Bolgatty or Bastion

The attack at the British Residency – Cochin Dec 29, 1808

As we read in the lengthy article that I wrote some years ago on Velu Thampi Dalawa’s reign in Travancore, and his revolt against the British EIC, leading to his death, there is a mention of the attack by the Travancore Nair’s on the residence of the first British resident for Travancore & Cochin, Colin Macaulay. We will get into the events of that night in more detail and as promised, discuss the details of Macaulay’s escape and the person who helped save him, if only to clear some conflicting information between sources.

Where did it happen?

The Bolgatty Island is a short ride away from Kochi, North of Willingdon, and complete with its own palatial building. This was apparently the place where Colin Macaulay resided according to some sources, during the attack.  Other sources simply mention that he was at the residency house in Cochin, when the attack occurred. Let’s revisit the scene to check it all out.

The attack

The Cochin state manual says - At midnight on the 18th December six hundred men commanded by the Acchan and two of Velu Tambi's officers entered Cochin, surrounded the Resident's house, and opened a smart fire of musketry. They soon overpowered the guard, entered and pillaged the building, and destroyed all the public records, but to their chagrin, they could nowhere find Macaulay and Kunjikrishna Menon, whose murder was one of the first objects of the insurgents. With the help of a confidential Portuguese clerk under him, the Resident managed to conceal himself in a recess in the lower chamber, and in the morning escaped to a British ship that was just entering the harbor with part of the reinforcements from Malabar. Kunjikrishna Menon similarly escaped from Mattancheri and joined Macaulay on board the ship. The insurgents in their fury broke open the jail and let the prisoners loose, plundered the houses, and spread consternation and havoc in the town. But on the approach of reinforcements, they retreated from Cochin and joined the forces that were being collected to the north of the town…

The Land of the Perumals - Francis Day - On December 29th, 1808, at half-past 2 A. M., nearly six hundred armed sepoys, belonging to Travancore, arrived at the southern side of Cochin: and rushing to the Resident's house, then occupied by Colonel Macaulay, at once obtained possession, and destroyed everything they could discover including all the Public Records, both of the Magistracy, and Revenue. They searched everywhere for the Resident, but he was enabled to escape, with his escort of sepoys, and got on board a Pattimar. The jail was broken open, and the prisoners set loose: consternation, and fear, were so universal, that no resistance was at that time attempted. 

Col. Macaulay, feeling his insecurity at Cochin, embarked in the grab Snow, taking with him the treasure, and also the men, of H. M. 12th foot. He lay off Cochin, in hopes that should reinforcements arrive, he might be able to land the few men with him, who alone, were insufficient to defend the place, but might be serviceable, in conjunction with other troops. Many of the inhabitants, removed to Calicut. But on the following day, matters did not appear so serious, and accordingly, the Resident and his escort re-landed.

Shungoony Menon’s History of Travancore - The detachment moved from Quilon and Alleppey in covered boats, accompanied by Vycome Padmanabha Pillay, an intimate friend of the Dewan, who acted as his chief secretary, and the troops collected in the northern districts under the command of Cunju Cuty Pillay Sarvadhikariakar, stationed at Alangaud, also moved in covered boats to Cochin and both the forces effected a junction at Calvathi, at about midnight on the 28th of December. They surrounded Colonel Macaulay’s house and opened fire. The sudden report of musketry, at an unusual hour, surprised Colonel Macaulay, and with the assistance of a confidential Portuguese clerk, he managed to conceal himself, and in the morning got on board a pattimar at first, and subsequently on board the British ship “Piedmontese" which had just reached the Cochin roads, Cunju Krishna Menon also effected his escape uninjured, and joined Colonel Macaulay on board the ship.

Padmanabha Menon’s notes on Vissicher’s ‘Letters from Malabar - This state of unpleasantness continued for some time, the Cochin Dewan making attempts to encroach on British power till at last, inspired by the Travancore Dewan Velu Thampy, the cochin minister, Paliath Achan, joined the former in violently attacking Cochin and attempting to murder the British Resident, Col. Macaulay, who was then living in what is now the Court house and Cutchery. Six hundred of the Travancoreans made a mad rush on the Resident's house at half-past two A. M., on the 29th December 1808, obtained possession of it and destroyed everything. They failed in finding Col. Macaulay, as he had already effected his escape along with his escort and got on board a Pattimar.


We can see that the original mentions are residency, however, recent writeups have started to mention that this occurred at Bolgatty. Macaulay does not mention in his report the details of his escape, but only mentions the attack and the pillage. We can also note that as the attack occurred, Macaulay fled to the Jew town. What can thus be established is that he stayed at the residency building in Mattanchery, the old Cutchery.

Where was the old Courthouse situated?

Lawson describes it in British and Native Cochin - This was located in Mattanchery. The Flagstaff, erected on the ruined Tower of the Cathedral, is in front; behind is the Cutcherry or Courthouse, a painfully white building; around are heavy-looking white, yellow, or grey houses, all tiled, mostly surrounded by high walls, and generally very economical in windows. It is generally opined that this became known as the Bastion Bungalow, a sea-facing Dutch heritage structure originally built in 1667.

The Residency –Taluk Cutcherry

Francis Day provides further details - The British Resident of Travancore and Cochin, at first took up his quarters, in the house now employed as a Cutcherry, whilst the town was of course garrisoned by British troops…. The Cutcherry, is reputed to have been in Portuguese times, the residence of the priests, of the neighbouring ruined Cathedral of Santa Cruz. Many are the vicissitudes through which this building has passed. Here the Nairs broke in, and tried to murder the British Resident: since this period, it has been appropriated in the following manner: The lower rooms as prisons for criminals, some of the upper ones as a jail for debtors. When troops were in the town, it was a mess-house for the officers, the Fiscal otherwise resided in it, and one room was set aside for the Magistrate, whenever he should visit the place. When the troops were decreased, and a “mess-house no longer required, still the Magistrate of Malabar, for a considerable period, retained his room there." At last, it was decided to locate the Sudr Ameens Court at one end, and that of the Fiscal with the record-room at the other: the prisoners were placed in the centre, and the rooms surrounding the yard, on the ground floor, were appropriated to their use. This partition of the building, still remains in force: the portion occupied by criminals, is calculated to hold 60, allowing each 519 cubic feet of air. Solitary cells have been erected for Europeans, in which they are generally tormented by mosquitoes, and irritated by prickly heat.

Malabar and Anjengo – CF Innes we note that -The old Commandant's house still stands on the north-west bastion of the fort near the river bank, and a few hundred yards south of the English Club are the gates of what was once the Governor's residence. The lighthouse stands on the south-west bastion of the fort, and near the bishop’s palace traces of the walls and moat are still visible. The Deputy Collector's office is an interesting building with a history going back to Portuguese times, when it was the residence of the priests attached to the cathedral. In the rising of 1808 the Nayars burst into the buildings and tried to murder Colonel Macaulay, the Resident. When Cochin was a military station, it was the officers' mess and subsequently the upper rooms were the Fiscal's office and the lower were used as a jail.

The Bastion Bungalow

Although much of the Immanuel fort was destroyed, the bastions survived without much damage. Subsequently, the Dutch built a smaller fort around these older bastions. The Bastion house was constructed as a part of the Stromberg Bastion of the Dutch fort. The building survived through the British period in Kochi and was the official residence of the Sub-Collector of Fort Kochi.

The Cochin light-house was on a small mound that formed the bastion of the old fort to the south of the harbor. At some point in time, this building became Rev Williams’s parsonage, and there is also a mention that it had been used as the home of the Portuguese R.C. Bishop of Cochin and a convent. It is believed that this was used by resident Colin Macaulay.

But was the Bastion Bungalow the residency and later the sub-collector’s office? Looking at Innes’s accounts, we can conclude it was. However, the advent of its name - as the Bastion House or Bungalow is not clear, since it cannot be found in any British records I chanced on. VVK Valath adds that ‘Bastion house’  was originally the name associated with Dutch Governor’s house, which had been destroyed by the British and partially rebuilt, but per the British accounts, the Parsonage became the British Residency/Cutcherry. Presumably, they are one and the same!

Note: The new court and Dewans Cutcherry building were later built in 1813 at Ernakulam. The fort Cochin building was the Taluk Cutcherry, later the Deputy collector’s office and residence.

Jewish records of Macaulay’s escape

Let us zoom into the account of Naphtalie Rotenburg, the person who saved the life of Macaulay, drawing from Prof Dr Walter J Fischel’s study of the Rotenburgs of Cochin

Quoting Dr Fischel - The circumstances which saved Macauley's life and allowed him to escape are recorded in Hebrew sources. They credit his survival to one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Cochin at that time, namely Naphtali Rotenburg, and reported that Macauley escaped and fled to the Jewish quarter (rehov hayehudim) in "Jew- town", where he did hide himself in the house or more specifically in the washroom of the house of Naphtali Rotenburg, a prominent White Jew of Cochin.

