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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.

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

Velu Thampi and the Zamorin

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The intrigues of 1808-09

Some readers may recall a bit of the story behind the overtures made by Travancore to the Calicut Zamorin for support on final ploys against the British, and I had made a brief mention of it some years ago when I wrote about the Dalawa. What I wrote then was the following, summarizing the nexus between the Paliyath Achan and the Dalawa and their attempts to rope in the Zamorin. The Zamorins case had already been lost and the old suzerain was left high and dry by the British, with no power and a lot of debts. The bitter man was left in relative peace, to lick his wounds. The Pazhassi raja had been dealt with and Cochin was largely under control but Travancore was on the limb and the situation there was being stirred up nicely by an upstart Dalawa named Velayudhan Thampi.

While all this intrigue and acrimony was going on between the British and Travancore, the situation at Cochin was no better. Here is when the Paliayth Achan comes into play. For those who are not in the know, the powerful Paliayth family were virtually half owners of Cochin and the Perumbadappu Swaroopam had to involve them in all major decisions. They possessed a lot of power and majority in Nair numbers. In some cases they hedged their bets by aligning with the Zamorin of Calicut against the Cochin king, the Dutch or the Portuguese as well, as we will study in a forthcoming article.

Anyway, during the period we were in, the Paliyath Govindan Achan was made a chief minister with Velu Thampy’s recommendation. The Achan was also friendly with Macaulay, so the King had no hesitation in elevating the Achan to ensure harmony. The Paliyath Achan however usurped the King quickly and took over the reins of the state, banishing the soft king to a hamlet in Vellarappali near Alwaye. After this was done, he apparently executed the prime minister and commander in chief by drowning them. His next target was a young and upcoming chap, the right hand of the king, one Nadavarampathu Kunju Krishna Menon. The king, who was very fond of Menon, decided to shield him and hid him in his bedroom at Vellarapalli. Paliayth Achan on the other hand was hell bent on finding this boy and killing him. The king approached Macaulay for help. Macaulay gave Menon asylum in the British bungalow, further incensing the Paliyath Achan who took a vow to execute both Macaulay and Krishna Menon. But waging war against the British was no easy matter and the wily Achan decided to get the support of both the Zamorin of Calicut (the letter sent to the Zamorin was handed over to the British by the Zamorin’s minister) and Velu Thampi, in this matter. The CSM differs here in stating that the Achan was pulled into the fracas by Thampy.

The details are provided by Thomas Warden in Ponnani, who was in cahoots with the Zamorin’s sarvadhikari. He forwards the letter (oath in ola) from Thampi with the statement that he had received them from the Zamorin’s minister who had received this and another from the Paliyat Achan, and that he will render any further information so received in the matter (One thing interested me, that Warden, the principal collector of Malabar was living in Ponnani? Something to check out another day).

Translation of an Olah from the Dewan of Travancore to the Zamorin Raja

After usual compliments ... The state of affairs, here... That three of the company’s battalions with some Europeans have been stationary, two or three years at Quilon that it is in contemplation insidiously to secure this country  without any sacrifice of war or treasure by exciting dissensions among the different subordinate Rajas and principal officers of the state and that having thus acquired the country under subjection it is ultimately designed that all persons without any distinction of caste shall in one and like manner acknowledge and observe their (the English) faith are passing occurrences which  cannot be unknown to His highness the Zamorin.

The demands now insisted upon me that all the inhabitants of this kingdom shall lay down their arms and obey their (Company's) orders that the high road charitable institutions and the Morejapam (Triennial festival) with all the ceremonies connected thereafter shall be discontinued that two tenths will be allowed for the maintenance and expenses of the rajah and that in case their demands should be refused, hostilities would commence and the country taken possession of. For this purpose besides those stationed there before, some additional troops have been landed at Quilon and every necessary preparation is on foot.

