Les Madame Mequinez

The travails of a lady colonel in Hyder’s army

The story of Mme Mequinez comes to light, vividly explained in the pages outlining a history of Hyder Ali penned by one MMDLT. MMDLT stands for Msieur Maistre de la Tour, a French general in Hyder’s army, who as he says, was in command of 10,000 men and had participated in many of his battles and wars. Buried in this work is the story of this interesting lady and the intrigues she got herself into, perusing which, provides some amusement on a rainy or dull day.

Maistre de la Tour's work on Hyder Ali was perhaps an early attempt to write the history of Hyder Ali in 1784, just two years after the patron’s death. MMDLT introduces himself thus - General of Ten Thousand Men in the Army of the Mogul Empire, and formerly Commander-in-Chief of the Artillery of Hyder Ali, and of a Body of European Troops in the Service of that Prince. Initially the British establishment scoffed at this work, ‘considering it too supportive of Hyder, exaggerating the virtues of his patron while at the same time, as a French man, quite critical of the British’. MMDLT states his purpose in writing it - As an eyewitness of part of his conquests, and of the glory that surrounds him, he thought it a kind of duty incumbent on him to make this sovereign known, at an instant in which he has become so interesting to Europe, and to France in particular. Askenzai (Chen Tzoref-Ashkenazi, German Soldiers in Colonial India, 2016, p. 146) explains - De La Tour's text was based on two central strategies: presenting a positive image of Haidar Ali and criticizing the British for both their conduct towards Haidar and other Indian rulers and towards the French, while at the same time defending the conduct of the French in India. In doing so, De La Tour consciously wrote against an existing image of Haidar Ali as a cruel Oriental despot and intolerant Muslim.

However, in spite of CK Kareem’s, MMDLT’s and some recent historian's sterling efforts at repainting Hyder and Tipu as honorable and pious souls, we in Malabar are not so charitable when it comes to these Mysore interlopers whose only desire was to dismember the regional structures, terrorize the region with forced conversions and loot much of its wealth. MMDLT’s narration of Mequinez’s travails takes us to the days Hyder spent at Coimbatore, busy in his exertions against Malabar, and outlines a legal issue brought to a just settlement by Hyder.

Portuguese India, with its capital at Goa was a complex society with Fidalgos, Soldados, Mesticos and Topasses, to name a few divisions. Fidalgos, especially Mesticos or Luso-Goans were the nobility occupying the high-born top tier. Soldado’s were soldiers, while Topass was a term used to describe in general, Luso-Asians, typically foot soldiers (In Cochin too, Luso Malayalis, were generally also known as Topasses, Parangis (Feringhees), Mundukaar etc). Suffice to say that Topasses were mixed parentage soldiers in the Portuguese armies.

We now get to the story of a Colonel from the Portuguese army, who later joined Hyder and fought many battles for him, meeting his death while fighting the Maratha army sometime in the 18th century. Hyder, in appreciation for this meritorious service, passed on the command of the regiment of Topasses to the dead colonel’s widow Madam Mequinez, together with the same title of Colonel, on condition that she tender it to their adopted son when he grew up to a suitable age. Mequinez you should note, never went into action herself; and she left the duty of leading the soldiers in the field, to the officer second in command.

As MMDLT puts it - This lady accompanied her regiment everywhere: the colors were carried to her house, and she had a private sentinel at the door. She received the pay, and caused the deductions to be made in her presence from each company. When the regiment was collected, she inspected them herself, as well as all the detachments that were ordered out; but she permitted the second in command to exercise the troops, and lead them against the enemy.

Some years later, as the story goes, the good lady filed a suit of embezzlement against a Jesuit provincial priest, asking Hyder through his secretary of war named Narim Rao, to interject and negotiate a settlement in her favor.

As her deposition puts it, the lady had been in possession of some jewels and money after her husband’s demise and as was the practice in those days, she gave it to a Jesuit priest for safekeeping. MMDLT explains the procedure as follows - All the Christian women in India that are married to Europeans have the madness to hoard up a private sum or fund, which they entrust to their priests, under the seal of confession. It is to the honor of the missionaries, that there is no instance of any complaint of this trust having been abused. This custom is very ancient, and seems to have originated with the Portuguese. The monks, at all events, gain much money by the practice because there are scarcely any women that die, who previously acquaint their husbands or relations where they have placed sums in this manner

The Jesuit father thus entrusted, however, moved on to Goa in 1767 and informed Mequinez that he had transferred all of her deposits to the provincial father at Xavier Palayam (a mile distant from Coilmatour – Coimbatore, see 1737 map, it also leads me to believe that Mequinez was resident around Coimbatore, since the local Padre was resident there). He then gives additional explanation on this ‘provincial father”, who may have been responsible for the Malabar or Mysore province. He states that they called themselves Brahmin Christians (like Robert Nobili), wearing the sacred thread, slippers without leather, were vegetarian, pure in manners and habits (regular baths etc) and sporting a long beard, generally resembling brahmin ascetics of that time.

Continuing on, Mequinez approached the provincial father who expressed surprise at the visitor’s mysterious request for return of her jewels and replied that he had neither heard of any jewels or money, nor did he think Mequinez was sane. Mequinez, appalled with this, approached Hyder’s minister Narim Rao and showed him the receipt and a list of her deposits (Rs 1,000, a pair of ruby bracelets, and a collar of pearls), so that he could explain the situation properly to Hyder. Narim approached Hyder and did that and more, painting the provincial priest in the vilest colors.

Hyder put off personal involvement, but quickly sent some sentries to watch and guard each major missionary in the region, since he was busy quelling revolts in Malabar. After this had been taken care of, he sent a French commandant to check out the situation with Mequinez, giving him the authority to investigate and judge the affair, based on common Christian law. The Frenchman summoned Mequinez first who came and gave a dramatic deposition of the embezzlement by the Jesuits, convincing all and sundry, listening. But the Frenchman kept mum and summoned the Provincial father, a wizened, mild-mannered and venerable man of 60 or thereabouts.  The father requested that they discuss the matter in private, and the Frenchman agreed.

The father then went on to explain that the priest who had gone to Goa was a corrupt man, who incidentally had been caught and reprimanded by him. In fact, the priest was absconding with the jewels among other items, and had stopped at Mangalore, where he was restrained. Mequinez and many others quickly arrived to collect their deposits which were returned formally and receipted, all duly witnessed by both Portuguese and French factors. The receipt ledger was initialed by Mequinez.

The priest then suggested that the Frenchman depute an official quickly to Mangalore in order to collect a copy of the receipt from Mequinez, adding further that all of this was a plot hatched by Narim Rao and Mequinez, assuming that Hyder hated all Christian missionaries and so would automatically find fault with the accused Provincial father. He added that since the Portuguese factor at Mangalore was also complicit in this scheme, he may try to avoid the request. The French witness (the so-called French factor) may have returned to Mahe, so he would have to be traced and hence it was imperative that full authority (of Hyder) be brought to bear upon the Portuguese factor, to force him to provide the receipt register for inspection.

By now, the Frenchman was clear that the father was right and the good lady was not. So, he summoned Mequinez again, who had been impatiently waiting to hear about the conviction of the father. The Frenchman went on an attack mode and accused Mequinez of being a bad Christian and party to conspiring wicked schemes. He bluffed that the French factor who had witnessed the receipt had told him the real story and was on the way with the ledger. Threatening her of severe punishment from the Nabob who had trusted her until then, he offered clemency should she confess right then and there. The lady was startled, and now unmasked, agreed to tell all. Summoning two witnesses, a confession was recorded. The provincial father and the Frenchman agreed to close the matter without publicizing it since Mequinez was a widow and secondly, they wanted to avoid enmity of the high official Narim Rao, for such an inconsequential matter. A short summary was furnished to Hyder who was satisfied that justice had been done and discussed the details no more.

The Jesuits then went on to excommunicate Mequinez and condemned her to public penance. Hyder thought this a bit harsh and decided to ask a mercenary who was not really in his favor, of Swedish extract, to marry Mequinez, with the incentive that he would restored to his rank. MMDLT explains what happened.

Hyder proposed to the Swedish officer, accomplice of Turner, the Irishman, to espouse this lady colonel, as a condition upon which he would pardon and restore him to his former post. This young man, aged twenty-eight, but of a spirited disposition, absolutely rejected the offer; saying he would rather die than marry a woman who had prostituted herself to all the Topasses. His pardon, and permission to retire where he pleased, were the consequence of this answer. They lady colonel afterwards married a mongrel Portuguese serjeant; but she was highly astonished, when the bakhsi (paymaster) sent for her, to let her know that the Nabob had reduced her to serjeant's pay because she had dishonored the name of her former husband, whose services had demanded that the woman who bore his name should not be without the means of subsisting reputably.

Thus ended the story of Mequinez who must have thence led a miserable life, in the lower rungs of the Goan social ladder. By the way, Col Mequinez’s widow’s first name is not mentioned anywhere and all mentions of Mequinez signifies the last name of the said lady, wife of Col Mequinez. Turner incidentally was recommended to Hyder by Charles Bourchier, a British spy in Hyder’s employ, according to Hayavadana Rao, the chronicler of Mysore.

H Rao uses the example of how Hyder dealt with Mequinez as a testament to his character. Though unlettered and destitute of the benefit of the discipline of any kind of education, Haidar possessed a mind of the first order. The very original manner in which he dealt with the case of Madam Mequinez shows this trait in him. He did justice to the revered Provincial head of the Jesuits in Coimbatore, though he had been unjustly slandered by her of misappropriation of her deposit of money and jewelry.

Much later, Walter Scott used her story as a prop in his work ‘The Surgeon’s Daughter’. Rao explains - The sketch of Madame Montreville alias Queen of Sheba reminds us of her counterpart Madame Mequinez in De La Tour’s Ayder Ali (1784). Madame Mequinez was, we read in that work, the widow of a Portuguese officer, who had rendered signal services to Ayder.

