That crafty minister
If you were to study the successful reign of Marthanda Varma, you will quickly notice that there was one person who faithfully tended to him and guided him through those hectic days. In fact that person had been around even before MV took the throne, rightly or wrongly, from his uncle Rama Varma. The shrewd man was not only a Shakuni and Chanakya rolled in one, but also a very able administrator. Krishnan Raman or Ramayyan, that was his name, of Tamil Brahmin stock, was a good cook and a person of stern behavior, great logical outlook and acute intellect. Well, if you were to look at his story, you would be surprised at the involvement he had with the illustrious king, and not only that but you will also come across a large number of anecdotes attributed to him and retold even today. He is also considered to be the inventor of the Malayali dish Aviyal or what is sometimes termed as Ramayyar kootu in Travancore.
For a Sanketi Brahmin, travel and resettlement is nothing new, as they were Smarta Brahmins who originated from Tirunelveli and moved to all the nearby regions in search for work and patronage. One such person was Rama Iyen or Ramayyan who came to Travancore from Irunkanti, near Rajamannarkoil in Tirunelveli. He was born in 1713 in nearby Valliyur which was part of the Venad kingdom. From there the family moved to Aruvikkara closer to Kalkulam where prospects of employment with the royal palace was bright. Rama Varma, whom we talked about earlier was the king and the young boy was introduced to the palace by his uncle’s father in law Rama Sastrikal who incidentally was a court Pundit.
Many stories abound about the manner in which the young man or kuttipattar was introduced to royalty. The first is about his using care in trimming a flickering lamp wick after ensuring that a second wick was first lit and held as standby. The king who was observing all this noted the careful method adopted and asked Sastri to leave the boy in the palace and thereafter appointed him into royal service as a petty clerk (pakatasala rayasam). A second version states that he was employed as a boy servant at the Vanchiyoor Attiyara Potti’s (one of the ettara yogam) house where the king once went for dinner. The flickering wick story comes into play again and as there was no brass wick trimmer at hand, and since it is a sin to trim a wick with one’s hand, Ramayyan pulled out his gold ring and did the needful. The king noticing this had the boy transferred to the palace. A third version is related to a clerk writing a nittu (writ). The clerk after finishing his nittu read it to the king and obtained his signature. Ramayyan who had been observing the clerk told his uncle that what the scribe wrote & subsequently read out were not the same and that some falsification had been done. The writ was reexamined and the king seeing the error dismissed the clerk and questioned Ramayyan how he knew as the boy himself had not the occasion to read or study the finished writ. Ramayyan explained that he was following the movement of the clerks hand and figured out the text in his mind. Following this exhibition of mental clarity, he was absorbed into palace service.
Ramayyan proved himself to be a great asset to the palace. There is a mention of his brilliant redrafting of a reply to the Nawab of Carnatic and subsequent promotion to the post of Samprati and the gift of a house at Kalkulam in 1726. During this period he cemented his friendship with the young Marthanda Varma and curiously distanced himself from his family, ensuring singular attention to the young Yuvaraj. His family (wife and brother) continued living at Aruvikkara and it appears that he was miffed with his brother as he had refused to give one of his two sons to Ramayyan for adoption. That was reason enough to cut himself off from his family or so it is stated. But this was good for the royals, for his unstinted support and brilliance ensured victories for MV. He rose through the ranks, to Kottaram Rayasam and after Tanu Pillai’s death in 1737, to the post of Dalava (Dewan in later days) or Sarvadhikar. Not only was he the prime minister, but he also held the defense portfolio. The 19 years he spent in this position were full of problems, not only with respect to the accession of MV to the throne, but also with respect to negotiations with the European powers, wars with neighboring states, expansion of the Travancore kingdom and continuous threat to his own life from the Ettara yogam members, the Ettuveetar and many other petty chiefs of the locality.
He was certainly different, for in his steadfast support for his patron king, he employed every bit of trickery, treachery, cruelty and guile and when it came to scheming, planning and execution, he was supreme. Many of the acts he carried out can be questioned now, but at that point of time, he had just one aim, to keep his king’s needs and desire above all, not even bothering about his own caste or its strict Smartan requirements as well as what is termed as local tradition or nattunadappu.
One of the accounts details how he hit back at the Suchindram (recall our Abhirami and the Ilaya Thampi story) Brahmin trustees who were supportive of the Abhirami family. He had no qualms in destroying their houses and driving them away and ensured that a large amount of land controlled by the Suchindram trustees was reallocated to Marthanda Varma.
