Archive for kerala

The Damodara Simharus of Meenachil

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on September 27, 2013 by Manu

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.

The Rajah Marthanda Varma

The Rajah 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.

Rajah Rama Varma

The Rajah Rama Varma

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.

The Third Princess

Posted in history, india, kerala, people, random, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 19, 2010 by Manu

The 23rd of October 1926 was a day of much rejoicing all over Travancore state in South India. By the late morning congratulatory messages and telegrams reached the Regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi from all over the country conveying their best wishes on the occasion of the birth of her second child. As the Satelmond Palace Guild’s monthly magazine, The Microcosm, which was edited by none other than the Maharani’s consort Sri Rama Varma, the Valiya Koil Thampuran, reported:

The event is memorable for its uniqueness, in as much as, a sovereign ruler of the State giving birth to a child has not taken place during the last hundred years, the last instance being that of Her Highness Gowri Lakshmi Bayi. 

(Gowri Lakshmi Bayi was the mother of the famous Maharajah Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (1829-1846) who was also the only Queen Regnant of Travancore)

Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi with Princess Indira Bayi

While the Dewan made the official announcement of the royal birth in the state assembly, a holiday was proclaimed in all public institutions and special religious offerings were made in the name of the newborn princess. The same day in the evening at 5 PM the Regent Maharani’s sister, Junior Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi and her son, the minor Maharajah Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma came to see the child after which the Maharajah made the customary distribution of sugar to all the Brahmins and state officials present. When, 28 days later, the asterism of Karthika, under which the princess was born, returned, a grand feast was prepared at Satelmond Palace followed by garden parties and other functions. The Maharani and Valiya Koil Thampuran decided to name their second daughter Indira, after the goddess Lakshmi. The name was unusual in the royal family, which usually called their princesses Lakshmi, Parvathi, Rukmini, Ambika, Uma etc. The full title of the baby was now Karthika Thirunal Indira Bayi, Third Princess of Travancore.

The first few years of Princess Indira’s life were spent at Satelmond Palace in the company of her parents and elder sister Uthram Thirunal Lalithamba Bayi. Her mother’s sisters and their children also resided on the premises of Satelmond Palace but as per the orthodox usages of the royal family, these relatives could not mingle freely with their royal cousins. Every day they visited the Maharani at specific timings to pay their respects and there always lingered a certain formality in expression, although the Maharani was very close to her sisters of whom she took great care. It appears that right from her childhood Princess Indira would be embarrassed by these customs which decreed that her own aunts and relatives, so much older than her, should refer to her as a Highness and not as a little girl.

Princess Indira as a child

The Maharani appointed the best tutors, including Miss DH Watts, her own teacher and the sister of the Dewan ME Watts, to educate her little daughters. In keeping with the usages of the royal family, the princess received instruction in Sanskrit and Malayalam for 10 years under the tutelage of the eminent scholar Narayana Pisharody. Mr. Shankara Subbu Iyen and a certain Miss Paulose taught other subjects such as Maths, Hindi, and English etc.. After her regency terminated in November 1931, the Maharani did express a desire to send Princesses Lalitha and Indira to a public school but knew that permission would not be granted. Princess Indira thus found at her disposal many toys and books and other comforts, but had one essential component of a healthy childhood missing: friendship.

But the rigidity of royal life reduced considerably during the family’s vacations outside the capital city of Trivandrum. With her parents and sister, Princess Indira made many trips to places like Courtallam, Coonoor, Peermade, Kovalam etc. These were, however, occasional holidays and a return to the palace was unavoidable. Hence the Maharani’s daughters made the most of their little vacations outside. Princess Indira displayed great creativity right from her childhood and often, on such holidays, would lead the maidservants in song and dance. A sojourn in Coonoor, for instance, in 1932 saw great fun with little Indira Bayi, accompanied by the maids, acting out the story of Krishna and Kuchela on one day followed by that of Santanagopalam on the next. Kochu Paru, a favourite maid, was often the lead actor while Princess Indira sang in her delightful voice.