Though Scott has woven the novel around the principal incident as narrated to him by his friend Mr. Tram of Castle Douglas, he seems evidently to have been well acquainted with De La Tour’s account of Madame Mequinez for his nice adaptation of the character of Madame Montreville, of whom we read thus. This lady is the widow of a Swiss officer in the French service, who, after the surrender of Pondicherry, went off into the interior, and commenced soldier on bis own account. He got possession of a fort, under pretense of keeping it for some simple Rajah or other; assembled around him a parcel of desperate vagabonds of every color in the rainbow; occupied a considerable territory, of which he raised the duties in his own name, and declared for independence. But Hyder Naib understood no such interloping proceedings, and down he came, besieged the fort and took it, though some pretend it was betrayed to him by this very woman.

Be that as it may, the poor Swiss was found dead on the ramparts. Certain it is, she received large sums of money, under pretense of paying off her troops, surrendering of hill-forts, and Heaven knows what besides. She was permitted also to retain some insignia of royalty; and, as she was wont to talk of Hyder as the Eastern Solomon, she generally became known by the title of Queen of Sheba. She leaves her court when she pleases, and has been as far as Fort St. George before now. In a word, she does pretty much as she likes. Hyder, it is supposed, has insured her fidelity by borrowing the greater part of her treasures, which prevents her from daring to break with him.”

Rao concludes - This account of the origin of Madame Montreville with her subsequent doings and the ultimate fate which befell her, as portrayed by Scott in this novel, shows clearly that the idea of creating and developing the character of an adventuress of this type perhaps suggested itself to his fertile and imaginative brain by his acquaintance with De La Tour’s memoir recording, for the first time, the career and character of the historical Madame Mequinez.

In ‘Tiger of Mysore: Life and Death of Tipu Sultan’, Forrest, Denys explains in the introduction, concurring with Rao - I doubt whether Walter Scott’s short novel, The Surgeon's Daughter, has many readers today. Swathed in an extraordinary apparatus of introductions and prologues and grossly overweighted with plot, it occupies an uneasy niche in the Chronicles of the Canongate, First Series (1827)… The interesting thing about this queer tale is that most of Scott’s apparently far-fetched episodes do have some remote historical basis….. Then, once in India, and having with the greatest casualness killed his colonel in a duel, he takes service with an improbable-sounding character called ‘’the Begum Montreville’, widow of a Swiss officer and now in command of a fort in the Haidar Ali country! Yet the Begum derives almost certainly from de la Tour’s description of a certain Madame Mequinez, to whom Haidar gave the colonelcy of her late husband’s regiment.

So that my friends, was the story of Madame Mequinez and Hyder. The secretary named by MMDLT as Narim rao is to be read as Narayana Rao. Shama Rao was the Military Bakshi and Narayana Rao, was Haider’s Secretary for War. Rao tells us – As in olden days, the military department was under a Bakshi, who corresponded to the European Minister for War. He was in charge of the finances of his department, though he could not act without the precise orders of his master. He was assisted by a secretary, who enjoyed the confidence of Haidar. These were usually Brahman officers in whom Haidar placed great trust.

Narayana Rao’s fate after this affair is not known, but I presume he continued on, since Hyder was never told the full story, unlike you folks!! What fascinated me was that the provincial Christian missionary fathers lived and dressed like Tamil Brahmins even in the 18th century, a full two centuries after Nobili! If you recall this was pioneered by Robert Nobili, who I had briefly introduced some time ago and more recently, charmingly essayed in the interesting work of Manu Pillai - The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin.


History of Ayder Ali Khan Nabob Bahader – Monsieur Maistre De la Tour
History of Mysore Vol 3 – Hayavadana Rao
Historic Alleys – Robert Nobili



The Christian Panikkars of Mavelikkara

The Catholic harquebousiers of Travancore

It was while studying the character of De Lannoy that I came across the mention of the Mavelikkara Malittas, a group of well-trained Christian mercenaries, serving the local kings. At that time, I read that the Malittas who trained at their Kalari’s like the Nairs of Malabar, was later instructed by the Flemish Captain Eustace Benedict De Lannoy on the arts of steel forging, swordsmanship, and gunnery until his death in 1777. After their transformation to European style mercenaries, departing from the age-old hand to hand combat practices, these Malittas were known as the Catholic harquebousiers of Travancore. The harquebusier was the most common form of cavalry in the Europe during the mid-17th century. In those days, harquebusiers carried a form of carbine, termed the "harquebus". Let’s now see how all this originated and what that was all about, actually they date all the way back to the Portuguese times.

Drawing from Susan Bayly’s outstanding work - Saints, Goddesses and Kings and Maritime studies by Pius M, as well as remarks from Mark Lannoy in his brilliant work on Travancore, we can reconstruct the history of Christian Militia in Travancore, in some fashion. In general, looking back to those centuries, we can see that those were periods when Swaroopams were being strengthened and were vying with each other over regional power, fighting numerous wars and battles. Down in Travancore and Cochin, powerful kings were redrawing borders.  Military might was therefore quite important and naturally, all communities contributed to the field with fighting men, be it Hindu, Christian or Muslim. Of course, we can see Jewish interlocutors flitting about in their midst, working as negotiators and traders, too.

In the past, we spoke about the Nair and Moplah militia during the medieval times, serving various chieftains and trading communities in Malabar, individually as guards or armed escorts during travel (Nairs) and as part of the infantry as foot soldiers, armed with lances, swords etc during the times of war, reporting to, with allegiance to, and associated with their local suzerain. So much so, they were known as the thousands – be it one, two, or tens of thousand’s of Nairs. Moplahs likewise joined the Zamorin’s army during times of war, but that was in Malabar.

It was a little different in Travancore. The militia there were not just Nairs, but the king also collected mercenaries as and when required such as the Tamil Marvarars from around Tirunelveli, Christians from the North of Venad as well as Muslims from the local coastal and inland Muslim communities. For now, we will focus on the Syrian and St Thomas Christians, but not get into the details of their past, such as tales related to their past. Suffice to say that they had been around for a long time, perhaps the first foreign arrivals, converts, and settlers in the early history of Malayala, as the region was generally known. Over time, warriors from among them were indeed mentioned, employed, honored, and rewarded by Hindu rulers.

In fact, one of the first mentions goes way back to the Tarisapalli plates of 825, were among the 72 privileges, the Marwan Saphir Isho was granted permission to raise an army of 600.  As the Christian community grew, two main factions developed, the Southists originating from Knayil Thomma the immigrant and the Northists from St Thomas’s exertions. The Southists lifestyle closely followed the Nair traditions and culture. The Northists connected primarily to the ancient St Thomas tradition and originally comprised converts from the Namboothiri community. Both partook in the growing and trade of spices around Quilon, Cranganore, and created a wealthy substructure, with an ability to influence trade and foreign relations of local Hindu kingdoms, serving as powerful trade brokers and spice suppliers.

What is not so very well known or understood is the fact that St Thomas and Syrian Christians were also in the thick of things, as far as a martial culture is concerned. While the Jews were not allowed to form a militia, the Christians were and were granted ‘the right of the curved sword’. Sometimes it is difficult to identify exactly or separate the two factions in historic records, for certain writers term them Syrians, while others group them as St Thomas Christians.

It was further recorded by a Portuguese scribe Gouvea (Gouvea, Histoire) as follows - They [the Syrians] are very robust, stout, and the best fighters in all Malabar, also skilled with weaponry; whence it comes that if the Kings go to war with these Christians [in their service], in them resides the strength of the army.’ In fact, just like the Nair suicide squads who fight until death, we even come across a similar instance in 1551 when a body of St Thomas Christian caver fighters bound by an oath of suicide to the raja of Vadakkumkur defeated the army of the raja of Cochin and killed the Cochin ruler himself (Kunjan Pillai).

Bayly explains - Syrians also shared in the other main institutions of this warrior culture. Hindu Panikkars took Christian youths as their pupils, and there were also many Syrian Panikkar lineages. Among the best-known warrior preceptors in the pre-colonial period were the Malittas of Mavelikkara, a family of Christian Panikkars who created their own networks of both Hindu and Christian trainee disciples. Every youth presented ceremonial tokens of fealty to his ruling lord when he completed his kalari training; he in turn was presented with a sword. Such exchanges resembled the presentations of cloth and ceremonial khelat at a Muslim darbar. They secured the bonds of blood and affiliation which linked the warrior to his chief or raja, and this too was a rite which Syrians performed alongside Nairs and other Hindu warriors

A little background on the Panikkars, the Kalari masters of Malabar – Barbosa says. "And there are very skillful men who teach this art (fencing), and they are called Panicars." — Barros adds "And when the Naire comes to the age of 7 years, he is obliged to go to the fencing-school, the master of which (whom they call Panical) they regard as a father, on account of the instruction he gives them." Castenheda explains "The maisters which teach them be graduates in the weapons which they teach, and they be called in their language Panycaes." Thurston states, noting some differences in Travancore - The two well-known titles of the caste (Marans of Travancore) are Kuruppu and Panikkar, both conveying the idea of a person who has some allotted work to perform. He adds - When a Maharaja of Travancore enters into a matrimonial alliance, it is a Kuruppu who has to call out the full title of the royal consort, Panappillai Amma, after the presentation of silk and cloth has been performed. The title Panikkar is derived from pani, work. It was the Panikkars who kept kalaris, or gymnastic and military schools, but in modern times many Panikkars have taken to the teaching of letters.

The warriors trained by the Panikkars, seem to have performed well and were rewarded for their exertions. The Purakat Church building for example was sponsored by the local Raja after his victory was secured by his Christian warriors. The Kanjirapalli church timber and funds were apparently provided by the Tekkumkur Raja, in 1449.  In a way, one could thus emphasize the integrated culture and society, even following similar rituals and traditions. We come across oddities, such as the tale where Coconut oil sold by a Christian producer was considered an antidote for (caste) pollution and so they were requested to settle in certain villages (Slow flows the Pampa- KE Vargheese)!

