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Rama Nilayam, Trichur - A look back

Posted by Maddy Labels:

An outhouse, a palace, the British residency and now a guest house

On the town hall road, in front of the Kerala Sangeet Natak academy and adjoining the Sakthan Thampuran palace in Trichur is the stately Rama Nilayam guesthouse, recently renovated. There has been a lot of conjecture about its origins and people have opined it was once a palace, a form of military barracks, a recruitment center etc. It is also said that it was once an outhouse of the Shaktan Thampuran palace which was refurbished to create the British residency in the 19th century. Trying to obtain details about this was somewhat difficult but stimulating and here below is the result of that search.

The British were tightening their grips on the somewhat independent Cochin kingdom and Rama Varma was starting to feel the suffocation. Frustrated by palace intrigues, other scandals and many other family issues, a shortage of finances and the British breathing down his neck, the only person whom he could rely on in those days at the dawn of the 20th century was Dewan Rajagopalachari. Thought of abdicating his royal seat was not far from Rama Varma, the Rajarshi’s mind. Together they navigated the tricky period and it was in those last years and the start of the 20th that the residency buildings at Ernakulam and Trichur were refurbished and/or completed. The residency building at Trichur is what we will now talk about.

First an understanding on what a residency building is – the residency itself was a political office, managed by a resident who maintained the diplomatic relations between the British Indian government and a princely state, such as Travancore or Cochin. Initially, Princes of these States were assured of protection from internal and external aggression, through the deployment of British troops and payments for the maintenance of those troops, as well as acceptance of a British Resident in their courts. The Resident was thus a senior British official posted to the capitals of these Princely States, technically a diplomat but also responsible for keeping the ruler tied to his alliance with the British. Nevertheless, he was a permanent and irritating reminder of the subsidiary relationship between the indigenous ruler and the European power.

The physical manifestation of all this was the Residency itself, a complex of buildings built according to the aesthetic values desired by the suzerain power and a symbol of power because of its size and position within the prince's capital. In most cases, the prince paid for the building of these Residencies as a gesture of his support for and allegiance to the British and took care of the resident’s expenses related to travel and the building’s upkeep.

The Gazetteer of South India By W. Francis 1901 – makes a clear mention that the expenditure during the ten-year spending in 1904 averaged 4 ½ lakhs, in Cochin. Among the most important public buildings constructed or improved are some of the palaces in Tripunithara, the Darbar hall, the Dewans office, the chief court and the college at Ernakulam, the public offices at Trichur and the residencies at Ernakulam and Trichur. This was the time when P. Rajagopalachari was the Dewan, 1896-1901 and it was the period when Gordon Wolseley visited Trichur and stayed in this residency. He writes circa 1900 leaving behind a good picture of the façade of the residency.

Quoting him - The Residency of Trichur, of which the accompanying photograph gives one an accurate idea, but does scant justice to its surrounding, is a very superior double storied bungalow of the old Indian type, with capacious verandahs all round it-a good specimen of the luxurious appropriately built house that I regret to say is rarely built now. Indian houses, like everything else in the dav, are modelled after English fashion. And an English house in the plain of India is just as ridiculous and out of place a "jhilmills " and ‘punkahs’ would be in a mayfair drawing room. I must first explain, for the information of my readers unacquainted with India, that a jhilmill is a door with a series of overlapping slabs of wood, that open and shut at pleasure, somewhat on the principle of our Venetian blinds. In the evening we had a ladies’ dinner-party at the Residency, and I was agreeably surprised to find it so pleasantly cool. I was able to sleep with the door and window of my bedroom open, without a punkah-the inevitable adjunct of all sleeping apartments in the plains of India-almost throughout the whole year.

So, we can establish that the residency was built just around the time Dewan Rajagopalchari was the Dewan of Cochin and Gordon Thomas Mackenzie took charge as the resident.  I would assume that Thomas was the first full or part-time occupant of the Residency at Trichur followed by Andrew who took over as resident in 1904. The Trichur residency was always at the resident’s disposal and we do know that there was some kind of a tiff between the next Dewan N. Pattabhirama Rao and the resident, with the former having to suffer a severe dressing down lecture from Andrew, so stated by the king Rama Varma in his memoirs. But as Rama Varma continues in his biography, not long afterward, but not as a result of the above incident, the government of India ordered that their representatives in the Indian states should not accept from the Darbar’s any privileges such as rent-free houses, conveyance etc.

