Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

When the Gods sought refuge in Kozhikkode


The year, 1323 AD. It was the final day of the festival at the famous Srirangam Temple, known as the most important Sri Vaishnava shrine in South India. The utsava (festival) idol of the presiding deity, Lord Vishnu, known as Azhakiyamanavala Perumal, and of his two consorts, Bhudevi and Sridevi were being taken in procession to the accompaniment of loud chanting of the Vedas and the Divya Prabhandam.

 Suddenly, a person could be seen jostling through the crowd of devotees, trying to reach the head of the procession. He was stopped by an archaka before he reached there. He whispered something in the ears of the archaka and soon, the stranger was taken to the chief priests. The procession was moving slowly, but unnoticed by the crowd, the chief priests dropped out one by one, leaving the Nambis to continue the procession.

They assembled in a corner away from the din of the procession. The messenger had brought ominous news. The Muslim forces from the Delhi Sultanate had conquered Thondaimandalam ( which included Chennai, Chengalpattu, Tiruvannamalai and Arcot) and were marching towards Srirangam. The invading army was led by Ulugh Khan, the son and successor of Giyazuddin Tulgaq. This Ulugh Kahn would later ascend to the Delhi crown as Mohammed bin Tuglaq.

The messenger had come running from Kannanur ( now known as Samayapuram) which was one of the cities under Hoysala occupation and was close to Srirangam. This Hoysala provincial capital had already been overrun by the Muslim force. He had escaped the enemy's notice and had rushed to warn the temple authorities at Srirangam.

The head priest and other senior Sri Vaishnavas were in a quandary. Many of the senior priests recalled with horror the earlier Muslim attack of 1311 AD which was led by Malik Kafur, the slave general of the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji. They had then plundered the Srirangam temple and taken away not only the hoard of gold and precious stones, but even the utsava idol of Lord Ranganatha. 

It had taken a great deal of effort and some trickery on the part of the Sri Vaishnavas to bring back the idol from Delhi. The Delhi Sultan's daughter, who had fallen in love with the idol, followed the Sri Vaishnavas all the way to the temple and she ultimately died of grief there. This incident is commemorated in the small shrine inside the temple complex - in the northwestern corner of the Rajamahendran enclosure, in the path of the procession - with a painting of the Sultani, named Tulukka Nachiyar (the Muslim wife). Every day, a special offering of wheat bread, sweet dal and khichdi is offered to the Nachiyar. 

For the last 12 years since the idol was brought back, when Lord Ranganatha proceeded in a procession, He visited her as part of the ritual, attired in a lungi such as is worn by Muslim men in South India. The special offering on such visits consists of chapatis, mung dal and milk.

The acharyas decided that something must be done urgently to prevent a repeat of the events of 1311. They knew that the Muslim soldiers would have instructions to recover the idol, as it was believed in Delhi that it had some magical powers. Otherwise, how could their princess fall in love with a lifeless idol and travel all the way to Srirangam in Tamil country only to give up her life?

It was, therefore, decided that Pillai Lokacharya, the presiding priest of the Koyil and a few other archakas would escape with the utsava idol of Lord Ranganatha and the two consorts, Sridevi and Bhudevi. Other Sri Vaishnavas would erect a wall in front of the main idol in the sanctum sanctorum, known as Periya Perumal, and conceal it from the marauders.

The small procession carrying the idols moved stealthily in the dark, avoiding the main roads. They wanted to halt at Tiruppathur but when they reached there, they learnt that the Delhi army was already camping at the local temple. The group carrying the precious idols then diverted to Tirukkoshtiyur and from there, crossed the dense forest to reach Jyotishkudi.

Pillai Lokacharya, the elderly priest passed away at Jyotishkudi. After cremating the acharya there, the group travelled to Tirumalirunjolai ( very close to Madurai) where they stayed for a year.
Madurai had recently come under Muslim rule. The Governor of Madurai, Ahsan Khan was a ruthless fanatic from Kaithal (modern Haryana). He was, incidentally, the father-in-law of Ibn Battuta. Battuta has recounted the cruelty of Madurai forces on innocent villagers, in his Rihla. They would round up Hindus and after impaling them on sharpened wooden spikes, leave them to die. 

The journey of the Srirangam idols is described in detail in the temple's chronicle, Koyil Olugu (KO). According to one version of KO (published by Tirumalai-Tirupati Devasthanam in 1954), 'The icon was then worshipped at Tirumalirunjolai for a year and was later taken to Kozhikode, to which refuge many icons from important shrines including that of Nammalvar , had been removed during the troublous period.After a year's stay at Kozhikode, the icons of Manavala and Nammalvar were taken by the sea route to the Mysore coast and from there the latter alone was conveyed to Tiru-narayana-puram and finally to Tirupati.'

'Going from temple to temple of the Vaishnava holy places on the west coast they reached at last Calicut', writes historian S Krishna Swamy Ayyangar in his classic work, South India and Her Muhammedan Invaders'

Calicut was by no means a Vaishnava holy place. It is also not true that the Srirangam team went 'from temple to temple of the Vaishnava holy places', at least after deciding to get out of Madurai. From Madurai, the easiest route would be the Kambam trade route which was an established trade route from Madurai to Kottayam and the hinterland. 

Out of the 108 Divya Desams sacred to Sri Vaishnavas, 13 are in Kerala, known collectively as 'Malainadu Divyadesams'. Assuming that the Srirangam team had crossed over to Kottayam or further north, they must have passed at least a half dozen Divya Desams - including Trikkakkara, Moozhikkalam, Tirumittakkode and Tirunavaya - before reaching Calicut. Thus, if they were looking for 'Vaishnava holy places' there were several on the way.

Nor was Calicut a peaceful haven where one could hide from enemies. It was a bustling port city with merchants from several nationalities crowding the shores and market places looking for quality spices and textiles. Ibn Battuta who was in Calicut around this time (1342-1347) has left a graphic description of the number of Chinese and Arab vessels which crowded the port of Calicut.

UNLESS, there was a strong magnet in Calicut that was drawing the fugitives here on the assurance that they would be safe here. What could this be?

We had, in an earlier post, indicated the possibility of the spread of Vaishnavism in Malabar in the wake of the Hoysala conquest of the area in the 11th and 12th Century. Vaishnava communities from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka likely migrated to serve the newly built temples of Lord Vishnu. The original inhabitants of the small Goshala Krishna temple could be one such community. This probably explains the cryptic statement about the fugitives being 'protected by various persons in the various places' in Koyil Olugu

This also explains the statement that when the Srirangam team reached Kozhikode, they were surprised to see 'Nammalvar and other Emberumans from various sacred shrines'. Nammalvar shrine is in Alwar Tirunagari in Southern Tamilnadu. The entire area remained disturbed during this period, first by the antics of the Venad Kind Ravi Varman Kulasekhara who claimed the title 'Tribhuvana Chakravarthi' (one who has defeated all the three powers viz.; Chera, Chola and Pandya) and then by the Muslim invasion of the nearby Madurai. It was in this context that the idols of Alwar Tirunagari and nearby temples were shifted to Calicut. Perhaps, the Calicut Vaishnavas had intelligence that the Srirangam idols would be brought here. The more elaborate West-facing Temple was constructed to receive Azhakiya Perumal and his two consorts. 

At present, the Azha Trikkovil Temple complex consists of two distinct temples : a smaller (perhaps older) shrine of Goshala Krishnan facing east, a lump of butter in either hand; and the west-facing main shrine of Chaturbhuja Maha Vishnu with Shankha, Chakra, Gadha (mace) and Lotus. By either side of the Vishnu idol are two mounds representing Sridevi and Bhudevi. The Goshala Krishna idol was once vandalised and it was re-installed based on the evidence obtained from the damaged idol. 