To submit to such demands and give up the country, thereby quietly to witness the extinction which awaits the Bhramma Dhumma and the Kshetri (or temple) Dhumma and become one sect are terms which can never voluntarily be assented to at any-time Whatever being well assured therefore that all the raja’s most intimately concurred in the interests of this state will afford their assistance in such a course, each to the utmost power of his ability. It has been rendered to compel the Company's battalions to evacuate Quilon and that enmity with them shall again exist, accordingly the necessary means for war, have been prepared and hostilities commenced on the 26th of this month. Two attacks have been already made, within 8 days more the battalions will have evacuated Quilon. I shall then lose no time in proceeding to the northward with a part of the forces of this territory.

If all now rise and unanimously act with one mind, there will be no need for continuing allegiance to Europeans or for renouncing the Jaady Dhtirnma (caste).

Hence it behoves His Highness (the Zamorin) to do as follows: To summon the Nayars, the Moplahs, the Ministers and all the different chiefs and separately command them to assemble arms and act against the servants of the Company to whom no revenue should be paid but arrangements made for establishing other people to collect the revenues of the country.

What is here proposed His Highness (the Zamorin) will no doubt undertaken to perform for in case any revolution should happen in quarter His Highness will find it very difficult to continue in his present condition. Inferring that the stipends allowed to the Malabar Rajas by government depends entirely on the Travancore continuing independent.

Of the two original castes of Hindoos and Mussulmen, the long established charitable institution, religious rites and customs being once subverted both will be compelled to acknowledge and observe the faith of Christians and to pay them allegiance. His Highness the Zamorin has full reason to know if he will maturely consider the subject that such an event can only happen through want of unanimity and concord one with another.

The subjects of the Perampadapill svarupam (Cochin) have found themselves unable any longer to continue dependent on their protection (Company's). All the inhabitants of the country therefore have assembled and through the Ministers of the country and by the will of the Rajah prepared, what is necessary for hostilities. A letter on this subject for the information of His Highness (the Zamorin) will be sent in the name of Paliyat Accan. All that is herein contained the Tynencherry Eleadu will read and make known to His Highness the Samooripad.

The written communication of the DALAVA TOMBY VELAYUDHEN CEMPAKARAMAN in the year 984 on the 29th Dhanoo.
A true translation                                                                                             THOMAS WARDEN
(Fort William, Secret Consultations, 6th Feb. 1809 pp.738-43)                      Malabar Collector

An analysis of the letter shows that the Dewan of Travancore was trying to stoke fears of mass conversions to Christianity by the British. What is also apparent is the Dewan’s fear that these converted Christians would lend support to the British. How did this come about?

We can see that in the letter, Veluthampi raises the religious issue of conversions and a prospect of
Hindus being overwhelmed. Was it a ploy or was it something else? To understand that we have to see how matters came to a head. As you recall, after the arrival of Haider and Tippu in Malabr, the religious balance in Malabar had been upset with a number of forcible conversions to Islam and the secular Zamorin had virtually lost his Moplah ally and was trampled upon by the combined forces of the Sultans of Mysore. A flight of many upper class land owning Nairs and Nampoothiris to Travancore took place in those years and many a Hindu felt threatened. Later after Tipu lost to the British, a semblance of peace came about in Malabar with the British in control, and the pensioned off Zamorin became more of a leader of the Hindus of Malabar, while the Moplahs were viewed with relative suspicion due to the fact that they sided with the invading Mysore sultan, in the name of religion. Did Veluthampi plan to use this lever or religion to tilt the Zamroin’s mind?

Another issue the Dalawah had to consider was the previous Travancore threat to overrun the Zamorin at Calicut in 1762 with the forces led by D’Lannoy. At that time, the Zamorin rushed to Travancore and sued for peace, signing a treaty with the Travancore Raja, agreeing to pay reparation and giving up his claims to areas around Trichur and Cochin. The Zamorin perhaps could not foretell that at the same time the Travancore forces were being pressured by an attack from the Mysore forces through the South eastern passes and in 1788 the Travancore rajahs signed a protection treaty with the British.  

The Dewan thus figured out that the only method he could try to get some support from the Zamorin against the British was by bringing up the conversion issue.