It seems that Colonel Macauley was acquainted with Naphtali Rotenburg as evidenced by a reference to "a Jew named Naphtali who enjoys the confidence of the Rajah of Cochin" in a letter sent by him to the government of Travancore on November 23, 1808.

In any case, the view continued to persist that Macauley's life was saved through the help of this Cochin Jew and this view was strengthened by tangible evidence, in the form of a gift consisting of silver lamps and a gold and silver cylinder for the scroll of the Torah, presented by Colonel Macauley to the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin as a token of gratitude for being helped to escape. This connection between Macauley, Naphtali Rotenburg and the Jews of Cochin is also confirmed by the report of James Welsh, who during his visit to the synagogue of Cochin in 1818 refers to silver cases of "five copies of the Pentateuch written in Hebrew characters" on vellum and describes how "each case is covered with rich brocade and one is surmounted with a golden crown and other ornaments, the of Colonel Macauley, when Resident there."

There is also a separate mention of a crown gifted to the synagogue by Colin Macaulay. It is also mentioned by Welsh that Naphathalie was the Jewish Chief at that time.


It ended badly for Veluthampi who after a desperate flight, committed suicide seeing that his co-conspirators had deserted him. Macaulay let his murderous rage come to the fore and paraded the dead Dewans’s body gleefully in Travancore, later ordering the loot of his house and those of his relatives. Macaulay thus fell afoul of his superiors and was quickly replaced as resident. After falling seriously ill, Macaulay retired to Britain in 1810. Ill health plagued him for the rest of his single nomadic life, later spent in Biblical pursuits, abolition of slavery, and public service. He was credited with the popularization of the Tarisapalli copper plates and the Codex Zacynthius. It is said that the assassination attempt was overplayed by him and went on to fetch British public support.

The British high command at Madras, however, mistrusted Colin Macaulay and withheld reinforcements, feeling that he was providing wrong reports about people and the situation at Travancore and Cochin, much prone to exaggeration. As Hannah puts it - By misrepresenting the goings-on in Travancore, Macaulay endangered his credit with the Company, which in turn meant that he could not rely on their support when his very life was in danger.

The Bolgatty Palace

Concluding therefore that Colin Macaulay’s residence during the attack was not at Bolgatty, let us add some details on that fine building for completeness – It is one of the oldest existing Dutch palaces outside Holland, built way back in 1744. While the Dutch commander’s office remained at Ft Cochin, he used this bigger mansion at Bolgatty Island where the air was supposedly fresher and the water tasted better. This mansion which later served as the home of future British Residents, was formally acquired by the British later in 1909 from the Cochin Raja. It was this later acquisition as the British residency building which led to the confusion that Colin Macaulay lived there, during the attack.

The Land of the Permauls, Or, Cochin, Its Past and Its Present – Francis Day
History Of Kerala Written in The Form of Notes on Visscher’s Letters from Malabar – KPP Menon
Cochin State Manual - C. Achyuta Menon
The Rotenburg family in Dutch Cochin of the eighteenth century - Walter J. Fischel
British and native Cochin - Lawson, Charles Allen
The Residents of the British East India Company at Indian royal courts, c. 1798-1818 - Callie Hannah Wilkinson
Memoirs of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Claudius Buchanan, Volume 1 - Hugh Pearson

1- Thoufeek Zakriya, points out that the lamp presented by Macaulay has an 1807 date inscribed, and I saw that the same has also been noted by Dr Fischel, however, another researcher feels there were 2-3 lamps in the synagogue and one or two of those may have been gifted later by Macaulay. This is a matter to be investigated in detail. Some of the other gifts e.g. the crown may have been presented as a token of gratitude.
2-  Persuing Dr Buchanan's diary we come across notes that he stayed with Macaulay at Bolgatty on one occasion, as early as 1806. So, we can presume that Macaulay maintained two residences and that the official residence was shifted to Bolghaty after the attack and ransacking. I have added the said reference to the list. Anybody who can provide additional clarification, may please write to me or comment.

Maddy’s Ramblings – The Veluthampi Revolt 1807-1809

For nice pictures of the Bastion Bungalow – check this link

Other Pics – Wikimedia, Archeology India, thanks to uploaders



Musical pillars in South Indian temples

Early rock music – Music from Stones

Strange, the uninitiated would think, reading the title, for it is neither about rock music as we know it today, nor about the rolling stones, but about music from stones, a field called Lithophony, and its early applications in South India, characterized by the many musical pillars, staircases, idols and stone blowing instruments found in certain temples. While there are a number of articles about these music pillars on the web, they follow pretty much the same template, and some of them have incorrect information as well. Almost all these articles are about the pillars at Hampi’s Vittala temple, mentioning them as singular and unique, but seem unaware that there are many more in Tamil Nadu and Andhra. So, I thought I would put on my research cap and work a bit on it. Let’s go.

In our Tharavad house in Palghat, at the entrance, just as you climb up the steps, under the low awning overhead, is a knurled roller, which you can spin. As a kid I was mystified about its purpose, for all you could do was spin it either way, and it was just a carved wooden disc that spun over the wooden screw. My uncle explained to me that these were the master carpenter’s signature items. Some were incredibly complex, some simpler. Similarly, the musical pillars in these temples were not built by aliens, or by using rock melting technology, but were carefully chiseled and tuned lithophonic stones. But we will get to all that in due course, read on…

A lithophone is a musical instrument consisting of a rock or pieces of rock which are struck to produce musical notes. Such resonating stones can be found in many parts of the world and many rudimentary lithophones bear witness to the fact that ancient people found and created musical instruments out of them. In fact, some months ago, we visited the Luray caverns near Washington DC and saw the largest stone organ (recently created), the ‘stalacpipe’ as it is called, which creates plays a lovely sonata when the limestone columns are tapped, click the link for details. Even though there are other Lithophonic rock locations in the US and other parts of the world, we are going the review the ancient ones in South India. Though I have not been to the Hampi ruins, I do recall the musical pillars at Padmanabha Swamy temple in Trivandrum and the ones at Madurai Meenakshi temple. They did make some sounds when tapped but did not seem astounding, in any way, so I had not taken notice.

Musical pillars are mostly found in South India, though one has also been located at Ajanta. Most of the temples bear some connections to the Vijayanagara rulers or the Madurai Nayaks, and even the oldest i.e., the Nellaiappaar temple in Tirunelveli, still has pristine examples of such pillars. But experts feel that these pillars were added much later to the original 7-8th century temple, by Nayak era craftsmen during 17th century renovations. The oft mentioned (there could be others) locations are at the temples at Hampi, Tadpatri, Lepakshi, Dhadikkombu, Madurai, Alagerkoil, Coutallam, Tenkashi, Tirunelveli, Alwar Tirunagari, Suchindram, Trivandrum, Kumbhakonam (Darasuram), Tanjore, Shanbagaramanallur, and Kanchipuram. While the earliest factual articles one could refer to, are the ones written by P Sambamurthy, TG Aravamuthan and HV Modak, there are a few acoustical studies which the scientifically inclined reader can peruse. Let us get to the detailed studies penned by our stalwarts and their conclusions, also acknowledging their original work, with many thanks.

Aravamuthan’s article, ‘Pianos in stone’, circa 1943, is an article in poetic English replete with uncommon vocabulary, something our man Shashi Tharoor, would nod at. On many instances, I had to stop and smile, seeing his choice for words! The first aspect that a reader should take note of is that these clustered musical pillars are structured in a particular fashion with a main thick load-bearing shaft in the middle and surrounded by a number of slender pillars (as many as 48), exhibiting a lithophonic character. Though cloistered columns can be found in European churches separating aisles, dating to the 10th century, they were used only for ornamental purposes, and not with any musical intent.

Each of the stone pillars produces a different note and the range could extend over an entire octave. Aravamuthan has no doubt that Hampi musical columns were played by skilled musicians to produce dance accompaniments to tuneful psalms, while the dancers moved from one end to the other. He despairs that not many are even aware of the splendid musical pillars at the Nellaiappar Manimandapam which are 8’ tall and 5’ square. That these were chiseled out of a single block of granite, is also stated by him, and tuned to specific notes. They are not all necessarily square in cross-section and are shaped differently as square, rectangular, circular, oval, octagonal, spiral, etc., depending on the note desired, but all cut to true lines. Since many of them are crowded together, no single instrument can play these to create music as such, and he feels that for this reason, these complex structures were condemned to futility, and were just curiosities.

