Manorama Thampuratti – The Princess Poetess

An erudite Sanskrit scholar from Calicut

Peeking out from the murky depths of the history of Malabar during the Mysore invasions is an interesting person, and a Sanskrit scholar with the title Manorama. I was always intrigued by this quick witted lady who proved to be quite a character even in exile and one who competed in the mostly male dominated Sanskrit literary sphere of Kerala during those times. She did not write any treatises or books when she left us at the age of 65, but her character and wit in an age of despondency, enthralled many a learned person, from the king to the common man, leaving an endearing memory of a scholar poetess. A number of her students followed in her wake and went on to become great scholars. That was Manorama Thampuratti, the only female scholar in that male-dominated galaxy, and somebody who set the beat for the next Sanskrit scholar from the Zamorin’s family, Vidwan Ettan Thampuran.

Those abreast with Sanskrit development may recall that there were two Manorama Thampuratti’s from the families of the Calicut Zamorin’s, the first being a sister of a certain Zamorin Manaveda. The second was the Manorama we are now talking about, born in 1759 (935KC). Manorama belonged to Kizhakke kovilakom (She daughter of the sister of the Zamorin who immolated himself), one of the many palaces or kovilakoms of the royal family of Calicut.

Let’s first get an idea of the Calicut that Manorama had to flee from, in her teens. I have covered the details over a number of posts at ‘Historic Alleys’ so a general idea will suffice for now. By 1706, the original matrilineal lineage in the Zamorin’s family had become extinct and fresh adoptions from the Neeleswaram Kovilakom up North had to be resorted to (If you recall a girl from the Zamorin family had eloped with a Kolathiri Kovialkom boy many centuries earlier and resettled at Neeleswaram, and as her line maintained the Zamorin’s lineage, thus an adoption was permitted). We will talk about the problems this adoption created, in a later article, for it did prove to be the reason for some sticky issues. In the period 1758-1766, Hyder Ali from Mysore attacked Calicut and subdued it, decimating the frontline forces of the Zamorin. Due to various reasons which we have discussed earlier, the reigning Zamorin immolated himself and eventually Hyder left Calicut, leaving control of the city with Raza Ali, Asad Khan and Madanna. In 1774, rebellions broke out and Hyder’s troops arrived again. At this juncture, the new Zamorin, some members of the three families and all the women fled to a palace in Ponnani, obtaining temporary respite and to plan an ocean voyage to Cranganore, where the Zamorin once had his own palace but which was now under Dutch control.

As many will recall, there were three branches in the Zamorin’s family and the offspring were titled with the names of the palaces or Kovilakoms they resided in. Before the Hyder epoch, the main palace was at Kottaparambu adjoining Mananchira and located centrally in Calicut, the Chalappurathu kovilakom was next, the Kizhakke (east) kovilakom near the present Zamorin’s College Chintavilappu, and the Puthiya or new kovilakom west of the Tali temple. Most of the women stayed at the Ambadi Kovilakom near the Puthiya Kovilakom. It was only much later that the Kizhakke Kovilakom moved to the Venkatakotta Kovilagom premises in Kottakkal and the Mankavu Padinjare Kovilakom was formed. The Puthiya kovilakom moved to Panniyankara and the older buildings and parts of Kottaparambu palace gave way to public buildings and offices.

The Padinjare kovilakom story is interesting – After the two Neeleswaram sisters came to Calicut to become part of the Kizhakke kovilakom, a third also joined them. The Zamorin of that period settled her too and her line is the so called Padinjare kovilakom (originally Thekke kovilakom).

A Thampuratti - Travancore
Ptg - Ravi Varma
Members of the Kizhakke kovilakom branch, after having left Calicut during Tippu’s invasion of Malabar, had to temporarily settle in Ennakkad Palace in Travancore under the hospitality of Trippapi Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma, the then Maharaja of Travancore. One of those members was a winsome girl who grew up in Calicut amidst a retinue of relatives and servants. Born in 1760AD (935) Makaram under the Swati star, she was endowed with ample intelligence. She was just five-six years old in 1766 when Hyder attacked Calicut and by 1774 the family been resettled temporarily in Ponnani.