The problem started with the protests of the Shanars / Nadars around Tirunelveli, that they were being oppressed by the caste Nairs and Brahmins of Travancore. The LMS or the London missionary society focused their attention on the Nadars, aiming to emancipate them from their situation. One of the first missionaries was a Prussian, one Rev William Tobias Ringeltaube who arrived at Tharangampadi (Tanquebar). At this juncture an early convert Vedamanickam from Mailadi in Cape Comorin approached him for missionary support in Travancore.

Problems at Tirunelveli forced Ringeltaube to move to Palayamkottai to jump-start his evangelistic work with the mission there. That is when he was exposed to the issues brought to him by the Nadars. Eventually he decided to move to Mailadi and he applied for permission to Colin Macaulay, the British resident at Cochin to build a church at Mailadi. Col Macaulay agreed to get him the lands and permission from the king, in order that a church be constructed and so that Ringeltaube in his own words ‘could meet with speedy success, for there behold the fields were white for harvest”. It was during the return that Ringeltaube met Dewan Velu Thampi at Quilon to discuss the sanctions for the church. The Dewan refused permission stating that it went against established customs of his land and soon enough the Hindu opposition rose in volume as Ringeltaube tried to force the issue. Dr Claudius Buchanan was deputed to study the conditions and he took the case directly to the Travancore rajah, sidestepping the Dewan. The rajah too expressed his reservation stating that the English could increase control over the country if they forced their religion on the masses. Dejected, Ringeltaube left Mailadi and went back to Palyamkottah.

The British resident Macaulay felt hugely insulted. Veluthampi too felt belittled by the minority Christian converts of Mailadi. On top of all this Mathu Tarakan used religion to further infuriate Macaulay and force him to take action against Veluthampi. As this fracas was going on, Ringeltaube came back to Mailadi and baptized 40 persons of the locality while Vedamanickam converted a portion of his house to a chapel for the services.

It was at this juncture that Veluthambi decided to oppose the resident at Cochin with force and vented his anger on the converts at Mailadi and Rigeltaube who fled their village. I had detailed the events which followed in a previous article, linked here. After Veluthampi’s demise, a church was built at Mailadi and as is recorded by Yesudas, wonderful strides were made in the spreading of the gospel and several conversions followed.

As you can see, Veluthampi was truly of the belief that the missionaries would convert many of the lower echelons of society and while it was just one the fears he had, he knew this cause would resonate in Cochin and Malabar where Tipu and Hyder had wreaked havoc with forced conversions.
What happened to the letter which was sent to the Zamorin and copied to his minister? Well, that minister was none other than Shamnath or Swaminatha Pattar who was in cahoots with the British. He handed over the document to the British, promptly. That the Zamorin and the Cochin raja had no real possibility to rise up in revolt against the British should have been clear to the person who raised the call, for three reasons.

First the fact that the Dewan was just that, he himself was no more than a deputy to the King of Travancore and not the sovereign himself. If the call had been sent by the Rajah of Travancore, it might have elicited or for that matter merited some response. The second reason was that the Ravi Varma’s of Padinjare Kovilakom, the only princes who may have risen up in revolt against the British had already been quietened or done away with by the EIC around 1797. Thirdly the Zamorin no longer exercised suzerainty over the many Naduvazhi’s of Malabar nor enjoyed the once unequaled over-lordship over the many thousands of Nayars or Moplahs who once fought for him.

Perhaps those were the reasons why the pensioned off Zamorin of Calicut disregarded the letter from the Dalawa.

A tragic decade in Kerala History – TP Sankarankutty Nair
Dewan Velu Tampi and the British – Dr B Shobanan
British Policy in Travancore – Dr RN Yesudas
The History of the London Missionary society in Travancore 1806-1908 – Dr RN Yesudas

The Temple states of Medieval Kerala

Posted by Maddy Labels: , , ,

Sanketams of Malabar

Starting from the time when the Chera Empire and its powers declined, new forms of governance came up as lands split into multiple Swaroopams, Nadus, Desams and so on. Local chieftains administered the land with the help of the Lokars or Nairs, and came under the local Swaroopam suzerain’s umbrella. In return, they provided the services of foot soldiers comprising Nairs in the time of a war between the swaroopams. But in between all that, temple states also sprung up in parallel and some of them became very powerful. Some were small, like Pallavur in Palghat, which was just 2 square miles and where I hail from, others were very big, comprising many hundred square miles like Padmanabhapuram in Trivandrum. The Peruvanam Kshethra Sanketham for instance, extended approximately 25 miles in all directions, to Kuthiraanmudi (peak) Ayyappa temple in the east, Kodungalloor Oozhakam Sastha temple in the south, Edathiruthy Ayyappa temple near Thriprayar in the west and the Akamala Sastha temple in the north.

