Sunday, 22 April 2007

Day 5 Nairs and their monuments

Courtesy of the British Library

One of my prime objectives for my making my trip to India was to try to be able to understand and especially to be able to visualise what the people and places described in the many letters and documents I had transcribed in the British Library had looked like.

Amongst the most interesting of the characters described in the letters and documents I had come across were the Nairs, a Hindu warrior and farming community.

Thomas Baber had obviously come to greatly admire this community, and he seems to have formed his closest links with the Indian communities he lived amongst through the mediation of one particular Nair, Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen.

In 1812 Colonel James Welsh described him as follows: -

“One of the bravest, most intelligent, most indefatigable, most liberal, and most honourable men, I ever knew in my life, was a native of Malabar; a Naire by birth & education….

“A soldier at heart, though not by profession, he had long been accustomed to such service, and had attended Mr. Baber for years in similar wars; both on the coast and in Wynaud. He was clad in the plainest garb; and, on the march, wore a brown cloth waistcoat, buttoned over his angrekah, or white jacket, and had an English hunting cap on his head; carrying a single barrelled fowling piece over his shoulder, and a sword by his side.”

Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen came originally from the village Ramnaad which according to Colonel Welsh was twelve miles south east of Calicut and six miles from the sea shore.

Professor Narayanan in his book "Calicut. The City of Truth" calls this man Pulapra Kanaru Menoen, calling the village Ramanattukara.

Thomas Baber's high opinion of Menoen is shown in the following extracts in letters written by Thomas in 1817 to Sir Thomas Munro.

. I have given this note to Carnakera Menoen, who will most readily accompany you as far as you think his services may be useful---

I am dear sir
Most faithfully yours
April 17th 1817 T.H. Baber

That Sir Thomas Munro made use of Tom’s suggestion, that he should take Carnakera Menoen, as a guide is clear from the next letter written by Tom to Sir Thomas Munro on 28th April 1817.

My dear Sir Private

I am favoured with your letter returning the Papers, and am most happy to find my old servant has acquitted himself so much to your satisfaction, I had no doubt whatever he would, the more indeed you know him, the more you must be pleased with his ……… and especially the frank declaration of his opinions – What a loss it is to the Company that they should be deprived of the services of such a man inconsequence of a vile party faction. – Cananakera Menoen was with me in Canara and will be able to give you a tolerable insight into the state of affairs when I succeeded Mr Wilson

It is not clear when Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen first entered Thomas Baber's service, but it was before 1805, and it is quite likely that it may have been whilst Thomas was first stationed at Calicut in 1797.

Menoen was probably the medium by which Thomas first came to learn and understand local cultures and languages. Together over the next thirty five years they would work together to improve conditions for the local people in the Malabar and to try to lessen the harm being done by the East India Company rule, misrule and corruption.

According to William Logan, in his Malabar Manual, Nairs numbered about 320,000 strong in 1881. They were the warrior militia of the people. Most ran farms, and in many ways they correspond to the Medieval English Yeoman.

The country was divided up into Tara, which were extended households run by Karanavar or elders. These elders ran an assembly, and amongst the assemblies roles was the protection of the people against tyranny and oppression of the Rajas who came from the higher castes.

Courtesy of the Pazhassi Raja Museum.

The Pazhassi Raja Museum has several especially fine 16th and 17th century tombstone monuments showing these fierce warriors with their large swords and wearing strings of perals around their necks. Nairs feature greatly in the events in the Malabar throughout the period of the European conquest and conflicts in the Malabar. Large numbers were hired by the British in the 17th and 18th century, to defend their settlements against Hyder and Tippu, as well as against the Canarese armies.

Traditionally they went bare chested. It is possible that the warrior in the first pencil illustration may be in the East India Company service, and he may have been issued with a shirt to differentiate him from Nairs fighting against the East India Company. Is this shirt an "angrekah" perhaps?

The Calicut East India Company Linguist wrote on the 28th May 1746:-

"These Nayars, being heads of the Calicut people, resemble a parliament, and they do not obey the kings dictates in all things, but chastise his ministers when they do unwarrantable acts."

Nairs were also supervisors and overseers.

I believe that Menoen and Thomas Baber must have come to understand and respect each other at an early stage in their relationship. Unusually, Thomas had not spent much time living with this fellow East India Company Griffins. [1] Almost immediately after arrival he had been sent out into remote and dangerous territory. With the intense hostility between the Nairs and the Mappila communities in many areas, Menoen must have been at nearly as great a risk as Thomas was himself.

Had they been together on that first raid on Chemban Pokar together?

Had this taught Thomas that western methods didn't always work?

Did Menoen teach Thomas Baber to use more appropriate local methods of jungle raiding?

Is it possible that Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen, and many other people decided that the British rule was preferrable to the rule of the Pyche Raja, who was often brutal and arbitary in his decisions, as I will demonstrate shortly.

[1] Griffins; East India Company slang for new arrivals in India.

Copyright Nick Balmer, February 2007.

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