The European Demon

Posted by Maddy Labels:

The Mystery of the Pooly sahib

Sometimes you come across the strangest things in India. I was reading a book, a fine one at that (through it would be termed dry & academic by many others) called Saints Goddesses and Kings by Susan Bayly and then this snippet popped into the reading frame. It was just a brief mention of the Pooly ghost in Tirunelveli, but I thought it would make a somewhat interesting story, if indeed there was one behind it and so I spent a while researching it.

To get to the bottom of all that you have to go to a village called Illamulli in Suvisheshpuram – near Tirunelveli. Not many people knew it then, not many do even now. But this is back in 1809, a time when the CMS missionaries were still to plan their missionary activities.

Some who have been involved with history would recognize the year, for a major event took place in Travancore, something that would change the course of events our there. The events took place right at the beginning of that year and so I am going to take you, to a place called Aramboli, Aramunny, Arambuli or Arambooly. As I explained some months ago, there were mainly two passes * in the Western Ghats, one was at Palakkad, which I wrote about connecting it to trade.

This story is set to start around the second pass or the Arambooly pass. The Kingdom of Travancore had by then fortified their borders both at the North West and the South East with stone walls, bastions and forts. Eustace De Lannoy was the architect of those defensive plans, and the walls had been proven in resisting Tipu’s advance into Travancore in 1793. About Lannoy, much has to be said and I will get to that topis another day.

Quoting James Mill (History of British India) - The mountains are lofty and covered with jungle, and present in general almost insuperable obstacles to the march of an army with baggage and artillery. The most practicable passes are situated near the southernmost extremity of the chain, where the mountains decline in elevation as they approach the sea; and through one of these, the pass of Arambuli or Aramuni, it was determined on this occasion to force an entrance into Travancore. The Arambuli pass was defended by formidable lines, consisting of a number of small redoubts, each mounting two or three guns, and connected by a strong wall of masonry. The whole extended about two miles along the sides of steep and rugged hills, and terminated at either extremity by a strongly fortified mountain flanked by impenetrable jungle. The high road from Palamkota led through the centre of the works, by a gateway which was commanded by two large circular bastions armed with several pieces of ordnance.

Colonel St. Leger arrived at the foot of the lines on the 6th of February; and, as the division was unequipped with a battering train, determined to attempt to carry the pass by surprise. On the night of the 10th, Major Welsh, with two companies of the 69th, four flank and five battalion companies of the 3rd native infantry, quietly climbed the hill on which the southern works were erected, and, after six hours' arduous ascent, reached the foot of the wall unperceived. The ladders were planted, and the ramparts scaled, before any effective resistance could be opposed; and although a short stand was made, which was attended with some loss of life, the redoubt was quickly in possession of the assailants. As soon as the day broke, the guns of the bastion were turned upon the defences of the pass, which they enfiladed; and, reinforcements being sent to Major Welsh, he was strong enough to attack the rest of the lines, and the whole of the works were speedily cleared of their defenders.

Having thus secured his entrance into Travancore, Colonel St. Leger advanced on the 17th of February into the interior; and dislodged, after a short action, a body of troops strongly posted, with nine guns, on the bank of a river near the village of Nagarkbil. The next march brought the troops to the forts of Udagiri and Papanavaram, which were abandoned: the gates were set open, the garrisons had fled, and ensigns denoting submission were seen flying in every direction. Our loss was Captain Lenn of the Caffres, and Lieutenant Swayne of the 13th Native infantry, wounded, and forty-nine rank and file killed and wounded. After this brilliant affair, which did infinite credit to Colonel M'Leod and the brave fellows under his command, the army encamped, four miles beyond the village of Nagracoile. The country was now completely in the possession of the British: the Nairs disbanded, and retired to their homes; the Dewan, despairing of forgiveness, fled into the thickets; and the Raja, left to himself, hastened to tender his submission, and profess his readiness to conform to any conditions which the Resident should please to dictate.

