Remembering Mithavadi Krishnan and his multi-pronged socio-cultural intervention in Kerala

Advocate Krishnan took advantage of the opportunities provided by his English education and the colonial legal system to liberate his fellow Untouchables. Like Phule and Ambedkar, he argued that liberation from caste slavery and social bondage should precede political deliverance from the British Raj, writes Ajay S. Sekher

Mithavadi Krishnan (11 June 1867 – 29 November 1938)

Changaram Komarath Krishnan was one of the pioneers of the press and social change in Kerala. A leading disciple of Narayana Guru and a comrade of Sahodaran Ayyappan in their lifelong struggles against social inequality and caste, Krishnan was born into a well-educated Thiyya family on 11 June 1867 in Mullassery, near Guruvayur. He was a High Court lawyer, a journalist, an editor, a banker, a social revolutionary, a rationalist, Neo-Buddhist thinker and more. 

Krishnan bought the struggling journal Mithavadi and press in 1913 from Thalassery-based Sivasankaran and developed it into a magazine for the Avarna people. Mithavadi, published from Calicut (now Kozhikode), gradually became part of his name. As a subject of British Malabar, Krishnan had had the opportunity for higher education, which was then denied to Avarnas in Cochin and Travancore states. He argued that liberation from caste slavery and social bondage should precede political deliverance from the British Raj. In this sense, he was, like Jotirao Phule and B.R. Ambedkar, and a critic of Indian nationalism, Gandhi and the Congress.

Krishnan took advantage of the opportunities provided by his English education and the colonial legal system to liberate his fellow Untouchables. Along with Manjeri Ramayyar, another leading contemporary social reformer in Malabar, he drove his horse carriage on the road near the Tali temple in Calicut despite a ban on the use of the road by Avarnas. The excited Dalitbahujan people following him blackened the Teendal Palaka – the boards that prohibited the entry of “Untouchables” into public spaces, including the temple pond – and threw them into the pond, thus creating a new history of assertion of freedom of movement in Malabar. Despite the British rule over the region, untouchability and caste exclusion were part of everyday life. This was the case even in Malabar whose annexation by the Mysore kingdom in the mid-18th century had checked absolute caste Hindu hegemony in many respects.  Krishnan-led historic spatial reclamation in Calicut was comparable to the inter-dining organized by Sahodaran Ayyappan in Cherai in 1917 and the bullock-cart ride of Ayyankali in 1890s that asserted the basic right to use public roads by the Untouchables.

Buddha Vihar, Kozhikode

Apart from Sahodaran Ayyappan, C.V. Kunhuraman and T.K. Madhavan, Kumaran Asan and Dr Palpu would visit Krishnan at his Calicut residence. Narayana Guru visited Malabar in 1907 at the invitation of Krishan, Kallingal Madhatil Rarichan Moopan and Moorkoth Kumaran. In 1919, Narayana Guru appointed him as the ethical and legal authority (Dharmakartha) of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam’s property and institutions at Aluva. Krishnan organized a huge Buddhist public meeting on 19 February 1925 at Paran Square (named after his father), thus initiating Neo-Buddhism in Kerala soon after Ayothee Thass (1845-1914) had done so in Tamilakam. A Buddha Vihar and pagoda were inaugurated at the square on 16 May 1927. He invited monks from Ceylon, who brought the saplings from the Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura. He had the saplings planted at the square, near Customs Road. One among the two trees still survives. 

Mithavadi Krishnan

Dr K. Sugatan, retired Professor of Cardiology, Government Medical College, Calicut and historian who has written books on Narayana Guru, the Buddha and Buddhism in Kerala, calls the surviving pipal tree a granddaughter of the Bodhi tree in Gaya. Sanghamitra, the daughter of emperor Ashoka, is said to have taken a sapling of the Bodhi tree to Anuradhapura in the third century BC. The Buddha Vihar still retains a library with a rare collection of old books in Pali, Sanskrit and Sinhalese. 

In January 1929, Advocate Krishnan, Sahodaran and three others began editing the rationalist magazine Yuktivadi, opening up the rationalist and scientific discourse to the masses.  It was also part of their greater cultural politics for equality and social justice. In October the same year Krishnan also published his Buddha Tatva Pradeepam, a collection of essays on the theory of impermanence formulated by the Buddha. 

Krishnan also played a vital role in passing the Malabar Tenants Bill in the Madras Legislative Assembly on 18 November 1930, paving the way for just land reforms. He encouraged young writers who questioned the status quo and internal imperialism. He wrote the introduction to E. Madhavan’s Swathantra Samudayam in 1934 arguing for an independent community outside the Hindu fold. The princely state of Travancore banned the book, sensing a threat to the Vedic Varnashrama State.

The pipal tree and library at the Buddha Vihar in Kozhikode

Krishnan was in touch with the leaders of Tamil Nadu like the head of the Justice Party, Dr T.M. Nair. Periyar, who transformed the Justice Party into Dravida Kazhagam, visited his Calicut Buddha Vihar and delivered speeches in the 1930s. Krishnan was also a member of the Justice Party and became the chairman of South Indian Liberal Federation that fought Brahmanism and caste Hindu hegemony in public life and institutions. 

To sum up, Krishnan was a trailblazer for critical writers, media persons and cultural activists seeking to make a positive socio-cultural intervention and democratize Kerala society. 

Copy-editing: Anil


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