According to the Tantri of Azha Trikkovil Temple, Patirisseri Sankaran namboodiripad, initially there was a Krishnan Koil belonging to the Tamil Brahmin community living in the area. Subsequently, another group of Tamil Brahmins built the MahaVishnu Temple. He was not aware of the the Srirangam connection nor about the Koyil Olugu.

A 1977 document states that as per the land records of Nellikkode amsom (where the temple is situated), the temple's name is recorded in the land records of Nellikkode desam as 'Azhwar Trikkovil'. This could be a reference to the idol of Nammalvar which was the first to be shifted here. The land records also show sizeable land grants in the name of the temple.

We, at Calicut Heritage Forum, tried to look for further evidence of the Srirangam connections. We were thrilled to find several stone pillars with marks like inscriptions. These pillars had been dislodged from their original location and used as paving stones in the pradakshinam and near the tirtha well. We brought in the expert epigraphist, Dr. Rajendu (a freshly returned Fulbright scholar). His team worked for half a day trying to make estampages of what looked like inscriptions. These were indeed inscriptions but during a 'renovation' of the temple in 1984 or so, these stones were used for paving and as a protection for the well. As the pavements needed to be skid-free, workers sharpened the stones. In the process, they had totally disfigured the inscriptions. All that Dr. Rajendu could read was : 'vi ta'! We have requested the management committee of the Temple and the Managing Trustee to consider overturning some of the paved stones. Hopefully, the other side is left undisturbed and has some inscriptions!

The Hindu newspaper had carried a report on the temple and its Sreerangam connection. It is reproduced here.
The Hindu, Calicut Edition, 25th May 2024

Read more ►

Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Zamorins' Life in Exile (1766 - 1795). Manorama Thampuratti and Dharma Raja


 Although we conventionally adopt 1766 as the year in which the Zamorin era eclipsed, the seeds of the decline and fall of this power started as early as the 1720s when the Dutch defeated the Calicut forces and enforced a humiliating treaty surrendering Chettuwa and Pappinivattam in 1718. The loss of Chettuwa was rankling, as it was vital for Calicut's communication with the South. 

But the gradual enervation of the pillars of governance which began with the dismissal of Thamme Panicker from the Calicut court continued in later years with the defection and later withdrawal from the Calicut court of Mangattachan and the open rebellion of his two commandants, Alipparamban and Mapranam and culminating in the unfair dismissal and execution of Tharakkal Warrier, the chief of armory of the Zamorin.

The new Zamorin who ascended the throne in 1741 was the first of the adoptees from Neeleswaram to ascend to the throne. The young Zamorin was, however, distracted by petty disputes like the appointment of managers for the Trippayar temple and ceremonial duties like the conduct of Mamankam (1743) while war clouds were forming on the horizon. Before he could attend to more serious issues, the young Zamorin passed away in 1746. 

He was followed by the impetuous Eralpad who opened up several fronts of conflict with the Moplas of Eranad, the Vazhunnavar of Kadathanad, and the Dutch trying to retrieve the land that his predecessor had ceded in the 1718 surrender. The climax was when the Zamorin forces reached Arookkutty 'which commanded the only passage leading to Travancore from Cochin. When the Zamorin's army arrived there , they found the enemy prepared to oppose their landing. Led by Rama Ayyan, the Travancoreans successfully resisted every attempt made by the Calicut Nayars, and finally compelled them to retire'. (KV Krishna Ayyar, The Zamorins of Calicut, page 221).

This senseless adventurism culminated in the Zamorin being forced to sign another humiliating treaty with the Dutch on 6th March 1758, surrendering Mathilakam, Puthenchira, Chettuwa, and Pappinivattam and paying Rs.65,000 as war indemnity. Within a couple of months after signing this treaty, the Zamorin died, leaving a whole range of unfinished business to the new Zamorin who was clearly unequal to the task. His accession coincided with the desertion of Mangattachan and his trusted lieutenants, Alipparamban and Mapranam. When the combined forces of Cochin invaded the Zamorin territory in 1762, the only option with the incompetent Zamorin was to surrender Alangad, Parur and Trichur. As this coincided with the invasion from the east by the forces sent by Hyder Ali, the Zamorin accompanied by the Valiya Thampuran of Patinhare Kovilakam travelled to Padmanabhapuram and concluded a treaty with the Travancore maharaja agreeing to pay a sum of Rs.16,000 as reparations and also submitting all his disputes with Cochin to the mediation by Travancore. 

Meanwhile, the Mysore ruler was knocking on his doors, seeking implementation of the treaty of 1756 which was the outcome of another foolhardy venture, this time against the Palghat Raja. When Hyder realised that the Zamorin did not have the resources to pay any amount towards the promised reparation of Rs.12 lakhs, he marched towards Calicut. When cornered on all sides, the helpless Zamorin commits suicide, after sending his family first to Ponnani and then to Paravur which was Travancore territory.

We have very little knowledge of how the Zamorin family fared in Travancore where they spent close to three decades. How were they treated by their erstwhile foes but now treaty partners, albeit unwilling. How did the family members who had hurriedly shifted to the Travancore territory fare?

 Calicut Heritage Forum has been scouting around for a scholar who would be able to fill this gap in the Zamorin's history. We were fortunate to identify Dr. M G Sasibhooshan, archeologist, iconologist, historian, and the foremost expert on temple murals to speak to us on the above subject. 

Dr. Sasibhooshan's speech can be listened to here: For those who may not fully follow his speech in Malayalam, we give a summary below: 

When the ruling Zamorin set fire to his palace and self-immolated in 1766, it was a rare occurrence in Kerala’s history. While it was a sacrifice on his part, it was to some extent thoughtless on the part of the Zamorin to have betrayed the trust and loyalty of his soldiers who were thrown at the mercy of the enemy. The particular Zamorin who committed this unthinkable act was an adoptee from the Nileswaram Kovilakam. He probably did not understand the history of the Zamorins. He committed many other blunders also. He dismissed Tharakkal Warrier (who was the head of the artillery of his force) and executed him through his soldiers. Another huge blunder was to plan and celebrate a Mamankam when the whole world knew that Haider Ali was on the verge of attacking Calicut.

The Zamorin family sought refuge in Travancore and was welcomed by the Maharaja of Travancore. They were housed in a peaceful palace in Kunnathur, near Quilon. 

The Zamorin family adjusted to the new circumstances very well without complaining. They accepted the changed life. The men in the Zamorin family had first reached Trivandrum, most probably by sea. It is conjectured that Chovvakkaran Moosa who was a leading trader of Calicut had helped the male members to reach Trivandrum by sea. The family had stayed in Thampanoor in Trivandrum before they shifted to Kunnathur.

 Karthika Thirunal Maharaja was a romantic and led the life of a libertine. He fell in love with Manorama Thampuratti, a princess of the Zamorin family. She was already around 30 years old then and had been married to a Namboodiri from Beypore. She also had two issues in that marriage. But the romance between Karthika Thirunal and Manorama Thampuratti flourished. At first Manorama Thampuratti (along with other women of the Zamorin household) was housed in Karimpinpuzha Palace. Later, Manorama Thampuratti was shifted by Karthika Thirunal to the Ennakkat Palace so that he could be closer to her. The romance was not just physical. The Maharaja was bowled over by the intellectual prowess of the lady who had written a commentary on Proudha Manorama at the age of 19.