As we said before, most of the fortifications had been created by a clever French Officer Eustace De Lannoy. The northern Travancore lines were the ones that foiled the attempts of Tipu from marching into Travancore. The British used a rear entry tactic to get into Trivandrum. After the battle was won and various postwar activities commenced at Travancore, the people on the other side of the hill, however experienced a legendary incident involving a wounded white strangler from this war. In the heat of the battle, one British officer was mortally wounded, started across the hills and was picked up by some native Shannars (Shanars or Nadars) of Tinnevelly. His name was Capt Powell or Poole. But one who read the previous paragraphs carefully would say - The only losses were Lenn, Swayne & Cunningham. No deserters or mortally wounded were named. So who was Powell or Poole?

Let us take up the commentary as recorded by RC Cladwell - In the early part of this century, when we had some difficulty with Travancore, and our troops had to storm its " lines " at the Arambooly Pass—the southernmost pass in the Ghauts of India—there was a certain Captain Pole, who was mortally wounded. The poor man appears to have tried to return across country to Madura, to obtain European medical assistance, but died on the way, in the South Tinnevelly Palmyra forest. The simple Shanars of the district were terrified. They opened his scanty " kit" and amongst other things found some brandy and cheroots. What was to be done? His manes, according to their belief, were now abroad in the neighborhood, and must be duly propitiated. A grave was dug under the banyan I have referred to, a hut was hastily erected, the services of a local devil-dancer were procured, and the ghost of the officer was duly worshipped. But he was a white man; what gift would be most pleasing to his soul? The brandy and cheroots! So almost to this present day has continued this extraordinary worship. Alcoholic liquor, in some form or other, and cheroots, have been periodically presented at the grave of Captain Pole, under that spreading tree and before that solitary hut on the sandy waste, in order that the spirit of the departed soldier might refrain from wreaking vengeance on the simple rustics of the neighborhood. Near to this curious shrine are a number of small obelisks. The intention of these is well known. The devil-worshipper believes that the ghost of the dead man or the local he or she devil, as it walks about, never touches the ground with its airy feet, and is therefore always on the move, seeking rest. These obelisks, therefore, please the spirits, who rest on the top of them and watch the dances in their honor, and see, with a grin of infernal satisfaction, the fowls which are being sacrificed to them have their throats cut, and go flapping and tumbling about comically in their death throes!

To commemorate the event a song was created by the devil dancers.

Over time the story and its variations multiplied.

Bishop Caldwell then tried to get to the bottom of the story separately and clarified in detail - I shall here give an exact account of what took place. The circumstances are these. From the rude verses which were sung in connection with this person’s worship, it would appear that he was an English officer, a Captain Pole, or some such name, who was mortally wounded at the taking of the Travancore Lines in 1809. They were carrying him towards a place on the sea-coast of Tinnevelly called Manapar, probably in the hope of seeing him recover, but he died on the way at a place in a dreary range of sand-hills about four miles from the place where I write this. Shortly after his death, the ignorant people in the neighborhood commenced to worship him as a demon. Every demon has offered to him what he is supposed to like best. An ordinary Indian demon would have preferred blood, but the offerings made to this English officer consisted in ardent spirits and cigars! I found this worship in full vigour when I arrived in these parts more than forty years ago, but it has long since passed away and been forgotten. My chief reason for mentioning it here is the unfair use of it which has sometimes been made. An English “globe-trotter,” who afterwards went into Parliament, asserted in Parliament, in the course of a tirade against the English Government in India, that this worship of an English officer as a devil was an illustration of the horror in which the English were held by the natives. The fact is, that the motive of the people of the neighborhood was not horror or dislike of anything they had heard about the poor man, but pity for his melancholy end, dying as he did in a desert, far away from friends, so that it was impossible that his spirit could have rest.

Another version by Monier Williams went thus - The most terrible of all demons are thought to be those created by Europeans. Of course the propitiating process must vary according to the character of the man whose demonized spirit is to be coaxed into good-humor. His tastes and idiosyncrasies during life must be carefully inquired into and judiciously indulged. The story is told of a certain choleric Englishman who was a terror to the inhabitants of a district in the South of India, and whose ghost after his death had to be constantly appeased by offerings of good cooked meat, brandy, soda-water, and cigars placed daily on his tomb. The same was done to secure the continued good-will of a philanthropic sportsman, who when he was alive delivered a large tract of country from the ravages of tigers. You can now see how the story changes character..