He believes that these were thus played in unison, creating a chorus of sound. He adds that in the nearby Alwar Tirunagarai temple, special structures have been added to make some subtle changes to the music from the columns, making the structure even more complex, exemplifying his conclusion thus - The architect must have designed this pier in the architectural elucidation of some of the cardinal principles on which musical instruments are constructed. For hours one could stand playing on these columns, parent and offspring and brothers, all sprung of the same stock, and listening to the variety and the range of the whimsicality of the separate and the mingled notes. A gentle tap at the offspring makes it wake up with a tremulous note and, at the same time, sets the parent responding with a lullaby: a light tap at the parent makes it tuneful and makes the offspring hum.

Though he mentions - These pianos, with strings, resonators and frets that are fashioned out of a material which weather cannot warp and time… many of these pillars have lost some of their tonal qualities, as testified by musicologists who checked them out.

KC Thiagarajan visited the temple and made recordings for an AIR event, creating eight compositions that he illustrated during a radio show. He also demonstrated the types of Swaras which came from different columns in these pillars. But he makes it clear that it was not possible to expect Gamakas from these stones, and that the sounds only roughly corresponded to some Swarasthanas. One group of illustrations was based on five notes, some on four and some gave three, corresponding to or echoing Kharaharapriya, Dhenuka, Saman- chanting and Subhapantuvarali.

The musical pipe scooped out of a granite stone pillar found at the temple at Shanbagaramanallur in Tirunelveli is also an architectural marvel, as it gives the tone of the Ekkalam (cymbal) when blown from one end and the tone of the conch when blown from the other end. A miniature nagaswaram made of stone is said to be still in use in the temple at Alwartirunagari. In some temples, there are figures whose limbs give out musical notes. A musical statuette of Lord Ganesa has been found in Tanjore, and the sculptures of Rati and Manmadhan in the Vishnu temple at Shanbagaramanallur (and also at Tenkasi) are of resonant stone which produces different notes when struck. The stone steps in the temple at Darasuram creates notes of varying pitches. There is a stone Nadaswaram at the Kumbhakonam Kumbeswararswami temple as well. The Srinivasa Perumal temple in Chamarajapet, Bangalore also contains musical stone pillars but since they are not of sufficient height, the notes given by them are not quite bright.

The Manimandapam at Tirunelveli’s Nellaiappar temple is of particular interest, as it has pillars each with fifty pillarets! At the Western end of the Alankara Mantapam in the Northern Sribalipura in the Suchindram temple, we find the four clustered columns of musical pillars. The two Southern groups contain 33 shafts and the two Northern, 24 shafts in each. The entire group of pilasters is carved out of a monolith, an architectural marvel. Each shaft yields a different musical note. Facing the Kala Bhairava shrine appears the marvelous pieces of art, the musical pillars chiseled out of a single block of granite. The halls containing the musical stone pillars are referred to as Mani mandapas. Some pillars give notes belonging to the Kharaharapriya scale, some to the Hari-Kambhoji and some to the Sankarabharanam scale. The pillars at Tadikombu give out notes which correspond to the Udatta, Anudatta and Svarita svaras of Vedic music.

Nellaiappar Temple Tirunelveli

Prof Sambamurthy’s ‘Music in stones’ from Akashvani circa 1942 and his excellent treatise – History of Indian Music provide more insight– He explains that while some pillars have dim notes, the others are still quite rich and comparable to the Jalataranga notes. These granite pillars around the Prakaram (temple compound around the sanctum) of the temple, grey, black, white, or sandalwood in color, are actually of different heights (3’-6’) and shapes as explained by Aravamutham previously. Sambamurthy focuses on the technical skill and the musical knowledge of the stonemason. These were used to provide a sruti accompaniment and a musical accompaniment. Some of these give the basic swaras of classical music. These pillars were played upon with two thin sticks made of cane or bamboo, just like Jalatarangam. He explains that they were four types of pillars.

Sruthi Sthambas- These were used for sounding the drone note. With the tonic note given by the pillar, the sacred choir gave recitals of sacred music - Vedic hymns or the Tevaram or both.

Gana Sthambas-In this case, two players with thin bamboo sticks stood at opposite ends and played in a concerted manner. The compass of the musical notes of the pillars extended over one octave. In some cases, the pillars gave the notes belonging to the Kharaharapriya scale and in other cases to the Harikambhoji or Sankarabharana scales. Solo performances were also given with these Gana sthambas.

Laya Sthambas - These were used for providing a cross-rhythmical accompaniment. These pillars are so sensitive (e.g., Bugga Ramalingeswaraswami temple at Tadpatri) that any player on the Kanjira can play on them. Rhythmic accompaniment was provided to sacred music with these pillars and perhaps jatis were played on them for the guidance of the dancer or a group of dancers.

Pradarsana Sthambas - The phenomenon of sympathetic resonance can be seen and verified in the musical pillars in the Suchindram temple. The opposite corner pillars are so accurately tuned that when one pillar is just tapped, the pillar at the opposite corner which is tuned to the note of the same frequency, immediately vibrates. This vibration can be clearly heard and also felt by the fingers.

Pillai covers the musical pillars Suchindram – He states that there were constituted by four groups of pillars, two on the north and two on the south, standing parallel to each other. The two northern groups are in a cluster of 24 pillars, while the southern ones are in a cluster of 33. A striking feature is that all the pillars of each group, together with the exquisitely carved turret at the top of each group, are chiseled out of a single block of granite.

Now that we know of what is out there, their physical attributes, the purpose, etc., let us take a look at the period when these acoustically skilled artisans created these masterpieces. While the Nellaipayar temple is the oldest dating back to the 7th century, it is also established that a number of modifications have been done in the premises and by conjecture, once and surmise that the musical pillars there were not really that old, but were added in when the Madurai Nayaks were ruling over Tirunelveli. Uma Maheswari, writing about this subject and focusing on the Madurai and Travancore regions, opines that it was indeed so. The Vittala temple Ranga mandapa and pillars dates to the ~1554-time frame. Interestingly, a prehistoric lithophonic stone structure existed just 8-10 miles from Hampi at the Vanibhadreswara temple! Just tapping the Vittala temple pillars these days, seem to just produce gong and bell sounds, but the musicians who played on them, centuries ago, may have had a different technique.

The two Ajanta musical pillars in Cave # 6 are a curiosity and date back to the 2nd-5th centuries. Walter Spink states that they ring since they are so attenuated, having been quite literally cut out of the wall, when the typical fronts of such early cells were converted to fronting elements of the more elaborate pillared complexes. He demystifies the musical aspect completely and I am drawn to Aravamuthan’s comment - Blind to the obvious are they who pursue the recondite or seek quick returns.

In general, one can state that the Vijayanagar style in temples manifested during 1336-1565 period whereas the Madurai Nayak styles were predominant as they rose to prominence in 1600-1700. The artisan families in Vijayanagar must have moved South to Madurai and other temple states after the fall of the Vijayanagar empire, just like the musicians and Carnatic music moved to Tanjore.

The sculptors who came to the South made these pillars on their southward journey. These pillars are found in Meenakshi temple, Alwar Tirunagari, Tirunelveli temples, Suchindrum and at the Padmanabhaswami Temple at Trivandrum. The pillars in Padmanabhaswamy temple have sculptures of Gods and Goddesses and produce musical sounds of various instruments. The pillars in the Nellaiappar Temple have lost the capacity of producing the "Swaras" and a few pillars only produce ''sa, ri, ga, ma, pa". While the Suchindram pillars are slated to 1798, the Trivandrum pillars seem to be made somewhat earlier. The new additions to the older temple are the prakaras (outer part of the Sanctum) and this style reached its zenith during the 17th century A.D.

Modak was the first to do some scientific studies – he adds - The number of pillars in a cluster varies from three at Lepakshi to fifty at Tirunelveli and Alwartirunagari. The resonance method has been used to establish the frequencies of the Pillars in the Swami Nelliappar Temple at Tirunelveli. In general, the conclusion was that the two batches - square and circular pillars had been carefully constructed and that the theoretical calculations were a close match to the actual measurements, but arbitrarily distributed around the main pillar and most very difficult to reach. However, the ones that generate true tones are not properly located so that they could be struck to create a tune, but they seemed to be more ornamental or used only for accompaniment music composed in three to five-note combinations. as in religious hymns. It is possible to select the pillars near each other producing notes in such scales these pillars produce pleasing tones

In general, I am inclined to go along with the hypothesis that these pillars were the sculptor’s signature and mostly curiosities adding to the lure and lore of the temple, and the power of their patrons, and not regularly used musical instruments. As Dr. Raghavan maintained in 1977, these pillars, which emitted musical sounds, were not used in any music or dance rituals in the temples and were just architectural curiosities. These stones had some peculiar geological qualities and the Shilpi’s who came across them while cutting stones for the temple work created these as well to demonstrate their skill. But without a doubt, they are marvels, carefully crafted by those rock sculptors who also had a good understanding of music and tones.