And thus, we get to the Travancore of Marthanada Varma. As I wrote earlier, the middle years of the 18th century were testing times for Marthanda Varma. Various intrigues and skirmishes involving the Quilon, Kottarakkara, Kayamkulam, and the Karunagapally chieftains kept him busy, but there was only so much he could do. With the treasury nearly empty, Marthanda Varma’s desire of increasing the size and power of his kingdom was in relative check. In addition to all that, the annual forays of the Madura kings had to be contended with and his defenses were well stretched even after the employment of many a Maravar mercenary in his ranks. The Dutch VOC on the other hand was not able to get enough pepper to export at a time when the prices were at an all-time high, with MV insisting on better prices. The English were snooping around, offering sweeter deals to MV, trying to lure him away from the Dutch who were the regular clients. MV was a clever negotiator and Governor Van Imhoff would record the following in his diary ‘when threatened, his highness uses every trick, every pretension to avoid making concessions. He bestows on us a rain of politeness and compliments which are all but a disguise of his own plans’.

The battles with the VOC took the main stage and the beleaguered VOC was on the retreat. Some of those European soldiers deserted and joined up with the Travancore forces led by Ramayyan Dalawa. They managed to blow up the gunpowder storage at Colachel which resulted in a huge explosion and killed many of the remaining Dutchmen in the fort. Shortly thereafter, on Aug 12th the Dutch fort was surrendered.

Days later, we find Lannoy serving in the Travancore brigade. His rise up the ranks was quick, and he became a trusted lieutenant of the Raja, with a responsibility to restructure and train the army. He had also been entrusted with making a cannon foundry and a gunpowder-making factory. By 1744, Lannoy had trained and created an able army for the raja and had built many forts for its defense and his trained army enabled Marthanda Varma to dismiss expensive Madura mercenaries and save a lot of money. By 1747 Travancore had wrested control over large areas until the Cochin borders. The expanding army was looking for new recruits.

But naturally, in the martial environment of Travancore and Cochin in those times, the Christian soldiers found employment in both the Travancore and Cochin Raja’s military. Unlike Europe where militaries were constituted among Christians for religious purposes, Kerala had the Christian militia fighting traditional wars between kings and chiefs. Many Catholic families were as we saw earlier, prominent in Marthanda Varma’s armies, fighting together with Tamil Marawas, Pathans etc. He recruited several thousand of these men for and during his conquests in north Travancore. By the latter part of the 18th century his massive European style and trained army was said to contain at least one corps consisting mostly or wholly of Christians trained by the Mavelikkara Malitta Panikkar. It is understood that for many generations, the Malittas of Mavelikkara treasured an elaborate gold circlet which Marthanda Varma is said to have bestowed on their famous ancestor the Mathai Malitta Panikkar, as a token of honor and affiliation.

Bayly explains that the reason for the successes of the Travancore and Cochin regimes were their ability to link the ancient tradition of the Panikkars (warrior preceptor lineages) and the kalari martial training foundations to the new military system with its European mercenary officers and its use of modern weaponry. As she explains, Many of the old kalari gymnasia became centers of training in European-style drill and artillery techniques, thus allowing the rulers to merge the prestige of the old martial cult tradition with the institutions of their new dynastic war-state.

Major Christian kalari centers played a key role in this process. Bayly reconfirms that the most important of the European military men who were recruited to train the Travancore armies was Eustace de Lannoy. Lannoy, the mercenary officer taught steel forging, swordsmanship and gunnery at the kalari of the Mavelikkara Malittas; a collection of weapons that were constructed under his supervision was handed down within the family for many generations after the death of Marthanda Varma’s protege Mathai Malitta.

The Malittas however state a connection even earlier, they mention that they received this royal token in the 1740s as a reward for having sheltered the raja, after a military defeat. Bayly adds - Other Syrian families also claim to have acted as protectors of Keralan Hindu kings. The Malittas are supposed to have gained their title of Panikkar when one of their ancestors saved a medieval ‘Perumal’ ruler from an attacking wild buffalo; this is comparable to the heroic claims made by the Pudukkottai Tondaimans. Interestingly some rumored ancient links to Tulu and Tamil regions can also be seen, when perusing their histories.

An account dating to the Haider Ali period, penned by a French commander, MMLDT states - The deputies [of the Syrian Christians] who came to Coilmatour (Coimbatore) were stout men, with a ferocious air and manner. They had the figure of a small cross above their nose punctured in the skin, and a large scar on the right cheek caused by the recoil of their musquets. The archbishop, in his letter, offered to the commandant two young slaves, who, he said, he had himself educated, and were qualified to render services both of utility and pleasure, being instructed in writing and music.

But there is another purported origin of the Malitta, as stated in SN Sadasivan’s Administration and social development in Kerala – He says - It was due to the safeguards extended by Macaulay that foremost Ezhava martial families like the Mallitti Panikkars of Mavelikara embraced Christianity and assumed the leadership of the Christian community. I am not too sure of this, though.

Pius Malekandathil (p.p 46) explains the important role they played in the pepper sourcing, supply, and even the pepper wars. According to him, the Portuguese account – the Jornada of Gouvea mentions Christian Panikkars commanding kalaris with 8,000-9,000 disciples and he explains that a famous Christian Panikkar of this period was Vallikkada Panikkar who had his kalari at Peringuzha on the banks of river Muvattupuzha, one of whose descendants was Mar Ivanios, who later got reunited with the Catholic Church in 1930, laying the foundation for the Syro-Malankara Church in India.

Moving away from Travancore, we see that the rulers of Vadakkenkur and Cochin also banked upon Christian fighting forces for their wars of defense and expansion. In 1546 the king of Vadakkenkur offered the Portuguese about 2,000 soldiers for the purpose of helping them to lift the Ottoman siege on Diu." These were the so-called 2,000 Malabar auxiliaries.

Pius adds - Later in 1600 the king of Cochin also offered St. Thomas Christian soldiers to the Portuguese for the project of conquering Ceylon, though the project did not materialize for other reasons. The military tradition of the St. Thomas Christians was preserved by this community as something integral to it, and they even resorted to the usual practice of the fighting force to form chaver pada (suicidal squad) to protect their bishop Mar Joseph from being arrested by the Portuguese by the end of 1550s (About 2,000 Christian soldiers organized themselves into an amoucos or suicidal squad to prevent the Portuguese arresting their bishop).

Pius also adds that St. Thomas Christians used to attend church services those days, carrying their swords, shields and lances, as Antonio de Gouvea mentions in Jornada. Eventually weapon houses (Ayudha pura) were constructed in front of the churches for the purpose of storing these swords, guns and lances during church services, and the remnants of these weapon stores are still seen in front of the churches at Ramapuram, Chala and Cherupunkal.

Another mention we can see is of what is known as the Nazrane (Nasrani) army. Jacob Canter Visscher (Letters from Malabar, 1862) states protection offered to their head priest - Mar Thomas, the other Bishop, is a native of Malabar. He is a black man, dull, and slow of understanding. He lives in great state; and when he came into the city to visit the Commandant, he was attended by a number of soldiers bearing swords and shields, in imitation of the princes of Malabar. He wears on his head a silken cowl, embroidered with crosses, in form much resembling that of the Carmelites.

To sum up, one can see that there were many Christians employed in the armies of Southern Rajas and Suzerains, and during a time, they were trained the formal Kalari way by Panikkars. Eventually, they adopted modern European military practices. But once all the smaller principalities were integrated into Venad or Travancore by Marthanada Varma, the importance of these militias declined, and the region witnessed a period of relative peace. The Malittas (was it just a corruption of the term Militia – perhaps mentioned by De Lannoy?) vanished and were since then, hardly talked about or mentioned.

This short article only serves to provide some background and detail of the martial past and Kalari background of some of the Catholic Panikkar families. But those were all in the past, at a time when society was organized and reorganized, periodically vacillating between peace as well as frequent and wasteful wars, all of which was of course many centuries into the past.

The days of the Malayali martial past are long gone. In jest, we can still watch many of our Malayali brethren, in superb action, especially those warring vocally in the field of politics or other local matters, for the visual media. All you need to do is turn on the TV and watch and listen to their marvelous bouts and jousts, replete with verbal calisthenics, resoundingly performed in the vernacular.


Saints, Goddesses and Kings - Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900 – Susan Bayly
Maritime India: Trade, Religion and Polity in the Indian Ocean - Pius Malekandathil
Kulashekara Perumals of Travancore – Mark De Lannoy
Christianity in India – Robert Eric Frykenberg
Anthropology of the Syrian Christians – LK Anantakrishna Ayyar
Administration and Social Development in Kerala (A Study in Administrative Sociology) - S.N. Sadasivan

 Maddys Ramblings - Eustace Benedict De Lannoy 


Balthu Chutney

Tipu, Haider and Balthazar from Belthangady

One of the most alluring and fascinating legends in the collection of Mangalorean lore is that of Balthu Chutney, the shadowy figure flitting in and out of the Seringapatam palaces of the Mysore Sultans and doing his best to help his community of Mangalore Catholics deported to Mysore. Balthu Chutney, named so, after his specialty pickles made for the Sultan’s kitchen, was originally named Balthazar. Was he a creation of Father Denis Fernandes writing for the Mangalore magazine in June 1899, was he a fictional protagonist in VJP Saldanha’s novel Beltangadicho Baltazar, or did he exist? What could be the background and what is Balthu’s charming story?

Whole generations of Mangalorean’s grew up hearing about Balthu’s exploits at Mysore and many would disagree that he is fictional. His accounts connect to something dear to all Mangalore Christians, i.e., their capture and deportation to Seringapatam by Tipu in 1784. Their traumatic journey, eventual incarceration at Mysore and their tribulations are accounted in history books, but the lighter tales recounted around Balthazar provide some levity to those dark days of captivity.

My introduction to Balthu Chutney was accidental but timely. It was while working on my previous article “Tiruvalayam’ that I chanced on the Malayalam translations of Balthu Chutney presented by the eminent writer and social reformer Murkoth Kumaran in an old Mangalodayam (1088ME – 1913CE) magazine. As somebody constantly researching Tipu and Hyder, I read the three-part story and decided to delve deeper into the legend. Even though Murkoth Kumaran does not indicate his source, we can surmise that the inputs came from the Mangalore Magazine, the original not being available yet, except for certain parts quoted below.

