Pazhassi Raja’s death – A whodunit

The Pazhassi Raja movie has been running for many months now, and most of you would have seen the movie (By the way - I saw it today). The story has been dissected, talked over many a cup of tea, written about in many articles and blogs and is for all practical purposes done and dusted with and consigned to history where the story belonged. Many of you have come up with your own versions and conclusions to the story of the Kottayam Raja and his times, as well as the other characters, taking one side or the other. But one matter remains unresolved, how did the Rajah actually die? I decided to check this in greater detail. A good read of Nick Balmer’s blog linked here would help jump start the process.

So let us go again to the fateful day - 30th Nov 1805 Pulpalli forest, Thomas Hervey Baber, Karunakara Menon, Capt Clapham his 50 sepoys and 100 kolkars, half of Capt Watson’s police and half of Baber’s staff are out there braving the jungles and tribal guerillas to take on the Pazhassi Raja and his remaining men.

Before we go further, who are the kolkar’s? Well, our old friend
Swmaniatha patter (see my blog on this chap ) comes to the fray again – The skirmishes in the Wynad hills & forests had been on since the late 1790’s, and it was a long and rough period with little success for the Brits. They then took the advice of the Shakuni - Swaminatha Pattar, a minister of the Zamorin of Calicut who came up with yet another bit of wisdom or vile-dom whichever way you put it. In addition to the Bombay based regiments available only after repeated requests, pleas, waits and long arguments, the Malabar based British organized their own land army called 'Kolkars', recruiting mainly from the higher castes, in order to quell the uprising of the hill based kurichiars (later official documents defined them as peons or excise tax collectors which they also were). The Kolkar battalion, somewht like lancers, were under the order of the judge, not subject to any courts martial, and were mainly Nair’s. They did not report to any regular hierarchy (there were some Jamedar’s and Dafedar’s listed though) but were marshaled under Col Watson and were people of great consequence, as stated in British records. Interestingly they were also the forerunners of today’s Malabar police which was formed after the Kolkar’s were officially disbanded. The name Kolkar, I believe, came from their carrying the ‘kol’ the stick or lance (later the lathi). Canara Menon whom we will get to know better later was probably a kolkar to start with and Nick Balmer too alludes to that possibility in one of his blogs.
In the attack, the troops fall upon the Raja and his followers who were camped close to a river in the Wynad jungle. In the ensuing fight and shooting, the Raja is shot, many others run away and the British are victorious. Baber pens a long letter explaining the event to his superiors and praising the acts of Kanara Menon and Subedar Charan in the final skirmish. The Raja is allowed a traditional and honorable cremation by Baber who exhibits true respect for the fallen. But how did the Raja die? Why is this still a controversy?

Nikhil, a friend and fellow blogger asked me this question some months ago. Did the Raja commit suicide by swallowing his ring, did he stab himself with his golden dagger or was he shot? If he was shot, who shot him? Did Kanara Menon shoot him? Did the Sepoys with Capt Clapham shoot him? Or was it Clapham? Some even believe that Thomas Baber shot the Raja to death. I myself had always assumed that he was dead by the time Thomas Baber reached him, shot mortally in the gun fusillade between the two parties and that he was close to death by the time Kanara Menon reached him. But further doubt crept into my mind again while reading Margaret Frenz’s fine book ‘From contact to Conquest’ Transition to British Rule in Malabar, 1790-1805, last week. So let us go back to the forest and the place where all this happened, to find out. As they say, the devil is or should be in the details.

