The most important dalit spiritual movement of the early 20th century was initiated by Poykayil Yohannan (widely called Poykayil Appachan by his followers), one of the most remarkable minds in the great social churning in Kerala of the early 20th century. Born in the Pathanamthitta district and converting to Christianity, Appachan rose to great heights as a masterful speaker and preacher, but he soon was disillusioned by the persistence of caste discrimination in the Church. He left to form his own faith, the Pratyaksha Raksh Daiva Sabha which attracted very many dalit followers as an empowering community. Appachan was a brilliant poet, thinker, legislator, and speaker but he was constantly threatened by the casteist elites everywhere he went. It was the women followers of Appachan who protected him in such moments of danger. Komarakam Chinnamma was one such hero, a fearless, strong, spiritually elevated dalit woman of those time. Her daughter, from these words, is a masterly story-teller.
Below is an excerpt from the memories of her daughter, Komarakam Chellamma [‘Ammavazhi Ormakal’, in Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha: Orma, Paattu, Charithrarekhakal, compiled and edited by V V Swamy and E V Anil, Adiyardeepam Publications, Thiruvalla, 2010], Translated by J Devika
My Mother’s Name
My mother’s name is Chinna, known as Komarakam [Kumarakam] Chinna. Later, was also known as Komarakathamma [Mother Komarakam]. My father was Kochaala. We lived in Komarakam. My mother was from Chengalam; she was married when she turned sixteen. They went to Komarakam is a canoe. The missionary preaching of the Good News was everywhere. Song and dance and drumming. Culver sayipp and Noel sayipp and Nagel sayippu were preaching all the time. In English. Then translated to Malayalam. Ayirur Valyachhan, Puchamannil Mammen Upadeshi and K V Simon were the famous preachers of that time. It was all about salvation. The Church was not one. Like the takara weed that sprouts everywhere after the rains, Churches grew all over the places, They abutted each other. Most of these Church-people were tampuranmar, the powerful and rich. One church for the tampuran, another for the adiyan, the slave. Whether they went to church or not, all adiyans of these tampurans would have christian names. My mother was the slave of the Chakkalaikkal tampurans. They were christian. They called my mother Sarah. (p. 125)
… it was at Komarakam, one night, that my mother first heard Appachan speak. My heart was shattered by the screams of the slave, she said. There was no lamp in sight. No candle, either. Only a voice that sounded like the murmuring of mighty waters. Only a body, short, dark. Marked on it was the suffering of the slave — the burn marks, the flesh grown hard carrying the plough on the neck, like cattle. In that night of collective lament, my mother, too, accepted Poykayil Appachan as her god…(pp.126-7)
… and thus my mother too became an activist of the Pratyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha. In each area, there was an activist in charge who managed activities. This group of activists included men and women. There were such activists then, also singers, and travelling preachers. Also, Appachan had body-guards. The managers were responsible for finding places suitable for meetings. The Pandal and torches had to be made ready. Spots had to be identified for mass cooking. Rice and firewood had to be collected. A house had to be readied for Appachan. He was never alone; he always came as a group. Intelligence had to be gathered about possible disruptions. All this fell upon the managers among the activists. My mother too organized such meetings. She used to sing really well too. Others like her, like the amma of Kuzhiyadi, the amma of Tekkattil, the amma of Anjilimoottil, and the amma of Kuttippoovathungal — all of them organized meetings too. Appachan had entrusted the amma of Kuzhiyadi with organizing the Raksha Yogam — the Salvation Meeting. He used to also hold special meetings for such people. A total of 314 people were selected by him for this kind of work. It was through the Salvation Meetings that people were accepted into the Pratyakha Raksha faith. Appachan would speak of the certainty of salvation in those meetings. These meetings revealed that Poykayil Gurudevan was indeed the saviour of the world. The amma of Tekkattil was an astute fighter as well. There were so many of such mothers. Once when his enemies attacked him, Appachan had to hide inside the cellar of Adichan Abraham; it was my mother who stood guard, wielding her sickle. It was the mothers who led the counter-attack on the enemies, throwing boiling rice gruel on their faces and slashing them with ladles. They also once made him dress in women’s clothes and spirited him to Muthalapra. Impossible to forget, too, the death of one of the mothers at the hands of these enemies. (pp.127-28)
… My father was not very pleased with my mother becoming an activist and manager. First, there was opposition from relatives and friends. And then the objections of the tampurans. Father stopped her from going to the meetings. But mother would not yield a mustard-seed-length of space. She was still living with my father at Komarakam. And the three of us were already born.
Things were thus, when plans were made for a massive meeting at Komarakam. Appachan would be attending. Everyone was very excited. The place of the meeting was fixed — an empty wasteland by the lake-side. The ground was cleared and fine sand was laid. The pandal was raised; the No 14 lanterns were kept ready. Most people arrived before nightfall. Everyone sat down in rows, looking like packed betel-leaves. The singers began to sing the songs. When Appachan and his entourage entered the pandal, some miscreants rushed in there with weapons. The lanterns fell and broke. It was pandemonium. But my mother quickly got ashore a canoe and got Appachan and his body-guards to board it. The rice-gruel was boiling in the pot, but she left it there. She picked up the oar and began to row. The canoe set off for Alappuzha. One of my mother’s younger sisters lived there; we also had friendly folk there. The canoe moved fast on the waters. It was pitch-dark. During the journey, Appachan sang a song: The time of the mist is past, and of the rain as well/ The flowers now bloom on the earth … They stayed at Alappuzha that night and set off for Eraviperoor the next day. My mother never returned to Komarakam after that. Neither did we. She left behind the home and the family. The community and our continuity there. The husband, too, was left behind. She set out, seeking Appachan. (pp. 129-30)
… Gurudevan’s body passed away. Many great preacher too, passed. My mother was on her death-bed. We were living at Amara then. The house was a tiny one. There was much difficulty. We worried, thinking of her. But she alone had no sorrow. Her face was as radiant as ever. One day I asked her, Mother, do you fear death? Do you regret leaving Komarkam? “No,” she said, “Those who seek refuge in the Raksha have no death. You will see death no more/You will hear its pangs no more — that is what Appachan sang to us. I did not set out from Komarakan after a dark-bodied parayan man. I set out after the Truth. I have no sadness, no dear, no guilt.”.. (p. 132-33)