So here we go. But first let us get to know the background and the storyline, as narrated in the Karnataka Gazetteer – S Kanara, in connection with Buntwal region - Belthangadi (Belthu market) about 80 miles NW of Kasaragod (close to Dharmasthala and 16 miles west of Mangalore). Quoting from the Gazetteer and its source the Mangalore Magazine - This town was the birth-place of that romantic adventurer, Balthasar, better known to local tradition as “Balthu, the chutney.” Balthasar, a native Christian of Buntwal, was a daring adventurer who left his place to seek his fortunes in Madras and Mysore. The stories told about him show his never-failing humor and shrewd common sense in the face of adversity. He joined the house of a Jesuit missionary as a general servant at Madras. He could make savory dishes and chutney. He was taken to Tipu by a company of savars and was asked to accompany the troops to Haider Ali’s camp. Tipu was then a lad of 17 years. Balthu prepared a delicious chutney and won the approbation of Haidar Ali and Tipu. He claimed to have known also some medical remedies. He was nick-named Balthu, the royal chutney-manufacturer. Quickly he became the favorite of Tipu Sultan who made him a mace-bearer and stationed him at the gate of the palace. Under the orders of Tipu Sultan, Balthu tended a cholera-stricken family of Abdulla "bound to him (Tipu Sultan) by many titles” and remained with it as its ‘savior’ for long. (Mangalore Magazine the organ and record of St. Aloysius college, Vol. I, No. 6).

From the story as narrated by Murkoth Kumaran (MK) we are given to understand that Balthzar met with Tipu years before the relations between Tipu and the Mangalorean Catholics worsened. So, we have to start with the time of Hyder, when a young Tipu was still a soldier in his father’s camp. This was also the period when Hyder showed much favoritism to Hayat (Ayaz) Saheb (Kammaran Nambiar), raising the ire of Tipu. Hayat (Ayaz) will as you can imagine, figure in this tale too and proves to be of some consideration in the resulting enmity between Tipu and the Mangalorean Christians.

Hyder had already taken Mangalore and by 1767, was in relative control of the area administered by his deputies. Hyder initially had a reasonably balanced approach to the Christians in the area, and his army included Catholic soldiers, so also representatives in his administration. Nevertheless, Mangalorean’s in general disliked Hyder for the heavy tax burden he imposed on them. During the next years, in battles between Mysore and the British EIC, Mangalore’s possession switched between British and Mysore and it was then that Hyder started to feel that the Mangalorean Catholics had helped the British in their conquest of Mangalore. Perhaps due to these inputs, both Hyder and Tipu planned to exact revenge on the community.

During the 1780 period, we can see that Hayat (Ayaz) Khan was the governor of Bednore, and this was the fort where Hyder had stored much of his treasures. Hayat (Ayaz) Khan sought asylum from the British after Hyder’s death in 1782, after hearing that Tipu’s soldiers were coming for him. Both Capt Mathews and Tipu’s army was headed for Bednore, and after surrendering to the British, Hayat (Ayaz) took flight towards Bombay, while the British acquired Hyder’s treasure.  Tipu was enraged, for it was believed to be a huge sum of money, about 12 million Sterling Pounds worth! Tipu believed that Campbell’s and Mathew’s capture of Bednore and the loot of Bednore’s treasure was with the support and connivance of some Nairs, Hayat (Ayaz) Saheb and the local Christian community.

The siege of Mangalore began in May 1783. Tipu believed that the Mangaloreans supported the British not only with information but also with money. Scurry and Campbell in their memoirs lead us to believe that there is some truth in it. A treaty was later concluded with the British.

Eventually, on 24 February 1784, (Ash Wednesday), in a secret and well-planned move, after the treaty of Mangalore was signed and the British departed to Madras, Tipu arrested a large number of Christians across the province of Canara and other parts of his kingdom. Accounts of the number of captives range from 30,000 to 80,000, who were then marched to Seringapatam, 150 miles away. Many of them died during the journey from South Canara to Seringapatam. During captivity, they suffered extreme hardships, torture, death, and many were forcibly converted to Islam. Thus, many thousands of Christians were uprooted from their homes in Mangalore, Karwar, Honawar, Kundapur, Bhatkal and transported enmasse to Seringapatam and Chitaldurg. Of the 30,000–80,000 Christians taken captive, only 15,000–20,000 made it out alive and retained their original faith, after the British had defeated Tipu and taken Seringapatam in 1799.  

With this backdrop, let us get to Balthu’s story.

MK admits at the outset that Bathu’s exploits come from stories narrated at garden parties and tea parties in Mangalore homes, and is usually narrated in Balthu’s special way.

Readers, the rough and shortened translation which follows is totally mine and any shortcomings may please be forgiven!!

The story of how I became a confidante and a personal assistant of the great Tipu Sultan would be of much amusement to my fellow countrymen. Well, the reason for that is my mother, for it was she, who taught me how to act according to the demands of a situation. She gave me neither wealth nor riches, but she taught me how to watch, observe and how to take advantage of situations. And it is only because of that wonderful lesson from my mother that I am walking free and moving unfettered, not only in the palaces at Seringapatam but also among smaller homes of my countrymen. And, knowing that Tipu Sultan had sworn after touching a hair of Mohammed Nabi’s beard that he would always protect me, nobody would even dream of hurting me!

It is all a wonderful story, how I met or shall I say how the Sultan met me. Well, it was after traveling far and wide that I arrived at Chennapattanam (Madras) and decided to do something worthwhile. I wandered over to a mount (St Thomas Mount) where some Jesuit priests lived and requested them to take me on as their servant. What do you think I knew about household chores? I did know how to make rice and curry, but more than that, I knew the art of making fabulous chutneys. That should be more than sufficient, I guess! They hired me pronto and I was settling down to a life of domestication, Madras was soon engulfed in turmoil, with wars and fighting all around. Hyder Ali and his troops had arrived and everybody feared that the marauding Mysore army would set the monastery on fire.

The wait was not for long, very soon a number of soldiers entered the premises and dragged us all to their commander. We feared they would shave our heads, cut our hands and fingers, circumcise us or even cut our necks, but nothing of that sort happened. We were ordered to proceed to Hyder’s camp, some five days away, on foot. As it appears, he wanted us there for a reason, i.e., to determine the structure, numbers and movements of the British army. Now, do you expect the poor fathers who knew only the ways of God to know such things?  Tipu, who was around and probably behind this, was just a lad of 17, and roughly my age, he had not a clue about the ways of the world.

Walking in the hot sun, in humid weather, even after covering their heads with some clothes Tipu had provided, proved tough for those simple and pious clergymen, but I had no problems, for I was well experienced and much traveled. As matters went from bad to worse, the friars who could hardly walk, were hoisted, two apiece on top of some disgruntled camels, which as you can imagine was even worse. This was in November, just after Hyder had returned after a battle at Tirumala and it rained cats and dogs, drenching us and making the journey even more uncomfortable.

I tell you, these slow-moving and swaying ships of the desert, these bloody camels, had the capacity to enrage even the calmest person in this world!

We arrived at Hyder’s camp late at night, wet, tired and about to collapse, but it was also my lucky day, as it turned out. Everybody was hungry, also Hyder and his troops who had just returned after a weary battle. The cooks were yet to start their work and the pangs of hunger were irritating both Hyder and Tipu. You know how it is with Muslims, they need good food, plenty of it, with all the associated side dishes. Neither did the camp have all the ingredients nor was there the time to get a lavish feast ready. The cooks started making their favorite ‘Pilaf rice” though the smoke from the wood fires was bound to spoil its taste. That was when I got an idea, I went to the royal cook and told him that a delicious chutney would balance it and make the pilau enjoyable. So, my friends, I made my trademark chutney in a jiffy and hiding behind a curtain, waited to hear how Tipu and Hyder liked it.

As you and I expected, I was summoned to their presence after an immensely pleasing meal experience, and I was asked how I prepared the chutney. I mulled over various clever answers to give, but nothing came to my lips and so I simply prostrated at their feet and told them that I was quite an expert in making all kinds of savories and chutneys and that I would be honored to serve them for life! Even though they knew I was a Roman Catholic, they straightaway appointed me as the royal Chutney maker. Listeners, now you have to realize that my chutney was very good, and I got this honor only because it was that good, it was not a fluke!!

That was how Balthu Chutney i.e., Balthazar from Belthangady became legendary!!

Though the friars were amused seeing and hearing all this, they would realize only later how useful my connection and proximity with the Sultans would be. Life was never placid in the palace, Tipu the son who had promised to help me, now promoted me as a Southdar, i.e., the mace bearer standing in front of the palace doors. Many in the palace employ were envious, but look, I was not the one to get involved in politics and I am sure my benefactor Tipu knew that, he always had a soft corner for me.

One fine day, Tipu summoned me and asked me to take responsibility and care of a man and his son from a rich family, stricken with smallpox (or cholera). Abdulla, the father, Hyder’s powerful commander was distraught with the loss of his family and was left to tend his son, a harmless lunatic. Though I was happy being addressed directly by the prince and all that, I was not sure why he asked me to do this.  I meekly said, ‘as you wish’ and got on with the task in right earnest. And believe it or not, that became my life and job for all of 25 years!! I did miss extravagances of the palace life, and the public murmured that I would eventually attain Abdulla’s wealth, but I concentrated on my task and earned not only the confidence but also a lasting friendship with my lord, Tipu Sultan.

I used to be summoned often to the palace, now look – don’t think it is because he wanted to eat my chutney, for it was indeed tasty, but it was because Tipu needed to consult matters with a confidante i.e., me, at times! The first time was in 1779, I think, five years before Tipu deported all the Christians from Mangalore. I was not sure what to accept when the summons came, but Abdulla convinced me that it was all as God willed and for the good. With shaky knees, I arrived in front of Tipu and he smiled, mind you, not once, but six times!! He enquired about Abdulla and his son first and he then told me that I had been summoned since a preacher had arrived to meet Hyder. He wanted me to go and meet him instead and find out the underlying reason for the friar’s visit. I was pleased to see the trust Tipu had placed in me, which was ample proof of my supreme abilities, as you can imagine. If on the other hand, it was not for any good, I could definitely expect help from the friar, as a fellow Christian!

When I arrived, I was taken aback by what I saw, for there was no priest of friar waiting, it was a foreigner all right, but dressed in normal clothes! That was none other than CF Schwartz, the German Lutheran Danish missionary from Madras (regular readers would recall my mentions of Schwarz with the introduction of the violin and his connections to Serfoji at Tanjore). Even though a protestant, I listened to his request to obtain permission to preach to the public in Tipu’s kingdom. I then tried to explain to him the fallacy in the attempt, especially considering the antecedents of Hyder and Tipu and exemplified it with an incident from my past.

