Mackenzie Manuscripts – Malabar and Travancore collections – Part 1

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Colin Mackenzie’s assistants involved with Malabar & Travancore 

In the previous article about Montrose’s heart and its connection to Napierian logarithms, we read that Colin Mackenzie had succeeded in getting a commission with the EIC and had proceeded to Madurai. With Ms. Hester Johnston’s help, we understood that he had established contact with the learned Brahmins of Madurai. But did he find the link between Napier and Hindu Mathematics? Sadly, no! He seems to have lost interest in the subject or may have been pulled into more important work by the EIC such as soldiering and surveying the large tracts of land, which the EIC had acquired in India by that time. This apolitical man was thence, set to devoting his entire life into studying, surveying and collecting manuscripts as well as inscriptions from the various South Indian towns, followed by a short administrative life in Calcutta.

Nicholas B Dirks summarizes - Born in 1754, Colin Mackenzie was a Scot from the Outer Hebrides who went to India at the age of twenty-nine to pursue both a military career and his interest in Hindu mathematics. Mackenzie subsequently used his mathematical aptitude to become a skilled surveyor and cartographer and carried out a series of surveys in India that differed from all others in their broad range and scholarship. In 1810 Mackenzie became the first Surveyor General of Madras, and in 1815 he was appointed the first Surveyor General of India, a post he held until his death in 1821.

Interestingly, the first biographical sketch was partly written by Mackenzie and published by his friend, Hester’s son Alexander Johnston, who seems to have added several embellishments. A popular biography (replete with mistakes) was later written by William Cook Mackenzie and eventually, a precise account was completed by Tobias Wolffhardt, who had access to many more resources. There are many more papers and books out there, on Colin Mackenzie, so I will just provide a run-through his life and concentrate on the assistants who worked with him for the Malabar collections (The one or two books on his assailants thus far, concentrate on the Telugu assistants and the collections in Telugu).

His cultural capital, i.e., especially the collection with respect to Malabar, is rarely referred to by history stalwarts, considering them inaccurate oral accounts of people jotted down by his assistants or loose transcriptions of original documents, which don’t stand up to a critical examination. But at the same time, they can’t be discarded and if studied dispassionately, provide us valuable clues of the history of Malayala, the land of hills and waves, always stated as possessing a peculiar culture…

But let us get back to Madras where it all started, in 1783. It was a turbulent period, the EIC had troubles with the Marathas, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Nawab of Arcot and Hyder Ali of Mysore. Ft St George was an insecure place, and it was here that Mackenzie, found himself. His first appointment in 1784 was to survey the fortifications at Coimbatore, Dindigul and Palghat, with the Madras Engineers, an invaluable work which made the British attacks against Tipu in 1790 at Malabar, that much easier.

Almost all his life, he was involved with surveys and records – Robb explains that he served in the military campaigns of 1790-2 and 1799, but spent most of his life in surveying the vast expanses of the Hindustan which came under the EIC - Hyderabad in the 1790s, in Mysore between 1799 and 1810, as Surveyor-General in Madras in 1810 and again in 1814, with the Madras force in Java from 1811 to 1813, and finally as the first Surveyor-General of India from 1815 to 1821. He adds that he was the first to regard the survey as a means of providing an historical, economic and social understanding of India, rather than as a device only to define and measure specific features in order to assist in rule or conquest. As you can see, he did not do anything to research the life of Napier, his connections with Hindu Mathematicians etc., and there was perhaps a reason for this, which became clear in the story of CM Whish that I had recounted some years ago. Whish trying to present and further similar conclusions that the Kerala Mathematicians were far ahead in Calculus and advanced computation faced considerable resistance from his superiors, was demoted in his official life, got punished and lost his life at a very young age. His association and efforts did come to light recently and are much talked about. Perhaps Coil Mackenzie saw reason to change his future direction and toe the EIC line.