These were the Sanketam’s. Simply put, they were islanded spiritual states in the midst of lands under secular chiefs and princes. Even a king could not break the sanctuary provided by a Sanketam. Their authority was maintained using physical force by the Nairpada and not by any kind of religious or spiritual sanctions. However as time went by, the Sanketams aligned with one or the other local chieftains and eventually declined in powers. Let’s follow their course to see how it all went.

The Calicut University Political science text book explains - The Yogams (councils) of the Namboothiri trustees (uraler) of temples and temple lands and their privileges were together called Sanketam. In the absence of sovereign authority of the government, the Sanketams became real rulers. They administered law and justice in their jurisdiction. The Changatham was a group of warriors who ensured protection and safety to a Desam and to the Sanketam property. Like the Chavers, Changathams were also suicide squads. They were rewarded with a share from the offerings that were received at the temple. The share was called "Kaaval Panam" (remuneration for guarding) or Rakshabhogam. It was with the military backing of these Changathams that the Brahmins established social and political hegemony.

According to the Keralolpathi, Parasurama who brought the Brahmins, ‘created adima and kudima in the desam, protected adiyans and kudiyans, established taras and sankethams, separated the Nairs into taras and the supervision work over the land was given to them’. It is said that there were two types of sanketams, the self-existent one which continued on as remnants of the ancient Brahmin supremacy and the second type which had been created as a concession by the sovereign who was in favor of the temple and which then became a Sanketam, fully governed by people and authorities elected or selected by the Sanketham Uralers. This was the norm in a period broadly defined as the temple centered period of Kerala history.

Achyuta Menon explains - The Brahmin settlements (he also terms them demesne – i.e. territory, realm, domain) known in inscriptions as ‘Ur’ were concentrated around temples, sprang up throughout Kerala, and Brahmins became the custodians of huge wealth and property of these temples. The land owning Brahmins were generally called Uralar. The temples together with the endowments attached to them are called Devaswams - the property of God. All the important Devaswams in Kerala had their own independent jurisdictions known as Sanketam with unlimited temporal power, independent of the local chieftain. Later, the Sankethams were forced to seek the protection of Rajas and accepted the Purakoyma or external territorial lordship over the Devaswams. In the post-Perumal period they started conducting even the judicial administration of the area under the purview of the Sanketham. The Sankethams were considered protected places and attained importance as neutral areas and kept away from attacks and shelter for Brhamins and Kshatriyas. The well-known Sankethams like Payyannur, Chovvaram, Trikkakara, Elamkunnapuzha, Tiruvalla, Panniyur etc. were powerful than the local chieftains.

The sanketam was a refuge for people and nobody could enter and force out somebody taking there. A famous example is the time when the Cochin raja fled to the Sanketam of the Elamkunnapuzha temple in the island of Vypin. It was here that Francisco de Albuquerque met the Raja (note also that a non-Hindu was perhaps admitted to the Sanketam in this rare case) to pay compensations for the Raja who had suffered on account of supporting the Portuguese. Another example is that of the Attingal Rani who fled to the Nedumpuram Sanketam when surrounded by the Kayamkulam Raja in 1730.