As a result, the residency was handed back to the Cochin Darbar and the British leased the Bolghatty residency. AF Banerji, the next Dewan, who arrived in 1907 was the first Indian (through British born) and a good friend of Rama Varma, to live at the ‘old Residency’ in Trichur. This would have been the time the residency got renamed to Rama Nilayam or as Sreedhara Menon attests in his Trichur Gazetteer, the Rama Nilayam Palace. AR Banerji lived at the Rama Nilayam until 1914 at which point, he moved to Mysore. Joseph W Bohre, the next Dewan, another Bengali and a confidante of Rama Varma also lived at the Trichur Rama Nilayam, testified so by Gilbert Slater Professor of Economics (1915–21) in the University of Madras (Revival: Southern India (1936): Its Political and Economic Problems). The Bolghatty residency (or bologhatti - an anglicized term for mulakukkadu island), leased later to the British @ Rs 6,000 per annum.

A detailed mention of a visit to and the stay at the Rama Nilayam is recorded by Henry Bruce (Letters from Malabar and on the Way) visiting Trichur in the tail end of 1907 and early 1908, as a guest of AR Banerji.

Trichur has been made his residence by Albion R. Banerji, the young Curzonian Premier of the State, just this week absent in Madras…In the late afternoon and early evening, I walked abroad alone, for a couple of hours, through the far-stretching rural town of Trichur, an accretion of villages, as it seemed to be. I know not how to express in a paragraph, which is all that is at my disposal, the impression of comfort, cleanliness, aesthetic life and surroundings which I received…. But what a contrast to the Kashmiris, particularly in their attitude towards Europeans! How much more self-respecting these people seemed! how much less cringing and suspicious! how much less basely ‘on the make?' I noticed none of those sights of offence, common in Kashmir and in most Indian lands. Even the pariah dogs were few. The beautifully made roads, of reddish soil, were swept to the last inch, and so were the courtyards. For one thing, the people here have windows, and use them. There are two outstanding observations…. The second point is the high level of popular prosperity. Such pretty little houses, ‘coquettish,” as the French say. They may be insanitary, like the houses of European peasants; but how much it is to be able to make that comparison I noticed a score of little bungalows in which I should be glad to live myself, except, perhaps, for the crowded neighborhood. There were several bungalows better than I shall ever live in—one large one, surrounded by a white-pillared verandah; another behind iron railings joined to massive stone structures. Who lives there? Hindus, without exception. Now, hardly any pleaders or rich natives live on that scale, with that neatness, on the Bombay side of India. The houses of the poorest seem to be more than tolerable human habitations…

To-day, at Trichur, I hear of the arrival of Professor Macdonell, the Oxford Sanskrit scholar. After three days at Ernakulam, I have returned for three days with the Dewan at Trichur. This city, 44 miles to the northward, and inland, is reputed to be the oldest in Malabar. It is the most central place in the little Cochin State, the most convenient for administrative purposes, and greatly the healthiest. Several Heads of Departments are already located here. Trichur ought manifestly to be the capital; but this cannot be for a long time to come, because of the handsome range of Public Offices already existing at Ernakulam. The Dewan has taken up his dwelling at a noble old Residency building, a mile or so out of Trichur. This is nicer than the Travellers’ Bungalow, which I did not dislike; but I must say much less about it… About Mr. Banerji, also, it is because I could write so much that I ought to write but little. Within this year, at least, it has become no novelty to Mr. Banerji to be written about. As the son-in-law of Mr. K. G. Gupta, of the Indian Council, by his own personality, and as the first I.C.S. man appointed to a Dewanship, he has attracted an amount of attention which would have turned many a head.

In Trichur, for three nights, I had my first experience of sleeping under a punkah. This may seem truly luxurious, particularly if the punkah be some ten feet in length. Other people do not care for a night punkah, saying that it gives them colds, etc. Trichur is elevated some five or six feet above the sea. Even that absurd elevation distinctly counts. One has a curious sensation of going up towards it. Trichur is not tonic, but you can at least work there. The whole machinery of State Government seems destined to be gradually moved thither. In Ernakulam, as the Dewan says, “you feel like a worm.’

Bruce went on to Quilon and was enamored by the residency building there and mentions- It is bigger than the Trichur Residency, though it has not the advantage of being a home.

Albion Banerji returned after 30 years in 1940 and said so about Trichur and his life in Rama Nilayam - After a lapse of over thirty years, I come back to the old surroundings of Trichur where I spent the happiest seven years of my life. Truth to tell, there is no old Trichur in existence. The Town is rejuvenated and is proud now to become almost the second city in Kerala, perhaps the most beautiful with a setting so characteristic of the Kerala country, specially of Cochin.

Banerjee was instrumental in starting a tennis club in Trichur in 1912 and it was named as The Trichur Club, perhaps using the Rama Nilayam courts. Rama Varma, the Raja of Cochin was the patron of the club, the honorary secretary being Mr. J.S. Mac Beam. The executive committee members were G.E.Browing, HWM Brown, K.E.Nicell and Dr.G.N.Coomer, all English. I would go on to presume that some of those Englishmen stayed at the spacious Rama Nilayam residency building.

