Ezhava Kalarippayyattu (native martial art) experts and Ezhava nobles of Travancore had the title Panicker. The title Chekavar is a centuries-old title of Ezhava and Thiyya warriors (Thiyyas = Ezhavas of Malabar). These titles of Ezhava community were used by their successors as their surnames but new generation Ezhavas rarely use surnames.
The famous Cheerappanchira tharavad of Ezhava Kalarippayattu experts is situated at Muhamma in Alappuzha. It is believed that Lord Ayyappan was trained in Kalarippayyattu at this tharavad. The hermitage where Lord Ayyappan lived during his training period has been preserved in its original form by the descendants of the Cheerappanchira family. The great Sree Narayana Guru used this hermitage during his visit to this family. Hence it has got the name Swamy Madtam. The Kalari (martial art training centre) of this tharavad has been revived in the early part of the twenty first century. Presently, Sri. Somasekhara Panicker is the head of the tharavad and his son Sri. Kesav Lal is the chief priest of the Mukkal Vattom Sree Ayyappa temple of the Cheerappanchira family.
The famous Ezhava Kalarippayyattu expert Mokkad Kesava Panicker of the Mokkad tharavad near Pettah in Thiruvananthapuram was the Kalarippayyattu trainer of Kazhakuttam Pillai’s (head of the Ettuveettil-pillamar) army. His Kalari was situated at Oruvaathilkotta in Thiruvananthapuram and later, on the request of Kazhakuttam Pillai, the Kalari was shifted to Kazhakuttam in Thiruvananthapuram along with the Kalari Deity of Chamundi Devi. After some time, the same Deity was shifted to Thozhuvancode in Thiruvananthapuram by the Mokkad Kesava Panicker and there he founded the famous Chamundi Devi temple. His descendant, late Sree Thulaseedhara Swamikal was the secretary of the temple. Now his nephew is the secretary and they follow the traditional Marumakkathayam (matrilineal system) for the administration of the temple. Thozhuvancode Chamundi Devi temple is one of the beautiful and powerful Devi temples in south India. Sree Thulaseedhara Swamikal dedicated his entire life for the development of the temple.
In the eighteenth century Travancore, there were many Ezhava warriors like Renakeerthy Chekavar (Chief Commander of Marthanda Varma’s army), Akathiyadi Panicker (Chief army Commander of Kottarakkara kingdom), Ambanattu Panicker (landlord and chief army commander of Chempakassery kingdom), Pappan Chekavar (Kalarippayyattu trainer, palace physician and commander of Chempazhanthy Pillai’s army), Lokanatha Panicker and his son Patheenatha Panicker of Varanapally tharavad (Chief army commanders of Kayamkulam kingdom). These great Ezhava warriors were totally ignored by the biased historians. These historians further suppressed the importance of Ezhavas in Kerala history but they could not succeed fully as nobody can hide the truth for ever. However, the records of Ezhava history before the nineteenth century were almost destroyed by them and their aim was to hide the prestigious past of Ezhavas. They also tried their best to establish that Ezhavas were of lower caste and thereby tarnished the dignity and self respect of Ezhavas. It is well known that Ezhavas were not a part of the four-tier caste system (Chathurvarniyam) of Aryan Hindus and hence Ezhava community cannot be categorized as a caste.
In fact, Ezhavas were an ethnic martial community who migrated to Kerala many centuries before the arrival of the Aryans. During that time, Ezhavas were known as Villavars and were the founders of Chera Kingdom. It is believed that Ezhavas were Buddhists from Java and Sumatra islands (Indonesia) and had European lineage. Ezhavas were not the natives of Srilanka but they initially migrated to Srilanka from Java and Sumatra islands and from Srilanka they migrated to Kerala. So they were called Ezhavas which means people of Ezham (Srilanka) or Dweepans (island dwellers). Ezhavas were masters of Kalarippayyattu and were courageous warriors. (Kalarippayyattu is a native martial art and it is related to Chinese martial art Shaolin Kung-fu which was practised by Buddhist monks).
After the Aryan migration to Kerala from north India, Kshatrias among the Aryan Hindus became the rulers of Kerala and gradually Buddhists temples in Kerala became Hindu temples. Ezhavas did not join the Aryan Hindus but they followed Hinduism themselves. During that time Ezhavas worshipped Buddhist Gods Cittan and Arattan along with Hindu Gods. They were also snake worshippers like Aryans and aristocratic Ezhava families had their own Sarpa kavus (Snake groves). It is believed that Ezhavas might have been attracted to Hinduism and became completely Hindus without any force from the Aryans as it was impossible to force the majority Ezhavas by the minority Aryans during that period in Kerala. After many centuries, Aryans and Ezhavas of Kerala became Malayalees (Malayalam speaking people). Malayalam is a Dravidian language which originated from Tamil but Malayalam incorporated many Sanskrit elements also.
Ezhavas were given special privileges and equal status by the Kshatria rulers of Travancore, Kochi and Malabar till the end of the eighteenth century as the majority of the population, soldiers and army chiefs were Ezhavas. But from the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ezhavas were severely discriminated in Travancore because of some other reasons and it continued till the temple entry proclamation in the year AD1936. The discrimination against Ezhavas initially began in Travancore and later it spread to Kochi and Malabar. Ezhavas were discriminated for more than a century and the history was erased or rewritten to suit the rivals of Ezhavas. The great Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker of Travancore and the great Kuroolli Chekon (Kadathanadan Simham) of Malabar fought against this discrimination against Ezhavas during the nineteenth century.
The great Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker (Kalisseril Velayudha Chekavar) was born in an affluent Ezhava family of the famous Kalisseril tharavad in Arattupuzha village of Karthikapally in central Travancore in the year AD.1825. He was immensely rich, seven feet tall, fair complexioned, a Kalarippayyatu expert, Ayurveda, Astrology and Sanskrit scholar. His grandfather Vallikadavil Perumal Chekavar was a famous Tulunadan Kalarippayattu expert and his family members were also fierce warriors. It was impossible for his rivals to fight against him during his lifetime and hence the discrimination against Ezhavas could not be easily continued in Travancore during his period. He was a very powerful protector of Ezhavas and other oppressed communities in Travancore and he built the first Siva temple for them. The great Arattupuzha Velayudha Panicker was assassinated by treachery while sleeping in his boat in January 1874. The discrimination against Ezhavas ruthlessly continued again in Travancore after his assassination. The discrimination affected the progress of Ezhavas and they became a backward community. The nineteenth century (AD.1800-1900) was a terrible period for Ezhavas and during that period, many Ezhavas converted to other religions. It is believed that during the eighteenth century, seventy per cent of the population in Kerala (Travancore, Kochi and Malabar) was Ezhavas. Now the Ezhava population in Kerala is only twenty-seven per cent. However, Ezhavas are still the single largest Hindu community of Kerala. Following the teachings of the great Sree Narayana Guru and after many years of hard work, now Ezhavas are in the forefront of Kerala society. They have become the most powerful, major, wealthy, enlightened, patriotic and progressive Hindu community of Kerala.
(Information collected from various sources is included in the above article. Corrections if any are welcome)