Though these are well accounted for by many authors, Colin’s general involvement in Malabar affairs is not so well known, and I will try to touch upon this lacuna, here. When he started out with the Mysore Survey, he had a good budget to support his efforts and a native team to work with. Initially much of these were slashed, including his own salary and Colin had to struggle to support his team out of his own wages and at the same time struggle with the requests of a senior member Mather’s illness and desire to retire and Colin’s personal desire to promote a taciturn Benjamin ward, from his team. His work at Mysore was done by 1806,

His plan, strategy and approach are elucidated by the following - Mackenzie explained that he planned to support his field measurements and mapping with "a body of authentic materials" on indigenous knowledge - on history, tenures, privileges, customs, government, arts and sciences, "adapted to the peculiar manners of the Natives". Such information was necessary, because the "bare narration of obscure facts can produce little interest unattended with those lights that render them subservient to the amelioration of the State of the Subject, to the improvement of the administration, or productive of commercial advantages.

Colin Mackenzie, the Surveyor of the Mysore territories, credited his "association with Kavelli Venkata Boria, a Telugu Brahman, in 1796, by enabling him to enter the portals of Indian knowledge .... Mackenzie's ambition was to compile the source material necessary to write a history of South India.34 Kavelli Venkata Luchmiah, the younger brother of Boria, after the latter's death became Mackenzie's Chief Assistant "who trained and supervised the work of obtaining and collecting the vast array of materials in the collection.

Mackenzie’s Assistants

Not adept with the many languages prevalent in South India, Mackenzie had to rely heavily on his many pundit assistants. They were the ones who conducted field trips and collected oral testimonies as well as the many palm leaf bundles or copied manuscripts on paper. From his records we can see that he held them dear and considered them as family, right through his career, always standing up in their support. At the end he even bequeathed a part his estate to two of his Indian assistants. Even after his initial work was completed, he tried to persuade the EIC to keep them employees on many instances paid out of his own salary for their travel expenses and upkeep. Barring a short stay at Java where he accompanied the British troops to capture Java from the Dutch, he was always involved in surveys and cartography. It was in Java that he met and married his Dutch wife Petronella Jacomina Bartels.

His transfer to Calcutta was not something he looked forward to and he seems to have consciously avoided traveling out from Madras to Calcutta. His biographers believe that it was mainly due to his concern for the future welfare of his native assistants, and the prospect of being islanded with the material trove with no ability to catalog them or translate them, without those assistants. As you can imagine, his collection had by then, become his life. Some were finally given pensions while a few of the rest, eventually arrived in Calcutta in May 1818. In 1819, he was promoted to a full Colonel in August 1819, but ill health took over, the next two years were very difficult for him and he passed away on 8th May 1821, aged about sixty-eight years old. While others retired quickly and went back home to Britain, Mackenzie had labored in India for thirty-eight years.


A survey trip had previously been conducted through the Malabar territories by Francis Buchanan and published in 1807, and for this reason, Colin limited his efforts to collect manuscripts and oral testimony from mainly the Northern Malabar kingdoms and Travancore.

Though HH Wilson stated the following - The collection of books, papers and inscriptions went hand in hand with the survey ... in the course of his surveying operations [Mackenzie visited] almost all the remarkable places between the Krishna [Kistna] and Cape Comorin [and was] accompanied in his journeys by his native assistants, who were employed to take copies of all inscriptions, and obtain from the Brahmans of the temples, or learned men in the towns or villages, copies of all records in their possession, or original statements of local traditions. It is unlikely that Mackenzie visited any of the Malabar kingdoms with his assistants. However, we do know that he had conducted correspondence with TH Baber at Tellicherry, John Leyden, and probably CM Whish at Calicut.

From the vast collections of Mackenzie, we can gather one of his assistants, Nittala Naina, a Telegu and Tamil speaker was the one who scoured the Malabar region, looking for records and manuscripts and interviewed various people across the caste divide, including Hindu chieftains, Christians, Jews and Moplahs. The assistants involved in translating them at madras were Sautoo or Satoo (Chatu?), Appavoo - a Tamil Convert, and Teroovercadoo Mootiah(Muttiah Thiruverkadu), a Mudaliar from Madras.

