The Ceylon Boat Mail

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Somebody might recall this boat mail from the Ashe murder case, which I had written about, for that was the train Ashe and his wife boarded at Maniyachi, after which they were shot by Vanchi Iyer in June 1911. Maniyachi incidentally was a busy railhead junction, at which incoming passengers from Tinnevelly changed for the Boat Mail Train from Tuticorin. But then again it is no ordinary train and has quite a history. 

Unni Moosa of Elambulassery

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And the Jungle Moplahs of Malabar

Many of you would remember this name from the stories of Pazhassi raja and the blockbuster Mamooty movie where Moosa’s role was taken up by Captain Raju (Sankaradi in an earlier version). He was certainly a colorful character and never really brought to light. As one of the first people who went up in arms against the British taking over Malabar, working with the Padinjare Kovilakom Ravi Varma, I thought he deserved a deeper study. So let us take a look at what he was upto in those turbulent years when the British were making hay in Malabar, consolidating their spoils of war with Tipu and subjugating the people of Malabar under their rule. One must also bear in mind that the situation in those days was certainly turbulent and law and order was particularly lacking in many places after the decimation of feudal order by the marauding Mysore Sultans. Many of the so called anti-British Moplah guerillas of that time, though united against the British carried on (or allowed) activities not condonable at any time, such as kidnapping children for slavery, which the British used to good effect in their propaganda.

The Calicut Song

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Interestingly, in the late medieval times, there used to be a song sung by the lascars of Goa and Malabar. The song was apparently known as the Calicut song. The first time it was documented in English was when Anna, an ayah from Calicut mentioned it to her memsahib in 1860. I will cover Anna’s interesting story in a separate article, but this one is about the song itself.

K V Krishna Ayyar – The doyen of Malabar history

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I will always remember this historian with a bit of fondness, for not only did he kindle my interest in history, but also had a hand in some of our family affairs at Palghat. He was a friend of my great grandfather, who together with JA Thorne got Ayyer started on the history path, Ayyar was a friend of my uncle and my brother talks about his later days in Kudallur and Pallavur, often. I never met him formally, unfortunately, but am now compiling this short article about him after reading all his books and some of his very interesting contributions to other collections. Ayyer later did yeoman service as a lecturer and was later professor of history at the Zamorin’s college (Guruvayurappan College) Calicut. But let us get to the details of his life and works.

Calicut of the 1880’s

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From the reminiscences of an Englishmen….

Let me start by outlining a charming study of Calicut in the 1880’s, extracted from a chapter on Edwin Lester Linden Arnold’s capital two volume book on coffee plantation in South India. Lester was the son of the illustrious Indophile Sir Edwin Arnold, the founder of the Mahabodhi society and author of ‘Light of Asia’. Lester was born in India and after education at Cheltenham in England, first tried his hand at cattle breeding and then came to Cochin to work as an assistant coffee planter (chik-doree) for the Cochin Raja who had acquired a large tract in the hills. It was during this period that he wrote the books about coffee cultivation after spending a year setting up a coffee estate at Nelliyampati or Anamalai hills, after passing through Calicut. Later he went back to Britain after contracting malaria and settled into a career in journalism but later took to writing romance and mystery books as it was a time when Conan Doyle and others were making hay, with those genres.

Like my last article, this obliquely touches the topic of coffee, coffee plantations of Malabar and is set in May 1881, just a few years after Edward Lear had passed through Calicut and made his accounts, a subject which I had written about earlier. 

So here goes.

We are looking at a period when there was famine and rice shortage in Malabar and rice was being delivered from Ceylon. Lester’s ship ‘Africa’ laden with rice passes through Cochin where the waters are infested with crocodiles which the British used for shooting practice. Calicut then from the sea was not much, but just a line of open shanties on the beach, a white lighthouse, and the usual flagstaff, from which the Union Jack flutters gaily. The palm trees hide all the rest of the town, and fringe the coast northward and southward as far as the eye can reach. The author is surprised by the hat palm (toppi kuda) umbrella worn by people, and is told that what was once a great emporia for trade and a source for Calico cloth has gone down sadly in worldly prosperity, and is now nothing but a police station and the residence of some European coffee and mercantile agencies. He concludes that it once was a great place since it still had a Jewish colony southwards of the town comprising pale skinned Jews who are supposed to be the direct descendants of those Solomon the Magnificent sent to the "gorgeous East "to collect ivory and peacocks for his palaces.

The strand (shoreline – beach road) was a very animated scene : in the background long low lines of sheds for storing rice and merchandise, and a towering hedge of palm trees rising behind them, with the tall white lighthouse overtopping even the palms ; coolies were hurrying to and fro between the cargo-boats and storehouses, bending under the weight of great rice-sacks ; half-caste writers in white European garments, with white helmets on their heads, were standing at the doors, entering each bag in their day-books ; native women, some gaily dressed in white calicoes with green or red sarees, and some not dressed at all, were running about with loads on their heads nearly as heavy as those carried by the men ; scores of naked brown children, reveling and rioting in unlimited dirt and sand, were fighting with dozens of mangy dogs for bones and scraps of melon peel ; while above the busy crowd the cawing crows occupied every coign of advantage, and the kites swept round and in and out among the masts and palm trees in easy circles, every now and then coming down like meteors, and flapping away triumphantly with part of a dead dog, a fish's head, or some such tempting morsel.

He makes way to the club house (we talked about it before – near the previous French Loge and was a planters club) which he describes thus. This club house is a very comfortable place, and much frequented by the English residents and stray planters, who come down from the hills, when fever-stricken, to see the doctor here, and imbibe the invigorating ozone of the sea-breezes. It boasts a capital reading-room, with a wide verandah, well stocked with the peculiar long-armed easy-chairs of the country, and opening directly on to the beach. Behind is a billiard-room, and across the courtyard there is a row of half a dozen comfortable bedrooms under a low thatched roof, with the inevitable verandah and punkah ropes hanging by every door-post. Then one passes down a long passage under a shady grove of palm trees, where the ripe nuts hang in great clusters at the top of the tapering stems, until the feeding department is reached, where I " tiffined " with two or three other Englishmen, one of whom subsequently turned out to be bound for the same part of the jungles as myself.

A trip to the town in a bullock cart (buggy) is described beautifully, and he concludes thus - In this gilded pill-box I meandered down the various village streets and into the open country beyond, at a pace little above a walk. I did not understand then that, if you are in a buggy and want the bullocks to go faster, you have to beat the driver, who will then transmit the "walloping" to his "cattle." We soon pick up these things; but in my innocence, on that first day, after a couple of miles of dawdling, my usually serene temper was ruffled, and I got out and belabored the sleepy white oxen with my big white umbrella a proceeding which seemed to afford the "mild Hindoo " who was driving some gentle amusement, but did not take us on a hit faster. So I got inside again, and, lighting a cheroot, resigned myself to fate with the reflection that we must do at Rome as the Romans do.

He lodges at the bungalow of a British businessman, and is taken for dinner to the Bungalow of the local Police Supdt (another brit) on foot by his hostess and led by two torch bearers in front to light the path and scare the snakes away. After dinner they puffed at their long "Trichinopolies" (also called Trichies or Tritchies, is a type of cheroot associated with the town of Tiruchirappalli) and sipping iced brandy-pawnee (brandy, ice and water (pani)), with a white-clad servant behind each chair waving a peacock-feather fan over their heads to keep away the mosquitoes. We note from the conversation that Calicut was very poor then, for the town and all the neighborhood was inundated with famine-stricken coolies at the last extremity for a meal, and so the amount of crime was wonderfully small.

Next day he has hazri (refreshments before breakfast), a tub bath and observes a rain drenched morning and the flight of many small chattering finches. He details the habitat and movements all kinds of animals, snakes, butterflies in forthcoming paragraphs, comparing them to their counterparts in the blighty, if any.

Finally we get a description of the town, the Mananchira tank and the streets. Let’s see what it looked like then. The road is something like a Devonshire lane, with high red banks on either side, but the clumps of bamboos and palms spoil the comparison. Occasionally there are European bungalows standing back from the track in their-compounds, where little white children are often to be seen playing about, attended by ayahs and men-servants. Further on there was a native street, with little open shops on either side: one shop devoted to sugar-cane hung up in bunches, and seeds and pulses exposed for sale in open vessels; another to earthenware chatties, and another to tinware. Once the different trades used to keep separate, but now they seem to be losing their exclusiveness, and take up their quarters where they can fix them.

Every now and then a string of women passed me, carrying enormous loads of grass on their heads and going at a quick trot. They are not particularly prepossessing according to our standard of female comeliness, and the hard work they do and the life they lead spoil them very early. They wear only one garment a long strip of cloth called a saree, which they wind round and round their waists so as to form a short petticoat reaching to the knees, of which they bring the spare end up over their left shoulder, and let it hang down behind. The old women do not stand on ceremony in the matter of dress, and wear clothes only according to their means. Generally they are very poor.
Occasionally a native country gentleman was met going along in a private bullock cart at the usual snail's pace, but looking perfectly contented. The native writers or clerks have absorbed some English energy, and are brisker in their movements. I actually saw one in a buggy urging the driver to go faster in very good English, which he seemed to understand perfectly. The policemen also seem conscious of their official position, and proud of their semi-European dress and broad scarlet shoulder-strap with its brass plate and number.