During this period she excelled in Sanskrit under the tutorship of the brilliant Deshmangalam Uzhuthi Rudra Warrier. Interesting is also the fact that nobody knew her real name, for Manorama (delighting the heart), the name which she is known by posthumously, was a name acquired at the age of 12 when she recited and explained the whole of Bhattoji Dikshita’s double volume grammar work Praudha Manorama from the 17th century (The first part of this work has three chapters on grammatical terminology, laws of euphony, and the variations and combinations of nouns. The second part is also arranged under three heads, viz., the Tinnanta, Krldanta, and the Yaidika, treating respectively the conjugations of verbs, formation of verbal nouns, and explanations of Vedic anomalies and accentuations – totaling to some 6672 slokas). Some others feel that it was the Siddhanta Kaumudi of Bhattoji which she recited at the age of 12 and not the later version, the Praudha Manorama, which in any case is no less daunting.

One should also keep in mind that the movement of knowledge was not really curtailed by distances, for example, the Mukundamala composed in Kerala in the 8th or 9th century by the ruling monarch Kulashekara Alwar, was very soon found in a revised version in distant Kashmir, according to Dr KPA Menon writing on the subject of language movement. Knowledge was transferred by word of mouth and very limited amounts of written text. So imagine the onerous task of correct memorization!

It was in 945 (1769AD), i.e. at Calicut during the period when the 10 year old girl was studying grammar, that an interesting event took place, involving the great Chelaparambu Namboothiri, a Sanskrit scholar visiting the Kizhakke Kovilakom at Calicut.

The old scholar was looking at the mirror, at his silvery grey hair, and humming in Sanskrit, perhaps seeing the young girl observing him, from the corner of his eyes

Many more interesting situations have been recorded between these two. Chelapparamabu Nampoothiri was always famous for his extempore Malayalam Manipravala slokas hinging on a bit of eroticism, but in good humor and in a couple of cases, it involved this Manorama Thampuratti.

Once it seems the two of them were crossing the Chaliyar River in a boat when the weather worsened and heavy winds and rain buffeted the boat. An instant sloka by this Nampoothiri begging for calm is said to have stilled the storm!

In another case, he is said to have uttered the sloka below when he went to see Manorama Thanpuratti at the kovilakom, praising her smile, her hair, her breasts and a woman’s potential for deceit, all of which working together with Kamadeva could always affect youthful minds.

Note that in the medieval times, ladies of high birth in Kerala did not cover their breasts and breasts were not considered as ‘private’ parts, which were to be hidden. They were an object of beauty, just like hair, eyes, smile etc and treated so….

All we can conclude from all this that she was a comely and well-endowed lady, but at the same time not one awed or upset by remarks passed by otherwise illustrious people taking liberties with their words.

Before long, Manorama’s Talikettu kalyanam had been done with, presumably by the Kodungallur Raja and very soon she got betrothed to the prince from the Parappanad - Beypore kovilakom named Ramavarma Thampuran. In 954 (1778AD) they were blessed with a daughter, when Manorama was just 17-18 years old.

However the princess met with tragedy early in life when he passed away, but she was soon married off again to a good looking but ebyian (virtual nitwit) Namboodiri named Pakkatthu Bhattathiri. She had no qualms expressing her dissatisfaction of this mismatched union of minds, to her uncle, for she said so, after subjecting her husband to a simple Sanskrit test…

Nevertheless the couple was blessed with two sons and three daughters. One of the sons became a later day Zamorin in 1024. One of her famous and poignant Mukthakam’s (4 line poem) goes thus (again a rough meaning only provided)

Meanwhile, the ravages following the Mysore attacks were becoming intolerable for the family in exile. As Hyder and later Tipu surged southwards with the Zamorin’s treasures in mind, the families had to flee again. A lot of intrigue can be seen in the movements then, with Isaac Surgun, Tipu, the Zamorin, Rama Varma, Keshava Das, the Dutch etc negotiating over who did what. We will cover all of that in a separate article. Travancore as you may recall, was by then already allied with the British.

