The Scorned Dewan

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

As you delve deep into history, you go past the myriad dates, the armies, the fights, the philosophers, the adventurers, the lucky ones, the unlucky ones, the destined ones and all other kinds of human forms. Among these many distinguished & not so distinguished persons who created a past for us, are some who are more known for the wrongs they committed, the wrongs that sometimes changed the destiny of a nation or as in this case, that of Malabar.

The rulers of Malabar in medieval times were the Zamorins of Calicut. They ruled the upper districts of Malabar between 700 and 1800 AD and administered the ocean trade, for some thousand years. Having been ably supported by the Moppila’s of Malabar, they finally succumbed to continuous onslaught by overseas invaders, starting with the Portuguese whom they eventually drove out; the Dutch whom they kept away, the Mysore Sultans who routed Malabar and finally to the very clever ruses by the very forces they thought would help them regain lost glory. The final bastion was the English, who took away the reins of Malabar and from then on laid claim to the whole Indian subcontinent.

If you refer to the many Malabar history books, the reasons were many. The Zamorin’s had been battered by the two hundred years of fighting the Portuguese and the Mysore Sultans. Many internal fights with the Kolathiri’s in the North and the Cochin kings in the south had reduced the wealth and might of the great Zamorin. The coffers of the Calicut treasury were empty, the mint produced little coinage. The morale was low and the Nair’s were not expert in the modern fighting techniques, though they were on the other hand good at guerilla warfare. Smaller chiefdoms were continuing with petty rebellions. The Moppilas were directing their own operations, after the Maraikar fiasco & tax revenues had crashed.

If you ask the Zamorins, they would say that the final (legal) nail in the coffin was driven in by a noble Brahmin, the Dewan (finance minister) of Calicut. The story proved an interesting read though devoid of detail. In history books, including in the glorious Malabar manual by Logan, this man is referred to as Shamnath.

Let us first look at the broad scenario - The Zamorin and family had fled Calicut to escape Tippu’s armies and taken refuge in Travancore. Ravivarma the Eralpad, 2nd in line led the fight against Tippu, after collaborating with the British. The agreement between the Zamorin and the EIC was that after defeating Tippu, the Zamorin’s powers would be restored. However after Fullerton’s attack on the Palakkad fort, the fort was returned to Tippu and Fullerton transferred. The powers of the Zamorin were never restored. The Muslims under Manjeri Hassan had in the meantime captured Arshad Beg Khan, Tippu’s army chief. Tippu offered Zamorin’s their powers back if they would release Arshad Khan and also help Tippu defeat the Travancore kings. The Zamorin refused.

Shamnath appears in history pages during January 1789 when as the Zamorin’s chief minister, he is deputed to Mysore to negotiate a return of the Zamorin’s powers from the Mysore Sultans, namely Tippu.

Shamnath, later during the1790 period gets involved with handing over Velu Tampi Dalawa’s (Dewan of Travancore) appeals to the British. The Zamorin had returned from Travancore learning that it could be wise to channel all trade through himself, like the Varma’s of Travancore did successfully against the Dutch. There is also a record of Shamnath’s arguments with trader Choucara Moosa at Tellichery where he gets snubbed (and threatened) and lodges a complaint with the EIC. Moosa had apparently agreed to supply twenty Candys of Cardamom to the EIC (in addition to the usual timber), but failed to do so though maintaining amicable terms with the company.

Then he appears on 18th August 1792 during the agreement discussions between WG Farmer & Manavikrama Raja, the Zamorin. In the legal agreement his name is stated as Shamnath (The Zamorin yielded only after 2-3 months of negotiations and after Shamnath convinced him finally to do it). In books, he is referred to as Sarvad Karridar (Karyakkaran or Karyasthan) or principal minister. In this agreement Shamnath on behalf of the Zamorin cedes the administration of part of Malabar (the Kolathiris’ the Bibi of Cannanore etc had done likewise but much earlier in 1790, for their part of the territories) to the British (Note that Tippu’s hold on Malabar were broadly ceded to the British after his defeat & death, but this agreement was the legal transfer of administration).

