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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Has Malabar History Reached a Dead End?


How does one perceive that the history of a region has hit a dead end? When orthodoxy remains unchallenged for a long period? Or when nothing new is discovered or interpreted?

A cursory look at the research papers produced by students of Calicut University reveals that most of them are content to repeat the findings derived from existing sources like Keralolpathi, Granthavaris, Tuhfat ul Mujahideen and Logan. Then there are the limited foreign sources such as the travel records of European, Chinese and a few Arab visitors. Of course, there are also the accounts of colonial administrators, most of them acting out a dual role as creators and chroniclers of history. We are content to quote them, without regard for the fact that their narrative often springs from the need to justify their actions of pillage and plunder.

It may be good to remember what Miriam Makeba, the South African singer and human rights activist, said:

 The conqueror writes history. They came they conquered and they wrote. Now you don’t expect people who came to invade us to write the truth about us. They will always write negative things about us. And they have to do that because they have to justify their invasion. We don’t write our history; it has always been handed down to us orally by our elders. Of course, the white man came and he writes history. In fact, you don’t know anything about any place until the white man gets there. Until the white man comes to any place nothing lives. It’s only when he comes and says, ‘Boom, I discovered you. Now you exist”. Which is ridiculous.

It is true that local sources of history are limited and have more or less been exhausted. But situation was more or less the same when Prof. M G S Narayanan embarked on his monumental research project on the history of Kerala during the second Chera kingdom (c. 800-1124 AD). Most of the inscriptions and scrolls had been read and interpreted. This did not deter Prof. MGS. Working more or less on the same sources diligently, he coaxed meaning out of portions of inscriptions left as unintelligible. At certain places, he respectfully differed from the interpretations given by earlier historians, including his mentor, Professor Elamkulam who had initiated him into the Vattezhuthu script. His dissertation which was later enlarged and revised into the classic, Perumals of Kerala (2003) is an authority on the social and political conditions of Kerala under the Chera Perumals of Makotai (c. 800-1124).

It is not as if the last word has been said about Malabar’s history. There are still huge gaps in our understanding about the conditions of Malabar after the eclipse of the Chera dynasty. We know that the Venad dynasty had asserted its autonomy albeit formally under the Chera vassalage. During a short period when all the three powers had declined after the savage attack by the Delhi Sultanates, one of the Venad kings, Ravi Varma Kulasekhara (r.1299-1313) had managed to conquer not only the Pandya kingdom but even marched up to Kancheepuram and crowned himself Samgramadheera Ravi Varma ‘Thribhuvanachakravarty’ (ruler of Chera, Chola and Pandya) in 1312. His glory was short-lived when he was defeated and killed the next year. Nevertheless, there was an orderly succession to the Venad throne.

But, what happened to Cochin and Malabar after the disappearance of the Chera supremacy is not clear. 

Prof. MGS writes that the territory was divided into several parts known as ‘natu’ (district). But how this fragmented polity later came together to form the Perumpadappu and Nediyiruppu swaroopams and still later to the Cochin and Calicut powers is still shrouded in mystery.

It is true that whatever inscriptional evidence exists has been decoded. We now need to go beyond and study the architectural and sculptural evidence in greater depth. Prof. MGS has studied temple architecture and sculpture in some detail in his seminal work on the Perumals. More importantly, he has left some clues for the future researcher. 

For instance, the following observation of his, while discussing the Vishnu images in Malabar, gives interesting leads for further research:

‘The standing Vishnu in Varadaraja pose holds discus and conch in the upper hands, the bottom left hands being kept in katyavalambita mode while the bottom right hand is poised in varada mode’. (page 376, Perumals of Kerala). He finds a curious mixture of Pallava and later Chalukya influence in these idols. ‘This mixture of the two regional traits may be considered typical of Kerala, especially north Kerala’. (ibid.) 

Regarding temple architecture, he speculates: ’The Aryan Brahmin immigrants from Karnataka must have brought the Chalukya patterns of temple construction with them and this appears to have been modified by contact with the Pallava-Chola style’(371-2). However, he admits: ‘It is a pity that no detailed account of early temple architecture in Kerala exists today. A hasty survey by Stella Kramrisch, confined to old Travancore, and some isolated accounts of individual temples are the only sources of information other than direct personal observation’. (372-3).