Halcyon Castle, Kovalam

A particularly favourite place of residence for the princess and her family was their resort at Kovalam called Halcyon Castle. Constructed by the Valiya Koil Thampuran on a 40-acre property on the beach, the entire structure was made of granite. Little cottages for the Maharani and her daughters, the household staff, servants etc. dotted the premises. The Valiya Koil Thampuran also designed beautiful gardens around the main building and a special outdoor dining area was also built. Often their father would take the little princesses on boat rides and on other occasions the local fisher folk would bring to them very interesting shells, stones and other treasures from the sea. A giant telescope was perched atop the tower of the building and special seats were made providing a brilliant view of the area. Years later Princess Indira would refer to Halcyon Castle as her “dream home”. When the princesses were not in their special “school house” they would be walking around the beach in the company of their father, meeting ordinary people and villagers who lived there.

Like in any family, there were humorous occasions of sibling rivalry also. Princess Indira’s elder sister Lalitha was a rather strong willed child and did not like being left out of things. For instance in 1935, when their father was away at his hometown in Harippad, Princess Indira developed a swelling in her leg and to comfort his daughter the Valiya Koil Thampuran sent her a letter full of jokes. Lalitha too decided to have her own letter and so she knocked her foot against the stairs and wrote to her father about how painful it was. As time passed, however, and the princesses grew up, the two sisters became very close to each other. This might also have been because of the conspicuous absence of other children around them.

A 1928 photograph of Princesses Lalitha and Indira with their mother, the Maharani

But growing up meant that the Indira had to take on more responsibilities pertaining to her position as a princess of the royal house of Travancore. Living in a palace meant that she could not step out into the open without a band of liveried attendants following her. Special occasions, and in the royal family there were many of these, meant that Princess Indira and her sister would be paraded around the city in palanquins or atop elephants, to the accompaniment of piped music, drums and trumpets, not to mention all the soldiers, guards and ordinary crowds that followed them everywhere. Whereas her mother the Maharani had become accustomed to this life, for the princess it resulted in major embarrassment and nothing more. She once said:

I was born in a cage. A golden cage, but a cage nevertheless. Traditions and ancient customs- the bars. Yet my childhood was not unhappy. The beauties surrounding our house enchanted me- the sea, the mountains…

While on the one hand the princess felt increasingly restricted by her royal status, on the other her aunt, the Junior Maharani’s animosity towards her mother made things worse. Every time something had to be done, care had to be taken to ensure that the Junior Maharani would not in the least feel antagonised, for then more trouble would ensue. The princess and her family thus went about their daily affairs without much interaction with the Junior Maharani and her family.

In 1938 Princess Lalithamba Bayi had been married to Kerala Varma of Kilimanoor. The marriage took place only after the Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi conciliated the Junior Maharani by paying a visit to Kowdiar Palace as the latter had desired. After the marriage, which was a seven-day state function, Princess Lalitha left on her honeymoon and the Maharani had only Princess Indira with her. The princess sensed her mother’s loneliness and spent most of her time with her, thereby forging a “special bond” between them. By now the princess had displayed a flair for writing stories and poetry and the Maharani encouraged her to study and become a graduate.

Princess Karthika Thirunal

After her schooling it was decided that Princess Indira could attend college with regular students instead of learning under tutors. Her daily classes in college were her first taste of freedom. For the princess going to college was nothing less than thrilling. For the first time she would leave the protected, orthodox, royal environs of the palace and venture into the “real world”. “For some reason I went about barefoot”, she recollects and this habit seems to have resulted in many comments from fellow students, who perhaps expected to see a fairytale princess in their classroom instead of this excited young girl who wondered at the lives they led instead. The princess was also often awestruck by her ordinary classmates who wore the latest clothes and ornaments while her own attire was not the most fashionable. The style of living in the Travancore royal family was simple and it was only on special occasions that the family dressed up. Otherwise their dress, food and other aspects of daily life were unusually simple; something that caused even Mahatma Gandhi some surprise. To return to Princess Indira’s college education, she went on to become the first female graduate of the Travancore royal family although marriage and children interrupted her studies before she secured her BA degree.