The Malabar assistants

Nittala Naina

A Brahmin interlocutor who spoke Tamil and Telugu, Nittala spent long periods (1807-1813, 1816-1821) in Malabar collecting and recording of oral testimonies of the region, in Telugu (being his mother tongue). There may have been others, but it seems clear that Naian was perhaps the only person involved in the collection of Malabar chronicles, not to forget those documents and impressions which found their way to Mackenzie from friends such as Baber and others, living in Malabar, coupled with their own commentaries. Nicholas B. Dirks. In his book Autobiography of an Archive, goes over Naina’s trips to various Madras villages and towns.

Appavu Pillai

Mainly a translator - It appears that he first found employment with Mackenzie after the latter arrived in Madras. Appavoo the Christian, as he was always termed, was involved in translating many of the records collected from Malabar. In 1817 he was sent to Kancheepuram to research on a decadent Jain community there and after his return, this Vepry-Pursuwalkam native met his death, succumbing to Cholera. He also seems to have met the deposed Travancore Elaya Raja Kerala Varma at Chinglepet (See story) and tried to convert him.

Sautoo, Satoo – Chatu Nair

But we should not fail to notice that there were a couple of others who assisted Mackenzie in Madras, circa 1809-1812, one was mentioned to be a very knowledgeable Nair. The identity of the Nair at madras has otherwise proved elusive and further details are not available. The BL records mention many items as having been translated by Satoo or Sautoo – my guess is that it could very well have been a Chatu Nair, but more research is needed to unearth this gentleman, if he existed.

Muthaiah Thiruverkadu

Though a Mudaliar, he is mentioned as a learned Brahmin, by the EIC. Born in 1761, he learnt the Sanskrit, Tamil and Malabar language (Tamil-Malayalam) by the age of 5, Persian by age 11, Marathi by age 13. BY 1779, he had become well versed with Tamil poetry and by 1780 had become well versed in English and Latin (trained by Rev Philip Fabricius). He then studied the Malayalam scriptures, the puranas, the Kamba Ramayana and Mahabharata in Malayalam etc and went on to become a Malayalam translator for the EIC through 1793-94. Apparently, he presented to his superiors a summary translation of the Kamba Ramayanam, if I understood right. While Muthiah had been employed by Anderson and Ross in various Malayalam translations, it is not clear if he got involved with Colin, though it is quite possible since Tobias mentions that many Scots had established contact with Ross, an affluent businessman and financier, to sort out their finances. He may have been involved early in some of the translations.

Then again, there are some who feel that the assistants were a bunch of spies sent out to feel the pulse of the common man or the lesser chieftain, and it could very well have been so, though I doubt it.

Malayalam in Ft St George

It was around this period that Ellis authored some dissertations on Telugu, Malayalam and Tamil at the College of Ft St George. In 1815 CM Whish from Calicut produced the first book of Malayalam dictionary & Grammar.

What did they collect – Just some examples of the 14-year effort of Nittala Naina

Vast amounts of paper were generated, with transcriptions, transliterations and copies of originals. They comprised translated versions of prevalent epics and legends such as the Keralkolpatti, Rasalekha, Rasakalola, Usha, Vraja Vihar, Vichitra bharat, Visi Ramayana, Kerala Rajya story, Vaidehi Vilas,etc. Legends and accounts relating to various local chieftains and temples such as the Wynad Rajas, Tirunelli temple, Rama temple at Tellicherry, the Kannanur Beebi, Calicut Rajas, Cheraman Perumal, Kolattiri Rajas, Kavalappara nayar, Kottayam Rajas, Kurunbranad Rajas, Ananta Padmanabha temple, Tripunitara temple, Yadapalli Yada Rajyam, various hill tribes of Travancore, Nair Prabhus, Kerala Desam history, Sankaracharya, Ponnani Moplahs, Kozhikottu Koya, Tiyyas or toddy drawers, Jains of Calicut, various temples, tribes and castes in Cochin, and Travancore. Then there were accounts (in Malayalam) relating to hunting, Agriculture, estate regulations, rules related Sale and purchase of land, Laws etc. In addition, there were long travelogs in Telegu recounting Nitala Naina’s travels over the many years. They have been cataloged and are still available in the Madras libraries. Some transliterations, hand notes and copies also exist at the British Library in London.

Baber’s gifts included versions of the Keralolpatti, the Cannanore Bibi’s legends, more details of the Kottayam Rajas, etc, all relevant to his region. CM Whish’s collection is better archived and had been gifted directly to the BL Library, by his brother and the ola’s are available in the public domain, beautifully digitized.

