Culture & Society

Poykayil Appachan: The Emancipator Of The Oppressed

Poykayil Appachan, in leading the Kerala renaissance, sought to transform society into one of social justice by reconstructing the structures of identity, culture, and spirituality.


Anandu Raj
The shrine where Poykayil Appachan is buried Photo: Anandu Raj

History is often silent on certain topics or individuals, rendering them invisible. Those who hold the power to write history tend to focus on the oppressors rather than the oppression, perhaps out of fear of the possible repercussions and consequences for their own positions. Poykayil Appachan is a figure of whom history has attempted to erase from its narratives, potentially due to the threat he posed to their cultural hegemony and historical narratives. Just as Bourdieu argued that the existing colonial tools for writing the history of Algerians are insufficient, we cannot apply modernity concepts and colonial frameworks to writing about Appachan. Instead, we must delve into the depths of oppression and justice to understand Appachan and his PRDS movement, as this will bring about a new perspective on emancipation, politics, and renaissance.


The Kerala renaissance was fundamentally different from the renaissance movements in other parts of India because it emerged from the oppressed communities. And when we delve into the details of these movements, we can see that it was Appachan who sought to transform society into one of social justice by reconstructing the structures of identity, culture and spirituality. He highlighted the imperative requirement for social transformation rather than reformation. This is due to the deeply-embedded socio-cultural inequalities within the culture itself. Appachan executed this through his travels, meetings and songs, in which he enlightened people on the connection between socio-cultural inequalities and religious marginalisation. These marginalisations resulted in their exclusion from the history and the consequent imposition of hegemony over them by others. He developed a praxis that could eliminate the mentioned marginalisation and exclusion, along with his own philosophical vision named the 'Slave Subject Theorem', which encompasses the thoughts and core of liberation. In fact, the very structure of his movement, the Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha (PRDS), was designed to accommodate the marginalised and create a space of liberation.


Unlike other movements, PRDS engages in creative cultural production and construction that incorporates both modern and post-modern perspectives. The distinctiveness of PRDS lies in its incomparable approach, which cannot be found in any other movement. Although these qualities are present in the movement's operations, they mainly originate from the characteristics of its founder, Poykayil Appachan. Appachan is discernible in various manifestations throughout history, implying that his life was multifaceted. He can be considered both a religious figure and a social reformer concurrently. Additionally, he existed in opposing modes of history at the same time, namely the Renaissance and colonial modernity. Therefore, it appears that his practical approach played a role in bridging the epistemological gap between the two. The Renaissance aimed for social transformation via cultural reconstruction, while the Modernity stream focused on social reformation via reason. Appachan was involved in both aspects. This explains why we see Appachan both as a spiritual leader dressed in dhothi and towel, and as an activist wearing a hat and holding a stick with mongoose teeth during the same time period. Appachan states that the various social problems present in society are not solely social issues but rather the negative consequences of religious infiltration. Therefore, he challenges the socio-spiritual system and conditions of Travancore and India at that time with great intensity.

Pragmatist of oppressed politics

Appachan challenged two forms of colonialism: those brought about by white men and settlers. He believed that cultural inequalities and social ills resulted from the settler's colonization that emerged from the Aryans' migration and invasion alongside the colonization by white men. At his meetings, Appachan initiated conversations on this issue, addressing both types of colonizations, and highlighting the racial and hegemonic interests that underpinned them. Appachan argued that foreign invasions were responsible for the creation of slavery, caste, and patriarchy, and thus supported the idea of decolonisation. He made several proclamations to that effect, including "the king will take off his crown" and "the white men will run away through the tapioca fields." Appachan frequently spoke to his followers about the creation of a new sky and earth, which although it may appear biblical in nature, was distinct from religious beliefs. Appachan aimed to create a new cultural and historical paradigm, accompanied by a novel structure that, in his own words, would welcome all those marginalized from the five continents. To construct a new society, Appachan recognized the inevitability of decolonization and aimed to form a fresh group of people, whom he called the 'segregated children'. Similarly, in the book 'The Wretched of the Earth', Franz Fanon writes that decolonization creates a new human being, and that the thing that is liberated after decolonization is transformed into a human being. Likewise, the "segregated children" of ‘Poyka’, as referred to by Appachan, undergo a transformation into new individuals who are free of slavery and possess a strong sense of justice, liberty, and equality.