The next version by Rev Ragland was even more interesting - I will add another page out of the history of Satan's lyings. Near Suviseshapuram (the town of the gospel) is a lofty red sand-hill, which at the beginning of this century was chosen as the first station for the trigonometers' survey of South India. About a mile or two distant from this station is an inveterately heathen town called Illamulley, abounding with pey-coila or devil-houses, the largest of these, at least the largest of the altars in these, being dedicated to a pey called Pooley Sahib. He is the favourite, i. e. the most dreaded deity of the place, I believe, is hymned in a lengthy poem of some merit, of which the translation of a great part was read to me, and is attempted to be appeased by offerings of mutton, arrack, and cheroots. And whom do you imagine this mysterious personage to be? You will be as much astonished as I was to learn that he is nothing more nor less than the spirit of an English officer, of the name of Pole, or Powell, or some other similar name, metamorphosed by the Hindoos into Pooley, who was killed in 1809, at the taking of the Arambooly lines, and carried back to the station on the hill to be buried. Having met with a violent death, his ghost was supposed to be the cause of all the sicknesses of man and beast in the neighborhood. A man could not get a headache in a walk past the grave, but the Englishman's spirit was taxed as the author of it. The senseless Illamulley-ites at length sent a deputation, invited the spirit to their town, bribing it with the offer of a larger altar than any that had been erected there, promised offerings such as they shrewdly imagined would be most grateful to an English officer's ghost, and provided, I suppose, a native poet to prepare a hymn to be sung on peculiarly solemn occasions. This hymn speaks of Pooley-Sahib, as one of the greatest of heroes, and the conqueror of Madura, Tinnevelly etc., describes the attempts of his wife (a second Andromache) to dissuade him from the fatal fight, speaks of his power since death to inspire men with madness and to slay with a blow or breath whole herds of cattle. But the opening of the hymn is the most remarkable part of the whole. The spirit being Christian, and popery being the only form of Christianity known in this part of India until later years, it commences with an invocation of the Virgin Mary.

I carefully studied the event. In the first skirmish when Col Welsh and the others took the pass, one British officer was killed, his name was Cunningham. With this they overran the pass and continued on. Two more British soldiers died before they reached Trivandrum. They are curiously not named (I believe one was called Capt Syms), very uncharacteristic of the early English in India. One of them could be Powell or Pole, but it so happens that a Lt Powell later participated in the final events that transpired at Trivandrum.

So Pole or Powell, or some such name as Dr Caldwell admits (yes, one check with the war office would have been enough to clear the matter had there been a doubt, but since Caldwell and Thurston and many others, evangelists or not chose to leave the story be, it seems that one of the unnamed dead Englishmen was indeed the Pole or Powell) was buried by the Shannars or Nadars and a small burial stone erected, together with the obelisks in line with their practice. The English did not, I assume mention the desertion or flight of this gentleman or even his existence probably as he was considered a deserter, without perhaps the knowledge that he was mortally injured.

But why did the Shannars accord a dying strangler this honor? Was it the courage of the soldier in the last hours, was it the officer’s pride in facing death that impressed the tribals, sadly, we are not to know.

But anthropologists like Sundar Kaali have an answer after study of the thought process of those ancient times– Studies of tribal rituals indicate that a violent death generates a cult. Violent death transfers power to death deities. This power can be summoned to counteract other elemental forces such as disease, disaster or death!! So it is not just a matter of honoring the dead, but a category transfer that enables contact with them…

Now to imagine how violent that death would be, you have to read my article on the Pazhassi Raja. If Pole had been shot with a Brown Bessie, one ounce musket ball, it would have knocked him flat and you stayed flat with shock, ripped muscles, shattered bones, arteries and nerves, and heavy bleeding. Maybe that was the sight seen by the Shannars who are mostly used to bows and arrows and lance or sword wounds.

According to Sundar Kaali, two stories possibly merged to create this legend, one being the Pooley story otherwise known as the Vellaikaran, and the other the Ittimulli story involving another Englishman called Turaimatan. Turaimatan lost his life fighting against one of the Nayaks, possibly the Veera Pandya Kattabomman during the times of the Khan.

The place where Pole is worshipped is I believe called Pole pettai. A typical description of the propiation ceremenoy is provided in the story A witch’s den by Mme Blavatsky.

But another portrait, amazed my friend a good deal, and put him in a blue funk. The whole district recognized an English officer, a certain Captain Pole, who in his lifetime was as kind a gentleman as ever lived."