There is a fine tank in the centre of the town, enclosing about four acres of water, with flights of stone steps all round, and four carved archways, which have been partially destroyed by some Goths, and the material carried away to build houses. These Indian tanks are the great institutions of the towns and villages. Here everybody comes down to wash, and also to get drinking water, horrible to say. But it has been so for the last few thousand years, so nobody minds; and one may any day see groups of chattering girls and gossiping housewives dipping their brass chatties close to where a fat old gentleman, with nothing on but a towel, is splashing the water over his skin, and rubbing it in as if it were some precious ointment not to be used carelessly. The frogs also inhabit these tanks, and their heads and bright eyes are to be seen all along the margins until someone comes and disturbs their reflections, when they at once retire to the deeper parts under the broad green leaves of the lotuses in the centre of the pond. Nobody seems to mind them, or fancy they give a peculiar taste to the water, and they and the cattle and village dogs use the tank contentedly with all the villagers.

Round the tank the official bungalows and Government offices form a wide amphitheater, with graceful palms scattered everywhere, and filling up the background of the picture with a waving sea of plumes.

He hastens to conclude - Calicut seems to have a very miscellaneous trade, and the courtyard of the custom-house was piled up with merchandise of every sort and variety, waiting to be cleared, and meanwhile protected from the merciless beaks and claws of the crows and kites, with which the roof swarmed, by strong netting spread from one side of the courtyard to the other. It is a great pity, I repeat, no proper harbor can be made here; if there were one, it would be of immense importance to the "country side," and double the wealthy population of Mysore and Travancore. Probably someday the railway which now ends at Beypore (you may recall my article about the terminus completed in 1860 and was connected to Calicut in 1888) will be brought on, and a breakwater erected to shelter the shipping when the south-west monsoon blows. At present the vessels lie in the open roads, and when a storm is seen to be coming on they have to up anchor and make for the open sea, for woe to the craft which puts off sailing too long, as she speedily comes under the palm trees fringing the beach

Lester Arnold moves on to Beypore after making a good study of the people he met, remarking especially that Moplah women were merry ladies with a twinkle in their eyes, and then to Palghat. From where he proceeds to Anamallai or Nelliyampati and goes about setting up an estate, a topic we will get to another day.

A review of his books in ‘The Nation Feb 1882’ summarizes Arnold’s stay at Wayanad - The estate to which he was sent was a new one, so that we have a very clear account of the various processes by which the well-nigh impenetrable jungle is converted into a coffee plantation. The life of the planter on a new estate is a very hard one. His house is a flimsy hut, with a roof of grass and walls of a single thickness of matting, through which both wind and rain have free access. He must toil from early morning till night in the broiling sun, the terrible rain, and the yet more frightful mist which lurks in the valleys. Add to all this his solitude, the wretched food which he is often compelled to cook for himself, and the inevitable fever, and it will be seen that the planter’s lot is exceptionally trying. His amusements are few, consisting mainly of occasional Sunday visits to a neighboring planter, and a holiday excursion now and then to the plains. Hunting is almost out of the question from want of time, though elephants, tigers, and bisons, to say nothing of smaller game, abound in the forests about him. After a year principally spent in cutting roads, felling and burning trees, and making holes for the coffee-bushes, Mr. Arnold was utterly vanquished by the fever, and compelled to return to England to recruit.

That done and dusted, let us move back to the Calicut shore, straddling the Arabian Sea. Now if I told you that there were places called Conolly’s hill, Gillham rock, Coote Reef, Anchorage reef, Reliance Shoal, Camel’s Hump, Dolphins Head etc, in those days,  most people will think that I am under the influence of something. In fact some of these terms are still used by mariners, charting their journey through the western seas, or the Arabian Sea towards Cochin or Trivandrum.

Connolly’s hill
Mr. Connolly’s house, is nearly three miles north of the town of Calicut, being placed on an isolated hill. Steam vessels usually anchor in 4 fathoms, mud, with the highest tree on Connolly Hill bearing 43°.  Henry Valentine Connolly, who lived in the then Collector’s Bungalow in what was later called West Hill, Calicut, is also remembered there with a garden called ‘Connolly’s Garden.’ The bungalow now houses the Pazhassi Raja Museum and on the campus is the V.K. Krishna Menon Museum

Gillham Rock
Named after Captain Gilham, Port Officer and lodge member - Gillham Rock, on which the sea breaks occasionally, has a least depth of 1.8mts, and is the southernmost danger in the vicinity of Calicut; lies 2 miles southward from the old lighthouse, with its outer edge 1,400 yards from the shore.

Coote Reef
This place near Kallayi river mouth was named the Coote reef after the late East India Company sloop-of-war Coote which was lost there. This was the original Calicut harbor and extended westwards and southwards of the grain godowns and lighthouse. This is also the location where Hamilton saw the sunken ruins of Calicut and an Old Portuguese fort ruins. Coote Reef with a 0.9 mt depth, lies with its outer edge 1.1 miles south-southwestward from Calicut Old Lighthouse and 1,500 yards from the shore. To the south and east of the reef the bottom is soft mud, and small coasting craft anchor in about 2 fathoms at low water, partially protected from northwest winds by the reef.

The Coote story - This fine sloop-of-war sailed from Bombay under the command of Lieutenant J. S. Grieve, who had only joined her on the 15th of the Nov 1846, and, on the morning of the 1st of December, grounded on a reef near Calicut, to which port she was bound. Every exertion was made by the officers and men to get her off, but without avail, and, on the 3rd of December, she was abandoned, after all her guns and a great portion of her stores and ammunition had been safely landed. The crew were accommodated on shore until the arrival of the 'Medusa,' which took them to Bombay. The hull of the 'Coote' was sold for 10,000 rupees, but her purchaser sustained a total loss, owing to her having grounded, while being towed ashore, on a mud bank, from which it was impossible to remove her. Her unfortunate commander, Lieutenant J. S. Grieve, brother to the late Commander Albany Grieve,both smart officers and eminent surveyors, did not long survive the loss of his ship, but died at Calicut on the following 7th of April.

Anchorage Reef
Anchorage Reef, with a 3.7 mts depth, lies with its northwest edge 1.5 miles westward from Calicut Old Lighthouse, and about 800 yards (4 cables) inside the anchorage buoy. About 160 yards inshore of this reef, and 1,100 yards westward from the old lighthouse, is a rocky patch of 1J fathoms, northward of the small craft anchorage abreast the town.

Reliance Shoal
Reliance Shoal, rocky ground with 5.6mts depth, 0.5 mile wide, and 2.5 miles in length, lies parallel to the shore, its southern extremity being situated 3.5 miles west-northwestward from Calicut Old Lighthouse. The bottom around consists of soft mud.

The Camels hump (Vavulmala near Tanur)
The Camel's Hump, about 7,677 feet above high water, lies 26 miles northeastward from Calicut Lighthouse; it may be seen in clear weather as soon as a vessel is on the bank of soundings; but in the hazy weather of March and April it is frequently indistinct from the anchorage off Calicut. The southern extremity of the Kunda Range is rather abrupt, the mountains thence receding far eastward.
At 12 miles northwestward of Camel's Hump and 20 miles eastward from Kadalur Point lies the mountain named Tanote Mullay, between 4,000 and 5,000 feet in height. Dolphins Head, lying southeastward 17 miles from Calicut, shows well to a vessel coming from the north.

Dolphins head – Urotmala
Lying south-east wards 17 miles off Calicut this is a wooded hill, 900 ft above sea level can be seen by a vessel coming from the North.

On the Indian Hills – Edwin Lester Arnold
West Coast of India Pilot - H.O. Pub, Issue 159 US Government 1920
Manual of the Administration of the Madras Presidency: Chapters 1-9

Previous but related posts

The RIN Mutiny 1946

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We went through events that transpired with the capture of some INA agents a few months ago and learnt of the sad fate that befell TP Kumaran Nair. In fact following those events and the wars fought in Burma, Malaya and Assam, many INA agents were arrested and treated badly. The INA movement did not quite take the Indian populace by storm and the British bureaucracy were careful in ensuring that much of that information remained behind closed doors or in sealed files. Some of them remain sealed even today.

The details of one such loosely connected event which resulted in 1946 saw the light of the day, many years after the fact. Even today it is not talked about or well known, though we did see a curious mention of it in an recent Malayalam movie ‘Iyobinte pusthakam’ where Fahad Fazil playing the protagonist Aloshi, is Iyob’s son and a RIN rating, who returns to Kerala after the Royal Indian Naval mutiny on February 18, 1946.