Appachan used spirituality and memory to destroy the colonisation made possible by armed revolution and religion. Through political intervention, historical reconstruction, spirituality and reasoning, Appachan attempted to subdue the Brahmanism that resulted from the first colonisation. Appachan challenges the fundamental principles of Brahmanism through his songs, interventions and critiques of the caste system. Although many confuse his use of Adi Dravida with the spiritual identity that Appachan espoused, they are not related. Appachan saw critique of caste as an anti-colonial act, and it was in this context that he used the story of Adi Dravida to refute the Brahmanical forces' theory of Aryan supremacy. Yiramyav, the last slave of Travancore, confirms this. In his memoir ‘Adimayude jeevitham’ (life of a slave), writer A.V. Anilkumar writes about a memory of the protagonist ‘Yiramyav’ when he attended one of Appachans meetings. "The meeting was held in the house of one of Appachan's followers in Vakathanam. The audience consisted of a mixture of castes, including people from upper caste Hindu Christian communities. Poykayil Yohannan began by talking about demonic possession and witchcraft. The Savarnas didn't like this so they sort of retreated. Seeing this gap, Appachan talked about the Aryan invasion, slave issues and ancient history. Knowing the change in the conversation, the Savarnas interrupted the meeting and caused a ruckus. This incident later became known as 'Vakathanam Lahala'. Yiramyav says that Yohannan calls separate meetings for his followers. That is, the issues ranging from Aryan migration to Adi Dravida were the topics of discussion at meetings held for all the oppressed and not just his followers, and these meetings were political and not spiritual. We can see that songs like,


"Ahoy from the Aryan land

Ahoy Ayyars from the Aryan land

Ahoy in tatters" 1

Were all sung at such gatherings. And restricted the religious-spiritual gatherings and meetings only to the followers or members of Poykakoottam. And the devotees took oaths not to reveal what happened in the meeting and to keep it secret. Consequently, in his itinerant gatherings, Appachan propagated vehement anti-Brahminical politics. We can see the continuity of this politics in the PRDS even after Appachan's demise. Since Adi Dravida politics was the anti-Brahminical idea used during Appachan's era, later during Ammachi's2 tenure she used the Guru concept as an anti-Brahminical tool. Appachan becoming Gurudevan is also a sign of this continuity. At that time only Brahmins could become Guru, so Appachan was also hailed as Guru for challenging the Brahminical hegemonies.


While Appachan's caste critique was pointed sharply against settlers colonisation, he critiqued and used the Bible as a tool to oppose the white men colonisation. According to him, Christ was the identity of the white man. He argued that the Bible was the embodiment of the Jewish cognitive system and the white men used it to colonise the world. Therefore, he told his followers to burn the Bible because reading it or placing faith in it would not save the downtrodden. He was aware that the Bible gave White people authority and free will to pose as saviors by promising salvation that is not what it actually is. The converts were never free and was never granted equality in any ways. And were even used as slaves in the plantations owned by the whites. So appachan problematized bible and missionary interventions as something which produces docility among the oppressed. This is evident in the ways that slavery developed around the globe. Noel Rae uses the story of Noah and his sons to explain how the bible was used to enslave Black Americans in the preface to his book, The Great Stain. According to the story, the black people are Canaanite descendants who inherited Noah's curse and wrath. According to the legend, the Canaan and his descendants were cursed to work for the families of Japheth and Shem. In this tale, the descendants of Canaan were represented as Black people, and the whites as the descendants of Shem and Ham. We can see a similar agency formation by the whites in India as well using Christianity and bible. There was a song popularized among the Dalit Christians of kerala which starts with explaining the slavery experience of their past. The song opens up like,


"After the sixth day of labour

The mother left her child under a tree to work in the fields,

and when she returned, the ants had eaten the child.

Ayyayo! Oh my God! Listen to my cries"3

and goes on with various similar slave experiences, like ploughing the field with an ox with a yolk on its shoulder and one on the slave's shoulder, resulting in death in the fields. And the interesting part is the last part of the song, which goes like this,

“The Europeans came down,

And freed the slaves by gospel”


The song ends, as we can see, by portraying White men as the savior. The song doesn't claim that Christ is the savior or that the gospel is being preached here; rather, it highlights the Europeans. This song makes it very evident how the gospel is used to support White male dominance. As it will strengthen colonialism and slavery by forcing us to accept White men's supremacy in spirituality and intellect, Poykayil Appachan contended, White men's god should be banished. His anti-colonial stance can be observed in many of his prophecies, such as "The boat and cargo of the ones who came across the sea will return."4


Religious Marginalisation into Slavery

The two types of colonialism had their share of negative effects on the country. They are two systems that have led to the spiritual marginalisation and destitution of the people. Settler colonialism, which was the initial colonisation, produced caste slavery. It caused the fragmentation of families and the destruction of the dignity of the presently oppressed individuals. This abominable system generated individuals excluded from society, leading to a life that was worse than that of animals, engulfed in profound solitude. Appachan's songs portray their predicament in great detail.

"Deep pits were excavated, and the slaves were placed into them.


Ghee was poured onto the heads of

the slaves, and they were compelled to stand in the pit.

