The Raja in Ravi Varma

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Raja Ravi Varma - The painter’s ancestry and Calicut, a brief study

Some years ago, Calicut Heritage Forum wrote about theinvolvement of Raja Ravi Varma in the Calicut soap factory. CHF stated - Calicut has another legitimate claim on the works of Raja Ravi Varma - but thereby hangs a tale! In 1904, the Viceroy, Lord Curzon conferred on the great artist the title Kaiser-i-Hind on behalf of His Majesty the King Emperor. The citation mentioned the title, 'Raja' for the first time against the name of Ravi Varma. The Maharaja of Travancore, Sri Moolam Thirunal objected to this 'usurpation'. Ravi Varma, however, defended the title by claiming that his ancestors belonged to the royal family of Beypore, near Calicut.

Anyhow, he continued to use the title 'Raja', since then and both the grand daughters of Raja Ravi Varma were later adopted by the Travancore palace with one of them becoming the mother of the next Maharaja, Chitira Thirunal Balarama Varma!

Ravi Varma, also a businessman knew that the title of Raja would help him when hobnobbing the gentry in North India and Europe, as well as his eventual patron the Gaekwads of Baroda and he found a way to get that with some amount of legitimacy. Let’s first try to figure out how he defended the claim. He told the detractors that his ancestors of the Beypore house of Malabar had the title of Raja, and if that were not sufficient, he could adopt part of his uncle’s (who was also his traveling partner and secretary) name which was Raja Raja Varma.

Ravi Varma actually has yet another interesting relation to the environs around Calicut, that of stopping by in 1870 to execute his first paid commission at Chalappuram, a place I grew up in - the portrait of Sub Judge KP Krishna Menon’s family (a not so flattering piece according to art critics - pictured here), the father in law of Congressman Sir C Sankaran Nair. But that was not the discussion, let us get back to the ancestry of Ravi Varma and for that you to have get a working knowledge of the ancient area called Parappanad and the Parappanad kovilakoms.

The Keralolpatti mentions the seventeen nadu’s and lists them as Tulunad, Kolattunad, Polanad, Kurumbranad, Puravalinad, Eranad, Parappanad, Valluvanad, Ravananad, Vettattunad, Tirumanasserinad, Perumpatappunad, Neduganad, Venganad. In the writings of the Portuguese and Dutch the kovilakoms are called Pappukoil and Repoecoil, in other words, Parppucoil ruling over Beypore and Pappucoil ruling over Parapanangady.  Parapannangadi was termed at times as Purparangari in English accounts. 

Nerumkaitakkotta, near Kadalundi, is incidentally, the ancestral abode of the Parappanad Raja and their family deity (called Paradevata) was the deity of this temple. Another interesting fact is that the Mahadeva Kovil temple of Beypore, south of Calicut, in both design and construction is said to be a copy of a double-roofed Nepalese temple. The various references below point to the connections between the Kolathu Swarupam and the Venad families at Kilimanoor and Anathapuram and their main points of connection from the Parappanad Kovilakom.

In 1425 or thereabout, the areas below, divided broadly into Northern Parappanad (Beypore kingdom) and Southern Parappanad (Parappur Swarupam). Northern Parappanad (Beypore kingdom or Karippa Kovilakam) included Panniyankara, Beypore and Cheruvannur of Kozhikkode Taluk. Southern Parappanad included parts of Tirur Taluk and the town Parappanangadi. Parappanad Kingdom went on to become dependents of the Zamorins of Calicut. During the Portuguese conflicts the Parappanad raja’s nairs fought for the Zamorin. In fact when the Portuguese fort at Chaliyam was captured by the Zamorin, it was turned over to the Parappanad Raja. But during Tipu’s charge, the reigning Raja was forcibly converted by Tipu and circumcised. In the middle of 18th century, the royal families of these kingdoms found refuge Travancore during to the invasion of the Mysore Sultans. The Haripad family in the Travancore region, to which the famous scholar and poet Kerala Varma Valia Koil Tampuran belonged, was originally set up by the members of the Parappanad family who migrated there. The palace remnants were as I understand, located in the Naduva desom of Parappanangadi village.

Ravi Varma the painter, actually claimed lineage to the Tattari Kovilakom of Parappanad. Now I had mentioned the Zamorin’s vassals at Parappanad while talking about the Sha-mi-ti mystery some months ago. So before the Zamorin acquired suzerainty of the Beypore and Parappanagadi region, who were the regional feudal lords or Thampurans? Originally there was just the Parappanad Raja, and later there came into existence two main branches of this family, one settled at Beypore near Calicut and another at Parappanadu near Tirur (the present Parappanangadi). As the Gazetteers explain, the Beypore amsam itself had four Kovilakams called - Manayatt kovilakam, Nediyal kovilakom, Puthiya kovilakom and the Panangat kovilakom belonging to the family of the Beypore branch of the Parappanad family. So we have North and South Parappanad factions to start with, branching off the Parappur lordship. The North faction was further split into Beypore, Cheruvannor and Panniyankara Kovilakoms. Considering that Ravi Varma and his brother mentioned Beypore and the specific Manayyat location, let us for a moment assume he hailed from the forerunners of the present Manayyat kovilakom.