Shamnath is then authorized as an agent by the EIC to collect pepper on behalf of the company. The Zamorin fires Shamnath who withheld pepper revenue for himself (page 488 MM – Page & Boddam sent to enquire into this matter, also confirmed by John Agnew in his report), and he is now jobless. By 1793, Shamnath had become an administrator of the East India Company, formally changing sides. Shamnath also at this stage managed to negotiate away from the Zamorin the very lucrative revenue from export & customs duties for the port of Calicut. For his esteemed services he was paid one percent of the Zamorin’s land revenue collections!! However all this manipulation meant that the Zamorin eventually lost all control of the trade revenues, the minister profited and the EIC continued business with individual suppliers as before.

This last step infuriated the upstarts in the Padinjare Kovilakom who had by then seen through the ruse. Shamnath had promised the family that he would get the land in Nedunganad (Palghat) restored to the Kovilakom and the trade ties tightened. Instead he had given away the only remaining revenue of the Zamorins, that too while working as a legal attorney of the Zamorin.

According to PCM Raja, as enumerated in his book ‘Samuthirimaar’, all the agreements were made to the benefit of the English due to the cunning manipulations of Shamnath. Between 1795 and 1797, the feeble and old Zamorin had hardly any powers left. Shamnath assisted the English in taking over all the family property and lands. The grand Maharajah had thus been systematically reduced to the role of a common citizen.

The young upstarts in the Zamorin family had in the meantime been collaborating with Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma in the first organized revolt against the English. Shamnath started to get nervous. He requested his new masters for support and protection. Accordingly Ravivarma was formally warned by Stevenson and this enraged both the uncle and nephew of the Zamorin family.

Roughly a year later, the nephews of the Zamorin decide to cork the hole in the leaky boat by planning an assassination of Shamnath for his treachery after luring him to the ancestral Zamorin house or the Mankavu Padinjare kovilakom. One can imagine the extreme state of agitation in their minds, for a Nair to harm a Brahmin in those days was unthinkable. The Kovilakom itself is a huge courtyard with the Bhagavathy temple in the middle and the men’s quarters on the left and the Women’s lodge on the right. Between the temple and the women’s quarters is the Thampuran’s dwelling. Behind the temple is located the Ayappan Kavu and the Kalari where martial arts are practiced.

Swaminatha Pattar was lured to the temple and stabbed by the young Ravivarma Unni Nambi and his uncle Ravivarma. Shamnath does not die though and the Ravi Varma’s flee to the Wayanad hills. The Rani or Amma Thamburatti is deeply troubled by the terrible act committed on a Brahmin and orders that a special puja be conducted. Accordingly a Brahmarakshassu is installed between the Ayyappan temple and the Kalari at the Kovialkom.

The young upstarts take to the hills. They are joined there by Unni Moota Mooppan, some Coimbatore Gownders, Kunhi Achan from Palakkd etc. Capt Burchall pursues them through the Anamalai’s in Waynad, but they escape to Travancore. The East India Company offers a reward of Rs 5000/- for their capture.

Later on the RaviVarma’s join Pazhassi raja in the second organized revolt against the British. However Ravivarma who had been injured earlier succumbed to the infection. The nephew Ravi Varma was later captured and he commits suicide in the temporary jail.

The Ravi Varma’s started the revolt against the British, joined and spearheaded later by the Pazhassi raja. This was the first but unheralded revolt against the British, not the well known Rani Jhansi revolt as stated in history books. However, one must admit that it was a revolt against the EIC, not the British.

If you read the other contemporary books written on Malabar history, you will find that Brahmins had unfettered access across individual domains & territories of Malabar and had access to nobility. For that reason they were the spies, the go betweens and negotiators in many cases. Secondly they were well lettered, not only in Sanskrit, but also in other languages over time. Loren Howard Michael (Land Control in Indian History: A Case Study of Malabar, 1766-1835) sums it as follows – Men like Shamnath Pattar and a variety of other Brahmins were actually double agents working for the Zamorin at first and then for the British.

