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Feb 26, 2014

Manacaud and Traditional Wrestlers of Travancore

Art & Architecture / Sharat Sunder Rajeev
image Sitting in front of the thekkath in my grandmother’s ancestral home in Manacaud is a stone idol of Lord Hanuman; a relief carving in white stone. Until recently my grandmother's younger brother Kumara Swamy had maintained the thekkath, which was originally setup by his grandfather’s younger brother, a famed occultist of his time, Valiya mandravathi Govindan Achari (1850s-1944). The thekkath houses a small idol of Lord Ganesh, a small ‘Vel’ representing Lord Subramanyan and a cane that belonged to the mandravathi himself. The Hanuman idol was carved by the local stone masons, who lived in Manacaud and Kuriyathy regions. These craftsmen were associated with the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple and the Valiya Kottaram. The ‘chellam vaka’ associated with the temple and the palace was in old days headed by the Kallampally karnavar. This section employed skilled craftsmen from all fields. 
A pyalwan - from the private collection of
K. Ramakrishnan Achari.
During last century the fame of Manacaud spread all over India with the name of a single man - ‘Pyalwan Narayana Pillai’. Better known as ‘Kerala Gamma’, Narayana Pillai was one of the best traditional wrestlers Travancore has ever seen. Travancore has a long tradition of maintaining wrestlers, locally known as mallanmar. In the old days many of them served as personal attendants and bodyguards to the Kings. Swathi Thirunal’s reign was the golden age of artists, musicians, and wrestlers. Many eminent wrestlers from far off lands came and performed before the King. ‘A number of native boxers from Travancore and other parts of Malabar skilled in the art of fencing, single combat, sword, stick, and other exercises, were entertained for the amusement of the court. To witness the mode of champion-fighting in other countries, the Maha Rajah got from the court of Mysore a few sets of trained athletes called Mullaga Chettis, who fight in single combat, till the combatants bodies are bathed in blood….A set of pyalwans (Mussulman champions) from Hyderabad who perform wonderful feats and exhibit extraordinary powers of muscle, were entertained at the court for some time. The performances exhibited by these men would be considered exaggerated, even if correctly related. One of them, a young man of about thirty years of age, with a strong-built body, used to lie on his back and allow a thick granite stone slab to be placed on his breast, and have the same split into pieces by pounding it with a thick iron pestle. He used to throw large iron cannon balls into the air and receive them on his head, back and breast’ (Shangunni Menon). C.V. Raman Pillai in his epic work 'Rama Raja Bahadur' gives a vivid description of a wrestling match between Azhakan Pillai and Kandiravarayar. V. Narasimhan Thampi, another historian of the royal family writes about the turbulent days of Dharmaraja’s reign when spies, disguised as wrestlers and magicians had gained entry inside the Fort. In old days Gatta gusthi, a form of wrestling was common in Thiruvananthapuram. Manacaud Narayana Pillai was one among the last famed wrestlers of Thiruvananthapuram. However, the wrestling community once patronized by the royals has now become almost extinct.
The Ganesh idol, Vel and the cane inside the thekkath and the Hanuman idol.

Once the name and fame of the Narayana Pillai spread all the way from Aarulvaimozhi to Kannur. He defeated several famous wrestlers such as Chotta Thimmayya, Gourimutthu, Ashique Hussain, Bhima Rao and Periya Pillai. During the 1940s many famous wrestlers camped in Narayana Pillai’s house in Manacaud. Children from the surroundings would crowd around the house to get a glimpse of the wrestlers. A senior resident of Manacaud says; “As children, we would assemble near the house of Narayanan Pillai to see the wrestlers who have gathered there. In the evenings they would all march to the nearby Shasta temple, with a group of children following them”. Matches would be conducted in the large grounds of Palayam. The Goda (arena) would be prepared and soft red soil from Thiruvallam was spread all over. The soft soil prevented injuries. The majority of the Pyalwanmar were worshippers of Lord Hanuman; some of them carried with them the idol of their favourite deity where ever they went. 
Kerala Gama Manacaud Narayana Pillai - in his younger years and during his last years - Picture courtesy - Kala Kaumudi Magazine, Issue 429, from an article written by Kallikadu Ramachandran.

Narayanan Pillai was a friend of artist K. Ramakrishnan Achari (my paternal grandmother’s father) and often visited the house. In front of Putten Veedu (another related house) in Manacaud was a large open space where the youngsters of the region assembled under the famous pyalwan Narayana Pillai to learn wrestling. Sundaram Achari and Lekshmanan Achari of Putten Veedu were his friends and disciples. Soon the ground was transformed into a goda where Narayana Pillai could formally train his students. The stone laying ceremony for the Goda was done by Elayaraja Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma (the present King). Influenced by the wrestling tradition of Manacaud, my grandmother’s eldest brother Krishna Swamy of Pillavilakathu Veedu, his brothers and friends started a gymnasium in the 1940s. It was situated behind the studio building, situated opposite to the house. During those days a ‘pyalwan’ came there to train the youngsters. On special occasions the famed pyalwan of Travancore, Narayana Pillai himself came to the goda and gave instructions. The idol of Lord Hanuman carved out of white stone was worshipped there. Once as a small boy Kumara Swamy kicked the idol, only to find that his foot had swollen up and he could not walk for days!

The Hanuman idol - Sketch by the author (2007).

(Sharat Sunder Rajeev is an Assistant Professor at Mc Gans Ooty School of Architecture. He has a keen interest in the unique architechture of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore and stories on this city. He  graduated in Architecture from College of Engineering, Trivandrum and studied Architectureal conversation from School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. He is an immensely talented artist and an ardent blogger. )