sued for peace in 1797. The conflict was renewed in 1800 over a dispute on Wayanad and after a five-year-long war of insurgency, Pazhassi Raja was killed on 30 November 1805 in a gun-fight at Mavila Thodu (small body of water), in the present day Kerala-Karnataka border.
One of the greatest victories of Pazhassi against the British was a 13-year-long war known as the ‘Cotiote War’ or the Kottayathe war.
The Cotiote War (Kottayathe war) refers to a series of continuous struggles fought between the Cotiote Kottayam king, Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma, and the English East India Company across a span of thirteen years between 1793 and 1806. Pazhassi Raja aimed to preserve the independence and unity of his kingdom while the British were determined to annex and dismember it. His own desire for independence and sense of betrayal by English on their earlier promise to respect his country’s independence combined with constant exhortations of his two patriot noblemen, Kaitheri Ambu and Kannavath Sankaran, led to outbreak of Cotiote War.
It is the longest war waged by English East India Company during their wars of conquests in India – much longer than Anglo-Mysore Wars, Anglo-Maratha Wars, Anglo-Sikh Wars and Polygar Wars. It was one of the bloodiest and hardest wars waged by English in India – English regiments that operated suffered losses as high as eighty percent in 10 years of warfare. Cotiote army waged guerrilla warfare, chiefly centred in mountain forests of Aralam and Wynad, and larger zone of conflict extended from Mysore to Arabian Sea, from Coorg to Coimbatore.
Warfare peaked in early 1797, 1800 to 1801, and 1803 to 1804 and due to constant reverses, Bombay regiments were withdrawn and instead Madras regiments were deployed with an increase in number of troops – from 8,000 in 1803 to 14,000 in early 1804.
Led by Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington who was considered to be one of the world’s greatest generals for his triumphs against Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of Waterloo and the Marathas during the second Anglo-Maratha War, the British forces met with a humiliating defeat that they never forgot.
The interference in local governance by the British and their monopoly over the local economy didn’t infuriate Pazhassi as much as the exploitation of the common people did. When repeated warnings failed to reach the ears of the British echelons, Pazhassi decided to take things under his own hands. Because of his refusal to abandon his people and successful war tactics earlier, Pazhassi had already earned respect from the people who offered him their firm support for all his decisions.
However, the British couldn’t bear such an insult, and in 1796, they launched an attack at Pazhassi’s palace with a troop of 300 men. While Pazhassi and his men escaped this attack and found refuge in the thick forests of Wayanad, all of the royal treasuries were ransacked and seized by the British.
It was Pazhassi’s masterstroke that brought down an army of 1100 men led by Major Cameron in 1797. The British were completely dumbfounded and could not understand how a local Malabar king came to become such a thorn in their side, and consistently resist their demands.
However, the peace was short-lived. Following the death of Tipu Sultan, tensions and hostilities between the British and Kottayam kingdom began to spiral once again. After acquiring Mysore, the greedy eyes of British now rested on Wayanad, which they intended to annex with the former region.
This time, the person up against Pazhassi was Major General Arthur Wellesley, the infamous commander, who was planning a coup to not just overthrow Pazhassi’s hold but also eliminate an elusive adversary, to bring the status quo in their favour.
However, the British had a new tactic palnned. They reinstated the ‘Kolkars’, a native police force whose insider knowledge of the thick jungles and its ways would help the troops to finally capture Pazhassi. what a great general like Wellesley could not achieve was ironically nailed by the Kolkars, whose treachery finally sold out the people’s king.
Following a long-drawn combat, the troops managed to take down Pazhassi for the first and the last time.
Cotiote War is the only war in which famed General Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington failed – Wellesley himself admitted that Cotiote War cannot be won as long as Raja was alive and his prediction came true. Cotiote War ended within months of death of Cotiote leader, Pazhassi Raja in a skirmish on 30 November 1805. Following this war, kingdom of Cotiote was annexed into district of Malabar in Madras Presidency.
English had 6,000 men in the beginning which was increased to 8,000 in 1800 and to 14,000 in 1804 – Arthur Wellesley was in charge of operations between 1800 and 1804. Cotiote army manpower is not exactly known – estimates vary between 2,000 and 6,000. Cotiote army was well equipped with fire-locks but ran short of musket ammunition after 1799 and so used bows and swords widely. 10 years of war had caused 80 percent loss in British ranks – both European officers and Sepoys. But no estimate is available about death roll in Cotiote armies.
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Dr. Sindhu Prashanth