How did this curious mixture of Pallava and Chalukya influence combine in North Kerala? MGS has probably left this question for future researchers. This is one of the many grey areas in Malabar’s rich history, waiting to be picked up by history students and researchers.

They may possibly find a clue to this if they study the influence of the Hoysala kingdom on Malabar, particularly after the 11th century. Sadly, very little research has gone into this area. Kerala history has been heavily influenced by the Tamil legacy of the three great Tamil powers. We have deciphered almost all of the stone inscriptions and other primary documents relating to the Cheras. These inscriptions are spread over the entire Kerala from Pullur in Kasaragod to Thirunandikkara in Kanyakumari. This gives a superficial impression that the entire area was under the influence of the Chera dynasty. 

But, recent research on Hoysala history has brought up interesting facts which contradict this impression. 

According to the paper ‘Hoysalas in the Medieval History of Kerala’ (by Dhiraj M S, 2016), the decline of the Cheras coincided with the rise of the Hoysalas who had conquered large territories of northern Kerala. The Hoysalas were originally Jains, but King Bitti Deva, who is considered the most powerful of the Hoysalas, was converted to Vaishnavism by Ramanujacharya. He took the name ‘Vishnuvardhana’ and reigned from 1108 to 1152. Although his exploits according to the Chamarajnagar inscription (1117 CE) could be exaggerated (‘… pursuing the Maleyalas, captured their forces and made himself master of Kerala before showing himself again in Bayalnadu’), there are several inscriptions which testify to his conquest of large territories in north Kerala. 

What is significant is the proselytization which went hand in hand with the conquest. As a newly converted Vaishnavite, he was keen to spread his new faith in the conquered territories. Although there are no records to show that Vishnuvardhana encouraged the destruction of Jain temples, one of his generals, Sankara is recorded as having erected a number of Vishnu temples in several places including Tamarecharu ( modern Thamarachery).

A publication by the Directorate of Census, Kerala (‘Temples of Kozhikode District’ by S Jayashanker, 2002) notes that several Vishnu temples had come up in the 11th and 12th centuries in and around Vatakara. Significantly, one such temple is the Maha Vishnu Temple in Vishnumangalam (Kallachi, Nadapuram). The Mayyazhi river flowing nearby is also known locally as Vishnumangalam river, as if to celebrate Vishnuvardhana’s name.

How did the second Chera empire collapse? This question has still not been definitively addressed. The lazy answer is to repeat the Keralolpathi myth that the last Perumal decided to abdicate and convert to Islam as an act of expiation for some imaginary sin. But, a historian has to establish more cogent explanations based on facts.  MGS has described the stalemate well: ‘Meanwhile, something strange appears to have happened to the Chera kingdom though the wars against the Pandyas and Cholas apparently did not produce anything more than a stalemate with slight occasional gains and losses. How far this new phenomenon was internal and how far it was related to external invasions and the impact of wars cannot be assessed in the present state of our knowledge.’ ( p.129)

Could the missing link have been the Hoysalas? One hopes further research will bring back Kerala history from the dead end back on to the highway.


