Abhirami’s tale

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The Ilaya Thampi’s and Marthanda Varma– Part 1

I was led to this topic some months ago when Calicut heritage forum posted an interesting article on the Black hole of Attingal . In the discussions that ensued, there was some talk about the Ettuvettil Pillamar after which I read more about it at Sharat Sundar’s interesting blog and perused the comments therein. Were the eight baronial Pillamar just part of a legend created by CV Raman Pillai or did they really exist before being exterminated by the Yuvaraja during his powerful rule? The story was interesting and somewhat difficult to factualize, but still like with the Keralolpatti, one could after digging deep into some sources get a glimmer of a fact or two.

This will form the first part of a three part article covering the role of the Pillamar and Marthanda Varma (who actually connects up to the Malabar Kolattiri lineage through his mother from and his father from the Kilimanoor Kovialkom) and how perhaps a North Indian or Tanjavur lady came into play, for she was the cause of it all. The final part will cover the tale of VMV’s friend Ramayyan who became a Dalawa.

But first some background on Venad (Vel-nad) and the South eastern area of Nancinad in those days, to lend a proper perspective and here I take the help of narrative by KV Krishna Iyer, referring to his History of Kerala covering the so called Venatiri’s (whom he couples with Kolatiri’s as birds of the same feather). The days of the last part of the 17th century and the early parts of the 18th were beset by all kinds of feuds related to succession, Vanad – Madurai rivalry, temple related demands, settlement of dues, embezzlement and so on. For a period the famous Umayamma Rani brought order to the region, but with her passing in the early part of the 18th century, the problem from the past began to reassert themselves and the feudal barons started to get belligerent. Marthanada Varma as it turned out, was the rani’s grandson, even though by adoption and in the end proved to be efficient, ruthless and was able to tighten the reins of the Trippappur swaroopam at Trivuvitamkode (Trivandrum).

In 1697, Mangammal Rani of Madurai sent an expedition to Travancore to punish its ruler, Ravi Varma, who had attacked and destroyed an army sent from Madurai to Travancore to collect an overdue annual tribute. Defeated in this Nayak raid the king was compelled to submit and remit taxes and in order to do that he subjected Najinad to heavy taxes with more than an iron hand. The subjects were not too happy, nor were their village and Desam heads and a sort of anarchy prevailed. To subdue them this king used mercenaries and armies as well as support from Madurai and much of this activity was spearheaded and / or supported by his nephew, the young lad in his late teens (born 1705-1706), Marthanda Varma. Around this period the1721 Attingal revolt took place against the English, a story which CHF had written about, and this resulted in the English factory getting a monopoly on pepper and giving a secret promise to support Marthanda Varma in his future endeavors.

In 1726, Rama Varma who succeeded Ravi Varma, offered his allegiance to the Nayak of Madurai and requested his help in subduing the anarchy that prevailed. Various mercenaries and English support were drummed up, including English weapons and a battle was fought with the rebelling Pillamar. The situation went on in an unsatisfactory manner until the king Rama Varma passed away in 1729. As matriarchal tradition decreed, the young Marthanda Varma who had all the qualities required to rule the region with an iron hand was to take over from his uncle. But a problem cropped up, when two of his cousins claimed the throne under the earlier patriarchal succession system (which had been followed in Venad through the end of the 13th century - the matriarchal system came into being later). They were the two sons (Ilaya thampis) of Rama Varma, named Raman (Valiya Thampi a.k.a Padmanabhan or Pappu Thami) and Adityan (Kunju) Tampi.

Those who have read the CV Raman Pilla’s novel would recognize the brothers mainly from the drug infused villainous character of Padmanabhan Thampi, but who were they and how did they come to the fore? For that you gave to look at the family of Rama Varma, especially Abhirami and her brother Kochukumaran Pilla. As we know from many other cases, the identities of these people have been shrouded in derogatory legends especially when they have been on the losing side. Writers supporting the winner usually cast them off quickly in their accounts or make negative remarks about them while hovering long around the incumbent’s glory. Such is the case of these two people. To bring them and their characters out to light proved to be quite difficult, but let me present to you what I obtained.