We can also see an interesting noting in Dr KT Rama Varma’s biography of the erudite Rama Varma Appan Thampuran, a literary genius. He mentions that only 4 ladies played tennis in Trichur those days (1906-08) and they were Nanikutty Amma, Lady Banerji, Maharajas college principal Narayana Menon’s mother Ammu Amma, and Ramunni Menon’s wife Ammukutty Amma, all of them playing at the tennis courts in Rama Nilayam.

The next illustrious short-term guest was the Maharaja of Travancore who stayed at the Rama Nilayam in 1923, when he visited Trichur as Rama Varma’s guest. Rama Varma mentions that though the Travancore Raja stayed at the ‘old residency’, he spent most of the time with Rama Varma and drove around sightseeing around Trichur and the general region.

I guess that after Dewan Banerji left, some others who took over may have stayed in Trichur’s Rama Nilayam, though I could not come across anything specific. JW Bhore also stayed there, as I mentioned previously. There are some newspaper mentions that it was a barracks for the military deputed to the region during the WW II and also a recruitment center for the armed forces, as well as a storage area for ammunition, but details are scarce. All we know is that Rama Nilayam functioned as the office of the military center which recruited soldiers to the British army during the Second World War. An engraved plate mentions that around 1.7 lakh people were recruited from the town, between 1939-45. Shanmukham Chetty whom some associate with the Rama Nilayam, must have been an occupant and may have got it refurbished along the way, he was never its builder as wrongly mentioned here and there. There are also mentions that it was termed the aniparamabu palace (or was it just the ana parambu where elephants were parked?). 

A distinguished guest who stayed at the Rama Nilayam was Jawaharlal Nehru in Feb 1957 and perhaps also on other previous occasions (as early as 1931) when he visited Trichur. Mahatma Gandhi, however, stayed at the Ramakrishna ashram at Puranattukara when he visited Trichur in 1934. Many other government events were usually conducted at this location ever since. The centenary list published by the Malayala Manorama in 1988, after its 100 years of publishing and covering 100 icons was researched and drawn up by the committee comprising C Achutha Menon, NV Krishna Warrier, Udayabhanau etc. camped at Rama Nilayam! Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV rested there on Jan 11th 1991, when he visited India. Kerala Chief Minister Patton Thanu Pillai stayed there as well, during the mid and late 50’s, when visiting the area. I am sure the list will be extensive if researched in depth.

Eventually, it became a government guest house with four suites and served many guests, as well as becoming a politician’s abode (Congressman – K Karunakaran), along the way. As somebody mentioned humorously, ‘Asritha vatsalan’ Karunakaran was the longest-reigning ‘political deity’ in this temple town. It was from the Rama Nilayam guest house that the ‘illustrious Leader,’ steered the politics of the area and beyond for decades. The relation between Karunakaran and the building was very close and regular, he visited the area and the Guruvayur temple often, staying always sin Room # 1 at Raman Nilayam, until 2000. People wanting to have a meeting with him beelined to the Rama Nilayam. As age caught up with the Congressman, it appears that he started using Room # 4 of the old block, which was easier to access.

Another illustrious guest was the famous Bharatanatyam danseuse and yogini Dr Vasundhara Dorayswamy who spent a while there. Rama Nilayam, the government Guest House in Thrissur, was “a home away from home” for Vasundhara.

It has been recently renovated and now 120 years old, is back to showcasing its magnificent façade, though over a period of time, a second wing has been added to its side. That it had many other secrets and stories to tell is clear, and you only need to spend a while with old-timers in Trichur, to relive those days!


Gazatteer of South India – W Francis

Letters from Malabar and on the Way - Henry Bruce

A Visit to Travancore BY SIR GEORGE B, WOLSELEY, K.C.B, Liesure hour Jan 1901


Photos – Present day Ramanilayam - courtesy dd architects Trichur, old RN, Rama Varma pics - courtesy Leisure hour

Variyan Kunnath Kunahmad Haji - An Eranad Warlord

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There is a furor these days about this 1921 Eranad rebel warlord and many expert opinions are being voiced. I was a bit intrigued as I had encountered VKH often in my Malabar Rebellion studies, but I had not really paused to study him, though spending a while on the Sinderby account caricaturing an antagonist based on VKH’s character. But it is time to do a little study and I will try to detail his actions as dispassionately as I can, referring to the numerous secondary sources I am in possession of. We will see that this is actually the story of a tired old man who had been perpetually on the run before 1921, nursing his grudges against the British, straying somewhat unwillingly into a larger revolt, with only a desire to help out his benefactor Ali Musaliyar, quickly changing his ideology when he became a fugitive and lording a gang who resorted to tactics he would not have approved otherwise.