According to KV Krishna Ayyar, the period between the 8th to the 18th century, the period when the Namabuthiri ruled supreme in Malabar, was a time when they imposed their will using the stated power of being ‘god compellers’ which could provide divine favors for the obedient and bring down divine wrath on the recalcitrant. Even the sovereign acceded to the throne only with the Nambuthiri’s ariyittuvazcha blessings, with the sovereign in turn promising that they would protect cows and Brahmins. Rival Brahmin settlements and their chiefs fought their own wars (frequently violating each other’s sanketams during the kur-matsarams) as could be seen in the protracted quarrel between the Panniyurkur and the Covarakkur with the support from their respective temporal chiefs, and without the involvement of the suzerain the Zamorin. The namputhiris also had a peculiar method of threatening to fast or starve (Pattini) themselves to death, if their will was not heeded to. This could in rare cases spiral into a huge issue, for the death of a Brahmin or the sin of Brahmahatya fell on the ruler (See the story of the Tali temple in Calicut for more details on the amends that had to be made) as well as the land or kingdom. But then again, if the Brahmin was the proven aggressor, the temporal chief could intervene and confiscate their land, excommunicate them or levy other social penalties. Typically the pattini was symbolic and not a fast unto death, this will be explained a bit later.

Ayyar adds – The origin of these temple states is shrouded in obscurity. In a semi feudal age, ownership of land carried with it the privilege of protecting and punishing those who lived within its boundaries. Every endowment and dedication therefore conferred some power or the other according to its terms. Again in the wake of religious devotion that swept over the land under the leadership of the Nayanars and Alwars, the members of the village republics might have made over all their lands and properties to the lord to be governed by him, according to his will. Not only single villages, but two or more might combine likewise and establish a temple state. Trichur was thus formed from the synoccism of two villages, Trivandrum of three and Guruvayur (Guruvayur was actually a subsidiary temple state of Trikkannamatilakam and it had 18 smaller temples under it) of five. Suchindram was also a Sanketam, but without doubt Trivandrum was the biggest of all where Marthanda Varma enlarged the sanketam and made it coexistent with his empire with the monarch and his successors becoming the lord’s first servants.

To understand governance, you need to follow the old terms carefully. The small unit called desam (Calicut for example had 125 desams and 72 taras) was presided over by the desavali. For clarity, note that a Brahmin settlement was a gramam, a Nair settlement was a tara and an Ezhava settlement was a cheri. Sometimes the desam and tara were identical. A number of desams constituted a nadu presided over by the naduvazhi who himself was subject to the Rajah. The naduvazhi as we mentioned earlier, was expected to supply the Raja with fighting forces in times of need. Since these temples provided sanctuary or sanketams during enemy attacks in times of war, there was a tussle among neighboring sovereigns to obtain over-lordship (melkoyma) over bigger temples and temple sanketams, irrespective of whether they were situated within their own domains or not. All these attached much importance to temples and also to the priests who controlled the temples, as well as the uralers who incidentally obtained a payment for their services (urachi). This melkoyma desire was one of the reasons for many a skirmish between rulers. The committee of uralars is usually termed the samudayam. As examples, it is mentioned that over years the rulers of Cochin, Palghat and Calicut acquired control over the important Tiruvilavamala temple; the Cochin Raja had rights over the temples at Haripad and Tiruvalla; the Raja’s of Vadakkumkur and Parur over Thrissur and Peruvanam and the king of Venad over Vaikkam temple.

Sreedhara Menon emphasizes - The sanketam functioned almost 'as a state within a state' with the ruling sovereign having no effective political control over it …. They (the Namboodiris) owed allegiance not so much to any ruler as to their caste chief, the Azhavancheri-Tamprakkal, who alone had the authority to punish them.

In course of time, due to political uprisings in the country, the Sanketams lost their significance and with the rise of secular power, their powers declined. Susan Thomas in her thesis covers the aspect of the changing nature of the sanketams, as they sought support from the suzerain, taking the example of Trikkandiyur – ‘The Sanketam depended on the neighboring chief for everything including the constitution of their yogam and the maintenance of law and order. The chiefs would even send directions to the members of the yogam’.

Vinod Bhattathirpad opines slightly differently - The chief of the Sanketham ("Sankethaadhikaari") was selected from the temple Yogam, and as decided by the Yogaathiri. Within a Sanketham, the Sankethaadhikaari was all-powerful and could punish even the king. In some Sankethams, kings of even the adjacent kingdoms also used to be members of the Sanketham. The Thrissur Vadakkumnaathha temple Yogam, for example, honoured not only its own Maharaja of Kochi, but also Perumpadappu Raja, Manakkulam Raja, Ayanikkoor (Chiralayam) Thampuraan, Kurumbranaad Thampuraan, Valluvakkonaathiri, Thekkumkoor and Vadakkumkoor Rajas. These kings considered such positions an honor conferred on them. The Yogaathiri, however, was invariably to be a Namboothiri.