Preceding the RIN mutiny was the RIAF strike where some 1200 airmen at Delhi and Calcutta went on strike on 15th Feb 1946 protesting against racial discrimination and demanding gratuity, pay, bonus and pension. The RIN mutiny which happened shortly thereafter was more complex, involved rioting and largescale involvement of the naval top brass and the Indian political units as well as the bureaucracy in London. Later Salil Chowdhury composed his famous Dheu uthchhe, kara tutchhe song in its memory. Many books followed, written both by major participators in the revolt as well as one by a British officer, caught in the melee. The event was first termed a mutiny (a mutiny is defined in the armed forces as an event when two or more men present the same grievance at the same time!), then a revolt and finally revised in historic annals as a leftist supported strike. I presume there were legal minds at work during those renaming occasions, but whatever said and done, it was a revolt of sorts and violent at times, involving arms and armaments. A number of Malayali’s were also involved who after the event suffered in silence for the rest of their lives, forgotten and discarded from the mainstream. Their fight for rights and equality later flared out in support of Indian freedom, though originating from a multitude of localized causes and some of the participants are still alive, perhaps in the small group of nonagenarians. But to get to their story, we have to travel northwest, to Colaba in Bombay where HMIS Talwar, the signals training school was located. The people who revolted were mainly ratings, and you must note here that this name rating applied to the so called non-commissioned class such as seaman, petty officer etc. working below the officer category. Talwar incidentally was opened in late 1943 as a Signals School and trained officers and ratings of the RIN in communications and radar.

On September 2nd 1945 the Japanese formally surrendered in Tokyo Bay. Demobilization issues were the reasons which made the people who served the British army nervous. Some were worried about loss of livelihood (Indians), some (the Brits who were unhappy and many qualified Indians) on the other hand were worried about the slow rate of demobilization resulting in overcrowded and horrible living conditions and the fact that being stuck in the forces could mean that the plum civilian jobs were lost and so they wanted to get out quickly.

As Collins explains - Unfortunately there was a strong tendency, amongst officers and ratings alike, to believe that a man was only to sit back and wait for the Government to find a job. Steps were taken to inculcate into all ranks the correct outlook on resettlement, which was that every man was expected to do everything possible himself to resettle, and that the function of the Government was to advice and to assist. In one direction the R.I.N. suffered a severe disappointment. It was hoped that many released ratings would be given official preference when seeking employment in India's Mercantile Marine. When the matter was mooted, however, the Seamen's Union refused unconditionally to agree, the reason given being that the number of jobs available was not sufficient even for the non-Service members of the Unions.

What followed in Jan 1946 was the first of the demobilization strikes at Karachi, rapidly spreading to a number of units all around, including Kanpur. Interestingly, this involved British airmen, not Indians and shook up the top brass. But it quickly influenced on to the Navy and influenced many affected ratings who took up the example, as Lord Wavell himself admitted later. What followed was the infamous 1946 naval mutiny and the ransacking of Bombay.

A number of articles written since then detail the events at Bombay starting from the 18th Feb and lasting 5 torrid days. While the reasons range from bad food, discrimination and pay differences and transfer of officers from Royal navy to RIN, abuse by the senior officer FW King, officer King’s wolf whistling of the ladies in a WRIN parade, BC Dutt’s solitary confinement and so on, other aspects such as INA solidarity and patriotism were also mentioned. The INA trials, general discontent against the British etc further augmented the matter. What followed was a largely leaderless revolt which at first shook Bombay, but later on spread all over India and invited the attention of the rulers at Delhi. The revolt however found little support from the Muslim League and the INC, while the leftists lent a proverbial shoulder for the rioters to cry. In fact none of them was prepared for this event which came out of the blues and Indian politicians were not too quick on the take.

Atlee speaking at the House of Commons on 22nd explained it thus - On Monday, 18th February, all ratings except chief petty officers and petty officers in h. M.I.S. Talwar, R.I.N. Signal School, Bombay, refused duty. The ratings demanded that a political leader be allowed to address them and shouted political slogans. On Tuesday, the trouble spread to the Royal Indian Navy Depot (Castle Barracks) Bombay, and to ships in Bombay harbor. Ratings in the streets became rowdy and civil police made arrests of ratings involved in acts of violence. The flag officer, Bombay, received 14 delegates from the mutineers and was presented with a list of demands, including the following: Speedy demobilization according to age and service groups; disciplinary action against the commanding officer of H.M.I.S. Talwar for alleged improper treatment of ratings; best class of Indian food; Royal Navy scales of pay and family allowance; retention of kit on release; higher gratuity and Treasury pay on release; all demands to be decided in conjunction with a national leader whose name would be communicated.

Many years later, when asked about the extent to which the British decision to quit India was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s 1942 movement, Attlee’s lips widened in smile of disdain and he uttered, slowly, ‘Minimal’." But as they say, it was the RIN Mutiny of 1946 which made the British realize that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the British and thus proved to be the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back.

As it is oft stated, the mutiny involved the whole navy covering some 78 ships at Bombay, Karachi, Madras, Calcutta, Vizagapatnam, Mandapam, Jamnagar, Andaman’s and almost all the naval shore establishments in the country joined in, including that at Southerly Cochin (Venduruthy). Some 10 ships and 2 establishments remained unaffected, but even ships at Bahrain and far off Aden were briefly affected. Members of the air force and army had sympathizers for the strike, which made the authorities quite nervous indeed.

Things were not looking up at Talwar prior to the event, as one can imagine. The unit housed 1500 officers and men out of which 700 were communications ratings. In addition there were another 300 draft reserve ratings around. The pay scales were vastly different, so also the food served to the Indians as compared to the British. While the Indians had watery dal, two chapattis, rice with lots of stones and some smelly meat, the British had bread, eggs, butter and all kinds of other items. Complaints about the food fell on deaf ears. Lt Commander Cole, a fairly benevolent officer, had just been replaced by a nasty replacement named FW King who had little exposure to India and possessed a definite racial bent. BC Dutt was arrested for writing slogans on the wall and somebody went on to deflate King’s car tires and paint slogans on his car. This broke his resolve, and he went on to publically abuse the ratings as sons of coolies and bitches. A written complaint submitted after this verbal abuse was ordered to be withdrawn while the petty officer in the mess grandly stated that beggars (Indians) can’t be choosers. All this was behind the start of the revolt which was waiting to erupt from years of pent up frustration. Thus on Feb 18th 1946, the ratings went on strike. Officers brought in new ratings from HMS Braganza, but that did not help. Soon the news was broadcast on the AIR and by 19th the ratings decided to meet and make plans for the next steps.

By 19th most of the shore units and ships had joined the strike and some 20,000 ratings were united. Soon the ratings hit the streets and marched, sparing no whites in sight. They were trashed and stores burnt and looted. The US flag at the USIS was burnt, and Bombay was a mess. Three new flags were hoisted, Red, Muslim league, and Congress. Formal demands included release of INA prisoners, action against FW King, quicker demobilization, same pay and allowances as for the Royal Navy ratings, better food and canteen access, retention of kit after demobilization, and finally withdrawal of Indian troops in Indonesia.

On 20th MS Khan was elected strike president and the ratings had started to prepare their own food as the systems and routines broke down. Some 3000 ratings from HMIS Akbar marched down to Bombay from Thane, and the British were by now alarmed and planning a quick offensive to stop the mutiny.

On 21st shooting as resorted to at Castle barracks as the Maratha forces were found to be siding with the strikers. It is said that among the signal men, many were Malayali’s and the first to die was perhaps one, a sick berth attendant named Krishnan. Other ships from British fleet moved in and all out shelling was expected in Colaba.

The situation was changing fast and rumors went around that Australian and Canadian armed battalions were arriving to encircle the dockyard where most ships were berthed. The Royal Air Force flew bombers over Bombay harbor in a show of force, and Arthur Rattray, Flag Officer issued an ultimatum asking the ratings to raise black flags and surrender unconditionally. Things were going from bad to worse in Karachi with shelling of ships and by now 7 ratings and some 240 civilians were dead.

Negotiations moved fast, keeping in view the extreme sensitivity of the situation and most of the demands of the strikers regarding welfare measures were conceded in principle. The mutiny was called off following a meeting between the President of the Naval Central Strike Committee (NCSC), M. S. Khan, and Vallabhai Patel of the Congress, who had been sent to Bombay to settle the crisis. Sardar Patel and Jinnah advised the strikers to surrender and promised that there would be no victimization, while Gandhiji deplored the event and Nehru avoided it. Aruna Asaf Ali was the only supportive politician initially.

Immediate steps were taken to improve the quality of food served in the ratings’ kitchen and their living conditions. But the promises about victimization were never kept (Patel himself said later that there should be no questions about discipline in the armed forces) and these were followed up by court-martials and large-scale dismissals from the service. None of those dismissed were reinstated. Some 500-600 of these strikers were rounded up and interned at Mulund prison camp in inhuman conditions. They had to go on a hunger strike before being released and dismissed from service.

As one could infer, the naval mutiny was easily suppressed by the use of force with minimal casualties. But it made its mark, for as is repeatedly uttered - it led to the realization that Britain could no longer depend on Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen to uphold her authority over her colonies in the East. This perhaps contributed in the advancement of the date of Indian independence from June 1948 to August 1947.