When the Zamorin family shifted back to Calicut after the defeat of Tipu in 1790, Karthika Thirunal advised Manorama Thampuratti that Calicut was not fit for her stay. He financed the purchase of an abandoned palace at Venkitakotta in Kottakkal and housed her and her children in Kottakkal. Thus was the Kizhakke Kovilakam re-located to Kottakkal. The son of Manorama Thampuratti became an Eralpad. He was responsible for the revival of the mural tradition in Malabar. Painters like Sankaran Nair and Bharatha Pisharoti decorated the Siva temple of Kottakkal.

The Zamorins led a leisurely life in Travancore and even invited artistes of Ottanthullal and Kathakali and staged performances. As many of the rulers of Travancore claimed lineage from Kolathiri dynasty through their women, the Zamorins, Kolathiri dynasty and even Kadathanad rulers did not feel that they were in an alien land. Kadathanad dynasty sought refuge in Changanassery palace.

Much of what Dr. Sasibhooshan spoke was news to many of us who knew very little of this period in the history of the Zamorins. However, some of our members raised a few issues about some statements. 

Firstly, the statement that Karthika Thirunal financed the acquisition of the Venkitakotta land and the construction of the Kizhakke kovilakam for Manorama Thampuratti requires documentary support. Apart from this, it is highly unlikely that Travancore treasury, struggling to meet the demands of war reparations and compensation from the East India Company would have spared money to build a kovilakam for the Calicut princess. Raja Kesava Das who had an iron hold of the treasury (and of Dharma Raja) would not have allowed such extravagance. 

Secondly, our presumption that no records exist for the period of Zamorin's exile is being questioned. N M Namboodiri in his book Samoothiri Charithrathile Kanappurangal (page 15) records that there is an entire volume in the Kozhikkodan Granthavari dealing with the events during the period the Zamorins were living in exile in Kunnathur kovilakam. We hope someone will access this little treasure to unravel the missing decades in the Zamorin story.

Read more ►

Monday, January 30, 2023

Zamorin’s old Palace – Tangible evidence of the French testimony


Last fortnight, a team of amateur archaeologists led by CHF Vice President and veteran archaeologist, Sri K K Muhammed stumbled on a valuable piece of evidence which may be one more piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is Calicut’s history. It was a huge granite piece of the gate of a structure presumed to be of the Zamorin’s fort.

It was recovered from the premises of a restaurant (1980s: A Nostalgic Restaurant) on the Dawood Bhai Kapasi Road, close to the beach. We are grateful to them for preserving the most nostalgic item – the stone structure of the Fort which goes back more than 500 years before 1980!

 According to Sri. Muhammed, this could be a part of the western gate of the Zamorin’s fort during the period 1400-1500 AD. If so, this was probably the gate through which Vasco da Gama and his entourage entered the palace. This could well have been the palace which his successors Cabral and Albuquerque had blasted with cannons from the sea. 

CHF member and intrepid blogger Maddy had speculated about the ruins of Zamorin’s fort in his post on the decline of Calicut as an entrepot. He concluded by saying: ‘What of these Calicut ruins now? Not much would have been left since there were very few buildings built of stone, and any mud housing would have been washed away, or covered by mud banks.’ 

We are sure Maddy must be happy to have been proved wrong. This is the second structure of what could be reasonably presumed to be part of Zamorin’s fort. Earlier, another bigger piece was found while excavating for a subway. This has been shifted to the local museum. 

This leads us to wonder that the present Calicut is literally sitting on its predecessor city, the actual City of Truth, the fabled metropolitan entrepot where goods from the far west and the far east were traded, and where traders from Venice, Genoa, Lisbon, Malacca and Zaiton (present-day Quanzhou) converged.

Zamorin’s Fort

Traditionally, the Zamorin (or, Poonthurakkon, to be more precise) was believed to have had his first palace in Velapuram. It was presumed to be somewhere on the beach. M N Namboodiri, in his Malabar Padhanangal: Samoothirinad (page 154) mentions that Velapuram was in Moonnalingal, according to property documents which he had examined. Moonnalingal is the junction in front of the east gate of Government Beach Hospital. The latest find corresponds to this location.

As mentioned by Maddy in his post quoted above, we get valuable clues about the old fort from the writings of French private merchants who had been visiting Calicut to scout for opportunities for profitable trade.

The French were the last to set up a company for trading with the East.  Although they had made earlier efforts to set up a company, it was only when Colbert, who came to power in 1661, that the need for competing with the English and the Dutch became compulsive. For, the French were then paying 12 per cent more for Indian goods obtained through the Dutch than if they had procured the same goods directly. 

By the 1630s, a regular route for Indian textiles (called palempores, akin to kalamkari craft) was open from India to France via the Levant and Persia. However, after the founding of the French Company, these goods started flowing directly, and that too much cheaper. Not only women but men also were robed in the ’banyan’, an Indian printed robe. 

France had to ban the import of Indian cottons in 1686 to protect the interests of French silk weavers. In 1691, import of even white cotton cloth from India was banned.

The French Company was established in 1664 and had founded its first settlement at Surat in 1666. However, it was only towards the early eighteenth century that the French Company got interested in Calicut and its pepper. It soon abandoned its Calicut location and shifted to the more congenial Mahe.

Thus the official French did not consider Calicut an attractive destination for trade. But what is of greater interest is how the ordinary French traveller -cum-trader looked at Calicut. 

 Calicut had its share of curious French visitors who came for various purposes, including procuring spices. Soon after setting up the establishment at Surat in 1666, the Director, Francois Caron started sending out envoys to different parts of the country. 

Caron himself was an interesting character. He was a French Huguenot refugee in the Netherlands and had served the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for over three decades. Starting off as a cook’s mate, he rose to be the Director General of VOC at Batavia (Jakarta), a position that was only one grade below that of the Governor General. When he retired from VOC, he was lapped up by the French East India Company in 1665 and was posted as its Director General in Surat where he served until he died in 1673. 

It seems this was a period of a scramble for dominating the ports of western India. In 1663, the Dutch had driven out the English from Cochin which they had grabbed. In the next year (1664), the English East India Company concluded its first extant agreement with the Zamorin. The English perception of the Zamorin, as quoted by Logan, is a little less than flattering. His palace was built of stone and he kept up “some faint resemblance of grandeur” about it. His supremacy over the Malayali chiefs was ‘little more than formal, and his position among the country powers appears to have deteriorated greatly from what it was in 1498 when the Portuguese appeared upon the scene’. (p388, Malabar Manual)

The first set of French merchants to visit Calicut for the purchase of pepper was Fees and Bourreau. Interestingly, they met two French dignitaries who were already in Calicut -  Souchou de Rennefort, the Secretary of the French East India Company and Francois Martin, a French merchant. The two groups met one another in Calicut on the 16th of December 1644. 

Martin and Rennefort stayed in Calicut for a couple of months. They have left behind interesting vignettes of what they saw in Calicut. 

They found that Calicut had very few houses made of bricks and stone. Most houses were made of straw and mud. But, even the smallest house had a garden surrounding it. In fact, they were impressed by these unbroken gardens which extended from one end of the city to the other.

They could easily spot the palace of the Zamorin. Surprisingly, they found the entrance to the palace adorned with forty to fifty pieces of cannon along with three arms of Portugal with three globes, the motto of King Emanuel. It is possible that they mistook the Portuguese fort for the Palace of Zamorin. But, they mention elsewhere that the Portuguese fort was a mile inside the sea, as the sea had advanced and swallowed huge parts of the shore.

