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The Munro years – Travancore

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The stories of Kerala Varma and Ummini Thampi

The events which clouded the placid skyline of 19th century Travancore actually started during the reign of Avittam Tirunal Balarama Varma. It was in 1798 that the 14 year old Balarama Varma succeeded Dharma Raja. A weak ruler, Balarama Varma, so they say, was manipulated by ministers and associates such as the Machiavellian Jayantan Sankaran Namboodiri and his cohorts Sankara Narayana Chetti and Mathu Tharakan. The situation is explained in differing ways by various historians, with one group uplifting the glorious services of Keshava Das and the treachery of the other ministers, while the other group maintain that Balarama Varma was actually anti British from the beginning and did not really want to sign any subsidiary treaties with the English. According to the latter, the king had no choice but to finally send away the British friendly Keshava Das into retirement, who then unfortunately ended up dead, perhaps poisoned. Then, for a while, Jayantan Namboodiri took over as Dewan and wreaked havoc on the hapless citizens of Travancore, with his cohorts Tharakan and Chetti.

Balarama Varma (Perhaps the person
right behind him is Kerala Varma)  
Following the Mysore Sultan’s assaults, the original Travancore British treaty was signed in 1795, wherein Travancore was to pay the EIC for military support, to put it all simply. Balarama Varma, the reigning Raja then had to sign the subsidiary treaty in 1805, albeit reluctantly. S Ramanth Iyer explains the grandiose British scheme under the treaty thus - This treaty confirmed the sincere and cordial relations of peace and amity between the Raja and the East India Company. It is known as the Treaty of perpetual friendship and alliance between them. By this treaty the Rajah was required to pay for a native regiment in addition to the subsidy fixed in 1795 (in all 8 lacs of Rs. a year) and further to share the expenses of his large forces when necessary; to pay at all times the utmost attention to the advice of the British Government; to hold no communication with any foreign state; and to admit no European foreigners into his service or to allow him to remain in his territory without the sanction of the British Government.

The King defaulted on the payments twice and the resident Col Macaulay protested.  It was at this juncture that Dewan Veluthampi entered the scene and we studied that epoch earlier. Soon another character appeared, a noble named Ummini Thampi (Thampi Iravi), the son of the previous king Dharma Raja, who rose to prominence by helping the British in the chase to capture VeluThampi and his family.

A few words on this interesting person would help illuminate his life. He first crossed swords with Veluthampi when he entered the arena and as Veluthampi became the powerful Dewan, was imprisoned. He reappeared when Veluthampi’s relations with the EIC started to get strained. As Veluthampi was being pursued by the British, Ummini offered assistance voluntarily and secured the former’s corpse and hunted down and butchered all of Velu Thampi’s relatives, for the British. Macaulay rewarded him by declaring him to be the next Dewan of Travancore. The British were pleased and Col Macaulay appointed Ummini Thampi as the new Dewan. So as they say, by 1809, relative normalcy descended on Travancore after 4 years of strife, but it was not to last long.

But the new Dewan was simply not acceptable to Balarama Varma Raja. The reparations and dues to the EIC had risen to close to 10 lakhs by now though Ummini Thampi assured the British that the arrears would be paid, even if he had to curtail the king’s expenses. As you can imagine, all this irritated Balarama Varma so much so that Varma tried to remove Ummini, but the British stood squarely behind Ummini Thampi.

The next intrigue which took place was the hatching of the plan to take Ummini Thampi’s life, by the Rajas coterie as he passed Kazhakootam to attend a concert at Quilon. If that attempt failed, he was to be taken out or killed at the next opportune instance. The news of this threat spread around and was an open secret, terrifying the British friendly Dewan and forcing him to seek protection from the British. Nevertheless the harassment of the Dewan and his family continued.

Ummini Thampi then conspired with the British so that Macaulay could make a proposal to take over Travancore to liquidate their debts. The Governor General at Madras did not agree and the exasperated Macaulay retired from public life, soon after. Ummini Thampi focused all the blame, not only his but also those of the British on the king and the heir apparent Kerala Varma.