Christopher Buyers supported by a few of his Travancore contributor’s record the following in his website on Indian rulers. 
He introduces Abhirami as the consort of King Rama Varma and lists her three children in the following words

Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Abiramapilla Kochamma, née Abhirami, a former devadasi or temple dancer ennobled just prior to her marriage, daughter (I think sister) of Krishnan Kochu Kumara Pillai, a Bengali or Tamil gentleman from outside Travancore. He (I think the smallpox death relates to Rama Varma) died from smallpox, at Kalkulam, 30th August 1729, having had issue, two sons and a daughter:
1) Sri Padmanabhan Tampi [Pappu Tampi] [Valiya Tampi] [Raman Raman]. Conspired with his brother and the eight Nair chiefs to oust the Heir Apparent and later Maharaja Martanda Varma. He was killed by his uncle, Maharaja Martanda Varma at the Kalkulam Palace, 28th October 1730.
2) Sri Raman Tampi [Kunju Tampi] [Raman Adichen]. Conspired with his elder brother and the eight Nair chiefs to oust the Heir Apparent and later Maharaja Martanda Varma. He was killed by his uncle, Maharaja Martanda Varma at the Kalkulam Palace, 28th October 1730.
3) Kittinathal Ammaveetil Srimathi Ummini Thankachi [Kochumadathamma]. Courted by Martanda Varma, but her refusal of him, providing the stem cause of enmity between Martanda and her brothers. She died (by suicide) after the death of her brothers, at Padmanabhapuram Palace, 28th October 1730.

The story concerning the two sons of Rama Varma, is covered in the ballad called Tampi Katha (another ballad called Tampunarkata covers the same story with slight differences) and I will get to the details shortly. Manu writing at inorite adds that Tampimar Katai mentions that Abhirami and her brother were given titles and estates and she was called “Kittanathil Ammachi”

Another version comes to light from S Sundars blog, where Abhiramai turns out to have a royal link - Rama Varma was married to a Rajput Princess Abhirami of the Kosala Royal House (present day Ayodhya). He had two sons (Sri Padmanabhan Thampi and Sri Raman Thampi) and one daughter. The princess held the Royal title of Vempadi Valiammachi. Princess Abhirami had problems in her horoscope and therefore the Royal astrologers of Ayodhya sent her on a pilgrimage for 14 years to various holy places. A number of her relatives and bodyguards accompanied her during her journey. King Rama Varma met her in Suchindram and married her. He promised the Royal family of Kosala that Abhirami's children would succeed the throne, although as per the Travancore custom, it was Prince Marthanda Varma (Rama Varma's nephew), who held the right to succeed him.

Sharat in his blog on Travancore  ( One and Two ) states that the late Krishna Singh (of Rajput extract himself) told him the tale of Princess Sandhya (a.k.a Abhirami) and pointed out her Rajput lineage. As the story goes, Sandhya left Ayodya and travelled southwards to end up at Suchindram. Raja Rama Varma hears her singing there, and proposes to her. In my mind the Rajput connection seemed a little tenuous, but before we decide let us look at a few semi historical resources, as well as the conclusions made by Prof Ibrahim Kunju in his study of Marthanda Varma.

In the Sri Marthanda Mahatmyam by an anonymous author, a contemporary, it is said that an astrologer had predicted the rise of Marthanda Varma and that even in his childhood, Pappu Thampi had attempted to murder him. This cause for the feud which ensued for the rest of their lives can perhaps be quickly dismissed as both children were of the same age.

We start by referring to Manickavasagom Pillai’s paper based on the Thampimaar Kathai by R Natarajan and P Sarveswaran- Accordingly, Rama Varma sees a dancing girl during the car festival at Suchindram. While Pillai agrees that the poem mentions her native place as Ayodhya, he goes by other accounts which mention her hometown as Tanjore. Abhirami bore three children, Pappu, Raman and Mani and the king had promised her that one of her sons would be the future king. Right from childhood, the two tampis were not on friendly terms with Marthanda Varma. As they grew up, Martanda fell in love with their sister. The feud continues on, more ferociously after Varma takes over the throne and eventually the two brothers are killed by him or upon his instructions. The girl commits suicide and becomes a yakshi.

