The short lived people of Puthooram Veedu
When my good friend Premnath sent me details of a recent article in Manorama about Unniyarcha and her life with Tipu, I quickly read it through and was somewhat flabbergasted. It was definitely a possibility, but connecting the most hated villain to a much loved heroine in their real life was not that easy though reel life could and would easily portray such events. All kinds of thoughts passed my mind. Was it a case of Stockholm syndrome in Unni’s mind perhaps? I thought as I dived into the article. The article itself was devoid of details and skimmed over some events and situations to finally come up with an even more startling conclusion. But well, I got my thinking cap on and started checking out the facts. It did not really result in any kind of corroboration or conclusion, but the hypothesis from Mananthery Bhaskaran may or may not be far from truth. Whatever said and done, it made sense to revisit the story of the protagonists and see what may have happened.
previous article about Ankhams) and was being popularized by travelling bards, singing them in simple Malayalam using a pleasant meter and in tune with a Pana veena. Their exploits are many and very interesting to read, but we will not talk about all of that here, and concentrate on Unniyarcha.
A pretty damsel, well endowed, well versed in swordplay and other fighting techniques, that was she. Unniyarcha was married to Kunhiraman during her teens (Aaatumanammel Unniarcha as it appears was born around 1769 and must have been married at 1784 or so). Kunhiraman was a smart lad alright, but somewhat lacking in courage and adventure, which Unniyarcha of course compensated for, from her side. One of her first acts of valor was a duel with some Moplah riff raff hailing from Nadapuram who tried to molest her as she passed through the forest with her husband in tow headed towards the Allimalar Kavu to see the famed festival there. He mother in law and husband had cautioned her but she ventured into the forest path undaunted, reluctant husband in tow (Note that as a Chekavor, she would not have had Nair soldiers protecting her entourage). And of course, we did not have paved roads then (The first of these roads were ironically laid in Malabar by her later tormenter Tipu, in order to move his forces and artillery). Anyway as the story goes, the Nadapuram Moplah’s harassed her and the irate lady whipped out her sword and chopped a number of them to shreds. Later when the mob figured out who it was, the Moplah chief came to her (one Nagappan Chettiar had to mediate) and gave her a lot of gifts to pacify her…And so went many stories about her courage and valor.
Thus lived the sister of Aromal and Unnikannan, twirling her Urumi, and doing good deeds like rescuing other women of her village from being kidnapped and so on, in the midst of the other sad events that befell her family, like the untimely death of her young brother in deceit after the duel with Aringodan. To establish perspective, let us take a quick look at that famous story.
Her brother Aromal was also equally famous and it appears that he entered into an ankham or duel to fight the famous fighter Aringodan after getting a fabulous purse of 10,001 panams. The ankham was fought on behalf of two brothers who were vying for control over family property. The argument had reached such a stage that only an ankham was possible to make a final decision. The duel was well publicized and large rewards were offered to the two fighters, Aromal and Aringodan, both equally good with the sword. Aromal wins the duel, however his cousin Chandu who had a grudge against him due to the refusal of the Puthuram family earlier to get him married to Unniarcha, took revenge by injuring Aromal Chekavar mortally with a lamp (there are other versions as depicted in the movie Oru vadakkan veeragadha). The dying Aromal tells of the deceit to Unniarcha who swears ‘koodi paka’ or revenge. Chandu gets married to Aringodans sister after the fight and Unniarcha by then curiously begets a child Aromal unni. This is the first of the anomalies in the story, for it is said that she never had any children by Kunhiraman. So whose son was Aromal Unni? This question will come up again in our study, a little later. Aromal her brother died unmarried but had a tryst with Tumbolarcha and had got her pregnant, but I am not sure what happened there and of course a liaison later with Kunjunuli at Alatur..
Let us now take up the story line of Unniarcha’s life from the research carried out by Bhaskaran, who hails from the same family as Unniarcha.