Meanwhile in 1939 a serious issue cropped up. The Maharani’s estate at Peermade was purchased in the name of Princess Indira and suddenly the Maharajah’s manager informed her that this property did not belong to the princess but to the Maharajah. However the timely intervention of the British Resident prevented a miscarriage of justice and it was established that the property in Peermade belonged to Princess Indira and nobody else. It remained in her ownership until 1952 when it was sold. More trouble followed in 1941 when the Maharajah desired that the Maharani and her daughters reside at Trivandrum and not at Lalindloch Palace in Vellayani, where they had been based for a few years past, in keeping with the “dignity” of the royal family. More and more restrictions were placed on their lives, much to the princess’ unhappiness.

Just as the Second World War was coming to an end, in June 1945 it was decided to get the princess married. Her father’s nephew from Harippad, lovingly called Kuttan, was the groom and as the princess had no objection, the marriage was finalized and conducted. Princess Indira now looked on to a new phase in her life but this happiness was short lived for her husband was found to be ill constantly. He was diagnosed with cancer and, in those days, there was no advanced treatment for it. In May 1949 Rama Varma “Kuttan” Koil Thampuran passed away at Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum. At the age of 23 Indira Bayi found herself a widow.

The Third Princess as a young woman

For the young girl this shock was tremendous and the Maharani decided that a change of environment would do her daughter good. The princess was sent to Trichonopoly, where the Maharani’s brother Kerala Varma was at that time based, along with her aunt Aswathynnal Kutty Amma Thampuran (whose son Dr. RM Varma is the famous neurosurgeon). However the loss sustained by the princess was severe and for two years after this she led a very secluded and private life. The Maharani, not used to seeing her bright daughter in such an unhappy state, encouraged her to concentrate on her studies, even as proposals were being considered for her remarriage. 1949 was also the year in which Princess Lalitha moved away with her husband and daughters to Bangalore and settled there.

Being a princess, Indira’s education was interrupted often and it was in 1951 that she passed the matriculation examinations, which helped revive her spirits. Meanwhile a suitable proposal had been accepted and she was engaged to K. Kerala Varma of Kilimanoor. In May 1952 Princess Indira was married to Kerala Varma at her sister’s residence in Bangalore, where the Maharani had been staying since August 1951. After the tragedy, for the first time Indira looked radiant and happy and all set to begin a new chapter in her life. The Maharani too was greatly relieved that the worst had passed. In November 1952 a house was purchased for Indira in Madras, where her husband was based and plans were afoot to move there. Even as she was preparing for her intermediate exams, Princess Indira became pregnant and in 1953 gave birth to her daughter, Shobhana. Shobhana’s birth brought new joy to Indira and as the entire family spent the summer of 1954 in Coonoor, it finally looked like the doors of the golden cage had opened up.

Princess Indira and her family with the Maharani in Madras

A son Shreekumar followed in 1955 and the princess, now known as Mrs. Indira Varma, began to enjoy her life in Madras where she could be herself, without the baggage of royalty that stuck to her in Trivandrum. She studied and secured a BA degree a few years after the birth of her son. An avid reader and a writer of short stories and poems, she introduced her children to the world of books. In 1958 the Maharani moved to Bangalore permanently and the connection with Travancore was for most part severed. Every summer Indira and her family would visit Bangalore and stay with the Maharani. Occasionally she would go with her father to Kerala where, in spite of the changing times, she was still considered royal. Her son Shreekumar Varma, describes an interesting experience in the late 1960s when on a temple visit a grand procession, attended by a couple of hundred local people, followed them throughout. Indira and Shobhana, who were present, along with an aunt Snehalatha, “bore the limelight far more gracefully” than Shreekumar who was then a Madras schoolboy, unaccustomed to such things.

