By now, you would’ve seen Mamangam. We knew that the movie was going to be about the Mamangam festival (it’s in the name, after all). But we were curious to know which episode of this ancient festival would be showcased in the movie. And it was about the ‘child-soldier’ who nearly killed the Samoothiri.
Mamangam, the movie, is based on the events of the Mamangam held in 1695 and documented in the book A New Account of the East Indies, Volume I by Alexander Hamilton. Here’s what the book says,
“In Amo 1695, one of the Jubilees happened, and the Tent pitched near Pennany, a Seaport of his, about fifteen Leagues to the Southward of Calecut. There were but three Men that would venture on that desperate Action, who fell in, with Sword and Target, among the Guards, and, after they had killed and wounded many, were themselves killed. One of the Defperados had a Nephew of fifteen or sixteen Years of Age, that kept close by his Uncle in the Attack on the Guards, and, when he faw him fall, the Youth got through the Guards in to the Tent, and make a Stroke at his Majesty’s Head, and had certainly dispatched him, if large Brass Lamp which was burning over his Head, had not marred the Blow; but, before he could make another, he was killed by the Guards; and, I believe, the fame Samoris reigns yet.”
The movie focused on the story of this teenager and his uncle who came close to achieving their impossible objective – the death of the Samoothiri.
But before we talk about their story, we have to understand what the Mamangam is.
Mamangam was a gathering and fair, much like the Kumbh Mela, that was held every 12 years on the banks of the Periyar. The origins of the Mamangam is shrouded in myth. It is believed that it started off as a festival for the coronation of the “Perumal of Kerala“. It is said that the landlords of the region gathered at the banks of the Bharathappuzha once every 12 years, to choose their leader. This leader, who would be hailed as the Perumal of Kerala, would rule the kingdom for 12 years. After which he would have to step down from office, retire into private life or get exiled from the kingdom.
But if you think that them retiring to a life of seclusion after the 12-year term seems like a great sacrifice, Alexander Hamilton talks of a gorier predicament that awaited the Perumal at the end of the term. He says that the Perumal would go up on a scaffolding erected at the festival and cut his own throat. His body would be cremated with much fanfare, and a new Perumal would be elected. This story is corroborated by the Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa, who makes the same claim but that the ruler sacrificed himself in front of the idol.
Either way, it was believed that over time the Perumals grew powerful and refused to relinquish power after the 12-year term, and the Mamangam became a festival for all lords in the region to come and show fielty to the king. Instead of abdicating the throne, the Perumal (by now called the Permal of Cranganore) sat in a tent in the banks during the Mamangam. He would be surrounded by his guards and troops that swore allegiance to him. But anyone who would like to contest his authority was allowed to mount an assault and grasp the throne by killing the Perumal. The last Chera Perumal, Cheraman Rama Varma Kulasekhara who ruled from 1089-1124 CE, is said to have survived 3 Mamangams at Tirunavaya.
Cheraman Rama Varma Kulasekhara conferred the right to conduct the Mamangam to the ruler of Valluvanatu, who came to be called the Vellattiri. He also made Tirumandhamkunnattu Bhagavati the Vellattiri’s guardian deity. Hence, the Vellattiri came to be The Great Protector with the right to conduct Mamangam.
But this right was taken away when the Samoothiri or Zamorin of Calicut invaded Tirunavaya. From then on, the Samoothiri conducted the Mamangam and acquired the title, The Great Protector. At the Mamangam, all lords and rulers of Kerala had to send emissaries and pledge fielty to him. The flags of these houses were hoisted at the Mamangam to display their allegiance to the Samoothiri. But not everyone saw him as their leader. The Vellattiri, chief of Valluvanatu, considered the Samoothiri a usurper, sent his men to kill him and regain the throne.
Now, this is the story that has become legendary; the story of the Chavers. The Chaver motto was supposed, “Angam jayichitte varu!”, which roughly translates to “We will return only as victors!”. Meaning, they would fight onto death. And that’s what they did.
The Chavers have always fascinated me as, in my head, I pictured a version of the Roman gladiatory combat happening at the Mamangam. But unlike the Roman gladiators, the Chavers were soldiers who had sworn allegiance to the Vellattiri. They belong to various families from Valluvanatu and were led by warriors from one of the four major Nair houses of the region – Putumanna Panikkars, Candrattu Panikkars, Vayankara Panikkars, and Verkotu Panikkars. They were said to assemble at Thirumanthamkunnu before they marched to the Mamangam.
The Chavers faced impossible odds. They were usually just a handful of men. Men who were fuelled by kutippaka or blood feud – an endless cycle of seeking revenge for the killing relatives and ancestors by the Samoothiri’s men in earlier Mamangams. This troop of bravehearts went against the Samoothiri’s forces that outnumbered them greatly. The futility of their endeavour eventually led to the name Chaviers becoming synonymous with “suicide squad”.
The movie covers the story of three such Chaviers. While there are multiple accounts of the incident, the movie seems to be going by Alexander Hamilton’s version set in 1695, when a teenage Chavier nearly killed the Samoothiri; the Samoothiri being saved by a thookkuvilakku. Though the historical accounts talk of a 15-16 year-old boy, the movie has a 12 year-old character set in the role. It is said that this 16 year-old boy was Putumanna Kandaru Menon. But he is said to have done the feat in 1755 at the last Mamangam (lots of conflicting accounts).
Either way, it should come as no surprise to us that Mamangam is an emotional roller coaster. We are drawn to empathise with the underdog, much like we were drawn to do in the Valkyrie. But deep inside, we know that it is based on historical accounts and so the end is inevitable. This movie has us leaving the theatres weighed down by sorrow, but at the same time, fascinated by our colourful history and interested in finding out more about our long, eventful past.