"Indeed? But do you mean to say that this strange people worshipped Captain Pole also?"

"Of course they did! Captain Pole was such a worthy man, such an honest officer, that, after his death, he could not help being promoted to the highest rank of Shanar devils. The Pe-Kovil, demon's house, sacred to his memory, stands side by side with the Pe-Kovil Bhadrakali, which was recently conferred on the wife of a certain German missionary, who also was a most charitable lady and so is very dangerous now."

"But what are their ceremonies? Tell us something about their rites."

"Their rites consist chiefly of dancing, singing, and killing sacrificial animals. The Shanars have no castes, and eat all kinds of meat. The crowd assembles about the Pe-Kovil, previously designated by the priest; there is a general beating of drums, and slaughtering of fowls, sheep and goats. When Captain Pole's turn came an ox was killed, as a thoughtful attention to the peculiar tastes of his nation. The priest appeared, covered with bangles, and holding a wand on which tinkled numberless little bells, and wearing garlands of red and white flowers round his neck, and a black mantle, on which were embroidered the ugliest fiends you can imagine. Horns were blown and drums rolled incessantly. And oh, I forgot to tell you there was also a kind of fiddle, the secret of which is known only to the Shanar priesthood. Its bow is ordinary enough, made of bamboo; but it is whispered that the strings are human veins. .... When Captain Pole took possession of the priest's body, the priest leapt high in the air, and then rushed on the ox and killed him. He drank off the hot blood, and then began his dance. But what a fright he was when dancing! You know, I am not superstitious. . . . . Ami? . . ."

Many other white soldiers died in various parts of the Coromandel while fighting the Nayaks, but were not accorded such legends and rites. So those final moments hold the key, which I am unfortunately not able to unlock. So we know not who this English soldier was, if he was an Englishman, Welsh, Scots or Irish or the rest of his melancholy existence, though he lives on in ghostly fashion, after death. But the story proved to be an interesting one and one for a rainy day, which today is and is just right for Ghostly Haloween which is tomorrow.


Contemporary Review – Vol 27
Brahmanism and Hinduism - Sir Monier Monier-Williams
Journal, Volume 1 - Anthropological Society of Bombay
A memoir of the Rev. Thomas Gajetan Ragland - Thomas Thomason Perowne
Military reminscences; extracted from a journal of nearly forty years - James Welsh
The Travancore state manual, Volume 1 - V. Nagam Aiya
A political and general history of the District of Tinnevelly Robert Caldwell
Omens and superstitions of southern India Edgar Thurston
History and the Present - Partha Chatterjee, Anjan Ghosh
Historical records of the XIII Madras infantry Robert Pilkington Jackson
Diary of Colonel Bayly -12th regiment. 1796-1830 - Richard Bayly
From the caves and jungles of Hindostan - Helena Petrovna Blavatsky

*There were actually three passes during that period. One into Coimbatore, called the Chavakkad (near Trichur) or Palakkad pass; the second is the Ariyankol, into Tinnevelly ; the third is the Arambuli. Somewhere in that region is the Thovala Fort; near Aramboly about 10 km from Nagercoil on the Nagercoil-Tirunelveli Highway, the remains of the Eastern Defence Lines of Travancore.

A French Calicut?

Posted by Maddy Labels:

One of the little known and less written about stories of Calicut is set during the period just after the immolation of the Zamorin and the conclusion of the Zamorin era in 1766 during the onset of Hyder’s invasion of Malabar. I will be covering the Zamorin’s death and the story around it soon, but this one comes after the said event and snapped the last thread of hope the family of Zamorins had of holding on to their prestige & territories.

We talked in other articles about the Portuguese, the Dutch and at times the English. This one involves the French Infantry colonel and Governor of Mahe, later theologian Le Comte Du Prat and of the astounding situation where for the first time; a French flag was flown on the flag mast at the Zamorin’s palace in Calicut. Now imagine what would have happened if that situation had taken root, just imagine, we would be eating crepes and croissants, foie gras, duck confit and all that and talking French and I would not have had to trouble my friend Murali to try and get to the gist of what Duprat had to say in his own antiquated French words in his memoir. Just imagine, we would have been swimming in perfume and doffing our noses daintily at the English. But as you all know that did not happen.Let us now get serious and find out what happened.

