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The Venganad Nambitis of Kollengode

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The Kollengode Rajas

Today there is not much left of that small dynasty but for a lovely palace built purportedly for a recalcitrant princess, an opulent building serving these days as a popular Ayurvedic center. The Venganad Swaroopam which once inhabited it, is scattered around the globe, with homes elsewhere, while people from the West and many an Indian tourist wandering off the beaten track, ironically spend days and nights resting and recuperating in it. The Venganad family must I am sure, be thinking of the old days of splendor and pomp at this kovilakom, of many occasions and festivities, as children played in the courtyard, of the feasting and shows when dignitaries visited and even of the times spent going in hunt to the nearby Anamalai hills. They may recall the trips to the Nelliyampathi coffee estates and presiding over the festivities at the Kachamkurichi temple.

That was the time when multiple Rolls Royce cars picked up the raja’s visitors and a time when the Raja reared upto five elephants in that palace. But let us fist go back to the turn of the century, a period when two palaces stood in this remote border village, some 18 miles to the South of Palghat, and check the diary of AB Clarke who visited the old palace (which incidentally was the ladies quarters and the new one was the main meeting and receiving building) of the Rajah and his family. There was also a nicely furnished guest house for dignitaries. It was June 1915, and the guests of honor were the Raja and Rani of the kingdom of Gaekwad in Baroda (Perhaps Ravi Varma recommended it, for Raja Ravi Varma had become the Baroda court painter). It was also the period when the Raja of Kollengode was a member of the Madras legislative assembly and well known to the British.

Clarke of Baroda College, who accompanied the Gaekwad’s, recounts in fine prose (extracts only provided below for brevity) the visit to village of Kollengode, the home of the Raja, his host.

As we approach our destination, we come close under the grim hills, here and there silver lines of coursing waters standing out in high relief against the sombre background; we are in a country new, full of invitation, land of the Matriarchate and Missionary endeavor, home of a delightful people. Many farms by the road-side, surrounded as to main buildings by high mud walls, with barns and cattle-sheds substantially built, give to the countryside an air of all-pervading prosperity comforting to the eye; while from the road to the Ghats beyond is nothing but greens of paddy and of tree, and, here and there, touches of red from little house tops. We are received by the Raja and the maharani. The Raja takes a seat in Their Highnesses' car, five towering elephants precede us, very slowly we go on our way, lit by flaring torches, flanked by lofty banners, approved by the gestures and exclamations of the multitude. As it rained, we speeded to the Palace. A blaze of lights, seen dimly through a mist of rain, stout walls of stone around a shadowy compound indefinite in growing darkness, bring us to a Gate-House. We cross a storm-swept open courtyard to a further block of buildings where, in a pillared room, the ladies of the family offer the Maharaja and Maharani welcome with all the beauty of Eastern ritual.

The family estates extend over 100 square miles of arable land, and 150 of forest, and hills, the latter the home of a considerable tea and coffee industry, the Raja having five European planters as tenants. The town consists of two straggling streets whence branch off, here and there, many mysterious lanes, avenues of approach to secluded homes; a large tank forms the center. Prosperity is evidenced as much by the well fed, well clothed appearance of the people, as by the neatness and orderly arrangement of houses and gardens.

Their Highnesses (Gaekwads) explored the Palaces, old and new, and the Guest House, all separate, yet connected one with the other by covered ways, or open courtyards. Beyond the inner enclosure, in the outer grassy space which high walls protect from the inquisitive beyond the pale, stood the five elephants we had already met; at hand, huge balks of teak for use in the performance to be given by the mighty beasts, to be lifted, balanced, and carried, at word of command.

The descriptions go on about the various happenings during that visit, for the group is entertained by a veena exponent from Mayavaram,  later they are visited by the British gentry in Malabar, Mr Innes the collector, Duncan, Hall etc and Ayurvedic physician Punnasseri Neelakanta Sharma, followed by a reception at the Raja’s school.

Clarke now goes on to describe the old palace - So we return to the Palace (a traditional nalu kettu, I presume). A most interesting building of essentially Indian design; in the architect’s mind, I am sure, not a single disturbing element of Westernism to rob his work of its characteristic charm. An outer house of two stories whence, in less settled days, watchmen kept ward over ingress and egress, privacy, if desired, obtained by the closing of wooden shutters, but otherwise open to all the winds that blow, used now as a place of reception; across an open court the old Palace may be reached, which only the privileged by birth may enter, from which, in these days, come much sound of music, many voices of merry childhood, a deal of laughter and singing. Its ceilings are supported on massive teak beams, flawless, everywhere adorned by the carved snake symbol, the hood wide displayed as in act to strike; its rooms have square platforms of polished stone, a vantage ground whence master or mistress may address retainers seeking orders, standing below. I may not enter the Old Palace, home of the Household Gods; for me there is need to cross the courtyard towards the inner wall, to pass through a gateway into another, larger, court, to enter the New Palace, similar in design to the Old, yet larger, more ornamental. Here their Highnesses are housed, while we, of the suite, are provided for in the Guest House adjoining, reached by a tapestry-hung verandah.

