The eighteenth century was perhaps one of the most fascinating periods in the history of Kerala in terms of the sheer brutality it witnessed. Drenched in blood and war, this era was characterised by the ultimate decline of the feudal system of governance, where loose hierarchies and confederacies of petty princes and chieftains reigned supreme across a largely fragmented geography. In Malabar, the end was particularly painful when in the second half of that century the dreaded Hyder Ali’s armies from Mysore marched in and rained death on a helpless aristocracy. Such was the chaos this provoked that even the Zamorin of Calicut, who was the most potent ruler in the vicinity, was compelled to abandon his ancestral lands and flee. Hyder’s son Tipu continued these traumatic invasions and by the 1790s the region was completely lost to its original Malayali owners, passing into the hands of the English who alone were able to trounce the formidable Sultan.
In southern Kerala, however, the annihilation of the feudal class had begun several decades before, as early as the 1730s. For here it was Marthanda Varma, the region’s most glorified ruler, who mounted an aggressive and deliberate campaign to decimate the entire race of chieftains and nobles that stood between his throne and absolute power. Even before his accession in 1729, Marthanda Varma had made it state policy to delve into every nook and cranny and uproot even the slightest hint of feudal influence that challenged central authority. The result was that power, which hitherto had to be shared among innumerable nobles and lords, now came to rest entirely in the person of the reigning sovereign. It was certainly useful, for when Tipu’s armies arrived at the frontiers of Travancore, they found the entire population rise as one man to defend the land under the leadership of their one and only king. The tragedy in this, however, is that in the Rajah’s zeal to unify the region, he destroyed so many ancient families and regional clans that significant volumes of local, medieval history were lost. The houses that did not actually perish, quietly faded away, making it all the more difficult to reconstruct local history, social as well as political, before the times of Marthanda Varma.
This Maker of Modern Travancore was merciless with the feudal class, despite their best efforts to avert liquidation. Before he began to seize the various principalities around him, Marthanda Varma first put to the sword 42 principal nobles in his ancestral territory, Venad, and even more lords and barons of a lower rank. While most accounts portray him as a gallant warrior and noble prince, he was not beneath timidly sneaking out of a besieged fort in disguise or murdering his own cousins in cold blood for standing up to him. Objective accounts of his rule depict a Machiavelli who was shrewd and ruthless, but also a master of propaganda and self-transformation; after destroying the feudal class and causing such upheavals in Kerala society, Marthanda Varma conveniently reinvented himself as a semi-divine vassal of Sri Padmanabhaswamy, a deity, and wiped his bloodied sword clean. The kingdom, built on the wholesale massacre of the old nobility, was conveniently dedicated to god, and any action against the state, and by conjunction against the now-hallowed king, became a sin. Without a doubt, the Rajah had one of the cleverest brains in eighteenth-century Kerala, and it was his cold-hearted policy alone that helped Travancore withstand the onslaught of colonialism and modernity and survive into the twentieth century.
After ridding Venad of its lords and barons, who until a generation before had the power to make the king dance to their tunes, Marthanda Varma went for the regions ruled by collateral branches of his own family. He was unforgiving even with his cousins and one by one the old principalities of south Kerala fell before his might. He breached more than one rule and custom of warfare in the process; it was often with English weapons and mercenary forces that he managed to inflict decisive defeats on his enemies. When some Rajahs tried to buy time by having Brahmins shield their men on the battlefield, Marthanda Varma’s commander, Ramayyan, cared little for their sacerdotal immunity and shot them down, sending waves of terror across Kerala. When an offensive alliance almost defeated him, the Rajah brought more mercenaries from outside to do his bidding. Thus, one way or another, he achieved exactly what he wanted. And thus fell to him the principalities of Kottarakkara, Quilon, Kayamkulam, Pandalam, Poonjar, Attingal, Purakkad, Thekkumkur, Vadakkumkur, and more.
Thekkumkur was at that time ruled by an ancient Samanta dynasty (about whom I have written before) and although they resisted the advance of Travancore for some time, in the end they were forced to concede defeat and go into exile. The people in the region, however, were undaunted and for many years Marthanda Varma faced rebellion and trouble here. But having annexed Thekkumkur, the ambitious Rajah now turned his attention to an eastern principality at the foot of the Western Ghats, ruled by yet another Samanta dynasty. It is said that incriminating evidence was discovered against this family in the Thekkumkur Palace and it was hence that Marthanda Varma turned against them. Either way, by the year 1754, the district of Meenachil also came into his possession, and its ancient rulers followed Thekkumkur into exile and oblivion. This was the house of the Njavakkatu Karthavus, one of the many old families of Kerala that had their own folklore, history, and traditions, all of which became sidelined with the rise of Travancore.