Martin noticed that the city was inhabited by both Hindus and Muslims, both carrying out spices trade. There were some Jews also who engaged in the trading of pearls.

His companion, Rennefort gives us a more detailed account. He too found the city to be nestled inside coconut gardens, much like the suburbs of Marseille where the houses were hidden among vineyards and fig trees. The Zamorin was not living in his palace, as he spent most of his time in Cranganore. 

Town planning and architecture

 Both the Frenchmen found fault with the order or symmetry of the city’s layout. They lamented that there were no regular streets. And most of the houses were made of branches of coconut trees in the form of big pavilions but very low. Nevertheless, these were clean inside. 

There was a big complex of stone buildings and next to these, there was a big well in which one could descend slowly. (stepwell in Calicut?) Around the complex, galleries were built in Portuguese style. The nature of this building is not indicated. However, it might just be possible that the recently excavated part belonged to this building complex.

They then crossed a field to come to the King’s house within the complex, far more beautiful than that of the earlier one. They witnessed the King and the courtiers worshipping a golden elephant (Ganesa idol?) Another idol of a black woman breast-feeding two infants (Kali?) was also in the room. Rennefort found the temples and mosques of Calicut built beautifully. 


The markets started at two in the afternoon and continued till seven in the evening.  Shops were lined up on both sides of the street. Behind the row of shops were rooms to keep the goods. The main items of trade included cotton in large quantities, and of different types including white, painted and muslin; pepper; coco oil; sapan wood for colouring (large quantities of sappan wood were being exported in the 17th-18th Centuries  to Japan via South East Asia; the wood is still used in Kerala for colouring boiled drinking water; its local name is chappangam or pathimugham); ropes of coco trees, and all sorts of provisions. Gold and silver jewellery was also a major item of trade, particularly gold earrings.

Social life

 There were a large number of merchants and banias in Calicut. The people were scantily dressed but were wearing gold and silver earrings. The Nairs carried knives in the gold belt with scabbard sculptured in silver and sapan wood. Pirates roamed around the west coast in their galleys, collecting slaves, an important trade commodity during the time.

Flooding of Calicut

The French visitors had observed that the beach of Calicut was not fit for landing, as it was very low and receding. The sea was advancing each year. Already the Portuguese factory had gone two miles into the sea. Only the top of the towers could be seen, although at one time it was not far from the port. According to a letter from that period, the continuing inundation of Calicut port has caused a decline in its commerce. This has caused foreign merchants to shift their residence from the port area to the interior.

One of the casualties of the sea erosion was the English factory which was right on the beach when Abbe Carre visited Calicut and had dinner with the English factors in 1672. When Dellon visited Calicut six years later in 1678, the English factory had been engulfed by the advancing sea and they had constructed a new factory at a high place. 

The flooding of Calicut started around 1645 and continued till the end of the 17th Century. As a result of this flooding, many rich merchants abandoned Calicut and shifted to Goa, according to Dellon. This had virtually ruined the trade of Calicut.

Description of the Zamorin

The reputation of Calicut as a friendly port was well-founded. The rulers invited any foreign visitor to set up trade in this free port. When Captain William Keeling was sailing on Calicut roads, the Zamorin had sent an envoy inviting the English captain to come ashore. He promptly landed in Calicut and signed a treaty of trade. 

Similarly, when the itinerant French visitors wanted to meet the ruler, they were promptly invited into the palace. We have two descriptions of two different Zamorins who had met the French visitors. 

The French physician, C Dellon had stayed in and around Calicut in 1677. He stated that the Zamorin had welcomed the French merchants, Flacourt and Coche at Calicut. He even offered them a port called Alicote (Azhikode, near Kodungalloor) ‘with its dependencies and even ceded its sovereignty to them’. 

L’Espinay who visited Calicut in 1672 also had a meeting with the Zamorin. Before their audience, two princes from the palace came on board their ship and confirmed to the French the cession of Alicode. The designation of the princes is recorded as Herampatte (Eralpad) and Mevanxonre ( Moonnalpad?). It was made clear to the French that the Eralpad was scheduled to succeed his maternal uncle.

The next day, L’Espinay went to call on the Zamorin, accompanied by Caron and La Haye. They were taken to Ponnani where the Zamorin was staying. La Haye, a French aristocrat, thought poorly of the palace. The carpet on which the king sat looked shabby. The French were asked to sit on another carpet. Caron found it difficult to sit on the ground. A box was brought for him to sit on. 

According to La Haye, the king was sixty years of age. He was short in stature. The two nephews who had met them earlier were de facto rulers. The ceding of Azhikode was indeed ratified at the meeting. But the French had difficulty in dislodging the Dutch who were already in possession of the port, having built a fort there. 

L’Estra who had also accompanied La Haye, however, found the Zamorin an old man of nearly seventy years with a white beard. He was only three and a half feet tall. He was wearing diamond rings on all his fingers, set with precious stones and even gifted a pearl necklace to Caron.

The French continued to trade with Calicut, despite civil unrest during the early decades of the 18th Century and financial difficulties which the French company faced frequently. In the meanwhile, they were scouting for a more convenient and lucrative spot. They zeroed in on Mahe at the mouth of a river. Ultimately, in 1727, the Council of Mahe was created and Calicut was abandoned as a trade centre.

Next Steps


It is more or less certain that floods brought ruin to Calicut during the second half of the 17th Century, a fact not fully factored in while discussing the fortunes of the Zamorin history. As suggested by Maddy, floods leading to the shifting of the centre of power and governance could have impacted the reputation of Calicut port during this period. This was probably aggravated by the foolish decision of the rulers to annoy neighbouring rulers like that of Palakkad, inviting the attention of Mysore powers. Such self-destructive steps culminated in the suicide of a desperate ruler and the virtual end of the Zamorin dynasty.

CHF had earlier tried to enlist the ISRO to conduct a satellite mapping of the Calicut coast. We had also requested the National Institute of Oceanography to explore the coast for the sunken city. However, we have not been able to arouse their interest. Now that no less a person than the former Regional Director of ASI is involved in the ‘accidental excavation’ of tangible evidence of the Zamorin’s legacy, let us hope Sri Muhammed will use his influence with the ASI to take up some investigation of the Calicut coast like he had done in the case of Tipu’s fort in Feroke.


1. B Krishnamurthy: Some Aspects of the French Trade with India (1664-1771), Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol.40 (1979) pp.962-972

2. Aniruddha Ray: The French Presence at Calicut from the mid-Seventeenth century to the early decades of the Eighteenth Century; Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, vol.60, Diamond Jubilee (1999), pp. 372-384

3. The decline of an entrepot -Calicut (26 May 2021)

4. Samoothirinad – Malabar Pathanangal, M N Namboodiri, (2008), State Institute of Languages, Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram

Read more ►

Friday, March 18, 2022

Pandit P Gopalan Nair and Captain Braithwaite : Story of a Strange Friendship


Pandit P Gopalan Nair (1869 - 1968)

Pandit P Gopalan Nair is a household name today, as the scholar who introduced Srimad Bhagavatham to Malayalee Hindu households. Apart from the 8-volumes Bhagavatham, he had annotated and translated several holy books of Hinduism like the Ramayana, Brahmasutra and Bhagavad Geetha.
Gopalan Nair was born into a family of very limited means in Kollengode, Palakkad district, Kerala. His father, a Brahmin priest of a few temples, was hardly able to support his family. The elder son of the couple was mentally challenged and died at the age of 15. Naturally, the couple was worried about the younger son, Gopalan and did not send him to school till he was 8 years of age. He was then sent to the ezhuthupally where he learnt the basics of Sanskrit language and literature. 
He spent four years at the ezhuthupally when  it was taken over by an English school. Automatically, Gopalan Nair became a student of the second standard in the English school. As he was the senior most student in the school, his teacher used to assign him to teach the lower classes. 
But misfortune followed him there as well. He had to terminate his English education in the third standard, as his widowed mother could not afford to send him to school. He had just about started to grasp the English language which fascinated him no end. 
Gopalan Nair went back to his Sanskrit studies for the next two years under a local Sanskrit scholar. However, the financial position of his household had become so precarious that he had to look out for a job. Thus, at the age of 16, he joined the timber depot of his uncle in Vallangi as an accountant. 
But, misfortune did not leave him there as well, as  his uncle passed away the next year in 1885 and he was saddled with the responsibility of managing the timber depot on his own. Soon he had to give up the enterprise and return to Kollengode where he was offered a teacher's job. After undergoing teacher's training, he became the Sanskrit and Malayalam Pandit at the High School run by the Kollengode Raja, Sri Vasudeva Raja.

