Colonial documents record that war was the natural state of Kerala. The region’s political climate was characterized by a variety of foreign and local powers fighting each other for economic and military ascendancy. Yet despite centuries of foreign contact and conflict, Kerala continued to thrive and retain its independence. The frontiers of Kerala were never redrawn. It did not suffer massive social or cultural dislocations. No foreign order or influence, especially those inimical to the populace, could be imposed until the traditional order was overturned. The influences Kerala absorbed were of its own choosing. The book “ hypothesizes that this remarkable achievement was a direct consequence of Kerala’s unique military, diplomatic, social and economic culture.’’
The book is an investigation of a state of war (internal and external), what that dynamic meant for defending Kerala and what it meant to external powers trying to subjugate the region or gain a toehold. Old Kerala transacted its business amidst a diet of military readiness. Actor across ages in this was a clan – the Nairs. The book isn’t community or clan history. It is what its title says, except, you can’t talk of war in Kerala without also talking about the Nairs. K.K. Nair’s book takes the reader from a likely foreign origin for the clan in tribes linked to the Scythians, their subsequent migration to India, movement within India along the south west coast to Malabar, their role in the wars of South India, wars within Kerala and wars with foreign powers trying to colonize Kerala.
The Scythian angle is founded on a couple of arguments. According to the author, there is no mention of the Nairs in the writings of the Sangam Age and earlier. The first mention in India is in the inscriptions of the Scythian king Nahapana who reigned from AD 78-125. His domain extended beyond the Gulf of Cambay, along the Gujarat and Konkan coast. The inscription talks of assisting the Nairs of Malabar. On the other hand, earlier in Europe, the Greek historian Herodotus (BC 484-425) noted that the Scythians had joined forces with neighbouring tribes, including one Slavic tribe called the Neuri, to stem the attack on Scythia by Darius of Persia. This happened around 500BC. Later as the restlessness of Mongolia and Turkestan took hold, the Scythians were further displaced. They began moving into Indo-Persian lands around 200BC. By this time the Neuri and other Scythian tribes no longer find mention around the Caspian Sea. At the same time, Megasthenes (BC 350-290) in his description of India, positions the like sounding Nareae tribe to the north of the Aravali Mountain. Putting two and two together, the author suggests a story of migration, initially towards India and later, within India.
Unlike North India, the South from ancient times was wrapped up in mutual warfare. The best known of this was the tripartite battles involving the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Cheras. Kerala was predominantly Chera territory. It was hill country; it was also numerically disadvantaged. Invading armies were typically bigger. This was the environment into which the warrior-Nairs arrived. A clan of dedicated warriors to oversee security and their lifestyle revolving around martial culture influenced Kerala. K.K. Nair observes, “ Kerala, unlike most of India, was not divided into Hindu villages but was divided into gradations of military divisions with every division and sub division being designated by the allotted quota of Nairs it was required to bring into the battle field.’’
A fallout of this arrangement was that rulers didn’t maintain large standing armies but they could marshal an adequately large army at short notice. It is possible to trace local customs, building architecture and lifestyle – including the culture of martial arts – to such a militarily styled society. The Nairs’ fighting style associated in martial history with the `Berserk or Mad Warrior’ style (wherein they forgo use of armour), would have got progressively challenged as technology gained currency with opponents. But on many occasions, it also stunned foes. The book explores the warrior mindset, including suicidal contests like `Mamankam.’ Needless to say, some fighting or the other seems to have been always on in old Kerala. Accounts are commensurately bloody. K.K. Nair’s book helped me put in perspective some of the idiosyncrasies of Kerala. History provides a window to understand people. Nair’s book served such purpose.
The book brings us all the way from ancient battles to Kerala’s colonial wars with the Portuguese and the Dutch, Tipu Sultan’s invasion and eventually the onset of British supremacy. We get an idea of the strategies and tactics of invader and defender. We see how frustrated some invaders may have been, weighing their incessant harassment on land and sea against the viability of their spice trade. For lay readers (like me) the book’s central character and its agent of continuity will be the Nair soldier. He is there in every conflict, be it in Malabar, Cochin or Travancore. However, despite being Kerala’s constant warrior through the ages, the Nair goes tad unexplained beyond his image as set in historical accounts of battle. But then, the book’s main intent isn’t investigation of clan or community. It is instead a study of trade, diplomacy and war in Kerala provoked by the curious case of a state that held its shape through the years despite active engagement with the outside world.
To sum up: By Sweat and Sword is an interesting book about a violent past.
INTERVIEW WITH WING COMMANDER NAIR
Wing Commander K.K. Nair is a serving Indian Air Force (IAF) officer. He is Joint Director, Operations (Space), at Air Headquarters, New Delhi. He replied by email to questions about the book:
Can you describe the circumstances that made you write this book? What attracted you to the subject?
I was coming from Geneva to New Delhi in 2007, when my French co-passenger Valerie, a part time scholar and full time hippie – as she put it, gave me a running commentary on Kerala in ancient times and the Nairs. My interest in the subject was sufficiently kindled. I became curious to know more. Thereafter, when I mentioned the subject to Gen Satish Nambiar, then Director of the United Services Institute (USI), he strongly encouraged me to do an in-depth research. It was the active support and encouragement from Gen Nambiar, Gen PK Singh, Squadron Leader RTS Chinna of the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research and my colleagues in the military services that enabled me to sustain my attraction for the subject.
How did you go about collecting the material for this book? Would you like to share any interesting moments therein?
Most of my material for research came from the National Archives, the Travancore, Cochin state records, from the USI as also from the University library, Trivandrum and the late Travancore Maharajah’s private collection. Some material came from the Dutch records for which I am particularly indebted to Mr Tristan Mostert, Curator of the Rijksumuseum, Amsterdam. Material on the ‘Mad-Warrior’ style of Nair warfare came from Prof Michael P. Speidel of the University of Hawaii. Overall, a lot of effort went into collecting material for the book.
With regard to interesting moments, one of these was when during a meeting with the late Maharajah of Travancore, he read the draft account of the battle between Tipu’s troops and the Travancore Nair regiment on the Travancore Lines. He got so animated reading the account that he rushed in to get an old `ola’ (palm leaf document) showing grant of lands etc to the Garrison Commander Kalikutty Nair.
The next equally interesting moment was at Trivandrum’s University Library. There was some kind of a strike on and the library was forced to shut. I was returning disappointed when I saw some students striding up to me calling out, “Pattalam Saar, Major Saab” etc. They got the library reopened for me stating that strikes don’t apply to OUR military. I was truly overwhelmed.
You have attributed a Scythian link to the Nairs. How conclusive is that?
I have avoided being judgmental throughout the script. I leave the conclusions to the reader.
Having written this book, can you briefly explain why a state of war became Kerala’s dominant predicament?
An abundance of resources always brings in problems of management. These snowball into rivalries, conflicts and war. Kerala had enough agricultural produce, spices etc to feed itself and the world at large. Little wonder then that its shores attracted the Chinese, Arabs and Europeans. This ability to produce resources, trade resources and sustain prosperity across the ages was possible because a fine balance existed amongst the various communities in Kerala. Thus, though war was daily affair, trade and agriculture never suffered.
Is war and warrior a chicken and egg situation capable of contributing to a state of war?
Yes. Your observation is very apt. It certainly contributes.
(The author of this review, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)