A few words of introduction of the heir apparent (Kerala Varma) is required, before his grand entry into this sordid state of affairs, for it was believed that the threats to Ummini Thampi actually came from this individual and his supporters. The heir apparent was formally known as the Elaya (Junior) Raja. It is also recorded that Kerala Varma was prepared to shoot Ummini Thampi himself, if an opportunity presented itself. The Elaya Raja was adopted by the childless Balarama Varma when he was 7 years old from the Mavelikkara kovilakom, in 1798. Looking at his year of birth, it is difficult to believe a 17 year old to be behind armed threats on the life of an aged Dewan, himself a product of Royal lineage. But it is clear that he was a hot headed boy and supportive of his adopted father, as well as Velu Thampi. He was also supported by the 8.5 yogam, the all-powerful ‘behind the scenes’ group in Travancore and was considered the formal heir apparent to the King Balarama Varma, serving in that position for a decade.

The next resident to take charge in Cochin was the fervent evangelical Col John Munro who had
distinguished himself in the battles at Seringapatanam, was a friend of Col Arthur Wellesley and proved to be a linguist of sorts. However all this was shadowed by events which followed. As Quartermaster general of the Madras army he got into serious controversy over certain tent contracts. Early in 1809, he was arrested and charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Just as things looked bleak for this officer, he was exonerated by the successor of the senior officer who had originally charged him and was posted as resident to Travancore. History books maintain that he did many things good and bad for Cochin and Travancore in the next 10 years, and was a subject of many essays and articles. We will in this article, be looking only at his involvements in the Kerala Varma and Ummini Thampi affairs.

The next event to shock the public was the death of the Balarama Varma Raja, who after visiting Munro three times, fell sick. It is mentioned that Munro saw to it that the Raja’s personal physician was replaced by one of Munro’s choice and very soon, the king passed away, rumored to be poisoned to death. In fact even before Munro, Macaulay had gone on record upon the eve of his departure, to state that the young Elaya Raja should be banished to Mavelikkara or Aleppey so that he could be placed under the watchful eye of the new Dewan (Note that the dewans were stationed at Aleppey, whereas the king was located at his palace in Trivandrum) lest he be upto mischief against the British.

Macaulay had previously tried to find ways of discrediting the coronation or accession of the adopted Elaya Raja by questioning the laws of succession. Dewan Ummini Thampi weighed in by opining that Kerala Varma was the illegitimate son of the previously shamed Jayantan Sankaran Nambuthiri, if only to discredit the boy’s lineage. As matters traversed a normal course and the Elaya Raja took over as the king in Nov 1810, Ummini Thampi the Dewan amped up his tirade against the new regent, stating him to be ungovernable, ferocious and decidedly hostile to the English.

Munro just a month old in Travancore, sought the advice of TH Baber, the EIC judge and magistrate in Malabar about the inheritance aspect in question. Baber replied that the rule of descent in Malabar was not from father to son but through the sister's son. In case of failure of having male issues, it was usual to adopt a princess from some other family and the male child born of this adoption enjoyed the right to succeed to the throne.

Using this advice and precedence in Travancore, Munro argued that the Elaya Raja was a son (though adopted) and hence not meant to succeed the deceased Balarama Varma. To confound matters, the king had also adopted two princesses Bharani Tirunal and Attam Tirunal from the Kolattunad family in 1789. Bharani Tirunal later gave birth to two daughters. Ayilyam Tirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bai and Uttratathi Tirunal Gowri Parvati Bai in 1791 and 1810, respectively. According to TH Baber’s advice and Munro’s interpretation, the male offspring from either Gowri Lakshmi Bai or Gowri Parvathi Bai could ascend to the throne, not the Elaya Raja. So until they bore children, Munro decided, one of the girls should rule Travancore. The mantle therefore rested on the elder of the two, Gowri Lakshmi Bai.

An analysis of these individuals and their relations would make your head spin, for Kerala Varma was incidentally the son of the eldest sister of the two adopted princesses. The established practice nowadays in that family is that the rights of succession pass on to the younger brother of the king, then to the nephew of the senior most sister, then maternal first cousins from his eldest aunt. To be noted is that the sons of a Maharaja or of those in the line of succession cannot succeed to the throne, nor, if those children bear sons, can those sons be in the line of succession. If all of these fail, as it occurred in 1798, daughters from another matriline could be adopted to continue the succession.

Kerala Varma tried to persuade Lakshmi Bayi his cousin to submit a letter stating that she had no objection to his becoming the regent, but it appears she moved against him and provided instead reasons against the idea in writing, to Munro. This naturally enraged the Elaya raja. Ummani Thampi added fuel to the fire by declaring – The young prince now standing next in line of succession to the musund of Travancore has no right or title by birth or by usage to that station and ought to be excluded and that the boy at Attengah whose mother was and whose sister now is Thumbratee of Attengah is the legitimate heir to the Musnud.