So, how did the relatively modern term ‘Rock music’ come about? It came about from the rock and roll style in the US during the late 40s and was popularized in the mid 50s. For decades African Americans had used the term rock and roll as a euphemism for vigorous sex!! The phrase "rocking and rolling" originally described the movement of a ship on the ocean - a phrase apparently used by 17th-century sailors to describe the motion of a ship on the sea. Pretty distant from the art of tapping on rocks, right??

References & acknowledgements
Musical Curiosities in the Temples of South India - H. V. Modak
History of Indian Music – P Sambamoorthy
Musical pillars and singing rocks M.G Prasad and B. Rajavel
Journals of the Music academy Madras – 1943, 1977 (Aravamuthan article, Dr Raghavan’s speech, etc.)
Heritage of the Tamils – temple arts – Ed Dr. SV Subramaniam, Dr. G Rajendran
The Suchindram temple – KK Pillay

 Pics - Wikimedia acknowledged with thanks

          Wishing all readers a great NEW YEAR


A Sojourn in Morocco

Off the beaten track

It did not take much effort to plan this trip once we had set our minds to it, and we were lucky to find a travel company that then worked with their Moroccan counterpart to provide a decent package. Pretty soon, we were on an Air Canada flight across the Atlantic and headed to the Western fringes of the African continent where a Moorish adventure beckoned. It sure turned out to be one, as the flight to Montreal was delayed and we just managed to clamber on the Casablanca flight, all revved up and ready to leave. The mad dash through immigration in Montreal, with a lot of help from the airport staff across gates, and exhortations and wishes to catch the onward flight, got us through the vast terminal, panting and with heaving chests into the comforting seats of a warm widebody 787. As it was weighted down by inches and layers of snow, elaborate deicing procedures were required, but we took off without any more issues, headed for the warmer climes at the lands adjoining the Sahara.

I had touched upon the subject of Morocco, a few years ago while writing on the ship of the desert – the Camel, where I mentioned the trans-Saharan gold trail (7th-14th CE) one which originating in mines and towns of Ghana, snaked through the large cities of pre-medieval Morocco or the Berber Kingdom it was then, to Alexandria in the Egyptian East. At that time, the Berbers were the indigenous occupants of Morocco (derived from the town Marrakesh or the usage Moors depending on who you discuss with), and Berber (the nomadic Amazigh tribes) was an unkind term – signifying Barbarians, coined by the early Greeks. They used a script looking somewhat like Greek, called Tifinagh, which is now finding a resurgence in Morocco, in student curriculum and sign boards. I mention this since it was quite a surprise seeing Greek-looking scripts on signboards after we landed in Casablanca. Most people speak French and the local Arabic dialects though, and a smattering of English due to the many tourists.

Soon we were headed to Rabat, the capital, after the flight which took us through the night and across the wide ocean, landed at sunrise in Casablanca. Mohammed our friendly driver, quite fluent in English, seemed very competent at the wheels, and we were sure the next seven days would be OK, with him. Though Rabat is the present capital, each of the major cities of Morocco, which are frequented by visitors, namely Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, etc., were previously imperial capitals (actually there were three more, which most people do not know - Hajar al-Nasr, Taroudant and Aghmat). I was surprised to note that the present American Ambassador to Morocco has Indian origins, and is Mr. Puneet Talwar! A couple of hours later, we were in Rabat and headed to its Medina.

While most people ask for traditional hotel accommodations, our planner suggested staying in what is known as Riads. Riads are located in Medina’s and well, being reasonably sure that the lay reader or traveler does not know either term, I have to elaborate briefly on what they are. The old city center is the so-called Medina and is laid out differently from most cities. “Medina” means city in Arabic, and are walled towns, characterized by long, narrow, winding alleys with a few entry gates. They cannot be accessed with cars, but noisy motorcycles, bicycles, and donkey carts pop up to startle you now and then. Mohammed dropped us at the entrance of the Rabat medina and a glum-looking porter lugged our suitcase nosily through the labyrinth to our Riad.

So, what is a Riad? Well, it is a large house with many bedrooms, with entry from one of these alleys through a single gate, with no signboards announcing its existence. The wealthy Sidis’s home has been remodeled and the interiors are quite like modern hotel rooms. The courtyard is where you eat breakfast and some of the very large Riads have in-house restaurants too. The only daunting part is finding your way to the right gate at night, with little lighting in the alleyways! But Google maps works reasonably well, and we managed nicely, though the first night was a little perturbing. You know, I was reminded of the Alibaba story (I used to narrate it to my children!) where the thieves mark his door with an X, and Morgiana, Alibaba’s trusted slave, places X marks on all doors, to foil them and save her master from certain death. Now I can understand how important that X mark is when you have 10-20 identical doors on a long alleyway and it is dark at night, with no streetlights! Food was not a real problem if you are used to Arabic and Lebanese food, but cumin overrides most other spices here, and the fare is somewhat bland. Plenty of vegetarian dishes abound, and if you know French, ordering is easier.

Rabat, of course, has the modern side as well as the ancient Medina and is close to the ocean as well as the Kasbah (fort), its ramparts, and the old city walls. The Al Hassan tower etc., are of some interest to intrepid visitors. As the calls for prayer from the muezzins in the many nearby mosques rang in our ears, the bursts of wind brought us the many smells of cooking, barbecues, and freshly baked bread.  Soon we came to know that three things were part of any medina quarter, a large communal bakery, the mosque, and a hammam where the people went to bathe.

After a pleasant night, and a sumptuous breakfast (a real spread every morning with eggs, many types of bread - including mini-Malabari style parottas, pancakes tasting like vattayappams, cornbread, fruits, olives, dates, juices, coffee, and whatnot!), we were headed to the second leg – the blue city popularized by Instagram, Chefchaouen.

After a long drive up north, on a good road and minimal traffic, we reached our destination after passing many salt pans. On a hillock, with houses built on its side, Chaouen is characterized by the blue color of most home walls. An enduring mystery, nobody knows how it came about. The local guide attributed it to Judaism, for the locale had many Jewish mellah’s (quarter), and they painted their buildings blue, apparently after the sky (Some of you may remember that the ancient Jews used Tekhelet, the blue dye for priestly clothing, tapestries, tassels, etc. After the second temple’s destruction, it lost importance as dye makers drifted away, though blue remained an important color, associated with Jews). But I didn’t think that was the reason. A second guide told us that it had nothing to do with any ancient custom, but it was all due to a Chinese lady who lived there for a while, and wrote a book about the place (more likely at the time when the trade pact between the governments in 2016 was signed, making it a sister city to Kunming) and made it popular in China. This is the only place where you can find some Chinese restaurants and they celebrate the lantern festival etc. But post-COVID, the Chinese interest seems to have waned.

Still unlikely I thought, and then a third guide told us that it was due to the presence of a particular Berber tribe (Tuaregs) who applied indigo on their faces and feet to ward off mosquitoes. The area had a river and lots of mosquitoes and the people decided to paint the lower walls blue to ward off mosquitoes. Interestingly, it has been scientifically established that blue color keeps mosquitoes away (remember the use of blue in our Kerala home whitewash?). Yet another said it was the color used to ward off an evil eye…So much for the blue, but it made the area unique and attractive, and it became very popular with hordes of Chinese tourists who popularized it on Instagram.

Anyway, the place has a lovely medina snaking through the hillside, lots of shops selling trinkets, and some nice food at the square. The strategic importance comes from the fort built in the 15th century to resist Portuguese occupation. The Riad we stayed at was, of course, painted in blue, quite attractive, and provided a lovely breakfast too. The Kasbah and its dungeons are worth a visit. As somebody said, it is the only Moroccan city with a bohemian appeal, where you can sit and sip a great glass of mint tea and well, wander around, doing nothing much!

By this time, we had driven quite a good distance up North, and heading farther in the same direction would have taken us to Tangiers, but was not in our plans. Instead, the next day, we drove a good 4 hrs South towards Fez, stopping at Volubilis and Meknes. Volubilis is a city that was once headquartered by the Berber Romans, but now just a lot of rocky ruins and bits of mosaic flooring, to remind you of its lost opulence. The fertile plains and the good olive crop were the reason for the Romans to settle down here, making it its southerly border town. It developed from the 3rd century BC onward as a Berber, then proto-Carthaginian settlement before becoming the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania. After another 300 or so years, it disintegrated, following continuous attacks by various tribes and no longer defensible, the Romans lost interest and went away. It was in this area that Islam in Morocco first took root when Mullah Idris came by and decided to stay. Idris was the great-grandchild of Hassan, who was the son of Fatima and Ali and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. In 789, he arrived in Tangier before going to Walili, i.e., Volubilis.