The ghee attracted ants that consumed it and the slaves' heads."5

And in another song starting by

"Hear o hear

My dear brethren

the calamities our forefathers forbore"6

Appachan describes the daily life of a slave in another song, "Remembering the suffering"7. Appachan also sings a song called,

"No father

No mother

No one for us

No one for us

Where shall we go?"8

Portraying the destitution caused by slavery. Appachan reflects on the memory of the slaughter of their slave ancestors, who were tied to the yolks of buffalo and oxen, as a reminder of the cruelty of casteism, a product of settler colonisation. In another song,


"Many bodies had gone into the belly of the fish

Bones five nautical miles out to sea".9

He tells us about the intercontinental slave trade, a product of white colonisation, and the lives of people taken as slaves across continents. Appachan argues that religious marginalisation was the root cause of slavery. He suggests that existing spiritual systems are crafted to favour only certain racial groups, while marginalising and excluding others. Thus, he highlights the concerns regarding spiritual exclusions that precipitate social inequality and enslavement. While the songs like,

“Those who organise the orchestra

Those who work for salvation

Though they have done something


There is no certainty of salvation

One church for the Paraya, another for the Pulaya

Yet another for the fishing marakkan “ 10

questions the caste discrimination within Christianity, songs like

“A quarter for the child and a half for the mother

A full for the Lord himself

Take the things and take the child

Let us go to the temple

When we get there

With the decorated elephants

The king and the lords are there

Let us run to the forest, oh dear

Let us take the things and take the child

Run to the forest to live

Oh, don't forget to salute the lords as we go”11


Satirises and questions the caste customs of the Hindu world. And there are other songs like,

"We have wandered long without kinship

All along the peripheral paths of Hinduism

We wandered long as orphans

All along the peripheral paths of Christianity" 12

Speaks to us of the experience of exclusion from these mainstream religionsJust like this, Appachan reminds us through his songs of the need to construct a building that can provide salvation and overcome marginalisation.

Caste Annihilation- culture for the segregated

As a social institution, PRDS prioritised the eradication of caste. Appachan integrated socio-cultural and religious discourse holistically, employing spirituality as a means of removing marginalisation - especially concerning the caste system. In the first half of the 20th century, new initiatives surfaced that aimed to uplift or reform caste practices without dismantling the caste hierarchy. The opportunities arose due to Colonial Modernity which emerged from the tension between the Brahmanical social system and Colonial governance. Sanskritization became available to the oppressed during this period thanks to the spaces created by colonial modernity. However, Appachan rejected it and emphasized caste annihilation instead. By challenging the caste-based processes of Sanskritization and caste culturalization, Appachan paved the way for a renaissance. In one of his poems, the author critiques the culturalization and Sanskritization within the caste system and advocates for unity among oppressed castes, urging them not to fragment into separate castes.


The poem asks,

“what if when all the pulayas become cherama, will the pollution of the pulaya go

Will it be alright on this earth

What if when all the parayas become sambava , will the curse of the paraya go

Will it be alright on this earth

What if when all the kuravas become sidhanar, will the lack of the kurava go

Will it be alright on this earth” 13

It was via reformation works and praxis that Prds were able to break the endogamy process, enabling the formation of a new community.

Appachan structured his reasoning in a manner that reconstructs the psychological and sociological understanding and logic of the audience. To achieve this, he employed memories, history and spirituality in an appropriate way. Memories that could induce the audience to condemn enslavement were introduced, and the irrationalities of history were highlighted. Consequently, people referred to Appachan's meetings as a means of hearing truths. In Appachan, a negative method akin to that of Hegel was present. During each meeting, Appachan was able to epistemologically transform the audience into something different. He did so by questioning their consciousness using reason and eliciting in them a new consciousness of self. Given that consciousness and identity result from cultural and societal factors, his meetings during his travels were saturated with inquiries and negations of such.


Although being born without a caste is not a choice, individuals can choose not to adhere to it. But it is something that is embedded in their beliefs, in their history and therefore in their culture. Even their aesthetic consciousness and customs are influenced by the caste system. Appachan realised that in order to eradicate caste consciousness, he would need to transform the history and culture itself. Appachan severed their connection with the mainstream and popular stories that perpetuate the caste system and told them that this is not your story. He explained that they are excluded from the history written by savarnas, and the tale of Parasurama forming Kerala by throwing an ax unconsciously reinforces Brahmanical hegemony. Thus, Appachan rejected the history and origin narrated by the Brahmanic system and eliminated the cultural dominance of Hindu religion and Sanskrit language by creating a new cultural sphere. The people whom appachan shifted to the new cultural plane where there is no caste difference and gender discrimination exists became the "segregated people" whom doesn’t share the same history and same orgin as brahmanical system.