Take a look at the first scenario – The raja killing himself by swallowing his diamond ring. This I believe got into the Malayali mind due to some early movies (1964) which depicted this dramatic form of suicide, which alas is not a quick or practical way to die. It has also been stated to be the cause of Veluthampi Dalawa’s death and again is nothing more than a fable. In any case, ingestion of a ring would take it a few hours to reach the intestines, past the stomach and would I guess, prove at worst to be slightly irritating to the person who swallowed it (a ring would not even cut the linings, a raw diamond might cut the surface a bit here & there) and as you saw the raja was dead in a short while after Clapham, Cheran, Menon & Baber reached the scene. In fact swallowing diamonds & diamond rings have been a popular way of stealing such articles and many of those criminals have been caught & put to justice. A Google check can provide you many examples of people who have swallowed diamond rings & diamonds. KKN Kurup in his book also agrees with the above conclusion though Sreedhara Menon in his book ‘Kerala Charithra Shilpikal’ alludes to this as a possible means of the Raja’s death, commenting however the story to be only ‘popular belief’.

Scenario 2- Could the Raja have killed himself with his golden dagger as the Samurai’s and the Ninja did while facing defeat? Could be even though the knife is described to be a small (possibly god plated or gold ornamental) dagger, though classified as a Katara (Cuttaram as termed by Baber). A small dagger may not have penetrated hard and deep enough to cause immediate death and then again blood would have been reported (or cleaned up) by Baber who pocketed the dagger. But this still remains a likelihood and cannot be ruled out as yet.

Scenario 3 – Did Capt Clapham and his sepoy’s kill the Raja? W.J Wilson who wrote on history of Madras Regiment credits Captain Clapham and his sepoys for killing of Raja. Let us see what Wilson actually stated – “Active operations were recommended at the end of the rain and the disturbance in Wynad and Cotiote was terminated by the death of the Pychy raja who was surprised and killed on the 30th Nov 1805 by a party of the 1st battalion, 4th regiment under Capt Clapham supported by 100 peons under the direction of Mr Baber the sub collector who had accompanied the detachment”.
This then casts a slight cloud over Baber’s own notes who accounts that Subedar Charan’s team carried out the initial firing, but also states the subsequent presence of the kolkars who had reached the scene later, possibly accompanied by Capt Clapham. So let us go over Baber’s notes again.
After proceeding about a mile and a half through very high grass and thick teak forests into the Mysore country, Charen Subedar of Captain Watson’s armed police, who was leading the advanced party suddenly halted and beckoning to me, told me he heard voices. I immediately ran to the spot, and having advanced a few steps, I saw distinctly to the left about ten persons, unsuspecting of danger, on the banks of the Mavila Toda, or Nulla to our left. Although Captain Clapham and the sepoys as well as the greater part of the kolkars, were in the rear, I still deemed it prudent to proceed, apprehensive lest we should be discovered and all hopes of surprise thereby frustrated. I accordingly ordered the advance, which consisted of about thirty men, to dash on, which they accordingly did with great gallantry, with Charen Subedar at their head. In a moment the advance was in the midst of the enemy, fighting most bravely. The contest was but of short duration. Several of the rebels had fallen, whom the kolkars were despatching, and a running fight was kept up after the rest till we could see no more of them.

From one of the rebels of the first party to the left, whom I discovered concealed in the grass, I learnt that the Pyche Raja was amongst those whom we first observed on the banks of the Nulla, and it was only on my return from the pursuit that I learnt that the Raja was amongst the first who had fallen.

So it is now apparent that the raja was shot in the initial volley and was mortally wounded. He was in his last throes when Canara Menon reached him. The shots therefore came from Subedar Cheran’s group, Clapham’s Sepoys or Baber’s kolkar’s. But he was not technically dead, as yet.

Scenario 4 - Kanara Menon. From the various reports, Kanara Menon reached Pazhassi Raja first but the Raja prevented Menon from doing anything to him by pushing his musket on Menon’s breast. According to Baber’s words - It fell to the lot of one of my Cutcherry servants, Canara Menon, to arrest the flight of the Raja, which he did at the hazard of his life (the Raja having put his musket to his breast) and it is worthy of mention that this extraordinary personage, though in the moment of death, called out in the most dignified and commanding manner to the Menon, “Not to approach and defile his person.”