After Mackenzie

Eventually, after Colin’s passing, when the original recommendation was for C.V. Luchmiah be placed at the head of the establishment which would complete Mackenzie's work; the Governor of Madras forwarded his letter through the Supreme Government to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, but the request was turned down in favor of William Taylor, a missionary in Madras. It proved to be a disaster in the making. Bernard S. Cohn disparagingly remarks that "the members of the Asiatic Society doubted Cavelly Venkata Luchmiah's scholarly credentials, and instead (they) selected a crackpot to edit Mackenzie's papers" because Taylor was "more familiar with the spurious and mystical Orientalism of the eighteenth century than with post-Jones scholarship of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Historians in search of original source documents sometimes disparage Naina’s oral transcriptions mentioning that they were just a collection of some madcap accounts, and a retelling of prevalent oral legends, from which little truth is extractable. It also becomes clear that Mackenzie toed the EIC line, and despite the large volumes of data and background collected by his Indian assistants could spend hardly any time studying them. That he planned to archive them someday is evident, but neither he nor his chief assistants ever got to doing it.

A careful study of sothe Malabar collection, will easily reveal many inetersting facts. I will get to this aspect, with the study of one such document, in an upcoming post.

Completing "Our Stock of Geography", or an Object "Still More Sublime": Colin Mackenzie's Survey of Mysore, 1799-1810 - Peter Robb
Col Colin Mackenzie – W C Mackenzie
The Origins of Modern Historiography in India – Rama Sundari Mantena
Unearthing the past to Forge the Future – Tobias Wolffhardt
Colin Mackenzie: collector extraordinary author(s): David M. Blake
Intellectual and cultural milieu in the Madras presidency in the colonial context (1833-1848) - Malathi Ramanathan
Biographical Sketch of the Literary Career of the late Colonel Colin Mackenzie, Surveyor-General of India - Alexander Johnston

Footnote – Mackenzie - Hyder and Tipu

Colin Mackenzie participated in various battles against the Mysore Sultans, i.e., Hyder and Tipu, and his account on Hyder as relating to Calicut, presents interesting reading.

Hyder Ali at Calicut (extract from article dated 1804)- The Zamorins, or Kings of Callicut, were ascertained to entertain 1200 Bramins in their household, and until they had first been served with victuals, he never began to eat himself, it was an etiquette also, that he never spoke to, or suffered a Mahomedan to come into his presence. Hyder, after taking the place, sent his compliments, and desired to see the Zamorin, but was refused; but the Zamorin admitted Hyder’s head Bramin to speak to him, and carry his answer back to his master, who was to be at some distance from them. After this interview was over, Hyder sent them rice for only 500 men the first day; this they dispensed with; the second day he sent enough for 300, and the third day, for only 100; after which, all further supplies were refused, nor any notice taken of the Zamorin’s complaints and applications. After fasting three days, and finding all remonstrances vain, he set fire to his own palace, and was burned, with some of his women and three Bramins, the rest having left him.

Hyder, after the Zamorin's death, garrisoned the place with 2000 foot and 500 horse, and marched with the remainder of his army to Coimbetore, 40 coss on his route to his own country. About two months after Hyder left Callicut, the late Zamorin's brother appeared before the place with 20,000 men, got possession of it, and put every soul to death but about 300, who fled to a church for safety. As soon as the news reached Hyder, he detached Assut Khawn with an army of 5000 foot and 1000 horse to retake the place, who, after beating his enemy twice, forced them to abandon the country, and got the town into his hands; but after three months they returned, retook the place, cut off Assut Khawn's head, and killed numbers of his people.

Hyder, about November 1776, marched himself with 6000 foot and 2000 horse towards Callicut, but after being on the road two days, gave the command to Sevajee Rao, a Mahratta. The Zamorin’s brother tried his fortune in the field again but was defeated. He then left the country, and the inhabitants of Callicut evacuated the place, which Sevajee immediately took possession of.



  1. Meera

    I have heard that my great grandmother was a descendant of kulathoor pillai and we still visit the Mahadeva temple in kulathoor