A fanatic Pattani (Pathan) landed in our midst as we were traveling to Mysore many years ago. We started discussing our different faiths and when he started claiming the superiority of his Muslim faith incessantly, I lost my cool and an argument started. When he asked me how many Catholics had sacrificed their lives for the lord, I answered him that it was more than the hair on my head. When he yanked on my hair in the pretext of counting it, I pulled off his cap in retaliation to grab his hair as well, only to see a shaven pate. But he did have a full beard, so I yanked hard on it instead. At this juncture, the Pathan figured out how many of us Catholics had given our lives for the cause, and after he had screamed in pain, for a while, I let go of his beard.

Schwarz, who was delighted hearing this, made me narrate the story again and jotted notes in his diary. But I was in a quandary, for I could not figure if he had really come to obtain preaching permission or if he was a spy (Schwarz settled down at Tanjore to work for Serfoji) here for a reconnaissance? I tried a trick at this juncture stating grandly that I knew about the friendly missives being parlayed between the Madras government and the Mysore kingdom. Schwarz did not take the bait and stated that he was there only to promote peace between the two parties and had no ulterior motives (Schwarz’s did visit Hyder Ali in 1779 and had a pleasant face-to-face meeting, with Schwarz speaking in Farsi)

I hastened to meet Tipu, who at that time was just a prince, mind you, not the tyrant he would become, later. When I arrived, he was pacing back and forth, impatient to hear the details of my visit. I updated him that there was nothing to worry, and that Schwarz had arrived in peace. I am not sure how he took it or if it helped him make up his mind on the terrible act he was mulling over, in his mind. Many people have asked me about my involvement in Tipu’s decision to deport 60,000 of my fellow Mangalorean Christians from Mangalore to Seringapatam. In fact, I knew about it only after the decision was taken and the hapless refugees were on the march, braving the difficult terrain and the weather.

It was a distraught Abdulla who one day thereafter (five years later - in 1784), upon his return from the palace, told me about Tipu’s decision to deport my countrymen, after making me swear that I would not mention it to anybody. I was shocked, and mind you, friends, I am not easily shocked, for the last time it happened was when my wife had been molested and later, my home had been washed away, after a stormy night. Abdulla tried to pacify me the next day, by taking me to the Deriya Daulat Bagh where he made me sit under a large tree. Abdulla then explained why Tipu took the cruel decision and how a dream had forced Tipu to do what he did (if you recall Tipu believed in his dreams and even documented some of them in a book). I heard rumors too, that he took drugs to have incessant dreams, through the night hours. Anyway, this dream was about a competition between the Christian cross and the Islamic crescent. In one battle the cross triumphed, while the crescent succeeded in the second battle. The arrival of the British – Nazranes, resulted in a loss for the crescent, for a second time and that was when he took the decision to deport the Catholics from Mangalore, according to Abdulla.

Suddenly I remembered the words of our departed priest at Bantuwal, named Miranda (a real story – he was at the Ferangipet Seminary and did predict the events), who many years back had predicted that his fellow Christians were soon going to suffer a lot for their misdeeds and petty quarrels. Look what happened!!

Yeah, my friend was muttering the other day – ‘If only we had corrected our ways at that time, we would not have had to come to Mysore and eat these millet balls (ragi mudde) everyday’!

With that, our friend Balthu Chutney completes his narration. Many more exploits of Balthu Chutney, are narrated by the elders of Mangalore, such as Balthu’s involvement in the council of elders, organization of daring escapes of certain captives for a fee with the ingenuity of a Scarlet Pimpernel, but I have no details of such stories as yet. Also, this is the only place where Tipu’s dream is connected to the Christian deportation (A perusal of the book of Tipu’s dreams yielded no corroboration).

Whether they are all from the pen of Fr Denis Fernandes or if it had to do with any real person is not clear. Alan Machado (Prabhu) who has done much research on the Mangalore Christians mentions that according to Saldanha, it was based on authentic historic information collected from community elders. Prabhu clarifies however that the inspiration clearly comes from MMDLT’s accounts on the Sultans and that. the only narrative written by a captive, the Barkur manuscript, does not mention any Balthu.

My Sources
All said, Balthu continues to live in the minds of Mangalore’s old-timers, who amuse their avid listeners with the fantastic deeds and acts of this wily chutney maker, the scarlet pimpernel, and how he helped the community – all as a gentle reminder of a period when upheavals took place and when strife and duress were the norms.

Before I conclude, I must mention a bit about the author Murkoth Kumaran, a great man who laid the foundations of the short story movement in Malayalam. Murkoth Kumaran (1874-1941), the famed Thiyya teacher and father of our first air force officer Wing Cmdr Murkoth Ramunni, ran his own newspaper ‘Mithavadi’ and wrote often for the periodicals of the time. As I stated previously, MRKC (Kunhirama Menon) had written a novel about Velluvakumaran – i.e., Hayat (Ayaz) Saheb, and in Balthu Chutney, his contemporary Murkoth Kumaran covered another character in the Hyder, Tipu saga. Kumaran was not only a teacher, but also a journalist, and a gifted prose writer, his stories being quite largehearted in their conception and sympathetic in their tone. Kumaran wrote one of the early biographies of the Sree Narayana Guru, was also involved in editing a number of other magazines. He was a gifted speaker and a much-respected social reformer, and the father of the journalist and novelist Murkoth Kunhappa. As he once stated, Kumaran’s only intent while writing was to make the reading of his output, delightful.

Murkoth Kumaran did spend some time as a language (Senior Malayalam Pandit) teacher at St Aloysius college so could have used the Mangalore Magazine story, as an input. His famed style of musical prose is quite evident in the original Malayalam Balthu story.

Somebody might pipe up and ask if there are any recipes for Balthu’s chutney. Well, I have no idea, but I think it may have had something to do with dates, mint, green chilies, ginger and plums – a hot and sweet chutney which went well (we have it in Calicut too, accompanying biryanis, sans the mint) with pulao rice!


Mangalodayam Magazine 1089ME - Tipu Sultan and Balthu Chutney – Murkoth Kumaran
Slaves of Sultans – Alan Machado Prabhu
Sarasvati’s children - Alan Machado Prabhu

Kumaran Nambiyar , Hayat Saheb

Pic – Hyder and Schwarz meeting - Conquests of the Cross, A Record of Missionary Work throughout the World edited by Edwin Hodder, Vol 1, Murkoth Kumaran and Tipu - Wikimedia

Note: I have requested a couple of Mangalore historians for a copy of the old Mangalore Magazine article detailing Balthu’s adventures. I will update this, if needed if and when I receive the copy.




Two Virtuosos and Palghat

A place where they grew up…

Palghat, a quiet and unassuming district, is the granary of Kerala. An uncomplicated and uncluttered place on the Western side of the Sahyadri range, this was where a gap in the mountains opened out for the artisans of the Tamilakam, allowing them to trade and communicate with the developing domains of the Malayalam culture, near the coast. As a border town of sorts, it became home to many diverse communities and resulted in an admixture of Tamil and Kerala lifestyles, art, and culture. The language, the food, and the outlook of Palghat are, therefore, somewhat unique. As an important railway junction in the British rail network, it later connected travelers coming in from the North and the Eastern cities to Kerala, a junction diverting them North towards Calicut or South, onwards to the metropolises of Cochin and Trivandrum.

Not only was it a locale peopled by all kinds of Hindu religions and castes, but it was also a place where many Rawuthers and Muslims settled down, especially near Puthunagaram and Palghat, these people having filtered in from Coimbatore and other palayams where Haider and Tipu used to camp once upon a time. After all, this was the principality where the Achan rulers once invited the Mysore Sultans, to help them ward off the invasions of the Zamorin. Primarily an agricultural district even today, you come across temple towns and paddy fields along the way. Not much happened in these places, other than temple festivities. When occasion permitted or when one got truly bored, the adventurous would in the old days, board a clackety bus to Palghat to either to see a film, buy some clothes or to eat some tiffin at the Ashoka Bhavan or chomp a biryani at Noorjehan.

Bullock carts hogged the road and the occasional bus would creak and growl along behind them till the road opened out and allowed them to pass, with a frustrated roar. Cherumar workers walking in a row carrying hay and paddy on their head to the granary of the landlord’s house was a perineal sight, and some could be seen crouched or hunched over the paddy fields, planting or harvesting, much like you saw in the old black & white movies, while the Nair landlord clad in a dhoti would walk by, head held up, taking in the scene and the situation of the crops, calculating the returns. Over yonder, behind the many coconut trees or the occasional iconic palmyra palm, jack fruit and mango trees, you could hear faintly, music being played through the temple speakers, typically a Carnatic kirtana – perhaps even an MS Subbalakshmi offering.

Walk towards that noise and you would cross an Agraharam with row houses on both sides facing a lovely temple pond ringed with coconut trees, all starkly spartan, where you would see ladies of the house wearing their sarees the Tamilian way and drawing kolams or a rare child at play. The bathhouse still has a few semi-clad women, washing clothes, with the sound of the pounding – of cloth hitting the granite stones, just to get the dirt out, sounding rat a tat, akin to gunshots, splitting the silence, sans a croaking frog or a bird's call from the distance. The ambi pattar uncle sitting on the easy chair on the Kolayi of the home, angling his Hindu newspaper to catch the morning light would be muttering about the state of the affairs, the government and what not, and how Madras was going to the dogs, cursing the political parties. Siva Siva. Today, there are no children or youngsters in those agraharams, they are all gone, with their parents to Chennai or Mumbai or Bangaluru. But come vacations or Navaratri, the homes will be buzzing with activity, children on the street and animated chatter all the way through the row houses.

Anyway, for some obtuse reason, I don’t really know why, the place, perhaps due to its serenity and quietness, resulted in the creation of so many great personalities who not only graced the administrative corridors of New Delhi and its politics, but also the armed forces and the railways, many a corporate office and of course much later, the IT industry. Add to that a vast number of incredibly talented artists - Carnatic or light music, there were vocalists, instrumentalists, and there were so many performers (actors) and writers. But I am not going to be general anymore, I will be specific and simply introduce two of the greatest exponents of their art forms, one a wonderfully talented Carnatic music singer, another a brilliant actress, both of great renown, favorites across generations. The actress was never of Palghat origin, but just stayed there for a while, but they remembered this little town years later and talked about it. That’s all the connection.