French in Malabar
We now go to a period around 1774 to Mahe. Now historians would prefer to start with the 1642 when the French East India Company was formed, but actually the French got started around 1668 at Surat to set up a factory under the French flag. Then it was Madras. The French finally came to Malabar, some years after establishing themselves in Pondicherry, and founded a factory at Mahe in 1721, but settled down there by 1725.

Situation in Calicut
By 1764 the complacent Calicut was attacked by Hyder’s troops. Hyder had started out from Mysore via Palghat with his army demanding a tribute and restitution amounting to Rs 12 crores or something like that but the Zamorin had no money to pay that kind of retribution. He tried delay tactics, but when the armies were at his door and he was threatened with bodily injury and starvation tactics were hinted at, he had no option but to give up and committed suicide by immolation in his palace. The Zamorin’s families moved on to Tanur or Kottakkal and Hyder’s people ransacked Calicut with able support from the Moplah populace.

Finally in 1768, the new Zamorin returned to Calicut after agreeing to pay the required annual tribute to Hyder. Peace prevailed for 6 years between 1768 and 1774. The Zamorin in the meantime started the usual quarrels with the Cochin rajah on petty issues, this time over the appointment of a priest at the Trippayar temple. As Krishna Iyer succinctly puts it ‘as though his head and existence of his kingdom depended on it’. Hyder on the other hand was busy with his fights elsewhere, the Marathas and the English. Once that was all done and dusted, and he had come to agreements with the foes, he took notice of the transigence at Calicut and deputed his General Srinivasa Rao through Wynad with an army to occupy Calicut once again and quell any revolt.

Knowing that Hyder the Nawab of Mysore was pally pally with the French, the Zamorin approached the French for help, through the newly appointed Governor of nearby Mahe - Colonel Duprat.

Le Comte Pierre-Antoine Duprat
The French were smarting under the English takeover of Mahe in 1761 and it was in 1764 that they wrested it back. The English had pillaged and destroyed the settlement by then, working in league with the king of Kadathanad. Law de Lauriston the French commander at Pondicherry considered maintaining the small town of Mahe uneconomical, due to the heavy expenses in keeping a garrison and a constant vigil. The Zamorin no longer had absolute power over the region and there were skirmishes all the time, some directed against the garrison. Kottayam, Kurangod, Kolathunad, Chirakkal, Kadathanad and so on continued with their internal issues. Mahe was in their middle. The 3 or 4 forts that the French had, were destroyed by the British in 1761.The question in 1765 was whether to quit Mahe or not. The garrison contained 160 French and 150 sepoys or topasses, which according to Law was a greater ‘citizens to soldier ratio’ than even Pondicherry. But the feeling of trouble hung low like the monsoon clouds, ready to break at any moment. The French were also considering relocation to Colachel in Travancore, upon the Travancore Raja’s invitation. During this period the station head at Mahe was Picot De La Motte. He left briefly in 1773, on a leave of absence and his place was taken up by Duprat.

Duprat was a firm believer in French might and would fight hard to maintain its prestige. Historians say it was an unduly false notion, but as we all know plenty of people with such notions have been there in history and still remain in various countries in and out of power. Many a war as been fought by them due to these notions and visions, all through the the history of time.

Duprat decided to extend the French holdings and influence in Malabar, entirely on his own initiative, with all of his resources (310 soldiers as we saw previously). Very forthrightly he said in his memoirs ‘I have never looked at things except in a great way, I believe a man can do what man has done and many have done great things’. Interesting person, right? What he was to do would put the French directly against the might of the Mysore Sultans and earn their distrust for a very long time indeed. So let us see where Dupart led the French to.

As we saw before, Sreenivasa Rao was on his way to subdue Calicut once again, upon Hyder’s orders, and late in Dec 1773 the Zamorin had established contact with Duprat. The ambitious Duprat decided that this was an opportunity to make the once mighty Zamorin his vassal and annex his forces and influence. Duprat without waiting for formal clearance from Pondicherry agreed to provide military support to the Zamorin against the forces of Hyder bearing down on them through the Wyanad passes. Dupart sailed to Calicut with 100 or so soldiers and 3 cannons, in the frigate Belle Poule.