Indira Varma in the early 1980s with her mother during a Bangalore visit

In 1971 after the Government of India passed a constitutional amendment derecognising the Maharajahs, the Sreepadom Estate was partitioned between the branches of the Maharanis Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi. Among the royal properties only Thevarathu Koikkal came to Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. Of the property, Saraswathi Vilasom Palace was given to Indira who retained it until 1988 when she sold it to the Hindi Prachar Sabha, with the condition that the property must not be demolished or sold and the name must not be changed (The surrounding land and other buildings, including a Kalyana Mandapom, the Maharani’s first bungalow called Moonbeam etc. were the share of Princess Lalitha and her children). The government in 1964 had already acquired her “dream home” Halcyon Castle and the other properties too were sold. It was clear that her move to Madras was permanent and subsequently her children married and settled there as well. Except for a few occasional and rare trips to Kerala, Madras and Bangalore became home for the princess and her family.

Shreekumar Varma (Photo by SS Kumar, courtesy The Hindu)

Indira’s husband KK Varma was a lawyer in the Supreme Court of India and sometime Chairman and MD of India Meters. Her son Shreekumar Varma is an author and journalist whose works include The Lament of Mohini (2000), Devils Garden: Tales of Pappudom (2006), The Magic Store of Nu-Cham-Vu (2009) Maria’s Room (2010) etc. He is married to Geeta Varma of Nilambur Kovilakam and has two sons, Vinayak Varma (an artist, scriptwriter, and illustrator etc.) and Karthik Varma (a student in college and an actor and musician). Her daughter Shobhana Varma studied Law and Homeopathy and is married to Goda Varma of Kilimanoor. She had an only daughter, Mathangi Varma, who passed away in 2001. The death of her granddaughter affected Indira Bayi greatly and I reproduce a stanza from a poem she wrote in memory of Mathangi:

Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh,

Beat of my pulse, song of my heart,

Did I love you too much dear one?

Did jealous fate resent the gift,

Of so much love to a single soul,

And take you, leaving me bereft?

Indira Varma continues to reside in Madras/Chennai today with her family. Had the princely order continued she would today have been the Senior Maharani of Travancore. So many years have passed since the days of the princes in India but even today the Government recognizes her as Her Highness Karthika Thirunal Indira Bayi, Third Princess of Travancore.

This post is derived from the following articles published in The Hindu’s Magazine: Benign Presence (2006) by Shreekumar Varma and Halcyon Days at Kovalam (2005) by Indira Varma. I have also referred to Lakshmi Raghunandan’s At the Turn of the Tide (1995) and Shreekumar Varma’s essay Those were the Daze that was published in Anita Nair’s Where the Rain is Born: Writings about Kerala (2002). I specially thank Shreekumar Varma for the pictures and also for conveying his mother’s appreciation of this article to me. To the best of my knowledge the above stated is accurate and any inaccuracies will be subsequently corrected as and when they come to my attention.

The Rajahs of Vadakkumkur

Posted in history, india, kerala, random with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2010 by Manu

Within the shelter afforded by the Arabian sea on the west and the Western Ghats on the East, Kerala was insulated from the happenings in the rest of India to a great extent. The most conspicuous cultural difference is the matriarchal system that survived untouched into the last century in complete contrast with the remainder of the subcontinent. Similarly, although it was such a small landmass, Kerala was ruled up to the 18th century by many princes and Rajahs. The geographical isolation of the region permitted them to engage in their petty quarrels and maintain little “kingdoms” till Marthanda Varma conquered and annexed these principalities. Even so, Kerala’s rulers remained in their own little cocooned world until Hyder Ali of Mysore attacked, revealing their weakness and, for the first time in centuries, shaking them to reality. Only Marthanda Varma and his successors thought beyond the confines of Kerala and this foresight later came to Travancore’s advantage during the Mysorean invasion of Kerala.