I was confused, now what became of Aromal Unni, her son, the avenger of his uncle and killer of Chandu as the ballads state? Was that boy a creation by some movie script writer? For according to Bhaskaran, Unniarcha had no children by Kunhiraman. Another question plagued me, was Unniarcha really part of Tipu’s harem? Yes, of course it is true that Tipu had a large Zenana or harem, which was much talked about and it is clear that he had a number of Hindu women in the collection of over 600 women, 260 from Hyder’s Zenana and 300 from his own (don’t ask me what he did with them…Gidwani, his chronicler and others who have written great eulogies might even say that he ran a benevolent institution for the 500 war widows or some fancy stuff like that). But all this was getting me nowhere, so I have to visit Tipu’s harem and check around in the annals of history. And that is how I reached the famed Zenana in Srirangapatanam pictured in my collection of books on Tipu and those obtained from the well stocked local library, and dived deep to look for traces of our beloved Unniarcha.
Ah! Srirangapatanam, I remember seeing the remnants of that once glorious palace decades ago, but when I saw it then, I had no interest in history. Today I read about the very same place in its splendor and regret the lost opportunity, but well, the Daria Daulat was indeed beautiful palace even in pictures. As the tourist site Asia rooms puts it…..
It was into this palace that Unniarcha would probably have been taken to. But then was she a principal wife? We will find out in due course.
Tipu had many hundred women in the Zenana, majority being high caste Hindus but also women from Georgia, Persia, Europe, and Turkey and women from many families in Arcot, Tanjore, Hyderabad and even Delhi. It is also stated that there were some from Malabar. Was Unniarcha among them? Each of the senior ones had their apartments furnished according to the customs of their place of origin. All of them had been converted and were guarded by eunuchs. Like Tipu’s other desires, objects that were curious rare and outstanding found their way into his palace, similarly was composed his Zenana, and into it possibly came the fighting beauty from Malabar. Did she thrive there or die a morose lady? At the Zenana, the sultan’s favorite wife presided the Zenana hierarchy and established control. The Zenana was also controlled by a Raja khan, his confidential servant who had access to any of them according to Thomas Marriot who was in charge of the Zenana after the Sultan was killed.
Life proceeded in the Zenana without much to offer as change, and secluded behind the walls, Unniarcha may have missed her land and customs, but Tipu was close to his death. Bhaskrans states that by now Unniarcha was a favorite wife and that she established considerable clout over him.
History books make no mention of this, however but there is only one tantalizing clue that Tipu had a son from a Hindu wife, and his name was Abdul Khaliq (KKN Kurup). Abdul khaliq also turns out to be the hostage provided by Tipu to the British in 1872 (pictured in a few paintings of the time) and was later married to the daughter of the Arakkal Bibi in 1789. So Abdul Khaliq cannot be Unniarcha’s son for she herself must have been captured by Tipu around 1789.
Now this was a time when gifts were important and girls and women were given away as gifts by Sultans. Even cast off wives or concubines were gifted to lesser officers or subordinates as human khila’ts or nazar’s. But let us take a look at Tipu’s family with a lens. We are able to do it as some events unfolded when Tipu fell to the British in 1799. One of the first things that took place was some looting and pillaging of the palace. There were, however, reports that British armies might have broken another implicit injunction by plundering Tipu's harem, and these reports inspired an immediate flurry of investigations and denials by the political and military authorities. The liberation of Tipu's harem was the subject of a Thomas Rowlandson cartoon published in 1799 which shows otherwise. Anyway the men put in charge of bringing order at the Zenana were Arthur Wellesley and Col Thomas Marriot - Paymaster of Stipends. A few people including one Reverend from Malabar came to claim some of the women on behalf of their husbands. Wellesley made a list of the women in the Zenana ( I tried hard to get this but have so far been unable to track it down) and assured that they would be properly taken care of or disposed, though he found it amusing that the British had to attach urgency to this task. Anyway they decided to take care of the wives and offspring of the Sultan with great seriousness and the princes of course decided to take all advantage of the situation, goaded by their mothers and the many accompanying aunts and step aunts (interestingly Tipu had determined even earlier that his sons were wastrels and had curtailed their benefits and put them to arduous tasks, but the situation changed with their capture by the British).