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Thursday, July 9, 2020

The Komans of Calicut

I first heard about the Koman family from the writings of Mr Jayaprakash Mallay. I obtained more information later from the blog post, Hamlet in Monsoon. Very little has been known about this family who belonged to Calicut and fought many social disabilities to gain social and political recognition.
The story starts with Meppan Chandroth Koman (M C Koman) who was born in September 1865 to M C Mangathi (mother) from Moonnalingal (which is where the present General Hospital is situated in Calicut) and Malikayil Chandappan (father) who belonged to Thayyil, Kannur. There are no records of his childhood and schooling except that after passing his school final examination, he did a course in Apothecary.
Apothecary is a position just below the qualified physician and combines within it, the skills of a pharmacist, nurse and dresser ( no wonder, compounders in rural Kerala were called 'darasar', in an era when they did most of the doctor's work). In England, apothecaries attended to most of the rural population where the services of a qualified doctor were not available. They had their own regulatory body, and some of the distinguished apothecaries included the romantic poet, John Keats who was admitted to the Apothecaries’ Hall in 1816 after passing the examinations; and the writer Agatha Christie who passed out in 1917. In fact, it is believed that her work as a pharmacy assistant at the University College Hospital, London helped her acquire a good knowledge of poisons which she used effectively in plotting her novels.
When East India Company established itself in India it set up an Indian Medical Service (IMS) exclusively manned by Europeans and dedicated to the treatment of Europeans in civilian and military positions. Parallelly, an Indian Subordinate Medical Service (ISMS) was also formed to provide medical service to the Indian Natives – a service which lasted till Independence.
ISMS consisted of two classes of employees: the Apothecaries (including assistant apothecaries) who were warrant officers, mostly Europeans or their descendants; and Dressers ( including assistant dressers) chosen entirely from natives who ranked equal to private soldiers.
In 1835, a Medical School was established in Madras in order to impart formal education to the above two categories. The Medical School was expected to influence the natives in many ways. Firstly, natives were thought to be averse to modern medicine and depended on ‘the ignorance and empiricism of their own practitioners’. Secondly, introducing them to anatomical dissection (‘a science, which, at present, is absolutely unknown among the Natives of India’) would remove all prejudices in native minds. (The policymakers had evidently not heard of the work of Susruta!) Finally, as all instructions will be imparted in the English language, ‘ripe scholars in that tongue will be formed and thus they may be weaned from the study of their own authors, from whom little but error and superstition is to be gained’.(1)
The 2-year Apothecary course in Madras Medical School ( later designated Madras Medical College) consisted of Anatomy, Materia Medica, Medicine and Surgery. Later, Midwifery, Physiology, Ophthalmology and Chemistry were added and the course was extended to three years.
That Koman, hailing from Calicut and belonging to the fishermen community could get himself selected for such a rigorous course is a tribute to his quest for knowledge which he demonstrated throughout his career.
Koman proceeded to get enrolled as a stipendary student at the Medical School for the Licentiate Diploma (LM&S) which would make him a full-fledged doctor. According to Mr Jayaprakash, the author of Sir Koman’s biography, the Madras Mail of 1884 reported that out of the 10 selected for the Apothecary Examination (presumably from Malabar), 9 were Nairs and Thiyyas and the 10th was Koman, a Mukkuva from the coastal fishermen community.

The significance of this may be lost on many readers today. But,  one has to compare the caste relations which existed in Malabar with that of Travancore which still practised a rigorous caste system which discriminated against the so-called lower castes.
Around the same time, an Ezhava youth named Padmanabhan Palpu qualified in the entrance examination for admission to the Travancore Medical School but was denied admission on account of his being an ‘avarna’. He proceeded to Madras and joined the Medical College in 1885 and obtained LM&S in 1889. But even that did not help… Travancore did not offer him a medical job for the same reason. This was long before Swami Vivekananda toured Kerala and described the place as a lunatic asylum (for details of the Swami’s tour and his statements, one may refer to
Dr Palpu went on to found the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) with the blessings of Sri Narayana Guru. 
After passing the LM&S diploma in 1887, M C Koman, served his bond period of three years (as required by the terms of his scholarship) in several municipal dispensaries. He was then posted as the Vaccination Superintendent at the Institute of Preventive Medicine, Guindy, Madras, where he was in charge of the manufacture and supply of smallpox vaccine. He was succeeded by Dr.Palpu who worked with the Madras Medical Department for about two years before shifting to Mysore Medical Service.
Dr Koman had worked at the Government General Hospital, Madras for a decade (1890-1900).
He was then posted as Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the Madras Medical College. Dr Koman was quite active in the Freemason Lodge activity and became the Mastermason on three occasions. He was only the second Indian Mastermason of the Lodge, the first being Prince B R Thondaiman.
In 1921 Dr Koman was knighted with the title Rao Bahadur at a function presided over by the Duke of Connaught. He passed away in 1925 at the age of 60.
Dr Koman is remembered today for his report on indigenous medicine. As we saw above in the constitution of the Indian Medical Service (IMS and ISMS), there was always a bias in favour of western medicine and a degree of contempt for indigenous medicine due to its lack of scientific methodology. This bias was used as a weapon by the Empire to promote its hegemonic objectives, by de-legitimising indigenous medical knowledge.
However, as World War I progressed it became evident that whatever supplies of European medicines were available,  had to be diverted to the battlefront and India would not be able to get sufficient supplies. This, coupled with incessant complaints from the practitioners of indigenous medicine about being neglected by the colonial regime, led the Madras government to appoint a committee to direct the research and investigation of the pharmacological action of Indian drugs.
Initially, Dr Srinivasamurthi was entrusted with the task, but he had to be drafted for military duty. It was in his place that Dr Koman was appointed on 12th July 1918 to conduct the investigation. He studied all the available literature on Ayurveda in Malayalam, Tamil and English and visited many ayurvedic physicians to understand their drug manufacturing practices. He also tried out many of these medicines on his patients in the General Hospital, Madras, taking care not to try it on serious patients.
In his first of three reports, he found that of the 53 patients on whom he tried indigenous drugs, 35 patients benefitted. Ultimately, in his final report submitted in August 1920, he recommended the inclusion of 40 indigenous drugs in the lectures on Materia Medica at the Madras Medical College.
Nevertheless, Ayurvedic practitioners strongly reacted to Koman's report, particularly his method of trying out the efficacy of drugs. Critics also pointed out that he covered only the south and west of the country and did not explore the rich heritage of indigenous medical knowledge in Bengal.
Particular objection was taken to Koman's statement in the report that 'the science of Hindu medicine is still sunk in a state of empirical obscurity'. Again, he stated: 'I am constrained to observe here that their hypothesis with reference to the classification and aetiology of diseases is entirely out of date and will not stand the test of the rational science of the present day'. Ayurvedic vaidyas and their bodies accused Koman of trying to please the colonial masters by denigrating the age-old science of longevity and wellness.
Dr Koman passed away in Febrauary, 1925.