He goes on to describe the new palace, but as it is still there and a building you can see, I will choose not to provide the rambling prose, but will just provide his conclusion - The Hindu of Malabar, of gentle birth and ancient lineage, like the proud Roman of old, has an inherent love of space and open air; as his classical prototype built his villa on four sides of an open courtyard, the impluvium, so does he erect his dwelling.

The guests listen to a Tayampaka recital the next day and some folk singing (not quite appreciated), followed by children’s dances and kalari performances, after which they proceed on for a shikar towards the jungles where the Gaekwads kill a few elephants. Clarke concludes thus – A splendid place for the hunter, this!! Some music by the ladies in the Old Palace after dinner was offered to, and much appreciated by, Their Highnesses. And then they leave, for Shornur to catch the train to Cochin, after visiting the sights at Palghat, such as the Tipu’s fort.

So much for the palace, but shall we not take a look at the Raja’s checkered history? Made up of a number of legends, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction, and I will attempt to wade through it.

It all starts with their position as naduvazhis of Venganad, thus overlording a terrain covering five desams, namely Kollengode, Vattakad, Vadavannur, Elavancheri and Payyanur. As was customary in the medieval times, their power was measured with the number of Nairs they could provide for a war, that number being 999, which was of course considerable.

As our esteemed historian KV Krishna Iyer explains, Brahmins perhaps came to this region in search of the soma plant for their sacrifices and finding it, settled down there in the hoary past. Soon their sanketam established authority over all the temples between Vadakancheri and the Anamalai hills. The venganad nampiti (a degraded version of a nambudiri) was responsible in the pre cherman perumal days for the supply of Darba, Sruva and camata sticks of sacrifices in the Cheranaad. This was the time when the kongan puzha or Gayatri River as well as the malampuzha or the Iksumati River flowed through the Palakkad region, after a pass was hived through the ghats by Parasurama’s axe. Kasyapa the saint was the first occupant of Venganad, following which we stumble across the story of the king Dharmavartama who gets cured of leprosy at the temple spring in Kollengode, begets a child with his wife, but loses the child Hemanga in the fast flowing Iksumati River. Hemanga was picked up by some blacksmiths and brought up, thus earning the place name Ayaskarapura (place on the opposite bank) or Kollengode (home of the blacksmiths). As the story goes, he grew up, found an opportunity to save the wounded Parasurama, who in gratitude gifted him with the five desams named above. There he lived to rule over the desams, after building the first kovilakom of Venganad.

But there were succession issues, for our man Hemanaga was celibate, a brahmachari. Fortunately he had his sister Dronavati with him and when Hemanaga passed away, Parasurama decided to act. He deputed the lusty Indra, who of course had a thing for fair maidens, and in his usual style, donned the disguise of a Brahmin and seduced Dronavati in gandharva fashion. A son was born, and named Vira Ravi (or Viran Iravi), the titular name adopted by the nampidis or nampitis of Venganad. Their royal edicts were always called vira iravi thitu. This I should warn is but one version, for there are other legends, but I think this one the most accepted, so retold here.

In due time, he becomes the provider of the Somalatha (a creeper), fire making brushes (Karingali), Khadhrim (wood for fire making) and black deer skin (krishnanginam) for all yagnas in Kerala. He is given the permission to eat with namboothiris and told not to walk barefoot on earth since he has the special ability to invoke fire with his feet (that is why the Venganad nampiti walks in the temple wearing wooden sandals, the only person permitted to do so). The Venganad Nampitis are regarded as "Three-fourths Brahmin"; for they have the Upanayana ceremony, but are not entitled to study the Vedas, can sit and dine in company with Brahmins (though not sitting in the same row as the Brahmins). They were later termed the Valiya Rajahs of Kollengode after Tipu left the area. The location and strategic importance were high for it was another entrance to the Kerala side from the pass through the Anamalai hills.

The nampitis ruled well, and we still hear their names and feats being sung in folk songs here and there. The Pantarattil Menon was the chief minister to the Nampitis and it is also felt that they had some connection to the Cochin royal family due to their allegiance to the sun gods or the solar race. The women of the Venganad royal family were called Appiccis.