FW King was apparently reprimanded and dismissed from Talwar after the trial in July. Arthur King another officer was sympathetic and we see from a recent ‘Telegraph’ report - Afterwards suspected ring-leaders were placed in a camp at Mulund outside Bombay and King was put in charge with a guard drawn from the Mahratta regiment. He was pained that among the sailors were many he knew personally, though it was some consolation that a few weeks later he was allowed to drive his prisoners to the railway station at Thane where they were given tickets and allowed to go home.

The Nehru Government also held on to the British military policy that service personnel, once removed on account of ‘mutinous’ acts, should never be taken back. As the Indian government let the ratings rot in the prisons other jobless ex-ratings wandered around the streets in search of jobs. Many of these brave men thence led a life of misery for choosing the path of armed struggle for the liberation of India. One of the people who left the navy following the rebellion is the famous Malayalam writer Kovilan (Kandanisseri Vattomparambil Velappan Ayyappan).

The Commission produced a 600-page report, which has not been made public. A short summary, was published in January 1947 and it exonerated most British officers who were responsible for the revolt. The 600 page report which has never been aired did not make pretty reading according to Wavell – he said that it showed that men were treated badly by a ‘not very good lot’ of officers.

Some of those who were thrown out were lucky as an article by Bharadwaj at Purpleberets reveals - Post partition, the newly formed Pakistan Navy absorbed the 27-year-old, Mohammed Shariff Khan as an officer. He expanded and tweaked his name from MS Khan to read as Mohammed Sharif. Surely, MS Khan was smart and intelligent; he was quickly promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral. During the 1971 war, he commanded the Eastern Naval Command. Immediately after signing the ‘Instrument of Surrender’ he was taken as Prisoner of War (POW) by the Indians. On his return to Pakistan, Mohammed Sharif was promoted to Vice Admiral’s rank and in March 1975, was catapulted to be the chief of Pakistan navy as a four star Admiral.

Politically the timing was wrong for the negotiating congress and league who were close to a handover solution, they wanted the officers around after transfer and did not want a disintegration in the naval ranks. So I presume a decision was taken to mothball the mutiny, and that was what happened. In addition the new rulers did not want leftists to gain any mileage from all this.
Cdr SG Karmarkar who was in INS Shivaji at Lonavala, doing routine work was rushed to INS Talwar to mediate as the mutiny was diffused. He was promoted later as Rear Admiral and Flag Officer Bombay in the Indian navy.

A bright person who read this painstakingly would ask – why was Indonesia mentioned in the demands? Therein lies another interesting tale. By the end of August 1945, a central Republican government had been established in Jakarta, and adopted a constitution drafted during the Japanese occupation. The British Indian army participated in this campaign against the Republicans, but many of the soldiers started to wonder why they should fight somebody trying to move out of the imperialistic yoke. Anyway while they were there, the event took a religious turn and some 600 Indian Muslim soldiers inspired by the republican religious war cry, defected to the republic with their weapons. 75 of these soldiers survived the war; some decided to stay in Indonesia when others returned to India or Pakistan. This news of course reached India and the Muslim league possibly wanted to show their brotherhood, hence their timely demand during the revolt.

The Indian naval revolt of 1946 – Percy S Gourgey
The RIN Strike Subrata Banerjee
RIN mutiny 1946 Biswanath Bose
A sudy in the royal indian uprising of February 1946 Dipak Kumar das

Sir John Andersson Thorne ICS, CIE, CSI, KCIE

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

An interesting man, a crusty old bureaucrat and a friend of Malabar

Sir JA Thorne (1888-1964), was a person who spent a large part of his life in India, a diminutive man in stature, who rose on to become a powerful administrator during the pre-independence days. The ICS was his life and career and when he came to India aged 24, especially to Malabar (Tellicherry and Calicut), I am sure he must have been, if not anything else, bewildered. Born to JC Thorne, he was educated at Blundell’s School, continued on as an open scholar in Balliol College, passed the ICS examinations in 1912 and was deputed to Malabar shortly thereafter to work as an assistant collector with the Madras presidency under Sir Charles Innes,.

The next few years were to get him into the thick of things, he became the administrator of the Zamorin’s estates, toeing a tough line with his masters the British and a people he came to love, the people of Malabar. Very soon he garnered much information on the history, the culture, the practices and the age old law of the land, and so was asked to contribute to the ML Dames version of the Durate Barbosa travelogue edited by the Hakluyt society, around the 1920 time period. Even today you will see that his original comments are oft quoted by present day writers and historians. The land tenure rules which flummoxed many a foreigner were patiently mastered by Thorne over discussions with the Zamorin and his advisors. Sometimes I wonder if he ever made a detailed account of the short association Thorne had with my great grandfather, for those were the Zamorin’s last years, a period when he was deeply worried of the debts racked up by the family and the passage of the estates to the court of wards, the British (What vexed him, a deeply religious Sanskrit scholar, most was the loss of the Guruvayoor temple). Nevertheless the old Indian and the young Englishman forged a friendship of sorts. Thorne would always remember his days in Calicut and when he retired to Sedlescombe, it is stated that he planned to take up farming like the people of Malabar. We also see him involved with interesting disputes such as the misuse of the Zamorin’s Mankavu pond by non-caste people and his handling of the complaint. If you recall from my Manjeri Rama Iyer article, similar issues had cropped up about the Tali temple and Thorne was involved in issuing prohibitory orders with Manjeri Rama Ayyar later taking it up legally.

KVK Ayyar remembers him in his book on Guruvayoor – he says “In the Estate Collector, Mr. (afterwards Sir) J.A.Thorne I.C.S., it appeared that the Lord had had an officer, entirely to his liking. He scrupulously refrained from entering the Gopuram but made his obeisance from outside and even used to make offerings. This helped in creating an impression among the public that the interests of the temple would be safe in his hands and that he would enforce the rules (Note that the temple management was reverted back to the Zamorin in 1927) without fear or favor. He continued with his predecessor Konthi Menon’s public works and built a Satram (now remodeled and called the old Satram) at Guruvayoor.

Some 10 years later, after a good teething period in Malabar, he was transferred to Madurai and though he briefly held a two year tenure as a secretary to the board of revenue, he returned to district work, but went back to the board in 1931. In the midst of it all, he was deeply involved in three important events, the 1921 Moplah Rebellion in Malabar, the 1924 Malabar floods, and the 1930 Tanjore Rajaji incident.

The 1924 Malabar floods were devastating and something which was taken up by Gandhiji himself. This was also known as the 99 flood (1099 Malayalam calendar) when large tracts between Trichur and Travancore were severely devastated by rains and flood waters and Munnar was isolated. But the worst was the aftermath of the 1921 Moplah revolt in the Malabar districts which resulted in large human losses and property destruction as well as an organized rebellion against the British. Throne’s involvement was mainly behind the scenes (as a person who well understood the people of Malabar), providing analysis and advice resulting in the brokering of peace between the warring communities.
As a bureaucrat, Thorne was a stickler for the law. He was clear that as an administrator, he held firm to the rule of law and strictly administered the same. One event that catapulted him to infamy amongst the Indians and put him firmly back on the side of the British rulers was the Rajaji incident, otherwise known as the Vedaranyam Salt Satyagraha. The pitting of C Rajagopalachari against Collector Thorne and the end results were soon to become a jolly David and Goliath style tale that came to be told and retold by friends to friends and parents to children.

In summary it went thus. In March 1930, Rajaji after consultations with Gandhiji who had started his Dandi march, decided to enact a similar scenario at Vedaranyam, a salt manufacturing area chosen for specific reasons (Cape Comorin was originally chosen, but as it was part of Travancore, an independent state not directly under the British, got dropped) by marching 100 volunteers for 240 KM from Trichy to the site, starting on the 5th April. At first Throne, the district collector of Tanjore, planned preemptive arrest, but this was turned down by Madras due to the fear of making a martyr out of Rajaji, though they allowed Thorne to arrest ‘harbourers’.

Quoting Hindu (Article by R Varadarajan April 22, 2001) As Rajaji led the Sathyagraha into Tanjore district, the "astute and energetic" Collector by name J. A. Thorne, ICS ordered the people not to receive the Sathyagrahis or entertain them with food and accommodation, under the threat of penal punishment. Thorne's warning against the "harbouring" - punishable by a six months sentence and a fine - were carried on Tamil leaflets, by the beat of drum and in the press. Rajaji was shown this challenge appearing in the papers as he stepped out at the head of the marching column of Sathygrahis. The order, CR predicted would enlarge the public's welcome. With a twinkle he added "Thorns (Thornes) and thistles cannot stem this tide of freedom."

The somewhat arrogant retort from Thorne to Madras was – ‘I apprehend no great difficulty dealing with the sheep once the shepherd is gone’. He also added that he would take pains to see that the marchers meet with increasing difficulties and discomforts, adding – if at all they reach Vedaranyam, he would prevent them from getting accommodation. The strong willed Rajaji retorted that the Satyagrahis were prepared to lie under the open sky and starve on Tanjore soil.