To return to the narrative on the Rajahs and Thampurans who ruled over little territories in Kerala; there were about thirty three such princely families, excluding the prominent royal houses of Travancore, Cochin, Calicut and Kolathunad. One of these princes was the Rajah of Vadakkumkur whose domain was located in what is now called South Kerala.

Maharajah Marthanda Varma of Travancore

The geographical extent of Vadakkumkur in the 18th century included the regions surrounding Ettumanoor, Vaikom and some portions of Meenachil. At its height, according to Prof. Sreedhara Menon, the Rajah owned all the land between the Vembanad lake in the west and the Pandya (Tamil) territories in the east. To the south it shared borders with Thekkumkur (which was ruled by a collateral branch of the same family) and in the north it extended up to Kothamangalam. The ancestors of the Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur families ruled over Vempolinad, which is referred to in Sanskrit texts as Bimbalidesa. The rulers were called Bimbalisas and it was sometime in the 12th century AD that Vempolinad broke into the two aforementioned principalities. Vadakkumkur had its capital at Kadathuruthi from where it later moved to Vaikom.

The legends of the Vadakkumkur family state that the division took place at a juncture when the family consisted only of two sisters. They divided Vempolinad between themselves and thus established the two royal families of Vadakkumkur (the Piementa kingdom of the Dutch) and Thekkumkur. Subsequently while Thekkumkoor remained independent, Vadakkumkur became a “subsidiary ally” of the Cochin Rajah. The Cochin Rajah also had enangar relations with both Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur whereby males from the Cochin family performed the Talikettu Kalyanam for princesses of those families and KM Panikker calls Vadakkumkur Cochin’s ally “by marriage”. There was however a distinct point of difference between the two families in that while Vadakkumkur, as earlier stated, supported Cochin, Thekkumkur leaned towards the Zamorin of Calicut, the traditional rival of Cochin. Thekkumkur however had to play safe for often they would need to adopt princesses from Vadakkumkur to perpetuate their lineage. 

In the 18th century during the time of Marthanda Varma, Vadakkumkur faced a crisis. Its ruler had been murdered by his own brother who usurped power (KM Panikker gives 1733 as the year of this event). The other claimants to the throne pressed the Cochin Rajah for support who in turn was preoccupied with his own dynastic troubles. While this is the state of affairs as provided by TK Velu Pillai in the Travancore State Manual (1940), the Vadakkumkur family’s traditionally passed down stories say that there were, at the time, only two male members in the family: one very old reigning Rajah and a little child. In any case both accounts are consistent in agreeing that the state was in disarray when Marthanda Varma attacked. Vadakkumkur had earlier supported the Rajah of Kayamkulam against Travancore. Kayamkulam was defeated in 1746 by Marthanda Varma, with the connivance of the local nobles known as the Aaruveetil Madampimar, and the Rajah and his family had fled to the Zamorin’s country. For the next three years however the leaderless forces of Kayamkulam kept Marthanda Varma’s armies engaged. By 1749 when Kayamkulam fully surrendered to Travancore, Marthanda Varma discovered proof of the support provided by the Rajahs of Ambalapuzha and Vadakkumkur to Kayamkulam and turned his attention towards them. Ambalapuzha was annexed after its minister, Thekkedathu Bhattathiri, and commander, Mathur Panicker, defected to Travancore. Thekkumkur came next. The brother of the ruling Rajah sought Travancore’s support to depose the ruler. He was thereafter treacherously killed by the Rajah. This provided a pretext to Marthanda Varma and Thekkumkur was annexed. Then came Vadakkumkur’s turn. The battle was inconsequential. Within no time the Travancore forces conquered the country and the hapless old Rajah fled with his family to Calicut. Marthanda Varma destroyed the Vadakkumkur forts and by 1754 the Vadakkumkur subsidiary, the Meenachil Karthavu aka Mevada Thampan (a Rajput family) was also defeated. They too sought asylum in Calicut.

