Kerala is a sacred land that gave birth to many renaissance heroes who fought against the decay of society. There were people here in Kerala who led much large and small resistance and defenses against the inequality, superstitions, and customs that existed in the society at that time. The role played by these renaissance heroes in shaping the secular Kerala that we see today is no small thing. We call the period of the renaissance a period that witnessed many movements such as women’s equality, widow marriage, and the right of all to use public roads, to be educated, and to worship.
The Renaissance leaders of that time fought against the decadence of the general society as well as constantly rebelled against the internal decadence of their own communities. That’s how they got a permanent place in the minds of the people. A look at the history of the Renaissance reveals that the main features of the Renaissance were the development of the vernacular and the availability of education. These were the main characteristics of the innovation in Kerala as well. All the Renaissance leaders understood the importance of education and were passionate about imparting education.
Kerala renaissance heroes
All these heroes of the renaissance opened the doors of knowledge and reason to the general public by seeing, hearing, and knowing the characteristics of the time they lived in, through the revelations of their thoughts, and through constant writings. Mannathu Padmanabhan, Sree Narayana Guru, Chattampi Swamikal, Ayyankali, Fr. Chavara Kuriakkos Eliyas, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Poykayil Appachan, etc. are prominent among these renaissance heroes. It was these people who gave a fresh impetus to the Kerala Renaissance. Let’s get to know some of them in detail. The actions of these Renaissance heroes led to the resistance against insecurities, inequalities, denial of civil rights, and the miseries of the bottom class that existed at that time in society.
Sree Narayana Guru
There were dark ages in Kerala as in every land. Those with power and status became the upper class of society. It was the poor common people who were overwhelmed by the pride and lust of the upper class for power. Sree Narayana Guru is a rare legend who brightened up such dark times. Sree Narayana Guru, Chattambi Swamikal, and Ayyankali were the heroes of Kerala’s renaissance and the inseparable links of the historical era. Sree Narayana Guru is one of the modern sages who took up the historic task of liberating a people from the midst of caste thinking and immoral bonds. The goal of Sree Narayana Guru was that everyone should come to goodness. He treated everyone with equality and brotherhood. He exemplified the ideals of humanity and brotherhood through his deeds and works. He convinced people that justice and mercy should be followed in society. Thus, Guru became a reason for the leap toward knowledge and brotherhood. This is the reason why the word Guru (teacher) became his name. He achieved a prominent place among the Kerala renaissance heroes for several reasons.
Sree Narayana Guru was born on August 20, 1856, to Madan Ashan and Kuttiyamma in a small village called Chempazhanthy in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. During his younger years, he was called Nanu. In order to meditate, he abandoned all the pleasures of home and went to Maruthwamala. He then installed a Shivalinga at Aruvipuram. Through a combination of his innate talents, world travel, study, and meditation, he became a guru. He had a profound knowledge of Malayalam, Tamil, and Sanskrit languages. He realized that only through intellect and education can one become free. What should be understood from the Guru when he says to become independent through knowledge and intellect? He called for freedom from all that stands in the way of seeing man as man and showing compassion to fellow beings. For that, there should be the realization that humanity is the caste of a man.
It was in 1903 that he organized Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana’ Yogam. He strongly opposed all kinds of discrimination that existed in Kerala at that time. In Kerala, he traveled widely and raised social equality awareness among the people. He was dedicated to raising the morale of the people in the society in which he lived. Temples were established for those who needed a temple. Realizing that society cannot grow without education, he started schools and gurukulams for the lower castes. Sree Narayan Guru tried to make education for the uneducated, temples for those who do not have temples, dignity for the dishonorable, and self-respect and self-esteem for those who have no self-esteem. There are some temples he established where everyone can pray. No caste restrictions are applied here. It was a caste-free environment.
In addition to installing idols at Varkala and Sivagiri, he conducted many other important activities. His was a spiritual vision based on the concept of God. Guru thought that in a society where God existed as a tangible force, how can it be effectively utilized for human good? Not everyone can understand that God resides in Himself. That is why he not only established temples but also performed mirror worship to know the God in him. We see ourselves through the mirror. It should also be understood that he who knows his own self can know others quickly and he who does not know himself thoroughly cannot know others. He who knows thus can know the happiness of others and the sorrow of others. He who knows this will not have differences of caste, religion, and color. The great slogan ‘one caste, one religion, one God to men’ is the contribution of the Sree Narayana Guru to mankind.