Duprat in his own words states that he left out for India in 1772 and after stays in the East coast and later Pondicherry, reached Mahe in Nov 1773. His first observation of the people of Malabar is interesting. “I studied it much the character of the Indian They are sweet & shy people easily deceived, though somewhat inconsistent, and are suspicious assets, very ignorant in the art of war”. Interesting fellow, I suppose.

In January 1774, the French flag was apparently hoisted on the Zamorin’s palace and the citadel (what and where was that?) and on the 12th a treaty was signed with the Zamorin where Calicut was placed under the protection of the French and in return the Zamorin granted the French a complete monopoly over trade and the right to build forts wherever they pleased. Well, that was interesting and is indeed a fact. Some day I will provide you the text of that treaty after some translation efforts.

In the meantime, Duprat sent off letters informing Hyder that Calicut was under the French flag and that it would be wise if he called back Rao and his forces. The tone was rude and arrogant. Again, in strident tones he added text to inform Hyder of the might of the French empire backing his actions (which of course was not the case). In fact Duprat’s letter even mentioned that he had come in a French battleship and was expecting two more ships and 4,000 men as reinforcement. He even offered a formal alliance to Hyder with the French nation in return. Hyder of course called the bluff.

Srinivasa Rao reached Calicut with his forces and found the French in control there. It appears that he was a very wise man and so paused for a while at the gates. The vast army of Hyder would have decimated the 100 (or 140) soldiers and 3 cannon of Duprat. Duprat finally encountered lady wisdom after seeing the forces. What happened was this, the Zamorin left Calicut in a hurry and Duprat slunk away to Mahe with his flag and soldiers.

The adventure was rash and the withdrawal was humiliating, and on top of that Hyder was enraged. But Duprat was Duprat. He wrote to Hyder from Mahe saying that he had not retreated in fear and haughtily claimed that it was due to his refined wisdom and that Hyder actually owed the French a lot for all the help they had obtained from the French. Hyder did not forget this for a long time and his distrust of the French was to become even more marked after this episode. It built up later into outright animosity. On one hand, Law was in regular touch with Hyder and on the other hand there was a lower level commander Duprat threatening him. For 5 years Hyder was to maintain a cold relation with Pondicherry due to this act.

Duprat was severely reprimanded in writing in Feb 1774 , but then he would not keep quiet. He was smarting from the ignominy and defeat at Calicut and decided now to flex his arms at the king of Kadathanad. He decided to enforce a monopoly on pepper and refused to allow them to sell it to the English as they had done for years. The revenue which was to be provided indirectly to Hyder was to be diverted to the French. Hyder protested but Duprat in reply instead threatened Srinivasa Rao in Calicut that the French forces would be directed against them with full might, soon. Law finally decided to put an end to this and recalled Duprat to Pondicherry and sent De Rependigny to take charge at Mahe.

Dupart indignantly resigned from the French forces and joined the army of the Nizam in Hyderabad. But fate is what it is, quite quirky as many have noted. Later, Duprat while working for the Nizam, trespassed Mysore territory and was arrested by Hyder’s men. It took much intervention from Law in Pondicherry to get Duprat released. Duprat also quickly completed a short memoir on the events at Mahe, explaining is stand.

Duprat finally returned to France after all his adventures and became a theologian in Paris around 1791 to retire amongst the saints and to writing stuff dealing with theology and the Lord. As for Mahe, Repentigny was also a problem and so Picot De La Motte returned to his old position around 1775 or 76 and kept the matters suitable low key, as they were once before, while Mahe returned to being a sleepy little town with a French twist.

Just imagine, if all had gone in the directions that Monsieur Duprat had wished, Calicut would have been a French Colony and instead of eating chicken biriyani at Sagar we would have been ordering Bouillabaisse or Coq au vin or some such strange stuff like frogs legs sautéed in wine in some French restaurant. Well, thankfully that did not happen, but chefs of French ancestry like Anthony Bourdain travel to Kerala these days, spend days on houseboats drinking Kallu and talk at length (and sometimes cuss in private) on TV about the exquisite cuisine of the Malayali, through their food channels.

The French in India – SP Sen
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna iyer
Voyage Du Comte Duprat Dans L’inde - Duprat