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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.