But as time went by, they chose to align themselves to and become feudatories of the Zamorin after the famous feud or ‘kurmatsaram’ between Panniyur and Covaram. The Kuthiravatom Nair established himself as the head of 3000 nairs at nearby Koduvayur and was asked to take care of the nampitis, by the Zamorin, against any aggressive tactics employed not only by the Palghat rajas, but also Cochin and the Kongunad kings across the Tamil border. The Zamorins of Calicut used to address the Venganad Nampiti as "our nampan" which means "our friend" though the latter were his feudatories.

We see their strong connections with the Zamorin of Calicut from very early days, figuring even in the Porlathiri epoch and later in a 1604 Zamorin influenced regime change in the Venganad family. During this event, the nampiadi absconded and lived in disguise in Kuttipuram, while the Zamorin instated the nambiadi’s sister’s son as the king. The other kings of Venad and Cochin threatened the Zamorin with excommunication if he did not leave the king alone, or so it seems.

We notice their involvement in the construction of the Vadakkanathan temple at Trichur, but as time went by, their prestige declined, and the main family is supposed to have divided into three subdivisions, one moving to Vendavanad in Pollachi, another moving to Tharpayar near Irinjalakkuda and the third to Taliparamba in North Malabar. We also note that the old palace was renovated after a fire in 1856. During all this period, the Kachamkurissi temple was under the custodianship of the Vengunad Rajas of Kollengode, along with the orthodox Nambudiri families of Cherampotta Mana and Cherukunnam Mana of Thrissur. The nampitis had held a position of honor in the Zamorins hierarchy and flourished when the Zamorin held sway over Malabar, but this declined after the 1604 tiff. In the 1700’s we see the Cochin kings taking over much of the Venganad properties and the Dutch intervening in the dispute.

But as the Mysorean invasion started, the namputiris of Venganad fled when Hyder invaded. Hyder spared Kollengode (perhaps because the Nampiti of the time was in disfavor with the Zamorin) when they stood with him and declared the nampiti as the Kollengode Raja. As the British took over during the last decade of the 18th century, Kollengode was absorbed into British Malabar. Like the Zamorin, the Kollengode Raja also became a pensioner to the British later, eliciting a yearly Mallikhana.

The names of Saktan nambiadi and Vasudeva Raja find important places in Kollengode history, with the former excelling in Sanskrit and estate management. The latter was awarded titles such as Kaiser e Hind by the British and was a member of the legislative council. He was the person in power when the gaekwad’s visited. Of particular importance is his involvement in the 1910 Malabar inheritance bill. Vasudeva Raja an eloquent person, was also the vice president of the Malabar Jenmi Sabha while the Kotakkal valiya raja presided. The Ranis of the Kollengode Palace were the patrons of the Chinmaya Vidyalaya and they took lot of interest for the development of the school.

Vasudeva raja built a summer palace in Trichur, which is nowadays a museum, not to be confused with the two kovilakoms mentioned in this article. This so called Kollengode Palace was constructed by the Rajah of Kollengode in 1904AD and was presented to his daughter. This palace was acquired by the Department of Archaeology in 1975 and was converted into a museum home to a number of artefacts including the Veerakallu (Hero’s stone) and also Kollengode Raja Vasudeva Raja’s personal possessions. This Palace, houses a gallery of murals from all over Kerala and temple models, a megalith collection consisting of earthen pots etc. Some of these have since then been moved to the Cochin museum.

As management costs increased, the Venganad family leased 1,500 acres near the Nelliyampathy hills to A M Mechancy and H M Hall, on April 4, 1890 and they founded the Anglo American Tea Trading Company, later subleasing the land to Amalgamated Tea Company in 1944. Perhaps this was the source of the monies used to construct the kalari Kovilakom in 1890. Whether Dhatri Rani was involved or not in a decision to construct it is unclear, but it is quite possible for she was a very able matriarch as we can see from Raja varma’s comments.

As the raja’s powers waned, the Nambudiri co-trustees and uralers of the Kachamkurissi temple, from Cherukunnathu Mana (the Cherampotta Mana had by 1834 ceded their interests to the Cherukunnath mana) eventually filed suit in 1888 for full management, following sporadic arguments commencing as early as 1845, but this case was decided in favor of the Raja, vesting again his melkoyma or suzerainty over the uralers or managers.

The Kollengode Vasudeva raja also figures in the Raja Raja Varma diary. We can get the following interesting information, that they, the painter Ravi Varma and Raj Varma were in Kollengode in Jan 1903, on a project to do a portrait of Dhatri, Vasudeva raja’s mother. Raja Varma records that the new palace had just been completed, and that they were taken care of by Karunakara Menon (V Raja’s brother and editor of The Hindu newspaper) and Vasudeva Raja. Raja records having listened to the 17 year old raja’s sister who sang melodiously some varnams and kirthanams of Iyaga Iyer, but also remarks that she does not seem to have been taught correctly. Following this, Raja Varma sang for an hour. The next day they attended the Arart festival at the Sastha temple, nearby. The Ranis’ sitting and portrait took a week, but the brothers were not happy with the result at the end. I presume the painting they worked on is the attached facsimile.