Let’s now get to know the reigning king of Travancore. Having succeeded Marthanda Varma, Rama
Varma ruled Travancore from 1758 until 1798. As is said, he was called the Dharma Raja due to his staunch belief in Dharma Sastra, and he provided asylum to all who had to flee Malabar during the unforgettable outrages committed by the marauding Hyder and Tipu. His complete name was Maharaj Raja Ramaraja Sri Padmanabha Dasa Vanchipala Rama Varma II [Kartika Tirunal] Dharmaraja and during his period, courageous dewans like Keshavadas withstood the onslaught of Tipu at Nedumkotta. He was also very much into arts (though not mohiniattam or bharatanatyam like the later king Swati Tirunal) and was a scholar in music and dance, composing many Kritis. He was perhaps the first violinist from the royal family and it was due to the various Kathakali plays he composed that a few reforms were brought in Kathakali. Dharma Raja took in the fleeing public from Malabar, which comprised not only the royal families but a large retinue of Brahmins and Nairs and ensured that Dewan Keshavadas took personal care of all these asylees and resettled them properly.

It was in 964 (1788 AD) that this beautiful poetess now aged 27-28, moved with her family to Ennakkad near Chengannur in Travancore, to live there for another 12 years.

This was a period when noble or upper classes conversed in Sanskrit whereas early Malayalam, Tamil etc were the languages spoken by the masses, and manipravalam, a mixture of the two was taking shape. As the Raja was a Sanskrit scholar himself, word of the arrival of Princess Manorama and her fame as a Sanskrit scholar reached the 65 year old Travancore Dhrama Raja’s ears, quickly. The king was quite taken in by the Thampuratti, perhaps overtly involved and he started to write to her.

This infatuation of the king led to a relationship of sorts between the two of them, well evident from the amorous couplets that passed.  All this is quite evident from the following exchanges between the King and the princess and the fact that the Raja ‘apparently’ moved his own court from Anantapuram to Mavelikkara in order to be near her. The king later remained at the lake palace to form a central base, to direct and spearhead the fight against Tipu of Mysore who was close to destroying his kingdom.

Readers may recall that Rama Varma had no male offspring from his four consorts (a girl from the fourth – so I wonder why he mentioned about the lineage break) and the Kilimanoor family line was about to end. Though a union could in theory have helped continue his lineage, it would have been of no use to the Princess. Considering the traditional matrilineal succession, the adopted Avittom Tirunal Baralrama Varma would in any case have occupied the throne and Manorama would have gained nothing even if they had a son. But we can assume that the relationship itself was really not an issue for Manaorma, she may have gained from it.

One could always question as to whether the poems were really written by them or just attributed to them. Of that I am not sure, as it is not easy to get the question and the reply ola’s at one source, unless the reply grantha ola repeated the question and they were found in the Kings archives. These were private communications, and scribes would not have been used. Also per rumor, the king’s nephew Ayilyam Thamburan who was enamored by the same Manorama leaked these stanzas (See Ramachandran’s article). But for a moment let us assume that the communications took place as detailed below. I would believe that further corroboration can be established from the note sent by the princess after she got back to Calicut, which you will agree, confirms the events.

A study of the amorous epistle – the text in the verses will show that the old king flirted with the young lady making it clear that though he was in the wrong, his actions were a result of his infatuation and that logic had no place in these games of Kamadeva. Taken aback, the princess was at first worried by gossip mongers, but seeing that the king was serious, gives in and even suggests ways to get around the presence of her husband. Naturally she would have been taken in by the Sanskrit scholar and the lord of the land, though a bit old, compared to the young but dimwit of a husband. She goes onto say that rules won’t stop her and that she is agreeable to a liaison.

She is seen complaining next of RamaVarma’s declining interest, for he is busy in the war with Tipu.