Meknes, hosting a large palace, the usual mosques, and medina, plus high walls, was undergoing a lot of repair work, and other than seeing all these from a distance, we could not do much. Before I forget, let me tell you that the minarets of Mosques in Morocco (the entire Maghreb region) are unique in the respect that they are square and not circular in cross-section. And, well, Morocco was never under the Ottomans, so developed quite differently from all the Ottoman-controlled regions, but was later conquered by the French, the Spanish, and occupied in parts, by the Portuguese.

By this time, we had a good idea about cost, prices, margins, etc., and the use of the local Dhiram (credit cards not accepted), as well as tipping. Seafood at Rabat, the local favorite the Tajin (stewed veggies and meat in a characteristic pot), the spicy Harissa sauce, the omnipresent fresh pomegranate juice, and so on, had all been sampled and relished.

Fez was the endpoint on the 3rd day and the Riad at the entrance to the Medina was quite large, well, I must say massive, as an erstwhile nobleman’s house. We decided to brave it out in the Medina on our own that night, phew – it was certainly many times larger than the covered bazaar (Kapali Carsi) in Istanbul and crowded. But it was ok, and the whole of the next day was spent wandering around the city with the guide, taking in the sights and sounds of Fez. Palaces, forts, pottery, and ceramic units, the ancient leather tannery, the ancient Madrassa, the cloth dyeing areas, etc., there was so much to take in. The tannery visit was something to remember, for you cannot forget the stench – now one must note that this is supposedly all organic, with no chemicals, and it was the use of pigeon poop for its ammonia that stank up the area. They give you a large bunch of mint leaves to smell, and avoid puking!! The lunch was unforgettable, and the superb salad spread, followed by the Pastilla, a bread filled with meat and dry fruits, a little sweet for our liking, but good, nevertheless.

Each Medina had something equivalent to a Turkish Caravansaray – where merchants and their animals which formed the caravan, rested and traded their goods. Though being happy, simple, and hardy people, you will be surprised to see donkey and mule carts vying for road space with Renaults and Audis (we spotted a Bentley parked outside the Pasha homestead). There are very few Indian tourists, though larger cities have one or two Indian restaurants. Rice is difficult to come by, and bread is a staple.

A long drive the next day took us southeast to Marrakech, and the next Riad, this one quite French in its remodeling, replete with a pool and a spa, and trees inside! Marrakech is where most tourists end up and is the most cosmopolitan, plus boasting the largest medina and souk. The marketplace or central square - Djemaa El Fna hosts many thousand people, hawkers, shops, henna, street food, juice shops, musicians, magicians, and snake charmers et., every evening, and is the place to visit. The trick is to get in early and find seating at one of the terrace restaurants for a lazy dinner, whilst looking down into the square. A visit to YSL’s garden (created by artist Jacques Majorelle) was in the morning plans, and it was here that we got a decent idea about the Berbers. The afternoon was a leisurely walk with the guide through the Medina, and the many other historical sites. Not that different from the medina at Fez, but much larger, I thought., with even more food options! By this time, we could get around these Medina labyrinths with some ease, no longer with fears of getting lost.

Days had been flying by, and finally, it was time to head back to Casablanca, where we stayed in a traditional conference hotel. The Corniche, the diplomatic areas, the French and the Spanish settlements, the Portuguese, the Jewish Mellah’s, and finally the gigantic Hassan II Mosque are all worth the visit. The humongous Hassan II mosque, one of the largest in the world, can house about 105,000 worshippers at a time, and is built on reclaimed land!

Sadly, we missed the fictional Ricks café (simply forgot it in the hurry). Incidentally, there was no Ricks café originally in Casablanca and was created in Hollywood, for the movie, but an enterprising Englishwoman recreated it in Casablanca and most tourists head out there for a photo-op.  The city was an important place during the WW-II and the Allied world leaders met there in 1943 at the Anfa hotel. To get a feel for the Casablanca of the 40s, see the movie with Humphrey Bogart and the lovely Ingrid Bergman, my all-time favorite.

Meredith Hindley, author of ‘Destination Casablanca’ states (Times of Israel) - While the film “Casablanca” is immortalized for its story of World War II refugees seeking freedom from Hitler, the real-life history that inspired it is arguably less well-known — but no less dramatic. After the fall of France in 1940, “Casablanca became a way station for refugees because of its location,” Hindley said. It was the largest Atlantic port in Africa, and, with Lisbon, it transformed into a jumping-off point for North America, South America, and the Caribbean early in the war, she said. But departure was difficult. Refugees were required to obtain hard-won immigration visas, as well as exit and transit visas, which were all issued by different governments, she said. “Getting those to line up — they all expired after a set period of days — could be nerve-wracking. That’s how many refugees ended up stranded for months or sometimes years in Casablanca,” she said, giving the example of Esti and Sophie Freud, who were stuck in Casablanca for nine months until they could obtain new visas.

Morocco has two mountain ranges, the Rif, and the Atlas, and in the Atlas mountains, you have snow. It is between Marrakech and the Atlas that you have Ouarzazate where many Hollywood and some Bollywood movies are shot. Just on the other side of the mountains is the Sahara desert which many tourists visit. Many Moroccans watch Bollywood movies, especially Amitabh Bachchan flicks, and would happily hum or sing Kabhi Kabhi mere dil mein, if asked! Shah Rukh Khan is well known, so also most actresses.

Strangely, it is quite difficult to find alcohol, Morocco is quite traditional though not very strict or too devout, you do get wines in some upmarket hotels. Argan oil is a staple product, and the food is very good – the tajines, tangia, pastillas, soups and juices, olives and pickles, salads, and of course sweets, but not to forget couscous dishes (semolina – like our upma). Those who like to shop can bargain for carpets, gowns, kaftans, furniture, and all kinds of pottery, leather, and trinket selections.

But now – I have to tell you how the Hammam is important in Moroccan family life, as explained by our last guide. By tradition women in Morocco (though quite modern today) in the old times, were only permitted to see men in their immediate family. That is why Riads have no windows and open into the courtyard, and not into the alleys, save the great double door with two slats (one to admit the man and horse, the smaller gate in the women on foot). Moroccan doors have two door knockers which sound different.  If a guest uses the knocker that’s mounted higher on the door, the woman inside will know that it’s a man, and will make sure she’s properly dressed!

As you can imagine, Men and women have separate hammams where they have a steam bath (usually once a week) and per tradition, are unclothed while at it. Now, when the son is ready to get married, his mother (or an elder sister) takes over and gets to work, and surveys the hammam. When she spots the right girl, with the right geography (the very words our guide used!), color, looks, etc., the momma calls her over to scrub her back, while keenly observing her for any imperfections. In the traditional hammam, Moroccan women and men ask their friends or people sitting next to them to help scrub their back or the entire body. The girl’s behavior and upbringing come to the fore, at this juncture.

In the hammam, no amount of makeup can hide imperfections, so it is the right place for a minute inspection! If momma is satisfied, she asks questions about the girl’s family, and finally offers the girl some nuts (walnuts or almonds) to chew – to check that she has good teeth. Good teeth mean good digestion and a good kitchen at her home!! If the girl passes the examination, the next steps are taken and the families meet, to discuss the engagement and a nikah! How do you like that!!

A snippet from history - there is an important connection between Morocco and India - One of the most prominent visitors to India, especially Malabar (1342-1347) was the globe trotter Ibn Batuta, who covered some 117,000 km in 30 years. He was a Berber Maghrebi from Tangiers – Morocco and left behind classic descriptions of Calicut and many other locales in India.

There is so much more, but well, it is time to wind up these ramblings…

After an exotic week in that unique land, it was time for us to bid goodbye to Mohammed, our driver and newfound friend of seven days, and catch the return flight via Montreal. Well as luck would have it , it was delayed and we spent a day cooling our heels in Montreal, in the care of Air Canada, finally reaching back in Raleigh after Thanksgiving, concluding quite a fascinating trip, to say the least. Thanks to KimKim and Orion trek voyages…

Before I conclude, an interesting bit of trivia - Morocco was the first country to recognize the newly independent United States, opening its ports to American ships by decree of Sultan Mohammed III in 1777. The US Congress ratified a Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations in 1787. Renegotiated in 1836, this treaty is still in force, constituting the longest unbroken treaty relationship in U.S. history.