Tipu Sultan’s delegation to Istanbul

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The Embassy headed by Ghulam Ali

As the 8th decade of the 18th century was drawing to a close, Fateh Ali, a.k.a. Tipu Sultan was left in a quandary. The Maratha wars had been raging and things were not going too well. The years of conflict finally ended with Treaty of Gajendragad in March 1787, as per which Tipu returned territory captured by Hyder Ali, to the Maratha Empire. Tipu agreed to pay four-years of tribute arrears amounting to 48 Lacs while the Marathas agreed to address Tipu sultan as “Nabob Tipu Sultan Futteh Ally Khan” and recognized his kingdom. Why would this address be so important to Tipu?

Wootz Steel and Malabar

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The Outhaals of Nellumboor and the Wootz steel

'One blow of a Damascus sword would cleave a European helmet without turning the edge or cut through a silk handkerchief drawn across it' that was how the Damascus sword was described during the Crusades, a sword which had a blade patterned “as though a trail of small black ants had trekked all over the steel when it was still soft” in the words of a 6th century Arabic poet, Aus-b-Hajr. Before long, the sword had attained a legendary reputation and the Excalibur of King Arthur had fallen by the wayside. Don’t you think it a good diversion, to learn a bit about all that?

Pooku Moosa Marakkar

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And his involvement in Travancore affairs - Marthanda Varma’s reign

This is yet another interesting medieval trader who made his name and lost it after a lifetime of high-risk balancing acts between the various players at the trade scenes of Travancore during the 18th century. His rise to fame was meteoric, from a simple trader to providing military support to Marthanda Varma with his pathemari boat fleet, going on to become Marthanda Varma’s confidante, and eventually ending up as the Travancore sarvadi karyakkar in negotiations with the Dutch. His fortunes rose and ebbed like tides, till it was cruelly ended when he lost his patron. Let’s see what we can dig up about this bloke, from the deep cellars of history.

The Umbrella Riots

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Out at the islands, long ago - Lakshadweep

Many years ago, a peculiar series of revolts took place in the lovely islands off to the west of Malabar, called the Lakshadweep (100,000 islands), which were and still are sparsely inhabited by Muslim folk who originated from the mainland, moving to settle down there sometime around the 14th century and thereafter. The immigrants carried with them a form of stigmatic caste system separating the affluent upper castes from the working castes which as you can imagine, resulted in a good amount of friction. Caste separatism within this community was the reason for a rebellion, but the triggers are for an outsider, particularly interesting. We had previously discussed the breast cloth movement in Travancore, and this is another tale from a time period, when life was quite a bit different from what it is today!

The Malabar European Club – Calicut

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A long time ago….

Some 500 years or so into the past, Calicut was not quite mired in obscurity. It was as one intrepid traveler wrote, ‘on the way to everywhere’. Traders and travelers vied to make their way to the spice capital of the world and write about the strange ways of the people, the spices in the markets and the riches on display. Some even wrote about the honesty of the rulers and the cosmopolitanism they saw. The Portuguese, the French, the Dutch, the Danes and of course the British made their presence felt at this entrepot as time moved on, if only to profit. Years passed and soon it was stripped off all its glory as the British, who like many others, also entered India through its gates at Calicut, moved North and established the metropolises at Bombay, Calcutta and eventually Delhi. The new order had no place for lowly Calicut, but a few enlightened souls still came by, now and then. They all had mainly one place to stay and lodge at, the Malabar European Club, facing the Arabian Sea.

The tragic story of Pulicat Ratnavelu Chetty - ICS – Palghat 1879-1881

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The first covenanted ICS officer of the Madras Presidency

This story was lying in my drafts folder for a long time, as I was not able to establish the identity of the character involved. It was only after reading a relatively recent blog post by Murali Rama Varma who had been away for a while, that I got it resolved. First, thanks Murali for coming back, your posts have always been refreshing and secondly, for helping me identify the person involved.

The only place you can find a pen-portrait of this person is in the book penned by one Isaac Tyrrell. So first let us start with Tyrrell, he spent 56 years in India, in the police and jails and through the 1857 Sepoy rebellion. It is claimed to be an extremely readable and amusing account of a long and varied career "with never a furlough to Europe, nor a residence in a hill station”, a record which he believes has never been beaten in India. Having enlisted in the 46th Regiment of foot, Tyrrell embarked in 1847 as a guard on a convict ship bound for Hobart, Tasmania. In 1849 his regiment was posted to Calcutta and for the next 48 years he moved frequently around north and south India, working for the EIC.