Apart from the report of Baber, Munro also obtained opinions of the key religious pundits and senior state functionaries in Travancore. They however insisted that Kerala Varma was duly adopted into the royal family by Balarama Varma and was the rightful heir. Munro it appears threatened all these parties stating that if an amicable solution was not forthcoming, the Company would take over control over Travancore, and cancel the special emoluments and perquisites enjoyed by the Brahmins under the Raja’s Government. Fearing the worst, the pundits and other dignitaries changed their opinion and supported the succession of Rani Gowri Lakshmi Bai. I should add here that there is more to the story, and this involves much intrigue between Kerala Varma’s mother and the two daughters Lakshmi and Parvathy Bayi.  This was the main reason behind the machinations which took place and affected the young Kerala Varma, but going into that is like reopening a saga.

Gowri Lakshmi Bayi
Anyway Kerala Varma was finally forced to abdicate and the 20 year old Lakshmi Bai was named regent by Munro. Here again Ummini Thampi had a role to play for it appears that he had some power over the young Rani, perhaps a relationship of sorts which went sour. Let us get back to the Rani later, and follow the travails of Ummini Thampi and Kerala Varma for now.
Varma continued on in Trivandrum for a while with the new Rani’s permission but was found to be plotting and scheming against her, so much so that he was first placed under surveillance and later declared a state prisoner and marked for transportation (exile or banishment). Eventually Kerala Varma was escorted by four native companies to Tellicherry and placed under the care of TH Baber, the magistrate there. I am not exactly sure if he stayed in confinement for too long a period with Baber, but we do know that TH Baber found him a good man, not the usurper Munro and Ummini Thampi had made him to look.

In the 1832 reply to Macaulay’s desultory notes it is recorded thus- That honourable and upright man Mr. Baber, under whose charge the Elliah Rajah was placed for upwards of two years, informed the Committee, “that the majority of the Country of Travancore “was decidedly in his favour; and that the Elliah “Rajah was so amiable a man, that he had gained “ the affections of all with whom he associated.”

Col James Welsh who visited Tellichery and TH Baber on the 20th December 1812, and a jail that Thomas ran at Kudroor, states - About four miles inland from Tellicherry, on a very fertile plain, lies the fortified factory of Kudroor, with a fine stone tank outside, and a smaller one within the area.  It is nearly square, and raised many feet above the level of the surrounding country, forming an airy and comfortable upstairs house, with cannon-proof walls, and large square windows; the shutters of which, two inches thick, are fixed at the bottom inside, by projecting pivots, let into the wall; and opening with strong folding legs, fixed underneath, form each a very capital table.  The ground floor of this extensive building, is used in lieu of outhouses, for cook-room, stores, etc.  Here we found the ex-heir, or Yelleh Rajah of the Travancore country, raised to the throne one day, and deposed the next.  His case was one of particular interest; but being sent up to Malabar, to be under Mr. Baber’s surveillance, he found a kind friend in his supposed gaoler. Above the common size, and inclining to fatness, this young man appeared as mild and sensible, as he was firm and uncomplaining, under a reverse as severe as it was unmerited.  We passed a very pleasant day in his company; searched the neighbouring thickets for game without success, and then returned to Cannanore, sixteen miles distant.

I am not exactly sure about the dates here, but we do know that Lakshmi Bai took over in 1811. So if Welsh met Kerala Varma in Dec 1812, Varma must have spent all of 1811 in Travancore scheming against the new Rani before being sent to Tellicherry under the care of TH Baber. TH Baber was incidentally awarded and collected the bounty of Rs 100,000 for the arrest of the Elaya raja.

During the stay another vexing matter came up with respect to the royal jewels that Balarama Varma had bequeathed to Kerala Varma in his dying years. It appears that Kerala Varma had requested permission from the new Rani about taking these jewels along with him when he was banished to Tellicherry. The new queen gave him the required permission without hesitation, perhaps happy to be rid of her troublesome cousin. But soon after he had gone, Munro decided to harass the banished king and asked the Rani to demand that he return the jewels. Baber was also asked to intervene, but he replied that he did not feel the Raj would part with the jewels.