Tajine pic – Wikimedia courtesy Bawdeep2010, all the others are mine



The Swaraj Spy – A Novel by Vijay Balan

After more than a decade of concerted effort, Vijay Balan’s studies have culminated in a novel depicting his grand uncle’s life and times, published by Harper Collins as ‘The Swaraj Spy’ under the historic fiction genre. Without a doubt, Vijay’s painstaking research is evident from the meticulous unraveling of Nair’s life. The writing style is languid and easy, and the reader will soon find himself moving from Malabar to Singapore, through Burma and the jungles of Assam, ending up at what was once the great metropolis of Madras.

Vijay Balan has added meat and bone to the shadowy character of Nair and made him come alive in his 500-page book. I should, however, mention that while the book tends to skim over the cruel vagaries of war, as well as the stark violence and tragedy the Japanese left behind in Singapore, Malaya, and Burma, the book focuses mainly on the travails of Nair and the games fate played upon his life. And most importantly, the book ends leaving the reader on a positive note.

My own involvement in retelling the same story, albeit briefly as a blog post, was coincidental. Many years ago, the story of TP Kumaran Nair found me, while I was searching for something else. My close links with Calicut, the very city of Nair’s origin, made me search deeper for answers on the events surrounding his fate and the subsequent naming of an obscure road, after him. The story was touching, somewhat disheartening actually, and one which I felt that a larger audience should know.

As days went by and the characters became familiar to me through many other tales and events, I found more and more connections to them. Nedyam Raghavan, a prominent character and TP Kumaran Nair’s boss at the IIL, turned out to be a relative, and KP Keshava Menon, yet another from the Singapore of those days came back to Calicut and worked with A Karunakara Menon, my great grand uncle, at the Mathrubhumi. A.V. Lakshmi, a.k.a. Lakshmi Sehgal turned out to be the daughter of a neighbor and family friend at Chalappuram. As some of you may realize, while many of the aristocratic families toed the Congress line in Calicut, it was only Lakshmi who went the INA way.

Coming back to the book, while one agrees that the British in India were self-serving, especially during WW II, with the Americans just flitting by, the horrors of Japanese occupation, their treatment of the Tamils and many Malayalee laborers at the Death railway camps, should have found mention, so also the fate of the millions who had to flee Burma. This would have lent more sanctity and balance to Nair’s story. Another aspect I observed was the perpetually buoyant attitude of Nair as depicted, which may not have been a reality, since many of us know that as a second-class citizen in Singapore, a place exhibiting a high dose of white racism, Nair seems to display none of the reticent attitudes usually prevalent among Indians, then and now, in the prose.

But then I also realized at the end of the tale, that the breezy prose was deliberately left neutral, written without taking sides, with the reader sometimes feeling that even Nair may have been somewhat undecided on which side he was on – the British and the Japanese, and like millions of others, bobbed along as a victim of circumstances. As I read the book and got to know the character of Malu, Nair’s wife, I could not help but wonder – what if Vijay Balan had talked to her too, since she lived a long life and passed away only in 2002? What additional insight could the author have gleaned? Not very much I assume, for Vijay Balan has been meticulous. One other aspect though, I thought Vijay may have missed another side of an MSP man’s character, drilled into him by Hitchcock and other superiors at Malappuram – which is ruthlessness. We don’t get to see that in Nair’s persona. I also felt that some maps would have helped the reader trace Nair’s path, and a few pictures would have lent a better perspective.

One wonders what course Nair’s case at the Madras High Court would have taken if Justice Mack had been asked to review Nair’s actions, in 1944. I feel that Nair may have been sentenced differently, and while one cannot fault Justice Rao for following the rule of law, it is apparent that he may not have had the self-belief (as an Indian Judge toeing the British system) that somebody like Justice Elmar Mack had in abundance. Justice Mack exhibited humaneness in most of his cases with the dictum - Justice means justice shorn of all technicalities. And as some readers familiar with this case know, Mack used this logic to acquit many from the first batch of 20 tried by him during the same period. Unfortunately, Nair’s case was fated differently and decided by Rao.

I have also pondered at length on the fateful role played by another Calicut and Malabar bureaucrat, J. A. Thorne, who as home secretary, argued forcefully against the actions of these enemy combatants and upheld the rule that they should be given the most severe of punishments. He was the man behind strict censoring and the sternest sentences, and he argued for its applicability to the common man. Then again, he seems to have kept mum when bigwigs were involved, sparing many of them, if only to avoid a public censure of the British Raj.

INA enthusiasts may recall a 2015 article in The Hindu, written by Price Frederick, a journalist who came face to face with Kumaran Nair– All of us are in some form of shackles, self-imposed or otherwise....My own helplessness has made me an admirer of those who have shaken off their yokes. For one, I have been a witness to stirring expressions of love for the country, when it was under British yoke….. It surprises me no end how we forget our heroes – most of them, I mean. I got to see T. P. Kumaran Nair, when he was lodged in the Madras Central Jail in the early 1940s…... Nair worshipped Bose and he trained cadets in the Indian National Army. It’s a pity that except for a road in Nellicode, Kerala, that bears his name, T.P. Kumaran Nair remains largely forgotten.

As I have mentioned often, the many books on the INA and its work, published thus far are centered around its leader Subhas Chandra Bose, his life, vision, and strategies. Very few works cover in detail or even mention the selfless sacrifices of the thousands of Tamilians and Malayali laborers and entrepreneurs in Singapore, Malaya, and Burma. The Chettiars, the Malayalee Moplahs, and the others who gifted away their life’s savings to the INA cause are mentioned only in passing in those works. Therefore, the many who took up arms for Bose remained unseen and unnamed faces, their stories and sacrifices, hardly mentioned or told.

Vijay Balan’s book is one of the first books which takes you down to the life of that ordinary soldier, well below the titled rank and brass of the INA. It thus fills an important gap, covering the lives and sentiments of simple men like TP Kumaran Nair and Abdul Khader, who too fought for the concept of a United India before its conception and who were instrumental in shaping the huge patriotic rebellion of the Indian, against their colonial masters.  

It is well worth a read, and this book will take you to an India of the ’40s at the threshold of Independence, when many people fought wars for the benefit of their masters, but foreseeing only a faint result called Swaraj.

And when you are done, spare a thought for kindred souls like Kumaran Nair, who fought for that hard-won independence, and laid down their lives for that cause.

This brief review follows the perusal of a copy of the book provided by the author, acknowledged with many thanks. Those desiring more details may visit


Orlando Mazzotta

The phantom in Quaroni’s opera

In March 1941, Subhas Chandra Bose slipped out of Kabul, holding the passport of an Italian named Orlando Mazzotta, headed for Moscow, leaving behind the real Italian, in Afghanistan. I had previously covered the tale of Bose’s flight out of British India, and his travels through Russia, Italy, and eventually to Berlin in Germany. At the end of that article, I mentioned that one Mr. Orlando Mazzotta worked in Vienna in 1963, and wondered if it could be Bose. Well, it was not, it was the real Orlando Mazzotta. This is his story.

As it turned out, the son of the real Orlando Mazzotta, himself an Italian diplomat, fortuitously reached out to me a couple of weeks ago, with additional details about his father. So here we go - to the Kabul of the early 1940s, where the Axis supporters plotted against the British, while the British CID leaned on their extensive spy network to figure out what was going on. The ex-Emir Amanullah was in exile in Italy, and Zahir Shah was in charge. At this fringe of the British empire, members, and employees of the nations of the Axis - Italians, Germans, and initially Russians, teaming with many other dissidents passing off under multiple guises, plotted to bring down the British colonial enterprise.  One of those persons was Orlando Mazzotta.

Orlando Mazzotta
The Italian Legation was an important edifice in Kabul in those days. It was headed by Pietro Quaroni – 38 years old, who had joined the Italian diplomatic service in 1920, starting in Constantinople, as a diplomat well-versed in Russian, French, German, and English. Moving to Argentina and then to Moscow, Pietro met and married Larissa, daughter of Prince Alexander Cegodaeff from the Volga region, in 1927, only to get expelled from Russia, for it. A Posting in Albania followed, then it was back to Rome for a stint in Mussolini’s foreign service. Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law and Minister of Foreign Affairs, had him transferred to Kabul (ostensibly after a critical article was submitted by Quaroni) in 1936. Italy had by then established a good relationship with Afghanistan. With the start of WW II, Quaroni was busy establishing his Legation as a central point in information gathering on British India for the Axis powers, creating a spy network, and fostering relations with potential dissidents, assisted by his wife Larissa and the legation’s First secretary Enrico Anzilotti.