The Manayam rajas were from the erstwhile Thattari or Tattari kovilakom which was deserted when Tipu Sultan and his not so merry crew were making hay while the sun set and shone. We also note from historic renderings that the Parappanad branch known also as Aliyakot line was attacked by Hyder Ali during his invasion of Malabar in the latter half of the 18th century and Kunjikkutty Tampuratti, a female member of the branch, fled from Malabar to Travancore. Keralavarma Valiya Koyil Tampuran, or Kerala-Kalidasa as he is popularly known because of his translating the Sakuntala into Malayalam, belonged to the Parappanad royal family, and was born in Lakshmipuram palace at Carinanasseri. The famous Pazhassi Raja a member of the western branch of the Kottayam royal clan is also connected to the Parappanad Kovilakom and his lineage can be traced back to the Parappanad dynasty.

Raja Raja Varma in his diary states - Near this ‘Beypore’ Kovilakam or house is a temple of Vettakaruman or the Hunter God which it is said and acknowledged by its present owners, the Manayam Rajahs, once belonged to us of the Tattari Kovilakam house, by which our family was known.Based on all the above, I would assume that the original Parappanad rajas named their home the Tattari Kovilakom. It is from this home, which incidentally is further linked to the Kolathunad Rajas (Kolathiris) that various rulers (such as Marthanda Varma) and consorts as well as adoptees to the Travancore kingdom originated. Of course as we see, the ruling kind usually reserved the right on the name raja and took affront to another cousin using the title while a raja was in power and complained, but then again, Ravi Varma in reality had some self-projection in mind, as we note.Now let us study the relations between the Parappanad Kovilakoms and the Travancore royal family to see where and how Ravi Varma fits in.

TSM Vol 2 Nagam Aiya provides the following inputs - The Koil Tampurans, also known as Koil Pandalas form a small community made up of the descendants of the immigrant Kshatriya families from certain parts of Malabar lying north of Travancore and Cochin. There are now ten such families of Koil Tampurans in Travancore, viz., those of Kilimanur, Changanachery, Anantapuram, Pallam, Chemprol, Gramam, Paliyakkara, Karama and Vadakkematom. Of these, the Kilimanur Koil Tampurans were the earliest settlers in Travancore. It is not known definitely when they immigrated into the country. As already stated in the History chapter, four children, two princes and two Princesses, were adopted into the Royal Family in the reign of Umayamma Rani. These were the children of a Koil Tampuran of Tattari Kovilagam and belonged to the Futiapally (puthupalli) Kovilagam house, a branch of the Kolattunad Royal family. The elder of the two princesses having died soon after, the younger was married to a nephew of the same Koil Tampuran, her father, and as a result of this union Martanda Varma the Great was born in 881 M. e. (1705 A. D.,). Again in the reign of Unni Kerala Varma the elder of the two adopted princes, another lady was adopted and was given in marriage to one Ravi Varma Koil Tampuran, another member of the Tattari Kovilagam family. The issue of this marriage was Rama Varma the Kilavan Rajah who was born in 890m. E. (1723 A. D.) and ruled for 40 years. It was while this prince and his mother the elder Rani were being conveyed to Attingal from Trivandrum, under the escort of the Koil Tampuran that a strong party of the rebels who lay in ambush near Kazhakoottam rushed to attack the Royal party. The brave Koil Tampuran who got scent of the plot contrived to send the Rani and the prince in safety to Attingal, himself staying behind to give fight to the enemy. When the insurgents whose main object was the assassination of the Rani and the Prince found that their foul plot had been frustrated they fought furiously but were entirely routed by the Koil Tampuran and his followers. The success, however, was a dearly bought one, for the hero (the Koil Tampuran) received a deep sword-cut across his abdomen and succumbed to it. This was in the month of December 1727 A. D. (903 M. E.)In recognition of this act of heroism and self-sacrifice the estate of Kilimanur was granted as a free-hold to the descendants of the Koil Tampuran. The grant is enjoyed to this day. It was from this time that Kilimanur became the permanent residence of the Koil Tampurans of that name. All the sovereigns of Travancore from Unni Kerala Varma to Parvathi Bayi (Regent) who ruled for a period of more than one hundred years were the offspring of the Kilimanur Koil Tampurans—a fact of which they are so proud to this day.