The first open defiance of Mr. Thorne's orders was made by Sri Pantulu Iyer at Kumbakonam. Pantulu Iyer arranged a royal feast for the sathyagrahis and for this he was promptly put in prison. Pantulu Iyer's case stimulated the thinking of the people and produced novel ideas of entertaining the civil resisters and yet escaping Thorne. Wayside trees, besides protecting the sathyagrahis from the scorching summer heat, bent low to offer them food packets that had been tied to the branches. In some places where the marchers had camped on the Cauvery river bed, were found indicators showing where huge containers carrying food lay buried. The roads were sprinkled with water in many places. There were welcome arches in some places and green leaf festoon everywhere. In the bargain, the police personnel were starved. The village people did not give them even a morsel of food or a cup of water to drink. The "menial staff" refused to carry out their routine duties of cleaning the latrines and sweeping the roads; barbers and washermen declined to render their services to the British establishment. The government offices and their families were in a lurch without these basic services of everyday life. Though a toe infection obliged him to walk barefoot for two or three days, Rajaji stood the journey well.

Throne as the Salt commissioner tried again to arrest Rajaji enroute, but did not get permission from Madras. Eventually Rajaji and team reached the location on 28th and declared that they will break the salt law on 30th, Rajaji formally notifying Thorne in writing that he intended to do it.

The anticlimax of arresting and convicting Rajaji (on the 30th April by Police Supdt Govindan Nair and 50 constables) subdued the overconfident Thorne. Rajaji was not taken to the Vedaranyam Town Police Station or to the Magistrate Court. The salt office itself became the venue of the court and prison cell, to honor Rajaji's stature and righteousness in defying the salt law. Magistrate Ponnusamy came all the way to the salt office "to hear the case" where a small room was made into a prison cell to detain Rajaji for a few hours until he was escorted on the train to Tiruchirapalli jail ( 6 months imprisonment and Rs 200 fine + additional 3 months for refusing to pay the fine)

The protagonists eventually met in the train which was taking Rajajji to prison and the honorable gentlemen he was, Thorne ordered tea and refreshment for Rajaji. Rajaji said “Your plan was bold, but you forgot that we are in our own country". Thorne smiled and replied "Yes, we have each tried to do our best and worst. Many years later, he was to remark about the role of a post-independence Madras Chief minister Rajaji thus - Above all, the old warrior, C. Rajagopalachari ("Rajaji" for short, throughout India) emerged once more from retirement-the Cincinnatus of lndia-and as Chief Minister of Madras has made his presence felt in every department of the administration. He very soon swept away most of the apparatus of food-controls. This was not in accord with the policy of the Central Government, and it appeared that he was taking a risk: but the soundness of his judgment has been proved, and the supply and distribution of food-grains in South India is no longer a cause of bitter complaint against the administration.

People continued to gather salt and some 375 people had to be arrested by Thorne’s police. Even though CR triumphed, Throne maintained peace in Tanjore when compared to other places which revolted. Throne ended his report to the Madras Government thus – CR’s actions were something of a triumph, even Mohammedans and Adi Dravidans (untouchables) took part in the receptions, CR maintained excellent discipline amongst his followers, always adhering to nonviolence, refraining from the acts of demagogy. He concluded, if there ever existed a fervid sense of devotion to the government, it is now defunct. In turn, the Madras secretariat informed Delhi that the movement had "left in its wake a growing spirit of bias against government."

What was next for Thorne? After a successful tenure at Malabar, and despite the turn of events at Tanjore, he rose up in the esteem of his masters due to his clear lines of thought and action, coupled with a bit of fearlessness. In 1933 he was involved in the Budget debates and by 1935 he was bound to Delhi, as a joint secretary to the government of India and the Home department.

But I think it is a good idea to digress a little bit and understand Thorne the person and in order to get to some of those tidbits, we have to read the account of his protégé SK Chettur who fondly talks of Thorne, his boss at Tanjore, after he joined the ICS in 1929. Thorne comes across as a good man and at the outset ensured that the young assistant Chettur was signed up to the officers club and that there was no discrimination even though Chettur was a native.

Chettur describes his boss’s day thus - Thorne awoke at 6AM, and started with a ½ hour of bird watching session until 730. After breakfast at 8, he started work at 830 and briskly moved files until 1PM, after which he took lunch and had a short ½ hour nap. Two more hours in the office, tea at 415PM and local inspection tours followed until 630PM. To end the day, he would settle under a petromax lamp to read. In between and during trips or weekends, he found the time to swim and do some snipe shooting, taking his new protégé along. Etiquette was very important to him. He would address a senior officer Sir at work, but after work, he would call him by name, since according to him, outside the office, one ICS man is as good as another!

Thorne was a smalltime poet in his spare time. One of his verses goes thus, showing that his heart was with the people, not his masters who stuck only to the rules and procedures and cared little for the populace they were governing.

The services thanks their friends
A thousand thanks, yet some of us recall
Such hackneyed words such as duty, right, tradition
Believe our India is built on these
Shall we foreswear our heritage and brawl like hucksters
For the ear of a commission
Weighing our honor gravely in rupees?
Chettur adds- Both Thorne and I were equally fond of reading and both of us shared a common interest in doing a bit of writing in our spare moments. I wrote serious verse and he wrote light verse. That was the only difference. In fact, along with Mr. Justice Jackson, Thorne was one of the original contributors to Madras Occasional Verse which contained very snappy light verse about the Indian scene. One poem made fun of the resounding vernacular names for various offices and places, and concluded with the remarkable lines, that one hears, ‘beyond the bar, The Surge of the thundering Tahsildar (Tahsildar is the name for a revenue officer in charge of a taluk roughly one-ninth or one tenth of the whole district).

In his memoirs, Chettur covers a lot of Thorne’s interesting personality, his excellent grasp of law, his quick wit, his adventures at snipe shooting and above all his absolute honesty in handling cases and issues.

Later he was the first to state – Congressmen in Madras presidency (siding mostly with Zamindars) have shown little tenderness for the genuine peasant. And he added later, in a number of provinces, the poachers are becoming gamekeepers (pointed reference to some congress ministers). However, one should also note that later day writers like Conrad Wood accused Thorne to be on the side of the Zamindars and an anti Moplah when it came to Malabar.
His work in Delhi in the home ministry traversed a number of difficult periods, starting with the World War II, the Indian involvement in it, the difficult participation of the home ministry in post war negotiations and eventually in the handover and Indian Independence. During the war the Throne report was widely used as a basis for information control, censorship and INA monitoring. The notes, minutes, letters and jottings of Thorne can be found in a great number of deliberations of that period and are still quoted by historians. His involvement in the arrest and detainment of Jayaprakash Narayan, Lohia, Krishnan Nair etc. as political prisoners and his ensuring their eventual release is mentioned here and there.

But then again, JA Thorne was responsible in many ways for the rigid stance held by the British during WW II. He stuck to the hardline and did not spare a thought for the common man, while at the same time agreeing to pardons when bigwigs like Gandhi took up the case (e.g. Mitra). He stood by the Enemy Agents Ordnance of 1943 which by 1945, was seen as untenable, after which adhoc judgments and hangings ceased in the case of Indian nationalists termed as enemy agents. In my opinion the role of JA Throne during his home secretary days, especially WW II was a blight to his otherwise stellar career.

As his obituary states - In 1938 Thome was selected to be Secretary to the Governor-General (Public) and great responsibilities related upon him in the war years. On two occasions he acted for brief periods as a temporary member of the Governor General’s Council and in 1945 he became Home member, a post he held until his retirement in 1946. He had been made C.l.E. in 1931, C.S.I. in 1938 and advanced to K.C.l.E. in 1942.

In retirement, he moved back to England and dabbled in archaeological researches as well as farming 
and bird watching. He settled down in Sedlescombe, in Sussex with his sister Jane. His wife Dorothy Horton, had passed away in 1944 and he was survived by a son and a daughter. Robin Horton John Thorne, his son passed away in 2004 after a career similar to his father. Sedlescombe must have provided him avenues for historical research for it was the close to Beauport Park - the HQ of the Roman Navy in Britain. During his retirement days, the village boasted two pubs, a butcher, a bakery, a newsagent, a blacksmith, a garage, two eateries and two general stores. Today only the village store and garage remain, and well, in many ways it would have reminded him of his West Hill lodgings, in Calicut.

He also generated some income as a part time director of Pierce Leslie.

Thorne always had a soft corner for Malabar. He wrote the forward for Zamorins of Calicut and jotted thus “The story of the Zamorins of peculiar interest to all Europeans who have known Malabar: both because of the part those rulers played for centuries in that impact of the west on the east which has developed in to the politics of our own day, and also for a more personal reason. We foreigners who have lived and worked in Kerala hold ourselves to be singularly fortunate: whatever else India may come to mean for us, we remember with gratitude and affection the country and people whose civilization is bound up with the dynasty of the Zamorins.”

Thorne did come back to India, in fact his trip in 1949 is ample evidence of his love for the country where he lived for close to four decades and admitted that he found a welcome as warm as ever. You can sense a trace of irony when he ends his article on his trip for he says “The Finance Minister who balances his budget after the country has weathered the storms of partition, provision for millions of refugees, the Kashmir " war," and an unprecedented shortage of food, has a right to claim that the finances of India are intrinsically sound”.