Fr. Chavara Kuriakos Elias
Fr. Chavara Kuriakkos Elias is one of the greatest lives Kerala has seen. A great and holy soul, he was born on February 10, 1805, at Kainakari. He was ordained to the priesthood on 29 November 1829 at Arthunkal Church. He made great contributions as a social reformer, educationist, and cultural leader. He is a great person who has been able to take the initiative for the progress of human good, social change, or any good thing and to give many contributions to the church and society. Realizing that education is necessary for the overall development of man, he used his authority as Vicar General of the Syrians and ordered that there should be schools next to the churches. In 1864 his implementation of the idea of ’One Vidyalaya (Pallikkootam)for one Church in the Syro-Malabar Church is a historical event to be recorded in golden letters. In these schools both upper castes and lower castes had access.
Since 1831, Father Kuriakose has done many admirable works for the educational advancement of the Mannanam region. The first Sanskrit school run by the Catholic Church was started in Mannanam in 1846. This school was open to all irrespective of caste and religion. It was the first public school in Kerala. He acquired a field to cultivate rice with the help of benefactors so that all the children could come to school and provide them with lunch. The venture was full of challenges but it was a hundred percent success. He was also able to provide study materials, clothes, etc. to the poor children. His activities testify to the importance he attached to education and how eager he was to impart it to all, rich and poor alike. In the midst of varied and challenging activities, he wrote books and rules for the benefit of the people and the believers. The first narrative poem in Malayalam, Anastasiayude Rakthasakshyam (The Martyrdom of Anastasia), was composed by Chavara Kuriakose Eliyas.
Along with this, he was involved in various spiritual and welfare activities of the Kerala people by establishing Kerala’s first printing press and publishing center at Mannanan. He wrote an instruction manual for Christian families entitled A Law of a Loving Father (Oru Nalla Aappante Chavarul). This is a family reformation program with rules and instructions to be followed by everyone in the family. It was the first in the church and was full of many innovations. He made valuable contributions to the education of girls and established the first boarding school for girls in 1868 at Koonammav. Similarly, in 1869, the first Christian Orphanage was started at Kainakari by the name of ‘Paraspara Sneha Dharamshala to provide shelter to orphans, the destitute, and the aged.
There are many apostolic virtues that have blossomed under the skillful leadership of Fr. Chavara, who has dedicated his life to the Church. He is one of the foremost among the renaissance heroes of Kerala. His place will always be at the forefront. Fr. Chavara is a good example of how a priest should be and what good activities a priest can do for society. He was able to realize the importance of knowledge and education and convince the common people about it. It may seem simple to us today, but if we look at the history of that time, we can understand that his ideas were revolutionary. This holy soul, who taught us to become a new man spiritually and intellectually, modified the customs and traditions accordingly, and gave them new content, left this world on 3rd January 1871.
According to Wikipedia, Chattambi Swamikal was born on August 25, 1853, in Kollur, South Travancore at Illoorkot house. His father was Thamarassery Vasudeva Sharma, a Namboothiri Brahmin of Mavelikara and his mother was Nair Nangamma Pillai of Kannammula. He was known as Ayyappan, Kunjan, and Kunjan Pillai when he was a child. Being from a poor family, he had no means of formal education in his childhood. However, with the help of his father and the children of the neighboring houses, he studied the alphabet and thus memorized the elementary lessons in Sanskrit, Tamil, and Malayalam and later became a master of knowledge. After learning maths and reading from Vadiveeswaram Velupillai Asan, he joined the school of a scholar named Ramanpilla Asan in Petta. While studying under Ramanpilla Aasan of Petta, Aashan appointed our kunjan as chattambi(monitor) in the school. Chattambi means today’s school leader or monitor. With this, Kunjanpillai came to be known as Chattambi. Over time the names like Kunjan and Kunjanpillai faded into oblivion and later even as an adult he was given the title ‘Chattambi’ and the name Chattambi Swamikal was established.