The origins of the Njavakkattu family of Meenachil are shrouded in legend and fable, although circumstantial evidence suggests a considerable degree of truth in these stories. The family tradition states that they were originally of Rajput extraction, with roots in the Sisodia state of Mewar in modern day Rajasthan; it was this provenance that resulted in their seat in Meenachil to be named Mevada as well. At some point in history these Rajputs, either because of quarrels with relatives or because of Islamic invasions and the trouble this fostered in their homeland, migrated to South India. They settled close to the Tamil coast, at Kumbakonam and it was from here that they were brought to Kerala around 357 AD and anointed some years later as the chieftains of Meenachil. They remained, according to this tradition, rulers of the region for 1400 years before Marthanda Varma’s armies chased them out and put an end to their regime.
The story goes that forty-one years after the reign of the Perumals began in Kerala, the heads of two Brahmin Swarupams (dynasties), namely Elangallur (today known as Edappally Rajah) and Elamprakkat (which I cannot identify), married sisters from this family in Kumbakonam and brought them into the Malayali country. The names of these ancestors were Sridevi and Ambika Devi, and until recently the Tampatties of Meenachil prefixed the former as a title with their own names. Soon afterwards two sons were born to these women, named Sri Vira Damodara Simharu and Sri Vira Rama Simharu. The surname of ‘Simharu’ is a corrupt form of the Rajput ‘Singh’ that is found commonly in Rajasthan. The former is supposed to have been the first chieftain of Meenachil, and in his memory all the male members attached his name to their own. The story also says that the family’s first territories in the region were five desoms (village clusters) purchased from Elamprakkat Swarupam and then dedicated to the Kidangoor and Poovarani Temples, which Vira Damodara Simharu built, twenty-two years after their arrival. The vast bulk of their territory, however, which was thirty-six desoms, was given to them by Cheraman Perumal some years later, along with a sword of authority and the title of Njanachan. This title, as it happens, is least known among the family’s several other titles, which include Njavakkattu Kaimal, Njavakkattu Karthavu, and Mevada Thampan. Another title they seem to have held under the Thekkumkur Rajahs was Adhikarikal and there was a copper plate record from the early eighteenth century mentioning one Njavakkattu Damodaran Chingar Adhikarikal, which eventually went missing. The family also had military alliances with the family of the Poonjar Rajah, who was another princely neighbour of theirs.
The chief minister of the Meenachil Karthavu was the head of the Arakkal Menon family and their finance minister was one Valappil Menon. Both of these Nair houses became extinct by the early twentieth century, but there are indications that the Thampans of Meenachil married their women. The consort of the ruling Karthavu was known as the Ammachi and there is at least one legend mentioning the Arakkal Ammachi who haughtily asked her husband to execute an innocent man because of an imagined insult. The Meenachil Karthavus, although they were allied to Thekkumkur, were entirely independent within their domains and even waged war against their overlords; such was the loose structure of Kerala’s polity before Marthanda Varma. One story, which might have its exaggerations, is instructive about the power and rights of the Karthavu. It tells how the chieftain once built a large mansion for himself and invited the Thekkumkur Rajah for the housewarming ceremony. The Rajah gladly agreed to be present but on his way, he met a Nambutiri Brahmin who mischievously told him that the Karthavu had already concluded the feast without waiting for the prince to arrive. Livid with rage, the Rajah vowed not to eat a meal till he had seen the ashes of the Meenachil mansion, and his soldiers proceeded to destroy the building. This led to a number of military confrontations between the Karthavu and the Rajah at a place known as Kadapattur, which ultimately led to a truce. And the beneficiary of the truce was the very same mischievous Nambutiri, for the Karthavu as part of the peace settlement granted the entire desom of Kadapattur to him as a freehold!
