The unsung legend of Vaikom Padmanabhan Pillai

There are many heroes, their stories unsung, their legends forgotten. Neither do they hold place in text books, nor much in the popular culture. One such true legend was Vaikom Padmanabhan Pillai, an elite soldier of Tranvancore empire (parts of current state of Kerala and Kanyakumari) who is credited with defeating the extravagant army of Tipu Sultan twice in battle, and later attained martyrdom in fight against the British.

By Techsreekanth - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Vaikom Padmanabhan Pillai was the kochasan (similar to a teacher or a trainer) in the Nandyat Kalari of the Vadakkumkoor state of the Travancore empire. Kalaries are local training centres wherein warriors were trained in the legendary martial art of Kalari. The kingdom of Travancore maintained an army modest in number, and in case of any confrontation, an army of fighters are summoned from such Kalaries merging together with the standing army to form the glorious Travancore army. It was one such instance that kick-started the legend of Vaikom Padmanabhan Pillai- when he and others from local Kalaries were summoned to fight against an invading Mysore army, led by the Mysore Tiger - Tipu Sultan.

Tipu Sultan dreamed of accomplishing what his father, Hyder Ali, failed to achieve - invasion of Travancore - one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Indian region. Tipu’s army comprised of 20,000 infantry, 10,000 spearmen, 5000 cavalry and 20 field guns. The army strength of Travancore was minuscule as compared to the Mysore army. The Mysore army marched till the northern borders of the Travancore empire's allied territory with the Kochi kingdom, raiding all wealth and destroying any Hindu temples caught in sight. The mysore army was fired upon on 28 December 1789 by the Travancore army, but it was not enough to stop the advance of the Mysore army. However he odds took a violent turn when a small troop of 20 men led by Vaikom Padmanabha Pillai infilterated and ambushed the huge Mysore army, killing their chief- Meer Qamaruddin Khan-, and badly injuring the legendary Tipu Sultan, making him spend the rest of his life as a lame person.

The Mysore army was shaken by the unexpected impact and eventually retreated. The Travancore troops have confiscated many belongings of Tipu which includes his sword, palanquin, dagger, ring and many more, which were then presented to the ruler of Travancore However, Tipu was not ready to give up. There was another attack on Travancore by the Mysore army in April 1790, with an army much stronger than before. Again the tide was turned around by Vaikom Padmanabhan Pillai. To repel the advancing forces, Padmanabha Pillai along with Kunji Kutty Pillai broke open a dam on Periyar river to create a flash flood. This along with the south west monsoon prevented Tipu from advancing any further forcing the Mysore army to immediately retreat. This extraordinary strategy  which resulted in a massive flood is still believed by many to be an act of Lord Vishnu, who was deemed as the real rule and protector of the Travancore empire.

In recognision for the victorious battles against the Mysore army, Vaikom Padmanabhan Pillai was appointed as the commander of the most elite army unit of the Vadakkumkoor Maharaja. Also, he was showevered with accolades and honors by Diwan Keshava Pillai for his role in the attacks. Later he became a general in the prestigious Travancore Army.

When Velu Thampi Dalawa, the prime minister of Travancore, rebeled against the British for their attempt to bring Travancore under British authority in 1809, Padmanabha Pillai was his army chief. Freedom fighters lead by Pillai attacked the residence of Col. Macaulay at the current Bolghaty Palace, but the attempt to capture him was foiled. Later Vaikom Padmanabha Pillai ambushed a party of British soldiers at Pallathuruthy near Alapuzha, killing 13 British soldiers. Padmanabha Pillai was eventually captured by the British and was executed by hanging in public at Thiruveli Kunnu in Vaikom. The British were able to destroy the mortal body of the warrior, but not the legend of an extra-ordinary warrior who shook the odds with his bravery and tactics.

It is however sad that many such heroes are forgotten and never got to be mentioned among the historic marvels. Even the history of Travancore empire is a golden era in itself, which didn't find a recognition and popularity it deserves as compared as compared to the numerous kingdoms of the erstwhile Indian region.


  1. Wikipedia page on Vaikom Padmanabha Pillai:
  2. Wikipedia page on the battle of Nedumkotta:
  3. The Hindu:

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