The customary sources that deal with Travancore history proceed to other matters at this juncture. The Travancore State Manual, in passing, mentions  that the Vadakkumkur Rajah was invited to return on a “reasonable pension” and settled down at Vaikom. Thereafter there is no information as to what happened to these dispossessed Rajahs and their families. Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur returned, as did the Meenachil Karthavu’s family (in 1766 when the Zamorin’s family fled to Travancore unable to stand up to Hyder Ali). The Ambalapuzha Rajah’s family accepted a pension as well and returned to Kodumaloor (or Thrissur). What happened to the family of the Kayamkulam Rajah is unknown to me.

The Vadakkumkur Rajahs returned to Vaikom after accepting the “reasonable pension” offered by Travancore. They, however, lost political identity as “Rajahs” and were hereafter addressed with that title suffixed to the name (as in “Vadakkumkur Rajaraja Varma Raja”) as a caste title and not as a prefix of sovereignty. The pension was fixed initially at about 12,000 paras of paddy which was later revised in monetary terms. Another condition set upon them was that nobody from their extended joint family would ever work, although this clause was introduced at that time to prevent any efforts to regain their lost territories. The maintenance of the family was taken up by the Travancore government and up to 1949 the government would make payments during births, deaths and similar events in that family. In the early 20th century, however, the family filed a suit in court and secured the right to employment and work. To this day all the members of the Vadakkumkur family who were born before 1949 receive their promised allowance and maintenance from the Government of Kerala. 

In matters of caste and traditional practices, like the Cochin, Parappanad, Poonjar and the Koil Thampuran families, the Vadakkumkur family had Namboothiri Brahmins to marry their womenfolk while the men had Nair wives. Indeed, according to an interview given by RP Raja of the Mavelikkara family to Mrs. Rupika Chawla, only the members of the Kola Swaroopam (Kolathunad, Travancore, Ennakkad etc) had Kshatriyas to marry their women. The remaining Kshatriya families accepted Brahmin husbands. The Vadakkumkur family also followed the naming convention of “Amba, Ambika, Ambalika” for their women. What is surprising is that although the Kshatriya title of ‘Varma’ is suffixed to the names of the men and the customs followed by the family were those of Kshatriyas, the Vadakkumkur (and therefore presumably also Thekkumkur) family were Samantha Kshatriyas who did not wear the poonool. Indeed there are ancient documents which speak of the “Vadakkumkur Nair”, the “Nair chief who controlled the market of pepper produced in the hills in the interior”. 

The Vadakkumkur family today in Vaikom is divided into several branches, most of whom broke away in the early 20th century after the passing of the connected legislation providing for the same by the Travancore government. The eldest thavazhi (branch) resided at Vazhutanakkattu Koikkal while the other  thavazhis had Kochanattu Koikkal and Thekke Koikkal. Another branch is the Pattattu Koikkal. There is also a family known as Kadanattu Vadakkumkur which originated from the marriage of a princess of the Vadakkumkur family with a man of the Elayathu caste, which was Brahmin but of diminished social standing. 

The fate of the dispossessed Rajahs of the Travancore region had always interested me and I could, at best, only find scattered sources that mentioned them in passing. I am still highly intrigued as to what happened to the Kayamkulam Rajah who was perhaps the fiercest and most difficult enemy of Travancore so much so that Marthanda Varma on his death bed instructed his successor that the enmity of the Kayamkulam Rajah was “never to be forgotten”. For the details regarding the Vadakkumkur family at present I am grateful to a member of that family who does not wish to be named. The rest of the information is sourced from Prof. Sreedhara Menon’s “A Survey of Kerala History”, “The Rajas of Cochin” by Dr. Hugo s’Jacob, “Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India” by Rupika Chawla, “Malabar and the Portuguese” by KM Panikker and the Travancore State Manuals of 1906 (Nagam Aiya) and 1940 (TK Velu Pillai).

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.