While Larissa, the lady with a booming voice and confident airs concentrated on covert message deliveries (as she did in the case of Subhas Bose) and socializing with the bigwigs in Kabul, Anzilotti, the front man, established contacts with collaborators. Mario Ungaro was the commercial attaché, Adolfo Crescini was the Legation chancellor, and Orlando Mazzotta took care of the radio operations and cipher work. Ernesto Cagnacci was the diplomatic courier, in fact a priest himself. A few other Italians working in the government services and as artisans, completed the Italian population in Kabul. Well connected to them were Italian civilians - Giovanni Azzurri an engineer and his wife Valentina. It must be noted here that during the war days, all of them were involved in undercover activities, and were frequently spied upon by the British. The legation also housed a Padre named Egidio Caspani, and local staff to support operations, the most important among them being their interpreter Muhammad Aslam.

Pietro Quaroni
The Italian legation was in close contact with the German as well as the Russian legations. Quaroni had clear ideas on supporting the Axis war machine, he had planned to penetrate and arm the NWFP tribes, who would then launch frequent skirmishes at the British across the Border. This unrest would ensure that the British had to divert a large number of their forces up North, thus depleting the force which would otherwise be sent abroad to fight in Europe. Secondly, it would enable Indian legions trained in Germany to travel to Afghanistan and launch attacks on the British Indian forces. Finally, Quaroni planned to provide covert support to Radio Himalaya, a radio station run by Mohammad Iqbal Shedai in Italy, to transmit anti-British propaganda beamed to Asia.

Crescini, Anzilotti, and Mazzotta were the lynchpins of this team, during the period 1938-1943. Early on, Quaroni had identified the Faqir of Ipi as the person who could marshal resources and mobilize a revolution. With that in mind, Quaroni decided to strengthen his relations with the Faqir. Afghanistan itself was pro-German, and with about 150 German agents and deep German penetration into the Afghan ministerial circles, the Axis-leaning Afghan power was being cultivated. Though Rome was not in full support of Quaroni’s ideas, they were still in favor of the Legation’s pro-Axis actions.

As we saw, Orlando Mazzotta handled the radio and communications in the Legation. From the testimony of Aslam, the interpreter who was arrested by the British in Quetta around June 1941, we can make out that radio sets were delivered by the Italians and Germans to the Afghan officials as well as some dissidents, and Mazzotta was responsible for testing them. The receiver for the legation itself was placed in its dedicated room, but the transmitter was moved around to ensure it was not detected. Important messages were delivered at night (Cagnacci was the backup to Mazzotta). In fact, for a long period, the transmitter was hidden in the house of Padre Caspani! In addition to routine communication with Rome and others, Mazzotta used to record Italian news bulletins, do a copy of them in French and Aslam would then do translations in Pashto (Urdu script) and Farsi. Copies were secretly distributed to the far corners of Afghanistan, regularly.

Mazzotta first figured in the British secret service radars in the Mrs. Heilmann case, just after he arrived in Kabul. In Jan 1938, Dr. Josef Heilman and Elisabeth Heilmann, both German nationals arrived in British India, Josef being employed as the company doctor for Banke Mille in Kabul. Dr. Hielmann spoke Italian and was noticed by the British and kept on their watch lists, as the couple traveled often to Peshawar.  In 1939, Elisabeth went to Bombay, and moved in with Frau Mattke, the wife of a German agent. Elisabeth then met with Chancellor Crescini who arrived to see her in Bombay. In Oct 1939, Orlando Mazzotta applied to meet Elisabeth in Bombay with the claim that he intended to marry her. The Italian Legation in Kabul also stated in the application, that they would withdraw the request if the Indian government had the slightest objection. The British refused permission (as they had planned to arrest and deport Elisabeth). Orlando Mazzotta then sent a telegram to Elisabeth asking her to visit Sig Silvio Marabelli at the Italian Consulate, in Bombay.  One could surmise that Elisabeth was a German agent or Nazi sympathizer on the run, and wanted to escape from British India. Whether there was a relationship between Mazzotta and Elisabeth, or if it was just a ploy to assist her in her escape, is not clear.

The British had as mentioned previously, decided to expel Elisabeth Heilmann together with some others, suspected to be Nazi agents. Paperwork was in progress, but in 1940 they discovered that Elisabeth had already left India. Elisabeth was grouped among German consulate employees, considered to be ‘leading Nazi concerns’. Dr. Josef Heilmann was later picked up and interned at Ahmednagar together with other Germans and Italians. He admitted that he was a Nazi party member, but he claimed that he joined the party only for the sake of health insurance. In these records, we can also see a mention that Mrs (Olga) Mazzotta arrived in Kabul in 1941 (probably erroneous, 1940 seems appropriate).

The Italian Legation - Kabul

Let’s pick up Orlando's story from Roberto’s notes.

In Roberto’s words - Orlando Mazzotta was born in 1911 near Lecce (Italy), then a small city of Apulia region on the heel of the peninsula, looking onto the coast of Albania, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. He left Lecce very soon as his parents died and was "adopted" by one of his elder sisters, who moved to Marseilles (France). At age 15 he embarked as a ship boy on a merchant ship, ending up as a conscript seaman in the Italian Navy, where he was trained as a radio operator. As such, he embarked on several warships, including submarines, sailing the seas from Gibraltar to Djibouti, where he found himself, at the time when Mussolini’s Italy declared war against Ethiopia (1935 -36). In 1938 he was eventually sent to Kabul to serve as a radio operator at our Legation in the capital city of Afghanistan.

He married by proxy (circa 1939-40) an Italian school teacher Olga Giurleo, whom he had probably met in Tunis (Olga was teaching in the Italian school there), and the marriage was later solemnized in the Catholic chapel, which was part of the Italian Legation in Kabul, in the summer of 1940. As Italy entered into WWII in June 1940, my father's tasks became more challenging, including coded communications with the main headquarters in Rome, and trips across the Indian frontiers to escort the incoming and outgoing diplomatic pouches. He had plenty of opportunities to travel across the country and since his face and complexion could easily be mistaken for those of a native, he was soon entrusted with actions aiming at disturbing and countering the presence of British forces in the region.

Subhas Bose - in the
guise of Mazzotta
Now we get to the story of how Bose got to use this Mazzotta’s identity. Many had assumed that the guise under which Bose traveled and lived a life outside India until he reached Japan, that of Orlando Mazzotta, was a fictional one. Some writers mentioned that the real Orlando was an Italian Count, while others thought he was a Sicilian. Quaroni, the Minister Plenipotentiary at the Legation, had pried Orlando’s smiling photo out of Orlando’s passport and replaced it with one of Bose, looking a little alien and sober, with a French beard and all.

Subhas Chandra Bose, slipped past the British in 1941, destined for Soviet Russia or Germany. After escaping confinement in Calcutta, he arrived at Peshawar on 19th Jan 1941 and met Bhagat Ram Talwar – a.k.a. Rahmat Khan - codename Silver. Before long, Bose was dressed and trained to pass off as a deaf and dumb Pathan pilgrim, headed for Adda Sharif, under the guise of Ziauddin, with Khan, his nephew guiding him. After a weary and long trek, they arrived at Kabul on the 27th. An initial attempt at contacting the Russian consulate for help failed (Moscow had told the Ambassador to give Bose a wide berth), and Bose decided to try the Germans next. The Germans liaised with them through a Siemens radio engineer named Thomas, who dragged his feet while awaiting word from Berlin. A nervous month passed by and a trader named Uttam Chand provided Bose with a place to live. The Afghan police got wind of the stranger and Uttam had to silence the constable, with regular bribes. Tired of waiting, fearing arrest at any moment, and exasperated, Bose decided to trek it to the Soviet border, after meeting Thomas for the last time. The German had an answer this time – he asked the duo to go to the Italian Legation and meet Pietro Quaroni. Quaroni met Silver on the 22nd of Feb 1941 followed by Subhas Chandra Bose. They discussed plans and strategies over the next three weeks, as they waited for the Russians to grant Bose a visa to travel to Moscow.

Quaroni explains his actions in a telegram to his superiors in Rome - 26th March 1941 - In order not to prolong the extremely delicate situation, I gave Bose an Italian passport under the name of Orlando Mazzotta - radiotelegraph operator of this legation on which I changed the photo after getting a visa for the Afghanistan exit. Please excuse me for doing it without authorization but the Soviet consulate refused to do anything other than affix the visa on the document provided by us and the Minister of Germany did not want to act without precise instructions from his government. On the other hand, given local circumstances, the risk was much greater than it may seem. If necessary, I ask that the passport be collected in Berlin to make sure.

Since Bose was leaving as an employee of this Legation, I paid for his car to the border and provided the minimum necessary funds for the trip; please telegraph how I must account for the aforementioned sum which amounts to 1,500 Afghans. I recommended that Bose go directly to the Embassies of Italy and Germany in Moscow and wait for instructions that will be given to him to continue his journey and leave Russia as soon as possible. He thanks you for our help and your message. Some months later he met a surprised Mussolini, who had not been fully appraised of the developments.