The Travancore Matilakom records which I have not seen, apparently remain silent and pass off the entire account in just one cryptic sentence according to Ibrahim Kunju. It is concluded by him that the poem is perhaps right because the records were in this instance, suppressing a truth unpleasant to the incumbent royalty. While I will get to the details in the forthcoming article on the feud that followed and the pillamar, let us stick to Avirami for now.

Abhirami would certainly have demanded patrilineal inheritance, in line with the custom in her native N Indian lands. But then again was she a Rajput? Or was she a Tamil noble, a Tamil devadasi or a Bengali lady, perhaps a singer or dancer at Suchindram?

To continue with the analysis, one has to check out the work published later named ‘Vasulakshmi Kalyanam’ detailing the marriage of King Rama Varma with a Rajput princess called Sandhya. When you analyze the dateline, you will find that this Rama Varma was not the predecessor, but the successor of Marthanda Varma.

There are two versions, the first by a poet Sadasiva and the second by a later author named Venkata.
Sadasiva’s version goes thus - The king of distant Sindhu had a daughter named Vasulakshmi and had set his heart on marrying her to the king of Travancore, Ramavarma-Kulasekhara, whose accomplishments were much noised abroad. But the queen who had another bridegroom in view in the person of her nephew, the prince of Simhala, started her daughter on a voyage ostensibly with the intention of visiting a famous temple while the proposed destination was in reality Ceylon. Providence however upset the queen’s calculations and the royal barge was stranded on that part of the Travancore shore which was in the jurisdiction of the frontier-captain (antardurya pala) Vasumadraja, the brother of the Travancore kings consort Vasumati. The shipwrecked princess was then sent by this captain to his sister at the capital where her beauty at once captivated the pliable heart of king Ramavarman, the hero of the drama.  The usual love intrigue culminates in a ‘clandestine’ meeting of the lover’s in the palace garden and the jealous senior rani then attempts to dispose her rival by marriage to her cousin, the Pandya king.  But this scheme is frustrated by the king and his accomplice, the inevitable Vidushaka, who in the disguise of the Pandya king and his friend receive the bride. In the meantime, the Sindhu raja learns of the whereabouts of his missing daughter through Nitisagara, the Travancore minister, and coming to Travancore with a large escort confirms the betrothal of king Ramavarman with Vasulakshmi, which happily coincides with his own inclinations.

Vasulakshmi Kalyanam is also the subject of a play by Venkata Subramanya, a descendant of Appayya Dikshit. This work also deals with the same marriage of his patron king Rama Varma of Travancore (1758-1798) with Vasulakshmi, the Sindhu princess, but for securing a political alliance. Let us take a look at that, quoting from Travancore Archeological series I. Venkata’s version is pretty much the same as Sadasiva’s. However it clarifies that the alliance was for diplomatic reasons, calculated to raise his status to Sarvabhauma (emperor), in order to obtain a better relationship with the Hunaraja (East India Company or perhaps the Dutch?)

The minister Buddhisagara who has seen the portrait of Vasulakshmi, the princess, is anxious that the king of Travancore should marry her, so that the latter's political influence may extend northwards and his friendship with the Hunaraja may also be strengthened. When news is received that the Sindhu princes is voyaging to Ceylon, the minister manages to waylay this ship in the Travancore waters with the active cooperation of the Huna fleet, and Vasuman, the officer in command of the sea-coast- who was also the brother of the Travancore king’s consort, sends the captive-princess to the royal Palace. There the king falls in love with her and manages to meet her in the royal pleasure gardens to the intense chagrin of Vasumati who tries to marry her rival to the Chera prince Vasuvarman and thus remove the unwelcome competitor out of the way. This plot fails, as in the other drama, by the counter machinations of the king and his Vidushaka who successfully personate the Chera prince and his boon-companion. By the artful scheming of the minister coupled with the influence of her brother, Vasumati is however, finally won over to consent to the marriage of Vasulakshmi with her own husband and the Sindhu prince Vasurasi, instructed by Buddhisagara comes posthaste from his country to celebrate his sister's marriage with the Travancore king. By this alliance, it is stated, the friendship of both the parties with the Hunaraja was strengthened and the influence of the Travancore was visibly enhanced.