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Dr Koman had two sons and one daughter. The elder son, Meppan Chandroth Balachandra Koman (Balachandra Koman in official records) was born on 14th May 1897. He matriculated in 1917 from Presentation Convent School, George Town, Madras. After graduating from Madras Christian College, he proceeded to become a Barrister-at-Law from the Middle Temple, London. Simultaneously, he qualified for the Indian Civil Service in 1923 and was at the Queen's College, Cambridge as a probationer. Back from his training in England, Balachandra Koman did the usual field as well as Secretariat postings in the erstwhile Madras province. In 1935, he was deputed to the judicial wing of ICS where he continued till retirement. 
Balachandra Koman ICS was elevated to the Madras High Court as an Additional Judge in 1945. Within six months he was shifted as Judge of the Sessions in Madras. Madras then had a strange system of a High Court Judge presiding over the Sessions Court where heinous crimes like murders were tried.
It was when Balachandra Koman was presiding over the Sessions that the Alavandar Case came before him. An appeal was filed against Koman's judgement to the division bench presided over by ASP Ayyar. ( The rich details of the case has been given by Maddy in his blog
For some strange reason, Koman was not made a permanent judge of the High Court, unlike his many other colleagues in the ICS like Rajagopal, ASP Ayyar and P T Raman Nair. There are suggestions that Koman, the handsome bachelor was romantically involved with the daughter of the then Governor-General and this proved to be undoing. Anyhow, he retired as District Judge in Chingalpet in 1958.
Calicut remembers Balachandra Koman for his generous gift of 7 1/2  acres of land in Moonnalingal for construction of the Government General Hospital on the beach. The land, named Mukkuvathodi (fishermen's plot) was probably a poramboke land in the possession of the nearby temple of which Koman was a trustee. Anyhow, it was surrendered to the Government without compensation. 
Koman's elder sister, Dr Vijayalakshmi Koman (1894-1975) also had a cosmopolitan education. After graduating from Madras, she proceeded to Cambridge University for higher studies. On return, she joined the Madras Education Service and worked in the field of teacher training at the Lady Willingdon Training College, Madras. She then became the Professor of English at Queen Mary's College. She was appointed the Principal of this college in July 1950 and continued in the post for five years, retiring in May 1955. Her presence encouraged many aristocratic families of Calicut and Kannur to send their daughters for college education to Madras Queen Mary's.
The younger brother, Major Somanatha Koman was also sent to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Camberley where British army officers receive their initial training. Somanatha Koman passed out as a lieutenant and served the Indian Army with distinction.
What an illustrious family!

[1] All quotes from The Madras Journal of Literature and Science,(1838) edited by J C Morris pp.265-66
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