The Young Inspector of Schools

Philip Pipon Braithwaite
 (1880 - 1918)
Philip Pipon Braithwaite was a young Inspector of School covering the area of Malabar and Mangalore, headquartered in Cannanore. He had come to India with outstanding credentials. He graduated in History from Caius College, Cambridge where he was known as a keen debater, a great footballer and a champion boxer. In 1905, he was appointed the Vice Principal of the prestigious Teachers College, Saidapet, Chennai. This College, established in 1856 is today known for its illustrious alumni, including two former Presidents of India, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and R Venkataraman, as well as  Anantasayanam Ayyangar, the first Deputy Speaker and later the second Speaker of Lok Sabha.
After spending a year and a half at the Saidapet College, Braithwaite was promoted as Inspector of Schools in Malabar. During this posting, he had to visit the entire Malabar province including the Canara districts and inspect the English schools. 
As soon as he had decided to serve in South India, Braithwaite had joined the Southern Provinces Mounted Rifles, a volunteer force formed in 1904. It had blue uniform with white facings and the insignia was a strung bungle with the initials S P M R. 

Malayalam tutor

Braithwaite made friends among the teaching and management staff with ease. One such friend was Vasudeva Raja, the owner and manager of Kollengode Raja’s High School. Braithwaite asked the Raja, during one of his visits to Kollengode, to look for a teacher to coach him in Malayalam, as he was required to pass a departmental test in the language of the region. Raja had no hesitation in recommending Pandit Gopalan Nair who was teaching Malayalam and Sanskrit in his school. 

Thus began an unlikely friendship between the saintly Pandit and the dashing Cambridge don who was half his age, but was his supervising officer. Nair left his job in 1910 and proceeded to Kannur where he stayed for the next 19 months as the resident tutor of young Braithwaite. The Malayalam test for which Braithwaite had engaged Nair was over in 10 months. Expectedly, Braithwaite did splendidly in the test. But, by then, his interest had shifted to learning Sanskrit and Vedanta. For the next 9 months Nair taught him Sanskrit and Bhagavad Gita which he found fascinating. 

Pandit Gopalan Nair had started his Bhagavatham annotation in 1909. It was his good fortune that Braithwaite’s offer came in 1910. For the next almost two years, he could continue the work of translating the massive work of 18,000 verses. Braithwaite engaged him only for one hour in the morning and another hour in the evening. Pandit was free to pursue his passion for the rest of the day unhindered by the boring routine of classroom teaching and disciplining students. 

Another advantage during this period was that his pupil took him along wherever he toured on duty. This took him to many places in Kerala and Coorg. It was on one such trip to the Nilgiris – where Braithwaite was vacationing during summer holidays - that Gopalan Nair learnt that he had become a father. All he could do was to write to his wife assuring that the boy’s choroon (ceremonial rice giving) would be held in Guruvayur temple. He could fulfil this promise only after four years. So engrossed was he in the Bhagavatham translation.

Meanwhile, the spectacular Delhi Durbar was being planned for 1911. The Durbar, a pageantry of pomp and splendour, was significant on two counts: unlike in the previous Durbars of 1877 and 1903, the Emperor, King George V, himself would be attending the Delhi Durbar. Secondly, the shifting of the Imperial Capital from Calcutta to Delhi would be announced in this Durbar. The ceremonial procession included forces from all over the country including British and native forces. Braithwaite was selected to represent the Southern Provinces Mounted Rifles. The roll of honour of the Delhi Durbar lists the name of 2nd Lieutenant Braithwaite PP, Southern Provinces Mounted Rifles, of the Education Department, Cannanore, as a recipient of the 1911 Delhi Durbar Medal.

Mayo College, Ajmer

Mayo College Magazine of December 1912, notifying the appointment of Braithwaite

Soon after, Braithwaite got a posting as a member of the faculty of the prestigious Mayo College, which was founded in Ajmer, Rajasthan by the Viceroy to provide modern education exclusively to the sons of maharajas. The Viceroy had described it as the Eton of the East. Braithwaite was delighted to go there, as it was a rare honour and a welcome change from inspecting native schools. But, he was reluctant to let go of his teacher, Gopalan Nair. He offered to take him to Ajmer as a language teacher. But Gopalan Nair had to decline the offer as his family circumstances did not permit him to leave Kollengode for long periods. He bid farewell to his favourite student and returned to Kollengode.
The World War and the Battle of Palestine

Braithwaite had been working at Ajmer only for a couple of years when the World War broke out in 1914. He immediately applied for a commission in the Indian Army Reserve of Officers. He underwent a year’s training at Meerut as a Second Lieutenant with the 21st Cavalry. Then he was sent to join the 36th Cavalry (Jacob’s Horse) which was deployed in France. Until he left the shores of India, he used to send regular letters to Gopalan Nair about his welfare. He got promoted as Lieutenant and saw action in various battles in France.
He was promoted as Captain in 1917 when his regiment moved to Palestine. The 11th Cavalry Brigade to which the 36th (Jacob’s) Horse was attached, was pursuing the Turks who were attempting to escape across River Jordan. The troops under Captain Braithwaite had gone too far in pursuit of the enemy and were almost surrounded by Germans. Only four or five of his men made it back that afternoon. The Captain was among those killed on 28th September 1918, a few weeks before the Germans signed the armistice agreement on 11th November 1918.

Grave No.A 37, Haifa War Cemetery

Braithwaite’s father, Canon Philip Braithwaite wrote: ‘It is a great comfort to feel that all who knew him admired his noble character. He crowned as it were his beautiful life by dying in a holy cause in the Holy Land’. 
It was his sister who broke the news to Gopalan Nair in a letter. According to the biography of Pandit Gopalan Nair written by Sri P Rajagopalan, Gopalan Nair used to describe Braithwaite as ‘a perfect friend, model disciple and the embodiment of gratitude’. Gopalan Nair had invited his distinguished pupil to preside over the annual day function of his school. In his speech in Malayalam, Braithwaite described himself thus: ‘While I am second to none in my respect towards my guru, I have been a worthless disciple’.  

The guru, in his turn, would reminisce about  the warmth of his disciple’s friendship for the rest of his long life.

P Rajagopalan : Pandit P Gopalan Nair (1990) Department of Cultural Publications, Government of Kerala
Facebook page : Paul's Medals and Documents Collection

- Photos of Braithwaite reproduced with permission from Paul's Medals and Documents Collection Facebook page
-  Mayo College Ajmer photos courtesy Mr. Brijeswar Singh, IAS, Mayo alumnus.