To guard against encroachment, the Sanketams themselves started to choose a secular leader without giving up their right of ownership, for they were a self-governing unit, self-working and self-contained community, recognizing no sovereign. They had the right to punish even the sovereign. It had the right to collect taxes (house and professional taxes) and rents owed by its subjects. All land transactions were registered in the temple records. In these sanketams, everything was done in the name of the Lord, looking at the case of Pallavur and Guruvayur, the formula was ‘Tevar Tirunal peral uraler ullirunna annuninna samudaya manusham (meaning - In the name of .. the auspicious austerism of the lord with the governing committee sitting in session behind closed doors and by its order, the then executive officer of the corporation…...).

Ayyar adds that the sanketam prohibited the pursuit of trades such as toddy tapping, barter systems, and settlement of Muslims at Pallavur, as an example. In the case of Vaikom, they could even award a death penalty by hanging, and it is said that before hoisting the flag at the annual temple festival the committee had to ensure that those convicted by them of murder within the Sanketam, were hanged. People leaving the sanketam for any reason had to come back for the important festivals or they were deemed dead and their obsequies were performed by their relatives. During such festivals, activities such as paddy threshing, roofing, fence repairs, paddy husking etc. were prohibited. To ensure higher attendance, free food was provided to the people of the sanketam. The temple flag was hoisted only after hearing all complaints an ensuring that not a single one remained unaddressed. In case a major crime was committed in a sanketam, (and presumably unresolved) the sanketam was dissolved and all festivals cancelled (but routine worship continued). Sometimes the temple flag was not hoisted for petty issues, such as a situation where a nambudiri girl’s marriage was delayed (if delayed beyond a year following puberty). In 1725 at Calicut a man was sentenced to death at Tali, his lands were confiscated and his house roof knocked down by the elephant.

In case the Melkoyma or the sovereign was indifferent to an offence, he had to pay a fine to the sanketam. In the case of his collusion with the offender, the Yogam of the sanketam resorted to passive resistance known as pattini or fasting. Numerous documented cases exist and a few of them are connected to the Elankunnapuzha sanketam. The pattini itself was a peculiar system lasting eight days (during the 13th century). A grand feast would be prepared each day in the temple. The Brahmins would sit in front of the banana leaf and dishes would be served. Just before the starting of eating, the melshanti (chief priest) or Yogatirippad would call the attention of those seated for the resolution from the yogam. Immediately they would all stand up and walk out without eating. The intention was perhaps not ‘fast unto death’ as some historians mention, but according to Ayyar, it was intended originally to generate intense fire or Jatharagni inside the body by the hunger pangs and use it as a spiritual or psychic weapon.

To understand the workings in the sanketams, one has to primarily understand that everything was done in the name of the lord and so a good amount of religious fervor existed in actions. After the last worship, the daily income and expenditure of the sanketam was read out before the lord. The ultimate sovereignty rested with an assembly called the yogam or sabha (parish) consisting of the family heads in the village, meeting once a year to elect the uraler (ur village, alar administrators) committee, to fix festival dates, create special committees, induct new families into the yogam, to receive endowments, to appoint the chief priest, the new velichappad (oracle) etc. The yogatiri usually an ascetic was the head of the yogam, and the chief priest. Interestingly, the pura koyma or sanketam protectors according to KVK Ayyar were originally Brahmin, but with their dwindling numbers, the Sanketam resorted to seeking support from the local chieftain. Some historians mentions that Yogam is common in Malabar, while Sabha as a term was more relevant to Travancore. The velichappad was a powerful character in those times, for when possessed, it was believed that the lord was talking through the man himself and so his pronouncement was final! As time went by, the yogam was reduced to just the uralar families or sometimes just one family. 