An uncle of mine called Kichetta, who used to work in the estates and a great buddy of my dad, had settled down for good in a place called Vandazhi, upon retirement, this place being just a few miles away from our village at Pallavur. The last time I visited him at Vandazhi was a couple of years ago, but this uncle passed away last year, sad to say. I still recall the last visit, and of Ammayi taking all the pains to make fresh unniappams and many other delicacies to welcome us on that occasion.

Like many other villages in Palghat, Vandazhi too is surrounded by fields and has a couple of temples, and in the 80’s boasted a school or two, perhaps a dispensary or a primary health care center, a few grocery shops and a tea kada or two. Like most other villages, a few buses which plied the bus route between Palghat in the North or Trichur in the West touched at Vandazhi, and well, it also had a post office where people would congregate and chit chat.

This was the village where our young lady spent her vacations, where she heard temple music wafting over loudspeakers and perfected her Carnatic music and her mastery over its ragas, talas and swaras with each visit. I was not aware of her connections to Palghat, as her name led most astray. When I listened to her speak on this specific subject, Vandazhi I was surprised to say the least - now remember, I have heard her voice so often as a music enthusiast and my skin tingled when I listened to her podcast of her younger days at Vandazhi, and how it got her interested in music, how the songs of Baburaj, Yesudas and other music directors enthralled her.

She was a Tambram (Tamil brahmin) too and a PI (Palghat Iyer) whose family had flown the coop long ago and one who realized many years later – that this was where she wished to settle down - By the water, with lush coconut groves around. The air filled with a few voices speaking Malayalam. And in the distance, the quiet sound of a temple bell. She added that she would always remember her vacations at Vandazhi and long to go back there, again and again.

That person is Jayshri Ramnath, who was born in Calcutta and grew up at Bombay to become a Maestra in the field of music, earning many awards, much recognition and numerous laurels along the way, a Padma Shri lately. For those still a bit confused, that is none other than the well-known singer Bombay Jaishri, granddaughter of Palghat Narayana Iyer.

I am sure most of you know who Bombay Jaishri is, but let me give you some highlights of her career and some background. Jaishri has this lovely thick, husky and mature tone, and has over the last two decades, given us so many lovely light music and classical renditions, a few of which are very popular, such as the film song Vaseegara. Jaishri was termed Bombay Jaishri by an interviewer many years ago, wanting to distinguish her from the many Jaishri’s in the field, and the name stuck.

Along the way she would pick up many awards and grace the Carnatic music field, also gracing the light music arena with an occasional film song. These days she is popular in the Carnatic performance circuit and is a philanthropist to boot. Not only is she well known in India, but is also much-traveled, giving performances all over the world. Some years ago, she won an Oscar nomination for her composition in ‘The life of Pi”. But we will come to some highlights of her career a little later, let us get back to her memories.

Those interested should listen to her 7-minute podcast about those school summer vacation trips to Vandazhi in Palghat and how the music she heard there, as well as the daily extempore group singing sessions by the entire family taking turns, during the evenings, instilled the essence of Carnatic music into her soul. Her grandfather was the headmaster of the CVM school at Vandazhi, and every vacation (just like many of us did) she, her mother Seetha and her two brothers took the train from Bombay to Olavakot station in Palghat, then the bus to Vandazhi, to spend all of two months, in that blissful world away from the hustle, bustle, smell, noise, grime and dust of Bombay. Jaishri mentions her thatha’s house had a thatched roof, but that sounded a little incongruous to me, for a headmaster in the early 80’s would have surely merited a tiled house, even if it were rented.

Nevertheless, her descriptions match the typical Palghat scene I mentioned earlier, a house surrounded by coconut, mango and jack fruit trees, a temple nearby, with the temple pond and of course temple music wafting from the loudspeakers early in the morning, from 4AM as Jaishri sates, and that daily infusion was according to her, what influenced her music deeply, even before she learned music and its structure and grammar. The music of Vandazhi remained with her, and came back often, bringing nostalgia, gratitude and many good memories. She recalls the magical voice of Yesudas from the temple speakers and she recalls the days when they partook more in music than conversation, at home. The scenery, the sounds of the rain and the music of the insects hovering around the dimly lit bulbs, always remained with her.

She starts the podcast singing an evergreen Malayalam song popularized by Yesudas – Sumangali nee orkumo. Though her Malayalam accent is typical of a Tamilian, she narrates the story magically. While the rest of the episodes are as good though short, the one about Vandazhi, is of course dear to me. Her narration is splendid and tinged with nostalgia, and she tells us about her uncle who always purchased two extra bulbs so that no evening would go dark due to a blub failing with the voltage constantly fluctuating, and her grandpa would tell them stories of his childhood, lounged supine on his easy chair. This maternal grandpa was the Headmaster at CVM Vandazhi, and she refers to him as Vicha Thata.

Her paternal grandfather Palghat Narayana Iyer, who used to offer music tuitions at Bombay, must have originated from another Palghat agraharam, Jaishri does not mention those details in this podcast. Anyway, she says it was that temple music she heard between 4-630AM which got deeply imprinted in her mind as she grew up, this helping her internalize and connect to serious Carnatic music, later on.

A few highlights from her life and career would help you understand her journey - Both her father Subramaniam and mother Seetha were quite proficient in Carnatic music, and her father used to perform in concerts. He died young when Jaishri was just 6 but her mother Seetha ensured that her music lessons continued. Initially, she learned Carnatic music under TR Balamani (Shankar Mahadevan, another PI was also part of the group) at Matunga. After usual rounds in the light music and Geet, bhajan, ghazal performance scenes, she became a jingle and track singer in Bombay. She was then chosen as a disciple of the violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman and was trained in the nuances of Carnatic vocals by that great performer. That was when she moved to Chennai. Also proficient on the veena, Jaishri was trained on the instrument by G N Dhandapani Iyer. Before she performed Carnatic concerts at the age of 28, she was as I read, the voice behind many a jingle, notably Ponds dream flower, Bournvita, Mealmaker and Rexona!

Somehow her connections to Kerala continued, and the one song which blew her into the limelight had yet another Malayali connection. She got a call to sing for a film, directed by one Jayraj. Thinking that it was the Malayalam film director Jairaj whom she had previously sung for, she went to the studio to see a young fella clad in shorts getting it all ready for her to sing a seductive song. Alarmed and assuming that she was in the wrong place, she was quickly convinced by this new music director that she was in the right place and chosen for that very song due to her low pitch, that was how the young Harris Jayraj, got her to sing that iconic song Vaseegara, the song which catapulted her into the common man’s heart!

A commerce graduate, with a diploma in Indian music and also trained in Hindustani classical music, Jaishri is very popular in the performance circuit. I don’t need to say more, for she has achieved so much and is at the pinnacle these days, so mellifluous to listen to. In fact, sometimes when we pick up a  kirtanam to learn in our music class, most suggestions are to learn them from the Jaishri versions.

Jaishri has high regard for the Malayali music fan and she once said “Kerala’s culture and tradition are quite different from elsewhere.  The people here love music and enjoy music festivals. I performed here on the occasion of Vishu. People appreciate music here”. But after she got nominated for the Oscars, things got a bit complicated when she was accused of plagiarism, as some Malayali’s believed she had borrowed heavily from Iryimman Thampi’s Omana Thingal Kidavo, to create her version, without attribution. I am sure that matter has all been laid to rest and forgotten, I feel there is nothing much to argue about, in this case.

There are so many other stars with Palghat origins who don’t mention their Palghat connections, probably they have no lasting memories of the town, or it could be that they prefer their karma Bhoomi to their Janma bhumi, as I mentioned in my article on PI’s or Palghat Iyers some years ago.

So that was Jaishri Ramnath and her association with Vandazhi, a place that inspires her to sing. How about the other person? Even though she makes only a brief mention, I would like to add her to this little article, because I thought it fits in here. She was a great actress of yesteryears who regaled us with brilliant performances in the movie Guide, and many Guru Dutt movies, such as Pyaasa and Kaagez Ki Phool. The actress is none other than Waheeda Rahman, who spent a few of her childhood years in Palghat.

In the early days, Palghat was a little different. After the Mysore Sultans arrived during the second half of the 18th century, they decimated Malabar and also disrupted the entire structure in Palghat. Life had taken a new turn, the Nairs were a hunted lot, so also the Brahmins (Nambuthiris and Tamil brahmin settlers), after attacks and looting of the temples by the Mysore soldiers. Camps were established for the soldiers near the border, at Palghat, near Koduvayur and closer to Trichur.  After a while the British came in, to defeat the Mysorean army and with it, the ownership of the entire region passed on to the East India Company. But the magnificent fort which was constructed by Haider remained, as it does to this day, and the Kotta Maidanam and the fort are basically rallying points at Palghat. Families go there during holidays, while concerts, games and processions, as well as meetings, are regularly held there.

As I had written before, I have always passed the fort, since the road that takes me from Palakkad town to Pallavur, snakes by the Kotta Maidanam (the ground by the fort) and is beside one of the ramparts of the majestic fort. Sometimes it is dry and black, sometimes it is covered with moss, but it has always stood there, hardly damaged by the years, the weather or the many thousands who folk by every year to see it. The complex is square in shape, situated on 15 acres of land, with walls of immense thickness and strong bastions at all four corners and in the middle. The sober majesty of those laterite walls of the fort quietly hides many tales of valor and courage.

After the British took over the fort, it was made into a Tahsildar’s Kutchery, and the fort housed several British government offices. It was turned into a jail in 1877. In the 20th century, the fort became a Taluk office once again. Now declared as a monument, the Fort is under the custody of the Archaeological Survey of India. The old draw bridge has since been replaced by a permanent one.