Another problem is the use of ‘his’ twice in the above sentence. If the Raja were holding the musket to Menon’s breast, what earthly need did he have to order him not to approach and defile his – the Raja’s person? He could have shot Menon to death with the musket. Why did he not do it?

So did Canara or Kanara Menon shoot and kill the Raja? Was he armed with a gun? Well, he was a Kolkaran and he did know how to use guns though he has at various times been described as a clerk, as a spy or an emissary and also as Baber’s bodyguard. But let us look at Baber’s words again - Several of the rebels had fallen, whom the kolkars were despatching, and a running fight was kept up after the rest till we could see no more of them.Now what did Baber meant by ‘Several of the rebels had fallen, whom the kolkars were despatching’ – despatching to death? Was Kanara Menon planning to do just that when he reached Pazhassi and the raja seeing all this, uttered his statement of disgust to Menon and ordered him not to touch his body? Food for thought! Frenz and Kurup in their books conclude that Baber possibly credited Menon and Cheran and wrote so to take away the success from the army due to his long standing tussles with them.

Consider what could have happened between the time the Raja uttered his words of disgust to Menon and his eventual death? How could Kanara Menon have arrested the flight of a fallen man whose life was ebbing away? It must have been minutes between the two events. Did Menon obey the Raja’s order? Let us assume he did not, though I would doubt Menon’s courage kill the Raja face to face, under the circumstances. But if this indeed was the case, what did Kanara Menon do (as stated by Baber – to arrest the flight at the hazard of his life) under the same recorded circumstances? He would have just stood there and observed the Raja’s life ebb away, unless of course he eventually dispatched the raja to his death and thus closed the case - which now suddenly looks possible? We shall see.

Finally the tangential possibility - Many other followers of the Raja committed suicide in the preceding and following days & months rather than hand themselves to the British. In the same token, was the Raja threatening suicide by holding the gun to ‘his own’ breast? Did he shoot himself after ordering Menon not to come near him? Using a shotgun after loading it to shoot one self, when one is prone on the floor, weak and close to death, in a battle field is definitely not the easiest thing to do. Or did the Raja just die after the initial shots, with Menon standing in front of him, indecisive, like you see in movies? I believe either of the above could have happened and these seems to be the most natural and satisfying outcomes of the above stalemate. This would however mean that Baber twisted the story somewhat, in support of Menon & Charen, like the ‘Aswathama elephant story and Yudhishtira’ in the Mahabharata.

A pretty miserable muddle right? The personal benefit to T Baber was 2500 pagodas (about 20,000 shillings) from the EIC and possibly the dagger that he retained. Clapham got the waist chain of the Raja. Since Canara Menon & Subedar Charen were also accorded credit, I wonder what monetary compensation they got. The EIC, intent on removing the last vestiges of the raja, sadly built a road right through the Kerala Varma’s property, after his palace was razed to the ground.

But that would not solve the mystery right?

Before we get closer to the answers, a few words on the persona of Karunakara Menon. For those of you who have not seen beyond Jagathis’s portrayal of a bufoonish character in the movie, Kanara Menon was much like the Brigadier Vijayan Menon as portrayed by Malayatoor Ramakrishnan in his Brigadier stories. He was described well in words of another British military officer, who said – Menon is a rough manly fellow, well above middle size, a speaker of many languages including Hindi and Canarese, dressed usually in British military fatigues and a British cap, a sword and a single barreled fowling piece on his shoulder. Popularly known as ‘Kanara menowan’, he was a person who always wanted to be a leader, and around to control any fray.

James Welsh is an interesting chap actually, a man who wrote an eminently readable 900 odd page double volume of his reminiscences, who describes himself modestly as a plain unlettered soldier. He set out to the East Indies in 1790 at the age of 15, as a cadet in the corps. He spent a good initial period fighting the poligars (see my blog on the Kattabomman) and reached Malabar around 1812. It appears that he formed a good relationship with Thomas Baber. Note from the date above that this was well after the Raja’s death. He was introduced to Kanara Menon by Baber and it is Welsh who provided the description to the name – Kananra menowan, in the previous paragraph.