In those troubled days when MV was on the run, he was always accompanied by Ramayyan. Ramayyan helped organize the irregular army comprising the maravers and pathans, as well as a group of Nairs who supported the yuvaraja. He was instrumental in forcing many of the recalcitrant chiefs (madampies, temple trustees and pillas) to pay up any tax arrears due to the new king. Later when the treasury had a surplus he ensured in return, a number of development projects in Nanjenad. He was also very much involved in the struggle with the ettuveetar and the various intrigues which we talked about in earlier articles. Careful planning and scheming by Ramayyan ensured victory and solidification of MV’s seat at the palace. His role as military chief between 1730 and 1755 is much talked about, and that was the period when the Travancore kingdom expanded.
In 1731, the Quilon rajah allied himself with the Kayamkulam raja, in opposition to the wishes of Marthanda
As a Dalawa, he did much in the renovation of the Padmanabha temple and Padmatheertham as well as many other improvements and the architecture of the Trivandrum as we know today. He also ensured that the Travancore king was vested with supreme powers and all kinds of monopolies.
In fact, the Kerala state records mentions that the first land survey was carried out by Ramayyan. He was instrumental in levying taxes, though one might say that much of it was excessive and only meant to fund the wars fought by MV. The expenses were huge as MV had to bring in a lot of mercenary soldiers with promises of good compensation as well as elevation to Nair status. As we saw, even traditional marava robbers were brought in to staff the new army. He was instrumental in developing mavelikkara and kayamkulam and today you can see the Krishnapuram palace built by him. Also the concept of state monopoly of trade was brought in by him, but we will get to the details later.
Next came the standoff with the Dutch who feared that the combination of the British and the Travancore sovereign would threaten their commercial activities. Van Imhoff tried threatening the king with an invasion, but it had no effect(Interestingly according to Shungoony Menon, Marthanda Varma made a counter threat that he would then be forced invade Europe with his vanchis (country boats) and fishermen!). A war resulted and while the Travancore forces were initially successful in routing the Dutch, Dutch reinforcements from Ceylon wreathed havoc when they landed. They then proceeded to Kalkulam to take over the palace. Marthanda Varma quickly contacted the French in Pondicherry and signed a treaty with them for support. The full-fledged confrontation with the Dutch happened soon after, headed by the king and Ramayyan and success followed at Colachel. That was how and when the king met De Lannoy who was to become one of his trusted lieutenants and get known as the Valiya kapitan. I had provided more details of the affair in the article Tipu’s waterloo and will in the culminating article cover De Lannoy in more detail.
Eustachius De Lannoy was soon appointed as Ramayyan’s assistant and was involved in wars that followed with Kayamkulam, Quilon and Kilimanoor. The Kayamkulam Raja sued for peace in 1742 following which Varma and Ramayyan set upon Kottayam and Vadakenkoor. Finally the Dutch also agreed to discuss a peace treaty which was brokered and headed by Ramayyan. This did not work out even after three meetings and efforts as the Dutch were able to continue keeping the supply line open with Kayamkulam for the articles of trade such as pepper. In the meantime the Kayamkulam Raja again rebelled and Ramayyan was sent to quell it, but the Kayamkulam king finally seeing no means to win a war, quietly escaped to Trichur after moving all his treasures out of the palace. The Dutch finally forced into a corner, signed and ratified the Ramayyan peace treaty in 1753. Next in Ramayyan’s trove of victories was the one involving the Ambalapuzha raja and his poison arrow wielding archers. Soon to follow was Changanaseery (thekankoor) but here Ramayyan was faced with a group of Telugu Brahmin mercenaries working for this king. It was expected that Ramayyan would stop as killing of Brahmins was not the said thing. The unflinching Ramayyan directed De lannoy to drive them out and that was done without any further qualms. With that, all land upto the Cochin territory had been annexed by Marthanda Varma with Ramayyan’s help and leadership.
The Cochin raja was now in a quandary for he was sandwiched between two aspiring chieftains, Marthanda Varma in the south and the Zamorin to the north. The Paliyath Menon now conspired with all the petty kings who were against the Travancore king and planned to wage a final battle, again this was foiled by Ramayyan and De lannoy. Ramayyan was now camped in Cochin and as he was planning to make his final surge, the Cochin king sent his abject apology to Marthanda Varma which was formally accepted. Nevertheless as accounts show the people in the Kayamkulam area had no plans to accept the sovereignty of the Travancore king. Both Marthanda Varma and Ramayyan were now a bit troubled as it appears that the resurgent Zamorin had entered the fray in support of those kings. And here is where Marthanda Varma makes the terminal mistake of writing to Hyder Ali for help. Hyder agreed and deputed forces down south, but soon after the Travancore king wrote to him stating that help was no longer needed, as the situation had been sorted out, thus irritating the Mysore Sultan.