Let us study this second King Rama Varma and his consorts in order to check if he indeed married a Sindhu princess. Buyer’s page states - m. (first) a lady from the Arumana House. m. (second) Vadasseri Ammachi Panapilla Srimathi Kali Amma Nagamani Amma. m. (third) a lady from the Nagercoil House. m. (fourth) a lady from the Thiruvattar House. You see no mention of a Vasulakshmi from Sindh.

So, I might not be wrong in concluding that the Sindhu (place or name) angle came about from the successor of Marthanda Varma and not the predecessor. Nevertheless, we should take note that the former supposedly married a princess from Ayodhya according to the Thampimar kathai. The only links are Krishna Singh’s testimony and the presence of the Meenachil village near Palai in Kottayam.

The Meenachil Karthas were supposedly Rajputs belonging to royal lineage who migrated to Madurai in the 14th century. As is said, they later migrated to Kerala and settled in "Meenachil" near Palai. Their capital was named Mevada (after Mewar). Perhaps Abhirami was from this village, but it is just a guess. (See inorite blogs one and two)

According to Krishna Singh, the Rajput relatives and attendants of Princess Abhirami initially settled down near Nagarcoil. After the revolt by the Kunju Thampis, the surviving Rajputs were brought to Trivandrum. Many of them were recruited into the Travancore Armed Forces, mainly in the cavalry division. Although their population was quite significant during the 18th century, this declined and many were assimilated into the Royal Nair clans of Travancore.

After ascending to the throne, King Rama Varma apportioned the southern portion of Venad (Northern portion was governed by the Attingal Rani) into three parts. The areas surrounding Kalkulam and Nagercoil palaces were given to his two sons - Pappu and Raman Tampi (Ilaya Thampi’s) and the Neyyattinkara area was given to his nephew Marthanda Varma.
Now that we have looked at it from a few angles, there is only one left, that pertaining to the legend of the girl Marthanda Varma was besotted with, i.e. the sister of the two thampi’s and the daughter of Abirami. As one account goes, when the Thampis rose against their cousin for the throne with the support of the eight lords, Marthanda Varma imprisoned their mother and sister, Ummini Thanka, in the Nagercoil palace. As the Thampis were rallying troops around themselves, Abhirami died and Ummini Thanka zealously guarded her body for five days. The story of this wronged and vengeful Ummini Thanka or Kochu Manithanka has a continued presence in popular memory.

As we continue to search for clues, we come across yet another story, this one being the story of the Kochu Manithankai recounted by Ramesan Nair. The few additional additions to the legend can be seen below.
He describes the Kalkulam (Padmanabhapuram) palace, the Charottu palace, the tunnel between them, and of the previously narrated meeting between the king and Abhirami at Suchindram. Howver he goes on to explain that he started living with her at the Nagercoil palace. The locals not happy with the  confinement, request the king to legalize the union, which he does and promises the new queen as well as the locals that one of her sons would be king. He then moves her to his Iraniyal palace and renames her as Krishnathalamma. When Pappu was 20 years old, Rama Varma died of Small pox following which Marthanda Varma took the throne after promising the dying king that he would take care of them. Abhirami and her children then move to the Charottu palace. The king then gets besotted with the sister Thanka and his feeling is soon reciprocated. But then the quarrels with her brothers intensified and resulted in their deaths, and soon Thanka in painful retaliation commits suicide in front of M Varma by stabbing herself with a dagger (in other stories she pulled her tongue out and died). She then wanders around for a few years as a Yakshi till she is finally consecrated in a small shrine at Chembakavalli near Melankode (hence the name Melankode Yakshi).

So Abhirami was erased from the annals of history by the Marthanda Varma factions though she remains in the minds of the people of Venad, as a mysterious wronged mother, who lost all her children to the violent retaliation of the new Yuvaraja. Perhaps she was indeed a princess from an area between Kutch and Sindh or Ayodhya, and was later degraded to a Devadasi in the legends to legitimize the actions of Marthanda Varma. Perhaps she was a person from the village of Meenachil who went to pray at Suchindram when the king met her, or even a Tamil dancer from Madurai, but in almost all tales, she was the wronged one.

