The Ennobling Story of Kunjanambi Setti: The Sanatana Guild Leader who Stopped Hindu Infighting

This is the first episode of Kunjanambi Setti, a Kerala Guild-leader who was instrumental in bringing peace between the Hoysala and the Sevuna Empires.
The Ennobling Story of Kunjanambi Setti: The Sanatana Guild Leader who Stopped Hindu Infighting

ON THE SURFACE, THIS IS THE STORY OF two powerful but mutually warring Hindu Empires. It is the story of how the animosity was halted wholly due to the ennobling diplomacy of a businessman hailing from another empire. It is the story of Samsara, refined eloquence, purity of purpose and culture. It is the real-life illustration of how Artha unravels profoundly when it is guided by and fused inseparably with Dharma. It is the story of how an individual from the Malayāḷa-dēśa became an instrument of peace between the Karṇāṭa-dēśa and the Marāṭha-dēśa. It is the story of how the Hoysala and the Sevuna became friends through the vestal mediation of a Malayāḷa financial leader.

This is the story of Kunjanambi Setti, the Varaprasāda, the boon and blessing of Devi Bhadrakali. 

KUNJANAMBI SETTI lived in a fragile era of Indian history. Hordes of alien Turushkas had already ravaged Uttarāpatha on an epic scale over two centuries. They were now saddled on the throne of Delhi with no powerful Hindu ruler to counter and triumph over them. The ancient traditions, institutions and customs of Sanatana—of Dharma, Dēśa and Devalaya had been smashed to smithereens and had left Hindus looking a little better than human debris.

Oblivious to or uncaring of this colossal loss, Hindu kings throughout Madhya-Dēśa and Dakṣiṇāpatha were busy slashing each others’ throats, which would obviously culminate in a similar disaster in their regions as well. 

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By the mid-13th century, this is how the scene of the aforementioned mutual Hindu throat-cutting broadly looked like: the Vaghela fought against the Paramara. The Paramara fought against the Chahamana. The vestiges of the Chola fought against the vestiges of the Pandya. The Kakatiya fought against the Chola. The Hoysala fought against the Pandya. The Sevuna fought against everyone.

OUR STORY OCCURS in the regime of the Hoysala monarch, Vira Someswara and his Sevuna contemporary, Kannara or Krishna. Even as the long standing tensions between the two empires were simmering under the surface, Vira Someswara had once gone to Kannanur, the southern Hoysala capital he had founded about five miles from Srirangam. Today, it is known as South Kannanur Taluk, a panchayat town. 

At Kannanur, Vira Someshwara heard some extraordinary folklore extolling a certain Kunjanambi Setti. He was introduced as an eminent and great senior merchant hailing from Kulamukha-nagara or Kozhikode. The inscription dedicated to Kunjanambi Setti gives us fuller details and portrays his profound character in an elevating fashion. 

Kunjanambi Setti is a mirror to Goddess Lakshmi of the Kēraḷa-dēśa.

Kunjanambi Setti is the ornament of the Vaishya-kula. 

Kunjanambi Setti is the treasure-chest of virtue. 

Kunjanambi Setti is the boon of Devi Bhadrakali herself.

Kunjanambi Setti was an expert in understanding goods and vehicles. 

Kunjanambi Setti is akin to a Maharaja among the Vaḍḍa-vyavahāri-s or moneylenders. (The Kannada word Baḍḍi is derived from Vaḍḍa).

Among other things, the whole inscription offers several valuable details about Hindu business and corporate life of that period. But more on that later. 

Like other corporate heads of that era, Kunjanambi Setti was the leader of an extremely prosperous guild that carried on interstate business in a variety of trades. The inscription itself gives us rather explicit clues about this fact: 

Kunjanambi Setti at once supplied the wants of the great Malava king, the Kalinga king, the Chola king, the Pandya king, and obtained great merit… An expert in testing all manner of gems, and understanding the wishes…of the kings, filled with ability in counsel, skilled in scholarship and great in generosity was Kunjanambi, the promoter of the fortunes of the Malayāḷa family.

Clearly, Kunjanambi was a polymath eminence for all reasons and was much in demand throughout an impressive geography of India. His interstate business activities also shows Hindu kings did not harm their economy in spite of their internecine rivalries. From this perspective, the flagrantly cutthroat Adharma politely known as “sanctions” was unknown to Hindu kings. 

Kunjanambi was also a first rate warrior, which was precisely what attracted Vira Someshwara’s attention. 

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ON ONE OCCASION, a Sevuna military contingent marched into Ucchangi (now in the Harapanahalli Taluk, Vijayanagara District, Karnataka) to occupy it. The move was part of an offensive that Kannara launched against the Hoysala. But before Vira Someshwara could send in his forces to repel it, Kunjanambi opposed the Sevuna with his private militia and spectacularly triumphed in the skirmish. 

This was when the overjoyed Vira Someshwara sent for Kunjanambi, the valiant warrior who, “with all his power, discharged arrows so that by himself he made the force retire as if rubbed out.” The Hoysala monarch awarded Kunjanambi with titles befitting his valour: virada-perme (pride of heroes), jasada- sompam (beauty of fame), vairi-kolahalam (disturber of enemies). Indeed, this was no ordinary victory, and as the inscription narrates, Vira Someshwara “ever bowed his head to such prowess.” In an elaborate ceremony that marked the award of these titles, Kunjanambi Setti “with the former crown of Setti,” was additionally elevated to the status of a subhata or great warrior. 

This elevation would prove immensely fruitful as we shall see in the next part of this series.

To be continued

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