He was a great devotee of knowledge and a great reader. His heart was filled with a flood of knowledge gained from outside the confines of formal education. He had immense knowledge of astrology, medicine, history, geography, mythology, and Vedas. He wrote many books. Vedantasaram, Mokshapradeepakhandhanam, Jeevakarunya Niroopanam, Pracheena Malayalam, Ozhivil Odukkam, Christhumathasaram, Advaita Chintha Paddhathi, Sthree Purusha Samatvam, all these are written by Chattambi Swamikal. Even though he was a Sanskrit linguist, he upheld the existence of the Malayalam language against the supremacy of the Sanskrit language and made many contributions to the Malayalam language. Chattambi Swami has written many books and more books have been written about him by others.
Chattambi Swamy’s aim was to eliminate the perversions that were taking place in society in the name of caste tradition. He raised his voice against the sufferings of his society and especially its women, who were living as slaves to the caste system and Brahmin supremacy that existed at that time. It was a public revolt against the caste system itself. He argued that everyone in God’s creation is equal. He called upon everyone to fight for the fact that everyone is the heir of the land and everyone has the right to buy land, live there, get an education, and so on. Realizing the value of labor, he argued that workers have a right to a fair wage, and if it is not paid, the workers should ask for it. Not only did he say that men and women have the right to dress as they please, but he also openly campaigned for it. Chattambi Swamy argued that everyone has the right to travel freely on public roads. It was a time when there were restrictions and prohibitions to walking on public roads. Equality between men and women was his other dream. Similarly, he rejected the Chaturvarnya system by saying that the Shudra had the right to study the Vedas.
Chattambi Swamikal did not form large organizations or hold public meetings, he was a constant traveler. During the journey, he used to make small house parties and interact with them and conduct debates. Great scholars, poets, physicians, scholars, historians, artists, and common people were present at that parties. Everyone was welcome at that small home parties. It was during these constant travels that he met Sree Narayana Guru at the Aniyur Kshethra near Chempazhanthi and that later became the beginning of an inseparable relationship. The life of this renaissance hero reminds us to carry forward the value of the renaissance by living with an unwavering sense of secularism.
Poykayil Appachan, also known as Poykayil Kumaraguru, is prominent among the renaissance heroes who have left a special mark in the history of the Kerala Renaissance. When it is said that his place in the history of the Renaissance is the same as the heroes of the revival like Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali, and Vaikunda Swami, it is needless to say how much he was revered. Dalit activist, poet, and social reformer, Poykayil Yohannan (Appachan) was born on February 17, 1879, in Iraviperur. Though his original name was Kumaran, he was known as Poykayil Appachan or Poykayil Kumara Gurudev. His parents are Kandan and Lachi respectively. He was the founder of the socio-religious movement Prathyakshaa Raksha Deiva Sabha (“God’s Society of Obvious Salvation”). Kumaraguru’s public life, which began as an evangelist, was not only for spiritual liberation.
Along with fighting against the caste supremacy of the upper classes, he raised his voice for women’s equality and education for all. He exhorted through songs and speeches that caste consciousness gave only an orphanhood to the lower-class people, not pride. He laid down his life for the liberation of Dalits. The Dalit community was the bearer of all the brutalities of agrarian slavery in those days. There was a time when men were yoked instead of oxen to plow the land, i.e. humans were yoked with the oxen to plow the land. If they died, they were trampled down in the mud of the field. Poykayil Appachan dedicated his life to making these people knowledgeable and self-aware. Realizing that education is the best way to do this, he told the illiterate parents of that time about the importance and necessity of sending their children to school and participated in the agitations for school admission.
In order to get support for such popular reforms, he established relations with Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali, Dr. Palpu, etc., who were prominent Renaissance heroes of the time. This relationship greatly helped his ventures. When Mahatma Gandhiji visited Travancore, Poikail Appachan met him at Neyyatinkara. Poykayil Appachan was one of the main renaissance leaders who challenged the caste system and the slavery it created in Kerala society. Poykayil Appachan developed his plans of action for the upliftment of the bottom people from the realization that their past was one of slavery.
The problems of the underclass people during his lifetime greatly weakened him. The lamentation that there is no one left to write down the history of his people is evident in his poems. He sang that “there is no education, no wealth, no wisdom, no opportunity for us, no good wages if we work, and we have nothing to eat”. He raised his voice for land, education, employment, and women’s equality. The downtrodden were taught by him that resources could be mobilized through collective labor. For that, a colony was established near Changanasseri where more than a hundred families live. A school, a place of worship, and a crematorium were built next to it. Apart from that, he established weaving mills, match companies, and schools in many places. It is our duty as Keralites to recognize and mark the progressive goals of Poykayil Kumaraguru’s revival efforts and introduce them to the new age.