Thurston provides additional insight of the relation with the Kolathunad and how successive families migrated to Travancore- The first family of Kolasvarupam Rajas immigrated into Travancore in the fifth century M.E. As the Travancore royal house then stood in need of adoption, arrangements were made through a Koil Tampuran of the Tattari Kovilakam to bring two princesses for adoption from Kolattunad, and the first family of Rajas, known as the Putupalli Kovilakam, settled at Kartikapalli. The family is now extinct, as the last member died in 1033 M.E. The next family that migrated was Cheriyakovilakam between 920 and 930, also invited for purposes of adoption. These latter lived at Aranmula. The third series of migrations were during the invasion of Malabar by Tipu Sultan in 964 M.E., when all the Rajas living at the time went over to Travancore, though, after the disturbance was over, many returned home. The Rajas of the Kolasvarupam began to settle permanently in the country, as they could claim relationship with the reigning sovereigns, and were treated by them with brotherly affection. There were only two branches at the beginning, namely, Pallikovilakam and Udayamangalam.

TSM Vol1 Nagam Aiya also provides this information - The Kilimanur Koil Tampurans are the natives of Parappanad in Malabar. Their northern home is known as "Tattari-kovilakam". The great Martanda Varma Maharajah, the founder of Travancore, and his illustrious nephew Rama Varma, were the issue of the alliance with Kilimanur—a circumstance of which the members of that family always speak with just pride, as the writer himself heard from the lips of one of its senior members, a venerable old gentleman of eighty summers.

To summarize, the lineage of Raja Ravi Varma can be traced to the Tattari Kovilagom of Parappanad. But all male members of such families cannot usually assume the title of Raja, nevertheless Ravi Varma did, like many others do these days. Not much of an issue, though at that time, it was a big matter, considered an affront to the reigning Raja.

Travancore State Manual – Nagam Aiya
Edgar Thurston. Castes and tribes of Southern India (Volume 4)
The Diaries of Raja Raja Varma

Raja Raja Varma Diaries – The Varma’s visit to Calicut (Acknowledged with thanks -Phalke factory)
Monday 12TH Jan 1903- We are the guests of the Raja of Puthya-Kovilakom one of the branches of the Beypure House. We are all relatives though we had separated from each other long long ago. The title of Koil Thampuran is peculiar to Travancore, here we are all Rajas. Beside Puthiya Kovilakom there are three other houses closely related to it, Manayam and Nadial and Panangad. The last house is unoccupied, its members having emigrated and settled in Travancore, Malabar being taken by Tipu. 

Tuesday - We breakfasted at Manayam this morning where there are two male members left now. Near this Kovilakam or house is a temple of Vettakaruman or the Hunter God which it is said and acknowledged by its present owners, the Manayam Rajahs, once belonged to us of the Tattari Kovilakam house, by which our family was known before we settled at Kilimanur in Travancore. We drove to Calicut this evening and are the guests of Ms KC. Shrivirasayan Raja at Chalapuram. 

Wednesday- This morning at 11 we paid a visit to Ms Pinhey the Collector and his wife. Mrs Pinhey is an amateur painter and she showed us many of her paintings and sketches. Some of them were very good indeed. At 4 p.m. Mr T.G. Vargese the Deputy Collector called on us and we requested him to help us in getting on the old accounts in the Huzur office and trace some of our lost property in the Ernand Taluq. He has promised us every help. At 6 p.m. we visited the Cosmopolitan club at the invitation of its members. The secretary of the Calicut Native Society were present to welcome us. We visited next the Putiya Kovilakom and the Railway Station and returned to our lodging.

Thursday - We left Calicut this morning and drove to Nadial where we were to breakfast with our relatives. In the afternoon we started on foot to Nerumkaith Kotta where there is an ancient temple of Sastha, our tutelary deity. The distance is about five or six miles and the way extremely bad. We had to cross two ferries and pass over a rugged hill. We reached the place at sunset. The temple stands on the side of a barren hill and has the appearance from below of a castle with stone walls.

Friday - On the top of the Hill stands another temple dedicated to Bhagavati or Goddess Kali with a solitary mango tree now in bloom to the north west of it. From this point there is a commanding view of the country around and the sea to which the river that winds round the hill empties its waters. When we finally settled at Kilimanur nearly a century and half ago our ancestors took care to build their temples both to Sastha and Kali. It is said that at one period when we all lived in one family we had our palace on the top of this hill near Kali's temple.

Saturday - Early this morning walked two miles to the south west of the temple to the site where our Kovilakam (Tattari) stood before our migration to Travancore. There is no doubt that we owned extensive estates here once, but 'most of them have now passed into other hands. The object of our present visit is to trace and recover the lost property if possible since the settlement is now going on. The greater portion of our property is in the Vallikunnu Amshom.

Sunday - Yesterday was a festive day in the temple of Sastha and at night in the small hours when fireworks [were] being let off a rocket fell on a house close to where we were staying. The house was in flames and we were roused by the screams of the inmates for help. People came for help and put out the fire.We gave the sufferers Rs 10. Left the place.

Monday - We received the arrears of rent from some of our tenants. After breakfast we left Puthiya Kovilakam for Feroke to catch the train. We went in boats. Brother stepped into the sub-registrar's office to register a power of attorney to authorize Purnam Pillay whom we leave behind and another to manage the property in this place.