As the war wound down Tipu left Kerala and was again defeated in the third Anglo-Mysore war of 1792.  All the refugees and asylees from Malabar were now starting to troop home. The Padinjare Kovilakom Thampuran remained as he was well past 70, but Kishen raja, his son took the Zamorin’s position and went back to Calicut to negotiate with the British. Manorma also left, but somewhat later and she wrote a pained lovelorn note to Rama Varma from Calicut or Kotakkal.

The family re-settled at the Venkatakotta kovilakom in Kottakkal during the year (975)1800 AD. Interestingly this was perhaps the only time somebody from the Travancore royal family got involved with a lady from the Zamorin’s family. The involvement of a Zamorin girl with the Kolathunad family was detailed previously.

Rama Varma’s main work Balaramabharatam on the art of drama and dance, which some believe was purportedly compiled with the help of Manorama, was completed during their stay at the lake palace. Since the entire family was troubled by the invasion of Haidar Ali and Tippu Sultan, the patronage for literature suffered a decline and Manorama's verses were never published. But her legacy continued through her students, such as Thonnikkal Kunjitti Raghavan Nambiyar (son of the Kudallur Namboothiripad) who was an expert in the Anandalochanam. Another student was the Aroor Atithiri who later went on to create his own list of famous students such as the Kodungallur elaya thampuran whose student was Vaikkom Pachumuthathu, whose student was Keralavarma Koilthampuran and so on. Govinda pisharodi was another. It is said that a grammatical work on Paniniyam under the title Manorama located recently, was written by the Thampuratti.

In Manavikramiya, a stanza which describes the great poetess is worded thus

And Madhava (Arur Madhavan Atitiri) her pupil says (rough meaning only provided)

The poet and literary historian Kerala Varma Valiakoyithampuran pays the following tribute to her.

Tipu Sultan had by now been done away with and the British were happily consolidating their power in Malabar. Avittom Thirunal Bala Rama Varma succeeded the Dharma Raja and during his reign had to contend with various issues concerning Veluthampi, Jayanthan Sankaran Nampoothiri etc (which we talked about earlier).

It is mentioned that Manorama rose to the title of senior most princess at the Ambadi Kovialkom before she passed away at the age of 65 in the month of Edavom, 11th of 1003 (1828AD). One of her sons became a later day Zamorin and the present day Zamorin K.C. Unni Anujan Raja is also from the same Kotakkal Kovilakom and lineage. These days I understand that a Manorama Thampuratti award is being presented to literary achievers in Calicut during the Revathi Pattathanam at Tali temple.

But then again, when I write all this, I smile as I compare myself to that dimwitted husband of Manorama, who knew no Sanskrit, and one who knew not the difference between Vihasya, Vihaya, Aham or Katham, like me. Nevertheless, in those days Sanskrit was a revered language. Today even Malayalam is falling by the wayside in our rush to embrace a single global language.

Kerala Sahitya Charitram V3 – Ulloor P Iyer
Purusartha Sathakam – Dr KPA Menon
Kozhikodinte Charitram – K Balakrishna Kurup
Padyasahitya Charitram – TM Chummar
Zamorins of Calicut – KV Krishna Iyer
Bālarāmabharatam: A Critique on Dance and Drama – Easwaran Nampoothiri
Kerala and Sanskrit literature – Kunjunni Raja


To see a rough location where Manorama lived, see picture above. I do not know if the same structure existed in her times

Related articles
1-      It is not easy to translate these slokas into English due to a lot of inner meanings and word plays. So what is provided in all these translations is only a rough gist of the conversation. I got an initial explanation on the epistle from a friend of mine, proficient in Sanskrit – Naresh Cuntoor, whom I would like to thank. The translations used come from KPA Menon’s book. Anybody offering more precise translations are welcome to provide it to me in the comments section and I will add/correct.

2-      The somewhat complete communications between Rama Varma and Manorama as well as other verses attributed to and relating to Manorama cannot be found in any one source. I have obtained them from the listed references and compiled the whole collection here for the benefit of others hunting for these in future.

