Archive for vadakkumkur

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).