The Ward and Connor survey of 1800 mentions that associated with almost every major temple ("Mahaakshethrams") in Kerala, there existed a high-power committee called "Yogam"; and also a "Sanketham", described as a "Temple Kingdom" ("Ambala-raajyam").

We should also take note here that in the 17th century, Sanketam rights were granted to the Konkani’s who settled in Cochin. In 1627 A.D, Vira Kerala Varma Raja of Cochin gave the Konkanis certain rights and privileges such as exemption from payment of Purushantharam or succession fee, permission to construct houses with bricks, mortar and wood and also to conduct business from Cochin with foreign countries. Again in 1648 A.D, the Raja of Cochin, Vira Kerala Varma, gave the community the civil and criminal powers to be exercised by them within the well-defined boundary of their Gosripuram (Cochin Thirumala) settlement called ‘Sanketam’.

A classic case of the power of the sanketam and the rules followed by them is illustrated by the Vanjeri Granthavari as related to the Trikkandiyur sanketam where the Vanjeri Nampi was the main uraler. In this case, they did have a sanketam, but not the changatham or protection force. This was provided on request by the Zamorin as the Vettath raja himself was a feudatory under the Zamorin’s suzerainty. The Santekam ruled according to a set Sanketamaryada. In this issue, the Karippuram nambudiri was stabbed to death by a member of the urakattu (he happened to be a military man working for the Zamorin’s family). The fellow was captured soon after and the necessary permission to mete out justice was obtained from the Zamoirn. The Kovil nampi or Vettath Raja could not attend, for some reason and the culprit was put to death. The desamaryada rules are also well illustrated in the records obtained from Trikkandiyur. We will get to the many stories related to the Trikkandiyur temple another day for it is a large topic by itself.

Davis explains - References to the desamaryada from the Vanjeri records show that it was simply held to be the law of locality, without any reference to any other system or source of law. There are no references to specific dharma texts or any other set of written legal rules. We should not expect any because the influence of dharmasastra occurred primarily through the medium of Brahmins, who determined the law based on their interpretations, not invocations of dharmasastra.

As time went by and the British took over with a formal justice and administration system, the sanketams died a death, while the Dewasom board taking care of regional temple administration remained, absorbing smaller sanketams. But until then, the sanketam was a unique institution in the various principalities of Kerala.

Theocracy in medieval Kerala – KV Krishna Ayyar
A history of Kerala – KV Krishna Ayyar
The Cochin state manual – C Achyutha Menon
The temple states of Kerala – KV Krishna Ayyar (paper - 10th oriental conference)
The control of the king over temples in Ancient India – M B Voyce, Dunedin
State and society in Pre-modern South India – Ed R Champakalakshmi, Kesavan veluthat, TR Venugopalan
The Annamanada case – Gilles Tarabout
Calicut: The City of Truth Revisited - MGS Narayanan
Property relations and family forms in Colonial Keralam - Susan Thomas
Recovering the indigenous legal traditions of India: classical Hindu law in practice in late Medieval Kerala - Donald R Davis Jr
University of Calicut - State and society in Kerala, BA political science 6th semester, core course


Extensive background on these matters, especially the development of temple communities and temple authority can be obtained by perusing Kesavan Veluthat’s ‘the early medieval in South India’ and ‘Kerala Charitram’ by Raghava Warrier and Rajan Gurukkal, as well as ‘the state in the era of the Cheraman Perumals of Kerala’ by MGS Narayanan. Donald Davis’s extensive study demonstrates the evolution of the prevailing legal practice in the sanketam from early mimamsa texts and their application by the Nambuthiri’s, with or without involvement of the local chieftain or suzerain, the role of “custom” in the medieval law of Malabar and the role of the Kovil nampi in meting out punishment. Susan Thomas’s thesis provides an in depth review on temple formation, temple communities, social development and administration in early Malabar.

Sometimes the term Tattakam was used in place of Sanketam and many authors spell Sanketam as Samketam. Note here that the village is actually the state, and not the temple while the annual temple festival was considered as the annual renewal of allegiance. In Pallavur we still conduct the Desakkali and Navaratri Vilakku which are by convention mandatory for all village members.