Ayyankali is a name that can never be forgotten when mentioning the name of the renaissance heroes of Kerala. Ayyankali, a leader of the lower caste Dalits in India, was born in 1863. He was born in Venganur in the Thiruvananthapuram district. He was one of seven children born in a Pulaya family. It was a time when the Pulaya community was considered ‘untouchables’ in Kerala. His father and mother were Ayya Ayyankal and Mala respectively. Born in a Pulaya family, he rose to the ranks of social reformers and was a Renaissance hero who spent his entire life working for the upliftment of Dalits. He was illiterate like all Dalits of that time. Ayyankali’s family was in agriculture. Therefore, Ayyankali knew better than anyone else what was going on in the agricultural sector. At a time when there were no farmers’ and workers’ organizations or movements, Ayyankali was a brave man who strove for the welfare of farmers and fought for the rights of agricultural workers. He advocated that the wages of agricultural labor should be paid in cash instead of in kind and that the agricultural laborers should be given rest periods.
He was the initiator of many reforms for the welfare of the Dalit people. He worked hard to improve the standard of living of Dalits and received the praise and blessings of many dignitaries. At that time the lower caste people in Kerala did not have basic civil rights. Back then, there were many restrictions on the lower strata of society. Ayyankali defied and completely ignored such restrictions. He posed challenges to society by mimicking the dress of the upper castes and riding a bullock cart on the streets. He fought for access to public places for all, the right to dress freely, the right to use public roads for all, and education for all.
Even though he was illiterate, he realized that education was necessary for revival and reformation. Realizing the importance of education, Ayyankali worked for Dalit children’s right to education. Recognizing that education is an investment in solving social inequalities and improving the social status of the underprivileged, Ayyangali demanded the right of Dalit children to study in schools but was denied it. To achieve his many welfare demands, he organized the farmers’ strike. He organized the farmers who worked on land owned by upper castes and went on strike. Perhaps this was the first ‘strike’ of agricultural workers. As a result of his persistent efforts, the Travancore government allowed all Dalit children to study in public schools in 1907, but some government officials protested. Finally, in 1910, Ayyankali’s dream of providing education to all Dalit children in public schools came true.
Ayyankali was not only an educationist but also a politician, prominent social reformer, economist, legislator, and revolutionary leader. He worked tirelessly for the betterment of the downtrodden Dalit people of the princely state of Travancore. His struggle led to many changes that improved the socio-political structure of Kerala. His activities to win the right of Pulaya women to cover their upper bodies in public have caught the public’s attention. In 1910 Ayyangali was nominated to the Travancore Legislative Assembly, known as the Srimoolam Popular Assembly. Thus, he became the first Pulaya member in the Travancore Legislative Assembly. He was one of the earliest labor leaders from Kerala and a social reformer who worked for the upliftment of the downtrodden sections. Ayyankali was the ambassador of human rights at a time when the word human rights were unheard of.
The caste system is the system that has affected Kerala society the most and is still struggling today. Caste is imposed on one from the moment of birth. At each stage of growth, he can move only along the path determined by the caste. It was these renaissance heroes who prepared the people of their country to free themselves from the world of decaying systems and religion and step into the new world. Kerala has given birth to many great men who fought till the end of their lives to remove the toxins that had fallen in various levels of social life. They contributed greatly to the Kerala renaissance by organizing the lower classes against superstitions and customs and fighting against the decadence in the general society and also waged a continuous rebellion against the internal decadence of their own communities.
We had many Renaissance heroes or leaders. Who is a hero or a leader? A leader is someone who inspires passion and motivation in followers through his knowledge and skills. More specifically, a true leader is someone who is capable and willing to develop his people to the point where they will ultimately surpass him. A leader should be able to open the mind of his followers. As someone said our mind is like a parachute. Have you seen the parachute? The parachute only works when it is open. Fortunately, all our Renaissance leaders were like this. That was their success. They never claimed to be the best. But they worked as much as they could for the revival of Kerala. That is how they became a part of history. However, it is doubtful whether casteism, religious fanaticism, insecurity, and inequality are more acute now than ever before. May the example of these renaissance heroes help us to work with an unwavering sense of secularism, hold fast to the concepts of universal humanity and brotherhood, respect the values of dharma, justice and mercy and work with compassion.
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