Read more ►

Friday, December 3, 2021

Calicut's patronage of letters - how a negative comment can spur scholarship


 We had occasion to write about Calicut's long tradition of encouraging scholarship here and here. Rulers like the Manavedan Zamorin who had himself written the Krishna Geethi, and Vidwan Ettan Thampuran  were  generous patrons of letters, earning for Calicut this well-earned appellation.

But today we come across a curious case of a negative comment - bordering on derision - from a gentleman from Calicut goading a scholar from Palakkad to take up the study of Vedanta and Ramayana, only to end up as one of the foremost commentators of Bhagavatha, Ramayana, Brahmasutra and many other Sanskrit treatises.

The man who insulted Pandit P Gopalan Nair is now forgotten. But, his contribution in challenging the Pandit deserves to be acknowledged. He was Mr. Unni Eradi, the first graduate from Kakkodi Panchayat and a retired District Registrar. 

Kakkodi is about ten kilometers east of Calicut. It is still a Panchayat. In fact, Kakkodi Panchayat has published the local history of Kakkodi in 2005. Mr. Unni Eradi finds a mention, though not very honourable, in the official history. 

Edakkandathil Unni Eradi was the first graduate of Makkada amsom. He studied in Madras. He was a District Registrar. He used to stay in Calicut town. He was reluctant to help the locals in any manner.

Pandit P Gopalan Nair was a self-made man. Poverty did not allow him to pursue schooling beyond class 3. His textbook in Class 3 was 'The English Primer' authored by the Inspector of Schools, Mr. P P Braithwaite. The same Mr. Braithwaite later became a shishya of Nair for learning Malayalam and a bit of Vedanta.  Their association continued for a long time till Braithwaite, who volunteered for war service during the First World War, lost his life in the Palestine front in 1918.

Gopalan Nair continued his studies in Sanskrit kavya and alankara under various local teachers. When he was 16 years of age, he was forced to seek some job to maintain his family which consisted of only his widowed mother. He started work as an accountant in the timber yard of one of his uncles in Vallangi. Even there, he found time to pursue his Sanskrit studies under Sri Rayiramkandath Govinda Menon, who was running an English School in Nenmara. 

Later, Gopalan Nair became a teacher at a local school and subsequently, its headmaster and manager as well. However, as he did not have any formal teaching qualifications, he could not continue for long. One of the conditions for getting annual grant in aid was that the teachers should be qualified. 

As teachers' training was available only in Calicut, Gopalan Nair proceeded there. This was the time when Vidwan Ettan Thampuran (P.C. Manavikrama Raja of Mankavu Palace) was presiding over the literary circle in Calicut. Ettan Thampuran, a prolific poet and writer in Sanskrit himself, was better known as a generous patron of literary figures like Vallathol, V C Balakrishna Paniker and Punnasseri Nambi Neelakantha Sharma. (Maddy has a detailed post on Vidwan Ettan Thampuran which can be accessed here ).

Gopalan Nair, who had briefly met the Thampuran during one of his visits to Kollengode, renewed his acquaintance. He would regularly visit the Mankavu Palace on Friday afternoons and be the guest of the Thampuran on Saturdays and Sundays, learning from him Grammar and Alankara shastra. 

Ambalakkat Karunakara Menon, the son of the Thampuran, recalled the holding of Vidvat Sadas (A Confluence of Scholars). Menon was just eight years of age, but he vividly remembered that 'Gopalan Nair used to be a regular among the distinguished persons assembled. There was a special reason for this. Sri Gopalan Nair was my father's favourite disciple. His love for him was no less than his love for us, his children. Although he was the youngest of the scholars assembled in the Sadas,  everyone was in awe of his mastery in Sanskrit.'

Menon continued to reminisce about his meeting with Gopalan Nair. One of the items in the Sadas was 'samasya pooranam'. Participants would go to some silent corner and think about how to fill the three lines of the quartet which they have to write to solve the riddle in the given fourth line. The boy Menon used to spot Gopalan Nair, tall, fair and of a peaceful disposition, always attired in white garments, scribbling away in a corner of the verandah of Patinhare Kovilakam.

Apart from Thampuran's affectionate attention, Gopalan Nair also was fortunate to receive the motherly affection from his wife, Ambalakkat Lakshmikutty Amma, as recorded by Nair himself. A memorable event during those days was the literary competition held in Calicut Town Hall to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Wales. Gopalan Nair won the first prize in prose and the second prize in poetry. The first prize in poetry was won by none other than Vallathol Narayana Menon.

On returning to Kollengode, he continued to work in the school till 1906 when his guru, Ravunniarath Kannan Menon who was the Malayalam Pandit at the Raja's High School, Kollengode, passed away. Vasudeva Raja of Kollengode appointed Gopalan Nair as the Malayalam Pandit, a position in which he continued for the next 28 years, with a brief interruption when he became the teacher to P P Braithwaite.

Although the Pandit was by now well-known for his mastery of Sanskrit language and its literature, he had not turned his full attention towards studying and interpreting the puranas. It was an incident which happened during these years that led him to delve deeply into a study of the epics and puranas.

Unni Eradi, who was introduced at the beginning of this post, had been posted as Sub Registrar of Kollengode many years ago. He had since retired as District Registrar and was settled in Calicut. He decided to visit his old haunt, Kollengode. He was the guest of one Karumathil Ananthan Menon who was serving as Revenue Inspector in Kollengode. Menon was a leading local figure who was also a patron of letters. Eradi had occasion to meet Pandit Nair at Menon's house.

Menon introduced the Pandit to Eradi as a Sanskrit scholar. Eradi who was himself a bit of a scholar  requested the Pandit to read and explain the book 'Vedanta Paribhasha'  which he was carrying with him. Gopalan Nair read and explained the text of the book although he found it rather difficult due to unfamiliarity. Eradi was immensely pleased with Gopalan Nair's rendering. He then casually asked Nair if he had read the Valmiki Ramayana. Nair had not read it and said so. 'What about Mahabharata', was the next question. Gopalan Nair confessed that he had not read it, either.

Eradi blurted out: 'Mr. Nair, then I have no great opinion about your Sanskrit scholarship'.

This was the Poonthanam- Bhattathiri moment! Gopalan Nair felt absolutely mortified at this rude comment. He vowed to undertake a study of these puranas. He went to the bookshop of Subrahmania Iyer in Palghat (presumably, R S Vadhyar and Sons) and purchased a copy of Valmiki Ramayana. For the next one year, he focused on a thorough study of this epic. Then for the next two years, he concentrated on a study of the Mahabharata.

Subsequently, he obtained a copy of Bhagavatham with annotation called Sreedhareeyam and immersed in a study of this purana. He also made a comparative study of other interpretations before embarking on the mammoth task of annotating the Bhagavatam himself. This was between the period of 1909-1911. It was the Bhagavatham annotation, published by Guruvayur Devaswom, which made Pandit P Gopalan Nair a household name in Kerala. 

The world must thank Unni Eradi from Calicut for provoking Pandit P Gopalan Nair into starting such a mammoth task and bringing it into fruition. 

Postscript: I had an occasion to see Pandit Gopalan Nair at close quarters. My eldest brother married from Palghat. The bride's father had invited the Pandit to bless the young couple during the function at Palghat.  I vividly remember gazing in awe at this Gandhara Buddha figure in pure white dress, with his forehead smeared with several lines of holy ash marked with a red vermilion dot in the centre, seated in a reclining chair. He was more than 88 years then. 