However on this general implication I must disagree, for there were many wonderful bureaucrats and administrators amongst the Brahmin’s from historic times and also after the advent of government in India. They were by and far hard working and honest, guided very much by their stringent religious principles. TN Sheshan, the famous Palakkad Iyer who was the home secretary and the election commissioner, once stated rightly, though in jest, ‘Palakkad has always produced the best bureaucrats and cooks’.

Shamnath the Brahmin from Chatapuram (Kalpathy) Palakkad had a proper Indian name, which by the way was Swaminatha Iyer. More details of his life are unfortunately not available.

A survey of Kerala History – A Sreedhara Menon Page 259
Samoothirimaar PCM Raja – Pages 150-160
Malabar Manual – Logan – Pages 495-500
A collection of treaties – Logan Page 201
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Ayyar Pages 234-250
India and the Indian Ocean world – Ashin Das Gupta - Pages 128-131


  1. CKMadhusudan

    You have introduced an interesting personality whose role in Malabar history needs more research. On reading your article, I felt that Shamnath must have been the C.P. of Malabar, though not well-known. We know that the bureaucrats wield power in proxy. So they play a very important role in history. Most of them are scorned, in one way or other and history has a list of them. The successful of them would not go beyond the demarcated perilous frontier. The much hyped Sheshan was also scorned, the moment he entered politics.
    In Para 5, the place where the Zamorin took refuge is shown as Mysore. That seems to be a mistake.

  1. Maddy

    Thanks CKM. The word Mysore was an error. I have corrected it to Travancore.

    Shamnath was Sir CP's equivalent in Calicut except for the 'other' lurid aspects. Actually Shamnath was a close & faithful ally of the Zamorin till the wind changed direction. Then survival instincts or greed took over.

  1. Vijay

    Indian history is sadly replete with instances of those who shifted allegiances as the winds of fortune dictated. From Mir Jaffer at Plassey in 1757, to Mirza Ilahe Baksh and Brigade Major Gauri Shankar during the siege of Delhi in 1857, up to the "unknown mole" in Mrs. Gandhi's cabinet during the 1971 Bangaldesh war who gave the US almost real-time updates on decisions, things have not changed. Is it a fundamental trait of character or is it because of the need for a "baking in" of a national consciouness (spanning centuries mind you)? Interesting to ponder....

  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Thanks for the details on Shamnath. Ever since I came across this name long ago, I had been intrigued by the fellow's origin. I thought from the name (and his deeds!) that he could have been a Kashmiri Pandit. But you tell me he was after all a Kalpathi swami. Like many unnown figures in Calicut history (such as Robert Adams, Murdoch Brown, Issac Surgun and Haji Yusuf - the last two a Jew and a Moplah traders) Sham Nath also deserves to be researched.
    Incidentally, long before Ravi Varma, the people of Attingal had revolted against the EIC in 1721!

  1. Sunil Mannadiar

    Hi Maddy, I am Sunil from Mumbai. I am into writting a book regarding Mannadiar Community (the Chola Immigrants) from Kaveri. I am bit confused as to the existing Nair Mannadiars, Mannadiars and other related ethich goups in Palakkad viz. Muthan, Tharakan etc. Would be of great use if you could thorw some light on the inter connectivity of thse groups and any other useful details or statistics available with you. Wwiting for your reply. Thanks. My mail id is

  1. Maddy

    thanks sunil
    have you checked the thurston book on castes?
    I have not yet got to a study of mannadiars, will do it soon

  1. Sunil Mannadiar

    Sorry to hit this space too late, infact after 4 years....Yes Maddy, got some inputs from Thurston and also from Zamorin's of calicut. Writing work is progressing gradually... Sunil