3-      Sanskrit manuscripts from all over India are typically written in the Devanagari script whereas ancient Sanskrit had no such lipi or native script. In Kerala, Sanskrit is usually written using the Malayalam script.

4-      It is interesting to note that practical applications of Sanskrit learning such as Ayurveda and architecture survived in Kerala, while traditions of philosophy and grammar continued in other regions. Even the Syrian Christians of Kerala and a few Muslims were well versed in Sanskrit during the medieval times and the tradition continues even today.

5-      Sharat Sundar providesthis information on Rama Varma - Dharmaraja married four times, his first wife was a Thankachi named ‘Vadasseri Kali Amma Nagamani Amma’ of Vadasseri Amma Veedu. Later he also married from Arumana, Thiruvattar and Nagercoil Amma Veedu. The story goes that the king made four separate mansions for his ‘Ammachi’s’ in Thiruvananthapuram and shifted them to the new houses. 


Brahmanyan said…
Enjoyed reading about the great lady scholar in Sanskrit. Where could we find such people now ?
Maddy said…
thanks brahmanyan,
difficult I suppose to find new poets and poetesses, but there are people proficient enough
Kamini said…
A fascinating read! I have asked you this before and am asking you again - when will you publish all of this wonderful writing on your blog into a book?
Maddy said…
hi Kamini
thanks a lot...
I do have some plans, still to find a publisher though!!
Another rich post. What quantities of research must have gone into this! Thank you, Maddy for compiling the life and works of this great scholar from Calicut who is otherwise remembered only in the context of the rather smutty slokas of Chelapparambu. You have succeeded in resurrecting this woman poet from the male dominated Namboodiri literary tradition which saw Manorama only as a sex object whose literary attainments were incidental. Ironically, as you have reproduced, Manorama also had utter contempt for her dim witted Namboodiri husband who was neither an accomplished scholar nor a skilled lover!
As Mr. Ramachandran had suggested, we should publish her collected works. Calicut Heritage is willing to take up this job, if no other agency is prepared. We shall follow it up after consulting Dr. C Rajendran, one of our members and a great Sanskrit scholar himself. Thanks for another fabulous post!
Kamini said…
Good luck with the book, Maddy!
C Rajendran said…
Wonderful. You have done a neat job. I remember several years back, there was an attempt to revive the memories of this remarkable lady an I had given a lecture. A pity that no work of hers has been published yet. We have to do something about that.

Maddy said…
Thanks CHF
It took me a while to collate whatever i wrote, and I am sure there is plenty more. Hopefully the Kotakkal kovilakom can help. maybe we should reach out to the Travancore royal family as well.
Maddy said…
Thanks kamini..
Maddy said…
Thanks Rajendran,
I am just wondering whether PMS Bhattathirpad at Chalappuram has some data from his family archives..another source to tap..
Maddy said…
CHF, Rajendran
I am also reaching out to the Ennakad & Kunnathur families to see if they have something - let me see. It will take some time.
Hi maddy im from tn do you read any myth or any story of maravar class of warriors in malabar kerala history or any ruling area in near panthalam maddy.
Haddock said…
Enjoyed reading this.
Had read earlier also about the king of Travancore who provided asylum to all who had to flee Malabar.
Raja said…
Am indeed grateful for this blog!
K C R Raja

Maddy said…
Thanks Mr Raja
I hope you can add even more details to the little I could post here,....
Lekha said…
Enjoyed reading this! Amazing how little we know of these talented people and their works.

Coincidentally, i've just finished reading The Saga Of Black Gold by Anuradha which tells the story (among other things) of the princess who eloped with the nephew of the kolathunad raja and settled in neeleshwaram.... interesting to find the link here.

thanks for throwing light on these forgotten figures!
Maddy said…
Thanks Lekha
I am hoping to get more information on this interesting character, but nothing more than this, as yet...

regarding the Zamorin-Kolathiri connection pls read this