I did not know then that the villain Mr. Unni Eradi was my grandfather's uncle. Had I known this, I would have apologised to the great scholar for the insult he received from my ancestor. But then, stories about Bhartruhari and Melpathoor teach us that there's nothing like an insult, administered at the appropriate time, to spur one's creativity!


1. Pandit P Gopalan Nair (1990) by P Rajagopalan, published by the Department of Culture, Govt. of Kerala .

2. Pradeshika Charitram  (2005) (Local History) by Kakkodi Panchayat

Read more ►

Thursday, October 28, 2021


Karl Marx and British Torture of Malabar Peasants

Peasant revolts of Malabar in the 19th and 20th centuries have been researched and written about by historians from the one end of the ideological spectrum to the other. Those who supported the official British version interpreted the uprisings in terms of religious fanaticism. Others towards the middle of the spectrum saw frequent changes in the ownership and control of land as a result of the Mysore invasion and its aftermath, as the main cause for peasant protests. At the other extreme were the Marxian historians who saw the uprisings as class war. Perhaps there was an element of truth in all the above versions.
We do not propose to join hands in the debate. Instead we try to focus on the extent of torture and atrocities committed at the behest of the East India Company masters whose only goal was maximising revenue. At least, until their hands were stayed by the British government as a response to public outcry.
When the East India Company took possession of Malabar in terms of the Treaty of Seringapatam (1792), they noticed that the Mysore rule had already put in place a revenue collection mechanism. Although this was sufficiently rapacious, some of the Company officials thought that this could be further fine-tuned. However, it was only after 1801, when the Madras province was created, that Malabar could have a proper district administration.
One of the prime concerns of the first Collector of Malabar, Major Macleod was to further increase the land revenue by an arbitrary estimate of the produce. This led, in 1803, to the first recorded civic unrest in Malabar during the East India Company times. On the 1st of March, 1803, rebel peasants raided the Calicut jail and helped the prisoners to escape. Major Macleod, as the person who initiated the unrest, had to resign and leave Calicut.
In fact, Major Macleod had become so incapable of handling the situation that he just handed over his charge to Robert Richards, the Senior Judge of the Criminal Court without seeking permission from the Madras Government.
Edward Clive, the Governor of Madras (and the eldest son of Robert Clive of Plassey fame) viewed this dereliction seriously. He wrote:
‘I have perused with the utmost degree of surprise and regret the despatches from Malabar, announcing the transfer of the executive Civil Authority in that province from the Principal Collector to the Senior Judge of the Criminal Court, without any semblance of authority which could justify so extraordinary a dereliction of public duty on the one hand or the assumption of the executive on the other’.
W. Francis ICS who authored the District Gazetteer of the Nilgiris (1908) summed up the mess created by his non-ICS predecessor thus: 
‘…the unwise administration of the first Collector of Malabar, Major Macleod, had thrown the whole district into a ferment and enormously increased the number of malcontents.’
It is evident that the root cause for the peasant revolt was extortionary rents. Earl of Albermarle’s speech in the House of Lords on 14th April 1856 gave vent to the feelings of this group: ‘when rent could only be obtained by means of torture, it might safely be assumed that the land was rented too high’.
The introduction of cash into the rental payment made the situation of the peasantry worse. They had now to sell more and more of their produce in the market to earn enough cash to be able to pay the rent. As the cash in circulation was limited, this led to the price of paddy falling as more and more paddy was required to get the same amount of cash. This led to further impoverishment of the already indigent peasants.
Why was this change into cash payment of rent made? The Company needed cash for a variety of reasons. Most importantly, it had to pay the army, police and public officials in cash. It also required cash to transfer a portion of its Indian revenue to the home country. Naturally, there were defaults and these were followed by severe punishment, including incarceration. 

The fall of Tipu Sultan led to the Company acquiring a large province without the resources to administer it. This led to ad hocism in police and judicial administration. 
How did a private trading company come to assume extensive judicial powers? The earliest charters of 31 December 1600, 31 May 1609 and 4 February 1622 gave the East India Company power only to make reasonable laws for its own government and to ‘chastise and correct all Englishmen committing any misdemeanour in the East Indies’.
The Charter of 1661 gave the Agent or Governor in Council to judge all persons ‘including natives under their power’ in civil and criminal cases according to the Law of England. The Regulating Act of 1773 gave sanction to a system which later came to be known as the Cornwallis system. When Malabar was annexed, it was this system with its component of the Zamindari structure as practised in Bengal, which was attempted to be grafted on to the new territory. 
The shock expressed by Governor Edward Clive of Madras when Collector Macleod had handed over his charge to the criminal judge Richards should be seen in the context of the Cornwallis system. For, under the system, once a Zilla Court existed, all judicial powers exercised by the Collector stood transferred. The Collector had only revenue duties and did not have magisterial powers. The Cornwallis system maintained a strict separation between executive and judicial powers, which was breached by Major McLeod by handing over executive powers to the judicial officer.
However, the Company authorities found this system wanting in many respects. They appointed Thomas Munro as Special Commissioner for a revision of the Madras judicial system in 1814. Munro, assisted by his fellow Commissioner, George Stratton, laboured for two years and came up with a comprehensive reform of the judicial system of the Madras province in 1816.  
Munro, from his field experience of Salem, Kanara and the Ceded Districts, knew that Judges hardly had an opportunity to obtain accurate knowledge of the people in remote areas, as they presided over the court in the Zilla headquarters. Collectors, on the other hand, toured the districts intensively, primarily to ensure that revenue which was due to the government was collected promptly. In the process, they acquired deep knowledge of the people and their problems. Munro, therefore, felt that Collectors should have control over the police as well as exercise magisterial powers. 
This proposal was not acceptable to the Madras High Court and the Board of Revenue, influenced as they were by the Cornwallis legacy. However, these were finally adopted by the Governor, Hugh Elliot. Munro was convinced that his recommendations suited ‘the manners and institutions of the people whose use they are intended, and to that end that were made as simple as possible’. The most important objective of the reforms was to employ Indians more extensively in the internal administration of the country. In every department, whatever could best be done by native servants should be entrusted to them, as he felt that Indians not only cost less, but being infinitely better qualified, were more efficient than Europeans.
A consequence of this reform was the sudden expansion of the local judicial and magisterial bureaucracy. Subordinate revenue officials were entrusted with magisterial powers. This helped them collect the revenues faster. Having the Police under them made it easier to use coercive powers against not just criminals, but also mere defaulters of land revenue. This led to several instances of torture and consequent peasant protests. Such protests were not confined to Malabar alone, as is evident from the series of peasant uprisings in Coimbatore and nearby districts in the 1830s.
When the peasants could not pay the dues (and often the bribe, over and above the dues), it was common for the revenue officials to attach and sell their properties. Very often, the moveable items like farming implements were also confiscated and sold. T H Baber, the Sub Divisional Magistrate  of Tellicherry wrote to his Principal Collector, Warden :’a catalogue of effects seized and sold by your Parbutties during the last two years exhibit no less than 509 brass gendies, ginnum, oraly and lamps, 45 kaikots, and other implements of husbandry and 104 cattle, amount realised on which account is eight hundred and odd Rupees, a sum comparatively nothing to what will be required to replace those necessary articles; it is impossible such a system can last long’.
This was a rare candid opinion coming from a bold Company civil servant. Generally, news of the plight of peasants was not allowed to travel up the chain to Leadenhall Street or the Parliament. Hon’ble Mr. John Bright, speaking in the House of Commons on 11th March 1853, pointed out how civil servants were prevented from giving out such inconvenient news: every attempt made to communicate information as to the actual condition of the ryots, on the part of the native servants of the Company, was met by threats of instant dismissal. 
Quoting from a petition submitted by the natives of Bombay, he lists out their grievances: ‘…that the law is administered in the Company’s Courts under circumstances which are productive of great delay and expense, and which eventually amount to an effectual denial of justice – that the police of India is such as to afford little security for life or property – that the police themselves are in many cases little better than dacoits or gangs of robbers that infest the country – and that the taxes levied on the people are not levied in such a manner as to inflict the minimum amount of injury to the industry of the country, but that they are besides extremely onerous.’
The murder of Conolly, the Collector of Malabar and subsequent events exposed the utter worthlessness of the police force in maintaining order. S B Tod, the Assistant Collector of Malabar, who was the first to reach the scene of Conolly’s murder and had ‘the melancholy duty’ of informing his bosses and taking follow-up action, reflected this general sense of anarchy: ’The dread these men have inspired is so great that I am anything but sanguine of them being captured alive by civil powers’.
The extortionist practices of the East India Company towards the ryots of Madras province was the subject of discussion in the British Parliament when the Company’s Charter came up for renewal. Liberal newspapers also wrote about the plight of the impoverished peasants. All of this led to the appointment of the Madras Torture Commission consisting of E F Elliot, Chief Magistrate of Police, H Stokes, Madras Civil Service and J B Norton, barrister ‘to conduct an enquiry into the alleged cases of torture in the Presidency’.