Now do you recall the arms that Menon carried? A sword and a fowling piece were mentioned. Well, as it so happened, this single bore fowling piece which Menon carried with pride turns out to be one wrested away by Menon from the Pazhassi Raja, interesting right? Let us now see what Menon or Baber had to say about the Raja’s death to Welsh, some seven years after the event. So we go back again to the events of Nov 30th, 1805.

Menon is in front of the Raja with the Raja’s musket on his chest. The Raja is commanding Menon to move away. But as you can infer from the above, Menon pushed the gun away that the Raja had kept aimed at his chest, which the rajah discharged nevertheless, much too late. Soon it was hand to hand combat. Menon tried to restrain the Rajah (Note here that Menon would have been bigger than the somewhat short statured raja &planned to take him prisoner), who was struggling in his arms. But it was not to be, for in the heat of the moment, one of Baber’s kolkar’s or Clapham’s sepoys or even a British soldier (One of our people – says Welsh), thinking Menon’s life to be in danger, shot the Rajah again, this time to death. Another Brown Bess ball had finally found its mark.

Is this the final answer? As they ask in “who wants to be millionaire?” Probably not, but satisfactory enough to me. The event has been depicted somewhat differently in the movie, but I assume the script writer and director did not have Welsh’s reminiscences among the 8 or so books they referred.

Interestingly, the shotgun that the raja had, the gun that Menon now possessed was originally taken away by the Rajah from Capt Davidson, whom the Raja had slain in a previous encounter at Panamaram kotta. As it turns out, Menon was later employed by Baber as his native registrar, in Tellichery. He became a close confidante of Baber and his family, accompanying them and dignitaries for their trips. The Kolkar corps rose to fame again, in the suppression of the Moplah rebellions of Malabar.

Malabar manual – W Logan
History of Kerala- Sreedhara Menon
Kerala Shilpikal – Sreedhara menon
From contact to Conquest’ 1790-1805 - Margaret Frenz’
Military Reminiscences – James Welsh

Tail note – The guns carried by the soldiers were the ‘Brown Bess’ muskets, used by the British military between 1722 to 1838, and of all of the versions, the lighter, shorter & cheaper India pattern was supposed to be the most accurate with a range of 175 yards and 75 to 95 percent accuracy. It took about 43 seconds to fire three shots from the 10 pound gun. The standard 3 step loading procedure from prepared paper cartridges containing a 0.75 caliber lead ball and gun powder in an elongated envelope, is as follows: Tear cartridge with teeth and prime the pan directly from the cartridge; Stand the musket and pour the bulk of the powder down the barrel; Reverse the cartridge and use the ramrod to seat the ball and paper envelope onto the powder charge.
This method of using one’s teeth to open the package was to trigger the Sepoy mutiny in 1857. The gun was called a Brown Bessie due to its brown walnut stock. Some historians opine that users allowed it to rust so as to avoid glints & reflections and thus the barrel itself turned brown (or it was russetting) and hence the name. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about this shotgun. The kick or recoil of a Brown Bessie was supposedly so hard (worse than a horse’s kick) that if it hit your chest instead of shoulder, even death was possible.

When a one ounce ball from the Brown Bessie hit you, it knocked you flat and you stayed flat with shock, ripped muscles, shattered bones, arteries and nerves, and heavy bleeding. The wounds produced were horrific. This was what would have happened to the Raja, when Menon reached him.

Pics – Soldiers with brown Bessies - Assaye 1803: Wellington's First and 'Bloodiest' Victory By Simon Millar, Peter Dennis

Corrections - The Bown bess was carried by the soldiers & sepoys.  The fowling piece ( used by the Raja and Menon) on the other hand was a heavy bore shotgun, typically used for hunting.


mangad said…
Thanks for the sleuthwork, Maddy.

