Archive for April, 2009

Devadasi or Rajput Princess

Posted in history, kerala, mythology & legend, people, random with tags , , , on April 19, 2009 by Manu

One of the most interesting and fascinating stories from the history of Travancore is that of the Kunju Thampis, the sons of Rajah Rama Varma who is said to have ruled from 1721 to 1730 when the state was still called Venad and was very minor and small. The general story goes that he was the uncle of the celebrated and legendary Marthanda Varma Maharajah and on his death his sons, Sri Padmanabhan Thampi and Sri Raman Thampi staked claim to the throne. 

Anyone with any idea of Kerala history would know about one of its most exclusive and distinct traditions; matriarchy. Inheritance was in the matrilineal line i.e. the Rajah’s sons had no claim and no title of succession to the throne. The heir and successor was the son of the Rajah’s sister, who was the Rani. In this case, the heir was Marthanda Varma, the Rajah’s nephew. In accordance to Travancore custom, the sons however held most royal privileges though not authority itself.

The typical story goes that the mother of the Kunju Thampis was a lady called Abhirami and that she was a Devadasi of such divine beauty that Rajah Rama Varma, enamored of her, offered to marry her and in the process gave her his word that her children alone would succeed to the throne of Travancore after him. The story unfolds that with the death of Rajah Rama Varma the Kunju Thampis claimed the throne, with significant aid from the Ettuveetil Pillamar (Lords of the Eight Houses, a clan of powerful feudal lords attached to the great temple of Trivandrum). They even secured aid from the Nayaks of Madurai. However Marthanda Varma overpowered their efforts and vanquished the Pillamar and bribed away the Madurai forces. The Kunju Thampis were then, on a visit to the Maharajah, killed when they attempted to force their way in.

Many are the legends and stories attached to the Kunju Thampis. It is almost certain that their mother was not a Malyali lady and either came from the Tamil country or was a Bengali. It is popularly held that she had been ennobled prior to her marriage with the king. Tampimar Katai an old Tamil ballad talks of how she and her brother were given titles and estates and she was called “Kittanathil Ammachi”. 

My friend Sharat recently got to know a barely known legend and tale of the origin of Abhirami from a certain gentleman called Krishna Singh. Krishna Singh is a Malyali in all respects but the surname of Singh apparently is a vestige of his descent from a clan of Rajputs who migrated to Kerala in the late 17th or early 18th century. It may be mentioned here that several clans of Rajputs have been known to have migrated to Kerala in the past, the most reputed being the Mevada Thampans better known as the Meenachil Karthas who ruled over Meenachil until 1754 when Travancore annexed their territory. Their title of Mevada Thampan (Ruler of Mevada) is said to have originated from the word Mewar, from where they originally hailed.

According to Krishna Singh there was sometime in the 17th century born in Ayodhya to a Rajput prince a daughter. Her name is not known but she was known generally as Princess Sandhya. It is said that the astrologers noted some defects in her horoscope which were detrimental to her and her family and hence recommended a pilgrimage of fourteen years of the holy places of India. This advice was taken and the young Princess Sandhya accompanied by retainers and a brother left Ayodhya, never to return. 

The travels of this Rajput party brought them to Kerala. One day when Rajah Rama Varma of the ruling house of Travancore, visited the great temple of Suchindram, he heard the melodious voice of a lady singing a bhajan and on enquiry as to who the owner of the voice was, met Princess Sandhya. He proposed marriage to her soon after and this being accepted by her, or rather, her brothers and people, the same was solemnized and Sandhya became the Rajah’s consort. Even the other accounts of the lady, called Abhirami therein, state that the king met her at Suchindram and was enamored by her voice.

The story continues, as it does in the traditional accounts. The king promised to have his sons by her rule the state as per the patriarchal system. Thus Sandhya’s sons were brought up thinking that they would one day rule Travancore. This however appears to be one of the discrepancies of the story for it would have been obvious that such a succession would not be allowed in Kerala. Later when the Kunju Thampis brought the Madurai forces to Travancore, Marthanda Varma produced sufficient documentary evidence to prove his claim as per the matrilineal system while the Thampis did not possess even a single document to sustain the promise made to their mother.

When the Thampis rose against their cousin for the throne with the support of the eight lords, Marthanda Varma imprisoned their mother and sister, Ummini Thanka, in a palace. I am assuming that this palace was at Nagercoil for that is where the entire family died. While the Thampis were rallying troops around themselves, Princess Sandhya died and Ummini Thanka guarded her body for five days.

All accounts regarding the Kunju Thampis state Marthanda Varma’s interest in their sister and how it was her refusal to marry him that spurned his anger against her family. This version states that Marthanda Varma wished to conciliate the Kunju Thampis by marrying their sister as some sort of a compromise. However when he arrived with the thalam and other preparations for marriage at Nagercoil, in a fit of rage Ummini Thanka kicked it aside and cursing the Royal House of Travancore and the Kulasekhara Dynasty, pulled out her tongue and committed suicide.

Traditional accounts state that the Kunju Thampis arrived at Nagercoil Palace to meet Marthanda Varma and when they were denied entry they flew into rage and were killed by the soldiers. The problem with this is that nobody would visit their sworn enemy unprepared and while surrounded by his people, in his own palace, attempt to kill him. This story hints that angered by the fate of their mother and sister the Kunju Thampis arrived at Nagercoil for revenge. And then they were killed. The spirit of Ummini Thanka was confined in an idol and consecrated at a holy place so that it may gain peace and thus ended the tale of the Kunju Thampis. 

The flow of the story in all accounts is the same. Though there is no certain evidence to prove whether Abhirami was a Bengali or Tamil or, as this story claims, a Rajput of blood as noble as the Rajah of Travancore himself. The discrepancies lie in the fact that it seems unusual that a Rajput brother would permit his sister to sing in a temple, for people to hear. Also this could be a kind of reverse legitimization, a usual trend in history, to accord noble origins to Abhirami. Or perhaps she was indeed a Princess of a far away land and was later degraded by legends to legitimize the actions of Marthanda Varma to a Devadasi. 

Mr Krishna Singh apparently possesses documents which state the origin of his ancestors from Ayodhya. He also said that since the other Rajputs who had accompanied the Princess were not party to these activities, they were spared and served as cavalrymen and Palliyara Kaval (Guards of the Palace) for a long time. Mr. Singh’s surname itself is peculiar in Kerala. 

This entire story with its details was narrated by Sharat to me and hence my thanks to him for the same. In the end, nobody knows who Abhirami was and this story remains as elusive and unclear as before, with yet another twist and possibility.