He was also critical about the way the bureaucracy ballooned after 1935. He says - When I was translated from my Province to a department of the Government of India in 1935, the number of officers therein was six i.e. one Member of Council, one Secretary, one Joint Secretary (myself), two Deputy Secretaries and one Under-Secretary. The other day, looking at the Delhi telephone directory I found that the staff in that department now is-one Minister, one Deputy-Minister, one secretary, one Additional Secretary, four Joint Secretaries, fourteen Deputy Secretaries, and twenty-three Under-Secretaries. Moreover, 20 years ago the world had direct access by telephone to all officials, not excluding the Member of Council. Now everyone down to Deputy Secretaries (inclusive) has at least one private secretary or personal assistant, sitting in ante-rooms and protecting their masters from interruption by telephone or otherwise. As regards "otherwise" the procedure introduced during the war for preventing invasion of the Secretariat by visitors is still in force: and, unless one makes previous arrangement with the official one wants to see, it is not easy to get at him. So the change is complete from the pre-war days when Congress Ministers in some Provinces proclaimed that they would be accessible all the time-and work became impossible. From these facts various deductions might be drawn, including the following -that work in the Secretariat has greatly increased ; that officials are more bureaucratic than they were ; that the cure for unemployment among the educated has already begun in the Central Government ; above all, that the planning era is in full swing.

In a later visit he observed the rise of communism in Malabar and in his analysis it was a direct effect of the increase in poverty following the decline in the common man’s income resulting from the fall in coconut prices after the WW1 and other causes for discontentment.

After making the usual comments about problems and opportunities in Young independent India, he does not forget to mention the people he loved. He added “The record Of the South Indian in his own country contrasts with the contribution he is making to the strength of the center. Witness, for instance, the Governor-General, two of the principal Ministers, and those sons of Kerala whose prominence has inspired the jest about Menon-gitis at New Delhi”. Poignant last words…

Rajaji: A Life - Raj Mohan Gandhi
Steel Frame and I – Life in the ICS – SK Chettur
A People's Collector in the British Raj: Arthur Galletti - Brian Stoddart
Asiatic review July 1949 – India, Pakistan & Burma Today - Lecture
Towards freedom Part 1 – Sumit Sarkar
India problems and the Plan – Sir JA Thorne (Bankers Magazine #175 -1953)
The republic of India – Planning & administration – JA Thorne (Bankers Magazine #181 -1956)
Times Obituary & WKML response – JA Thorne

Note – I could not find a single picture of Sir JA Thorne in any of the many sources I perused. If anybody can provide one, I would be pleased to upload it…

For a while there were so many Keralite bureaucrats with the surname Menon in the various ministries and so it was a standing joke that the Government of India was suffering from an attack of Menon-gitis.

Cheraman Perumal and the Myths

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Revisiting the topic….

Some years ago I wrote briefly about this interesting bloke who appears often in Kerala History. Most of the discussions from readers focus around his retirement actions where he distributes his kingdom and goes off on a pilgrimage. I touched upon the topic a few times after that and more recently JK at Varnam penned an interesting article about the event

We see that in general the popular versions cover the travails of a Chera king who leaves the West Coast of Malabar, bound for another location which is purported to be variously Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Kailas in North India and the abode of St Thomas in Mylapore (there are many other versions too, but too obscure).  We see the possibilities of three or even four conversions in these stories, one to Islam, the second to Buddhism, third Jainism and finally to Christianity. The timelines vary widely, from the 9th to the 12th century. But each of these myths found takers and were promptly spread by both the Portuguese and the Dutch as well as Muslim scholars creating much confusion as to which was most probable.

Armed with a fascinating and thorough study done well before Indian independence by the doyen of Malabar history, Mr KV Krishna Ayyar, I decided to revisit the topic. Ayyar starts by confirming that it is an unsolved puzzle and after a thorough analysis, concludes with the Bhuvibhaga or Chera empire partition. It is a very difficult 25 page treatise, especially for those uninitiated to what is known as the Periyapuranam. It also requires you to have a working knowledge of the Keralolpatti, at least the version authored presumably by Tunjath Sankaran Ezhutachan in the 16th century. So without much ado let us get to the points raised by KVK and more specifically get introduced to the Tamil epic PeriyaPuranam (a.k.a Tiruttontarpuranam - the life stories of the sixty-three Shaiva Nayanars) penned by Sekkizhar in the early 12th century.

Set during the period of the Chola king Kulothunga II, the story goes that Sekkizhar a poet chief minister of his decided to wean the king away from his fascination of the 10th century Jain erotic epic Civaka Chintamani. Now you can imagine that it is a difficult task, but then again Sekkizhar wrote about the 63 Saivite saints, sitting in the thousand pillared hall of the Chidambaram temple. Interestingly, all of the saints mentioned in this epic are actual persons. Therefore, this is a recorded history of the 63 Saiva saints called as Nayanmars (devotees of Lord Siva), who incidentally belonged to different castes, different occupations and lived in different times.

As you may guess, one of these saints was none other than our Cheraman Perumal. KVK first of all establishes that the Malayalam sources like Keralolpatti are all proto-history works which are somewhat haphazard and purely inconsistent attempts at making a record of their history. As he himself explains, with a little patience, one can remove the legendary encrustations to reach the nucleus by reading through both works in detail. The entire work of Ayyar’s painstaking detection and deduction is best left where it has originally been published, so I will get to the crux of the matter, only briefly touching on the meticulous work starting with the establishment of the fact that the Tamil Cheraman is exactly the same person and the Malayalam Cheraman after carefully analyzing the dates seen in the documents. KVK establishes Cheraman’s date of birth as 742 AD, then his parentage, later his peculiar accession to the throne, his progeny, internal and external events to Tiruvanjikulam (Kodungallur), periods of strife, his division or partition of Malabar and finally pilgrimage and ascension to the heavens in 826 AD, following which the Kollam era was sanctioned.

In summary therefore, Cheraman was born in 742 AD at the Chera capital Tiruvanjikulam or Cranganore. He was the son of the sister of King Sengorporiayan. Interestingly his father was a Chola prince, who had strayed to the Chera court, and in those days the powerbases at Tamilakam were actually with the Pallavas and the Pandyas. Cheraman grew up in his uncle’s palace, but was mostly found in the Mahadeva temple of Tiruvanjikulam, interested mainly in the service of Siva. As times go by, he married a lady from the Nediviruppu kovilakom and had a son through her. His sister incidentally married the Perumbadappu Namboothiri. Cheraman’s son was Manavikiraman (the first Zamorin of Calicut) the Nedivirippu Thamburan, while his nephew became the Perumbadappu Thamburan (later known as the Cochin king). The fact that the Cochin and Kolattiri kings were higher born Kshatriyas while the Zamorin was a Nair born of the Sambandham with the Eradi lady has been the biggest bone of contention since in all the acrimonious issues between the three of them, for hundreds of years.

One thing bothered me though in this analysis. KVK is clear that there was just one son named Manaivicraman, not two boys as all other myths mention. He also details that the Cheraman sword is given to this one boy, (not two boys Manavan and Vikraman) following the battle at Palghat. He also states that this is the Manavikraman who becomes the first Zamorin. I wondered for a moment at how Palghat comes up in all critical points of passage in Malabar history! Later it comes to the fore again, when the Mysore Sultans attacked.

Life seems to have been going well, till Rajasimha Pandya decided to invade Kerala in 765AD. The powerful Pandya was not something the Chera ruler could contend with, so he decided to abdicate and retire to the forests, as the tale goes. The ministers of the palace were greatly perturbed, and agitated. By conjecture, the only male who could be persuaded to take over was young Cheraman as was the custom of Malanad (being the nephew and not the son) or for some other good reason such as a recommendation by the invader Rajasimha, who might have perceived that the ascetic ruler would be a good proxy, a man without heroic and kingly ambitions or inclinations.

Nevertheless Cheraman Perumal was an able king who rebuilt the 16 ports and temples, and built a fort Cheramankotta as well at the Northern border town of Valarpattanam near Talipparamba. Around this time, the great Sankaracharya was born in 788AD, adding luster to the King’s reign. However there was further strife at the Eastern borders and we see Pandyan attacks near Palghat, the establishment of the fort at Taravur (Tarur) and the takeover of Vizinjam. As the war continues, Manavikraman his son (in other stories we hear of two youngsters Manavan and Vikraman) rushes to his support and defeats the Pandyan king Varaguna in 782AD.

From here on, KVK observes Cheraman’s disinterest in worldly pursuits and in 810AD, he leaves on a pilgrimage after dividing up the land among his feudatories. He goes on to Chidambaram and then to Tiruvalur where he becomes a friend and disciple of Sundaramurti. They move on to tour various temples and places in Tamilakam, and after all this Cheraman and Sundara turn back to Malabar in 820AD. After a sojourn in Cranganore for another 6 years, both of them depart from this world (or leave for Kailas) in 826AD. The day is called Cheraman day which is an annual event since then, celebrated with pomp and splendor.

So as you see, KVK links up filtered events from Kerala proto-historians to the little bits of history he could dredge out from Periyapuranam in order to create a coherent account on the life of Cheraman Perumal. Of course he debunks the events leading to Perumal becoming a Muslim or a Christian.
But we can’t close the topic just like that, for there would be many unanswered questions hovering around the conversions, the division of land and so on. What could be the possible directions? Let’s check.