I dont recall a diamond-swallowing-suicide in the case of Velu Thamby. He had his relative kill him according to legend, right?
Maddy said…
well, vinu - that is another story with a few legends attached. some say he asked his brother to cut his throat who did not oblige, so Veluthampi did it himself.

I remember vaguely reading about the diamond ring thing many years back, and it is totally unsubstantiated.
Happy Kitten said…
That was a great read..

nd how did you find the acting or the actors?

the Kolkars reminds me of the RSS cadets..
Investigation at its best!
A bit about Kolkars. The institution was started by the British in 1800 by recruiting young men from respected Nair families of Malabar. Their primary task was to gather intelligence from rural areas and report to the British rulers. This was followed by the institution of Adhikaris in 1822 who were basically tax collectors and holders of revenue records. Unlike Kolkars, the office of Adhikari was hereditary. In fact, till the formation of Kerala state in 1956, we had the system of Adhikaris who were later on designated as Village Officers. Kolkarans became Village Attender. The holder of Records (called Menon or Menawan) became the Village Assistant. Interestingly, the precursor of Kolkaran was the Portuguese 'Peon' who was originally a bumbailiff who accompanied the Portuguese sergeant called 'merinho'.
harimohan said…
true about the diamond ring unless it was laced with cyanide sure wudnt cause instant death
maddy you are a good sleuth in history !
mangad said…
The Rajah's last words have always intrigued me more than the nature of his death - "Not to approach and defile his person".

Any thoughts on this?
Maddy said…
Hi HK..

Other than Sharat kumar, it was nothing out of the ordinary. could have been crisper
Maddy said…
CHF - thanks
That's certainly interesting - did we not have adhikari's during the zamorin times? Also interesting is the fact that peon is a Portuguese usage...strangely the pawn comes from peon and peons traveled on horseback in ancient Spain!!
Maddy said…
Vinu - As i perceive - it must have been the utter contempt of the moment towards Menon that made the Raja utter it - one for him leading the British to his camp, and secondly maybe because he and his Kolkars were despatching the stranglers and the fallen
Maddy said…
thanks hari - it was interesting reaching a conclusion as well..good or bad as it may have been
Zamorin did not have adhikari, as his state depended more on commercial taxes and protection money rather than on land revenue.
Regarding Kolkars, they have a related ancestry in Travancore's Harikkars who were dignified messengers. However, Harikkars were mostly Brahmins and did not have a combat role.
Ashvin said…
All, any insights on the role of Ayilliath Chandu Nambiar in this last incident of Pazhassi Rajah's life ?
December chills said…
Good post maddy.I haven'nt watched yet the movie Pazhassi Raja, but certainly after reading your blog i'll watch it.
Maddy said…
Thanks CHF for the clarification.. that is interesting, it ties this port to the Dak harkara questions
Maddy said…
Thanks Ashvin & Dec chills..I am not too sure about the details of Nambiar - will get back on this..
good work. interesting too.thanks.
i like the way PR's death is shown in the film - a hero deserves a hero's death - going down fighting.since this is one possible theory, no one can fault it.
where is he buried? if his body can be escavated p'haps we'll find a diomond ring or a bullet. needless to say, i hope it's the latter:-)
Ashvin said…
Dear Kochu, PR was cremated as per custom, not buried.

Dear Mads, I could tell you the (our) family version of the role of AC Nambiar, but probably my family and his family wouldn't be too happy. I will mail you.
Maddy said…
thanks was one way of presentation - melodramatic anyway - but i doubt if anything at all is possible in the pain of a bessie bullet or two..

hey ashvin - please do send me the story - kanara menon has plenty of intrigue attached to his life..
software circle said…

Everything focusses on Capt. Watsons armed police. What kind of ammunition were they carrying. Please note that Nick Balmer in the write-up from where you have quoted extensively talks of over powering of Aralat Kutty Nambiar an adherent of the Raja by the team of parbatties.