The Sufficient God

It was through numerous cognitive dialogues of knowledge and reasoning that the people acknowledged Appachan as their god. Appachan was their sole source of comfort and guidance, promising freedom from their thousands of years of imprisonment, a cause that no other gods had ever tried to rectify. Consequently, the people hailed, "This God suffices for us," and labelled Appachan as their sufficient God Interestingly, Appachan did not conform to the nature of classical god traditions; in fact, he even criticized the concept of an afterlife maintained by gods. The term 'God' took on a new meaning when

Appachan was deified, signifying 'the one who upholds justice'. Him as a god came from the noughts created by slavery(In prds etymology, slavery is an umbrella term for every marginalization). As a result, Appachan became a figure of worship for those without gods, and a parent and family for the destitute. Thus It was the marginalised who wanted appachan as their god. They were astonished when they saw the slave markings of yolk on Appachan's body and screamed as they contemplated the thousands of years of enslavement that those marks represented. This led them to the conclusion that Appachan had took over the oppression they had been suffering for ages. Hence, they sought liberation from him. Consequently, Appachan became a revered figure in the Valley of Cries and Hope, worshipped as a deity, a liberator, and an embodiment of their system.


Appachan's work aimed to redeem families and individuals who were shattered and cast out by the system of slavery. By examining Appachan's operations, we can also symbolically observe the aforementioned. The main purpose of Appachan's travels was to search for and gather his people, who had been shattered by slavery. In other words, Appachan's travels refute the slave trade. For this reason, a generation came to regard Appachan as their god, realizing that only he could fix the fractures caused by the marginalization of the theologies. Through their cognitive intelligence, these people identified him as their god due to the fact that he provided them with a visible means of salvation (both material and spiritual) and created a space where all the oppressed could live in harmony.


A sufficient God is not a belief; it is a form of assurance. They recognise Appachan as a sufficient God because he has given them complete assurance. The reason people were able to overcome their natural greed and accept Appachan as sufficient was because of the apparent nature of the salvation that Appachan offered. Whether or not Appachan is a god is beyond dispute because, unlike Semitic salvation, he provides them with the means of both material and spiritual salvation. Appachan undoubtedly satisfies their needs and desires, and this satisfaction is the result of the incomparable love that Appachan has given to a generation of people. Therefore, He who loved them and gave them a place for democracy in spirituality will always be their God.


Anandu Raj is a writer and social thinker from Kottayam, Kerala.

1 Swamy, V. V., and E. V. Anil. Songs of Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha 1905-1939 (Poems and Studies). 1st ed., adiyardeepam publication, 2010, p. 16. Translated by Ajay Shekhar.

2 Ammachi is V. Janamma, who was the wife of Poykayil Appachan and the president who led PRDS after Appachan for 46 years. No other woman in our history has led a movement for this many years, as Ammachi did.

3 Mohan. S [Sanal Mohan]. (2014 April 11). SSRC NDSP/Slave Christians of Kerala. Video1. Youtube. (Translated by the Author)


4 Swamy, V. V., and E. V. Anil. Vyavasthayude Nadappaathakal . p. 114.

5 Swamy, V. V., and E. V Anil. Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha Charitra Samgraham, Orma, Pattu, Charithra Reghakal. 1st ed., adiyardeepam publication, 2010, p. 193.

6 Swamy, V. V., and E. V. Anil. Songs of Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha 1905-1939 (Poems and Studies). 1st ed., adiyardeepam publication, 2010, p. 17. Translated by Ajay Shekhar.

7 Swamy, V. V., and E. V. Anil. Songs of Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha 1905-1939 (Poems and Studies). 1st ed., adiyardeepam publication, 2010, p. 19. Translated by Ajay Shekhar.

8 Swamy, V. V., and E. V. Anil. Songs of Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha 1905-1939 (Poems and Studies). 1st ed., adiyardeepam publication, 2010, p. 51. Translated by Ajay Shekhar.


9 Swamy, V. V., and E. V Anil. Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha Charitra Samgraham, Orma, Pattu, Charithra Reghakal. 1st ed., adiyardeepam publication, 2010, p. 186.

10 Swamy, V. V., and E. V. Anil. Songs of Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha 1905-1939 (Poems and Studies). 1st ed., adiyardeepam publication, 2010, p. 14. Translated by Ajay Shekhar.

11 Swamy, V. V., and E. V. Anil. Songs of Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha 1905-1939 (Poems and Studies). 1st ed., adiyardeepam publication, 2010, p. 38. Translated by Ajay Shekhar.

12 Swamy, V. V., and E. V. Anil. Songs of Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha 1905-1939 (Poems and Studies). 1st ed., adiyardeepam publication, 2010, p. 26. Translated by Ajay Shekhar.


13 Swamy, V. V., and E. V. Anil. Songs of Prathyaksha Raksha Daiva Sabha 1905-1939 (Poems and Studies). 1st ed., adiyardeepam publication, 2010, p. 25. Translated by Ajay Shekhar.