Quoting the words from the Census - The world knows nothing of its greatest men, and so it is with Cheraman Perumal, for while he is the most familiar and famous of the Viceroys of Kerala, while his name is in everybody's mouth from the most cultured Brahman down to the most ignorant Paraiyan, there are no reliable materials affording any definite information about his life and times. Cheraman Perumal's rule, from the important events it contained and from the little direct knowledge we have on the subject, has naturally attracted the attention of many diligent scholars, and many are the traditions that have gathered round his name. The Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Mahommedans all claim him as a convert to their religion. There is the tradition of a Perumal having become a Buddhist, or as others would have it, a Jain. It must be observed in this connection that Buddha Matam or Buddhism has often been confounded with any religion other than Hinduism, for in the days of the conflict between Hinduism and Buddhism, to a Hindu all non-Hindus were Bouddhas or followers of Budha, which term acquiring a general significance was indifferently applied in later times to the followers of Mahomed, Christ, etc. To a Hindu in Kerala, any one professing any religion other than Hinduism has been a Bouddha, a term which is even applied to a low caste Hindu. One of the Perumals is said to have renounced his faith, and become a Jain, and not a Mahommedan. His name is supposed to have been Pallibana Perumal.

First we go to the Tuhfat Al Mujahideen. Sheik Zainuddin admits that even during his period, the Hindus had stated that the king ascended to the sky. They also believe that he will come down one day and that is the reason why they keep a pitcher of water and a pair of sandals with lit lamps and decorations at a place near Kodungallur on certain nights. So there is a good amount of backing to the Periyapuranam story. Nevertheless, Zainuddin does not provide any factual support to the story of this perumal going to Makkah. Also there is confusion about the dates with Zainuddin stating this happened in the 9th century while others state it was during the reign of the Prophet Mohammed. Zainuddin is clear anyway that this person could not have been the Cheraman Perumal. Ibn Batuta writing in 1342 mentions the king of Balipatanam as the convert, dating it to the 13th century and Abdul Razak visiting Calicut in 1442 does not mention these stories at all (for him it would have held great propaganda value!). Ferishta, the Mohammedan historian, is positive that the Malabar king who embraced the Moslem faith and went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, at the end of the 9th century, is a Zamorin of Calicut.

Cheraman becoming a St Thomas Christian is alluded by Decouto and Faria Souza, and here again there is confusion about the dates, and there is also mention of the Cheraman being one of the three wise magi’s visiting the infant Jesus. The problem is that the dates fluctuate between the birth of Christ and the 4th or 6th century and so it seems difficult to lend the stories too much credence.

So in all the conversions of Cheraman Perumal to Christianity and Islam seem to be backed with little by way of fact or conjuncture. Buddhism on the other hand was in the decline already by 850AD, and Jainism in Malabar predated it by many centuries, so it is very probable that the Periyapuranam account borders the truth that the Perumal eventually passes away while on his pilgrimage. But there is another twist in the analysis of legends, for it is stated in the Census of India as follows relating to the Jain link.

As far as the handing over of the kingdom is concerned, KVK clarifies that this was how it always was and these local feudatories were under the suzerainty of the Perumal at Cranganore. When the king left on his trip, all he did was release them from that symbolic connection. He could have asked his son Manavikraman to take over but that was not permitted in those days as he was not a Kshatriya.

But when he left, he authorized the Zamorin to annex what he could wisely, with his sword. As the Zamorin had no areas in profitable regions or ports he could only annex them by might.

PC Alexander in his ‘Dutch in Malabar’ concurs by stating that the Perumal died a Saivite and never converted. And he indicates that the mural in the Brahadeeswara temple in Tanjore depicts the Perumal proceeding to Kailas with his friend. MGS Narayanan agrees with KVK’s theories and connects the first Cheraman Perumal to the Periyapuranam and names him the Rama Rajashekara – Rajadhiraja Parameswara Bhattaraka of Makotai. Sadasivan says that the king of Maldives was the person who converted to Islam.

I am sure the myth will remain for more decades, but the above is a summary of the studies of KVK Ayyar, which I believe makes a lot of sense.

Bharata Kaumudi Pt 1, 1945 - Cheraman Perumal – A New study – KV Krishna Ayyar
Perumals of Kerala – MGS Narayanan
Census of India, 1901, Parts 1-2

Debtor’s circle

Posted by Maddy Labels: , ,

Settlement of unpaid debts – an old tradition in Malabar

Today you have enforcers who are wandering round, looking for debtors on the run. There are collection agents who come and seize cars which are not being paid for with agreed regularity, and we see musclemen on the prowl these days, as depicted in the movies, to provide some firm persuasion. You also see ad’s like the one below in newspapers for debt collection executives, promising a handsome salary.

Needed – executive to help collect over-dues and discuss with customers on best possible payment plans, should possess strong and firm verbal communication and negotiation Skills, a good amount of Intelligence, be persistent and Firm, and persuasive in reasoning. Unsaid requirement – be of muscular build and capable of depicting an aggressive demeanor

But things were a little different some 500 -900 years ago and this peculiar custom in Malabar was first brought to light by Al Idrisi in 1154AD. He explained – If one man owes another some money and the creditor locates him, he draws a circle around him. The creditor also enters the ring and the debtor cannot go outside the ring till the creditor is satisfied or forgives him.

From this arose an old Malayalam idiom ‘vattathil akkuka’ (being put into a circle) which is somewhat colloquial for harassment. Whether ‘vattam chutti’ (going in circles) also falls in the same category is not clear, but I hope you get the idea.

Varthema wrote of a custom he found in the Malabar ports by which the administration of civil justice was considerably simplified. The king had 100 scribes, and in case of debts evidenced by deeds in the handwriting of these scribes, the law provided a summary remedy. "If the debtor promising many times, fails to pay, the creditor not willing to wait any longer nor give him any indulgence, takes a green branch (of a palm) in his hand, goes softly behind the debtor, and with the said branch draws a circle on the ground surrounding him, and if he encloses the debtor within the circle, says to him these words three times ' Brahmananane rajavinane purath pokalle, i.e., I command you in the name of the Brahmins and in the name of the king, not to leave the circle (until you have paid the debt). If the debtor left the circle without paying the debt, he was liable to the penalty of death."

Archibald Williams adds a twist in his memoir - In order to secure payment from a persistent debtor, the creditor tries to draw a circle round him on the ground, saying three times, “ By the head of the Brahmins and of the King, you shall pay me what you owe before you quit the circle.” The debtor thus encircled must either pay or die of starvation; for nobody may give him food; and death is the penalty for crossing the line without payment.

The green branch of a palm, says Ibn Batuta, was also used by the officers of the king to help the collection of the royal dues from the merchants. If the merchants did not pay the royal dues, an officer of the king came with the green branch of a palm and suspended it in front of the shop. No person could buy or sell from the merchant until the branch was removed.

The rule was applicable both to nobility as well as to the common man and Marco Polo visiting Ma’abar emphatically claims he was an eye witness where the king was harassed so. Marco Polo states (Cordier -Yule)-  They have the following rule about debts. If a debtor shall have been several times asked by his creditor for payment, and shall have put him off from day to day with promises, then if the creditor can once meet the debtor and succeed in drawing a circle round him, the latter must not pass out of this circle until he shall have satisfied the claim, or given security for its discharge. If he in any other case presume to pass the circle he is punished with death as a transgressor against right and justice. And the said Messer Marco, when in this kingdom on his return home, did himself witness a case of this. It was the King, who owed a foreign merchant a certain sum of money, and though the claim had often been presented, he always put it off with promises. Now, one day when the King was riding through the city, the merchant found his opportunity, and drew a circle round both King and horse. The King, on seeing this, halted, and would ride no further; nor did he stir from the spot until the merchant was satisfied. And when the bystanders saw this they marveled greatly, saying that the King was a most just King indeed, having thus submitted to justice

Yule adds as a foot note - This custom is described in much the same way by the Arabo-Persian Zakariah Kazwini, by Ludovico Varthema, and by Alexander Hamilton. Kazwini ascribes it to Ceylon. "If a debtor does not pay, the King sends to him a person who draws a line round him, wheresoever he chance to be; and beyond that circle he dares not to move until he shall have paid what he owes, or come to an agreement with his creditor. For if he should pass the circle the King fines him three times the amount of his debt; one-third of this tine goes to the creditor and two-thirds to the King." Pere Bouchet describes the strict regard paid to the arrest, but does not notice the symbolic circle. (Gildem. 197; Varthema, 147; Ham. I. 318; Lett. Edif. XIV. 370.)

Rev. Dr. Caldwell adds a footnote "The custom undoubtedly prevailed in this part of India at a former time. It is said that it still survives amongst the poorer classes in out-of-the-way parts of the country, but it is kept up by schoolboys in a serio-comic spirit as vigorously as ever. Marco does not mention a very essential part of the ceremony. The person who draws a circle round another imprecates upon him the name of a particular divinity, whose curse is to fall upon him if he breaks through the circle without satisfying the claim."