Raja Raja Varma adds – I must say a few words about the raja of Kollengode. The post of Nampidi is one of the necessary institutions of Malabar. No Brahmin can perform yagna without his sanction (Iyer records that this has to be done with a dakshina of 1 panam. The raja promptly returns it as he is not allowed to accept it, and adds his own contribution) the present nampidi is an enlightened man who has acquired the title of Raja from the government. He has opened a high school at Kollengode and is doing a great deal for the improvement of the place….His mother whose portrait we are painting is an elderly lady of above fifty. During her sons minority she had managed these estates with conspicuous ability and tact. The chief owns large tracts of forests where elephants and other wild game are abundant and he has the idea of giving us an elephant in return for his mother’s portrait for which we have declined to receive any money. He concludes – we have given the finishing touches to the portrait today, the work is not as satisfactory as we should have wished….

Kollengode was always rich for its culture fostered by the vanganad rulers and was home for many a scholar, including Pandit Gopalan Nair, Vadakkepat Narayanan Nair and astronomer P.R. Pisharady. Mahakavi P. Kunhiraman Nair stayed at Kollengode and worked as a teacher in Rajas High School in the early 60’s. During Mahakavi P.'s stay there for less than a decade, he wrote a few outstanding works, including Thamarathoni, which won the Kendra Sahitya Academy award. Venugopala Varma, the then Raja of Kollengode, who was also a poet and scholar gifted the land for the Mahakavi P. Smaraka Art and Culture Centre building. Another tidbit is how Pundit Goplan Nair who was a teacher in the Rajas school in Kollengode got appointed as a Malayalam tutor to Brathwaite for a period and how Braithwhite came back and spoke to the Kollengode school audience in Malayalam. His guru-shishya relationship with Gopalan Nair is to be read and appreciated, check this link. 

So much for the historical aspects. Even though the old palace was lost, we can see bits of it caught on camera in the 1989 film Oru Vadakkan Veergatha, filmed by C Ramachandra Babu. In the movie it was Aringotar’s palace.

Now, tracing the story of the new palace, we come across an article in the Outlook from 1996

The enlightened rulers of the Venganad family brought the railways here, set up schools and established the postal system. The revival and promotion of Kathakali in Kerala began in the schools run by the Venganad family. Young girls danced on the palace steps and from all over the surrounding areas, devotees bent in prayer to the Srimurthi Bhagvathi deity housed inside.

When the last ruler of the Venganad family, Vasudeva Ravi Varma Valia Raja, made his will, he laid down that the palace was not to be alienated or destroyed in any way. But through the matriarchal system, the property passed to the Raja's sister's son who effected a partition which was never ratified by law. Now the daughter of this errant son, Gayatri Mehta, has sold the property to a timber merchant, C.T. Chacko, on the basis of the partition. Chacko is determined to destroy the palace; indeed the back verandah has already been demolished, in contravention of the fact that Mehta had no right to sell the property since according to matriarchal laws she cannot inherit what belongs to her father. Although the Kerala High Court ordered a stay, the timber merchant was able to have it vacated.

Vergheese Philip GM of the Casino 'Ayurvedic Center' now chips in - In 2000, the owner of the Kalari and the owner of CGH Earth Experience Hotels met, and the Hotel group bought the land where the Kovilakom was situated. The ponds have been restored and an Ayurveda Treatment Center is now located where the old Kovilakom stood. The result of the collaboration is the Kalari Kovilakom Ayurveda Treatment Center that offers Ayurveda treatment in a form that is as close as can be to the texts of old.

Its present inhabitants are almost always from afar, trying to enjoy nature’s cures and some peace and calm, which only a remote village, far from the hustle and bustle of the cities of India, such as Kollengode can provide, so much so that you hear no more blaring horns or see frenetic traffic and it will feel as though the outside world does not exist anymore.

Another very interesting account involving the Kollengode Raja deals with the gifting of a baby elephant named Shanti to the Fort Worth TX zoo in America. That is an incredible story which I will retell separately…

The Venganad Nampitis – KV Krishna Iyer (Rama Varma research institute bulletin Vol 10)
Zamorins of Calicut - KV Krishna Iyer
Palakkaducherimuthal palakkadu vere – VC Kabeer
Malabar padanangal – Samoothirinaadu – NM Nampoothiri
Raja Ravi Varma, Portrait of an Artist: The Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma
An introduction to the Kollengode collection of records – PK Michael Tharakan
Oru Vadakkan veergatha – Film clips
The old Venganad palace filmed in Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha (See from 7.45 mins)

Photos courtesy: Palakkad walks  Better interiors