Many great personalities have contributed to India’s epic liberation war yet their achievements have mostly gone unnoticed. Pazhassi Raja aka Kerala Varma is one of them. Despite his valiant opposition to the British, he has been overlooked by history. The 18th-century King of Malabar, known for his guerrilla warfare, was the only person to beat Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington in a war.
Valiantly Fought Islamists
In 1753, he was born as Kerala Varma into the royal house of Kottayam. He was given the name Pazhassi Raja after the hamlet of Pazhassi near Kannur, where he was born. During Hyder Ali of Mysore’s Malabar invasion, Pazhassi escaped to Travancore, where he sought political asylum. Pazhassi fought both Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan from the age of 21 onwards, from 1774 to 1793. Following the second Anglo-Mysore War in 1784, the Treaty of Mangalore recognised the Malabar region as part of the Mysorian sphere of influence. This infuriated Pazhasi Raja, who maintained his opposition to Mysore. Tipu Sultan, Hyder Ali’s successor, continued the resistance for a long time.
For the time being, Tipu Sultan’s attention had been diverted from Malabar by the conflict in the Deccan. Pazhassi Raja was able to attack the Mysorean army with impunity as a result of this. He negotiated an arrangement with the British East India Company in 1791, promising support against Mysore in exchange for Kottayam’s independence. He fought the invading Mysore army with the support of British-supplied weaponry. After losing the Third Anglo-Mysore War in 1792, Tipu abandoned Malabar to the British, essentially ending his rule in the region. Pazhassi turned against the British after realising that the British had little interest in restoring the Kottayam royal line to power, which was the initial deal. The British asserted claim to the area held by Varma, citing the Treaty of Srirangapatna in 1792, in which Tipu surrendered Malabar to the British.
Master of Guerilla Warfare
They then put Vira Varma, Pazhassi Raja’s uncle, as King of Kottayam, giving him token authority. The real power was still held by a British Resident. With the people’s dissatisfaction with the rising taxes growing, Vira Varma pushed Pazhassi to resist the British by granting him a portion of the profitable pepper trade. Pazhassi, who opposed his uncle’s exploitation of people, refused to let Vira Varma’s soldiers collect the tax. Pazhassi was then targeted by enraged British forces, who raided his palace in 1796 with a force of 300 troops. Pazhassi managed to flee to the Wayanad woods, where he plotted his vengeance with the support of his troops and tribal fighters. Pazhassi and his soldiers, already experienced in guerrilla warfare and supported by the rugged terrain, began making a return against the British.
Arthur Wellesley stated in his dispatches to England that the British would have a difficult time winning as long as Pazhassi Raja was alive
A detachment of 1,100 Army men under Major Cameron was ambushed by Pazhassi’s men on March 18, 1797, in one of the largest disasters for the British till then. The onslaught was so severe that it annihilated the British troops, leaving only a few survivors. Pazhassi’s forces are claimed to have slain 1,000 British soldiers and 3,000 British-employed native sepoys between 1793 and 1797. The British had their hands busy fighting various conflicts in Mysore, Wayanad, India’s French, and the American War of Independence, so after the ambush, they offered Pazhassi a ceasefire. As part of the agreement, Vira Varma was deposed as Raja and Pazhassi’s elder brother, Ravi Varma, was appointed as the new monarch. Pazhassi also returned the land that had been taken from him. However, the truce did not last long. Following Tipu’s death in 1799, the British attempted to capture Wayanad, which was vital to Pazhassi. Despite fierce opposition, the British had a new Army Commandant, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington.
The Pazhassi Raja’s devastating guerilla campaign pinned Arthur’s army down and killed a large number of British soldiers. Arthur Wellesley stated in his dispatches to England that the British would have a difficult time winning as long as Pazhassi Raja was alive. When the Duke of Wellington returned to England in 1804, the Napoleonic Wars of Europe were in full swing, and his campaign against Pazhassi Raja was left unfinished. When he was battling Napoleon’s troops in Spain, he utilised the guerilla tactics he had witnessed from his adversary.
On November 30, 1805, a Chetti who discovered the location of Pazhassi’s camp relayed the information to Thomas Hervey Baber, the Sub-Collector at the time.
Baber arrived at the camp with a massive army and defeated and killed Pazhassi in a bloody battle. Pazhassi, however, is said to have ingested poison before being arrested by the British. It is proper to pay tribute to this unsung hero of our homeland. Kerala Verma Pazhassi Raja remains a steadfast emblem of freedom for his valiant opposition to the British. Songs about his deeds are still sung in North Malabar today. In Kerala, he has many educational institutions named after him. According to modern historians, Pazhassi Raja was different from other kings of his period. He had no selfish motives or personal interests. He was described as an altruistic personality who put his subjects’ and country’s interests ahead of his own, and who felt obligated to protect his subjects from exploitation and persecution.