Forbes wiring his oriental memoirs provides details of a version that has become stringent as times went by - For debts, and non-payment of fines, inflicted as a punishment, they are confined by the caricar (Kariakar), or-chief of the district; who draws a circle round the prisoner, from which he dare not move; then, gently laying a sharp stone on the crown of his head, demands payment of the sum required: on a refusal, he places a large flat stone over the other, and ties it firmly on; additional weights are gradually accumulated, with a repetition of the demand, until the sharp stone-penetrating the head, either insures payment, or causes a painful death.

Vissicher provides details of differing methods from Dutch Cochin - For laying the property of another in arrest, the warrant of a magistrate is not required ; any private individual may do it ; so that a man of low caste has it in his power to harass and annoy a Brahmin or a Caimal, through his lands and properties. The Rajahs possess the same power over each other. However, although license is not required for the performance of this embargo, the Rajah’s authority is necessary to settle the affair; both parties must appear before him, and after duly weighing the merits of the case, and receiving a sum of money, he gives judgment. When Rajahs thus arrest each other’s property, it is a fruitful ground for wars and dissensions: mediators are sometimes called in to arrange the matter.

The token of this embargo or arrest, is the leaf of a cashew nut or other tree which is tied on the article thus arrested, or if it be land, it is stuck up on a stick, the party exercising this privilege announcing, “this is the Rama, or arrest of the Rajah.” After this no one may gather the fruits off the lands or remove the token; such act would be considered crimes of lese majesty. The East India Company exercises the same right, and on such occasions they plant their flag on the spot: but this is only done by order of the Commandant or the proper authorities. In the lands subject to the Company, the Commandant may remove any rama, placed by a native. The residents in the small outlying stations, are obliged to suffer the ramas of the Malabars, and are allowed to exercise the same privilege on their side.

The Resident of Porcad told me an entertaining anecdote on this subject. He had once caused a rafter to be brought to the station for the repair of the factory; when it was close to the building, a Nair came and fastened a rama, to it, upon which the coolies who were carrying it, ran away, as it was illegal for them to touch it any longer. The Resident being informed of what had occurred immediately planted the Company’s rama on the spot, so that the parties who were so ready with their arrest, were themselves arrested; and compelled to stand without stirring a foot in the heat of the sun, until such time as the first rama was removed by order of the Rajah, then the Resident released them.

In a similar manner, when the Rajah owes money to a Brahmin who can adduce satisfactory proof of the debt, the creditor can demand the money of the Rajah, three distinct times, and if the Rajah still delays payment, the Brahmin brings a rama from a pagoda, when the Rajah may neither eat, sleep or bathe till the dispute is settled and the rama removed. Such cases however do not often happen, for the people know that monarchs have long arms.

I am however not sure what this ‘rama’ is – perhaps some kind of flag…

Hamilton writing in 1723 continues in the previous vein…They have a good way of arresting people for Debt, viz. There is a proper person with small stick from the Judge, who is generally a Brahman and when that person finds the debtor, he draws a circle round him with that stick, and charges him, in the King and Judge's Name, not to stir out of it till the creditor is satisfied either by Payment or Surety; and it is no less than death for the debtor to break Prison by going out of the circle.
Now that we have talked about the Debtor’s circle, let us take a look at another system that is still practiced by protesters in India, called the Dharna. What was that? We hear about the Dharna method as early as 1615 from Roger Hawkes. In fact he says he had to use the method himself to get his debt with the Zamorin settled.

The 20th December, a Malabar captain brought in a prize he had taken from the Portuguese, and would have traded with us; but we could not get in any of our money, due long before. We also heard that day of four English ships being at Surat. The governor and people continued their wonted perfidiousness; the former being more careful in taking and the latter in giving bribes, than in paying our debts. We used a strange contrivance of policy to get in some of these; for, when we went to their houses, demanding payment, and could get none, we threatened not to leave their house till they paid us. We had heard it reported, that, according to their customs, they could neither eat nor wash while we were in their houses; and by this device we sometimes got fifty fanos from one, and an hundred from another. They would on no account permit us to sleep in their houses, except one person, with whom we remained three days and nights, with three or four nayres.

So as we can generalize, it is the medieval and modern practice of sitting in dharna, once used against debtors, by literally 'holding up' a defaulting debtor with a threat to commit suicide at his door by starvation. This ‘door sitting’ practice has its origins from the laws of Manu and we also note a looser form of dharna, called takaza, which permits the creditor to institute by proxy, a regular siege of the debtor's house.

Westlky details it - The creditor would sit dharna at the debtor's door or gate, until some arrangement or instalment was extorted by his importunity. Lord Teignmouth gives us an interesting description of the process of sitting dharna, and the principle involved. The Brahmin creditor proceeds to the door of his debtor and there squats himself, holding in his hand some poison, a dagger, or other instrument of suicide, which he threatens to use if his debtor should attempt to molest him or pass by him; and as the inviolability of a Brahmin is a fixed principle with the Hindoos, and to deprive him of life, either by direct violence or by causing his death in any way, is a crime which admits of no expiation, it will readily be seen that the debtor is practically under arrest in his own house. "In this situation," concludes Lord Teignmouth, "the Brahmin fasts, and by the rigor of etiquette the unfortunate object of his arrest ought to fast also, and thus they both remain till the institutor of the dharna obtains satisfaction. In this, as he seldom makes the attempt without the resolution to persevere, he rarely fails; for if the party thus arrested were to suffer the Brahmin sitting in dharna to perish by hunger, the sin would forever lie upon his head." It became a popular tool for Gandhi during the independence movement and is sadly used to date in India for various protests.

To lend much higher gravity, a Brahmin was employed as proxy to execute the dharna at the debtor’s house.

Fink summarizes - A faint trace of the origin of the practice will be found in the fact that the creditor who resorted to dharna, often found it necessary to hire a Brahmin to starve himself vicariously… At this juncture, it is more than probable that the creditor arrested the arm of the debtor by hiring a Brahmin whose person was always held sacred, and who could not be resisted with violence. The Brahmin thus retained, adopted his own peculiar method of fasting at the door, and even put the debtor under immediate fear by providing himself with some instrument of suicide…To permit a man to starve or fast at your door without relieving his wants, was always looked upon as an act which, in the next world, placed the beggar in enjoyment of heaven, and reversed the condition of the rich man to that of deplorable misery. It was a dread of this supernatural retribution which, in India, made fasting at the door such a powerful instrument in extorting charitable donations to the Brahminical priesthood. And it will be observed that sitting dharna was always undertaken where the debtor was a man of wealth or of superior caste to the creditor.

Was this kind of circle drawing noticed elsewhere in the world? William Ian Miller explains - The Talmud tells of a certain Honi HaMe'aggel (Honi the Circle Drawer) 1st century CE who was asked to pray for rain to relieve the community from drought. In an incident that could have been lifted from an Irish saint's life or from Hindu debt-collection rituals, he drew a circle around himself.

The Chinese practiced a much more sensible variety of dharna than the Hindoos. Instead of starving themselves to death, and broiling in the sun or shivering in the rain, creditors simply quartered themselves and their families upon their debtors, and the latter were generally glad to get rid of their unwelcome guests by scraping together and paying off the amount due. A debtor who was unable to meet his obligations could be compelled to wear a yoke round his neck in public, the hope of the creditors being that the man's friends or relatives would pay off his debt in order to save him from a prolongation of this terrible disgrace.

Sitting dharna was said to be practiced in Persia as well in those days. A man intending to enforce payment of a demand by fasting, begins by sowing some barley at his debtor's door, and sitting down in the middle. The idea that the creditor means to convey to his debtor by this is, that he will stay where he is without food, either until he is paid, or until the barley-seed grows up and gives him bread to eat. Something similar to this dharna was known in ancient Ireland. One of the Brehon laws enacted that a notice of five days was to be served on a debtor of inferior grade, and then distress was to be taken from him. But if the defendant was a chieftain, a flaith, a bard, or a bishop, the plaintiff was obliged to "fast upon him" in addition. The Troscead, or fasting upon one, consisted in going to the debtor's house and waiting at his door a certain time without food. The law ran: "He who refuses to cede what should be accorded to fasting, the judgment on him is that he pay double the thing for which he was fasted upon." If, however, the debtor offered a pledge or security for his debt, and the creditor stubbornly refused to accept it, he, the creditor, forfeited his entire claim.

But well, these kind of things are no longer workable methods to collect debt, life has changed, crooks care not a hoot, though Dharna is still a popular method of protest in India. Humorous scenes of the starving politician sipping lemonade under cover can be seen in movies. So also can be seen movies where the Chinese method of moving into the debtors home are practiced in Kerala, exemplified by Mohanlal’s and Priyadarshan’s great movie of yesteryears – Sanmanassulavarkku Samadhanam.

Essays from Travancore – Ulloor S Parameswara Iyer
The Travels of Marco Polo: The Complete Yule-Cordier Edition: By Marco Polo
Oriental Memoirs – James Forbes
The Romance of Early Exploration - Archibald Williams
A New Account of the East Indies – Alexander Hamilton
Letters from Malabar - Jacob Canter Visscher, Heber Drur