Quaroni’s son Alessandro added in a 2009 speech - Details on the preparation and issuing the false passport: after many suggestions exchanged, it was finally decided, after a "Europeanization" of his looks (the Germans had been prompt to suggest that he could much appear more Italian than German) it was decided on a casual meeting by chance of my mother, Crescini and Bose, all having a stroll on the road to Darul Funun, outside Kabul, as the best opportunity to take a snapshot of a passer-by…. The substitution of the photograph, exactly to coincide with the Italian official seal, was not an easy matter for people not having this specific experience: my father remembers having been very proud of receiving compliments from his Soviet colleague on the quality of the work done!

Anyway, Bose was out of the Kabul scene, and Quaroni had set into action something which was to have huge repercussions in the future of British India, his support for Bose’s escape. Bose was by now, settling down in Berlin, a trifle disappointed though with the lukewarm reception from the Germans, but well into the process of establishing the Azad Hind Radio, making visits to Italy, meeting Mussolini, etc., subjects which we have discussed and covered earlier. During all those years which passed by as well in his relations with Emilie Schenkel his secretary, Bose went by the alias - Orlando Mazzotta.

Those are well known to Bose aficionados, but what they did not know was that the real Mazzotta, Crescini, and Anzilotti were neck deep with intrigues in Kabul, working hand in hand with Quaroni and masterminding Italian relations with the furtive warlord, the Faqir of Ipi.

Roberto, born in 1943, had only a general understanding of his father’s activities but it certainly helped me get a rough idea of Orlando’s days in Kabul between 1939-43. Roberto feels that his appearance and complexion was the reason why Quaroni used his passport to get Bose out of Kabul. He continues - These must have been the reasons on which Ambassador Pietro Quaroni (in those days the head of a Legation, a lesser diplomatic mission, had the title of Minister Plenipotentiary) based his decision to grant Chandra Bose an Italian passport bearing my father’s name.  Of course, under instructions from headquarters in Rome, where Mussolini received Bose personally to agree with him on ways and - above all - means to fight against British rule.

He seldom told me about these actions – he was a very private person. I still remember distinctively that one of his missions was to a remote area of Waziristan, where the respected fakir of Ipi – Haji Mirzali Khan Wazir - waged his war as a freedom fighter, against British attempts at putting Afghanistan under their rule. Presumably, my father brought him financial as well as propaganda means.

In June 1941, British Indian intelligence picked up and arrested an interpreter Muhammad Aslam in the Italian Legation – Aslam’s testimony though rubbished by Quaroni later (he wondered how the British could have "swallowed the most palpable rubbish" and then made themselves "ridiculous in Afghan eyes by using it as evidence), is exact, very specific in detail and damming. Curiously, however, it does not mention the visit of Bose, or the relations Rahmat Khan (Silver) had with the Legation in the early part of 1941, something Aslam would have known, since Bose lived in the Legation at times, during February 1941. I cannot however conclude that Aslam’s testimony was burnished by the British CID, to build up a case against the Axis legations of Italy and Germany, it is true in most parts.

Aslam claimed in his statement that several members of the Italian Legation had visited the Faqir between 1939 and 1941 and supplied him with money and weapons, including machine guns and a wireless transmitting and receiving set. He also supplied the British with the names of Afghan officials and army officers collaborating with the Italians and with the Faqir, which were then used to bring more pressure to bear upon the Kabul Government.

Faqir of Ipi
Aslam mentions that the first radio set was sent to the Faqir of Ipi in 1940 and that Azzurri helped maintain and run it. Azzurri later vanished, and British sources state that he went to Iran. Aslam records in his extensive report that a senior diplomatic official from the Italian foreign office named Ciraolo arrived via Russia with a wireless transmit/receive set, money, weapons, and propaganda literature and that Aslam accompanied him as an interpreter, to the Faqir’s caves. The equipment was delivered to the Faqir in person and the Faqir when specifically queried answered Aslam that Giovanni Azzuri was not around then. With Azzurri gone, the only person who could have provided training to the Faqir in 1941 on the wireless set, should have been Orlando Mazzotta.

Quaroni later admitted that he had personally presented the Faqir with a light machine gun and ammunition to match, and also stated that Anzilotti had been to the caves in June 1941, to meet the warlord. This, of course, contradicts the testimony provided by Aslam but is in line with what most other historians, including Milan Hauner, have narrated. A subsequent attempt by the Germans to establish contact with the Faqir failed. Specific details of the Italian moves are not available, but they continued to believe that the Faqir of Ipi would be of assistance in the long run. It did not work out, and we know now that the Faqir proved to be an insatiable money trap throughout the war, delivering hardly any goods in return.

Bose as you will recall, lived in Berlin with his Italian passport (Reg. No. 64932) under the name of Orlando Mazzotta - a name he continued to keep for nearly a year. All letters sent by him and minutes of meetings in Germany and Italy mentioned Bose only by his alias Mazzotta. So much so, those anti-British activities which happened in Afghanistan were connected to the ‘Mazzotta Organization’ – An example is the Hur insurrection in 1942 and 1943 when they attacked railway lines. The general belief was that the railway sabotage had been directly instigated by the 'Mazzotta Organization', and the Faqir of Ipi. 

It was also mentioned those days or popularly believed that a German and an Italian cryptographer had managed to break the military ciphers used by the British, thus enabling sabotage by the Axis forces. It is believed that the Italian man was Orlando Mazzotta, but no further details are as yet available.

The relations between the German and Italian legations were also becoming thorny and the Germans eventually took control of the coordination of the Axis relations with Afghanistan and India. On 13th October 1943, Italy joined the Allied Powers and declared war on its former Axis partner Germany. Cooperating with the British now, Quaroni was interrogated by the British, at which juncture he provided details of all the activities of the Italian legation, but hardly mentioned the role of Orlando Mazzotta. Quaroni and Mazzotta continued to work at the Legation, and Roberto Mazzotta was born to Olga Giurleo and Orlando Mazzotta, in the winter of 1943.

As the war wound to a close, Orlando Mazzotta continued to remain elusively behind the scenes, and the names we see mentioned are those of Quaroni, Crescini, Anzilotti, and Larissa. With the British and other observers relating Bose to a fictional Mazzotta, the real one remained hidden behind the mist, the veritable phantom of the Quaroni opera. Details of Mazzotta’s times in Afghanistan are still largely unclear and we can therefore make only some broad assumptions.

By May 1944 Pietro Quaroni was appointed the Italian Ambassador at Moscow. He later served in Albania, Paris, London, and Bonn and passed away in 1971. Enrico Anzilotti took over as Minister Plenipotentiary in Israel, later as Ambassador to Austria, and then Somalia.

Roberto Mazzotta
Orlando Mazzotta and his family too moved in September to the Moscow embassy to join Pietro Quaroni, on camel back first to Tashkent and then by a ramshackle Russian train. Orlando later served at the Italian Consulate in Vienna, as an administrative clerk in the early sixties, after Moscow, then at Argentina and Morocco. His varied life took him to many other places, he served as a chancery clerk in Caracas, Prague, and Budapest, retired in 1976 after a long service, and passed away in 1994.

Alessandro Quaroni, one of Pietro Quaroni’s sons, joined the diplomatic service and held distinguished positions, the world over. He retired after his final posting as the Italian Ambassador to India.

Roberto Mazzotta, Orlando Mazzotta’s son, the person who has been in touch with me, too served as a distinguished diplomat in various countries, his last posting was as the Italian Ambassador to Pakistan.

Personal communication – Roberto Mazzotta, acknowledged with thanks
Muhammad Aslam’s testimony – HOME_POLITICAL_I_1941_NA_F-109-7_41KWPART-IV, Indian National archives
Hielmann case - HOME_POLITICAL_EW_1940_NA_F-5-6, HOME_POLITICAL_EW_1939_NA_F-93KW, HOME_POLITICAL_EW_1941_NA_F-10-58 Indian National archives
India in Axis Strategy—Germany, Japan, and Indian Nationalists in Second World War - Milan Hauner
Pietro Quaroni e l’Afghanistan - di Luciano Monzali
One Man against the Empire: The Faqir of Ipi and the British in Central Asia on the Eve of and during the Second World War - Milan Hauner
Silver – The spy who fooled the Nazis – Mihir Bose
Alessandro Quaroni’s speech – The Oracle – Vol XXXII, Jan 2010 #1
Afghanistan, crocevia dell'Asia. Caspani, Egidio und Ernesto Cagnacci

Orlando Mazzotta, Roberto Mazzotta – with permission Roberto Mazzotta,
Italian legation – courtesy Afghanistan - Caspani, Cagnacci
All others – Wikimedia commons


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