When we talk about “freedom fighters” today, the people who pop up in our heads are leaders of the nationalist movement that gripped the Indian subcontinent in the late 19th and early 20th century. But long before 1947, and before 1857, there was a prince took up arms against the British East India Company. A prince who went into the pages of history to be fondly remembered as Kerala Simham.
Pazhassi Raja does not need an introduction. We’ve grown up listening to stories about him, and Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, the movie, gave us a glimpse into the life of this legendary man. But here are a few facts about him that the movie did not explain, or missed out entirely.
- Pazhassi Raja was the only prince from the Kottayam royal clan to stay and fight when Hyder Ali invaded Kottayam (not related to the present day Kottayam city). When his kin found asylum in the Kingdom of Travancore, Pazhassi took up arms and fought the invaders. For standing his ground and fighting the invaders, he won the adoration of his people and was hailed a hero.
- Pazhassi employed guerilla warfare to combat Hyder Ali, just as he would do with the British not long after. He knew that his strength always was in his knowledge of Wayand and the ways of the jungle.
- Pazhassi Raja fought the Company for the right to maintain the independence of his kingdom – the Kingdom of Kottayam (Cotiote). Kerala did not exist as a cohesive territory at the time and was a collection of princely states (who had signed agreements with the British).
- Pazhassi’s war against the East India Company is known as the Cotiote War (Kottayathu War) and spanned across 13 years; from 1793 to 1806. This is the longest anti-British resistance put up by any Indian leader.
- Pazhassi is said to have fought in all major encounters in the war, putting himself in harm’s way. And it is also said that he shared all the privations of ordinary soldiers.
- Pazhassi’s main opponent on the British side was Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. I’m sure you’ve heard of Napoleon Bonaparte. Arthur Wellesley defeated him at the Battle of Waterloo. He was also the commander who defeated the Marathas during the Second Anglo-Maratha War. But the sole defeat in the illustrious military career of this Brit, who went on to become the Prime Minister of Great Britain, was to Pazhassi.
- Wellesley who went back to England in 1804, after having failed to capture Pazhassi, is said to have remarked, “We are not fighting 1000 men… but one man … Kerala Varma.”
- The British losses in the Cotiote War went into the thousands. It is said that the mortality rate was particularly high among commissioned officer; which is expected in guerilla warfare.
- The term “guerilla warfare” was coined after Arthur Wellesley’s campaigns during the Peninsular War (1808–14) where he recruited Spanish and Portuguese irregulars (called guerrilleros) to drive the French from the Iberian Peninsula. It is not too far fetched to think that he might have borrowed some of Pazhassi’s military tactics.
- Pazhassi and his men were ambushed by the British troops at their campsite near a stream named Mavila on the 18 November 1805. He died in this ambush. Such was the reverence for this leader that the British cremated him with full military honours.
And as we celebrate Independence Day this year, let’s remember this warrior-king who fought for his Kingdom and the welfare of his people.