The wives listed in history books were Ruqayya banu, Raushana Begum, Khadija Zamana, and they were all deceased before Tipu himself died in 1799. At the time of his death the fourth wife was Padshah begum. All of them had Islamic lineage. Another wife has been identified as Buranti begum, the Delhi lady. Fatteh Haider was borne to a Roshani begum (pum kum from Adoni) though Fateh insisted that she had been promoted to Khas Mahal before Tipu died. Khaliq was the son of Raushana Begum. There is no mention or possibility of a Malabar lady in this group or she would have otherwise have ended up in Vellore under British custody. But according to Bhaskaran, Unniarcha spent her last years in Mysore with the Wodeyars. As Bhaskaran puts it, she became a principal wife of Tipu and his confidante and Unniarcha learned Kannada and English at the Zenana, which seems a little strange for the Sultan actually spoke Persian, Urdu and Arabic. She had a temple constructed for her (unlikely as it is firmly established that all Zenana women were converted)….and after the fall of the Tipu, she moved in with Krishna Raja Wodeyar.
The situation gets a bit murky here for Mummadi Wodeyar was born only in 1794 . Between 1796 and 1799 there were no Wodeyars, so who could Unniyarcha have connections with? Was it with the Khasa Chamaraja Wodeyar IX who died in 1796? I do not know, though the book ‘Annals of The Mysore Royal Family’ may provide some clues. Anyway Unniarcha would not have had a Krishna raja connection while living in the Zenana which was strictly controlled as we saw. So only one person comes up in my mind, the wily Purnayah.
The key to her move to Mysore if such a thing happened may have been Purnaiah, who had been involved with Malabar from the Hyder days and continued as a minister with Tipu. After Tipu’s death he switched sides and joined the Wodeyars, and coached and trained the infant Mummadi Wodeyar and later teamed up with the British as a Dewan of Mysore. But I am sure Bhaskaran has a complete story and we will see it someday as a book. In the meantime I will continue the search for the list that Arthur Wellesley prepared of the women remaining in the Zenana.
The story thus continues to remain a myth. If Unniarcha was born in 1766 and was taken away by Tipu in 1789, then it is impossible for her to have mothered Aromal, unless he were Tipu’s son. But that is also not possible for according to legends, Unniarcha was very much around Malabar and goading Aromal to take revenge on Chandu. Even then the timelines would not be right for such events would not have occurred in difficult times when the Sultans and their army were encamped in Malabar (those events would have found their way into the ballads). Then again, let us for a moment assume that Unniarcha was a favored queen in the Zenana. This is also not possible for the name was never seen in Wellesley’s or Marriott’s papers. The queens listed and the sons that come up do not indicate any person of Malabar origin. But then she could have been a lesser consort. If that were the case, she would have remained in Srirangapatanam after all the others were taken to Vellore by the English. It is then possible that she joined up with the wily Purnaiah and moved to the Wodeyar household. So for me the story is still a myth, but then again I may have missed the links that Bhaskaran has seen or possesses. I look forward to hearing more about this story.
Thus the story of the Aromal and Unniarcha as we know may belong to a time before the Mysore sultans decided to come south.
Whatever happened to Aromal Unni, Kunhiraman and all the others? I do not know….
What happened to Tipu’s wives and sons? The motley group was moved to the Vellore fort where they lived a life of luxury and waste. The two sons who rose to the fore were very poor specimens of humanity according to Hoover and were more interested in playing politics and finding ways of hurting each other as well as collecting wives and concubines, with the very large pension provided by the British. They made a mess of their life and were somehow wrongly pictured as possible culprits behind the not so famous Vellore mutiny of 1806 about which I will write about another day.
Ultimately, Unniarcha alone proved to be long lived among the short lived and much talked about Puthooram Veettil chekavars in real life and in legends. As for the sultans, like it was once said, “Haidar was born to create an empire; Tipu to lose one.”
Note: This article is a simple study of the events around the Zenana of Tipu in 1799 and is not meant in any way to discredit the article mentioned or the researcher Bhaskaran. The attempt was only to try and reach a rational conclusion from the limited information in the article. Perhaps I do not have the full foundation or all the facts, so I beg to be forgiven in such a case and eagerly look forward to studying them some day. Nevertheless, my feelings for Tipu will continue to remain negative.
Men without hats – James Hoover
Tipu Sultans search for legitimacy – Kate Brittlebank
Nawab Tipu Sulatn – KKN Kurup
Sword of Tipu Sultan – Gidwani
History of India – Julia Corner
Malayala Manorama 17th April 2011 – Article by Bijish Balakrishnan
Pics - Wikipedia, Columbia.edu, Google images