The Commission submitted its report in 1855. Its findings and conclusions, despite the fact that it had no native members, were shocking in the extreme. 
‘Many a witness has declared to us that the people would be satisfied if the demand of the Revenue officers were restricted to just Government dues; we entertain no doubt but that the extortion of what are erroneously termed “Bribes” is universal, and that when payment cannot be obtained by fair means, foul will be resorted to’.
‘Thus is brought into play all that perfect but silent machinery which combines the forces of Revenue demands and Police authority; the most ingenious artifices which the subtlety of the native mind can invent had recourse to; and it seems highly probable to us that it is a common practice with the native officers to give their own illicit demands precedence, when pecuniary means being more plentiful or easily procurable’.
Torture of various sorts is resorted to when the tax and more importantly, the bribe is not forthcoming. The Commission describes graphically some of the techniques employed by the Police:
‘…twisting a rope tightly round the entire arm or leg so as to impede circulation; lifting up by the moustache; suspending by the arms while tied behind the back; searing with hot irons; placing scratching insects, such as the carpenter beetle, on the navel, scrotum, and other sensitive parts; dipping in wells and rivers, till the party is half suffocated; squeezing the testicles; beating with sticks; prevention of sleep; nipping the flesh with pincers; putting pepper or red chillies in the eyes, or introducing them into the private parts of men and women; these cruelties occasionally persevered in until death sooner or later ensues’.
Sadly, the Report attempted to whitewash the complicity of European officers in the organized torture. It argued that ‘… no native would knowingly venture to have recourse to any such practice in the presence of a European, sets at rest any surprise at the very few cases in which any of our countrymen have personally witnessed the operation’.
The Commission firmly believed that the people at large know that European officers detest these practices and that the people often turn to European officials for protection. ‘… the whole cry of the people which has come up before us, is to save them from the cruelties of their fellow natives, not from the effects of unkindness or indifferences on the part of the European officers of Government’.
It was the White Man’s Burden, all over again. Torture was, after all, a product of the ‘habits of the people’. Ill-treatment in revenue collection had ‘in the course of centuries come to be looked upon as “mamool”, customary, a thing, of course, to be submitted to as an everyday unavoidable necessity’. 
The duplicity of the Company and its directors is in pretending that all of this came to their notice only after the Torture Commission submitted its report in 1855. The fact is that it was known to everyone of consequence in the East India Company and the British government. Two decades before the Torture Commission gave its report, narrating the details of inhuman torture being practised by the native bureaucracy with the connivance of the British rulers, the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Affairs of the East India Company had documented the gruesome details in their report submitted to the British Parliament way back in 1832.
‘The revenue officers under the Madras Government are vested with extensive unchecked authority in the department of the magistracy, including a considerable part of the administration of the penal law. They alone are competent to receive criminal charges against natives in the first instance, and many of their proceedings are unrecorded and exempt from control. Acts of great atrocity may be arbitrary and injurious, without any probability of their authors being called to account.’
The Report further goes on to narrate the level of torture, quoting from reports of British circuit judges:
‘Extreme cruelties have been practised on prisoners in Malabar, as detailed in the following extract from a Report of one of the circuit judges.”…The charges set forth in these complaints are for seizing and carrying bound the inhabitants from their homes to the parbutty, parbutty sheristodar or other revenue officer, either at their houses or cutcherries, and there confining them in stocks without food, tying, by means of ropes, or the fibres of cocoa-nut trees, or of the adoba vine, their neck and feet together, and in this posture laying stones upon their backs, flogging, kicking, and beating them with their fists; making them stand in water or mud, exposed to the heat or the clemency of the weather; making them stand upon one leg, and in that position, placing upon their heads large log of wood; also breaking open their houses and carrying off and selling their property, and even slaves, without due proclamation being made thereof; and all these acts of torture and personal violence to extract payment of alleged revenue arrears, and in some instances of presents of money under the head of koori kalyanam and chit fanam…’.

It was left to Karl Marx to expose the hypocrisy of the British establishment. Writing in the New York Tribune on 17th September, 1857, he argued that such torture could have been part of ‘the antecedents which prepared the way’ for the 1857 Revolt. 
Commenting on the report of the Commission, he wrote: ‘The universal existence of torture as a financial institution of British India is thus officially admitted, but the admission is made in such a manner as to shield the British Government itself. In fact, the conclusion arrived at by the Madras commission is that the practice of torture is entirely the fault of the lower Hindoo officials, while the European servants of the Government had always, however, unsuccessfully, done their best to prevent it.’
Marx quotes the Madras Native Association’s petition submitted to the British Parliament in 1856 to expose the hollowness of the proceedings of the Commission. There was scarcely any investigation at all; the Commission sat in Madras and did not stir out of the comfort of the city to ascertain facts from the aggrieved; nor did it examine the native subordinates to find out as to what extent their superiors were acquainted with the practice.
Marx quotes the case of a Deputy Commissioner of Ludhiana (Mr. Brereton) to prove the point that torture was not confined to Madras province, but was part of state policy in the entire country. Confronted with proof of Mr. Brereton’s deep involvement in torture and extortion, Lord Dalhousie was forced to act. The action consisted of merely demoting Mr. Brereton from the post of Deputy Commissioner to that of a first-class Assistant.!
Finally, on to Malabar. It was again Karl Marx who quoted from a petition from the inhabitants of Malabar coast on how they had led a peaceful life till the East India Company got possession of the area after defeating Tipu. ‘We were not subjected to privations, oppressions or ill-usages in collecting the revenue. On the surrender of this country to the Honourable Company, they devised all sorts of plans to squeeze out money from us. With this pernicious object in view, they invented rules and framed regulations, and directed their collectors and civil judges to put them into execution. But the then collectors and their subordinate native officials paid for some time due attention to our grievances, and acted in consonance with our wishes. On the contrary, the present collectors and their subordinate officials, desirous of obtaining promotion on any account whatever, neglect the welfare and interests of the people in general, turn a deaf ear to our grievances, and subject us to all sorts of oppression’.
How lone voices of dissent from among the white rulers, like that of T H Baber, were suppressed by the British establishment, forms the story for another post.

Read more ►
Powered by Blogger.