From my earlier article on the ICS officer Ratnavelu Chetty and his tragic days in Palghat, you would have noted that Ratnavelu was at Palghat during 1880, and well, by this time the British administrative setup was pretty well in place. During the 1930’s a district commissioner was posted to Palghat, named Mohammed Abdul Reham. Among his four daughters, was one, who remembered her days from Palghat many decades later.  She is none other than Waheeda Rehman, one of India’s leading and popular actresses. Let us see what she had to say about Palghat, her earliest memory. Quoting Waheeda from the nice biography penned by Nasreen Munni Kabeer…

My father was a district commissioner. His name was Mohammed Abdur Rehman and my mother was Mumtaz Begum. Father passed the IAS [Indian Administrative Service] exam and finally became a district commissioner sometime in the 1930s. It was through his friends that his marriage was arranged in the late 1920s. My father was posted all over south India, so we managed to pick up some of the local languages. I am not very fluent in Tamil and Telugu, but I can get by. You don’t easily forget what you learn in your childhood.

I must have been about four or five years old. My father was posted to Palghat, which is now called Palakkad. It’s in Kerala. During the Onam festival we went to the Palghat Fort to watch the procession of decorated elephants. We stood on the parapet and my father lifted me high in his arms so I could see the elephants through the opening in the fort wall. The image of those beautifully adorned elephants is still clear in my mind.

Like a fool I told my father that I wanted to own an elephant. He said: ‘Darling, it’s not possible. An elephant is a big animal; you can’t keep an elephant as a pet.’ ‘What about a baby elephant?’ He patiently explained that the baby elephant would grow up into a big elephant.

A brilliant dancer, a popular actress and the quintessential beauty of Bollywood, she hailed from the Madras presidency. From her teens, she went on to act in scores of movies in numerous languages, winning a plethora of awards including the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri.

Interestingly one of her favorite performances was for the only Malayalam movie she acted in, one that never got released – she names it as the 1972’s film Trisandhya. The storyline is based on a short story by Uroob, and the film was directed by Raj Marbros. Waheeda plays the character of Indu who is in love with Bhasker, but gets married to his elder brother instead. In an accident, the husband dies and a paralyzed Bhasker is bedridden, with Indu taking care of him, donning the role of a Nurse. This film explores the delicate relationship between a housewife and her young brother-in-law. Her friends and produces were quite upset that she did this arty role at that time. I read elsewhere that her experience with this film was also not so good, following which she refused to regional themes, interestingly Benegal’s Ankur. That was Waheeda Rehman and her little tryst with Palghat.

So many other luminaries had connections to Palghat, and I will bring this to an and by mentioning some of those names. On the musical side we can talk of Usha Uthup, Sreevalsan Menon, Shankar Mahadevan, Haricharan, MS Viswanathan, Stephen Devassy, P Unnikrishnan, P Leela, Unni Menon, Swarnalatha, Malaysia Vasudevan, the Ranjini - Gayatri sisters, the list can go on and on. Add to them the many virtuosos from the past such as Mani Iyer, Chembai, MD Ramanathan, and of course the pioneer of them all, Parameswara Bhagavathar who graced Swati Tirunal’s court.

On the film side, we have examples such as Trisha, Vidya Balan, Priyamani, Ajit (Thala), Gautam Menon. So many writers came from those quite environs, some are OV Vijayan, VK Madhavan Kutty, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan, Anita Nair and then again, we have administrators and politicians namely CS Nair, VP Menon, KPK Menon, SS Menon, TN Sheshan etc. and not to forget, our inimitable Shashi Tharoor.

But I will admit, few were as evocative as Jaishri when it came to remembering those roots.…


Conversations with Waheeda Rahman – Nasreen Munni Kabeer 

Vandazhi – A short video

An interview with Bombay Jaishri and a link to her podcasts 

The Iyers Of Palghat - Historic Alleys

pics – Bombay Jaishri – Wikimedia courtesy – Kayaniv, waheeda Bollywood Hungama (Wikimedia)


The Laccadives, Pakistan and Sardar Patel

Lakshadweep - Transfer of power deliberations, and a brief history

There are many discussions these days about those remote islands to the west of Malabar, namely Lakshadweep. I had written about the caste quarrels out there and also some of its histories as connected to the Cannanore Royalty and the Arakkal Beevi, many years ago. What really brought me back to the subject were a number of news articles and forwards which appeared recently about recent legislations which rightfully irritated its Moplah majority, so also press reports as well as speeches mentioning the involvement of Sardar Patel, the Mudaliars and Travancore in hoisting the tricolor at the Laccadives as well as an apparent visit of a Pakistan vessel to the islands in 1947.

The islands in the Laccadive archipelago have always been there, and many seafarers entering the Arabian Sea with a purpose to trade with, subjugate or colonize India have come across it sometime or the other. Many ships have capsized in those areas, some survivors have lived to tell their tales, and the first indications come from the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea which mentions a variety of tortoise-shell originating from the islands off the coast of Limyrica (Malabar?). Ptolemy is more specific - Over against Taprobane lie a multitude of islands, said to number 1,378.  Several of the islands are identified by name, including "Kanathra" (Kavrathi), "Monache (Maliku), "Ammine" (Amini) and "Agidion" (possibly Agathi). Later sources are vague about many islands to the West of Malabar.

As you may be aware, there are three island archipelagos in the region, the southernmost being the Chagos, then further North the Maldives and closer to Malabar in longitude, the Laccadives. The Laccadives is thus some 27 islands (the name suggests a lakh - 100,000 islands in the archipelago, but how the lakh was attached to the name has never been cleared up) just over 12 square miles in area. 10 of those are inhabited while the others are not. The inhabited ones are Chetlat, Bitra, Kiltan, Kadmat, Amini, Agathi, Androth, Kavrathi, Kalpeni and Maliku. There is a large gap between Kalpeni and Maliku (closer to the Trivandrum longitude), separated by the 9-degree channel.

Then there is the legend of a search party sent out by the Kolathiri Raja to search for the Cheraman Perumal who had gone to Mecca. As it appears their ship capsized near the islands and the survivors were the first settlers. In reality, all the Northern islands were settled by Moplahs of Malabar, the Maliku island people seem to have some Sri Lanka or Male ancestry. While a Malayalam dialect is the main spoken language in the Northern group, the Maliku people speak a version of Sinhalese. It is also believed that Buddhism and Hinduism predated the introduction of Islam, which was brought over by an iterant preacher from Arabia named Ubaidullah (Mumbe mulliyaka – First Musaliyar) circa 661AD who then married a local girl named Hamidat Bibi. Their families and lines survive to this day. The islanders belong to the Shafi’I Sunni sect compared to the majority in India who follow the Hanafi traditions. The Tangals have much in common with the Hadrami sayyids and it is likely that they were the representatives of these South Arabian clerical from the W├ódi Hadramawt fanned out in those times to increase their followers.

Sulayman al-Tajir, 851 A.D refers to both groups collectively, or to the Maldives alone, as DIbajat Al-Biruni (1030 A.D.) divides the islands according to their chief products, into the Diva Kanbar (Coir Islands, or Laccadives) and the Diva Kudha (Cowrie Islands, or the Maldives). From a sailors plan, we can see that  shipping bound for Southern Arabia and the Red Sea from Malabar, as well as shipping bound for the East Africa coast from Malabar, would pass close to the southern reefs of the Laccadives; while, westbound shipping from the region of Goa would pass close to the northernmost reef of the Laccadives.

Coconuts, coir and fishing were the main occupations and means of livelihood. Some of the locals also freelanced for Arab ship owners as shipping pilots in the region. Generally, historians of the past bunched the Maldives and Laccadive archipelagoes into one, considering that the distance between Maliku or Minicoy and the nearest Maldives (Ilhavandiffulu atoll at the 8-degree channel) is just 71 miles. In a previous article, I had detailed the caste structure and problems which arose later, and how the islands managed to survive these until the end of the British occupation. But we did not discuss the happenings and history of the islands until the British took over, so let’s take a look.

We know that the Chinese seafarers mentioned the islands often in their annals. Chinese records, particularly from the Ming period, do in fact contain descriptions of the Liu-shan, the Chinese term for both island groups as well as the sea routes in the area. Certainly, the Cheng Ho voyages, some if not all touched, but it is not clear which islands or which archipelago it was. Several islands are mentioned by name, including three which have been identified with the Laccadives, viz. Ma-li-ch'i (Maliku), Chia-p'ingnien (Kalpeni) and An-tu-li (Androth). The Chinese were very careful and tried to avoid these coral islands, if possible, due to the danger posed to the ship hulls. But the Chinese did stop over often at Male down south.

This is the period when The Portuguese arrived at Calicut and later constructed a fort at Cochin after battles at Calicut. But naturally, they turned their eyes westward to the islands which they referred to with the Baixo de Padua - Shallows (shoals) of Padua while navigational maps identified the Padua and the Sesostris mud banks The Portuguese epoch is one the islanders wish to forget for it was indeed a period of strife. It was also the locale where one of Magellan's ships capsized. Nevertheless, most Portuguese accounts term the Laccadives as the Mamale islands after Mamale marakkar (Ali Raja). 

We read that their rule, though short, was characterized by religious intolerance and acts of great brutality. So much so, a person nicknamed Kathil anjakkaran (meaning - with bored ears) was sent to the Amini island by the Kolathiri Raja. This person kept the Portuguese happy with booze and then fed them snake venom poisoned wine (wonder if there were any snakes in the island, and how they got there?) thus decimating the entire Portuguese garrison. This event was later commemorated at the Pambanpalli ("Snake Mosque") at the Pamban parambu where the poison is said to have been prepared. But it was to exact massive retribution from the Franks, who in 1549-50 retaliated by massacring over 400 Amini Islanders including the Qazi, Abu-Bakr, who is still revered among Mappilas as a martyr. There are mentions of at least two further massacres by the Portuguese, again on Chetlat Island, but apparently, no further attempts were made to establish permanent Portuguese military settlements. Zainuddin Makhdum also refers to these events, in his Tuhfat ul Mujahideen. Sometime in the medieval period, the Kolathunad Raja turned over control to the Arakkal Bevi or the Ali Raja of Cannanore.