What I feel strongly is what transpired in those moments were a physical fight or in military language some form of hand-to-hand combat possibly aided by guns and daggers. Please note the terrain was not one where accurate use of guns were feasible and baber himself may not have had reasons to conceal the truth when he reported on the matter.

The situation looks simple. Ten people on the Raja's side and around thirty on the British side and a hand to hand combat that too in a sudden surprise could have mortally wounded the rajah..possibly a wound from a stab which let him bleeding. A shot from a gun would be severe not giving scope for the victim to even talk or shout. He must have recognised Menon in the final moments and possibly only knew him and in a fallen state shouted at him to leave him alone.

Baber also talks of hearing gun shots much later from the right. Possibly guns were used much later when the military personnel reached the location.
emailspade said…
dear maddy,
how pazhassi died. ?
my understanding is that he was escaping from ambush and got stuck in a marshy land (paddy field?)where he had only very lesser mobility.troops surrounded him from a distance not having the GUTS to aproach him as he was challenging them to do so. so they made the KILL from the safe distance using their guns.
Maddy said…
thanks emailspade..

that he was a brave warrior is without doubt. that the British were terrified of him, I am not sure..I do not think they were, probably they had a bit of respect as he was the lone rajah who stood up against them..
Nick Balmer said…
Hello Maddy,

I enjoyed your article, and am pleased my transcripts are being used to such good effect.

If you go to the site where (some photos are posted here the layout of the land fits very well with Baber's account.

The Rajah's camp was in a gully about 10 feet deep next to a stream in an area which is still heavily wooded, and was presumably even more so when the attack took place.

Thomas Baber was being guided by two villagers who he had encountered in Pulpilli and who guided him to the spot. It is very likely that they were able to get his force to within a few yards with being seen or heard by the Raja's men.

I believe that it was the Indian irregulars who were at the head of Baber's column, and these were probably Baber's own Kolkar's or Watson's men. By this time they had been waging war for a decade or more and were far more effective than regular Sepoy's.

If the Rajah's camp was in the gully these attackers almost certainly fired down into the camp before rushing in with spears and swords to kill anybody they could get.

I believe Maddy is right in following Baber in suggesting that the Rajah was hit in the very first burst of fire. He was knocked to the ground and Baber's force rushed past him.

The gully is only 20 to 30 feet wide, but it is Y shaped, so some of the "rebels" probably ran off in several directions.

It is not at all easy to get up out of the gully. Even if the fight and despatch of the "rebels" took a couple of minutes each it was only going to be a few minutes before it was all over. I think this is why Baber was already turning back to where the Raja was. He had spoken to one of the other defeated men.

The area of the camp is very small. Its only three or four living rooms in area with the stream running through it.

There must have been twenty to thirty highly excited men all around the camp with the rebels most of whom were probably seriously wounded by now.

I believe Maddy is right when he says the Rajah discharged his shotgun at Menon and missed where upon one of the other men fired at the Raja probably from very close range. It is quite possible that Menon and the rajah were actually wrestling with each other by this stage.

There is very little doubt of Menon's own physical courage. He first met Thomas Baber in 1797 and they had campaigned together in numerous raids, and ambushes against Chemban Pokar's men and many others. Baber says that when he attempted to lead charges in raids on villages, Menon who step in front of Baber and insist on leading so that he protected Thomas Baber's life. Menon was a highly experienced Nair of great military ability.

I get the sense of the hundred's of references to the Raja in Baber's later papers that he greatly regretted the death of the Raja. He was well aware that Torin, Douglas and Murdoch Brown had set the Raja up, driving a wedge between the Raja and the Bombay government. The Rajah's uncle was also very jealous of the Raja's growing power, and this caused the rebellion to go beyond a dispute that ought to have been solved by peaceful means.

Nick Balmer
Maddy said…
Thanks Nick..
had been a while since I wrote this - was nice to get back to the story and read your comments

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