There were many other incidents following that, like the Tinnavelly affair, the fight against the Zamorin at Cochin, but during a period of peaceful sojourn, Ramayyan together with De Lannoy proceeded to fortify the Travancore border. In addition, Ramayyan started to build up the commercial infrastructure following a land survey and establishment of godowns as well as a royal monopoly on pepper and such spices for trade. Chowkies for levying duties on transport of material for trade were established along the way. Pandakasalas for salt manufacture were constructed, and finally a system of budgets and balances instituted. For the first time in the history of Travancore, a decision was made to control expenditure in proportion to income and a budgeting system called Pathivu Kanakku was established. The fort at Trivandrum, the sheevelipura as well as the royal palace within the fort were constructed under his supervision. As we see today, many of his edicts (termed Ramayya sattams) related with commerce, excise, budgets and taxes later became so woven into the fabric of the history of Travancore, but there were also many a decision that could be called wrong such as imposition of taxes on lower castes such as the poll tax.
Since the end of 1745, Martanda Varma was apparently suffering from some illness, which made him more and more reliant on Ramayyan Dalawa, who as explained previously reformed taxation and successfully introduced several monopolies. With all the needed completed, Marthanda Varma dedicated the kingdom to the lord and Ramayyan moved to the commercial headquarters, that being Mavelikkara where all the natural produce was concentrated. By now it was 1750 and the king had become more of a religious person for presumably the past actions had caught up with him. Another six years passed, and we find that the able Dalawa Ramayyan has taken ill and is sinking with death looming close. Marthanda Varma is devastated and deputes his nephew Rama Varma to check what he could do, but Ramayyan only expresses his one lasting regret, asking for nothing else.
When the Prince Rama Varma reached Mavelikara, he found the Dalawa sinking and on being informed of the Maharajah's wishes to perpetuate his name, Rama lyen said with his characteristic modesty: "I disclaim any personal right to the proposed honour. I was merely the instrument in my Royal master's hands. Although I have accomplished all my aims I am only sorry that I was not permitted to conquer and annex Cochin."
Ramayyan passed away at the comparatively young age of 43. The Anjengo Factors recorded in their Diary that Ramayyan breathed his last at Mavelikkara on 1st January, 1756. After the death of his wife, it appears that Ramayyan consorted with a Nair lady. Upon his death people found that he has amassed no wealth and had expressed no death wishes. The only departing request he made to the king was to take care of this Nair lady’s wellbeing. Ramayyan Dalawa's family of 2 sons and 1 daughter moved back to Pudukotta after his death. Author Sethu Ramaswamy incidentally claims some ancestral connections.
The Maharajah Marthanda Varma and Ramayyan Dalawa were more than just King and minister to each other. King Marthanda Varma, his Diwan Ramayya Pillai Dalawa, along with De Lannoy's military skill, together were a force to reckon with in the South. Tara Sankar banarjee hints that the so-called greatness attributed to Martanda Varma by other historians, who always depicted the king as invincible, is silently challenged by Madhava Rao who hints that it was the Machiavellian strategy of Ramayyan, the General of Marthanda Varma, who saved the honor and greatness of the master in his wars with Kayamkulam. As is reported, they were intimate friends (like Chandragupta Maurya and Chanakya), so much that after the death of Ramayyan the Maharajah went into a deep depression and started losing health himself. It is recorded that he pined for his minister, friend and companion and died within two years after Ramayyan’s death, in 1758.
The Ramayyan curry that he is credited with was apparently made for MV when he was suffering from a stomach upset. It comprised ground coconut, curry leaves, curds, some jaggery (normally not a part of Avial), green chillies, other vegetables and yam. Today it is known as the avail which is almost a state dish.
Many legends are attributed to Ramayyan, it is rumored that the king once offered half of his kingdom to this trusted deputy, making him a king of that part. Ramayyan refused stating that he was a Brahmin and it’s the duty of Kshatriyas to rule (a little clarification is needed here – even Marthanda Varma was a Samanthan Kshatriya and did a Hiranya Garbha ceremony to attain the Kshatriya caste position towards the end of his career). He is also credited to providing shelter to poor Brahmins in the fort area where the temple provided them with means of livelihood. But his enmity with the local Nampoothiris is also well known, especially those in Kayamkulam, who were replaced later with Kolathunad potties. Ramayyan is also credited with the removal of the Sree chakkara bhagavathy idol from Kayamkulam and reinstation at Trivandrum (This was done to remove the powers that protected Kayamkulam kings).
For two years following his death, Travancore had no Dalawa. Ayappan Pillai acted in that position and received the appointment only after the death of Marthanda Varma. Ramayyan’s younger brother Goplayyan did become a dalawa though, some years later.
The simple but crafty self-cooking Brahmin had done enough for the kingdom of Travancore and it was many years later that another decided to emulate him, Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer…
A History of Travancore from the Earliest Times - P. Shungoonny Menon
Rise of Travancore: a study of the life and times of Marthanda Varma - A. P. Ibrahim Kunju.