The Malikku (Minicoy) island was however largely disregarded until the time the Marakkars started to prowl the seas. It appears that the Malikku island was targeted by the Marakkars and the islanders appealed to the Cannanore chieftains for help. Logan mentions that Minicoy was "surrendered by them to the Cannanore House on condition of protection being afforded to them against the Kottakkal Kunjali Marakkars, the famous Malayali pirates who used to harry the island periodically”.

Though the Portuguese had established themselves at Goa by the end of the sixteenth century and generally controlled the region, the Ali Rajas of Arakkal had by then arranged overlordship of the Laccadive Islands, paying a peshkash or tribute of 6000 panams to the Chirakkal Raja. As time, passed The Ali Raja rule became increasingly oppressive and independent after the Kolathiri dominance declined. Taxation was steadily increased and the islanders were subjected to a series of crippling monopolies imposed by Cannanore. The Ali Rajas offered no protection and the islanders consequently suffered raids by both Indian and European pirates. In fact, we can see that - During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries English, French and Irish corsairs (including the infamous William Kidd) descended on the Laccadives where they spent their time "ravishing women, murdering men, burning houses and behaving in a most villainous manner"

In 1786 the people of the northern islands of Amini, Chetlat and Kiltan rose in protest against the harshness of Arakkal rule in general, and against the coir monopoly in particular. Anyway, things were quite bad and somebody decided that Tipu Sultan could be a savior, an answer to their problem. Two boats belonging to the influential Kulap and Porakat families managed to sail to Mangalore in 1783, where, they disposed of their coir to Tipu. The Bibi sent her men to the islands to take revenge on these families and this finally resulted in a revolt at the islands. The Karyakkar Abdul Khadir was put in chains and the leaders sailed to Mangalore to offer their allegiance to Tipu. As Ellis explains – Tipu, however, was by this time once more on friendly terms with the Bibi, and tried to persuade them to return to their allegiance to her. All his endeavors proving unsuccessful, he, at length, in I787, accepted the offer of the islanders and granted in compensation to the Cannanore family a jaghir from the Chirakkal territories. Sheik Hassan was appointed as his Monegar and a period of calm prevailed.

After the Anglo Mysore wars, the East India Company and later the British Crown became masters of the islands, when Tipu ceded all his acquisitions to the English. Interestingly the southern islands passed to the EIC in 1791 after the loss of Malabar and the Northern islands in 1799 after the fall of Seringapatam. This division in administration continued in the British bureaucracy as well, with the Amindivis, administered under South Kanara and the southern islands under Malabar. The British initially allowed the Arakkal Beebi to retain the Laccadives and Minicoy on the condition that she paid an annual tribute, to the EIC.

Things went from bad to worse, and as the power of the Ali Rajas waned, the annual peshkash fell into arrears; and living standards at the islands declined rapidly. Finally, in 1861 the British stepped in and sequestrated the islands for a period of five years and in 1875 they were permanently sequestrated, though the Ali Rajas continued to enjoy a nominal sovereignty until 1908.

During the first world war, the German battleship Emden was around. Ellis tells us that the German Cruiser Emden operated off the Laccadives for a short time in September in October 1914 and sank several (Six - I believe) vessels on the trade routes which ran north and south of Minicoy. Several lifeboats and some wreckage had washed up on Kalpeni.

Life continued on at a leisurely pace till the end of the second world war, with hardly any major development at these islands. Laccadives was part of the Malabar administration under the Madras presidency (note here that Travancore, Cochin and later Travancore-Cochin were not part of the presidency, they were among the princely states) and Amini under S Kanara. The freedom movement had little effect in those outlying islands, nobody cared. And now we come to the deliberations during the transfer of power, in June 1947.

Stevens, Mills and Barry were tasked to prepare recommendations on the Laccadive islands. They opined thus “These islands which are sparsely inhabited coral strips assume strategic importance from the air point of view if we find we cannot retain all the facilities we require in India. In such circumstances, they would be essential for our air reinforcement and transport route to Australia, New Zealand and the Far East”. All that was needed was to provide adequate navigational aids and an emergency landing strip by making use of the Laccadive Islands. They concluded- Since we cannot assume that the successor States in India, even if they remain Dominions, will give us continued and full co-operation in the provision of the necessary facilities for the air transport route to the Far East, we must re-ensure by means of an alternative. The only alternative is the retention of the Laccadive Islands. We therefore conclude that legislative provision should be made for the transfer of the Laccadive Islands from the Government of Madras to the Administration of H.M.G. (Her majesty’s Government) in the United Kingdom.

During continuing negotiations, the committee was then notified that the islands were not up for discussion as they were part of Malabar (and Amini part of S Canara)- As regards the Laccadive Islands the Committee were informed that they formed part of the Madras Presidency: in these circumstances, they agreed that it would be necessary to seek by negotiation any facilities that we might require for their use for strategic and defense purposes. On 1st July 1947, the Air Ministry wrote to the India Office, noting the decision in regard to the Laccadive Islands, and requesting that the approval of the Govt of India be sought for a reconnaissance of the Islands with a view to the installation of navigational equipment and if possible, the construction of a landing strip there. In due course, Lord Mountbatten sounded Pandit Nehru informally on the subject, reporting on 19th July that he had spoken to Nehru who was ‘quite friendly and said there was no objection to an official approach being made though he could not commit himself until all implications had been considered’.

However, the situation with respect to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were different. Jinnah representing Pakistan, while disinterested on the Laccadives in spite of it being a majority Muslim territory, was ambivalent on the Andamans. He insisted on ownership of the Andamans as it was strategically en route to East Pakistan. At the same time, Australia wanted it transferred to HMG due to its strategic importance but Nehru and the Indian negotiators flatly refused. As the situation became increasingly acrimonious, a final decision was taken to award it to India on the grounds that the INA had been in possession of the islands obtaining it from the Japanese and because India had a strong emotional connection to A&N due to the huge numbers of convicts incarcerated there (Kala pani), over the years. It was a bitter pill for Jinnah to swallow.

In spite of all this, the worst mistake committed by the team, busy with the main partition discussions, was I guess, the neglect of the Chagos islands (Diego Garcia) and the Coco (Keeling) Islands. The former was appropriated by the British and leased to the US as we know, while the latter sitting to the North of the Andamans became Burmese property, where the Chinese since then, established a SIGINT station. Both have become strategic military locations these days.

Back to the declaration of independence - As far as the islanders of Lacadives were concerned, they knew about it many months later. A lovely article by Suresh Thomas, provides some detail. As I read therein, one Chekkekeel Khalid who had gone to Calicut arrived back at the islands with the news after the monsoons, in Sept/Oct 1947, and only much later was the tricolor hoisted.

Now to the role of the Mudaliars and Travancore. As Laccadives were administered by Malabar and S Kanara, there is little justification for ships going out from Travancore. Also, in June 1947, Travancore represented by Sir CP, her Dewan was actually duking it out with the British and Indian administrators, even considering allying with Pakistan (See my article for further details). By August, Sir CP had returned to Madras to recuperate and prepare for his world tours. Considering this background, it is unlikely that the Maharaja of Travancore deputed a ship to the Laccadives to hoist a flag, purportedly, after being exhorted by Sardar Patel through the Mudaliar brothers. AR Mudaliar came to Travancore as the vice-chancellor of its university much later, but until 1949, he was the Dewan of Mysore and so his and his brother’s role in this matter, is circumspect.

Another report mentioned that the collector of revenue at Travancore had been contacted by Patel (VP Menon is not mentioned) who then sent a boat to Kavaratti to hoist a flag. All articles conclude by stating that a Pakistani ship which came by, saw the Indian flag hoisted and went back. Then again, one should note that the transfer of naval assets had not been fully completed in August 1947, so the possibility of Pakistan sending one of the three frigates they eventually obtained, in order to check out the situation at Laccadives in August, after sailing for approximately two days to cover the 900 miles distance, seems unfeasible. Certainly, Jinnah a shrewd politician would not have chanced armed conflict at that juncture, in my opinion.

Anyway, on August 15, 1947, India became independent. The Madras Presidency became the Madras State and a part of the Indian Union. As a consequence, the Malabar and South Canara became Indian districts. 

Dr Pookoya provides the actual sequence of events in his book - A few odams that reached in the end of September that year (1947) told the news that India was free from British Raj. But changes in Administration was much delayed and the Amin rule continued without any change. Trade with Calicut, Cannanore and Mangalore continued through Dallals. The Lakshadweep was then known as Laccadive Minicoy and Amindivi Islands, which was included along with Kerala under the Madras State. On 4th August 1950, the first unit of Indian National Congress was formed at Kalpeni Island by P.I.Pookoya, who was a freedom fighter, who celebrated first Independence Day of August 15th at Kalpeni Island in 1950. Sri S.V. Sayedkoya Thangal of Androth Island was nominated as Member of Madras Legislative Council (MLC) from Laccadive, Minicoy & Amindives in 1950. The Laccadive, Minicoy & Amindivi Islands came under Union Territory of Indian Union on 1st November 1956. Development was very slow & sluggish during that period. The British flag was flying on the Minicoy Light House till 1st April 1956.

At Minicoy lighthouse on 1st April 1956 British flag was replaced by the Indian flag. An Administrative Office was started in Calicut at a rented house at Puthiyara, on 1st November 1956. U R Panikkar took over charge but was replaced by S. Mony ICS, on the 8th of November1956.

Thus, on 1st November 1956, Travancore-Cochin joined with the Malabar District of Madras State to form the new state of Kerala. In accordance with the promulgation of the States Reorganization Act, the islets and atolls were all combined to collectively form a union territory. With all this background, I find it difficult to accept reports of the deputation of a ship that then arranged for the hoisting of the Indian tricolor, just after independence. It could still be a possibility, but I doubt it.

That said, the foregoing provides anybody interested in a better understanding of the history of those lovely islands. I can only hope that they are unaffected by divisive politics and religious animosity.


Sources Towards a History of the Laccadive Islands (JOSAS) – Andrew D W Forbes
Kalpeni Island History, People and Culture – Dr CG Pookoya
Lakshadweep – Theodore Gabriel
A short account of the Laccadive Islands and Minicoy – R H Ellis
Cornered in a world of their own (Fountain Ink) – Suresh P Thomas
Travancore’s Pakistan Intrigues, 1946-47
Mammali Marakkar
The Umbrella riots (LivehistoryIndia)