As the analyst in the TAR 1 states, the stories in Vasulakshmi kalyanam do not connect up with any real people expect for the king Rama Varma. As was a practice in those days, this kind of poetry pleasing the king and connecting him up to imaginary stories was common. Maybe there was no fact behind Thambi katha as well, though Ibrahim Kunju does not believe so. In fact there are even opinions that Varma was originally married to Ummithanka, and that she killed herself after her husband killed her own brothers. But the legend still lives on, and Marthanda Varma remained celibate for the rest of her life, finding solace and friendship with his man Friday and friend Ramayyah, about whom we will talk about in the concluding article.
In the next article we cover the scheming between Marthanda Varma, the madampis and the pillamar, the death of the thampis and the settlement of VMV on the throne. We will not cover the rule of Marthanda Varma, for that is well documented and it suffices to conclude that his rule took Travancore to new heights, the size of his empire multiplied and finally the king in a surprising and magnanimous act laid all his gains at the feet of Lord Padmanabha.

Rise of Travancore: a study of the life and times of Marthanda Varma / A. P. Ibrahim Kunju.
Travancore at the accession of Marthanda Varma – ME Manickavasagom Pillai
Eighteenth century India: papers in honor of Prof. A.P. Ibrahim Kunju
History of Kerala – KV Krishna Iyer
Travancore Archeological series Part 1
Venad Yakshigal – K Ramesan Nair
Travancore state manual- Nagam Aiya
History of Travancore. P. Shungoony Menon
Marthanda Varma – CV Raman Pillay

Photos – Painting covering all the named people thanks to Debpratim De


  1. Anuradha Warrier

    Fascinating, Maddy. Thank you for sending me the link. I have tried for years to delve into the history of Kerala, but there are so few written accounts, and much that canot be corroborated. Looking forward to reading the rest of this article.

  1. Maddy

    thanks anuradha..
    Actually there are quite a few (but varying) accounts and books on Kerala history and a number of historians are coming up with new hypotheses...you can get a fair idea of Malabar from this blog..give it a try..

  1. Gauri Pillai

    Hi Maddy,
    Thanx a lot for this. i am glad that u have chosen to write about Marthanda Varma & events related to him.
    It is really sad that most of our history is shrouded in legend. When it comes to MVarma it is all the more complicated.
    Even i feel the Rajput angle is a little strange( i am no expert). The society in those days were very forward. Even if Abhirami indeed was a Devadasi, i don't think it would have appeared scandalous or anything to the people/MVarma himself. Bcoz as we know Maharaja Swati Thirunal married one,Sugandhavalli/Sugandhaparvathy. Besides i read many accounts which pointed towards the relationship btw MVarma & UmminiThanka. I don't know during which era the status of Devadasis got degraded. In one of the books of Princess Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, i read that Devadasis weren't always considered prostitutes/courtesans but artists devoted to a particular temple.
    I also read about the presence of a carving of Melankode Yakshi in Sree Padmanbhaswami Temple!!! The Temple construction was started by Maharaja MVarma &completed during the reign of Maharaja Rama Varma Dharma Raja. So did ummini thanka really turned into a Yakshi ? One of the comments related said that during the shooting of movie Manichitrathazhu, the Padmanabhapuram palace officials refused to open a particular set of rooms for the crew as it contained the 'Spirit' of Ummini Thanka(don't know if it is true). So may be Ummini Thanka lived with MVarma at the palace or died there. Well, the frustrating thing is we cannot be sure of any of this. Anyways, as usual a very nice article from u. Looking forward to the next one.
    Take care. Once again thanx for the link.

  1. Maddy

    thanks JK47..
    the ummi thanka angle is something i wanted to work on, but there is hardly any information to go by except a couple of yakshi stories, so i gave up on that
    regarding the devadasi aspect, i will be writing an article on the system as it existed, will let you know when i post it. it is partly clarified in the king and dancer post - had sent the link...

  1. Anonymous

    Dear Maddy,
    I have heard that Abhirami was a Vellala. The Rajput tie is quite improbable and seems to me to have been concocted later on.
    Soheb Vahab

  1. Anonymous

    Dear Maddy,
    I have heard that Abhirami was a Vellala. The Rajput tie is quite improbable and seems to me to have been concocted later on.
    Soheb Vahab

  1. Maddy

    Thanks Soheb Vahab..
    Typically devadasi dancers were vellalas. so that makes some sense...

  1. Kafir-e-ishqam

    Please do check out this link.Apparently Marthanda Varma killed his elder brother who was married to Ummini Thanka!