By the time Marthanda Varma began to conquer the principalities of south Kerala, the Karthavus became extremely nervous, not least because of the treatment that was meted out to the defeated princes and chieftains. They may or may not have helped Thekkumkur in its campaigns against Travancore, but either way the armies of the latter arrived one day on the borders of Meenachil. At this time the family had just recovered from an internal conflict, where the reigning Karthavu had been literally stabbed in the back and murdered by the next in line, and the internal organisation of the principality was in a mess. The other members of the royal family included three men, aged 74, 64, and 51, two women aged 34 and 30, and two children aged 5 and a half and 2 and a half respectively. When the soldiers of Travancore showed up, the family conferred and decided resistance was futile and elected to go into exile. Another version states that they did in fact engage the Travancore troops in battle but were defeated by treachery and had no option but to escape. Disguising themselves as Nambutiri Brahmins, on the 29th of Meenam 929 ME (i.e. sometime in 1754) they fled first to a place known as Kizhathadiyur. Here, at the house of the Ponallur Nambutiri, they signed documents granting the Kidangoor and Poovarani Temples and all the associated properties, to a dignitary known as the Thiruvarpu Swamiyar, and having made this donation, they continued northwards into Malabar.
The refugee royal family first arrived at a place known as Koratty, where the senior lady of the family died of exhaustion and trauma. The rest of the family then proceeded to the famous temple-town of Guruvayoor and lived at a building known as the Perakathu Vakiye Palace for some time, placed at their disposal by the Zamorin. The oldest male member and the only other lady in the family died here soon afterwards and their funeral ceremonies were conducted far away from their ancestral home, in a Thirunelli in Wynad. The next man of the family died thereafter at a place called Manathinnel. In 942 ME, the last male member of the family died at Pulootil Palace in Kodungallur and the family came to consist of two sisters alone, who were merely children at the time of their exodus to the north. They had both grown up by now and were married in 937 ME in Guruvayoor to two Nambutiries and subsisted on a pension granted by the Zamorin.
It was in 1766 AD that Hyder Ali’s forces occupied Malabar for the first time, and the two young princesses requested the Zamorin’s permission to leave the war-torn country and go back to Travancore. They were graciously allowed to do so, and the Zamorin even sent an ambassador of his known as Jayanthan Pattar to plead their case and ask the Travancore Rajah to reinstate them in Meenachil. One Kanjirakkattu Nambutiri, probably a husband of one of the two ladies, also accompanied them and together they arrived in Travancore, twelve years after fleeing their homeland. The ambassador and the Nambutiri requested Rama Varma, the nephew and successor of Marthanda Varma, to be merciful to the two destitute princesses, and he agreed. A mansion was constructed for them and a pension of 6 parahs of paddy per person was granted. Four tax-free gardens were also given to the family, and they were allowed to return to Meenachil in return for waiving all their ancestral claims on the district. And thus, the Njavakkatu Karthavus returned to Meenachil, no longer proud chieftains but as humbled subjects of Travancore. The state treated them charitably enough and a number of cash allowances were also granted (50 panams for a baby’s choroonu, 250 for a funeral, 300 for a first death anniversary, 300 for a wedding, and so on, until a further Rs. 25 per month was granted at the end of the nineteenth century). They also had special privileges during the famous Murajapam festival in the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple and other prerogatives from the royal court, most of which continued until the end of the nineteenth century.
Ten years after their return, around 1776 AD, the family branched into two houses when the younger of the two ladies moved to Kumpanilparambu in Meenachil proper. The ancestral mansion of the family, which Marthanda Varma had confiscated, was returned at this time and remained the residence of her descendants until 1819 when a great flood swept away the palace as well as many of the family’s old records and documents. Eventually, as the size of the family grew, further branches appeared and separate houses were built for them. The eldest male member was always known as the Damodara Simharu (for example, Sri Vira Kerala Damodara Simharu), and other male members were commonly known by family nicknames, such as Kochaniyan Karthavu, Kunchoman Karthavu, and so on. The ladies were addressed as Tampatties, which is a lower form of Tampuratti. The family were reasonably close to the royal family of Travancore in the nineteenth century, and in the 1840s one member was a government munsiff (a lower grade judge) while in the 1880s another served as an ADC of sorts to Maharajah Visakham Tirunal. But their days of glory had passed long ago and they were merely a country aristocracy now, dependent on the government of Travancore. They were not permitted to change any of their customs, for instance, without permission from the Maharajah, on pain of forfeiting their pensions, some of which were in any case taken away by Mulam Tirunal Maharajah and the Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. The general allowances, however, continued for a long time and are perhaps still given to the family by the government.
This essay on the Meenachil Karthas is based almost entirely on G. Raman Menon’s writing in the Kerala Society Papers in 1931, where he has presented a lot of information on the family, collected from one of its senior male members. I reproduce it here in my own words so that another snippet of local history from Kerala, such as that of the Vadakkumkur-Thekkumkur Rajahs, is available to interested students of history on the internet. I am also grateful to Dr. Gopidas Unnithan who first told me about this Rajput family and sparked an interest in their history in me.