Meanwhile, Munro was declared as the new dewan of Travancore in 1813 and it became clear that Munro knew all along that the raja had departed with the jewels (about 14 lakhs worth) but made it a formal issue only after he had become the Dewan. After this, Munro conspired to declare this an embezzlement and had the Rani also demand the return of the jewels to the care of Sri Padmanabhan, who she said after changing her stance, was the rightful owner. When confronted with evidence that she had sanctioned the removal in the first place, she finally agreed that Varma could use the jewels as long as he lived, but that they were to be returned to Travancore, after his demise.

It was early in 1813 that the Elaya raja was moved to spend his confinement in Chingleput, i.e. the area within the Fort St George, where he spent close to 11 years. Kerala Varma struggled on with his life, under constant supervision by Munro’s spies in Madras. All his remaining years he wrote repeatedly to the British authorities to reconsider his case, but they ignored him. Nevertheless he did not live an empty life, or so it seems. He got involved with a devadasi dancer named Kanakavalli and ended up gifting all the Travancore jewels to her. Munro coming to know of this had Kanakavalli harassed and arrested and then he seized all of her property. Finally some of her things were returned to her and the Travancore jewels sent back to Travancore with TH Baber’s help. Varma had by then become terribly sick (suspiciously similar terminal symptoms when compared to Balarama Varma) during his last days, was eventually moved to Tellicherry where he breathed his last in 1824.

Ummini Thampi the mastermind of all this did not fare any better. He fell afoul of the Rani who complained about him to Munro (before Munro’s becoming Dewan) and his wanton ways, amplifying accusations of Ummini emptying the treasury for his own good. Initially he was confined to Quilon but here he was soon involved in the so called ‘Quilon revolt’ which I will write about later. Ummini Thampi was implicated and finally sentenced to death in 1812, by the British. The Madras government (the Rani also consented eventually) commuted it and banished Thampi to the Nellore in 1813. Thampi then requested that his paramour, a dancer named Ummaiammah be sent with him to Nellore, but the Rani refused permission stating that such things set a bad precedent. 

Anyway he spent the next 8-9 years in misery and ended his life in isolation, at Nellore. It is not
Gowri Parvathi Bayi
known to most people that he was the person who worked hand in hand with the British and was largely responsible for the demise of three souls, Balarama Varma, Velu Thampi and Kerala Varma.

We will get to the full story of the Rani’s of Travancore another day, but let me provide some detail for closure here. The scheming which took place between the mother Chathayam Thirunal Mahaprabha Amma Thampuran and daughters of the Attingal palace, their wards on so on present a story which even soap operas on TV these days, cannot rival. Much of it has never been retold in any of the books we have today. Per the history books, Lakshmi Bai submitted herself to the guiding hands of Col Munro and it is recorded that the golden years of Travancore had finally started during her reign from 1810 onwards. The British became the sovereigns of Travancore, and Col Munro was considered by her as a brother. Soon after, she gave birth to the esteemed Swati Tirunal Raja. But the governess of Travancore as she was popularly known, passed away in 1814 and her sister Rani Parvathy Bai was appointed regent until Swati Tirunal came of age in 1829.

Munro returned to Britain, but not before having an island in Quilon named after him. Before he left, he made sure that the Dewans of Travancore were always non Travancoreans and had a reformed westernized outlook. As VJ Varghese explains “Consequently, the office of Dewan soon became “a gift of the Resident” and as the turn of subsequent events testified, the primary allegiance of the Dewan was to the British. As a consequence, the system was reordered in such a way that in all matters of importance “the Resident ruled, the Dewan executed and the Raja sanctioned,” though in theory, the division of authority was, roughly speaking was, Raja to rule, the Dewan to execute and the Resident to advise.

Strange are the ways of people when power and wealth beckon. Familial ties, obligations, solidarity and the welfare of people around quickly become secondary issues. Those mad scrambles and machinations of such individuals eventually become stories which people like us enjoy retelling. They were so fated, I guess.

References
A tragic decade in Kerala History – TP Sankarankutty Nair
At the Turn of the Tide: The Life and Times of Maharani Setu Lakshmi Bayi - Lakshmi Raghunandan
A decade of crisis in Travancore – Dr B Sobhanan
Ummini Thampi – The dewan of Travancore – TK Vijayamohan, JOKS Vol 5, 1978
Kerala Varma A forgotten patriot of Kerala – B Sobhanam Proceedings Vol 2, 1981
Land, labor and migrations: understanding Kerala’s economic modernity - V.J. Varghese
King Balarama Varma of Travancore – AP Ibrahim Kunju – Proceedings Vol 38, 1977